Permission to feel bad

Cat sleeping face down on a blanket on the sofa. Her front paws are stretched out but folded in, touching her legs, also folded in, as if forming a triangle.
She’s here, okay. What more do you want?!

I used to try to look for the silver lining a lot – or worse, I used to try to get other people to find the silver lining. Now, in and of itself, attempting to find something positive in a bad situation is not a bad thing, nor is it wrong. It can often be helpful as we try to gain perspective, or try to motivate ourselves to keep going when things get tough.

But there are times when it’s hurtful.

There are times when we use the silver lining to ignore the warning signs. To convince ourselves to keep going in unhealthy situations instead of honestly evaluating whether it makes sense to continue on that path (e.g., stay in that job, stay in that relationship, accept being treated poorly) when we have a choice about it. Sometimes staying positive is about survival (particularly when maybe we don’t have a choice, or when the other options are worse). But there are times when it can be a form of giving up.

And it’s also a different thing to choose for yourself than for someone else.

When people are grieving, we want to take away their pain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to give them permission to feel it. To grieve. To miss that person (or place, or life they imagined, or whatever they have lost). To hurt.

There is so much talk about empathy vs. sympathy and a fraughtness about how we should feel when we haven’t had that experience or cannot ever know what it’s like to be in the other person’s situation, can never understand its full depth. It’s easy to get carried away in one’s own head about the correctly shaped response, and how one could possibly contort oneself into that correct shape. It’s also easy to believe we can approximate someone else’s experience because something (we believe to be) similar happened to us. To fail to recognize how bad a situation truly is for someone, because we (believe we have) survived the same. Or fail to recognize structural and systemic differences. Which can be dismissive, or worse, lead to us potentially gaslighting the other person. I’ve done all of these, and I’m sure I’ll continue before catching myself—though I’m working on it.

Platitudes are about us, about easing our discomfort at not being able to do anything about this terrible situation that the other person is in. But to be a better friend would be to sit with that discomfort if it gives the other person space to grieve. To give them permission to feel bad, to be messy. To free them from feeling guilt about making you uncomfortable on top of whatever they were already feeling awful about.

Someone I respect a lot used to open meetings with a check-in and often led the way herself in what it means to be open and vulnerable, to answer the question of “how are you” honestly even when she was having a really, really tough time. What a gift.

What I’m working on these days is to get better at replying, “that’s really awful” or “that sucks” or in some way recognizing the situation and how someone is feeling. To acknowledge their reality. I’m working at making space for people to feel as they feel. To answer “how are you” as honestly as they wish to. Even when they feel bad. And also, to get better at sharing with the people in my life when I’m having a hard time.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, or struggling, then please reach out to your local lifelines. If you’re in the US, you can call or text 988, or find more resources at 988lifeline.org. If you’re in Japan, you can contact the TELL lifeline via phone at 03-5774-0992 or chat.

What I learned from 50 (mostly) first dates

It’s odd getting to know people as an adult, isn’t it? As a kid, it’s often by proximity – we make friends with the neighbors, kids in our class, or kids who take the same route home after school. As we get older, it’s often through school, perhaps a place of worship or an extracurricular activity, and then at work, or maybe kids’ schools/activities in the case of people who are parents. But what about outside of institutions?

A latte with latte art in the foam on the top to look like two hearts, with a spoon on the saucer, and a tall mug of black coffee to the right. Both cups are on a wooden tray on a wooden table.

Last month, I watched a friend’s six-year-old run around making friends with random children, all readily jumping in to play with each other even though none of the parents knew each other nor necessarily interacted with each other. Nobody had set up a play date. I envied his ease – their ease, I should say, since while he wasn’t shy to jump in, every kid he interacted with was eager to welcome another person to play with. They were simply happy to be playing.

I envied their seeming ease – but actually, in terms of what I saw happen, I’ve found that this generally resonates with what I’ve found as an adult attempting to meet new people.

Earlier this year, I set a goal for myself of having coffee (or lunch or a virtual chat, etc.) with 50 different people. Having moved to a new city (and country) in 2022, I figured that it would be good to get to know people, whether personally or professionally. This was not for romantic purposes (I’m fortunate to have already found a wonderful partner!), nor did I have any specific agenda beyond getting to know people.

