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.

Collaborating effectively on globally distributed teams

As someone who currently has a majority of her meetings between 5 and 10 a.m. due to time zone differences, and whose partner often starts his evening meetings around my (albeit early) bedtime, I am familiar with the challenges of working across time zones and working with people around the globe.

Long, curving suspension bridge across a body of water, as seen from the pedestrian walkway of that bridge

That being said, years before remote work became a familiar concept (though it existed, it was simply called telework), I’ve worked with people with whom I was not collocated (i.e., we were not working in the same place). I’ve completed projects, sometimes over phone and email only, with people I have yet to meet in person. And let’s be real – many people have had this experience as well. In certain jobs, you’re rarely in the office with your colleagues because you’re constantly on the road. In large companies, you may frequently coordinate with colleagues working in different locations—they’re on site and you’re on site, but you’re not at the same site. My best friend from high school once organized a whole party for me while being out of state and not even actually able to attend! (Thanks, Jess! And Jeremy, for coordinating in-state!)

Here are my top strategies for collaborating effectively (distributed or collocated):

  1. Name your assumptions so you can stop making them. Or at least see if they’re true.
  2. Be intentional and transparent in your communication and planning so as to avoid the confusion of incorrect assumptions (your own and other people’s).

There’s a whole other post that I could write about assumptions and how they trip us up when we are trying to work together. However, for now, I’ll focus on working across time zones and across organizations and across countries. (I’ll admit to not having much experience with working across different global cultures, specifically, since some fields, like scientific research, tend to have a strong culture of their own. And be rather…English language dominant.)

Many of the same things that work well for collaborating effectively across organizational boundaries (companies, departments, disciplines) are also helpful for collaborating effectively across time zones and geographic boundaries. (Well, hopefully someone else is paying attention to any differing regulations, tax requirements, and all that fun stuff.)

In fact, these practices are beneficial for collaborating effectively no matter whom you’re working with and in what context. If there’s a conflict because you expected someone to reply quickly to an email and they didn’t because it wasn’t within their working hours… Then ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you emailed them when it was after hours in their time zone, a holiday in their country (but not yours), a holiday in their religion (but not yours), their day off, or simply because there was no agreed upon response time and they were in the middle of working on a different priority. You can’t be mad at your colleague when you made assumptions (same working hours, same holiday schedule, that your project is more important than the other projects they were working on). Of course, you could just assume that they are ignoring you or not doing their job – but neither of those choices is particularly constructive.

Teams that I’ve been on where there is effective collaboration have the following:

  • A clear vision for what we are all working towards and a clear definition of success
  • Role clarity for everyone within the team and also for external parties (e.g., clients, other teams within the organization) who will interact with the team
  • Explicit (often written) agreements about how we will work together (governance or how decisions get made and who makes them, communications and response times, working and non-working hours, workflows, etc.)
  • Practices and systems that align with and support those agreements, whether it’s a project management tool, processes for information sharing and knowledge management, or the way you structure team meetings
  • Recognition of power dynamics* and structures or practices to mitigate these (e.g., not always favoring one time zone over another for meetings, acknowledging that the working language may not be everyone’s first language and that this takes a cognitive toll, awareness of the general tendency for the US teams to have more power when partnering with non-US teams or the headquarters over satellite offices, etc.)

*Depending on the context of your work and whom you’re working with, there are of course all sorts of other power dynamics to consider, but these are examples specific to working across time zones and across different countries.

Perhaps in the future I’ll get the chance to have more experience with working cross-culturally, since I’m not sure yet how that compares to living or traveling among other cultures. But in the meantime, if you’d like to share what has worked well for you in these situations, I’d be interested to learn from your experiences!

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.