It’s that time again, folks: ‘tis the season to be jolly, deck the halls, and sing the 12 days. And while it has become fashionable of late to deride the cheesiness of many Christmas traditions and bemoan its commercialisation, I have to say I love this time of year. Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or the winter solstice, I have always found this to be the perfect time to wonder, reflect, and get in touch with my values. One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to honour the value of gift-giving.
I actually gift shop all year round. I am always on the lookout for special items that are exactly what a friend once said they really wanted or needed, or spot-on gifts that hit all the right buttons for my kids – like the glittery (tick) unicorn (tick) sewing kit (tick) Santa will be bringing my daughter this year. I do this because when I give a gift, I want it to be wanted, or needed, preferably both. I loathe the idea of buying “stocking stuffers” to make up present quantities or getting something just for the sake of it. It’s a waste of time, money and the planet’s resources!
So, in the spirit of offering necessary and appreciated gifts, I’d like to offer a suggestion for a Christmas gift we can all give our loved ones this year. The gift of listening. No, I’m not suggesting anyone gift-wrap their ears, and I’m fully aware that this one will fall flat with anyone who still believes in Father Christmas, but think what a difference it could make to our lives if we all became just 5% better at listening to each other. What a gift that would be!
Learning to listen was, quite literally, item number one on the programme for my first day of coaching training. We were taught that, as coaches, our first job was simply to listen to clients, let them be heard, and give them space to express themselves, and that even if that was all we did for the entire session, we had almost certainly always made a difference. Because how often do we get to sit and talk to someone who is just there to listen to us, without judgement, agenda or expectations of reciprocity, and without jumping in to offer advice or a comparable anecdote?
If you would like to give yourself and those around you the gift of becoming a better listener, here are a few ideas to help you make that Christmas wish come true.
- Set your intention
Active listening – the coachingese term for making a concerted effort to listen to someone – is simple in theory but surprisingly tough to do. The first step is to go into the conversation with the firm intention of listening. Simply by becoming aware that your goal is just to listen will enhance your ability to listen closely and concentrate on the other person. When you enter a conversation, make sure you’re comfortable and not likely to fidget. You cannot focus on someone’s words when you are cold, need the loo, or have a clothing label scratching your neck. Sort those things out before getting into it with your friend and you will be able to give her your undivided attention. And remember to make regular eye contact and offer listening signals such as head nodding and the occasional “uhuh” or “mmm”.
- Listen to understand, not to reply
I have a number of friends – mainly those who live far from me – with whom I have developed the habit of leaving each other long, newsy Whatsapp voice notes. This function of the app is a great way to keep up with pals who live in different time zones or who have different schedules and with whom an actual phone chat is often hard to arrange. My mate Kate, a woman of great wisdom, recently commented that she enjoys how relaxing our habit of leaving messages is: “Since it’s a message not a conversation, you can really listen, without having to think about what to say next”. How often do we listen without mentally drafting our reply or thinking about a similar thing that happened to us that we’d like to share? What would it be like simply to hear someone’s story without feeling the need to share in return? Obviously, there is a time and place for reciprocity in conversation, but the next time a friend starts to share some concern or news, why not try imagining you are listening to a message? Your only job is to hear it. If there are silent pauses, let them be; resist the urge to jump in with “Oh my God, the same thing happened to me!” or “I feel the same – when that happens to me, I always…”
- Stay curious
A coach’s second most important job is asking questions. In training we learn how to ask big “powerful” questions that can turn a client’s limiting belief on its head or make him see a situation from a new perspective. However, some of the most helpful questions (or prompts) a person can hear are often the simplest. Try Tell me more, or What else? Ask for details: What happened next? How did that make you feel? What was the impact of that? Keep your focus on the other person, rather than bringing the conversation back to your stuff, your experiences. An alternative to asking questions is offering thought-provoking observations, for example, Wow, that sounds disappointing! or I can hear so much anger in what you’re saying. By voicing what you hear and inviting a person to express more, you’re showing you are interested, that you value them, and that what they are saying is important to you in itself – not just as a springboard for your own sharing.
- Interrupt judiciously
I initially called this paragraph “never interrupt” but changed that for the sake of precision. I doubt I even have to say that the quickest way to frustrate someone who needs to talk is to interrupt them. Interruption most often takes the form of jumping in with own our story, but equally irritating variants include but are not limited to: interrupting to correct, contradict, offer information that turns into a digression, and the classic “Ah! That reminds me…!” change of subject. The bottom line is no one likes it, so don’t do it. The exceptions to this rule are things like interrupting to ensure understanding and ask for clarification.
