Gifts, Great and Small


The best gifts don’t come in packages at all

Sometimes clichés are actually true. “It’s better to give than receive” has actually been shown to be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver both psychologically, and when at work, professionally. And you don’t have to necessarily be like my friend Mimi, who each year on her birthday gives a gift or random act of kindness for every year she has blessed us with her presence on this earth. You don’t have to wait for Christmas either. And, even better, these gifts are free, don’t need to be wrapped, and take no additional time on your part.

Ah, I’ve turned into a snake oil salesman, you think. Is this too good to be true?

You be the judge of these gifts:

Your Undivided Attention, With Openness and Acceptance – You interact with others all day, ranging from the few seconds it takes to pass a stranger on the street to lengthy conversations with loved ones. The quality of that interaction has more to do than just the duration of that meeting: it also has to do with whether the recipient has your undivided attention. Furthermore, if you approach that interaction with positivity and openness (as opposed to negativity, judgment, and the need to control), that 2 second to 2 hour interaction is its own gift to the recipient.

Your Forgiveness – We live in a complicated society and culture where it seems like even the most benign gesture, action or words can hurt or offend.   If you feel someone has wronged you, consider your own failed attempts to avoid offense. Others most likely are trying their best to avoid trespass, despite what may seem like malintent. Forgiveness is a big gift to them, and an even bigger gift to yourself when you can let go of resentment and hurt.

Space – Sometimes others just need space: space on the road, space around their physical being or home, space without interaction or pressure, or space to just make their own decisions, process, and reflect. Maybe you need your own space. Give it to yourself as a way to give love to yourself.

These seemingly small gifts can actually be major even though they are free and take little or no extra time. Remember, like any new habit, these practices may feel awkward at first but will feel more natural with time. Observe the gift’s impact on others and how they make you feel, as the giver. My guess is it will feel like the best part of Christmas, every day!

Assumptions About Others

If you think about it, there’s so little in our world that we really understand. From the very nature of matter, mass, human psychology, and the universe, much of our reality is more unknown than understood. That space of not knowing can be a difficult place to sit. Optimally, not knowing provides a sense of wonder and awe. At worst, that space feels overwhelming, even scary. Humans seem to have a tendency to create explanations in attempt to understand the unknown.

It’s not just heaven and earth that I make assumptions about. I believe I make assumptions all day long, explaining the inconsistencies and unknown minutiae that populate my day.  My knowing assumptions make sense and order of the unknown so that I can move on. Most of those assumptions are probably inconsequential: the stranger next to me is safe; my car is in good working condition; I do not have any major lurking health issues; our kids have what they need. But which is not?

We may have limited power to turn those knowing assumptions into facts. I might be able to google the definition of a new word, but I can attain only a limited certainty about my health with my annual check ups. I can check in with my kids to make sure they’re doing well, but I don’t have access to their inner world. Nor may they. For that matter, parts of my inner world are not accessible to me either; more vast reaches of unknown space.

We may be able to turn precious few knowing assumptions into fact. For the rest, being less certain and more curious about the assumptions that impact our lives seem like a good idea. For example, if your life’s ambition or wellbeing depends on X being available and in good working order, then regular objective assessments and maintenance of X may minimize unpleasant surprises. If one’s unhappy state of mind is the result of someone else’s feelings or opinions, realize that you cannot know their inner world and what they really feel or think. Even if they’re acting out against you, it may be more about them than anything personally related to you.

To make matters worse, confirmation bias says that we tend to only notice data that confirms our beliefs and ignore data that contradict them. In other words, evidence of the forgiving interpretation may be right under our nose but we may fail to see it.

Which beliefs in your life are more assumption than fact? Which have created or the potential to create a real problem in your life? Recognize that the belief is really a theory and explore different hypotheses. Chances are, you’ll never know the complete truth so you might as well take the forgiving and peaceful view. Use the confirmation bias to your favor and notice the data that confirms the kind interpretation, then let someone else work to prove you wrong.

