Step Away From the Circus

not-my-circusYou may think that drama plays out only on the movie screen or theatre stage. Not so. Look around you, in your work environment or personal life, and it’s there, disguised yet still visible to the keen eye. People “performing” as stellar showstoppers, pulling everyone in their path into their dramatic vortex. If you’re not careful, you may disappear into the darkness never to be seen again.

I came across a graphic phrase that – to me – puts things into great perspective. The sentiment is spot on.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys. Brilliant! Little did I know that this is a Polish phrase (I am a Polish American). I have shared this saying with colleagues and friends who are overwhelmed by the emotional clutter in their lives. Here are a few tips on controlling your involvement in someone else’s drama:

Listen without judgment. Simply hear what the other person is saying. Ask questions for clarification if you need to.

Separate the drama from the content. What is the person’s emotional connection to the content? Anger? Frustration? Pain? Hurt? Anguish? What is the primary message being shared?

Determine your role. What is it exactly that the other person wants from you? Is it simply to hear her voice/opinion? Is there an expectation that you will guide, offer advice or suggest a solution?

Remain objective. Drama divas love to get you worked up to their same emotional level. Remain clear-headed and objective, asking, What does this person want from me? What is the point? How (if at all) can I help?

It’s not your circus. You are not the ringmaster. You are simply an observer. If you find yourself being sucked into the circus, consider the price of admission. There are no free circuses.

If it’s gossip, step away. Nothing breaks down fruitful relationships faster than gossip. Especially in the workplace, do not get pulled into the drama of gossip. It serves no purpose and is a waste of your valuable time.

Make a referral. If you are not the person to offer guidance or assistance, refer the person to a better qualified professional. On-staff psychologist or counselor? Human resource professional who knows company policies? A religious leader to offer spiritual guidance?

Be proactive and create parameters if you’re stuck in the circus. I know what you’re thinking. What if it’s my boss’s circus? How can I escape? Be proactive and create parameters so that you can remain sane in your work environment. Develop a system of handling the drama that works for you. The other option, of course, is exiting the tent.

Imagine putting on your invisible armor every morning, a T-shirt with the words “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” With laser sharp focus and determination, walk into every situation “mentally” wearing your T-shirt. Let it protect you from the drama divas. Remain objective and nonjudgmental as you enjoy your day that is fabulous, trouble-free and drama-less.

 © Christine Zust 

This article first appeared in my monthly newsletter, Q Tips. If you would like to subscribe to this free e-newsletter, click here.

Empathy Is Needed in a Post-9/11 America

Artist Faith Rinngold and New York children, ages 8-10, created the 9/11 Peace Story Quilt, 2006

Artist Faith Rinngold and New York children, ages 8-10, created the 9/11 Peace Story Quilt in 2006

Where were you on September 11, 2001? What were you feeling as the events of that day unfolded?

I remember exactly where I was. I was working on the computer in my home office, getting ready for a morning meeting in downtown Cleveland. The phone rang. It was one of my clients. She quickly said, “Turn on your TV!” When I asked her why, she repeated, “Just go and turn on your TV!!” I ran downstairs, and found national news anchor Peter Jennings reporting live on ABC-TV. He was showing video footage of a jet hitting the World Trade Center in New York City.

My mind was trying to process what was happening. I stood there shocked and dazed. I realized my client was still on the office line upstairs. When I returned to the call, she provided a few more details. I didn’t know until much later that one of the “hostage” airplanes had flown over Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I live several miles from the airport.

While the day was filled with disturbing images and reports, for me, the evening was surrealistic. Living so close to the airport, I didn’t hear the usual airplanes overhead that night. It was completely silent.

This year, the citizens of our country and the world remembered that tragic event that happened 15 years ago and the thousands of lives that were lost and thousands more who lost a spouse, partner, parent, child, sibling, relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker.

