Bullies

Has a kid ever asked you how to deal with a bully? Did you have an answer ready? No? I think that’s typical. I doubt many parents are certain of what to advise. “Stand up for yourself” is not specific and “walk away” was likely already considered. Least helpful: “you need to fight this battle yourself.”

Last week, I read a story about adults who offered this last line of advice. In the end, a 12 year old boy drank pesticide after his pleas for help were ignored. This story upset me. Emotional, I whatapp’ed the parents of my son’s class. Along with the URL of the news article, I wrote a hasty note. As I hit send I realized it was rambling. I re-read it:

“We need to teach our kids to deal with conflict … esp when bystanders to bullying. Parents avoid stepping in for fear of making the situation worse. I suspect in reality many don’t know what advice to give. Well I do. I have specific actionable advice and the target actors are the bystanders. I’m not sure how to go about it. Whatapp me if you want to come up with a plan.”

Despite the longwinded text, I assumed the parents would be as moved as I was. I expected some replies, but instead heard crickets … chirping. The next morning … chirp. All day I thought about the tragic fact that no adults in that boy’s life knew how to help. After dinner, my phone jingled. Bless her heart. Shamani responded.

“Laura, we must meet one day 2 talk about your strategies 4 kids who witness bullying. U r rite it’s crucial we teach our kids how 2 act. Mine unfortunately is the target so he does interfere when he sees it happen and ends up being a target 🙁 but he still perseveres.”

The next day, another mother asked to join. And the next day another. On Saturday we will hatch a plan.

I may not have all the answers, but I have a start. For, in running the Customer Advisory Board I learned a lot about uncovering. When I enrolled my son at a parent participation school, I discovered my uncovering skills overlapped with the school’s #1 priority: to teach kids conflict resolution. I was made to take classes and read books. I took the job of teaching 4th and 5th graders conflict resolution. I used tips from the CAB program to teach bystanders how to deal with bullies, and gathered other tips in the process.

Long story short: bullies derive power from silent bystanders. So, I gave the bystanders tips and language to use in-the-moment when witnessing bullying. We role-played and brainstormed alternatives to violence. It went well.

With all of this experience under my belt, why then, why-oh-why then, did I not stand up to a bully two days ago at our dinner party?

Bob just opened a taco restaurant. It’s the only Mexican restaurant on Penang Island and Bob serves muncherific yummy food. We eat there so often it’s embarrassing. We’ve recommended Bob’s restaurant to many, including our neighbors, Mike and Diane (not their real names). Unfortunately, about a week ago, the pair contracted food poisoning. After three days of belly-achin’, they determined Bob’s restaurant was to blame.

Fast forward to last Saturday: I’d ordered nacho’s from Bob and he personally delivered the platter to our party. He came up for a beer and mingled. By six, though, he walked over to Diane and me and announced he had to get back to the restaurant.

“Bob, before you go, I have something to tell you,” Diane said. She explained the food poisoning and that she was certain it’d come from his restaurant. After stating the dishes they’d eaten, I assumed she was done and thanked Bob for coming. Diane started up again. This time, she really laid into him. “I don’t know what kind of an operation you have going on in that kitchen of yours but I imagine it is dirty. You hire these people, you know, these locals, and you can’t trust them. They’re filthy and I’m sure they’re not handling the food properly.”

Bob defended himself. “I do all the cooking and I invite you to come into my kitchen it is spotless. And my staff..”

Diane railed on, “I’m not interested in stepping foot ever again into your restaurant. I certainly won’t go into your kitchen. I don’t know where you buy your meat but it is bad and we will never return to eat there.”

Bob apologized. “Well, okay, but I must say I am not sure what happened. I keep a clean kitchen.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Diane barked, “your filthy staff prepared food that made us sick. Sick for three days. We were in bed and running to the bathroom for three days! And it was all because of your food.”

I wanted Donna to stop. I thought she was being unfair and shockingly racist, but I said nothing.

She continued. “I will never go there again and I’m telling everyone I know to never go there.”

“Oh please don’t do that,” Bob said. “I understand if you don’t want to come back but you don’t need to tell people to stay away. That’s unfair.”

“Oh no, I’m going to tell everyone I know to not come.” She went on and on and I sat there, incredulous.

