Amplify Your Ideas

Imagine: you’re at a meeting where you present an idea, and no one comments on it—you only hear “crickets” . . . until a few minutes later when someone else restates the same idea as if it were his own, and everyone chimes in about this other person’s great idea. How often have you witnessed this? Has this happened to you?

How do you break this pattern to get your ideas heard?

When a coaching client is looking for help in finding his or her voice, I start by digging for more information: Does this happen only to you? Does silence only follow the ideas floated by women? What is the gender make-up of the team, the corporate culture? Does anyone ever comment on this pattern during the meeting or afterward? Does it happen to some of the men as well, but you just haven’t noticed?

Before we can begin to solve any problem, we need to make sure we are solving the right one. In the scenario above, I would guide you to reflect on whether this was only happening to you, and ask you to notice what your colleagues are doing differently. We’d then look at what you are doing and thinking in the meetings. I’d prompt you to consider ways you might shift your behavior—your tone of voice, your body language. You might then reflect on the story you’re telling yourself about this pattern, and your assumptions around this story. We might look back at other times in your life when you noticed this pattern.

It is so important to tease out the conditions under which this happens, and to notice what you are thinking before you present your idea. Are you assuming that your idea will be knocked down, are you concerned that others will judge your idea harshly? Are you presenting it with confidence? How loud is your inner critic?

We would then design ways for you to quiet your inner critic and change the narrative around presenting your ideas.

On the other hand, if the pattern happens only to the women in the room, or only to members of one department, then we would need to look at the broader system. Are there other examples of bias in this organization? Assuming this pattern is ongoing, and no one has spoken out about it, the first thing to do is name the problem, and then gather allies to craft a solution.

One effective strategy that targets this pattern is called “amplification”, a tactic deployed by the women in President Obama’s administration. Amplification was designed to get the women’s ideas noticed: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own. We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. . . . Obama noticed . . . and began calling more often on women and junior aides.”

Amplification made headlines nine months ago, and is now finding its way into practice outside of politics, empowering women at all levels. A client who is a middle manager at a biotech company has encouraged her team to practice this strategy, and she’s noticed a shift in the number of women speaking up and seeing their ideas take hold. She’s even drafted some men to help amplify their female colleagues’ ideas.

Amplification can work to solve this type of problem where any group is not being heard. It works because it targets the heart of the problem: the unconscious bias around that group’s contributions. You can identify the presence of unconscious bias when a person’s stated beliefs do not match their behavior. If you were to ask the people in your meeting if they valued all their colleagues’ ideas equally, and many of them replied “Yes, of course”, yet their behavior did not mirror their stated belief, then you are facing bias of some kind. The reason unconscious bias is so hard to shake—and so insidious—is because we’re not aware of it and we may even deny it exists. But to the individuals who are silenced, whether they are women, or junior members on a team, or colleagues of different ethnic or racial backgrounds—the negative impact is very real.

Unconscious bias exists in all of us. By acknowledging the bias, which elevates it to a conscious level, we can make choices on how to change our behavior. This is where a coach can help you see what you might otherwise be missing.

If you notice a dysfunctional pattern such as this in your meetings, it might be time to get a coach. By partnering with your coach, you will isolate the conditions under which it is occurring, and how you might be contributing to the problem. Organizational issues are tricky and bias does exist. Working with a coach will ensure you learn to advocate for yourself and feel empowered to assert your ideas with confidence; you don’t have to go it alone.

Finding Your Voice


A story on NPR this winter stopped me in my tracks. It was a feature about Somali high school students in Lewiston Maine. Before you turn away . . . this is not a political story.

Lewiston is a former mill town in Southern Maine, with a predominantly white population. For the past 16 years, more than 7,000 Africans—mostly Somalis—have made their way to Lewiston. The transition into their new community has not always been smooth, but the creative way these refugees responded to this challenge hold lessons on how we all can find our voice.

The Somali students felt that some of their fellow students considered them outsiders, and that their teachers were treating them unfairly. The students’ transformation began when they found a way to do more than just complain about their circumstances.

In an afterschool program held in a basement classroom, their advisor Jenn Carter, challenged them to imagine “What can you, as a young person add to make things better?” They looked to what they knew best: storytelling. The Somalis come from an oral tradition, and storytelling is how they make sense of their lives. Their goal was to “lead a training where they didn't attack the teachers, but instead simply shared their experiences . . . both good and bad.” They wanted their teachers to have a sense of their culture and what it feels like to be refugees in America.

