Listen. Laugh. Learn.

Laughter is a really good thing! When I discovered that the legendary Chicago-based company Second City teaches workplace skills through improv, I was ready to sign up.

A bit of a search took me to a site called Big Think on which I found a video featuring Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works.

“Somewhere along the line, someone decided training should be stiff and awful, and we just don’t buy that,” says Yorton, “and so the corporate-training arm of Second City was created.” How could the breeding ground for comedic greats from John Belushi to Tina Fey not include humor?

“Here, the audience is not just listening,” adds Yorton, “it’s experiential. Using humor to get people to loosen up helps the lessons stick. Research has shown that people retain humorous messages, funny lines and videos and tend to pass them on.”

The Second City Works tagline? “Where the buttoned down learn the Belushi method.”

As you know, I have written about the importance of listening and experiential learning several times over the years. I think it is so vital. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Yorton’s talk is titled “Listening: The most important skill that nobody learns,” which he addresses through the lens of improvisation.

The Second City workshops draw on years of experience working with collaborative improv troupes. The core tenets of their improv work cultivate a level of attentiveness to others that newcomers to the craft are often surprised that they have not learned.

Success in the purely spontaneous narrative form, they note, relies on listening to the totality of what other participants say before responding. How great it was to learn that Yorton believes in, as do I, the importance of listening to understand as opposed to listening merely to respond.

Performers of improv must necessarily be attentive to the entirety of what their collaborators say lest the performance becomes imbalanced or incoherent. This contrasts with a common (and largely unconscious) practice in daily life of passively waiting for the chance to utter predetermined monologues or defend one’s fixed ideas.

What they’re learning, ideally, is to tap into not only the skills used by improv actors — sharpened listening, quick processing — but their processes: building on one another’s premises to grow new ideas, working seamlessly as a unit, throwing themselves behind a colleague’s next thought.

A few additional tips from Second City Works:

  • Mind your language. Other word-choice tips: Use “I” less, and avoid buzzwords or techno-speak. Avoid “should” in favor of the less dictatorial “could,” which invites contribution and collaboration.
  • Be an active listener. Good listening is more than just eye contact; it’s giving cues to let others know you’re absorbing their ideas. Quiet signals like nodding and facial expressions are powerful communications.
  • Employ a samurai sword. OK, this isn’t on the list, but it worked for Belushi.

Now, on to laughing your way through learning how to be the best listener ever!

Esther C. Bleuel
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.

Attitude Is Everything!

During the past several weeks, I have experienced a heightened awareness of the powerful impact of attitude in my life as well as that of others. I have felt uplifted and grateful for the positive and encouraging attitudes of those dealing with life-changing challenges and disheartened by the negative and pessimistic attitudes of others.

Attitude is a state of mind, a way of thinking that is reflected in our behavior. We make critical choices about how to think about people, challenges and situations. When we have intense thoughts and feelings about something or someone — whether negative or positive — our attitude often “speaks” louder than our words.

This is why, when you feel hurt by or angry with someone, that person will most likely perceive your attitude whether you address the issue or not. You may think that you’re hiding your feelings, but non-verbal behaviors usually communicate our emotions more powerfully than spoken words. You may conceal your true feelings for a while, but not over time.

Conversely, a positive attitude and its non-verbal cues can communicate volumes about high regard, caring, affection, happiness, encouragement and resilience. No surprise that positive attitudes can be contagious and attract us to each other while negative attitudes can distance and shut us down from each other.

Psychologist Carol Dweck comments in her latest study about attitude and performance, “your attitude is a better predictor of your success than your IQ. Failure is information — we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, and I’m a problem-solver, so I’ll try something else.’”

Consider adopting a positive attitude:

  • Make a choice to think positively about someone or something. Realize that your attitude may be contagious.
  • Adopt an optimistic attitude about a person or situation, take action, then notice the impact you make.
  • Give someone the benefit of the doubt. It may result in a surprisingly positive outcome.
  • Demonstrate an attitude of curiosity and openness rather than challenging and resistant. What’s the payoff for judging something before facts are known?
  • Decide to approach uncertainty with openness and optimism instead of defensiveness or fear. Discover and learn before criticizing or judging.
  • Make a choice to engage and participate rather than to withdraw or abstain. Your experience will be more constructive.