Others’ Hidden Reality

Someone recently told me that you never know if someone is going into, in the middle of, or exiting a storm or personal catastrophe. In other words, that person who is rude, short, or inconsiderate with you may have some significant sh** going on in their lives.

Granted, personal catastrophe is completely subjective and variable. I know people who go from one storm to the next, seemingly without a break, and others who seem to have never seen a stormy day in their lives. Others’ catastrophes are not for us to judge. What’s easy for me may be hard for someone else, and visa versa. And most of the time, there’s no way to tell what’s going on internally after casual interaction with an obnoxious or annoying person.

Though it’s natural to take the slights by others personally and respond with outrage or resentment, it’s not a formula for psychological well-being. In his book, the Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Miguel Ruiz says that in order to have a life filled with love and happiness, we should never take slights personally.

Personal experience tells me this is often easier said than done.  My first inclination is to get mad and judgmental in response to a rude or inconsiderate person. However, imagining the possible storms past, present or future the other may be experiencing helps me to replace judgment with compassion.

For example, I recently learned about a mean woman who was used as a scapegoat as a child. No wonder she’s bitter; her world view since she was a child was based on the belief that life is unfair and harsh. Can you really blame her for being bitter? Should I take it personally if she’s mean to me? Instead, perhaps I can find compassion for the poor girl within who sees the world as a harsh and unloving place.

Sometimes the VIA forgiveness strength ( is discussed in terms of being a strength that is used episodically. I don’t think it is. I believe we can find forgiveness for all our daily and ongoing human flaws, small and large.   That forgiveness begins with myself and gives me the courage to look inward at my own shortcomings and trespasses. Like that scapegoat child, we carry our wounds forward and they influence us in ironically cruel and inexplicable ways as we continue to suffer their impact through our relationships and into adulthood. Forgiveness may allow us to examine and forgive those wounds in ourselves and others and find ways to accept and heal them.

Stuck in Anger and Resentment

I think one of the most impactful changes I have made in my life was learning to avoid getting stuck in anger and resentment towards others.  I used to just spend hours or even days just seething with resentment about how someone else was doing wrong, being wrong, mistreating me or someone else, or making the wrong decision. I was unable to see how they could be so misguided when the truth or right path was so obvious.

Sometimes I was right. More likely I was wrong. It didn’t matter though because either way I was spending a lot of time and energy on something that was not mine to decide. Whenever I go there, I give away my personal power, ability to be at peace and control of my mental faculties in exchange for feeling self-righteous and judgmental.

Granted, it’s a bit different if I had responsibility for the outcome of the situation and it was part of my job or role to take action. In that case, my opinion is germane and I have a responsibility to either learn about the others’ perspective and/or do something about it. Still, getting upset will not help me make a good decision about how to proceed.

But most of the time I’d get worked up about something that really wasn’t my business or my place to decide, even if it impacted me. For example, I might not like how my best friend makes decisions about her life. But it’s her life, even if the repercussions might have an impact on me eventually. In the past I might’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince her of the ‘right thing to do.’ At best it’s a waste of time. At worst I can be giving bad advice (who am I to know how she should live her life?) and I could be harming our relationship by judging her or her actions.

So here’s what I try to do when I’m stuck in the Judging Others and Their Actions Mode:

  • Calm down and get some emotional distance – If I’m emotional and overly invested in an outcome that’s none of my business, I’m not likely to be using my best judgment.
  • Know what I actually have control over – Most of the time I only really have control over my own thoughts, feelings and actions. The less real control I have over a situation, the more I should let it go. Nagging someone else does not count as having control.
  • Look for judgment – It’s easy to armchair quarterback someone else’s life but I don’t know what’s going on in their world, even if I think I do. They have a different view of the world and different values than I do. Those differences don’t make them wrong or bad, just because I don’t understand them.
  • Assume they’re doing their best under the present circumstances – Imagine what kind of circumstances could lead them to these behaviors. It does not mean that you have to agree with their choices. It simply allows you to see how a reasonable person might make the same decision.
  • Consider how you would want to be treated in this situation – I’m sure you don’t want to be judged or criticized if you are struggling with a similar situation.   Perhaps a conversation is warranted to see how you can be supportive of them and their journey without encouraging or rewarding the behavior you dislike. This approach has the additional potential benefit of gaining a better understanding of their perspective.
  • Know that bad situations are sometimes good things – Just like negative emotion sometimes spurs positive actions, so do bad situations. We sometimes judge situations to be bad, when they are sometimes opportunities for much needed change and growth.  Keeping that in mind might help to ratchet down the emotion.
  • If they’ve done something that negatively impacts you directly, forgive them for being human. You would want the same courtesy if you’re struggling with a bad situation. That does not mean, however, that you have to tolerate the behavior going forward. Knowing and enforcing your boundaries is not the same as judging.

If you don’t think this person deserves your effort to find a more forgiving and accepting perspective, consider that this accepting perspective is a gift you give yourself. If you are spending time and energy nurturing negative emotion, give yourself the gift of positive emotions such as tranquility, forgiveness and compassion. Your generosity will help you feel better, regain your peace, retain your personal power, and preserve or even enhance your relationship.   If that isn’t a win-win-win, I don’t know what is.

Using Character Strengths Every Day

You all know I’m a big fan of looking at people through a strengths-based lens.  I can’t help it.  Once you understand what the strengths are, you just can’t help but to see how incredibly amazing every single one of us are.  It’s addictive to see everyone in such a positive light.

But the Clifton StrengthsFinders is not the only strengths assessment.  The University of Pennsylvania Center for Positive Psychology has their own strengths test based on character strengths (VIA Survey, free on   Though the test is constructed similarly to CSF, the VIA is based on the characteristics that cultivate well-being.  CSF was constructed to help people be engaged and successful.  In my opinion, they’re both two sides of the same coin, just coming at the same thing from different angles.

Since I’ve been trained as a Gallup CSF coach, that has tended to be my angle, but I’m interested in also developing and exploring my VIA strengths.   My top five VIA strengths are forgiveness/mercy, capacity to love and be loved, gratitude, industry/diligence/perseverance, honesty/authenticity/genuineness.   Just for reference, my CSF strengths are input, intellection, relator, ideation and strategic.    Both are equally valid in my mind.

But I haven’t really focused on my VIA strengths.  They seem to be more oriented to my personal life, but are they?  Does that mean my CSF is oriented to my work life?

I will argue that both sets of strengths apply to all parts of my life.  After all, I don’t divide myself into my work-self and my home-self.  They’re one and the same and I’m the same person regardless of the setting I’m in (thus my “genuineness”… but that’s true for all of us).

How can I use forgiveness and love at work?  Interestingly, I feel the Arbinger Institute philosophy of treating others as I would like to be treated applies.   My forgiveness allows me to treat others as people, not obstacles, pains-in-the…neck, or problems.    My reluctance to objectify them to something sub-human allows me to overlook small grievances that might otherwise interfere in a smooth working or professional relationship.

Perhaps finding ways to use love at work is less obvious.  I think most of my colleagues would recoil a bit if they were told that they had to use love at work to be engaged and successful.  I say that because I recoiled a bit when I first thought about it, and I’m a pretty touchy-feely person, don’t you think?  It may not surprise you to know, however, that my personal mission is to use active love to help people and organizations in my life become the best possible versions of themselves (click here to learn more about active love).  Shortly after I identified my mission, I was able to identify my passion:  developing people and thus the organizations they serve.

I think academics are drawn to teaching and research because of that service mentality.  We are serving mankind via our scholarship and research.  We’re serving our students through education and learning.  Every organization, really, has to have some type of meaningful mission to be successful, and that meaning tends to relate back to serving people or some aspect of our planet.

