Become a Masterful Communicator: Part Two

Making a Winning First Impression

“A stunning first impression was not the same thing as love at first sight. 
But surely it was an invitation to consider the matter.” 
-Lois McMaster Bujold

One of life’s greatest adventures is what becomes of the people we meet for the first time. Every relationship has its beginning, but we don’t know what will come of it at the time. Who knows, it might be a future spouse, BFF, boss, reference, mother (or father) in law, client, or work colleague. None of us would be where we are today if it weren’t for new connections that turned into something great. And as for me, I don’t for one minute believe they were all due to chance. 

Here’s a great example. When my son, Mike, graduated from college and unexpectedly returned home (after a planned startup went kaput), I developed a list of people I wanted him to meet. At the top was my friend Tim, who ran a young adult ministry in our area. I called Tim and arranged a visit the following week at a local coffee joint where Mike and I would be. I knew they would hit it off and something good would come of it. To make a very long story short, the intro was magic (they were sharing contact info about two minutes in!), and Tim recruited Mike into a leadership role in his organization. That led to an eventual introduction to a beautiful (and single!) young gal named Stevie. A year later, they would be married, with the ceremony officiated by none other than Tim himself! 

Clearly, if I didn’t initiate this connection, Mike’s life would never be the same, and we wouldn’t have acquired a wonderful daughter in-law. But another thing was key. Early on, we taught our children how to make a great first impression. As we always said, you never know what comes from the people you meet, so always be on your “A Game” when it happens. Thankfully, they took that advice to heart. 

Interestingly, when I taught a life skills course some years back, I asked my students what was the most valuable lesson over the semester. The landslide winner was on how to make a winning first impression. Kids are starving for this kind of practical skill-building and the stakes are too high if we don’t teach them this essential lesson. Parents and teachers, take note!

For some people this comes naturally, but for others, it’s an acquired skill. Those with strong social skills, some level of extroversion, and a dose of self-confidence thrive on opportunities to meet new people. It is naturally more challenging for introverts (who often love one-on-ones but not group settings), those less socially experienced, those lacking self-confidence, and in situations where they feel “out of their league” with a particular crowd or person. (I vividly recall struggling with this early in my career—small town kid meets high finance! Thankfully, I overcame it with experience.)

There is another aspect in today’s world that is interfering with successful “first impressioning.” The more we, and especially our children, consume technology and gaming, the less time we spend in person with others. This is taking a significant toll on relationship building and has become increasingly common (ask any employer of teens/young adults). It is manifested in social awkwardness, distractibility, disengagement, discomfort, and disinterest—none of which will win fans and influence people.  Telltale behaviors include a weak handshake, wavering eye contact (often looking down), phone distractions, poor body language, nervous gestures/speech, and difficulty carrying on a two-way conversation. We’ve all seen it. 

The good news is that with some training and experience, it’s a pretty easy skill to master. If I did it, you/they can, too! As for the training part, here are our best tips for making a winning first impression:

  1. Embrace the opportunity. You are about to meet someone who might be an amazing person in your life, so act like it! And don’t forget, you’re a pretty amazing person for them to meet, too! Be excited for the adventure of what might come. This will get your attitude right. 
  2. Demonstrate through your words, tone, and body language, that you’re excited to meet them. Allow your enthusiasm to come through. Be positive. Smile. Stay engaged throughout. Avoid distractions like the plague. 
  3. Focus more on getting to know them than on them getting to know you. Nothing takes the pressure off of meeting someone more than focusing on them in your conversation. Ask questions. Then follow up questions. And more. Listen. Listen. Listen. Being inquisitive is the best way to deal with nerves, especially when meeting people with much stronger credentials.
  4. Be genuine. Often, especially in professional situations and interviews (and social/dating encounters), we try to impress. We talk more. We brag. We try to act smart and be funny. At its core, this is a self-confidence issuing of thinking we have to be someone else in order to win favor. People see through it in a heartbeat. So, relax, take a deep breath, and just be yourself. And if that’s not good enough, nothing more was meant to be. That’s okay!
  5. Be confident, but humble. This is a balancing act, but one surefire way to ruin a first impression is being arrogant and self-centered. Humility is always a winner. 
  6. Be respectfulfriendly, and polite. You needn’t be Miss Manners but pretty close!
  7. Avoid these risks. Since you’re just getting to know them, stay away from controversial topics or private matters that require a more advanced relationship. Remember, at inception, you’re simply acquaintances.  
  8. Remember (and repeat) their name. The older we get, or the larger the number of people we may meet at an event, the more apt we are to forget the name of a person we just met. It’s embarrassing (personal experience here!). So, I make it a point to mention their name at both the beginning and end of our conversation. And if it’s a common first name, think of someone famous with that name to help you remember.  
  9. End on a strong note. A good closing that demonstrates you are glad to have met them will leave a great impression. Even something simple like, “___, it was great meeting you. I look forward to seeing you again,” will be appreciated. And, say it with a smile.  

It is said that the first 30 seconds of a job interview may not land you the job, but it can surely cost you it. Maybe that’s not fair, but it is the way it is. Throughout life, our relationships matter almost more than anything. Let’s help our kids get off to a winning start with theirs.

Next time, we’ll be exploring oral communication essentials.

Become a Masterful Communicator: Part One

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

~ James Humes

With the benefit of 66 years of hindsight, I can safely say, “We’ve come a long way, baby,” to borrow a line from a Loretta Lynn song. Surely, we can all agree we’re not there yet, but our world has seen progress on a number of fronts during my lifetime.   

