The text message arrived on Saturday. I read it standing in the middle of a furniture store. It said, “Laura left us today. I’ll call in a day or so when I can put a coherent sentence together. Love, Ed.”
Ed is Laura’s husband. I later found out he texted me just 63 minutes after Laura took her last breath, surrounded by people she loved and who loved her. The text was a Herculean effort and Ed knew I would understand better than anyone that he couldn’t call. He and Laura supported me when my beloved Bill died of the same pancreatic cancer that claimed Laura. In fact, we all met in the waiting room at UCSF the day Bill and Laura underwent the CT-Scans that would confirm this awful diagnosis.
Shopping alone, I cried out loud,, “Oh, no!” in such distress that another shopper, a kind woman asked, “Are you okay?” I told this stranger, with tears in my eyes, “A dear friend of mine died.” She murmured her condolences as I tried to catch my breath.
Laura was a teacher by profession and also by nature. During the four and a half years she spent living with cancer she taught everyone who knew her how to live and love to the fullest. Indeed, her last FaceBook posting was less than 66 hours before she transitioned and she wrote, “I’m not running these days. I cut up some of my race tshirts to make this quilt. Reminds me to be strong and stay in the race! This post is why the text took me by surprise. I knew she was dying; I just didn’t think it was imminent. (Nor did she, I suspect.)
I am writing this to you because so many of you have followed Laura’s journey with me. A few years ago, some of you donated money to help her get the treatment that would ultimately prolong her life. It worked, my friends! Because of your kindness and generosity, Laura got to do so much more than anyone anticipated.
Laura was the very best sort of Influencer. She led by example. She set goals and then stayed focused on them. Her initial goal, when she received her diagnosis, was to live long enough to see her daughter Lily married to Joe. She not only accomplished that, she was there to help with and celebrate the birth of her daughter’s son Grayson a year later. In the Summer of 2013, Laura and Ed danced at their son Turner’s wedding to Celia and the following year, got to meet their second grandchild, Turner’s son JeTeo.
Laura used the Law of Attraction brilliantly. She never allowed doctors to tell her how long she had to live. She didn’t want that in her head. She was focused on life and that’s what she lived, all the while doing what she could to stop, or at the very least, slow down the cancer that would ultimately claim her.
Pancreatic cancer is a debilitating disease and yet, I saw a photo, posted by one of Laura’s many friends, of Laura, just days before her departure, dancing exuberantly. She was flashing that famous smile, the smile that proclaimed, “Isn’t life AMAZING?
More than anything, Laura taught us all the power of NOW! There’s a famous quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that sums up Laura’s attitude beautifully:
If you are depressed, you are living in the past,
If you are anxious, you are living in the future,
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
Laura was at peace when she left and I know she’s at peace now. But do not think “at peace” means she is resting. She is out there, dancing with my Bill and leading others in a Conga Line. If I know Laura, ever the teacher, she has already taught her Higher Power a few new dance moves. She lived with enthusiasm and I’m certain she is still doing so, unencumbered by the body that slowed her down.
See you later, dear friend.
Whether trying to be a leader or simply a friend, offering unsolicited advice rarely works. When we try, it falls on deaf ears. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that it triggers anger or resentment from the recipient of our brilliant solutions.
So what do you do if you want to help?
This is where the act of asking clarifying questions comes in.
When you ask clarifying questions, you are giving the other person an opportunity to think things through, perhaps uncovering an idea that hadn’t previously occurred to him. This is something at which good coaches excel.
Let’s face it, when faced with a stressful dilemma, we don’t always do our best thinking.
So what kinds of questions do you ask? To answer that very good question, let’s return to what we all learned in English class about writing good stories.
English 101: Remember the “four W’s and an H”?
WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY & HOW
These five words are all excellent beginnings for questions because they cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” Answering them requires some consideration.
Let’s say a co-worker comes to you really upset because the boss gave her negative feedback about a project. You truly want to lend support and your natural inclination is to give her reassuring advice like, “This is only one project; don’t take it so hard,” or “Consider the source; the boss is always negative.” Neither of these statements really helps your colleague to work through the issue.
Instead, you might ask questions like:
The important thing to remember is NOT to try and cleverly hide your advice within a question. Suggesting a solution by asking, “Who do you think could put in a good word for you?” is just your sly way of giving your opinion. Curb your urge to do this. (It’s SO hard!) First of all, it might not be the greatest suggestion (what?!?!?) and secondly, it may fall on deaf ears. Finally, if she does take your suggestion and it makes things worse, who do you think she’s going to blame?
You’re trying to support, not do it for the other person. The best way to do that is to help them explore for themselves what the best course of action might be. This is Leadership 101 and an excellent way to practice your leadership skills.
I am eager to hear your experiences with this. Where have you given advice that helped, and when did it backfire? Have you used clarifying questions, and how has that worked?