If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.


All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!



Calm During the Storm

Calm waters

Calm waters

One of the markers of growing up, IMHO, is to remain calm during provocation.  In the past (and occasional present), my reaction to a negative stimuli such as an angry, disrespectful or thoughtless person was to respond in kind with anger or disrespect.   Imagine a two-year old having a tantrum but trying to maintain a calm demeanor.   That’s me at my worst (well, except for when I actually lose it.)

There’s nothing wrong with that reaction per se; we feel how we feel.   But now that I’m in my middle years, I would prefer to take a steadier approach to life’s turbulence.  I don’t feel good, content or effective if I’m simply wrestling with turbulent and negative emotions.  And by caving into or even fueling those emotions, I’m likely to escalate the situation to where one or both of us then does or says something that we both will later regret.

If only there were a pill for this kind of thing (or is it Valium or Prozac?)  There’s just no quick fix for controlling or managing  what can be destructive emotions.  But I do think practicing a few concepts or exercises has helped me over the years.

  1. Interpretation – Just because I interpret an action or words in a certain way (disrespectful, thoughtless, hostile), does not mean they were intended that way.  This may be someone else’s usual MO (or not at all directed at me) and I’m reading too much into it.  See Eeny Meeny Miny Mo – I Choose Fear.
  2. Forgiveness – Even if someone intended disrespect, aggressive, passive-aggressive or selfish behavior, it does not mean I have to get upset about it.  By believing that everyone is trying their best given their unique circumstances allows me to let go of any negative reciprocal feelings I may develop. See Finding Forgiveness and Tit for Tat Played Out.
  3. It’s not about me – You’ve heard of projection, right?  Projection occurs when I have an emotion such as resentment but then accuse someone else of being resentful.  I project because I perceive that emotion is coming from outside rather than from within.  I’ve had people yell at me and accuse me of how angry I was while I sat and watched them.  The irony and hypocrisy was lost on them.  Not that I’ve never made similar accusations myself…
  4. Perspective – Here’s where I step back and ask myself what the end goal is.  Is it my goal to be right?  To get my way? Or to foster my relationship in light of a challenge?  I don’t know about you, but when I engage in a prolonged and/or heated argument about who is right, even if I get a concession, I end up feeling a bit dirty afterwards.   It feels like I just bullied someone into agreeing with me.  That makes me an a**hole, not “right.” Also, if I “win” then that means I had to make someone else “lose.”  Life is not a zero sum game and I refuse to play it that way.
  5. Quality of life – When I’m in that tantrum-ish state, I’m just not happy.  I’m neither my best self nor am I being the person I want to be.  Peace of mind has becoming a priority to me since I’ve spent so long squandering it.  I also refuse to give away my power to have peace of mind to someone else.
  6. Reflects Poorly on Me – That emotional tantrum is just plain unattractive and reflects my juvenile mentality.
  7. Setting an Example – It’s particularly damaging to cave or escalate that tantrum when children, students or people I mentor are present.  I am demonstrating that I believe my needs and beliefs are more important than someone else’s.  Is that the lesson I want to teach to others?
  8. Meditate and journal – Doing these exercises regularly helps to get out of one’s head where these destructive beliefs and messages germinate and flourish.  When I’m feeling particularly antagonistic to someone, I meditate on wishing them peace, joy, and love.  I open my heart to their pain and humanity and, in so doing, am open to my own.

This effort, like everything else I do in my life, is a journey.  A work in progress.  Part of the forgiveness element includes forgiveness for myself when I  respond poorly to someone else and their best effort.   They’re doing their best.  So am I.  And that is good enough for me.