At the same time, I think we’ve regressed in some ways. While those of us in the “older than 50 crowd” can occasionally plead guilty to looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, certain areas are so obvious that most objective observers would agree. So, today, and in the next several weeks, I’ll be tackling an issue that has become increasingly concerning, with the hope that it will enlighten and help us reverse course. 

Houston, we’ve got a communication problem. 

If I were to offer some descriptors of the most common communication complaints I hear, they would go like this:

  • People are talking at me and not listening
  • Everything has become politicized and is often biased; I can’t have a normal                       conversation without it devolving into a political rant
  • I don’t feel safe saying what I really feel; I am often shamed or bullied when I do
  • People are characterizing their opinion as fact and jamming it down our throats
  • People seem more comfortable writing their views than sharing them in person
  • People are acting more angrily, boldly, arrogantly, disrespectfully, and impulsively   on social media, especially when they disagree
  • Many young people are struggling with in-person and professional communication

To be sure, several of the above go to the heart, rather than merely to our communication tactics. That said, a number of them derive from violations of common communication standards, and these will be the focus of this blog series. 

One reason communication can be challenging is that each of our interactions has a different purpose. Common examples include to inform, persuade, inspire, share, support, and enjoy. Each demand something different from us as communicators. The setting also comes into play, and is often out of our control, ranging from the intimate (in person, one-on-one) to distant (a social media post). If we’re not strategic in our approach, the end result can be a communication breakdown.  

So, how do we hit the mark in our communications? The first step is remembering that communication is a two-way street. The second is understanding the key components of communication that we need to get right. If we mess up with any of the following, our interaction will likely be a disappointment:

1.     Our Words. Certainly, our word choice has an enormous influence on successful communication. We get into trouble when we say something that would have been better left unsaid (hello self-control!) or when we use words that are overly provocative or would cause our audience to feel disrespected or shut down. Our words will either foster mutual understanding or enjoyment or not. By putting ourselves in the position of our audience before the words flow, we can insert a proper filter when communicating our message. If it’s not constructive, it’ll be received as destructive. 

2.     Our Timing. The saying, “timing is everything,” often applies to communication, especially on sensitive topics. No matter what we say or how we say it, if we’re not in the right frame of mind or our audience isn’t, it’s best to wait for a more opportune time. This is especially true of parent-child conversations when either party (or both) is upset. Mutual understanding and respectful sharing are almost impossible if the timing is wrong. 

3.     The Form. As technology has advanced, our communications have become increasingly impersonal. In years past, we shared more in-person, with the advantage of seeing firsthand how our audience was responding. Nowadays, as more of our communications are in written form, breakdowns are more common. We don’t have the benefit of hearing the all-important tone of voice and observing non-verbal cues. This is a significant cause of miscommunication and misinterpretation when we put to writing something better shared orally, and especially, in person. That’s because our audience is imposing, correctly or not, our tone of voice when we communicate in writing. It’s wise to prefer oral communication, especially if the topic is sensitive, personal, provocative, critical, or controversial.   

4.     Our Tone. The tone in our communications reveals whether our true intent is mutual understanding. No matter what we say, if our audience perceives us as arrogant, condescending, disrespectful, untruthful, manipulative, or controlling, we will not succeed. Great communicators anticipate how their audience will receive their message and ensure it comes through in their voice or writing style. Our words and tone must be aligned. 

5.     Our Non-Verbals. Many communication experts argue that body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues have more impact than our words. When I communicate with someone, I pay specially attention to their eyes, mouth, and posture. Why? They reveal engagement, interest, and enjoyment in our conversation—important clues to whether I’m accomplishing my objectives. This is a critical skill for young people to master. Too many are not.   

6.     Goal Alignment. Whether we think of it or not, we usually have goals for our communications. However, our goals are not always congruent with that of our audience. This is especially common when we think we are sharing information, only to find their motive is convincing us of something. Whether we (or our audience) are the instigator, when we don’t have the same purpose, our conversation will suffer. 

7.     Relationship Capital of Parties. Arguably, one of the most important ingredients to a good friendship is trust. And it doesn’t just happen overnight. It comes with time and mutually shared experiences and conversations. So, as we communicate with others, it pays to be mindful of where our relationship is—especially if our topic is personal or potentially charged. People who are relationally awkward often don’t understand this concept when they communicate with people they don’t know well—especially when they ask personal or invasive questions—or overly share about themselves. 

8.     Understanding of Our Audience. Successful communication is a two-way street, and that requires us to know our audience to the best of our ability. It is said that the best communicators are the best listeners, and it’s hard to deny. That’s because good listeners are more focused on their audience than themselves. A good rule of thumb is to have the audience command at least 60% of the conversation (assuming one-on-one). Through preparation, great questions, and understanding personality factors, one can better tailor communications to each unique audience. Connection is crucial when it comes to communication. 

As you reflect on communication setbacks you’ve experienced, I suspect some of the above will resonate, and that you have some other culprits to add to the list. 

I hope you enjoyed “round one” and share it with your family, friends, and any young people you are guiding. Let’s all commit to “upping our games” as communicators, for our own benefit and that of the younger generation. They’re watching. Closely.

Here’s a glimpse into our upcoming topics in the series:

Part Two: Making a Great First Impression

Part ThreeOral Communication Essentials

Part Four: Written Communication Keys

Part Five: Handling Conflict

To great communication!