Bob looked at me as if he’d been sucker punched. Then he said, “Well, okay then. I’m sorry you got sick. Laura, thank you for the party.” He left.

Now, the next day, I wonder, why didn’t I said anything? Why didn’t I stop her? It was not okay for her to berate my friend like that. Reporting what had happened was fine, but conjecturing about the state of his kitchen, making racist comments about the staff, and threatening to slow his success, well, that was all unacceptable. She’d acted like a bully. And how did I act? I acted like a bystander, witnessing abuse in silence. Even later that night when she vented to me about it, I bit my tongue.

Now I wonder, “why was I so silent, especially when I know better?”

Well for one, I kept thinking she was done. I tried a few times to move on but she brought the conversation back. Secondly I was in shock. Also, I’m not one to call someone out on their behavior. I figure ‘let them make their bed and lie in it’. Lastly, it was a party. I wanted to avoid conflict, not address it.

And here I am today, feeling very small. All this time I’ve been preaching to bystanders, smugly thinking I could solve the bully problem by getting them to speak up. Teaching those 4th and 5th graders, I was certain they just needed the tools. I thought, “they just need the words.” But the other day I had the tools and the words. Clearly they’re not enough. So, what was I missing? Courage? ‘guess so.

Luckily, when aligning with customers, the environment is usually friendly and gentle. Arguments might happen but they are rooted in co-discovery; they are attempts at answering, “how do we achieve this?” But bullies? They can really throw a person off guard. Their abuse is like a wide-range taser, shocking people all around into silence. It makes me think of the time I tried to coach a bully-of-an-executive and boy did he tear me a new one. I think I stood up for myself quite well then. But last night I failed to stand up for Bob. Why is that? Yep. I’m feeling small.

 

Aligning With Customers: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid

Why visit customers?  For product planners, a common reason is to gather product requirements.   Yet, in customer meetings, I’ve witnessed colleagues fail to learn what customers need or want. Indeed, I’ve seen co-workers write down ‘requirements’ that were dead wrong.  Why?  Because they fell victim to three common uncovering mistakes.

  • Getting stuck in today
  • Asking yes/no questions
  • Failing to discover ‘why?’

Years ago, my colleagues and I nearly walked away from a customer alignment meeting thinking the customer required a costly feature, when in reality he did not.  We had asked one seemingly simple question… and that question suffered from all three pitfalls.  Here is the story.

Note: details have been changed to avoid disclosing proprietary information,  names have been changed to protect the guilty, and the technology called ‘Ubit’ is totally fictional.

Bob, a system architect from a mid-size company, had just presented his roadmap. My co-worker began sharing ours.  Our intention was to validate plans for the next products and to gather further inputs to inform outstanding decisions, including whether to remove a legacy technology called ‘Ubit’.

Bob hadn’t expressed a need for Ubit in his roadmap. Rather than assuming Ubit to be a ‘don’t care’, someone from my team rightly asked Bob about it.  They just asked it in the wrong way: “Do you need Ubit?”  Bob sat up straight and replied, “definitely!”  Bob’s response surprised us. My colleagues took a defensive posture.  They immediately began exploring whether other solutions would be acceptable.  By brainstorming alternatives, they indicated a reluctance to support Ubit. Bob grew angry. The meeting took a bad turn.

What happened?  We had asked, “Do you need Ubit?”  A deceptively simple sentence, this question exemplifies what not to ask.  Three specific things are wrong with these four little words.

Pitfall #1. Stuck in today.  When a customer hears, “Do you need Ubit?”, he implicitly thinks in terms of today and answers in consideration of his current product.  The questioning team, however, is thinking about the future.  Each person is in a different time-frame.  My colleagues are trying to understand what Bob needs in the future just as Bob describes what he needs now.  The uncovering team believed Bob had a strong requirement for Ubit in the future, but his requirement was for now.

  • Remedy: Ask about the future. Simply be clear about the time-frame.  A better question would have been, “Will you need Ubit in two to three years?”  This is better, in that it clearly asks Bob to think about his system out in time.  However, it is still sub-optimal, because it suffers from the second pitfall.

Pitfall #2. Asking yes/no questions. Bob answered the Ubit question in one word.  He didn’t explain why he needed Ubit or in what configuration. Why should he have explained further?  He was asked a ‘yes/no’ question after all.   The problems with yes/no questions are many.  For one they presume there are only two possible answers,  Secondly, they fail to encourage an explanation. Third, yes/no questions fail to get at ‘why’.