Earlier this week I caught myself giving unsolicited advice to my friend Tracy. She outlined a situation she was facing. Wanting to be the helpful friend, I “generously” gave her some ideas describing exactly what I thought she should do. Tracy didn’t ask me for my input and I didn’t ask if she wanted it. I simply launched into problem-solving mode. Sound familiar?
It didn’t appear to bother Tracy (or maybe I would have stopped—and that’s a big maybe) but, when I thought of it later, my actions bothered the heck out of me!
I truly believe what my mentor, Esther Hicks, teaches, “An answer to a question no one asked is a wasted answer.” Those of our friends who are polite simply act interested and continue to do whatever they want. Our annoyed friends hear in their heads, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” endure our advice, roll their eyes when they walk away, and then do whatever they want. Either way, our good ideas fell on deaf ears.
And yet there I was, once again–NOT practicing what I preach!
Giving unsolicited advice or input has become such a part of our culture. Many of you have confessed to me an underlying fear that you might run out of things to talk about without it. Like the eager student who is thrilled when they know the answer, we want to be the one called on by the teacher. Except, when I gave Tracy the answer, I hadn’t been called on; I was that annoying “know it all” who blurts it out without being chosen.
The following is an exercise I use in some of my workshops that illustrates this beautifully.
The assignment is:
Pick a partner. Designate Person A and Person B.
Person A, you’re going to tell Person B a problem you’re having. Real or invented, it must be at least a little “juicy.” A chronic hangnail, for example, is too minor, although we all know people who could make even that a two-hour problem-solving fest. Make it a problem another person would understand and want to weigh in on; a problem they would know they could solve.
B’s, your job is to hear A’s problem, ask open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”) and then truly listen. You are not allowed to try and solve A’s problem. You are not to offer potential solutions. And don’t try to give “hidden” answers in your question: “Have you tried _________?” (We think we’re very clever, don’t we?)
Every time I use this exercise, I am told, during the debriefing, how difficult it was not to solve the problem for the other person. This is true whether I am working with hourly personnel or executives. Many who pride themselves on having exceptional leadership skills actually have good command skills. They are not the same thing.
Men and women have difficulty with it for different reasons but the end result is the same. Men seem to be hard-wired to launch into “fix” mode whenever they hear a problem. It would be unusual for one man to say to another, for example, “I want to tell you a problem I’m having and I don’t want your advice; I just want you to listen.” The knee-jerk response of the recipient of this would be, “Then why even tell me?”
On the other hand, we women have been raised with mothers and other female authority figures who modeled for us a role of being helpful, the female version of “fix it.” We assume we are supposed to help friends solve problems.
Start paying attention to how often you answer questions no one asked, how quickly you dive into “fix it” mode. For most of us, the intention is good—to help—but think about how much you enjoy having someone help you in this way when you didn’t ask!
Next week, if you want my advice (tongue in cheek), I’ll describe what you may want to do instead of giving advice.
I am with Bill on a business trip to Southern California, spending the day working in the hotel while he attends a Board meeting. I didn’t want to be in the room all day so I’m sitting in the coffee shop working away (bonus: tea on demand!)
Anyhow, I am in search of the ladies room when I encounter a small group of people standing at the hostess stand waiting to be seated. The hostess is nowhere in sight. I overhear one say, “We’ll just seat ourselves.” I hesitate for a second and very nearly turn around to go in search of the hostess. Then I have to stop myself from offering them my advice on what they should do.
What is that? Why do I think I have to fix any problem I encounter, even when it has nothing to do with me?
Do you suffer from this? Could it be one of the reasons we are desperate to find ways to take better care of ourselves? It’s one thing to give of yourself to people you love or you’re paid to care for but if you think the whole world is your responsibility, life becomes exhausting.
A key to Passionate Self Care is (said gently) mind your own business. I want this to be a gentle admonition because I KNOW that you don’t do it to be a busy body or what we used to, as kids, call a “buttinski.” You likely do it because you are so service-oriented that you want to serve the world. But, when I examine my own motives, I notice that there’s a good deal of ego in there. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that secretly believes I know best and that, if everyone just followed my good advice their lives would work much better.
Sometimes, when I indulge my buttinski people seem stunned, as well they should.
This happens when they don’t even know me and I suddenly insert myself into their lives by offering some unsolicited solution. The most useful pearl of wisdom I ever heard about this came from my friend Esther Hicks who says, “An answer to a question no one asked is a wasted answer.” It’s wasted because whomever you’re advising is not listening. Mostly they wish you’d just stop talking and let them get back to solving their own problem.
Imagine; just imagine how much extra time you’d have to take care of yourself if you simply minded your own business. And I don’t mean only with strangers. If you’re like me, you’re spending way too much time solving the problems of your mate, your children, and your second cousin’s stepson’s daughter. We have a tendency to think we should insert ourselves into our family’s problems but take it from me they don’t like it any more than strangers do. They only put up with it because it’s easier than fighting. They say, “OK,” or “Yes, dear,” hoping you’ll just stop.