How “Two Buckets” Can Help You Thrive in Chaotic (and Normal) Times

In these challenging times, all of us at LifeSmart are concerned for your well-being and are working overtime to find ways we can support you, your families, and your schools with encouragement, wisdom, perspective, and helpful strategies. Given the soaring levels of anxiety we are witnessing, this message is important. I have no doubt that there are people in your life who can benefit. Our desire is that it makes you, and the children you guide, more peaceful, hopeful, healthy, and productive, regardless of the current circumstances. 

Through observation and conversation, we are struck by how differently people are affected by these times. Much of this is to be expected because each of us is challenged in unique ways and to varying degrees:

  • Financial: some businesses are booming (Zoom, Amazon) while others are suffering greatly (restaurants, cruise lines, gyms), which is affecting careers and family economics
  • Health: some of us been personally impacted by COVID-19 (self/family/friends) while others have gone largely unscathed
  • Education: some schooling remains all-virtual while others are in-person; this is affecting students, families, and teachers in disparate ways
  • Personal Freedom: depending on how governors and mayors are attempting to manage the pandemic, citizens are experiencing freedom or severe restraints
  • Relationships: our ability to see family members, friends, teachers, and co-workers in person has been significantly impacted; and careers are being put on hold for many parents while their children are learning remotely

It is no wonder that anxiety levels are up and vary so widely! 

However, it is also the case that people respond differently to similar circumstances—especially when confronted with factors outside of their control. Some are better able to take things in stride, while others suffer mightily and are consumed with fear. We’ve all seen this. 

So, the question I’ll tackle today is how we can constructively handle all of life’s circumstances, regardless of whether our waters are stormy or calm. At LifeSmart, we’d like to share an approach that we believe can help. We call it, the Two Bucket Strategy. I know it sounds a little odd, but please hear me out. 

Overview 

In life, we face two types of circumstances: those we can control and those we cannot. In some cases, we’re the final decision-maker, while in others, we rely on other people, organizations, or rules. Someone once told me that life consists of two things—time and choices—so I’d better get them right! But, let’s be honest, many of our “choices” are driven by the decisions and rules made by others.  

What are some examples of things we can control? For the most part, these include areas like our careers, attitudes, how we spend our money, how we manage our time, what entertainment, media, and information we consume, the food we eat, which activities we participate in, our personal faith, the values we hold, and the friends we choose. While there may be outside influences, with these decisions, the buck generally stops with us. Figuratively speaking, let’s place this collection of decisions into a bucket—the Controllable Bucket—or what I call my “Me Bucket.” People like this bucket most because we’re in charge! 

But, what about that often frustrating bucket of life’s influences, circumstances, and decisions that are outside of our control? Here, examples include: the family we were born into/genetics, the weather, landing a certain job or college acceptance, the management skills of our boss, whether our schooling is in-person or virtual, the feelings and actions of others, government policy/leaders, our economic environment, the health of our population, whether our flight will arrive on time, how politicians govern in a pandemic, and whether the person we ask on a date or to marry says, “Yes.” In some of these cases, we may be able to influence the outcome/decision, but for the most part, we are beholden to the authority and final call of others. We might call this collection the Uncontrollable Bucket

There is another key aspect in play—the size of the buckets—because they ebb and flow. Usually, the size of our Controllable Bucket remains relatively constant over time. However, the Uncontrollable Bucket can undergo significant change from year to year, especially in chaotic times when it expands enormously, like now! Compare this bucket’s size today with eighteen months ago, and you’ll see what I mean. Simply put, we’re all dealing with more concerning and impactful variables today that are outside of our control. It’s a surefire recipe for fear and anxiety if we don’t manage this well. 

The Predicament

As we juggle all of life’s balls, the question is how we approach these respective categories—the controllable and uncontrollable. Do we think of them as two different decision realms or do we lump them all together into one giant hodge-podge in our daily living? How do we allocate our time/energy among what we can control and what we cannot? These answers have a profound impact on our wellness and productivity and are the crux of matter for many today. 

In life, and especially during chaotic times like now, we can clearly see the pitfalls of lumping these buckets together as we manage our affairs. Anxiety soars. Decision-making suffers. Relationships take a toll. Hopelessness rises. Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health plunges. Although unintentional, when we allow the “uncontrollables” to take over, our lives can become consumed with chaos. We are seeing these effects all around us when people:

  • Spend most of their waking moments agonizing and focusing on uncontrollable circumstances. They devote endless hours consuming media (which, by design, alarms, provokes, and is often biased). They allow it to dominate their conversations with family and friends, which increases anxiety, especially when they pile those concerns onto their own. They fixate and worry about decisions that are in the process of being made by others (especially political), wondering how they will turn out. 
  • Spend less time on making quality decisions, investing in their relationships, fostering personal health and growth, and focusing on things they can actually do something about.
  • Assume current conditions will persist forever (the “new normal”) without recognizing their resilience, resourcefulness, and adaptability. This breeds a sense of hopelessness. 
  • Allow their worries to crowd out what brings them joy.

Implementing the Two Bucket Strategy

So, how do we actually put the Two Bucket Strategy into practice? The first step is having a clear understanding of what is controllable or not. As new circumstances unfold or new information is available, consider whether and how they may impact your decisions and actions. If a situation arises and a decision is yours to make, place it in your Controllable Bucket and focus on making a well-considered decision (or action) with the best information you have available. All you can do is your best, so be sure to extend yourself some grace. Because you are in control of these decisions, you’ll want to spend the vast majority of your time on these areas of your life. The end result is more productivity and general well-being. 

