This year has been full of change for me both professionally and personally.

My birthday is coming up this weekend (11/26, I’m a Sagittarius…the kind who likes to travel and redecorate my house). Birthdays are my time to set goals for the year. I look back with gratitude for ups-and-downs in 2016: the happiness, disappointments, and challenges.

And even though this is not a milestone birthday year for me (I mean, really, how many times do I have to turn 39 before I just stay 39?!), 2016 has been a milestone year.

I left my job!

I was with BayGroup for 18 years and then the company that acquired us for another 3. Yeah, you read that right…a whopping 21 years of my life (did I just discredit my claim to turning 39?).

Most of you have said to me at one time or another, “Melissa, how can you have stayed at one company for so many years?!” To which I always said, “My work is so interesting! What could I do that would be cooler and more perfectly suited to my likes and talents than this?!”

Well, my friends, I may finally have the answer to that question. Which I’ll share with you, I promise!

I’m working on some really cool stuff right now that many of you have encouraged me to pursue. And I want to share some very personal stuff about my journey because I think you’ll benefit from it.

I’m a little nervous about this because sharing is scary. Like “I hope you’ll still love me” kinda scary. But you’re my friends, and to quote my buddy Lisa Cummings, I think you’re the kind of friends who will tell me if I have spinach in my teeth.

There will be some intrigue, some drama, confusion (that I am still figuring out!) and insights that you can use to help you get better at living, learning and loving.

One thing that has become clear for me as I look back over this last year is that authentic connection with friends and colleagues really matter to me. These connections (with you guys!) fuel my fire, so to speak.

When I’ve had the privilege to talk to many of you about your own journeys, I feel excited when I get to share an idea with you that shifts the way you think about something, that makes your life better.

Every authentic connection comes from our conversations. That’s why conversations matter.

I’m going to share some powerful lessons about what works when you’re communicating with your loved ones and your peers. I hope you’ll learn something you can use right away from one of my “try this” ideas to help you live, learn and love better.

But first, a little back-story, to remind you…

I started at BayGroup International (BGI) in 1995. It was almost exactly (to the day) my 1-year wedding anniversary. Yes, that means that Alan and I celebrated our 22nd anniversary this past summer.

How could I have spent the bulk of my career at one company (and married to the same awesome guy)?

BGI was a training company that taught people to negotiate. Teaching people to negotiate was endlessly interesting. I got hooked because I learned how to talk differently to everyone in my life.

As I learned to use these communication tools, I saw the positive results.

I learned how to ask for what I need. To be clear and concise. To make my expectations known. To never assume what personal needs are motivating the other person.

Lesson number one: try this!

Let me give you an example. Early in our marriage, I asked Alan to vacuum the house. He said, “Sure” as any partner would (because it wasn’t my job alone to clean the house! It was our job.) But a day went by and he didn’t do it. I stewed. I fumed inside. Why wasn’t he vacuuming like I asked him to? Why did I have to ask? Why didn’t he just do it, as I would have? Grrrrrr. Tension was mounting, but only inside me. He was clueless.

What should I do?

I learned some powerful things in my negotiation training, but this one, I think, is the one that has kept our communication really on track: be clear about your expectations.

What had I missed when I asked him to vacuum?

When I asked the next day, “Hey honey, I thought you were going to vacuum?” He said, “Oh yeah, I will.” Ok…and when were you planning to do that? See the missing part in my communication? If I had a timeframe in mind, like NOW or TODAY, I need to make that clear. So “Honey, would you please vacuum?” wasn’t clear enough. I needed to say, “Honey, would you please vacuum today, sometime before you come to bed?” Now that he understood. I wasn’t micromanaging him, but I added enough detail to be sure that my needs were clear.

On the surface this seems like such a small thing, but it was huge for me. It made me see how negotiation skills are part of the way we communicate every single day, with every person in our lives. And I am totally convinced that the skills I learned (and constantly discussed with Alan) are what has made our marriage strong.

Lesson number two: try this!

Here’s another example, a simple but powerful communication tool that made my work schedule manageable.

At my job, sales people would call me all day long asking me to create things for them or their clients: a document, an email, a presentation. They would ask, “Melissa, can you get this to me by the end of the day?” And now I need to make a choice, do I say, “Yeah, sure” after which I kinda freak out because I already have a bunch of stuff due today?

No, I don’t, because I learned this through my negotiation skills training: ask questions and never assume.

I found that sales people often make up deadlines. The deadline was sometimes related to when they promised to get back to a client, but the two were not necessarily connected. I learned to ask a question, “Do you really need this today…what’s driving the need for this today?” or “When do you need to get back to the client?” I wanted to find out the real deadline behind the request so I could help them but still keep a manageable grip on my to-do list.

Often they would say “Next week” but they asked for it today because they didn’t want to have to remember to follow up with me next week. I found that if I promised to put a due date on my calendar and to get them what they needed by that day, they agreed. Sigh of relief! Now I could schedule that due date and get the project done without killing myself to meet a made up deadline.

My work life balance, my communication with my husband (and later my son) was continuously improving as I learned and used these skills every day.

Why would I leave a company that provided me with this endless stream of learning? Especially with the benefits of not having to commute, working with smart people I liked, and getting free snacks and Peet’s coffee!

The halcyon memories of those years! (I’ll admit that I looked up the definition of “halcyon”. It’s one of those words that I love but cant ever remember exactly what it means…which is “untroubled” or “calm” in case you were wondering.)

