Benevolent Manipulation (aka Helping Someone Out)

Helping Hand

Our work lives require us to be professional. Being professional requires that we train ourselves with a filter that kicks in instantly to cancel out our base instincts. There may be times where that filter malfunctions. If the relationship is good, we can recognize what needs to happen. We can apply that filter for that person. And, it’s reassuring to sometimes hear that something sucks and someone understands. Then we can talk about how we’ll try to respond better next time.

In firms, bad things rise to the top. That’s a fact, and that’s actually the way it needs to be. Leaders are responsible for cleaning up messes and trying to keep everything neat and orderly. The tasks that arise that no one else can do, those are their tasks.

It’s a fact that in addition to the strengths they have, they also have weaknesses. Beyond what work throws at us, life adds another layer of surprises. As a leader, you are required to strive to be the best person you can be all of the time, and to certainly always be professional. If you show weakness, it will have impacts on those around you. If you are grumpy or if you snap… the ramifications go much beyond what you would experience at home where forgiveness is more often applied (hopefully). A work relationship can be seriously damaged by misplaced actions and words. There is such a thing as opening Pandora’s box. You are expected to be the solid and fearless leader… and you need to strive to achieve that.

Being a leader means that your brain churns with one non-optimal situation or another, trying to find the appropriate resolution. I know that I firmly believe that every situation does have a win-win option. It’s hard to constantly juggle all of the variables and organize them into something good.

That’s what it is. The higher you are in an organization, the more variables you are likely to be juggling. Just like algebra, an equation with one variable is pretty easy to solve. Two variables is a bit more tricky. Get to three and more, the complexity sky rockets. Not only do firm leaders work with multi-variable problems… they have multiple problems happening at the same time.

So, I titled this post benevolent manipulation… or, helping someone. Empathy and sympathy can be hard when we can’t identify with the experiences of someone else. We can’t be expected to know what it’s like to be responsible for the success of multiple people in a firm, until that’s what we do. Maybe the first step is to understand that the leaders of your firm firm are probably actively thinking about the best ways to activate you and enable you to be the best person you can be. They are trying to adapt themselves to maximize the benefits of your relationship. They have been where you are now, so they have access to direct sympathy  and empathy. One challenge is that their efforts to assist you will likely be invisible. They are trying to match your world-view, so it might just seem normal to you (and thus invisible).

Then, your boss has a bad day. Or a number of them. Where they might have addressed something perfectly constructively before, they now are short and perhaps negative. Empathy goes a fair ways… but, your duty is actually to try to adapt to those around you. If you notice that a certain action on your part resulted in a sub-optimal reaction… the first thing you need to do is to assess it. Can you separate the intent from the delivery? Can you empathize with their reaction? Is there anything you can do to manipulate future situations to ensure that reaction doesn’t happen again?

You are responsible to adapt to those around you and make their lives smoother (just as they owe the same to you). We don’t want to lose ourselves in the mix, but we can make choices that benefit those around us. Control the situation to help the other person be the person they want to be. We all want to be good… and it’s easier with help.

If you want another post with a more applied discussion of ‘benevolent manipulation’, see Benevolent Manipulation. [Am I already running short of titles?]

100 Conversations

The contents of this blog arise from the ‘conversations’ I’ve had with people; whether in person or through various digital interactions.

I’ve been contemplating adding a level of intention to this, and have decided to embark upon: 100 Conversations

My goal is to reach out to 100 people and start a conversation with the question: At this point of your career, what problems do you want to solve? (this question spins off from a recent post)

My goal within this is: I’d like to support someone in solving what’s important to them… with a conversation.

I imagine that this will take many forms:

  • Share knowledge, experience, stories and crazy ideas.
  • Contribute to the building of professional networks.
  • Expose ourselves to different ways of looking at things.
  • Brainstorm, reinforce and develop ideas.

I want to offer each person an interested listener, who is focused on them… and who just might help them find something useful in chasing their goals?

Experimental Method

I think it will be a flexible process, but some forethought is always good:

  • The Conversation
    • Arrange to meet with someone for about an hour. Perhaps longer if the provided therapy/learning is mutually beneficial.
    • Prior to the meeting, I’d prepare them with the question of, “At this point of your career, what problems do you want to solve?”
  • Who Will I Meet Up With?
    • Part One: The First Twenty!
      • The first twenty conversations would be with friends and associates, with a cross-section of careers, seniorities and people.
    • Part Two: The Second Forty!
      • I think there’s value in not just speaking with those I know, but also meeting new people and hearing from them. During the first twenty interactions, I’d ask each person to recommend two people that they feel would find value in this kind of interaction. This would introduce one degree of separation.
    • Part Three: The Third Forty!
      • Similar to my last selection of forty, this one would be based on asking each person of the 40 to recommend one person. This would introduce two degrees of separation.
  • The Follow-Up
    • I think that each conversation will likely lead to a related blog post.
    • Perhaps it leads to a guest blog post by the person I meet with?
    • I’m not certain about the above, so I’ll leave it flexible.