9/11 changed the way we travel, how we perceive or judge others, how we communicate, how we measure security, and how we mourned as a nation.

The greatest lesson 9/11 taught us is the power – and the necessity – of empathy.

From my perspective, empathy is sorely lacking in society today. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Simply put, it’s trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as “a feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.; a sympathetic feeling is a feeling of support for something.” Both require some level of compassion. To me, empathy requires a deeper level of compassion than sympathy. It requires stretching your capacity to genuinely “feel” for another person. Empathy also requires setting aside your ego and your own wants, desires, and needs and focusing on another person’s wants, desires, and needs. It also demands that you listen from your heart rather than your head.

The world today is a far different place than it was 15 years ago. Your skill set has expanded to include a greater consideration for cultural differences, diversity, and inclusion. Workplace environments and laws governing the country, states and cities have broadened our perspectives.

9/11 is a time of remembrance. It is also a time to reflect and ask yourself how you’re doing. How do you demonstrate empathy in your workplace? In your personal life? In your community? How open-minded are you when you travel to other countries or when you welcome new citizens to ours? Where can you incorporate peace, love, and unity in your life?

The Power of Unified Silence

CircleBannerOn Sunday, July 17, 2016, on the eve of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, I witnessed the power of unified silence by participating in Circle the City With Love, a 30-minute silent “stand” to show the world that with peace, love and unity, anything is possible. Standing with me was my husband, Mark, my sister Marianne and my brother-in-law Gene. Circle the City With Love was the idea of Sister Rita Petruziello, executive director of River’s Edge, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph on Cleveland’s west side.

People from all walks of life, representing diversity in age, race, religion, lifestyle, economic background, and gender, joined hands as a sign of solidarity in bringing the Circle the City With Love message to the community, the nation, and the world. More than 2,000 people spanned the Hope Memorial Bridge, forming two lines across the historic 4,490-foot bridge. A group of about 30 police officers on bicycles received cheers of support and thank you’s from the crowd as they rode across the bridge.


Sister Rita Petruziello

When the fog horn blew, indicating that the 30 minutes of silence had begun, people became quiet immediately. I found myself fully present and aware of every environmental sound and sensation, the breeze, the heat of the sun on my shoulders, the din of distant traffic. Within moments, I felt tears welling up in my eyes as I experienced firsthand the power of purposeful silence. I wasn’t distracted by my usual “monkey mind” which is quite active, thinking of things to do. Rather, my mind was relaxed and at peace, joyfully demonstrating solidarity, unity, peace, compassion, love, and hope in action.

When the fog horn sounded to indicate the end of the stand, strangers embraced, hugged, shook hands, chatted a bit, and then went on with the rest of their day. Donning our Circle the City With Love t-shirts allowed us to identify our community anywhere in the city for the rest of the day. We didn’t have to say a word, just simply nod, sending a nonverbal cue that we shared a common purpose.

-8a5c2ebe922493b7Just one day prior, I had listened to Day 6 of Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey’s free 21-day meditation series, Getting Unstuck: Creating a Limitless Life. The message for that day was You Deserve More Than Second-Hand Experiences. A first-hand experience is one that you create for yourself, one that no one else can demand of you, one that reminds you, as Deepak suggests, that “I am the author of my day.”

For me, the Circle the City With Love experience was a powerful, memorable first-hand experience. As a result, I am challenging myself to create more first-hand experiences that expand my perspective and worldview.

When you live a purposeful life, you gain more from it. As Henry David Thoreau said, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”

How are you rising above and becoming the author of your day?

Images: Joshua Gunter,

Invite a Summer Attitude to Work

canoe_crop380wSummer is the time of year when the pace of life feels a bit more relaxed, less stressed, and fun. Why can’t we bring the casual joy of summer into the workplace? All it takes is a little creative thinking.