  • Remedy: Ask open-ended questions. If your question starts with ‘Do’ or ‘Will’, you are probably starting a yes-/no question.  Instead, start your questions with ‘What’, ‘Which’ and ‘Why’.

Pitfall #3. Failing to ask ‘why’.  Yes/no questions are unskillful, but can be resolved by simply asking ‘why’.  However, in our example, the team didn’t try to understand why Bob needed Ubit.  Instead, they jumped into brainstorming alternative solutions, for example whether external Ubit devices would be acceptable.  They tried to come up with solutions rather than doubling down on discovering why Bob needed Ubit.

  • Remedy: Ask what the customer is trying to achieve and what their goals are. Ask future-focused open-ended questions.

After realizing what had gone wrong, I interrupted the bickering and asked, “Bob, what capabilities will you gain in your next generation product with Ubit?”  Bob quickly replied, “Oh it just allows us to connect to a legacy processor.  We use that processor for board management and system control.”

I then asked, “What design goals are driving use of that particular processor on your next project?”  Bob thought for a moment.  “Actually, we have to drop that processor.  We just received an end-of-life notice from the manufacturer and now we need to start looking at alternatives.”   He then volunteered, “You know, for our next project, I don’t think we need Ubit at all.”

WHAT?!@#$%?

We recorded Bob’s comments and moved on.  At the end of the meeting, we brainstormed ways Bob could replace that legacy processor with one of our products at low cost and low effort.

By talking in different time-frames, asking yes/ no questions and failing to uncover the ‘why’, our uncovering team nearly walked away from an alignment meeting with the wrong view of Bob’s requirements.   Luckily, we were able to ask two open-ended, future-focused and customer-centered questions that got us to the right answer, and to closer alignment with Bob.

Pitfall antidotes:

  • Explicitly ask about the future.
  • Ask open ended questions.
  • Ask follow up questions that help you genuinely understand what the customer is trying to achieve.

Examples:

  • “What capabilities will you gain in your next generation product by implementing Ubit?” (open ended, future focused)
  • “What design goals are driving use of that particular processor on your next project?” (asking for why)

It all seems so simple, right?  Yet, when we are absorbed in a conversation with a customer, it is easy to slip into bad habits.  Pro-tip: Spend a few minutes before the meeting and write down five open-ended, future-focused questions that get at what the customer is trying to achieve.  Formulate the questions before the meeting, and you’ll increase the likelihood of aligning skillfully.

Mommy Blogging

The night before I left CA to move to Malaysia, I went to ‘The Bank’ with two girlfriends. I hadn’t been to a bar in forever, but DH was in Malaysia getting the living situation in order, and DS was visiting his grandparents in WA. What the hell!

The Bank is a hole-in-the-wall bar in Saratoga. It’s dark, narrow and worn down. One girlfriend happened to be kid free that night too, so she quickly replied ‘yes’ to my FB invitation. She’s mother to one of M9’s nursery school mates. We’ll call her, ‘Hempy’. She’s a big fan of ganja. I think she tokes daily. Bless her heart.

The other girlfriend is DH’s ex-wife’s sister. We’ll call her ‘Drinky’. She’s a big fan of alcohol. I think she drinks daily. Bless her heart.

I offered to drive. The last thing I needed was a hangover getting on the plane in the morning. One drink every 2 hours would be my limit. The rest of the time it’d be soda water.

At the bar, we ordered drinks and chatted. Hempy’s in her late thirties. I always thought she was cute, but OMG, didn’t realize how much attention she attracted from men. That night they followed her around like puppies. At one point, one guy offered to toke us out in the back. She accepted. After that he had the impression that she was his date. As a courtesy, I ran interference a few times to give her a break from him.

Outside, I sat with Drinky and she was pretty sauced. She explained how everything was bullshit. She doesn’t hold back her opinions. She’s witty and smart. Her two major failings are these: drinking, and forever assuming negative intent. Both get her into trouble and both lead her toward darkness. But I still adore her. I see her inner beauty and charm. Plus I can swear like a cobbler, drink like a sailor, and freely say what’s REALLY on my mind sharing a bottle of wine with her.