As someone craving connection (a.k.a., a human), I also counted people that I already knew, though I tried to make a point to reach out to people I crossed paths with once and wanted to get to know better. So I counted every substantial conversation for the first time I met with that person in 2023, and I counted them whether we met for coffee, shared lunch or a beverage, had an extended conversation during an event, went for a walk in the park, had a virtual meeting. I counted any conversation where I felt like I came away knowing something about the person that I didn’t know before. They included people I met while in the US and while in Japan, and some I’ve only met virtually, but have included people from numerous countries.

Of the 50 conversations, 32 were with people that were new (new as in, we’d never really had a substantial conversation or talked 1:1 before). I’m proud of that. It’s easy to talk to someone for a few minutes at a networking event, connect on LinkedIn, and then never go beyond that. But what’s the point if you’re not even sure why you might want to stay in touch with them besides that they work in the same field? (On top of that, field being fields for me, and even then, pretty loosely defined in my case.) However, I’m also grateful to everyone who made the time and for the things I learned from each of them and along the way.

What did I learn?

  • People are generally pleasantly surprised when you have a great conversation at an event, exchange contact information or connect on LinkedIn, and then actually follow up to schedule a coffee or virtual chat.
  • It works best to reach out for a chat when based on a real connection, when it’s clear that this is not transactional (i.e., not trying to sell something nor use Meetup or LinkedIn as a dating service), and when you reach out within the next few days after meeting them.
  • In a couple cases, I met people through a mutual acquaintance and this can be another strategy for meeting new people. For example, if you’re interested in meeting people who live in a particular area or who say, share a hobby, ask your existing networks!
  • I felt most awkward reaching out to people whom I’ve known casually (in that we crossed paths once or have a mutual acquaintance, etc.) for some time but whom I don’t actually know well. But most of the time, the other person expressed that they had wanted to get to know me better, too, and they were glad I had reached out.
  • Like exercise, reaching out gets easier over time and with practice and remembering that the point is to get to know people – not to have every person you meet like you.
  • There were people I never heard back from. Maybe they didn’t remember meeting me, or maybe it got lost in a cluttered inbox, or who knows what else is going on in their lives – I didn’t take it personally. If I eventually hear back, I look forward to talking with them!
  • You won’t become long-lasting friends or end up working with or hanging out with everyone, and that’s okay. But even if we haven’t really talked much after that initial chat, I’ve still always learned something. I know more about that person and the things that they’re interested in, and hopefully they know something of me—both of which are always wins in my book. The conversations are interesting and sometimes I get to learn other things as well, such as about a field unfamiliar to me, or practical tips for life in Tokyo. (The latter has been especially useful the past year!)
  • Over time, I’ve gotten better at recognizing a genuine connection in the moment (it often involves a lot of laughter in my case) and where we might both enjoy having a more in-depth or 1:1 conversation.
  • There are few things that bond people as quickly as a common and emotionally intense experience. You know, like moving to a country where you don’t really know anyone and can’t really speak/read the language.
  • We are each of us so much more than a job title, or a family role, or our passports, or the things that happened to us. It’s a reminder I’ve really needed for myself this past year.

Someone I once worked with on a project shared with me that, when he worked in sales, he was trained on always having a brochure or something to physically hand a potential customer so that they would have to extend and open their hand to receive it. In doing so, the potential customer would be opening up their body language and, so the theory went, their mind would follow.

I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is human to want to connect with people. Often, people are interested in connecting or talking further, but they may be nervous about reaching out or simply haven’t had the time to follow-up. But that’s not the same as not being open to it.

If you’d like to get to know more people or get to know people better, reach out first. People are more open than you think. There are many kind, gracious, and generous people in the world. Be kind. Be curious. Be real and people will be real with you.

Thoughts? Done something similar? Have other recommendations for meeting people or getting to know people better? I’m open to hearing from you (and to having a chat)!

Build community to create memorable experiences

Recently, my partner and I went on our first big long vacation since 2019. We went to Italy for two weeks, which was wonderful. Although we did plenty of things on our own, we did sign up for some tours of historic sites, of museums, of a region’s food. Some of the tours were great and some of the tours were…well, they weren’t horrible or anything. They were simply lacking.

What were they lacking?

My partner and I asked each other this, and we both came up with fairly similar answers. The tours and group activities we enjoyed most were the ones where we had the opportunity to build relationships with the other participants – even if only for a couple hours.