Being a good listener is one of life’s hardest skills to learn, but the benefits are multiple. By giving the gift of your listening and attention, you show someone how highly you value them and give them a space to explore whatever situation or predicament they need to share. Plus, this is one of those gifts with a kickback. By improving your listening, you will improve the quality of your relationships as your loved ones (consciously or otherwise) respond to and appreciate your presence and openness and your connections deepen.
And, if you listen well enough and often enough, you’re sure to hear something that sparks a great idea for next year’s gift. That’s an extra win!
If you’d like to offer yourself the gift of active listening with a professional coach to work on issues holding you back, areas of life in which you are stuck, or projects that you would like to accelerate, contact me for your free introductory coaching session to start building a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
It’s hard to take a leap of faith and say “yes” to life, but sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs and risk meeting some toads if you are to have a chance of creating the life you want and achieving your heart’s desire. Because it only takes one frog turning into a prince to make you glad you puckered up.
As the mother of a three-year-old boy and a nearly six-year-old girl, my day-to-day conversations are currently dominated by three main things. These are: the different species of dinosaurs and their relative strength (as in, “Mummy, T-Rex verses stegosaurus – who would win?”); how much chocolate it is acceptable to consume in a given 24-hour period; and my efforts to correct the often awful messages fairy tales send to children, girls in particular.
Recently, I was reading The Frog Prince to my daughter when she turned to me and asked a characteristically perceptive question: “Mummy, what would have happened if she hadn’t kissed the frog?” There ensued a discussion about keeping promises and doing the right thing (You’ll recollect that the princess promises to eat and sleep with the prince if he dives into the well to get her ball but then balks at the idea when faced with his green chops puckering up for a goodnight kiss.) nuanced by a child-friendly but extremely clear explanation of the meaning of ongoing consent.
What is it like to kiss a frog?
After I had seized on this very teachable moment, my thoughts naturally turned to other meanings one could infer from the metaphor of kissing a frog. I say naturally because “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to meet a single prince” is advice I often give to my intercultural coaching clients. When you arrive in a new city or country and are looking to make friends and network, I tell them, you have to kiss frogs. By that I mean that you should accept any invitation you receive (within the bounds of safe conduct, of course – meeting in a public place, etc.). You chat to a friendly woman at a book shop, and she suggests you grab coffee the next day. Colleagues from a different part of the company ask you to join them for lunch in the canteen. A neighbour suggests you meet her sister-in-law because she’s an ex-pat from your home country (If you’re British this invariably becomes: “In fact, maybe you know one another – it is a small island after all!”). Back home, these kinds of random meetings are unusual, perhaps even unheard of, but in ex-pat circles, they are gold!
I met two of my best friends this way. The first I met at the Christmas party of a colleague I barely knew. We got chatting, and she mentioned that being new to Paris she had no idea what to do on New Year’s Eve. I invited her to my party. My other closest buddy was the Paris newbie she met the day after we talked – she brought her to my party, and the three of us have been true blue ever since. I tell clients they have to kiss a few frogs because, while perhaps nine times out of 10, you’ll come away from the coffee/drink/party/mother-and-baby group disappointed and glad it’s over, you only need one of those “frogs” to turn into a “prince” and you have yourself a friend, or maybe even the beginnings of – whisper it – a group.
Frogs aren’t just for ex-pats
This wisdom isn’t just applicable to ex-pats seeking to create a life and build a network, however. To me, the bigger idea of kissing a frog is about taking a leap of faith. It’s about doing something that seems unlikely to result in anything useful but, well – you never know! It’s about saying yes to coffee with that nice lady at your yoga class, even if you aren’t sure you have anything in common other than flexibility. It’s about joining the PTA to meet new people, even if you end up leaving after the first year. And, beyond making contacts, it’s also about sending that email to a prospect, even if it is a long shot. Or visiting yet another potential dream house even when the last 10 have turned out to be four dodgy walls and a leaky roof. Or taking a class to learn a new skill, applying for a job that seems way out of your league, offering to volunteer…
When I first had my daughter, I was keen to take her to baby groups. I had her future bilingualism on my mind 24/ 7 and became convinced that a baby rhyme time group was absolutely essential to her English-speaking success. (Madness, I know, but in my defence I had just left my job, had a baby and moved house in the space of a month – I was so sleep deprived I often forgot my husband’s name.) I asked the local librarian if such a thing existed. She told me that nothing did as they had no-one to run it… Do you see where I’m going with this tale? For the next two years I spent one Saturday morning a month singing “The wheels on the bus” and “If you’re happy and you know it” at our local English-language Rhyme Time. I never once regretted kissing the frog that day and replying to the librarian “I could run it!”, and I know she never regretted kissing her own frog and saying “OK, let’s do it!” as, even though I no longer lead the singing, the group exists to this day.
