How to say no

This is, in part, a public apology to Martijn. I’m sharing it in the hope that the lessons I learned might spare you from some potential humiliation and suffering.

It started with a simple request. Martijn is a student in the Netherlands, and he sent me a message on LinkedIn.

“Currently am I writing a paper about the effect of Working Out Loud on collaborative working and sharing in organizations. If it's possible I really want to ask you a few questions about it…every answer is helpful and we are very grateful for your help and sharing your knowledge with us!”

“What a nice note!” I thought, and replied right away that I would be happy to help him.

“Thanks for your quick and enthusiastic answer! I just sent you the email with our questions.”

That was in March. Then, I had a few business trips, and took a week off with the kids for Spring Break. 

In late April he sent me a gentle reminder. “Do you still have time?” At this point, I was embarrassed. I was also in the middle of a project. I looked again at his questions and figured it would take me an hour to answer them. Not so long that I couldn’t find the time, but long enough that I didn’t do it right away.

More time passed. Week after week, I thought about Martijn and my failure to do what I said. Finally, in June, my mounting guilt drove me to write him an apology and ask if my answers would still be useful. In a gracious reply, he told me they already completed the paper. I felt terrible.

Right around that time, I came across this post from Seth Godin from 2009 titled “Saying No”:

“You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

It made me realize that, like the now-ubiquitous “Yes, and…” exercise, my saying “no” could feel different and lead to better outcomes if I reframed it slightly. Instead of viewing “no” as a rejection of the other person, it could be an opportunity to offer something else, including attention, appreciation, and alternatives. Offering any of those to Martijn would have been better than my ill-thought-out “yes" that only led to disappointment and bad feelings on both sides. 

Next time you receive a request from someone, honor yourself and them by asking these three questions. 

How much effort will this require?

When will I do it?

What else could I do with that time instead?

Take a moment to really think it through before responding, and you’ll both be better off. “No, and…” is always better than “Yes, but I don’t really mean it.”

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Insincerely yours

It’s such a common practice at this point that most people don’t think about it. Even professional advice about the topic is misguided. As a result, well over 90% of the people who send me email make this mistake. Though it would only take a few seconds to correct it. they repeat the error over and over every day, missing an opportunity each time.

What is this egregious mistake? They don’t personalize the closing of their message.

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Some people are the victims of technology. They use an automated email signature, and so the same bland phrase (and lengthy contact information) is appended to each and every email. Whether their note is an urgent complaint or a beautiful compliment, their message will end with “Yours faithfully” or some other banal phrase that sounds “business-like,” one they entered long ago and forgot about. (For my German friends, the favored choice seems to be “Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards.”)

Some do it out of habit. Perhaps they once read somewhere that it’s the professional thing to do, and they’ve been typing it ever since without questioning it. Others may be slightly lazy. Faced with an ever-increasing email burden, the thought of having to customize each closing is too much for them to bear.

Well, as my mother used to say, just because everyone else does it doesn’t mean you should do it too.

The final closing of your message is a signal. If it’s an automated or otherwise impersonal closing, it tells the recipient that they’re nothing special, not worth the trouble of a few seconds to sign off with something just for them.

Choosing to avoid the scripted “Kind regards,” on the other hand, offers an additional opportunity for a sense of connection and relatedness. Think of it as a small exercise in empathy. How would I feel if I received this? Your closing needn’t be long or intimate, and certainly shouldn’t be inauthentic. You’re just adding a few personal words relevant to the context of the message.

“Thank you again for your kind note. I appreciate it.”

“Have a wonderful weekend. Cheers from NYC!”

“I’m looking forward to our call on Thursday. I always enjoy our conversations.”

Be different. The world is already full of impersonal communications. When you humanize yours, you will distinguish yourself in a wonderful way. 

Who will you be when your company takes away your ID?

When someone asks what you do, what do you say?

My first full-time job was at Bell Laboratories, famous for inventing the transistor and discovering evidence of the Big Bang, among other things. I worked on more mundane projects that didn’t amount to much. So when people asked me what I did, I instead proudly responded with where I worked.

As my career progressed, titles became important. “Vice President,” “Director,” “Managing Director.” They all seem meaningless now. But at the time my sense of self-worth depended on them. With each step up the ladder, I would rush to order new business cards, eager to hand them out and show off the newly-upgraded me. 