Table with a charcuterie board, a dish of olives, a bowl of bread, and a basket of fava beans. No one is sitting at the table yet,
We did a food tour in Florence, and it was not only enjoyable because of the food (sensory touchpoints), or what we learned, or the tour guide, but also because we got to share the experience of trying new food with other people, and we had the chance to share a table and get to know them and hear about their trips as well.

Of course, leave it to a service designer to want to mull on this a little more…

When designing for someone to have a positive experience, you’re often thinking about what the purpose is, what the desired outcome is, what is the person’s job to be done. A big part of this is meeting expectations and understanding what a positive outcome would be for the customer, event attendee, student, whoever is engaging with your product, service, class, tour, whathaveyou. (I get a bit annoyed at the constant talk of delight in the design process. It makes sense if you’re designing something fun, like game or makeup. When I am renewing my driver’s license, what would delight me is to not have to do it at all!)

In service design, a core question is how to create value for everyone involved—the customer and the business to be sure, but also the employees and others involved in or impacted by the service. While it might be focused on the humans using the service and their experience, it’s not sustainable if it burns out your employees nor if it detracts from the organization’s primary goals. (If a person’s goal is to ensure their kids are safe while they go run errands, perhaps that is not great if your organization is say, a museum, and not a childcare provider or otherwise set up to supervise children. And perhaps not great for the kids either.)

Through the framework of service design, we can break a service down into touchpoints (the things a customer is touching, so to speak, whether it’s packaging or an email), interactions between a customer and employee, and all the other layers of what happens (or is needed, infrastructure-wise) behind the scenes that allow us to deliver that service in that way.

Typically, when we think about what will make something a good experience, we think about touchpoints and interactions. Maybe we want our emails to have a friendly tone, or we want to make sure our staff are trained on how to work with disabled customers and provide various accommodations. Maybe we think about the relationships and try to have an assigned account representative for each client or good practices around entering data into a CRM so that any employee can assist any client smoothly with all of their details and history at their fingertips.

But how often, unless our service is explicitly about creating community, do we think about creating community within group experiences? How often do we consider the interactions between our clients, students, participants?

I’ve been a community manager—where my role was specifically to foster community and knowledge exchange among an evolving group of practitioners. (I still do this for fun in my creative pursuits!) But I’ve also used community building in other roles and in shorter terms.

When I was a technical instructor who was training new staff, I always started each training with an icebreaker. I would ask at least one question that was about us as people outside of work, and I usually tried to ask one question that related to the topic. I did this for a few reasons:

  1. Whatever people were doing before they came to the training, meeting, workshop, or other session you’re facilitating, it’s helpful to give people a way to shift their brains into what you’re about to do next.
  2. Most of the training I led was required onboarding, and it was all on using databases, which is a bit of a dry topic to dive directly into for many people. When it’s a topic that sometimes people dread, or that they’re a little worried will be difficult, it’s helpful to ground people in their existing knowledge. For example, during trainings on using the database to manage event attendees, I would ask people to share about an event they enjoyed and what made it a positive experience.
  3. Everyone in my trainings had recently joined the organization. I wanted to provide a low-stakes opportunity for them to practice introducing themselves with their new role and to get to know other new employees across the organization (a rare opportunity in most large organizations, as this was).
  4. I wanted to model what kind of space this was: a space where they could be seen as more than their job title, where they were invited to participate and use their voice from the start, and a space that, in its playfulness, hopefully felt more like a sandbox and less like a classroom.

Certainly, everyone was there to check the box as something they needed to perform their jobs. But I’d like to believe my efforts also helped reduce any anxiety (a thing in data/technology training) so that they could learn, helped new employees feel a little more seen and connected within such a vast organization, and made it easier for people to reach out to me for help in the future (many did). And that’s valuable to the training participants, it’s valuable to the organization, and it was valuable to me, as an instructional designer – to know what other learning needs there were after the training.

At the time, I didn’t think of it as building community. I thought of it as holding and shaping a space, for that time when we were all together, and creating an atmosphere within that space where we would all be primed for what we were about to do together—so that we may get the most value out of it.

The ability to connect as humans with everyone experiencing the same thing I am in the moment always make things a little brighter, and a little deeper. Growing up in NYC, sometimes we would have blackouts in the summer. And the neighbors emerge from their homes, and we’d sit outside together and talk, creating our own light in the dark.