You may be wondering what all this is leading up to, it’s all so happy and peaceful…where’s the drama?

2013: The year the DRAMA started

You’ve read this (and probably lived!) this kind of drama before. My employer was acquired.

We tried to play along, be good team players. But a good chunk of people lost their jobs. I was told, “It’s just business.” I had survivor’s guilt.

And everything changed. I changed. By the end of this 3-year phase of my life, I didn’t recognize myself. (How’s that for drama?!) I went from being a secure, outspoken leader to a quiet follow-the-rules employee.

You’re my friends, so I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh, please, Melissa, you’re exaggerating!” But I promise you, it’s true.

I stayed for 3 years:

  • Year one: Stayed in same role. Acted the same on the outside but was suffering from PTSD on the inside. Admitted nothing, kept my head down. Drank a lot of alcohol with my new coworkers.
  • Year two: promoted to VP. Acted as Vice-Presidentially as I could muster. Continued to drink a lot of alcohol with my new coworkers.
  • Year three: Moved to a new role, was completely lost without a compass. Acted like a quiet kindergartner who didn’t understand the rules of the classroom. Stopped drinking alcohol with my coworkers.

You’re probably thinking years 1 and 2 were same-old-same-old (except for the drinking too much, which is another story that I’ll tell you later!)…tell me about YEAR THREE!

Year three is where all that drama happened and here come the personal revelations that I promised you. I hope it was worth the wait!

I was CLUELESS about what was happening, to me and around me.

For someone who had spent my life learning about negotiation and communication, I had always been a vehement denier of anything self-help-ish. We humans are full of conflicting dichotomies like that…like I love to dress in costumes but I can’t do it on Halloween when I’m supposed to do it. I just can’t.

My experience at that company made me look inside myself and what I saw was a little scary.

I didn’t do the self-reflection/self-help part alone. I talked to a lot of friends, mostly my women friends and my honey Alan, to unravel this drama. I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and was transformed by her TEDtalks on shame and vulnerability. I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. It was these and other women writing about bravery that got me thinking about why conversations matter.

Then I started reading about women and the struggles we have with conversations at work. I read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big. I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Then I attended a workshop with Will Marre who opened my eyes to the strengths women bring to our work and the world at large.

I was self-helping, big time.

I made some big mistakes

Most of the mistakes I made came from two places: fear and shame. I was afraid of losing my job and I was so ashamed that I was so afraid of losing my job that I got quiet and stopped contributing.

We all have conversations that trigger us emotionally and we typically respond with:

  • FIGHT: we get angry and say things we regret, or
  • FLIGHT: we get quiet and stop contributing at all.

Sometimes we get passive aggressive or use other unbecoming behaviors. As you and I walk this path of learning together, I’ll give you some alternatives to these behaviors (in another email later).

So, I responded with FLIGHT because I got quiet and when I stopped contributing, I stopped being valuable at work.

For example, I remember being in a meeting with my peers when we were planning for the next year. I was in the division where sales were plummeting and morale was very low. The few people who remained after the acquisition were leaving. I understood why our sales were plummeting. But the reasons why were very unpopular. They cut to the heart of the culture differences between the old and new companies. They involved egos and beliefs and values.

When I brought up these problems, I was called “too negative.” I was in the only segment that was losing market share, so no one else was experiencing what I was. I did not want to be known as “the negative one” who was dragging down morale. Someone on another team was fired for being “too negative.” So I stopped talking about it. I got quiet.

Did that fix the sales plummeting problem? No, of course not. But I wasn’t seen as the negative one anymore. And I still feel bad about that because if I had held my ground, I could have helped change that dynamic.

But I was afraid.

Afraid of this new management team, for whom hard work and loyalty seemed to be only the price of admission. Afraid of this new corporate culture, which was all “rah rah” with no authentic connection to one another or our customers. Afraid that I would be the next one on the chopping block.

 

My transformation…

I’d love to tell you that I realized how unhappy I was being afraid all the time. That would make me seem so much more self-reflective and insightful than I actually was.

What happened? For the first time in my career, I got a negative performance review. All the things I was criticized for boiled down to one thing: I was too afraid to speak up. I almost feel as if I manifested this turn of events by being so fearful. When I was faced with the certainty that my job was on the line, even then I didn’t stand up. I backed down, saying “I’m just not the right person for this job.” In hindsight that was completely ridiculous!

I’ll share more about my mistakes and the mistakes I’ve heard from many of you guys over the next few months, if you choose to join me.

I’ll share some skills that will help you be brave in your conversations.

Brave in ways that I didn’t understand until I had the time and space to self-reflect.

What’s next?

It’s been nine months since I left my job and I feel like I’m about to give birth! Nine months of thinking, talking to you guys, and exploring what to do next.

I’ll be sharing…

  • Ideas to make your conversations better at work and at home.
  • Action steps to take control of your emotional triggers.
  • Behaviors to help you show up and be heard in a way that makes you feel calm, confident and compelling, especially in tough conversations at work.

I’ll be using my 23 years of teaching communication skills to create courses and community for women. Not a woman? You can still join our tribe, these conversations will be powerful for you, too. And please send this on to the women in your life who will benefit from our community.

Because conversations matter. They matter in how we live, learn and love.

When conversations go well, we feel fulfilled. When they go wrong, we feel defeated. One bad conversation can drag down our entire day if we let it.

Live it, learn it and love it! Share this to make our tribe thrive!