You might protest, “But what if they do it wrong?” They will! So what? I’m guessing that the most powerful lessons you’ve ever learned came from painful mistakes. Why deprive them of this same learning?
If that’s not enough to inspire you to MYOB let me add one last insight. I try REALLY hard not to answer the question when my kids ask, “What should I do?” Because if they follow my advice and it doesn’t work, who do you think they’ll blame? Instead I try to remember to say, “You’ll figure it out, honey.” I’m there to help if they fall but preventing the fall? Once they’re past childhood, that’s not my job.
MYOB—try it. Your friends and family will send prayers of thanks to the heavens and you’ll have more time for you.
When I was 17, my best friend died in a car crash. I thought the world would stop. At the very least, I thought it would pause. The day after Adele was taken off life support, I was astonished that the businesses in our small town of Rockland, Mass. were open. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they care? I wanted to shout at passersby walking nonchalantly down the sidewalks, “Adele is dead! How can you act so normal?!?” I would overhear people talking about everyday events and the buzzing in my head grew louder and louder. The buzzing was the sound of my suppressed screams.
The death of a loved one is undoubtedly the worst change we are asked to endure. Death is a constant reminder that life is inherently unfair.
I am remembering Adele more than usual because on Saturday the Rockland High School class of ’71 gathered for our 40th reunion. I wasn’t there but the buzz about it on FaceBook has sent me down memory lane. Anyone’s High School years are generally remembered with mixed feelings. This is a time of angst when one struggles with self-image, socialization, sex, love, “fitting in,” separating from parents and testing the limits, ungracefully.
The desire to get out into the world is combined with the fear of letting go. Some leave and never look back. Others will consider High School the best years of their lives. Not so with us. Our senior year was a terrible year of mourning for the 200+ members of my class and the entire school. Everyone from the principal to the janitor grieved. Each day, as we walked the hallways to change classes, we passed her memorial. In bold letters it read – Class of 1971-In Memory of Adele.
We were kids who had grown up with death hanging over our heads starting with “duck and cover” rehearsals in elementary school.We all knew someone who had a bomb shelter for the inevitable nuclear attack. Our Dads were WWII vets who came back with unidentified Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mine would drink too many beers on a Friday night and cry at the kitchen table, shaking his head saying, “You can’t imagine what it was like.”
We continually brushed up against death, watching the Vietnam War waged on television. Some had brothers or cousins who went and never came back. We were the ones who held our breaths hoping it would be over before any of our friends were drafted.
In May of 1970, the year before we graduated, we watched with horror the TV coverage of the massacre at Kent State when the Ohio State Guard opened fire on unarmed college students who were protesting the invasion of Cambodia. When the smoke cleared, four young people were dead and nine others wounded.
Two months later, Adele, so deeply impacted by that event, would be gone herself.
Wherever we looked, past, present or future, what we saw was death. When Adele’s passing brought it into our laps it was like the lid blew off what we had been holding back since first grade. Mourning her gave us permission to mourn our lost childhoods, our innocence and what had been promised to us by our country’s founders: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We were convinced by then that it was all a lie and we graduated hard and cynical, atrophied in grief.
Her death shaped us as none of those other events had. Instead of mourning the fact that we might lose touch after graduation, most of us couldn’t get away fast enough. It was too painful to hang around; we wanted to distance ourselves. Friends I’d known since first grade became shadowy memories as I drank to forget and then drank to remember and finally just drank.
These 40 years later those painful memories actually give me hope. They are proof-positive that even terrible changes can be endured and that ultimately, one can recover enough to have a beautiful life.
This morning, as I gazed at the sun rising over the beautiful waters of Hawaii I realized that instead of staying mad that “life goes on,” today I am grateful that it did. And I’m so happy that I got to know and love Adele. Instead of remembering the pain, what I focus on now is a precious memory that was the essence of our friendship:
It is an August day of our sophomore year. Summer is coming to an end. The weather is perfect and the ocean is warm as bath water. The “gang” is spending the day on White Horse Beach, laughing, playing, flirting and loving each other with the pure enthusiasm of youth.
Our parents are due to pick us up in an hour and Adele and I are walking down the beach, huddled under the same towel and talking about profoundly important matters. I feel a surge of pure joy in the moment and realize just how much I love her.
Do I still miss her? Yes. But every once in a while I turn on the radio and hear Bridge over Troubled Waters (“our” song), and I know she orchestrated the timing to remind me that I can dance with her whenever I want. There is, however, a catch: I can only feel her presence in moments of happiness. I think it’s because she’s in such a happy place now that she’s no longer willing to be around sadness, even for me.
One day I will join her. And that thought makes me happy.