Build community, even if it’s ephemeral.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s for an hour-long workshop, or a three-hour tour, or if the people will ever see each other again. Sure, having one instructor train 20 new employees is more efficient than training everyone 1:1. But it’s not the only reason to do it.

I’d like to call out that, first of all, it’s far less awkward. Isn’t a little silly to act as if everyone is in their own little bubble and can’t see or hear the other participants? Rather than leaving people to navigate the ambiguous social situation by themselves, we could (as facilitators, hosts, tour guides, et al.) create a starting point for intentional connection.

More importantly, creating opportunities for human creation is another way to add value to the experience. It is human to crave connection. If you’ve ever experienced something and suddenly wished that a specific person was there to share it with you – you know that an experience is different when you’ve shared it with someone. The same way that adding a dash of salt deepens the taste of caramel or that sprinkling in some red pepper flakes near the end of cooking intensifies the other flavors in a dish, that connection makes an experience feel fuller, as if you yourself, in opening up to others, have more fully opened up to that experience.

While you may not build a community that outlasts the event, human connections are the foundation. So why is this post about community rather than about connections? Simply trying to connect people to each other ends up being some sort of transactional speed-dating situation that leaves everyone unsatisfied. But if you think about it in terms of building community, and leave it open to each member to contribute what they will, you create something much better together.

The power of actually sharing photos

Even if you haven’t done marketing and communications work, I bet that you’ve felt that magnetic pull of an image – especially on those sites and apps with infinite scroll and where the supply of cute animal photos (and now videos) feels endless.  We’ve all felt the power of an image that compelled us to click to see more, understood stories that told only in photos, and most of us have probably also fretted about what photo to use when sharing certain things on social media.  (Don’t worry, I fretted plenty over what photo to use for a post about the power of sharing photos!)

The St. Mary's River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water
The St. Mary’s River at the tail end of sunset, the sky pastel pink and yellow and purple and reflected in the calm water — I spent many many evenings and nights walking by the St. Mary’s River during college (at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a.k.a. the best St. Mary’s!) because I love, love, loved watching the sunset in the water, the jewel tones at dusk, and the lights that shined across the river at night, and the sound of the water gently lapping. Even just seeing it now brings back lots of fond memories of long walks with friends and the types of conversations it seems that you can only really have late at night.

As a writer, it may not be surprising that when it comes to social media, I mostly use words.  However, I’ve really come to love sharing photos one on one.  With my parents, we often share pictures of what we’re eating and meals we’ve cooked.  My friends share photos of their pets and kids and gardens and bathroom renovations.  I’ll send a friend a picture of something I saw in a store that I know they would have liked or gotten a kick out of.  I’ll send the pet lovers photos of the cat.  One of the sweetest birthday presents I ever received was a video of my niece and nephew singing happy birthday to me, while I was half a world away.

Why does it feel so different than if I had seen the photo on social media, instead of in a message sent directly to me?  Isn’t social media still a way of sharing what’s going on in our lives or what we’re experiencing with friends and family?

Several years ago, I took a course on knowledge management where they had a number of really wonderful guest lecturers (I learned so much! Thanks, Tara and Piers!).  And one day, there were two people from an NGO I have unfortunately forgotten the name of, but they basically did work around storytelling and public health and helping organizations get better at storytelling to get their messages across.  And they had us all do an activity: We were paired up and then told to find a photo on our phone and share it with our partner and tell them about it. 

The magic that lit up that room.  Everyone was abuzz and they had to really get our attention to wrap up the activity.  Although the speakers were showing us the power of photos in terms of storytelling, here’s what I remember.

I remember how a group of us who had just met a couple days ago were now telling a near stranger about our favorite places, about how proud we were of our kids, about life changing trips, about loved ones who maybe were no longer with us.  In the span of a few minutes.

I remember that the room felt warmer.  That I felt looser and more grounded at the same time.  That while we had all been sharing, the space felt alive. 

Because we were building relationships with each other – with the person sitting next to us.  Even if one person was showing the photo and telling the story at a time, it was still a two-way street.  The other person made eye contact, nodded, smiled, made verbal acknowledgements, and/or asked questions.

And that’s the thing that gets missed sometimes in social media.  Don’t get me wrong – there can certainly be a power to sharing our stories and letting people in when we say, post a photo or even a written story on a social media site.  Obviously, I would not write blog posts if I did not believe there was also value in sharing things with a wide audience.  There’s a place for that and it is needed.