What if you don’t kiss the frog?
Yes, some of the frogs you kiss will turn out to be utter toads. But when that happens, most of the time the only thing you’ll have lost is some time and perhaps the price of a cappuccino. But if you never kiss any frogs, if you never take a chance, you stand to lose a lot more. You’ve got to play the odds, though. The more frogs you kiss, the more likely you are to have one turn into a prince. Some of the best people I have in my life, and some of the best things I’ve done, have come from frog-kissing moments where I had the option to play it safe and instead I chose to say “yes” to invitations, to opportunity, to life.
At a time when connection and contacts are in short supply, I remind myself almost daily of the importance of seizing opportunity when it presents itself and of creating it when it fails to knock. Because, for me, the truly frightening answer to my daughter’s question, “Mummy, what would have happened if she hadn’t kissed the frog?” is not “She wouldn’t have met the prince”. No, in the real world, the answer to “What happens if you never kiss the frog?” is “Nothing ever happens at all”.
One last thing, just for info: of course the T-Rex would win hands-down, every time; and regarding chocolate, I find no better wisdom than a quotation I once read attributed to Miss Piggy: “Never eat more than you can lift”.
If you’re looking to add some magic to your life, encouraging, empowering support from a qualified coach can help you find the courage to kiss that frog and take a leap of faith into a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can upgrade your life.
If motherhood were a competitive sport, the Olympic committee would be overrun with candidates…
I am not a competitive person. I get no pleasure from an activity when trying to do it faster or better or for longer than someone else. Example: swimming lessons. I loved (still do love) swimming, but when the teacher suggested to my mother that I enter competitions, I was out the other end of the pool in a time that would have made Michael Phelps question his achievements. I enjoy activities most when doing them for their own sake and without any form of comparison with others.
So how did I end up in the qualifying rounds for the summer sport of competitive mothering?
Because you are entered automatically from the moment you announce you’re pregnant – didn’t you know?
Every decision you make is judged by someone, and the worst culprits are other mothers clearly going for gold by comparing your pregnancy/delivery/baby/post-baby body with their own.
There’s the choice to breastfeed or not, whether you sleep-train, baby-led weaning, if and when you go back to work… And don’t even get me started on Montessori! I have seen powerful, successful women cower before others who casually drop into conversation that they have chosen to Montessori their kids “because we really wanted the best for her education, you know?” Translation: you are lazy, uncaring and your child will end up in the gutter if you don’t do the same. Every choice you make becomes another mother’s food for smug comparison. At best, it’s exhausting; at worst it’s disempowering and distressing.
However, for every mother sure that she’s standing higher on the podium than you are (and making sure you’re painfully aware of that fact), there’s another weeping inside from feelings of inadequacy at your wildly superior skills. Having a baby is unlike anything we’ve ever done before, and it can turn even the most confident of woman into a pile of self-doubt and anxiety. Faced with someone else’s certainty at deserving that coveted first-place medal, you can start to doubt even choices you know were right for you and your family.
The irony is that we are all at some point Mrs Smuggy McSmugface (“I make all my baby’s purées myself! I breastfed for longer than her! We go to more playgroups than they do!”). And we are all at some point that poor cringing creature convinced she’s not so much swimming as sinking (“She’s coping so much better than me… Her baby is crawling already… How did she lose the weight so fast?”).
So, what can we learn – and do differently?
I said before that I am not competitive. That’s not quite the truth: if I am to be precise I have to say that I am competitive with just one person – myself. I am always trying to do better today than I did yesterday: increase my knowledge, act with greater love, try harder. Applying the same logic to motherhood, I have found, is the only solution when faced with a Smugface or when resisting the urge to be one myself.
It’s hard to do, but the trick is to simply opt out of comparison with others and replace it with checking in with yourself.
Am I doing my best?
Did I make decisions that best served me and my family today?