Tit-for-tat, Played Out



Reciprocity, whether returning either a favor or a bad deed, apparently is wired into the human psyche (see Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  If someone gives us a gift or a favor, we are conditioned to reciprocate.  That’s why we get free address labels and greeting cards in the mail  from people who want our money.    There is also an upside to reciprocation that occurs when starting with a no-strings-attached good deed or compliment.  Good begets good, positivity begets more positivity, resulting in an upward spiral of emotional goodwill and gratitude. “I like your dress.” “Thanks, I like your shoes!” “And you’re so smart…” etc.

But what about reciprocity with regard to bad deeds?

Humans are also inclined to reciprocate insult or injury.   You say something bad about me and I say something bad about you.   In fact, to some degree, this kind of negative reciprocity helps maintain social order.  Wrong-doers are kept in line using reciprocity  (punishment or condemnation), which actually has enabled the growth of large, cooperative social groups.

So, is that always the right thing to do?  Eye for an eye since vengeance enables the existence of our social order?

The problem with reciprocity is that both slights and concessions alike can be subject to interpretation.  I might mistake someone’s comment for my “interesting” apparel as a compliment even if it was not intended as such.  However,  if I return a compliment instead of another insult, I am not creating harm.  I may even be creating goodwill where there was once cynicism or contempt. 

Conversely, I may mistake a benign or generous gesture as an insult or injury.  My sister may offer to loan me money.  I might take offense if I believe she’s implying I can’t take care of myself, when her intent was to make sure I didn’t have financial worries.  In this case I’m creating animosity out of nothing, or worse, out of a good intention.   If I get angry, I may even tell her I know her intentions better than she knows them herself.  I get extra points for being particularly obnoxious and arrogant.

I could feel so certain of the fact that “she started it” and feel justified in my actions.  I might even be right.  But this argument evokes memories of playground politics for which I can’t help but feel embarrassed by on my own behalf.  Additionally, every situation tends to have many possible interpretations, and  the consequences and possible repercussions cannot always be completely identified.  For example, I tend to make decisions based on what I think (Myers-Briggs J type), but sometimes a feeling-type approach (F type) is actually a better choice.  I might get into a huge argument with an F about a decision, and we can both be right. It’s a matter of interpretation and priority.

Misunderstandings can easily occur between loved ones with regards to our five love languages.  My partner may show love by giving gifts, but I may perceive love by how much time we spend together.  Neither of us is right. We have different perceptions and perspectives.  These differences can be used to create blame and conflict when there is nothing but good intentions and love from both parties.

I have also written recently about how it is also human nature to be hypocritical.    So, imagine now that I am the recipient of a slight or insult that I myself am guilty of (hypocrisy) and now I indulge my tendency to reciprocate and take revenge on the other.  For example, I might view my partner’s gifts as indulgent and unloving and then withdraw and withhold what makes him feel loved.  I might feel perfectly justified and certain that he’s intentionally neglecting me but simultaneously blind to how I am purposefully now neglecting him.   Therefore, I misinterpreted (or had a different perception of) what was actually a good intention and converted it into blame, anger, and conflict.  How am I doin’?  Sad to say, I’m in good company.

As logical as this may seem in the blogosphere, unfortunately it is our unconscious nature to be hypocrites and then exacerbate our hypocrisy by reciprocating perceived wrongdoing.  So, we can maybe just give into our base tendencies and indulge in contempt, gossip, judgment, and lack of forgiveness while blaming the other.  Or we can try to have self-awareness and forgiveness of our shared imperfect human nature. 

It’s impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy or feelings of vengeance and judgment.  But I can be more aware of these normally unconscious tendencies and make a choice about which direction to take them.  For me, a huge red flag is certainty.  The more certain I feel, the more likely I am to be indulging in hypocrisy and the less likely I am to be open to someone else’s perspective.

I do feel this hypocrisy awareness has allowed me though to use reciprocation differently:  I am more likely to choose a forgiving interpretation of others’ behavior since I hope they will reciprocate and choose a forgiving interpretation of mine.  This, dear friend, is a gift worth giving.