With the principal’s permission, the students designed a monthly training program for their teachers, where the students and teachers began to tell their stories. In one meeting, the students highlighted the impact of their teachers’ actions. One Somali student reflected that the reason he often arrived late to class was that his teachers “don’t care for him or the other refugees”.  A teacher responded that it was an “unfair assumption”, and another teacher realized that she needed to reach out more to the students to explain her actions. Some teachers also admitted how difficult it was to talk about race—which then opened the door to a deeper dialogue. These were hard conversations, yet the students and teachers continued to wrestle with these issues, month after month in that basement classroom.

The students found their voice by embracing their own culture not by running away from it. They shared stories of their lives and invited others to join them. They entered a dialogue with their teachers, and reached a deeper understanding that included all their stories. In the wonderful Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs defines dialogue as: “a conversation in which people think together in relationship . . .You relax your grip on certainty and listen to . . . possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred” (p. 19). Isaacs notes: “Most of us believe at some level that we must fix things or change people in order to make them reachable. Dialogue does not call for such behavior. Rather, it asks us to listen . . . deeply to all the views that people may express” (p. 20).

The Somali students began this journey feeling like outsiders and holding tight to their assumptions. Their brave decision to lead the trainings was only their first step. Their openness to listening to their teacher’s stories and entering a dialogue was just as important. But they couldn’t do it alone. Their teachers’ willingness to listen to the students’ stories was just as critical. As a community, they found a way to tackle the extraordinarily complex and emotionally charged topic of race. Following their dialogue, the students began collaborating with members of the staff to create the school’s policy around race.

So the next time you are locked in battle with your colleagues and feeling frustrated that you can’t make them see things your way, consider not trying to change their minds. Can you imagine loosening “your grip on certainty”.  What would you risk in really hearing them out? How might you be wrong? Can you hold onto the possibility that you might agree with some part of their position? Can you find a more expansive solution that encompasses more than just one perspective? How do you think your colleagues would feel if you stopped trying to change their minds, and started to listen instead?

Yes, this is hard! It takes practice, and bravery. And it is worth the risk. If you doubt this, what might you lose if you don’t take the chance? Or as my business partner says: “You can be right, or you can be in relationship”.


Braving the Ice

Do you have trouble asking for help? Would you rather soldier on, than admit that you are struggling? Do you tough it out?

I pondered this a couple of weeks ago as I slid down an icy slope in the woods. Those of you who hate the cold are likely wondering what I was doing there in the first place. What you may not appreciate is that winter hiking is the best! The secret is in being prepared, and knowing what to carry.

I’ve always loved hiking, but it wasn’t until I met my husband, that I fully appreciated the glory of long winter treks. I hated being out in the cold. Many women hope for jewelry from their sweethearts, but my most treasured gifts have been the hiking boots, fleece vests, walking poles, and snow shoes that my sweet husband has given me over the years. Now that I am properly equipped, I love accompanying him on his winter hikes.

A few weeks ago, I went on a long hike in the woods, with my friend Pat. I knew it might be icy at the top of the mountain, so we packed our micro spikes along with peanut butter wraps and extra pairs of gloves. Micro spikes, for those of you who are not lovers of the cold, are “winter traction devices”. Think sharp-toothed chains you attach to the bottom of your hiking boots.

When we started out on the old logging road, there was a crust of frozen snow, with enough roughness for us to walk easily in our hiking boots. About a mile up the mountain—deep in conversation and not paying much attention to the road—we hit a steep patch and started to slide backwards in slow motion. Frozen in fear, as our boots failed to grip the crust on the incline, we envisioned a long bumpy tumble down the mountain. After a few frightening moments, I settled my shaking legs by taking long slow breaths. Pat and I then gingerly sank to the ground as we searched for old tree stumps on which to brace our feet so we could strap on our micro spikes.

A few minutes later, armored with spiky feet, we hiked up the mountain.

Pat had never worn spikes and couldn’t believe how easy it was to make it up the mountain. We were giddy! We felt like champions. Even when we hit sheer ice, our spikes gripped solidly, and we walked with confidence. It was as easy as walking across a room in our slippers. Finding our stride, we picked up our pace, built up some heat, and forgot about the ice. At the top of the mountain, we set our backpacks down on a picnic table overlooking a snow-covered pond, and delighted in our peanut butter sandwiches and thermoses of warm chai tea. There is nothing more magical, than the sharp contrast of chilly air against your cheeks, and warm, sweet tea moving through your system.