The Results

These are links to the blog posts that have been inspired by these conversations:

#1 The Power of Being Heard

#2 Engineers Are Good With Numbers Until…

#3 Coaching, Mentoring and Metaphor

#4 The Power of “Tell Me More”

#5 Freedom of Time

#6 When No Mentor Exists

#7 tangent: Tools… Not Tales

#7 State Your Assumptions

#8: The Beauty of Being a Hack

It’s 2015. Play is for All.

In Anchorage, there’s a roller rink that recently forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

I don’t have children. I don’t have a disability. My family doesn’t have anyone with a disability. For some reason or another I passionately believe that it is a human right for children to have access to play. More importantly, that children have access to being with their friends. Even more importantly perhaps, that children have a right to the opportunities to make new friends.

When I was a kid, I moved at the age of 9 and 12. In retrospect, I feel that those two times were perhaps poor times to move, because you land in a place where the other kids already had their groups of friends. Whether for my own sensitivity or not, I felt a bit out of place and like I was always missing out on what the others were doing. The reality is likely that everyone felt the same, but it’s left me with a desire to ensure that kids always have a place and that they have the support to fit in.

So, I believe that kids have a human right to be able to make friends.

As children, we make countless relationships (long and short) on the playground. Play is natural to children, and until we learn otherwise, play is open to others to join in (and to invite us in). Discrimination or the concept of “not like me” is a learned trait.

As a play designer, I subscribe to the “smorgasbord approach” to designing play environments. Every child learns differently and has different things they’d like to experience in a playground. This changes as they get older and move through their phases of development. Playground design should start with trying to accommodate a variety of play needs and desires.

The average person likely doesn’t know the full extent of disabilities that might influence a child’s ability to engage with play. Physical disabilities are the obvious ones, but account for only around 1% of disabilities. Good play design takes this “smorgasbord” of features and assembles them in a way that they begin to have order and cohesiveness. Order is an important way to begin to design for disabilities like autism spectrum disorders.

The point of this? Play design seeks to remove the barriers that might get in the way of a child experiencing play on their terms. Taking this “smorgasbord” and assembling it to accommodate a wide variety of children may require some minimal extra cost, intellectual consultation or perhaps adding a few play elements to maximize impact… but the results provide a high return on investment.

So… a roller rink forbade a child with a disability from being out on the rink.

Designing for physical disabilities can certainly result in extra costs, but I quote Justin Trudeau … it’s 2015! But, for the roller rink… actual access is not the issue. Their concern is liability and potential danger to other skaters.

I’m not writing this to discuss the specifics of this incident; it has been very well covered by others who are closer to it directly or from similar experiences.

The world is not an accessible place. It’s not naturally flat, and surfaces are not naturally hard. Access advocates are clever people, and they realize this. They know that there will be challenges, and some of them will be true obstacles. But, their request is that we let people choose what their obstacles will be. They are 1000% correct that sometimes we will be amazed with the ingenuity and initiative that drive the amazing. If we just say no, then we close the door to that opportunity.

Our built environment will have many places that are not easily accessible. Advocates are not asking that all places be made accessible. They just request that they be given the chance on their own volition to do things if they can achieve them similarly to others, without danger to others, and without danger to themselves that would create liability for others. It’s a fact that every person who is “able” is free to endanger everyone around them (and they frequently do). But, I won’t go into our freedom to do dumb things… although I’m finding it ironic that we limit people with disabilities when the abled are more often those who inflict true costs on our culture.

It’s so easy to retreat back to a place of liability. The United States certainly suffers from a very high level of fear of litigation. There is reality to this, but there is a cultural fear of the possibility that one might be sued. This means that society has trained itself to start from a place of “no”, and then slowly (if ever) move toward yes in an extremely ‘safe’ fashion. This is significantly different than beginning with the possible and crafting it in a careful and justified way.

I’ll go back to playground design. We have a responsibility to allow someone with a physical disability to get to the playground. Whether on a bus, or through an accessible parking space… they deserve to get to the same place as everyone else. That’s a legal fact of our society. We don’t necessarily make it as easy as it should be… but this is where we are. In 2015 everyone should be able to get to a parking lot or sidewalk that is reasonably close to a playground. We also have a responsibility that there is a reasonably direct way to get to the playground itself.

This is where things start to get amorphous. There are requirements for playgrounds to have a certain proportion of equipment that is accessible. (This accessible equipment could consist of the most boring pieces. Good play design isn’t a part of it.) So, your child should be able to get to the equipment to play with at least some of it, and interact with other children. But, they will likely get to a point where their friends move into a play experience that is not accessible. They are now disassociated from their friends.

Now… also realize this applies to parents. There will be parts of our playgrounds that might not allow you to interact with your children if you have a physical impairment. Just imagine that your child gets hurt (perhaps badly) and that you can’t get to them. Even though I don’t have children, I certainly empathize that this level of powerlessness could be devastating.