Other people treated me differently too based on what it said on my badge. They didn’t know me or my work. It was the brand and my position in the hierarchy that determined whether I was relevant or interesting.

I learned the hard way that basing your identity on where you work is inherently risky and unstable. When my last company’s successes turned into scandals and fines, my pride turned to shame. When I was laid off, there was no longer a company or title to define who I was. It was just me.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a choice, that I could step out from behind a business card, make my work visible, and shape my own reputation. It took me a long time to accept that being “just me” was enough. I wish I had started sooner.

What about you? When they take away your ID, who will you be?

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Bernadette’s purposeful discovery

Sometimes you know the direction you’re heading in isn’t quite right for you. But, unsure of where else to turn, you keep going anyway, saddled with growing discontent and dissatisfaction.

Bernadette Schreyer tried a different approach. Her initial idea was just to find a new job. After a series of small steps, however, she gradually became more confident. She started considering alternatives that made the most of her talents and aspirations. Soon she let herself dream, and she decided to change course in dramatic fashion.

“This just feels so good,” she wrote, “It feels like ‘me’.”

I found her story remarkable and inspiring, and included it in full below. While our paths may differ from Bernadette’s, we can all take steps towards finding more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. 

"Headed to Italy soon where the boat is waiting for the first passage to Corsica. I attached a picture of our first photo shoot on board :-)" You can follow Bernadette and her journey on sailingfoxes.com & bernifoxmusic.com and even watch Bernadette on YouTube

 

About Dreaming Out Loud and a letter from my future self: sometimes you have to take a bigger step towards your goal. 

Have you ever thought about how it will feel to realize your big dream?

I work at a big firm and joined a WOL circle some months ago. WOL is very popular where I work and all our KickOff workshops are fully booked after two hours with more then 500 people on the waitlist. People start to get together from various departments and learn how to coach themselves and to do something good - for themselves and others. I am more than thankful about this movement to lead people to a better life and career - we definitely need this mindset!

I joined a circle with the goal to find a new job within the firm. I am an acoustics engineer, composer and musician and landed a job in sound development for exhaust pipes but I realized quite quickly that I am not on the right track. By joining a circle one year after joining the company I started working on my network and looking for new opportunities. My network is strong, but there was no new job, and a lot of wishes and dreams inside my heart. And then there was week 7. The best week ever. I wrote a letter to myself. It was incredibly easy. I was listening to my heart and the text was just growing by itself. Well, I already had that particular dream years ago but I never took the first step because I thought the time wasn't right. But in my situation, ideas started to form and grow: the plan to realize what's inside of me. To break out and do something absolutely DIFFERENT.

Some weeks ago I finished my circle and said goodbye to my colleagues at work. I finally took the big step I was first afraid of and I am looking forward to changing my life upside down. Together with my partner, I will set sails soon. As an adventurer and musician, I want to go on a big journey on our 41ft sailboat with a piano on board composing music. My message for the world out there is: "Listen to your heart and live your dreams, even if it's hard!

I want to share my story to show people that it's possible to live dreams and to help them achieve what they are longing for. I am currently working on my first videos to share on Facebook and YouTube and I wrote my first blog posts. I am not used to be active online and it felt a bit weird at first to write in public but the principles of WOL helped me to feel more confident and to share my story in the process. It's normal that it takes some time to get used to new things in life, but it is amazing to explore and learn about the world, and especially about yourself.

If you have a question or are worried about taking a big step, feel free to contact me on bernifox@sailingfoxes.com or visit https://sailingfoxes.com. I am happy to help! 

***

A short blog vacation (with photos)

With August comes the arrival of more holiday photos, fewer emails, and a short break for this blog. The next post will be in mid-September. 

Even vacations can be a kind of contribution. In Week 5 of a WOL Circle, there’s an exercise to share one of fifty facts about you. For those who find this challenging, I suggest they send me their favorite holiday destination and I promise to reply with my own. I want them to see how even something seemingly mundane can be the basis for a connection with someone else. That has led to me learning about beautiful places, and to many wonderful exchanges. 

Some of you may know that I’ve been in Japan this summer. I've written about my love for Japan before, and that love keeps growing with each trip. Below are some of my new favorite places that I’ll be sharing. 

Aside from exploring, I’ve also been writing - creating the new WOL-SC guides, finalizing the WOL Circle Journal, and drafting additional material for the second edition of the book. So for me August also brings with it a mounting anticipation of things to come.