Am I being kind to myself?
The answers will never be a unanimous, Welsh-male-voice-choir-style YES. But maybe you’ll realise that you did indeed play with your daughter and read her a story. Or you’ll admit that skipping playgroup this week and meeting a friend for lunch was simply necessary for your own sanity and will not cause lasting damage to your baby. Perhaps you’ll remember your son’s giggling fit as you made silly faces over breakfast and enjoy knowing you make him laugh.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it in you to be a little less hard on yourself – and on other mothers. Now that would be a gold medal for everyone.
Originally published on Inspirelle.com.
Are you in a rut? Do you feel slightly stuck, or maybe a bit lost? Perhaps you’re actually doing fine, but you have that feeling that you could be doing better. Maybe there projects you want to start, but you’re finding it hard to gain momentum, or you just don’t know where to begin. Whatever your situation, there is one thing you can do that pretty much guarantees some kind of progress, especially here in Paris where, in my experience at least, la bouche à l’oreille is essential: le networking.
Networking is not a four-letter word
Many people feel shy about networking, feeling there’s something self-serving and shameful about it. And I must agree that the expressions “working the room” and “schmoozing” send shivers down my spine. Who wants to be that woman who leaps across the top table at her cousin’s wedding, spilling champagne on the bride, in order to press a crumpled business card into the unwilling palm of the best man as he’s half-way through his speech just because he happens to mention he works in HR? Not me. I’m guessing not you either.
Genuine, honest networking is about meeting new people and developing existing relationships. It’s about being sincerely interested in learning about another person’s projects and seeing if there’s any way in which the two of you can help each other out. It’s a two-way street. To be effective and avoid falling into schmoozing territory, it needs to be totally shameless in the positive sense of the word (yes, there is one). Consider the difference between:
“Wow, you’re studying shiatsu! I’ve always wanted to try it. Maybe I could come by for a session some time. I guess it’s really expensive, though? Yeah, money’s a little tight at the moment. So I reckon I’ll have to wait for a while before calling. Do you offer discounted rates for friends of friends? Haha, no just kidding…” Cue awkward silence.
“Hi, Jane told me you’re studying shiatsu. Listen, I’ve always fancied trying it, but I can’t afford it at the moment. No pressure, but I wonder if you’d be interested in discussing a service I could offer you in exchange for a session? I’m pretty good at setting up websites, for example, and have often babysat for friends. If either of those interests you, here’s my number, let me know. And of course, I’ll totally understand if you’re not into it.”
Which exchange would you prefer to have?
Effective networking should also always begin with the (unspoken) question “what can I do for you?” Go into it with the goal of meeting people and seeing if any of your knowledge or contacts can be useful to them. It takes the pressure of you and puts people at ease knowing that you’re there to offer as well as to accept a coup de main.
When done openly and in the right spirit, good networking can really make a difference – obviously, it can boost your career, but it can also help you achieve personal goals and up your chances of creating a fulfilling life for yourself, particularly if you’re new to Paris and still trying to find your groove. Here are four reasons to put yourself out there and attend a networking event near you!
You will widen your support network
Developing a wide circle of friends and acquaintances is crucial to feeling rooted and connected. Maybe you won’t meet your next employer at a networking event but you might make a new friend (already an excellent achievement) who, three months down the line, hears about a job opening and passes it on to you. That same friend might then share the name of her babysitter with you, giving you and your partner a much-needed night out. She might also become the person you call at 3am when you just need to talk. She might invite you to join her book group. The more people you know, the more people you know…
You will find new sources of information
Simply talking about your stalled project with someone new can give you ideas you may never have come to otherwise. You’re telling someone how you wish you could get back into rollerblading like you used to, and someone in the little group you’re with, someone you don’t even know, asks if you know about the big roller-outings organised on Sunday evenings in Paris. You haven’t asked for help, no flesh has been pressed, but you walk away knowing more than you did before.
You’ll open your horizons and gain new perspectives
When actively networking, you will talk to people you never would have approached, say, at a party. Perhaps people you wouldn’t be friends with. The beauty of talking to people from all walks of life is that it’s often the people who aren’t like you – people that have different values and beliefs and who move in different circles – who will say something that gives you that “light bulb” moment. Those are the people who will think outside of your box. And vice versa…
You’ll get the feel-good boost that comes from helping others
Putting aside all the things networking can do for you, isn’t it delightful to find yourself in a position to help someone else? Especially when you’re feeling below par yourself. It is so gratifying to be able to say “Really? You’re looking for a private English teacher? I actually know someone who might be able to help”, or “I actually have a friend leaving Paris soon and her apartment will be up for grabs – shall I put the two of you in touch?” Personally, I am known among my friends for my willingness to “matchmake” in this way. I love lending a hand like that. The bonus is that because of this, lots of my friends are now friends with each other (which incidentally made my wedding extra fun), plus friends are always willing to return the favour.