As we retraced our steps down through the woods, we marveled at the transformation in our day. Had we not packed our micro spikes, we would have been forced to slide down the hill and abandon our adventure. But equipped with the right tools, we were able to surmount the hill—and our fear.

So, when you’re faced with a mountain of stress at work, what do you do? Slide back in defeat? Suffer in silence? Complain to your friends? Daydream about a better job? Or do you do something about it? Is there someone you can turn to for advice? Could there be a tool that will make your job easier?

There is always a solution: even if it means finding a new job. You are not powerless, even if you think you are. My friend Pat and I would have been helpless had we not packed the right tools. Imagine facing an icy slope without a pair of micro spikes! That is terrifying. But braving—and conquering—the ice is thrilling when you carry the right tools. The secret is not giving up, and then knowing when and where to turn for help so you can step into your power.

Unexpected Lessons from the Super Bowl

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I hate football. I’m saddened by the physical damage it inflicts on its players, and I don’t understand it—in spite of repeated attempts by several old boyfriends and my sister, a fervent fan­, to explain the logic and language of the game. Even though I live in Boston—a very easy place to fall in love with football—I’ve never found a way into its magic, until this year’s Super Bowl.

I was sick in bed, recovering from a wicked stomach bug, and weary of watching the home re-do’s on HGTV. My sweet husband, also unfazed by football’s allure, picked up some Chinese take-out, and joined me in the bedroom to watch the game.

During the first quarter, I commented to my brilliant husband—who is as football-illiterate as I am—that trying to follow the game was like watching a foreign-language movie without subtitles! When I sat through previous games with my sister, she would translate the inscrutable mess on the field for me. This time, I was at a loss. Even with the announcers’ play-by-plays, their advanced-level football vocabulary was far over my head. So we just watched, and soaked in the energy of the game. By the end of the first quarter, I sensed that the energy was turning against the Patriots. Then, as the second quarter progressed, I could see that Brady was being sacked and that many of his throws didn’t add up to much. It didn’t look good for the Pats. Even I could see that.

By the second quarter, the announcers were reporting that in fifty years of Super Bowls, the largest deficit ever overcome was 10 points. By the third quarter, the Pats were down 25 points. Winning seemed impossible: until it wasn’t.

Earlier that day, as I started to emerge from the fog of my flu, I curled up under the covers with the NY Times Magazine, and read the cover article by Sam Anderson, about a basketball player I had never heard of: Russell Westbrook (I’m not much of a basketball fan either). The article illustrated Westbrook’s extraordinary toughness, resilience, and steely focus after a court-side fan cursed and gestured viciously at him:

“This storm of negativity triggered one of those Westbrook moments when he seems to pop out of space-time. . . . So Westbrook started shooting, and — just as he had in warm-ups — he missed and he missed, but still he didn’t stop . . . tonight he was surfing and wiping out hard, only to get back up and immediately wipe out again. . . . With just under three minutes left and the Thunder trailing by 3 points, Westbrook dribbled hard at the basket and, without any apparent shadow of self-doubt, stopped to rise for a pull-up jumper — precisely the shot I had watched him clank so many times before the game. Now, however, he made it, and then with around a minute left he did it again, giving the Thunder the lead, and in the end . . . the Thunder won by 6 points.”

Hmm. Sounds a lot like Brady and the Patriots; never giving up. But it was the closing reflections in the Times article that stayed with me:

 “There are people in Oklahoma City who hold themselves differently because of Russell Westbrook,” Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, told me. “I mean that literally. They stand up straighter. People, not necessarily athletes, draw confidence from him and his disregard for the judgment or labeling from others. I’m confident that there are a lot of people in this city that go into job interviews saying to themselves: ‘Come on, you’ve got this — be Westbrook, think Westbrook.’ And that might actually help them get the job, and if they don’t, they walk out feeling sorry for the person that missed the opportunity to hire them.”

“This is the lesson of Russell Westbrook. In a deeply imperfect world — a world where a shooting touch will suddenly abandon you at the worst possible moment, where your teammates might not be good enough to make a win possible, where an economy might suddenly collapse for no apparent reason, where the decency of strangers cannot be presumed — in a world like that, Westbrook’s approach to life might actually be the most rational one. You control the things you can control (family, daily routines, the occasional big choice) and outside that you fling yourself with wild abandon, every day, at every object that seems worthy of pursuit. In the absence of guarantees, in the absence of certainty, in the new American volatility, we can bank on only one thing: total presence, total sincerity, total effort, all the time.”