Remember that many things happen in life over which we have no control. What matters most is how we handle ourselves and the meaning we attribute to the situation — how we feel and what we think about it.

Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes experiences in the concentration camp that show that man does have a choice of action and independence of mind. They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: “The last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Esther C. Bleuel
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.

How To Talk Politics Without Drawing Blood

Do You Really Want to Get Along?

Well, we have elected a new president, emotions are still running high and the country is divided. There are those of us who are encouraged and hopeful, and those who are angry and frightened. What about you?

Are you interested in understanding, or at least acknowledging, the validity of the perspectives of folks who disagree with you? And, that they have legitimate reasons for their opinions. Or, maybe you believe that those who oppose you are wrong, stupid or evil.

We may say that we want to get along. Unfortunately, what we really mean is that the other person should see things our way. The reality is that we must carry on working and living together despite a contentious election and a divided country. All we have is each other — you and me and a few billion other folks who live on this planet. We can and should decide to treat each other as if it matters, because it does. Because all you can do is all you can do, and it’s incumbent on each of us to do our best.


So, how do we do that? How about starting with a constructive, optimistic attitude? Suspend assumptions and judgments about people and situations, especially when you lack facts. Recognize that if you want to persuade or influence someone, it is virtually impossible to change someone’s mind by arguing with them. Instead, seek to find common ground by listening to understand what they believe and why it’s important to them. The result? They will be more likely to listen to you. Democracy requires cooperation and engagement as well as competition. Above all, be civil.

Civility is:

  • Claiming and caring for your own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.
  • Reaching consensus or suspending judgment; agreement is not required.
  • More than just politeness, although politeness is necessary.
  • Disagreeing without disrespect and seeking common ground for dialogues about differences.
  • Listening to others with your heart, mind and strength. It requires hard work to stay present when we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements.
  • Separating your feelings about the person and their opinions from your assumptions about their character, without letting go of your moral and political principles.
  • Ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody’s is ignored.

Civility requires:

  • Respect and courtesy in language, demeanor and actions with others.
  • Respectful acknowledgment of individual differences and human decency.
  • Empathy and patience with each other.

Benjamin Franklin famously changed his abrasive and headstrong ways when he discovered that winning arguments was not very useful. Respecting other people led to goodwill and politeness helped him to avoid the bitterness of continuing a conflict. Instead of harshness, arrogance and anger, he embraced decency and kindness to encourage good humor and a willingness to find common ground. Are you willing to learn from Ben Franklin?

Each of us intuitively wants to matter and longs to be heard, understood and respected. We recoil when we feel demeaned, judged or criticized. Showing respect and compassion to others paves the way for finding the common ground that exists between us as humans and citizens.

What if it’s true that life is much more interesting and fun when you adopt a learning attitude, to gain insight and explore — not just to prove that you are right? Embrace a life full of puzzles, questions, opportunities and challenges.

I encourage you to be part of bringing the country together by reaching out to individuals within your sphere of influence. By connecting, one conversation and one interaction at a time, you can bring meaning to the words of Abraham Lincoln who famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Map courtesy Ali Zifan – This file was derived from: USA Counties.svg
Esther C. Bleuel
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.

Talking Politics! Can We Still Be Friends?


It’s no secret that emotions are running higher than usual this election year. We have two flawed candidates and much is at stake. All U. S. citizens have the privilege and the responsibility to vote — in this case for our next president. If we seek out discussions about the election or happen upon them, it is important to decide how we want to handle ourselves.

When I believe something strongly, I have invested my time and energy in forming that opinion. So, when someone criticizes, judges or attacks my position, it can feel very personal. And, I always want to understand their reasoning.

You’re for [choose one] Trump/Hillary? Are you crazy!

A person’s belief is what they think, a firm opinion. It is not their identity. A position is what you want. An interest is why you want what it and is always more powerful because it encompasses our feelings. It’s what we care about, what motivates us. Because we invest emotionally and identify with issues, when our position is criticized or judged, arguments can begin quickly and escalate.