But sharing a photo with one person (or even one small group of people) directly is a way to connect, to build relationships, to let people in—to say, “I choose you to share this with.” 

There’s a conversation you can have in that space that you have created with the other person that you can’t have with an audience because you can each be equal participants.  The other person can contribute to the conversation and move it to another place – beyond simply responding to what you had posted or shared (though they can do that, too).  It’s easy for social media posts to get performative without necessarily intending for them to.  But in a conversation with another person, it’s not about metrics.

When I worked in offices, I tried to make a point of acknowledging people when I or they walked in.  Maybe it was a hello or head nod or a slight rap on the top of their cubicle wall as I went by.  Because all of us, we need to feel seen, too.  Feeling seen is different from being seen.

And that’s why conversations will never be replaced by posting and publishing. 

So I say…in this blog post…which I am publishing.  But if you want to talk, or have a photo to share, you can always drop me a line so we can have a conversation.

Finding handholds when you don’t understand the conversation

Here's my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book -- with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions!  (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)
Here’s my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book — with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions! (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)

People are saying things.  They seem to be words.  They seem to be in some type of sentence structure.  But what are they saying?  Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you. 

And it’s too much.  It’s too much.  It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café.  Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?

Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant.  So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.

One of the most challenging things in an unfamiliar language is that you can’t filter.  You hear a combination of sounds and you cannot tell where one word ends and the next begins, let alone which is a noun or a verb or the name of a place.  (This is probably why many people don’t bother reading the standard privacy policy written in legalese.)

My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.

What does this mean in understanding a language?  That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?”  And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.”  Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.

Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:

  • Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins.  (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
  • Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible.  As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields.  However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
  • Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order.  So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question.  Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”!  A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets.  The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick.  So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
  • Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how.  This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English.  However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
  • Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold.  When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language.  Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform.  However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
  • This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know.  A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up.  Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
  • Then build connections back to what you know.  Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future.  For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with.  Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them.  This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.

While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you!  Please share any other tips.

*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you.  That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan).  Otherwise, my job is not done yet!  So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.

What I did on my summer (not a) vacation

Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes
There was considerably less cat-like lounging this summer than one might have hoped for… (Description: Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes)

I have been meaning to write a blog post about giving oneself grace.  It has been one of those lessons I’ve been trying to learn over and over again.  And I’ve been struggling with the post – I started it and then I got kind of stuck, because I’m still in the middle of relearning it.  Not that there is a “done” state for this type of thing – but perhaps because I’m still actively struggling with it, I need to step away for a bit.  I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes you need to set that piece of writing aside for a time and come back to it later.  Like when you’re having an argument with someone and you decide that it would be more productive to give each other some space and revisit the topic when you’re able to have a productive conversation.  And what is struggling with life lessons if not having an internal argument with yourself?

So instead, this is perhaps a bit more of an update than a post.  These past few months, I’ve been busy with moving to Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and our cat.  (And yes, I did add it to my LinkedIn profile because this has been like full-time job, even if I did have some client work in the mix as well!)  Busy selling our house back in Baltimore, finding an apartment, and now getting ready to move and set up a new apartment when we didn’t bring much furniture or any appliances with us!  Then of course, there’s the whole part about moving to a new country where I don’t speak or read the language (at least not beyond an elementary level)—yet. 

Lots of things have been rolling around in my head over the last few months.  That is, in addition to the endless to-do lists, constantly shifting timelines and dependencies, and the myriad dances of who needs and who is supposed to send us which information when…. (Can you tell I’m a project manager?)  But sometimes our greatest insights come from when we’ve brought our experiences and lenses into a wholly new realm—whether that’s a new field, the wild world of international relocation, a new language and culture, or simply learning something new.

Here are few of the topics I’ve been musing on in my head recently:

  • How to know when you’re ready to move on from a role or from an organization or field
  • The power of sharing photos 1:1 (or actually being social)
  • Finding handholds and building bridges when you don’t understand the conversation—and how helpful visual aids can be
  • That I’d probably remember the reading I do for learning better if I wrote about what I’ve read

While I’m not promising anything, if you’d be particularly interested in reading my thoughts on one of those topics, please let me know!