This passage reminded me of the great lesson my mom taught me: “If you have control over a situation, grab the reigns and never let go. But, if you don’t have control, let them go”. This is especially important to remember today, where layoffs have become the norm, not the exception. In the late 20th Century, all you needed for job security was to work hard and make your boss’s life easier. These days, even star performers are not protected from layoffs. Much of our suffering and anxiety is caused by trying to control things beyond our grasp.

One of my clients said he is suffering from PTSD from all the layoffs he’s endured. So how do you bolster your resiliency to thrive—and not just survive—in a world marked by deeply unsettling uncertainty? How do you pick yourself up again and again, when you are sacked by another layoff, or bruised by the unanswered calls to recruiters? You find inspiration where you can, even from unexpected sources. Remember to focus on what you do have control over. And remember what Julian Edelman (a Patriot, for my fellow football illiterates) said to the gaggle of reporters after the Super Bowl, about how “mentally tough” his teammates were through adversity, how “we stick together, work hard, keep on playing and keep on grinding.” He never lets himself think the game is over. 

Clearing the Clutter

Clutter. I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly fighting a losing battle with clutter: my husband and I have too much stuff, too little room, too little time to deal with it—and most significantly—our clutter has an insidious way of creeping up on us.

I haven’t done a major clutter purge in more than 15 years. I know exactly how long it’s been, because the last time I made the leap to clear the clutter, my whole life changed.

In 2000, I was living in Manhattan, feeling stuck. I had been doing the same job for over 10 years. I could do the job in my sleep, yet didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. Then some time that year I stumbled upon a small paperback, Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston. Ms. Kingston’s premise is: “For your life to work well, it is vital to have a good flow of life force energy in your home and workplace . . . Any kind of clutter creates an obstacle to the smooth flow of energy around a space. This in turn creates stuckness and/or confusion in the lives of the occupants.”

OK some of you are thinking—way too woo woo for me. Skepticism is healthy, yet so is curiosity.

I started with the boxes under the desk in my bedroom. I hadn’t opened them in the 12 years since I moved into that apartment! I had no idea what was in them. It occurred to me, that if I couldn’t even remember what was inside the boxes, then I could easily live without the stuff. But, I was curious, so I opened them. I found a blouse and jacket of my Mom’s that I wanted to keep. She had died seven years earlier, and I wanted to hold on to the memories woven into the fabric. The rest I let go. I continued throughout the bedroom, clearing the space and allowing energy to flow in and around my room. I started to feel lighter.

More importantly, this new flow of energy helped clear my thoughts, and I became more focused on what I wanted in my life. I started imagining living in a house with a porch, outside the City. Soon after clearing the clutter, I heard from a friend who invited me to attend a one-day career workshop, where we explored our career goals and how to achieve them. One month after the workshop, I received a cold call from a headhunter about a job in Boston. As a native New Yorker, I had never imagined living in Boston, but said yes to this big interview—more out of curiosity than anything else. Two months later, I had a wonderful new job that challenged me in ways my old job had ceased to, and I was living just outside of Boston, in a house on a hill with a porch. I wonder if clearing the clutter had released my hold on staying in New York?

This January, I thought it was time to attack the clutter again. I started small, targeting one corner of the kitchen. As I did 17 years ago, I kept a couple of items, and cleared out the rest. Next, I focused on a dresser that hadn’t been cleaned out in 15 years. Four hours and one bursting garbage bag later: done.

Now I only needed to wait and see if clearing the stuck energy would usher in any new business.

The next day, a client handed me a check for a new coaching engagement, a testimonial came in from a former client, I gained a new Twitter follower, and three emails from potential new clients popped into my inbox. Not bad.

So, if you are feeling stuck in any part of your life, pick a corner, a drawer, one shelf in that overstuffed bookshelf, and start clearing. We all cling to things in one way or another, and for different reasons. Some of us hold on to beliefs, or grudges, or images of our younger selves that are no longer serving us. Letting go of the possessions that no longer serve us, requires us to reconsider who we are today. When you decide whether to keep an old shirt, or book, or letter from a friend, you are swept back to the time you first acquired it, and to reflect on its meaning for you today. Does this object still hold meaning? Do you still need this in your life now?

When we clear the clutter, we let go of more than just the stuff. Releasing our hold on physical possessions that have lost their resonance liberates us in profound ways. When we choose to stop bearing the weight of outdated beliefs and assumptions, we are freed to explore new opportunities and new ways of seeing ourselves in the world.