We imagine that if we show others the facts we have amassed, they will reach the same conclusions that we did. That, of course, is not true. Each individual is unique, has different life experiences, values and priorities. We imagine that if we explain our opinion logically, we can persuade them that ours is the correct conclusion. If we fail to listen and communicate with care and show respect to the person, a contentious interaction or significant disagreement can poison a relationship.

In fact, our brains are designed to be social, to belong and connect. When we talk with like-minded people, friends and associates, it is easy to exchange information, commiserate, support or gripe. When “preaching to the choir,” we usually enjoy affirming our beliefs and positions.

However, if you find yourself in a social or work situation where politics is the topic, decide what you want to have happen. What do these people mean to you? Are the relationships important to protect? Is the issue important to you and are you knowledgeable about it? What is your purpose in participating — learning, arguing or persuading? The goal of a political discussion should be understanding, not winning — see the other person’s perspective; stand in their shoes. Find common ground because we’re in this life together and there is always more than one way to solve a problem or accomplish a goal.

If you do decide to risk discussing politics, here are 10 tips for how to remain civil and have a constructive conversation that stays on track and shows respect to others.

  1. Be prepared. Know the essential facts and points of your position. Imagine a realistic constructive result from the conversation.
  2. Assess carefully when to argue or not. Is this the right time and place? Will the person be reasonable?
  3. Clarify your meaning. Your choice of words, body language, attitude, tone and manner of speaking will affect how your message is received.
  4. Seek to understand. Ask the person to explain their thinking. Listen deeply for meaning.
  5. Respond by acknowledging their points. You don’t have to agree. Respectfully challenge the facts or their conclusions.
  6. Stay focused. Beware of distractions, side issues, “straw man” arguments. One issue at a time. Be brief and clear.
  7. Use understandable language. Keep to the point.
  8. Creatively resolve deadlock. Find one thing in common.
  9. Respect the individual. Don’t make the ideas personal. Never humiliate, embarrass, denigrate or insult the other person.
  10. Be kind always, even when angry. Communicate the source of your disagreement respectfully so the other person can actually hear you.

A free society invites debate, compromise and finding common ground. Citizens need to be morally strong and accountable as well as educated and informed about issues because we’re in this together. Because our Constitution guarantees equal rights for all, we each have the freedom to speak, worship, work, learn and contribute to the general welfare — to be part of a solution.

But, remember:

“You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” — Anonymous

Esther C. Bleuel
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.

Can Arguing Strengthen Relationships? You Bet It Can!

Have you ever been surprised when a conversation escalates into an argument? Welcome to the human race! But, wait! Before you shut down or attack, take a moment to understand what really happened. Consider it as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship.

Here are a few things to do quickly.

(PS: I don’t promise that this will be easy.)


  • Stop briefly to understand why the conversation escalated. By doing this you are thinking and choosing your response. This will prevent you from immediately reacting, or to act without thinking of the outcome you desire.
  • Determine if this person and the relationship are important to you? Is this issue important to you?
  • Ask yourself, do I want to have a constructive conversation about the issue or the situation? Or, do I want to prove a point and win? If convincing is your goal, the argument will probably continue and perhaps damage the relationship. If neither of you is willing to engage in a civil discussion, best to leave it alone

It’s important to remember that mutual understanding and respect provide a strong foundation for trust and friendship. Disagreeing without being disagreeable and hostile is much more important than the actual content being discussed. Most of the time, reasonable individuals will acknowledge that others have valid rationale for their differing perspectives and opinions.

Willingness to acknowledge differences about important issues, and knowing where the other person stands and why it’s important, tends to make us feel safer. Transparency helps us to understand, accept and learn about divergent opinions, even when we don’t agree.

Showing respect and regard for others while disagreeing is crucial. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinions and positions. Separate the person from their opinion—it’s not their identity. Denigrating someone for their position gets us nowhere and solves nothing.

Again, I’m not saying that this is easy to do! However, when we are able to respectfully acknowledge viewpoints with which we disagree, we have the opportunity to:

  • Learn more about an issue or a perspective different from our own.
  • Clarify our own thinking when we articulate our opinion and subject it to another person’s challenges.
  • Deepen the relationship by giving respect to the person by understanding their position on an issue of disagreement without criticism or judgment.
Esther C. Bleuel
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.