My heart is full of food for thought from 22NTC

Looking at a desk from the point of view of person sitting at it: There is a laptop positioned below an external monitor; both have things on the screen.  There is a mic to the left and some printed papers between photographer and laptop.  There is another large monitor to the right, off.  And a tabby cat is standing to the right looking towards the left.
This year I volunteered backstage (assisted by my cat, Amelia) in addition to presenting.

Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.

These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!).  So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.

Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.

We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.

There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome.  This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally. 

Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it?  Sure.  However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them.  These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly.  And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.  

In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language.  The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language.  (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.

“Normal is a scam.”

– Alice Wong

The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name).  There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam. 

I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself.  To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us.  Who gains from that? 

What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are?  I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:

There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.

One of the things I really appreciate about the NTEN community and the Nonprofit Technology is that we a.) keep it real, and b.) thinking critically about technology and the role it plays in creating a more equitable world.

Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice.  So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:

Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive.  But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient.  However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.

And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:

Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t.  Are we learning about the struggles of others?  How will they know they are safe with us?  This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.

Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:

They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first.  Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly.  Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?

Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.

One really powerful story we often tell is about failure.  Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures?  Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things?  Is it a pathway to confidence?

(One of these days they’ll allow you to edit tweets, but “earning” is a typo that was supposed to be “learning.”)

There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:

Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible.  Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?

Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay.  (Judging again!)  People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable.  (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse.  There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)

Who gets to see themselves and be seen?  Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?

And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.

And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.

Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift.  (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)

An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.

That’s me paraphrasing something said by Saeed Jones in the closing keynote conversation with Amy Sample Ward.  There were a lot of gems and I finally managed to gather myself enough to draw sketchnotes for this one! 

On that note, I’ll let these roll around my brain some more, but drop a line if any of these gems resonated with you as well.

Meetings are better with collaborative notes

It now feels like ages ago when someone at an organization I was volunteering with introduced me to collaborative notes: an openly shared Google Document that could be edited by any of us at the meeting and accessed by us all afterwards.

It was a revelation.

Now, I had always been a huge proponent of taking notes—I even once had a job where part of my role was taking board meeting minutes.  I had also been an advocate for sharing those notes with everyone who was at the meeting. 

But.

Collaborative notes are next level.

Let me tell you why.

Meeting notes, when done well, serve as documentation of what was discussed, decisions made, and who is responsible for which follow-up items.

To be fair, not all meeting notes are created equally, but they should all contain some key information: when the meeting occurred, who participated, what was discussed, decisions that were made, and any action items that resulted (hopefully also with who is responsible for completing them and by when).

When you have documented this key information in the meeting notes, then meeting notes can serve a few key functions.

Meeting notes can serve as a decision log, documenting decisions that were made, alongside with notes about the discussion leading to them, or why those decisions were made.  This makes it easier to go back and look, when circumstances change, to see whether a decision should be adjusted.  Listing the participants also allows you to see who was or was not part of making that decision.

Meeting notes can also act as a way to track who said they would do what, so that you can follow up with the appropriate person after the meeting.  Even for things I’ve signed up to do, action items in meeting notes serve as a reminder that I can then check off (I do like to check things off!).  In turn, my checking things off can tell anyone else looking at the meeting notes that this task has been completed.

And of course, meeting notes can serve as a bit of a historical record for a team, a program, or a project.  How are we progressing?  What changed along the way?  Perhaps, what did we learn?

Shared meeting notes give everyone access to one central source of key information from the meeting.

In general, it’s a good practice to share meeting notes because so that people who were not there (or who joined late or had to leave early) can access at least some of the key information from that meeting.  It’s also good because no one remembers everything anyway.  Even if people take their own notes, then there is a different set of notes per every participant and without shared meeting notes, there is no one source of truth about what was discussed, what was decided, or who needs to do what afterwards. 

And this is critical: Shared meeting notes help create shared meaning. 

Imagine what happens when one person writes down that Keisha from marketing will share the microsite mockups by the end of the week, and another person writes down that Marketing will share the website mockups by Monday. 

Disputes can abound when everybody has their own version of what happened at the meeting.  But having a central source of shared meeting notes means that there is one version to dispute rather than 8 conflicting ones. 

Collaborative notes, when everyone in the meeting contributes to them, give participants more agency in shaping the meaning of the meeting.