Wherever you are in the world, I wish you well. Enjoy.

Iriomote, Japan

Nuno, Japan

Nuno, Japan

Nuno, Japan

Naena Falls, Niigata, Japan

Togakushi Forest, Nagano, Japan

WOL Circle Guides now in Dutch

As I began to write this post about the Dutch translation project, I looked again at the letter that Marc Van De Velde wrote telling me the work was complete. After reading it several times, I realized there were no better words than his, and so I include his note in full below. His last paragraph on his motivation for doing it is especially powerful.

My only addition is to add my personal thanks to Marc, Annemie, Geert, Frederik, Natasja, Saskia, and Jeroen for their translation, and to Peter for his review of it. It is a tremendous effort, inspired solely by their desire to help others.

Annemie told me, “I am proud to have participated in this project. Grateful and happy to have met beautiful people who I trust deeply.” What a truly wonderful collaboration. I hope to thank them all in person some day.

***

“Amazed by the first steps I set myself in relation to Working Out Loud, I saw the richness that the Working Out Loud method has to offer to other individuals, teams, and companies. I also became convinced that it would be beneficial for many Dutch-speaking people to have the circle guides in their own native language. 
Triggered by the initiatives from Fiona Michaux and Tiago Caldas who translated the guides into French and Portugese, I contacted you in the beginning of this year to see whether you would agree that I would launch such an initiative. 
Grateful to have received your formal agreement I’ve launched a request for help on the WOL-facebook page and other networks I was involved in. I was proud that a group of six people responded enthusiastic and committed to help me out on this project. With the help from Fiona Michaux I was introduced to the way she and her team approached this translation into French so that our NL-team could have a head-start in our own translation project. 
On March 20th of this year I held the formal kick-off for our WOL-NL-Translation-project together with Annemie Martens, Geert Nijs, Frederik Maesen, Natasja van Schaik, Saskia Wenniger and Jeroen Brands. As a team we discussed on how to approach this project and divided work amongst each other. As in any project, also this project was not spared the difficulties and problems that we had to solve as a team. Every member did what she/he could in order to complete this project and to deliver a great result to you. 
Before delivering our work to you, the Dutch circle guides have been reviewed by Peter De Troch and are currently tested within the company Annemie is working for. 
I’m proud that we made it work as I am with the result achieved. I feel humble as I’m allowed by the team to deliver our great result to you and hope that you also like what we’ve done and that you will make the Dutch version of the circle guides available on the Working Out Loud website. As you will notice we’ve also tried to respect the original layout as much as possible although we’re aware that it might still need some corrections in order to be delivered in a final version. 
As to the question “Why we’ve done this?” I think I speak for the all team in saying that we have done this project out of generosity towards the growing WOL community while at the same time being convinced that this will help others in experiencing the fun and effect of Working Out Loud. Working as a team felt as in participating in a WOL-circle in which we all experienced how great it is to work with peers who are their to help and support the other when facing a problem, issue or difficulty. In being part of this each one has built on the intimacy level with other team members so we became more closely related with each other. As a result of this we’re now even explore on how we can do more things together.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to initiate this project.
Marc"

***

Annemie Martens

Frederik Maesen

Geert Nijs (Author of "De netwerkexpeditie. Slimmer samenwerken met sociale technologie" available November 2018)

Jeroen Brands

Marc Van de Velde

Natasja van Schaik

Peter De Troch

Saskia Wenniger

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The first WOL-SC Circles are ready to start in September

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit “publish” last week, asking for volunteers to test a new kind of Circle, so I kept my expectations low. 

When the first response arrived nine minutes later, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Then more and more emails kept trickling in. Within 24 hours, I realized I had a good problem: I would have far more volunteers than I could accommodate in the first test of the new materials.

The diversity of those who responded is remarkable. Some work in big companies like Bosch and Daimler, and others in governmental and non-profit organizations related to healthcare, training, and education. Some are coaches or work in small consulting firms. There’s even someone who has their own “small fashion brand.” Respondents wrote to me from 16 different countries.