What about those “uncontrollables” that can be sources of great concern, especially in times like now? First,you place them in the Uncontrollable Bucket, accepting that these decisions/circumstances are outside of your ability to control. We may not like the circumstances or the people/institutions with decision-making authority, but we come to accept that reality. There may be a grieving component to this (i.e., processing emotions that you wish things were different), which is healthy and normal, but we have to come to terms with our inability to control these circumstances and outcomes. 

That said, there may be opportunities to directly or indirectly influence eventual outcomes through our initiative. If we don’t like the direction or policy positions of those in control of decisions, we can choose to lend our voice to the conversation or issue through our own involvement. It may not affect immediate decisions, but it may make a difference in time. Thus, while we can reach a place of acceptance of others’ control over certain decisions (as difficult as it may be), it does not imply passivity. However, if we choose to involve ourselves, the question becomes how much of our time we allocate to these matters.

Second, remember our objective is to make the most of life regardless of our circumstances. As my Therapist daughter describes it, you control what you can (well) within the context of what you can’t. Remember, you have a choice in how you deal with matters beyond your control. So, live consistent with your values, invest in your relationships, and make the most out of your life no matter what. Simply put, it is freeing when we can reach this place. 

Third, devote some time to gaining valuable, unbiased factual information to help you better understand the circumstances and adapt accordingly. In these days of alarmist and often biased media, it is essential to diversify your information sources to gain perspectives from multiple points of view. Also, be sure to up your “discernment meter” to differentiate between fact and opinion with your information and sources. This will help you make more objective and wise decisions within the context of the uncontrollable circumstances you’re dealing with.

Fourth, pay close attention to your stressors and set appropriate boundaries toward the people and information sources that are not constructive influences. For most, this will involve consuming less media and being more selective when choosing the people with whom you associate or are connected to on social media. This takes self-awareness of your anxiety levels and lots of discernment, self-discipline, and self-respect. Surround yourself with positive influences and factual information. Limit the alternative.   

Fifth, pay close attention to your time allocation between the two buckets and give substantial priority to your controllables. With media at our fingertips, it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the issues we can’t control (hello politics!). This includes the amount of time we spend and the frequency with which we are checking the news and such. People get more anxious the more frequently they focus on the uncontrollables. If your anxiety levels are increasing, it may be a sign that you need to reallocate your time between these buckets and stay away from media/tech for longer intervals. 

Sixth, consider this an opportunity to grow your spiritual life. People of faith (myself included) have additional ways to release their worries and their Uncontrollable Bucket. Through prayer, meditation, and reflection, as well as through a faith community, they can share concerns and desires, seek wisdom and guidance, and give thanks. It offers peace, comfort, hope, and direction in unique ways in good times and bad. I realize our readers hold different faith views but feel it’s important to share.

Seventh, pay extra attention to what brings you joy and fulfillment, and seek opportunities to serve others. It’s a win-win for sure. 

Finally, remember that everyone is fighting a unique battle in these difficult times, so be extra compassionate and empathetic and extend more grace to the people around you. 

We hope these ideas are helpful to you in navigating these times and encourage you to share this with the people in your life. Yes, two buckets are indeed better than one.

20 Ways to a Happier New Year

With the dawn of a new (hopefully much better) year, we’re inundated with lists of the 10 best this or the five best that. I don’t know about you, but the problem I have with many of their ideas is they’re often vague or difficult to sustain over the course of the year. Despite our best intentions, we try them, and then eventually peter out.

Nonetheless, we’d like to share our recipe for a happier new year, 2021 style, with some creative ideas that might just stick. After reflecting on what makes people happy and unhappy, here is our eclectic list of suggestions that you might try on for size. No, we can’t guarantee a happy year–or even one without surprising and bewildering challenges–but I’ll bet money they’ll at least make you happier!

1. Forgive someone: We thought we’d get the toughest one out of the way first! Sure, it may be difficult and emotionally draining, but one of the surest ways to better emotional health (and spirits) is to forgive. There is freedom in “letting go of” someone or something that has been a proverbial thorn in your side. It takes courage and strength, but it is oh so powerful. Try it.

2. Renew an old acquaintance: One of my greatest joys in the past few years has been reconnecting with long-lost friends, some I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. It has been an absolute blast to the point where we’re “regulars” once again. Who might be on your list? 

3. Reread your favorite book: Here’s a sure thing. Think of an all-time favorite book you read years ago and reread it. With the passage of time, you’ll gain new perspectives and probably discover some things you missed the first time around. It’ll feel like you’re wearing that favorite old sweater once again.

4. Seek balance and time to reflect: Can I just say it? We’re all too busy juggling life’s this and that. And, some of us pour our entire lives into one thing (usually careers). Be sure you maintain a healthy balance and a varied life—one that also reserves quality time to reflect, pray, meditate, and breathe. Quiet time is a must, and yet it’s usually the first to go. Sleep is a close second.

5. Watch/listen to/read less news: We are being manipulated by our news media. And, I’m not just talking about the political spin that permeates almost every article or segment. It’s the deliberate effort to cause alarm, agitation, and fear by focusing on negative news stories and sensationalizing them. This is based on a belief that people are more interested in negative, than positive, news. Don’t fall for it. Consider how news is affecting you.  

6. Unfriend obnoxious people: We all “pilot test” some of our “friends” on social media to some degree. The challenge is we don’t know ahead of time what they’ll post and can even feel guilty “unfriending” them. Many of our “friends” choose to post things that either bring us down or incite controversy and angst by sharing their always-learned opinions. It’s irritating, it stays with us, and it’s a lousy way to spend our time. Just do it.