When I was growing up, I took advantage of every minute of summer. The sun and fun was short lived because school was right around the corner. As adults, it’s healthy to reacquaint ourselves with that child that still lives within us, and recall what made summer (and summer vacation) so great. Here are a few considerations to invite a summer attitude to work:

Simply be. If you are choosing to take a vacation this summer, practice being present in each moment and enjoy the sites, sounds, and experiences. Put away the cell phone, tablet or laptop and simply beVacation allows you to return to work refreshed and renewed, not stressed and frustrated. Remember to breathe and enjoy the moment. When you return to work, know that you can recall any pleasant vacation memories at any time you wish. I have observed people who, in meetings or one-on-one conversations, are distracted, thinking about something else. Be fully present and be more focused.

Embrace the silence. When I was a kid, there were no electric (or gas) powered leaf blowers, trimmer/edgers, power washers or behemoth commercial lawn mowers. At night, you could hear the collective chirp of crickets or the rustling of leaves on a tree as a gentle breeze moved through. To truly embrace the silence today means removing yourself from the constant source of noise, the hustle and bustle of traffic, construction, sirens, or power equipment. Sometimes it’s the noise in your head, the constant thinking, worrying, analyzing, and doubting that distracts you and consumes what could otherwise be valuable quiet time. When you do find a quiet spot, simply enjoy the tranquility and silence of that moment.

Move! One of my Mom’s best friends called me “the cyclone” when I was a child because I was constantly moving. Sitting at a desk all day isn’t healthy. Get up and move! Take several breaks throughout the day. Walk the halls. Take time on your lunch break to go outside and walk, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes. You will feel less sluggish and more alert.

Live a little. I don’t know about you, but when I am on vacation, I do things that I don’t often do when I’m at home. I walk more when I travel. I enjoy the taste of food more, especially regional cuisine. The air seems fresher and the sky looks a bit more blue. In some small way, I am giving myself permission to enjoy myself. What if that dividing line between leisure (or vacation) and work became more blurred? What if you brought more of that vacation “feeling” into your work life? You would certainly be a lot easier to work with…even a joy to work with. Imagine that!

With the right attitude, you can bring summer into your workplace. Before you know it, the day will fly by, and you will bring less stress home with you at the end of each day.

The Value of Daily Affirmations

Al Franken as Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live, circa 1990s

Professionals who lead successful lives have a secret weapon at their fingertips: Daily affirmations. These short, meaningful statements support who you are, how you behave, and the goals you pursue. They keep you focused on moving ahead.

Even Stuart Smalley, the adorable character created by Al Franken* for Saturday Night Live  back in the early 1990s, had a great positive affirmation that he said to himself in the mirror every day: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!” Just thinking about it makes me smile.

With positive affirmations, you choose messages that perfectly meet your needs. If you want to lead a calming life, that can become one of your daily affirmations. If you want to land a specific job, or earn a certain salary, those can become affirmations as well.

Eugene Burger, an internationally known professional magician and former theology professor, repeats this phrase to himself every morning as he showers: “I give myself permission to be powerful today.” Say that phrase to yourself several times right now. How do you feel? You can create different messages for yourself by inserting a different word in place of powerful. “I give myself permission to be…(generous, caring, respectful, knowledgeable, brilliant, helpful, resourceful)…today.” Before you know it, through positive daily affirmations you will live more of the life that you desire.

Another great affirmation that boots your self-esteem is this: “I am a unique package, filled with plusses and minuses, and the package is good.” This phrase speaks to our humanness because it is true, we all have plusses and minuses, and we have to accept and love ourselves, even the imperfections.

One final word about daily affirmations. If you have never recited affirmations, it can feel awkward at first. It can feel foreign or artificial. As you choose affirmations to suit your needs, and you begin reciting them every day, you will notice a gradual lifting of your spirits. Before you know it, you will feel more powerful or brilliant, generous, knowledgeable, caring, helpful, and resourceful.