  1. Argentina
  2. Australia
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Brazil
  6. Canada
  7. China
  8. Germany
  9. India
  10. Italy
  11. Netherlands
  12. New Zealand
  13. Poland
  14. Switzerland
  15. Turkey
  16. USA

I was going to form just three Circles so I could be sure to support each one and make use of their feedback. But I quickly decided to expand the experiment to 15 Circles to accommodate more volunteers. Still, I had to ask many people to wait for the next version of the guides before trying WOL-SC. I expect to publish them on workingoutloud.com in early 2019, after the experiment is complete and I’ve made improvements and adjustments to the method.

When people wrote to me, some said they hoped they would “make the cut” and some sent me their qualifications to be included. For those of you who could not join, please know this was not meant to be a contest of any kind. In selecting volunteers, I aimed simply for diversity, attempting to have a healthy mix of different countries, organizations, genders, and jobs.

In the next few days, I’ll be sending out emails to everyone who responded. I want to thank every single person for their support, and for their willingness to try something new and to offer their feedback. It is encouraging and inspiring, and i greatly appreciate it. 

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Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.

Your beautiful faces

Sometimes, in Week 12, they will share a group photo. That final meeting often takes place over dinner or a glass of wine (or both). Even groups meeting via video will take a screenshot. Then they’ll post the photo with a comment about their experience together. 

It’s like looking through a window that connects me to them, and I smile every time. 

The first WOL Circle selfie I remember was over two years ago. I included it in the TEDx talk and still use it in most of my presentations. Since then, there have been photos from many kinds of people in many different places. China, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Turkey.  

I’ve always wanted to do something more with these photos, and now I have two ideas.

The first is to display them on a dedicated page on the website, so that anyone interested in Circles can see them. Your beautiful faces would be more interesting and persuasive than any words I could write. And each photo would be a small tribute to your shared experience. 

The other idea is to include at least a dozen of them in a video series I’m finishing now. I’ll put one or more photos at the beginning of every video. Showing people how a Circle can feel, how relationships can develop, would be a wonderful way to start each week.

If you would like a photo of your Circle to be included (and everyone in your group agrees), email the best quality image you have to john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. Also send me what you would like to include in a short caption. It could be the countries you’re from, your first names, your company, or anything else you would like to add.

Each photo reminds me that Working Out Loud is about improving how we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to the work we do. One Circle at a time. 

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WOL Circle Guides now in Spanish

When Barbara Wietasch first told me she wanted to translate the Circle Guides into Spanish, I was confused. We had corresponded a few months earlier, and I remembered she was German, living in Vienna. She even blogs in German

She explained, “I lived 14 years in Madrid studying and living and working within the Spanish culture. So my emotional part is always there.” My next question was, "Why would you volunteer to take on such an extraordinary project?"

“I believe in agile work and want to make the world and organizations a better place to live, and I’m sure that WOL is an important method….a clear structure, a method, and a mindset of “who gives – wins.” I’m a fan of WOL and feel like an ambassador, having the need to spread and share it.”

She reached out to Spanish-speaking friends in Madrid, Vienna, and Munich and came into contact with new people who wanted to contribute. Gabriela participated because she “firmly believes in collaborative work and work methodologies such as WOL." Ana volunteered because of her own experience in a Circle. 

“I think WOL is really good. The change of mindset and how it worked for me in the first two weeks made it already worth it. My network is already larger than it had been before and my working area is known better only by doing WOL.”

Julia is someone I have written about before. She contributed so more people could experience the benefits.

“I am a great fan/follower of WOL and I have not thought twice when I saw they were looking for people to translate it into Spanish. I think there are many people who feel more comfortable reading in their native language and I wanted to support facilitating the dissemination of WOL in Spanish speaking countries.”

Daniella, who worked on the Portuguese translation and who used her Circles to do amazing things, said, 

“When I heard Barbara was putting together a team for translating the guides to Spanish, I did not hesitate in activating my network and bringing together some amazing women. Again, another wonderful team was formed that contributed to spread Working Out Loud! It was a great experience.”

In total, a dozen people self-organized around an idea they care about, and created something that can help hundreds or even thousands. I’m grateful to all of them for these new Circle Guides, and hope to thank each of them in person someday. 

Team Members:

Barbara Wietasch - Coordination & translation

Juan Salgado Bito – Proof reading

Daniella Cunha Teichert – Layout

Translators:

Rosa Reyero

Rosa Maria García Torres

Julia Flug

Julia Bustamante

Dolores Santiago

Jose Manuel Benedetti

Perla Saucedo

Gabriela Melicchio

Ana Belén Salcines

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