Speaking of shared meaning, creating the record of what happened during the meeting together also gives participants more agency in shaping this meaning—not only during the meeting, but what gets documented afterwards.  People are usually more engaged when they both have more agency and can see how their inputs make a difference.  People will have their own interpretations and their own ways to make sense of what happened regardless—better that all those different interpretations come together in meeting notes visible to everyone so that everyone can get on the same page.

There can be power in who gets to write the meeting notes and thus synthesize and determine the meaning of what occurred during the meeting.  On the flipside, it is also easy to dismiss the official notes when you think they’ve missed a lot or misunderstood a lot of what was said.

And collaborative meeting notes that everyone can see in real time allow for people to clarify and correct things during the meeting.

When people co-create the notes during the meeting—as opposed to adding their individual notes to a shared document afterwards (which, let’s be real, will likely be mainly the notes of whoever cares the most)—this gives others in the meeting the opportunity to clarify and correct things that may have been noted incorrectly or that are unclear.  Yes, sharing out meeting notes after the meeting still allows for this but sometimes people don’t, or they do raise it, but it gets lost in the email inbox swamp.  Being able to see and respond and raise the question during the meeting, while everyone is still there, means it’s more likely to be resolved and resolved more quickly than the devolving reply-all email chain.  Who needs that endless back and forth when everybody has already checked out of the meeting?

Simply put, collaborative meeting notes are more efficient and they help you facilitate more engaging and effective meetings.  Make your meeting notes collaborative by default.

Hiring in a Candidate’s Job Market

The last couple months, I have been thinking about a conversation years ago with a colleague who was hiring for a role and was trying to decide between two candidates: Candidate 1, who had basically done the job somewhere else, and Candidate 2, who was coming from a different field but had the requisite skills if not the domain-specific knowledge. 

My colleague really wanted to hire the career-switcher, feeling like this person might bring a new perspective.  On the other hand, the department (of four people) was getting ready for a key staff member to go on maternity leave and it was worthwhile to have someone who could hit the ground running and require less training.  This is a valid consideration.  My colleague also shared with me their fear that, since this role would be their first hire, they would be scrutinized and that it would be riskier to hire the candidate from a different field.  So, my colleague hired the experienced candidate.  (Which also meant the department remained…well, you could use the same general physical description for every single member of the team.)

The candidate who was hired left 18 months later for a more senior role at another organization.  At the time, my colleague was still in the department – meaning there was no room for the experienced person to move up.  And so, they had to hire all over again.

It’s an old and common story.  It is far from the first time I’ve had a hiring manager share with me this same decision-making scenario.

Why do we keep doing this?  I mean, I get why.  And true, not everyone is looking to move up.  But many people do want the ability to grow in some way—and to have that recognized.  Hiring only someone who has done the job before is an extremely shortsighted view. 

In this current Wild West of a job market, companies are offering signing bonuses for senior level positions that are typically not in fields where signing bonuses are the norm.  I wonder if these same companies are willing to sponsor H1-B visas.  (The cost of sponsoring an H1-B visa is considerably less than the last signing bonus that was mentioned to me.). I have asked one company (where a friend works) who has been in dire need of people, whether they’d be open to people who are less experienced—recent graduates or career switchers—given that they’ve been trying to fill some roles for nearly a year now.  They were not.

Meanwhile, I know and have known a number of people who have been seeking and struggling to obtain full-time positions that they could certainly do well, even if their resume is a bit winding and storied and full of a wide breadth of experience rather than some sort of neatly packaged ascent of linearity.  (I have been one of those people.) We’re talking about people who have been looking for full-time jobs for a year, two years. 

How is it serving your organization to be running your people ragged and chasing after senior level people who—at some point—are going to run out if you never develop the pipeline?  If you never take a chance on anyone?  And if you only take chances on people whom you can see yourself in?

Not to mention the costs of attrition.  Does it really save your organization that much to hire someone who can “hit the ground running” if you’re going to have to repeat the hiring process every 18-24 months?* 

Forget about the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and onboarding.  How disruptive is it to your teams every time someone leaves? 

For the roles that are business critical, what does your pipeline look like?  Who will you need in 5 years?  And what are you doing in your current recruiting, hiring, professional development, and promotion practices to ensure you’ll be able to have the organizational capacity to take advantage of all the opportunities you’re working so hard to create?

*I did not look that up at all—just what it seems to be from my personal experiences watching and cleaning up after employee turnover.