Difficult Conversations

Over the last year, I have been travelling to learn about my friends’ lives. The trips are short, and we have the opportunity to talk a lot. By keeping the trip short, and going to my pals, the quality of the conversation is high and the inconvenience to my family is small. The trips have a large payoff for me:

  • Gratitude for the life I have
  • Learn what’s good about their lives – try to figure out the payoff from living like them
  • Make sure I see friends that I want to keep in my life
  • Learn about an aspect of their lives where they have different knowledge than me (teenagers, aging, the transition to adulthood, healthcare, performance psychology, grief & loss).
  • Do something random to generate new opportunities.

One of my favorite discussion topics is managing difficult conversations. For example, a challenging situation for doctors is telling the mirror image of themselves about the arrival of their greatest medical fear – cancer or terminal illness.

I ask questions about.. How to cope? How to be effective? What is best practice?

These skills are useful at work and are essential to create an exceptional family web. I’ll share what I’ve learned so far.

Before a difficult conversation, pause and remember:

  • This situation is not about me
  • I am part of the solution
  • Be cautious
  • Understand that I will make incorrect assumptions about everything around me

The points above get me in a relaxed frame of mind, especially when combined with my Big Meeting Protocol. The mental preparation works best when combined with an on-going process of self-reflection (that I like to do while cycling). You’ll be surprised that you can mute your emotional triggers by awareness that they exist.

Understand your hot bottons – examples might be: not caring, not doing enough, letting someone down, past mistakes where I’ve yet to ask for forgiveness, or not addressing areas in my own life where I need to make change.

Know your desired outcome – examples might be: clear communication, exit a relationship, create consensus, make better decisions.

Follow up in writing – if the conversation triggers fear, or anger, in the other person they are unlikely to remember the conversation. Even if you’re hearing each other, everyone hears a different conversation. Certainly, everyone remembers a different conversation.

Focus on helping the other person – I’m more likely to get my desired outcome if I help the other person achieve their own goals. A doctor might ask a terminally ill patient, “is there an up-coming event that we can focus on getting you to attend?” Alternatively, a family member might have concerns about public perception, confidentiality or independence.

Remembering my tendency to make incorrect assumptions – I like to gather information from the other party so I can better serve their needs. Often, a person’s needs are as straightforward as being listened to, respected and valued.

Finally, I remember that my mission isn’t to change others…

  • …because I don’t know best
  • …because I have my hands full with myself
  • …because my life is my source

28-days away from elite sport

Today is the four-week anniversary of my pause from focusing on elite sport.

For moral support, my wife’s been taking a 28-day break from Facebook . I think her break has been tougher because Facebook started an email campaign against her. I had a similar thing happen to me in 2010 and forewarned her that the spam-bots were crafty!

I’ve been Facebook free since the start of 2012 – it can be done.

My break has been 100% positive – I can’t find a single drawback to my life from pausing from professional sport.

Training – with less web usage (particularly twitter), I suddenly had time to train in the morning before my kids get up. While it was “only” one extra run per week, I felt great that entire day from the early session. It’s worth noting that 1 extra session per week, boosted 14% of my waking hours. Early training is high-return exercise.

Reading – I’ve been talking about reading at home for more than a year. I do most of my reading on airplanes and, subtly “blame” my kids for not being able to read at home. In the last month, I’ve managed to read three books at home, which is more than the previous twelve months! The books were: The Gift of Therapy; Living a Jewish Life; and Life’s Greatest Lessons. Turns out I was the issue, not my kids (who remain full of energy and a source of self-knowledge).

Patience – It could be the normal ebb and flow of parenting relationships but, as I reduce my time online, I’ve had more tolerance with my kids. Less in-bound noise seems to result in better relationships around me.

As for the outside world, Life Goes On…

My media filter isn’t complete and I heard all the major stories (and a few that haven’t hit the press yet). The difference is they filtered through gradually, rather than having to ferret them out. While I might be less informed on athletic gossip, I know enough to meet the needs of my friends, family and team. “Fresh news” is nearly always incorrect – I’m better off without it (links to my blog on improved thinking).