We sat near a couple of Jimmy Buffet looking dudes. Chatted a bit. A few young kids popped out from the bar for a smoke. They couldn’t have been older than 21. I wish I had gone home that night and recorded exactly what they said. They were so callow, so eager, so ignorant. One kid kept trying to argue some really bullshit and naive political point. The Jimmy Buffet dudes, Drinky and I toyed with them mercilessly. At one point a J.B. dude winked at me and I nodded knowingly. The kids had no idea. They kept trying to convince us of some very black and white political ideology. Maybe it was objectivism? Perhaps. In any case, when the kids finished their smokes (WTF are they smoking for? At 21 they should know better right?), we all laughed. Oh. We were ass holes I’m sure, but it was kind of fun to drop my ‘every one play nice’ disposition for one night at a bar with no kids around. Well, if you don’t count those 21 yr olds as kids.

Back inside the three of us regrouped at the bar. Drinky was incoherent and negative, so Hempy and I chatted and laughed. Two twenty something guys came up and started hitting on us, well, IRL hitting on Hempy. When they started to realize we were over a decade older than they were, and that Hempy wasn’t interested, one of them said this.

“So, what is it? Mommy’s night out? That’s really sweet.”

W… T… F…. I looked at him like he’d just shit in his hand and wiped it on his face. They backed away.

We spent a couple more hours there. I let the mommy comment go for the time being and we danced ourselves into exhaustion and just had fun.

At 1am the wait staff began shrieking at us. “TIME TO LEAVE. GET THE FCK OUT! YOU CAN’T STAY HERE!” They were downright abusive.

Within a minute we were in the back parking lot standing next to my Prius. Doobie brothers toked the group out again and we chatted for a few minutes, feeling somewhat obliged. We climbed into my car. They kept talking to us. We slowly closed the doors and I started the engine. At last they cleared the way and we pulled out of the parking lot.

Don’t worry, I stuck to my guns and had only two beers in six hours. Even if the wait staff was rude at the end, they were kind to tee-totallers; I was never charged for my approx ten soda waters with lime.

Driving home I bitched about the mommy comment. Hempy agreed, even as she giggled continuously. Here’s the thing. No one except my son gets to call me mommy. It’s dismissive and rude. I’ve seen other ‘mom bloggers’ note similar feelings. It’s as if once categorized as a ‘mommy _____’ , your opinions and insights somehow don’t matter.

When a man cooks he’s called a ‘chef’. His creations are admired. When a woman cooks she’s called a ‘cook’. Her food is just food.
When a man takes 100% custody of his kids (like DH did before we married), he’s ‘a saint.’ When a woman does, she’s pitied for being a single mom.

The only woman from my childhood who commanded, neigh, demanded respect, was Dorothea. I’ve mentioned her before. She was a lawyer who carpooled to Washington DC with my dad. She didn’t tolerate being treated as anything less than equal to men. I wanted to be like her, knew I could be like her, and I chose a path that would get me to a place like hers. I was NOT going to be ‘just a girl’. I fled from traditionally female pursuits. I studied engineering and finance. I played golf and volleyball and music. When I look back, the real reason was that, from my earliest memories, I saw most women in my life received little respect, despite working their asses off.

The other night these sharp feelings resurfaced as I read this article about Male Asian computer programmer privilege. I remembered those micro-discouragements. I’ll write about one later perhaps.

It would have been a less emotional journey had there been NO baggage around my gender. Perhaps if that had been the case – if women in my family had been as respected as the men – I may have pursued some other interest. Or not. I loved studying science and math. My teachers were mostly inspiring and encouraging.

Regardless of the path I might have chosen if things had been different, the fact is there’s this deep ingrained drive in me to do things that garner respect as a person regardless of gender… actually, despite gender. As I’ve gotten older I don’t care as much. I now enjoy cooking creatively and regularly join a local ladies group to walk up a local hill. The feelings have tempered. Whatever. But don’t even think of calling me ‘mommie.’

——–

But I needn’t write more on the subject. Plenty of ‘mom bloggers’ have covered this ground. Here are a couple:

Am I Just a Mommy Blogger?

and

Don’t Call Me a Mommy Blogger

tl;dr – writing about family seems like it’d be unrewarding due to cultural dismissiveness of women and their traditional roles.