While it would be difficult to design all playgrounds to be fully accessible, we can make decisions that maximize the potential for interaction. There’s a reality that children love slides and climbing up high. Ramps can be provided, but they can be cost prohibitive. If you exclude those two playground needs, building a very highly inclusive playground based on ground level play elements is feasible for every community.

Play needs to be a community-level discussion. Every playground does not need to do all things for every child. For the same of this discussion, every child should have access to the play that they want/need within a reasonable distance of their house. This doesn’t mean that all playgrounds need to be fully inclusive, but it needs to mean that all playgrounds are designed intentionally to maximize their impact. Sometimes decisions will be made to provide that tall slide that provides children with an amazing sense of accomplishment for conquering their nervousness. When you provide that slide, you also need to ask yourself… how do we provide that same feeling for the kid that might never climb up there?

Inclusivity isn’t about providing access to every piece of play equipment, it’s about trying to provide different opportunities to experience the same benefit… and trying to maximize the opportunities for interaction. Can’t get to the top of the slide? Well, let me be waiting at the bottom to see my friend come down.

One of the best things for inclusivity on a playground is accessible play surfacing. But wow! It’s expensive and its cost could certainly be put into more play activities. But when properly done, it becomes a play activity in itself and these costs can be balanced. Play surfacing is a huge discussion of its own (that I’m always happy to have), but for the sake of this note… realize that it truly begins to eliminate obstacles for interaction.

Let’s get back to the roller rink. I remember going to the roller rink in my hometown for a birthday party. I was terrible at skating and I fell down. I risked wiping someone out and having them break an arm. I remember getting better (or I’d like to think I did), but also that I spent time off to the side with my friends. There were no obstacles for me other than my initiative and my learning curve. If I was TRULY bad and dangerous, I’m hoping that some adult would have assisted me to reduce my danger to others. There’s also a fact that on a roller rink, people skate in the same direction for a reason… you can watch everyone around you to minimize their (literal) impact on your life.

Liability can be controlled with paperwork. It can also be controlled by engaging with others. It can be controlled by supervision. It can be controlled by ten minutes of playing a slower song and calling it “beginners time” on the rink where everyone is asked to look out for one another, be encouraging, and support a love of cooperation and play for everyone.

It’s 2015. We’re all smart enough that we can control and minimize risk. More importantly, we should all be aware enough that inclusivity makes our community better. Let’s start with trying to figure something out and make it a “win win”.

It’s 2015. Let’s explain our concerns and see if the world is ready for new solutions.

Postscript#1: My frustration makes me add: Come on! We’re better than this! It’s freaking 2015!)

Postscript #2: I scanned through the comments on the ADN article (never a fully wise decision to do). I think that they reiterate that we should all just stop for a second and think about what being inclusive means. Also… inform ourselves. That might be asking too much.

Optimistic Cynicism?

What personality type would describe someone who it optimistically bitter and cynical? Many of the posts that this blog will contain will start with a complaint in my head about how things are. Then the little voice inside of me tells me to make lemonade, “be solution based!” I grumble a little but then shift into trying to write about how I wish things would be.

When I meet with people, at some point I find myself saying, “You’re not crazy. You’re not alone. This happens to others. It’s just that you haven’t talked about it before.” Or I let them know that they’ve reminded me I’m not crazy. It’s reassuring to know our experiences are shared.

That’s part of the reason for this blog. I’m saying these things hoping that people nod their head and we both get a better feeling of where we are in the world. When we know we’re not alone, it helps us to work on solutions. This might be on our own with a renewed sense of “normality”, or collaboratively based on insight gained from other experiences.

So… this is just a short post to remind you that you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. Move forward knowing you exist within a shared experience, and remember to reach out when you need it.

Pretend You’re the Person You’d Like to Be

I came into landscape architecture from an environmental science degree (ecology minor). When I started, I had a great interest in ecological restoration. I read papers, went to conferences, presented a few times, and otherwise tried to visualize what I wanted. Some of my friends teased me because I had landscape architecture AND restoration ecologist on my business card. I wasn’t really a fully practicing restoration ecologist, but it’s what I certainly wanted to do. The disconnect was that I was doing some of that work, but the firm I was working with didn’t really have the work that aligned with that part of what I wanted to do.

The point of this is that I tried to be who I wanted to be, and gained great information and knowledge within an area of passion. Situations never really developed fully for me to become that person, but it’s a part of who I am… and I carry that knowledge with me to apply when needed.

Restoration ecologist faded from my cards, and I sometimes feel goofy for having had it on my card before I reached it… but I wouldn’t change it. I wish that more people started with who they wanted to be and where they wanted to go. When you do that, if you have the right people around you, then they know more about you… and might just help you get to where you would like to be. If you don’t announce it, how will you get there? Alone is a lonely battle.

My card now just states who I am… principal landscape architect. That’s appropriate to my existence, and owning my own firm allows me to do what I want to do anyways. But, what would I add to describe more of who I am? Entrepreneur? Woodworker? Silversmith? Excellent reader of trashy adventure novels?

A friend had the best cards for introductions. They had his name… and “personage extraordinaire”. He had it right.