Turns out I was fooling myself about my need for constant input on, and criticism of, the choices of others. Not the first time.

Another debt of gratitude to my wife (links to my gratitude list).

The cost of the status quo is always hidden. I’m glad I was willing to try a change.

What’s Your Gifting Strategy

I love riding my bike with friends. To create more opportunities for that to happen, I give away a lot of cycling gear each year. When my friends wear the gear, I hope they think of me – even if they don’t think of me, it makes me happy to give gear away.

Here’s what I’ve learned about gifting…

It is an essential and effective way to influence behavior.

At some level, most of us feel that we deserve gifts. I need to be cautious about reinforcing entitlement in recipients.

The best gifts are items we can use while doing a favorite activity. An athlete-buddy of mine gave me a set of nordic ski underwear and gloves. I think she wanted me to learn to ski! I use her gift weekly and think about what a considerate person she is. The shirt makes me so happy (it’s my favorite color) that I wear it as casual wear. It’s not surprising that my pal scored a homerun with her gift, she’s a psychiatrist.

Gift frequency is better than size – for example 4 gifts of $250 generates more happiness than one gift of $1000. However, see habituation below.

Random is better than scheduled – I like random gifts. If I see something somebody will like, I get it and send it over to them.

Value is highest at point of award, not receipt – important to remember this for children, employees, heirs and other important people that you gift towards.

Consider my piece last week about Class Dojo, earning the ten points my daughter needs for a treat gives her more pleasure than the treat itself.

An example from the corporate world… At the private equity firm where I worked, the partners would award annual profit sharing points – there were 10,000 points available for each investment fund and we’d earn our share of 1,000 points annually. This system spread the allocation across many years, rather than having it back-end loaded when the investments were sold.

Things that people will use often, and associate with you are excellent – think about my friend’s gift of a shirt and gloves. To give me the same amount of pleasure she would have had to send me $5,000! A well-selected gift is worth far more than its monetary value.

Gifting to people’s children, ie via education, is deeply appreciated – parents have a sense of obligation towards their kids.

People (employees, spouses, kids, yourself) adapt very quickly to changes in standard of living, and forget how they got there. I avoid gifts that eliminate the self-esteem that comes from taking care of one’s self.

Be wary of reinforcing feelings of entitlement – for example, beautiful people and skilled athletes are trained that the world will take care of them. As they age, they experience pain when their gifts of chance (beauty and athletic prowess) fade.


Some people gift publicly for reasons of family, or corporate, strategy. Others prefer to gift anonymously. Considerations:

  • Be wary of the motivation of recognition.
  • If you ask your pals to support your causes then you will feel an overwhelming need to reciprocate (and you might not feel the same desire to support their causes). Of course, remember that it is OK to say “no.”
  • Most of us have small budgets for gifting – pay particular attention to situations where a little time and money can have a big impact.

If you need more of something then have a strategy to gift some of what you need.

A Tale of Two Brothers

A story that’s true across cultures and time.

Consider two brothers…

If, under pain of death, you were given a week to get a task done then you’d be wise to call the older brother.

However, if you were told that you only had a week to live, irrespective of what you did, then you’d be wise to call the younger brother.

Two brothers, two different sets of skills.

It’s important to learn from all aspects of our families and respect our differences. There’s much to learn from people that are different from ourselves.

Love you bro.

Antifragile Thinking – Nothing and Waiting

How can I use volatility to improve my investment decisions?

When I read Taleb, I’m tempted to go for the big bet using options with skewed payoffs. I think the real lesson is more straightforward than using out-of-the-money options, which is good because I’m not trained in derivatives pricing!

I have a favorite game that I play with any purchase. Determine value before I find out price. In the context of real estate (or buying companies), value the asset before you find out the asking price.

In 2009, I saw a “for sale” sign come up in my neighborhood. I played my game and priced the property in my head. Unfortunately, the property was listed at 25% over my valuation. So nothing happened, I waited, watched the property and the sign came down.

In 2010, the sign came back up and I checked the price. It was listed at a 40% reduction. Yay! I immediately put in an offer slightly below listing price. The owner countered my offer and we agreed a deal that everyone was happy with.