7. Mind what’s on your mind: At the risk of stating the obvious, when we’re not doing things, we’re usually thinking things. Some of what we think of most brings happiness while others bring us down or cause endless worry. Where does your mind usually travel? Is it to positive/constructive places or otherwise? Be attentive to what brings you joy and consciously increase those kind of thoughts.

8. Count your blessings: Arguably, the most powerful ingredient to happiness and joy is gratitude. And, not just the Thanksgiving Day kind. The every day kind. One great idea is creating a gratitude jar of notes you/your family have written about something you’re thankful for and then reading them later on. Whatever works best for you, having an attitude of gratitude is a sure bet.

9. Enjoy more music, nature, art, and humor: When life is extremely busy, we can become so task oriented that we “squeeze out” the creative/simpler things that bring joy, curiosity, and wonder. Whether you’re an observer or a “doer,” be sure you make room for these pleasures. They’re sure to brighten your day.

10. Prefer in-person to tech: Research is showing that, notwithstanding all of our social media “friends,” we’re becoming lonelier. Our screen time is often me time, and when we use tech as our primary means of communicating, we lose much. The solution is easy—more face-to-face time. Sure, it’s not as quick, but who cares! We all need this, and that includes you.

11. Fix a regret: One of our greatest burdens is carrying a regret, whether from something we did or didn’t do. Depending on the nature and impact, it can consume us and sap us of our happiness. Do you have regrets? Are there steps you can take (conversations, apologizing, seeking forgiveness, doing) that would free you of this burden? Consider it a gift to yourself.

12. Make someone’s day: Do you want to feel really great about yourself? Then, do something that will make someone say to you, “You just made my day!” or “You were an answer to prayer.” Seek out those opportunities where you can help, and be the solution to a problem. They’re everywhere waiting for you. (And, while you’re at it, consider mentoring a kid. They need you.)

13. Seek out good news/stories: Good news is everywhere and so are great stories of human kindness. Sometimes we have to look a little harder to find them, but they’re there all right. Proactively explore sites, books, and articles that will uplift and inspire you and surround yourself with positivity. I even subscribed to an age-old magazine to do just that. It works!

14. Remember, it’s okay to say, ‘No”: Some of us chronically overcommit to the point where we sacrificially run our tank on empty. We want to be helpful and please, but when we’re already consumed with busyness, we need to be more selective in what we agree to do. So, please don’t be afraid to say, “No” or “Not now.” Always save room for the people and things that matter most.

15. Raise your irritation threshold: I used to let small things bother me until I realized that it was my choice. No more! In life, we’re constantly exposed to things or people that are irritating, but it doesn’t mean we have to let it drag us down. My mother always told me not to sweat the small stuff, and eventually, I took her words to heart. I should have sooner!

16. Take more walks: One thing that reduces our happiness quotient is when we’re overly busy and our pace is frenetic. Not surprisingly, we also resort to fast-paced workouts (often indoors) in order to maximize results in a short time frame. To keep balance, stay active, and have some quality time to unwind and enjoy our surroundings, be sure to make room for walks, too. They’re a nice change of pace.

17. Do something creative: So much of our time is task focused that we only use part of our brain. One way to counter this (and bring fun and joy into the equation) is to tap into your creative side. Whether that’s music, art, building, or otherwise, you’ll find it enjoyable and therapeutic. Also, be sure to check out the courses at your local community college if you’d like a little instruction. Is there a latent talent lurking inside?

18. Initiate good cheer: Go out of your way to cheerfully greet the people you come across. It’s amazing how people will respond to you and how much it will lift your own spirits! Give it a try and you’ll see. Good cheer is a two-way street.

19. Worry less: This is pretty self-explanatory. Worry robs us of joy and, frankly, does little good. Turn your worries into an action plan instead, and see how it builds hope and positive momentum. Tap into your support system, too.

20. Start a Gourmet Club: “Huh?” you say. Here’s how it works. Find four people (or couples) and agree to meet quarterly on a rotational basis. The host is responsible for the setting, cuisine, and main entrée. The others bring dessert, beverages, side dishes, and appetizers in agreement with the cuisine. First, we mingle, then we eat, and then we follow with a game night and lots of fun conversation. We did this years ago with friends and are starting anew with our adult children. It’s a blast and it builds our cooking prowess, too!

So, there you have it. Let us know how it goes and which ones resonate most. Here’s to a Happier New Year to you and your family!

An Open Letter to Yourself to Read This Time Next Year

No matter how you slice it, 2020 year has been a really hard year for all of us. For parents, it may have looked like trying to juggle working from home and handling kids’ remote schooling at the same time. For teachers, it probably looked like figuring out how to teach kids over a computer screen (spoiler alert: it’s not designed to work that way!). Many of us may have lost loved ones and haven’t been able to properly celebrate their lives, or are mourning the loss of time spent with family and friends—especially around the holidays. Some of us may have lost income or seen our businesses suffer or close completely. We’ve missed out on travel, vacations, and special milestones. Frankly, it’s okay to feel bummed out. As the year comes to a close, our struggles of the year are at the forefront of our minds.

However, we’d like to offer a gentle reminder of the ways you can end this year on a high note and enter the holiday season with warmth in your heart. Despite the bewildering trials of the year, you’re here. You have lived through challenges and will, no doubt, come out stronger. There is still so much to be grateful for! By the time next year rolls around, things will look different, and we’d like to provide our readers the opportunity to focus on the silver linings of this year and personal growth steps for next year. We can do this by writing an open letter to ourselves to read over the holidays in 2021.