*Now MN Senator Al Franken

Money Can’t Buy It

washington.eyeOf all the things that bring us the greatest joy in life, none of them are gifts that are purchased. Instead, they are gifts that come from the heart. They can be given or received. They cannot be bought.

Every year, beginning in late November, people begin purchasing items for holiday gift giving. Often within a few days after the presents have been opened, they become one of many material possessions, tucked away on a shelf, in a drawer, in a cupboard or a closet. The gifts that bring the most lasting joy are those that don’t cost a penny.

Consider the gifts that you can give to others every day:

A smile.

A kind word.

A thank you.

A helping hand.

Recognition for a job well done.

A story.

A shared memory.

A laugh.

A loving embrace.

A hug.

A positive attitude.

Not one of these costs a thing yet each delivers endless riches. What could you do to bring more value to conversations, exchanges or chance encounters this holiday season? How can you keep it going into the New Year? Every day?

Don’t just stand there…do something. If you see an older person struggling to open a door, come to the rescue. If someone drops a glove as she walks down the street, take it to her. If you see someone sitting alone at a gathering, go over and introduce yourself. Invest some time in giving to others. You just might make someone else’s day.

A Simple, Powerful Statement

philosophyDecades ago when I tried to wrap my young mind around Philosophy 101, I struggled to understand its inherent polarities, complexities and of course the never-ending string of thought-provoking questions asked by my professor. At 19, I saw the sky as the sky and that was it. I hadn’t yet explored why the sky existed, how far it extended or if a parallel universe existed. Over the years, I have continued my fascination with the field of philosophy and the brilliant minds who have explored – and continue to explore –  inquiry, knowledge and thought.

In recent years, I have enjoyed the various 21-day meditation series created and hosted by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. They often include the Sanskrit Mantra “So Hum,”  which simply means “I am.”

Such a simple statement, yet within it lies a vast terrain for contemplation and exploration.

In my professional presentations, I often begin with an engaging kick-off activity that asks audience members to think of a word or phrase that best describes who they think they are. Then I ask them to pair up with another person in the room to describe each other with just one word or phrase, always in writing, never spoken. They do several rounds of this, with different partners, before revealing to each other how other people described them. The activity has the same result: Surprise and delight. People come away from the activity feeling validated. Often their perception of self comes close to what other people perceived. Once in a while there are some differences. The activity drives home the point that perception and reality are not always exactly the same.

People’s responses to this activity reinforce the notion that we are conditioned to believe that we must be validated by others to feel whole and complete. The human brain is designed to “name” and categorize every living being, object or experience. We create and attach labels to every thought and the brain stores that information for future retrieval (if retrieved at all).

While this activity has positive, consistent results, it reminds me that when we are truly whole and complete, there is no need to fill in the blank. We are enough as is. We simply say with immense satisfaction and fulfillment, “I am.”

Are you?

Create A Portable “Zen” Space

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe word “Zen” conjures up images of quiet solitude, peacefulness and mindfulness. When we think of a Zen garden, for instance, we imagine a beautiful garden that evokes that solitude and peacefulness, a place where the mind, body and spirit can rest and replenish. The garden becomes an anchor, a place for focused concentration.

When I traveled to Japan for business more than two decades ago, my business associates and I visited some of the most beautiful Zen gardens and temples in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Whenever my head gets too full, I simply mentally return to one of those gardens for inspiration and clarity.

The beauty of a portable Zen space is that you always have it and can retrieve it as you take one deep breath. If you feel like you are rushing through the day, or your adrenaline is pumping because you are nervous or agitated, do this simple exercise:

With both hands held in front of you, at eye level, palms facing toward you, fingertips touching your thumb, eyes closed, slowly take in a deep belly breath. As you begin to exhale, make an extended sound, “Oh-m-m-m-m,” using up all of your breath while moving your hands down toward your lap to create an invisible curtain in front of you. By the time your hands reach your lap, you will be out of air and sound. It will clear your mind and help you to focus. Inhale and repeat if you need to. If you prefer, you can eliminate the audible “Ohm” sound and simply think the sound as you exhale.