In 2009, I followed my investment mantras:

  • I don’t need to do a deal, I need to do a good deal
  • Let volatility do its work and create a situation to buy at an attractive price
  • My work is to build core capital, educate myself and be patient

My family needs one deal like the above per decade. Putting that in context, If the family is changing strategy more than one month in a hundred then we might be taking too much action. An “active” strategy would be anything that requires strategic change more than one month in fifty.

I don’t need advisers that earn fees when I take action. I need systems that prevent me from tinkering for no gain.

So the game is: deciding what I want, educating myself and waiting. Eventually, volatility will bring a great opportunity my way – at that point, I need to be willing to commit in size.

I tell my wife that was my strategy with our marriage – I also admit that I got lucky with her being better than I imagined. Elite swimmers have hidden options (loyalty, persistence, patience, internal motivation) and being OK with long term incremental progress.

To cope with the amount of “no action” inherent in the above strategy, I work on case studies, study history and, especially in relationships, improve myself.

One deal per decade.

Antifragile Thinking – New Old Ancient Nature

How can we use volatility to improve our thinking?

Rank the incoming information according to age – New Old Ancient Nature – if in doubt then choose the older option.

Remember that time will kill most ideas and concepts. Be willing to miss out on the latest/greatest – pay attention to concepts that are proven by time.

I coach a surgeon and his Dad was also a doctor. Now retired, the older doctor noted that “everything I learned in med school turned out to be incorrect.” Now clearly, everything wasn’t wrong! I would love to ask the doc, out of everything you learned, what was right?

We might get a list like:

  • Hygiene – do it
  • Blood pressure as leading indicator of a need for lifestyle change
  • Smoking – avoid it

Thinking back to my own education (economics and finance). What proved to be correct?

  • Track the cash
  • Interest rate trends
  • Mean reversion
  • Compounding

Another field that interests is endurance sport:

  • Consistency
  • Variable Stimuli
  • Strength and Stamina
  • Specific Preparation


  • Restrict the “new” – refined, processed, modified, engineered
  • Focus on the “old”  – ingredients your great-grandmother could have eaten

In a field that interests you, what are the three concepts that have stood the test of time? Focus on those concepts.

As you discover the power of this concept, you’ll benefit from reducing the fire hose of noise that reaches you daily via the media, advertising and social networks. These sources of info are “new” and. therefore, useless at best. More likely, they are misleading and reduce the quality of our thinking.

To improve my thinking, I need less noise in my head. “Not-thought” is what makes “good thought” clear to me.

Turning this on it’s head… if I can increase the amount of “no-thought” then the depth of my insight will increase and I’ll be able to see the useful info contained in what gets through. Implications:

  • Reduce email – a favorite from Taleb’s AMA is limit to 15 messages per day
  • Restrict media and eliminate the most noisy sources – television, chat forums, Facebook, reality TV, talk radio
  • Schedule breaks to settle mind (exercise, mediation)
  • Replace mental habits that clutter thinking
    • envy replaced by being happy for others
    • over-correction replaced by finding the good
    • Tinkering replaced by letting it ride
    • anger/fear/sorrow replaced by gratitude

I find that I don’t need to be charitable for the above to work. 

“Thank God, I’m free to act differently than that person.” triggers gratitude and let’s me move on.

Class Dojo – Promoting Good Behavior


One of our friends is a school teacher and set Lex up on Class Dojo. She created a class “Lexi” and shared the log-in with Monica and me.

It’s a simple system of positives/negatives. Each time Lex hits “10” she gets a treat. With the same log-in ID, we can access from all our our phones.

I got a little carried away with the negatives at the beginning and had to change my scoring focus. I target nine positives for each negative.

During the main transitions that I manage (drive to school and bedtime) I run through the positives that she has earned recently. I’m trying to remind her of those behaviors. Getting dressed, seat belts, pajamas, playroom clean up, kind to brother…

I also put myself into her class so she can “beat me” with her behavior. Perhaps we need to loosen the standards for Daddy Byrn. I’ve been at one point for over a week…