Because that’s the basis of all non-schmoozy (yep, I’m making up words now) networking. There’s a positive karma to it when done with the right intention. You help, advise or inform someone just because you can. Then they either help you back or they pay it forward. Whatever happens, you have added something good to the world and that will always do you good.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.
From the moment one becomes a parent (and I mean, from the second we know that sperm has successfully met egg), at least 10% of one’s brainpower at any given time is taken up with worrying about one’s offspring. Health, happiness, brain development, achievement of key milestones, eating habits, socialization… and, the biggie: education.
I say “the biggie” because that’s the thing I worry about most. Indeed, I’d say 10% is actually a conservative estimate. But who can blame me? Education is the key to a child’s future. Living as an expat in Paris compounds the problem as we are usually dealing with a school system we did not experience first-hand, and doing so in a language that – no matter how well we master French – isn’t our langue maternelle.
A while back, I had a period of strange and obsessive worry about my daughter’s education, mainly brought on by the acute realization of my lack of knowledge about how the school system works here. A lack of information makes me anxious. So, I took action. I called the school board and found out which catchment area we’re in for lycée, collège, primaire and maternelle. We discussed dérogations, when to apply for schools, the LOT! At one point, though, faced with my barrage of questions, the lovely lady on the phone stopped mid-sentence and asked la question qui fâche:
“Madame, just how many children do you have, and what are their ages?” My red-faced reply: “Well, erm, I actually just have the one daughter, and she’s, ahem, 10 months old”.
Yes, readers, I was that crazy lady asking for university application forms for a child who couldn’t actually walk yet.
Which language to speak?
Now, in my defence, in Paris, you basically have to register for a place at the crèche as you’re leaving the gynecologist’s office having confirmed your pregnancy. And even then, they’ll ask you why you didn’t think to send a post-coital email to pre-reserve your spot. So it’s not that odd to worry about the deadline to register for nursery school. And at least now I know the when, where, what, how and why – information is power!
Of course, on top of the classic questions about education that all parents consider, expat parents have to take into account the language(s) elements of their children’s upbringing. Whatever the configuration of languages in the household, there are always choices to be made about language priorities: Who will speak which language to the children, what will the family language will be?…My husband is French, I am British, and we live in France. I have spent hours agonizing over whether my speaking English to our daughter will be “enough”; yet more time weighing up the relative merits of international sections, bilingual schools, and supplementary private tuition; and even longer researching extra-curricular activities that take place in English.
The Positive Approach to Education
I know I’m not the only one out there with these worries swirling around her brain, so if you’re identifying with any of the above, take heart. It’s totally normal (hey, we weren’t using that 10% anyway, right?). But instead of undirected and anxiety-inducing worry, why not try to channel your concerns by asking yourself the right questions? Powerful coaching questions that, instead of just causing more confusion, will help you identify what’s best for your children and your family as a whole. Here are some starters that should help you get to the bottom of what’s right for you:
- What do we want our children to take away from their schooling, overall?
- What values do we want our children to learn at school?
- What natural talents are our children displaying and how do we want to support those?
- What difficulties are my children experiencing and how do I want to support them?
- What did I enjoy/not enjoy in my own education? What would I like to reproduce?
- How much support are we as parents willing and able to offer our children with homework?
- How much do we as parents want to be involved in the life of the school?
- What level of bilingualism do we aspire to for our children, and to what end?
- What will bilingualism do for our children, and what will our children’s bilingualism do for our family as a whole?
- How much work are we as parents willing and able to put into our goal of bilingualism?
- What are we willing to sacrifice for this goal? What are we not willing to sacrifice?
- What other values are important to us in our children’s upbringing and education?
- What values and objectives do we have for our family’s lifestyle generally?
- How do our other values fit in with our educational and bilingual goals for our children?
It’s normal and right to think about your child’s future. But it’s better to ponder the matter in a way that is productive, constructive and empowering.
Originally published on Inspirelle.com.