One final question for you: What are the specific benefits that mental clarity could bring to you? List at least a dozen benefits to you.


OH-IO: A Lesson in Responsibility


Cardale Jones Photo: Getty Images

The story – and media clips – of the College Football Playoff National Championship game between The Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Oregon Ducks will go down in history as teaching top lessons about the power of positive thinking, team building, leadership and responsibility. It’s this last topic, responsibility, that deserves attention.

If you were in the shoes of Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes’ third string quarterback, would you be able to rise to the occasion as he did? How often in your career have you been asked to fill in for someone else who was originally assigned to lead a project team, deliver a conference presentation or meet with a big client? Each time you were chosen as a substitute, you faced a challenge: Do I shirk responsibility (“I can’t do this…I’m not qualified”) or claim responsibility (“I can – and will – deliver”)? Cardale Jones claimed responsibility and with that came victory.

Third string means there were two other quarterbacks ahead of Jones in the line-up. When the lead quarterback was injured, that moved Jones into second position. When that lead quarterback was injured, that moved Jones into the lead QB position. In this lead role for just a few weeks, Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes’ victory over the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Two weeks later, Jones again led the Buckeyes into victory over the Ducks with a 42-20 win, clenching the national championship title.

WOW. Congratulations to QB Cardale Jones, running back Ezekiel Elliott, coach Urban Meyer and the entire Buckeyes franchise for winning the national championship. If the media buzz is any indication, this success story will be told and retold for many years to come in schools, community centers and meeting rooms to inspire and motivate people to do their best.

The take away from this historical event: Anything is possible when you align leadership, team and talent with dedication, drive and responsibility. May we all be more responsible in our lives and in the work we do.

Because I’m Happy

BalloonsIt seems fitting to close out 2014 with recognition of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” the most played song on the radio in 2014. It also claimed the top spot on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 songs. You can only feel one thing when you listen to this catchy tune: Happy. How refreshing…Happiness and hope are remembered, not forgotten.

Amidst a chaotic world and turbulent times, it makes me happy to know that there are other people who crave – and encourage – happiness in their lives.

The volumes of research on the topic of happiness include Dr. Michael Fordyce’s happiness increase studies in the 1970s and the creation of the Fordyce Happiness Scale. Dr. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois is one of the most well respected (and cited) psychologists on the topic of subjective well-being. New York Times best selling author Gretchen Rubin has penned several contemporary books on the topic, including The Happiness Project. Today’s research has become more sophisticated. You can even participate in the Track Your Happiness research project that tracks your attitude towards life through your iPhone.

Think of the top ten things that make you happy. How much time do you invest in doing those things that make you happy? It’s time to create your list. It could include simple things. A hug. A conversation. Quiet time. Here’s a peek at my top ten list of the things that make me happy:

  1. My husband, Mark, gives me the freedom to be myself, and that makes me happy.
  2. Cherished conversations with my 94-year old Mom ground me.
  3. A solo walk in the park reminds me that I am part of a larger world.
  4. Quality time with people who I truly care about and who accept me for who I am is time well spent.
  5. Our two rescue cats bring me tremendous joy.
  6. Eating warm, fresh-baked bread (is there anything better?) helps me to stop and savor the flavor.
  7. Challenging, meaningful work keeps me engaged and interested.
  8. Contributing to charitable organizations allows me to help others.
  9. Gardening lets me create a beautiful environment and provides me with much-needed quite time.
  10. Singing out loud to a favorite song when no one else is around, well, that is so freeing.

As 2014 ends and 2015 begins, let me ask you this: What if you could share your happiness with others? What if you could share your support, care, even wealth, with people? You can. Something as simple as a kind word can bring a smile to someone’s face. And seeing that smile will make you feel happy. Speaking of happy…Happy New Year!