A letter to yourself may sound trite, but it’s actually a great way to see how far you’ve come, especially during tough circumstances! We encourage you to take a moment to sit down (maybe in the glow of your Christmas tree, in front of your fireplace, or somewhere cozy with a candle burning) and think back on your year. How has your mental state been? What has been toughest emotionally? What family obstacles have you had to overcome? Most importantly, what are your hopes for 2021? What do you want to remember a year from now? 

Without any further ado, here are some ideas you can write about in your open letter to yourself:

  • In all of the upheaval of 2020, what small things have brought you joy? When the world felt upside down, what gave you respite? 
  • As you stayed home with your family, what new things did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your family? How have your priorities changed?
  • How has your communication with others changed or improved? How can you continue that trend?
  • What are some new traditions, rituals, or practices you developed in 2020 that you’d like to incorporate into 2021?
  • What things gave you hope this year? Right now, what are you the most hopeful for going forward?
  • This year, we had to come up with our own creative ways to have fun. What are some simple, intimate ways you want to continue to have fun with your loved ones in the new year?
  • What are three things you were grateful for in 2020? What are three hopes you have for 2021?

This holiday season, we invite you to take some time to focus inward and self-reflect. Writing to yourself in the future will allow you to remember the way you felt in this very moment after a very trying year—the strength, the perseverance, the hope for the future, and the gratitude for the simple things.

Remember, although it may not be where we expected, there is joy to be found for you in this season and in all circumstances. 

Merry Christmas and happy holidays from all of us at LifeSmart.

Finding Gratitude in all Circumstances

I am thankful for my five little neighbor girls, who among other things, throw wet leaves at me.

~ Dennis Trittin

It’s Thanksgiving Week, and that means our usual blog on the topic of gratitude. In normal years, this marks the beginning of the holiday season with tremendous anticipation, but this year has a heaviness to it, doesn’t it? We’ve been enduring one “Kaboom” after another, and, let’s face it, we’re having to work a little harder at being our usual thankful selves. Although we’re called to be thankful in all circumstances (yes, all!), some years are easier than others.  

So, I decided to do something a little different this year. Rather than my expounding on “all things gratitude,” I sleuthed out my favorite quotes from others that I think have special relevance this year. For your convenience, I grouped them into four thematic buckets, because each has a different spin on the topic. I hope they speak to you as much as they do to me.   

What it Is

Dictionary.com defines gratitude as, “The quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful.” I like their description of it as a quality or feeling, because gratitude is part attitude and part choice. Along with “Joy,” it occupies a special place as one of my two favorite words. Here are some great quotes that capture the essence of gratitude:

Gratitude is the memory of the heart.

~ Jean Baptiste Massieu

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, 
but rejoices for those which he has.

~ Epictetus

Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

~ Voltaire

What it Does

Gratitude offers so much to us individually and collectively. We are naturally drawn toward uplifting, “glass is half full” people in contrast to those who act entitled or unappreciative. The differences in mood and outlook are day and night, and no wonder. Here are some great sentiments on the value of gratitude: 

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.

~ Melody Beattie

Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. 
It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.

~ John Ortberg

It’s a funny thing about life. Once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, 
you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.

~ Germany Kent

Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.

~John Wooden

Replace fear with gratitude, and the whole world changes.

~ Terri Guillemets

The Spiritual Connection

Arguably, few things do more for the soul than being grateful. It’s a powerful combination of thankfulness and contentment, which we all long for but don’t always possess. Here are some inspiring words that have special meaning to me from a spiritual standpoint:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,
 for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

~ Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

For each new morning with its light

For rest and shelter of the night

For health and food, for love and friends

For everything Thy goodness sends.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our Challenge

So, how do we take an attitude of gratitude to heart, even in times when we’re unsettled, weary, fearful, hurting, lonely, or angry? In addition to gratitude journals and jars, meal conversations, or evening prayers, here are some great quotes to guide us along: 

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. 
The other is as though everything is a miracle.

~ Albert Einstein

There is no greater difference between men than between grateful and ungrateful people.

~ R. H. Blyth

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.

~ Tecumseh

Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.

~ Alphonse Karr

Being thankful is not always experienced as a natural state of existence; 
we must work at it, akin to a type of strength training for the heart.

~ Larissa Gomez

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that 
the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

~ John F. Kennedy

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at LifeSmart!

P.S. We’d like to thank the following sites for the quotes referenced above: Quotegarden.com, CountryLiving.com, HealthyHappyImpactful.com, Success.com, and Inc.com

[Video] Our Tip for Raising Younger Leaders

If you’re a parent, caregiver, educator, or mentor of elementary-aged kiddos, this one’s for you!

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at a Moms program that focuses on the K-5 stage of parenting. Given that most of our parenting talks focus on the teen and young adult years, this was a fun extension of our mission of training up leaders. After all, it’s never too early to start building those skills that will serve a lifetime! 

It’ll come as no surprise that my in-person talks were cancelled. But, at the host’s request, I created a video of my talk that we were later able to edit for general audiences.  “Parenting Today with Tomorrow in Mind,” offers encouragement and parenting strategies to navigate the elementary-aged years, while providing a glimpse ahead to the dynamic teen years. Here is a sneak preview of some topics I address:

 ·    Cultivating self-awareness, leadership skills, core values, and life skills
·      Creating a positive home environment
·      Parenting tips and ideas for raising “littles”
·      Parenting styles and their impact

I hope you, and your friends who are “in this space,” enjoy my talk and this video!

You can access it here at:  https://vimeo.com/413783760

To better parenting!

 The LifeSmart Team

7 Great Books For Your Parenting Toolkit

As co-authors of two parenting books (Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real Worldand Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence), we greatly enjoy (and benefit from) the writings and perspectives of our peers. We especially appreciate books that discuss the state of children and young adults and those offering practical parenting tips to add to our quiver. Truth be told, writing parenting books is a convicting experience because neither we, nor anyone else, is a perfect parent. As such, the works of others provides new insights and reality checks on the guidance we give through our writings. 

In the past several years, we have read numerous books that we wish we had while our children were under our roofs. Each offers unique insights and thoughtful advice and wisdom. So, with a spirit of gratitude to these authors and our desire to encourage and equip those of you who are parents, we offer these book recommendations to add to your parenting quiver. 

Parent on Purpose, by Amy Carney. Amy offers compelling wisdom and strategies to help parents lead, love, and launch their children to fulfill their dreams and purpose. It’s an inspiring and practical guidebook to building and sustaining a strong family.

Get the Behavior You Want without Being the Parent You Hate! by Deborah Gilboa, MD. Dr. G guides readers to raise children who are responsible, respectful, and resilient—her 3 R’s. Geared toward parents of young children to pre-teenagers, she offers practical tips for growing these leadership skills in different stages of childhood. 

Boy Mom, by Monica Swanson. Don’t be fooled by the title because this book is just as compelling for moms of girls! Monica tackles challenging issues like focusing on the big picture, setting boundaries, building a strong relationship, fostering confidence and emotional health, cultivating strong character, and teaching the value of work, with uncommon wisdom and flair. 

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. Paul takes head on the fallacy that success is about smarts. Rather, it’s about non-cognitive (character-related) skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, motivation, integrity, social agility, gratitude, and resourcefulness. It’s a healthy reminder to parents of the importance of building a leadership foundation in our kids. 

Your Teenager is Not Crazy, by Dr. Jeramy Clark and Jerusha Clark. The teen years are filled with angst and wonder. This book shares the changes teens face, and with uncommon compassion and empathy, offers practical advice to help them navigate their biggest worries and challenges. It’s a book every teen would want his/her parent to read. 

How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. With the uncommon perspective of a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie understands the young adult landscape like few others. With this firm foundation, she attributes many student challenges to the way they are parented. This is a no-nonsense challenge to helicopter parenting in order to build independent, competent, and confident young adults. 

Connect with Your Kid: Mastering the Top 10 Parent-Child Communication Skills, by Dennis E. Coates, PhD. An expert in brain research, Dr. Coates expands his territory into the softer aspects of parenting: building an enduring relationship and communicating effectively in the often-charged teen years. He offers essential skill-building tips in areas such as listening, coaching, encouraging, appreciating, giving feedback, engaging, and resolving conflict. 

We strongly endorse these books and are confident that they will help you become the best parent you can be. 

Happy Reading,

The LifeSmart Team

Can Good Business Principles Make us Better Parents?

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Is this guy crazy? What could business principles have anything to do with the way I am raising my children?” And “Can parenting well really make me a better supervisor?”

But, hear me out. I actually think you may be surprised!

As most of you know, I enjoyed a successful, 30-year business career before founding LifeSmart Publishing. Through most of it, I worked for an incredible global company, Russell Investments, who was awarded “Best Place to Work” any number of times. And, I spent 27 years evaluating organizations and leaders—researching and observing the best and brightest. I learned their best practices and applied them to the best of my ability when managing my employees.

During this period, I also became a father of two kids who are as different as day and night—that would be Michael and Lauren. After some time, I realized that what I learned in the business arena could be applied to my parenting… and, what I learned in my parenting could be applied to my management! And I think my lessons can work for you, too.

So, here goes—six successful business strategies to help you become a better parent!

1. Adopt a goal orientation: We all achieve more when we set goals. Whether it’s a five-year strategic plan or a daily to do list, our goals give us focus, direction, and a target to hit. They help keep us motivated, too. And, so it goes with parenting. What if we were to set goals for our parenting? For our families? And, to encourage our children to be consistent goal setters? No doubt about it, we’ll accomplish more. You can find a sample Parenting Mission Statement here which helps us develop family goals.

So, be as strategic as you can and don’t let the day-to-day busyness keep you from achieving your longer-term goals.

2. Utilize effective motivational techniques: Whether we’re in the management or parenting realms, we notice that some people are self motivated while others need a little nudge. Researchers have discovered that among the top motivators of a workforce are being: 1) appreciated and recognized, 2) invited into and involved in decisions, and 3) understood by their “boss.” And, so it goes with parenting a teenager, doesn’t it? We regularly hear complaints from teens that their parents: 1) seem to stress their performance rather than the person they are, 2) make all the decisions or minimize their input, and 3) don’t listen to or try to understand them and their world. The parallels are striking, aren’t they? 

3. Empower rather than micromanage: Most of us loathe having controlling supervisors who hover, nag, interfere, and manipulate. We feel disrespected, devalued, disempowered, and distrusted, and rightfully so. And, so it goes with the helicopter parent who employs these same micromanagement tendencies with their teens. Isn’t it interesting that we detest it when it happens to us at work, yet we can fall into this same trap when we parent? But, when we adopt an empowering parenting style, our teens will develop greater self confidence and decision-making skills. 

4. Promote high standards and strong character: As managers, we certainly want our employees to perform. And yet, the most successful leaders stress the importance of upholding high standards of excellence, including strong character and ethical behavior. Qualities like integrity, dependability, initiative, team-mindedness, positivity, self control, work ethic, and resilience are telltale signs of excellent employees. So, when it comes to parenting, let’s remember to honor the great character traits and behaviors in our children, not just their outcomes. It will serve them well in all aspects of life.

5. Engage in effective collaboration: In today’s more relational workplace, teamwork is highly valued. Being able to work effectively with others with different skills, styles, and backgrounds in a harmonious way produces happier workers and better outcomes. The same is true of families who value one another, work together on family projects and chores, and invest in their relationships. While the teen years can bring extra relationship challenges when children express greater independence (and sometimes appear to devalue their parents’ input), it nonetheless is helpful to reinforce the “family as team” whenever possible. One team, one dream, does pay off. 

6. Commit to continuous improvement: As the world has become more competitive, companies are managing their personnel more intensively. Nowadays, we have to deliver excellent performance just to keep our jobs. So, it’s not surprising that employees who are committed to continuously improve their skills through training, etc. are best positioned to succeed. And, so it goes with our children. By building a growth mindset and a love of learning and self improvement in our children, parents can prepare them for the demands of the real world and help them fulfill their dreams. So, encourage your children to seize those opportunities to sharpen their body, mind, and spirit. It’s huge.

So, taking a page from the business management playbook can actually help in our parenting and pay dividends, too. Keep an open mind, give it a try, and let us know how it goes. 

We invite you to explore our two parenting books, Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World, and Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence. Each reinforce these lessons and offer parents practical strategies and encouragement for navigating the teen years.

To better parenting…and managing! 

Financial Lessons from 2020 (So Far)

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Life is filled with lessons learned the hard way. Sometimes we genuinely don’t understand the risks in advance, but often we do and take our chances anyway. “It won’t happen to me.” “I’ll get around to it soon, I promise.” “I’ll just deal with it if it happens.” And, then, the unexpected strikes. Our company goes belly up. I get laid off after 30 years of service (or because I was the most recent hire). Or, in the case of 2020, we have a brutal pandemic that causes societal chaos in our lives and livelihoods. Lessons learned again, the hard way.

When I wrote What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead, my goal was to provide students advance wisdom for their upcoming transitions into adulthood. 109 Life Success Pointers—well beyond an ounce—and including a chapter on financial matters. Oh, how many of them have been put to good use this year! 

Regardless of how well prepared you were for the economic risks in 2020, we thought it would be helpful to reiterate some key financial pointers to help you navigate today’s turbulence and prepare you for the next battle.

  1. Build an emergency fund for unforeseen circumstances. One of our first financial priorities is to create an accessible fund of liquid, short-term investments amounting to four to six months’ worth of your expenses. When times are hard, as 2020 has proven to be, this fund can help soften the financial blow and provide a source of cash for critical needs. Generally speaking, the greater the uncertainty, the greater the number of months reflected in your emergency fund.
  2. Keep your fixed expenses under control. Hard times are made harder when over 40% of our income is devoted to paying our fixed expenses (housing, utilities, debt payments, etc.). These expenses must be paid regardless of our circumstances, unlike discretionary expenses (travel, leisure, dining) that can be curtailed. Generally speaking, the lower the percentage of our fixed expenses, the greater is our ability to navigate difficult economic circumstances and maintain peace of mind. Those who apply this practice live within their means and can still generate positive cash flow. 
  3. Use credit sparingly and wisely. It goes without saying (but we still will!) that those who are conservative with respect to credit card usage are better able to withstand financial turbulence. Large credit card balances increase the cost of our purchases and represent significant fixed costs that must be paid to maintain a good credit rating. During tough times, a cash-only approach to spending helps us exercise prudent financial discipline. 
  4. Diversify and periodically rebalance your investments. The pandemic has caused significant gyrations in the stock market this year, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ranging from 18,592 to 29,551 in a short period of time! This volatility illustrates the importance of holding some fixed income securities to reduce risk, and of monitoring your allocations to stocks and bonds to ensure they’re within acceptable ranges. For example, at market highs, your allocations to stocks may have gone above your target range, in which case you could have trimmed your exposure, lowering your risk. At the same time, at market lows, your allocations to stocks may have fallen below your targets, indicating it’s time to increase your exposure and buy at lower prices. 
  5. Don’t let your emotions interfere with your investing. There are two facts of life when it comes to investing that can get in the way of making sound decisions. First, the markets tend to decline more quickly than they rise, which is scary. Second, the market bottoms when the news is still bad. We want to wait until the news is better, but we will have lost our opportunity to buy at much lower prices. For these reasons, individual investors often display a “buy high, sell low” approach to investing when the reverse is the way to go. Over the long term, this tendency lowers our investment return. This is one reason why automatic investment programs are so helpful—they help take the emotions out of our investing.  
  6. No matter the circumstances, remain a cheerful giver. Even during financial hardships, it pays to find ways to help support those in even greater need. Sure, we may not be able to write as large of a check to our favorite charities, but even a little is good for the soul and for others. We can also be searching for opportunities to donate our time to these causes—another great way of cheerfully giving to humanity. It helps keep things in perspective, too.

Whether you check all, a few, or none of the above six boxes, we hope this encourages you to explore how you can “up your financial game.” It will not only help your financial picture, but also increase your peace of mind. 

Best wishes to you and yours,

The LifeSmart Team