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.

You Did What?! How Could You!

Would you be surprised to learn that guilt and shame are not the same? They are, indeed, different. And, the importance of understanding that difference enables us to appropriately address and deal with “guilty” thoughts and feelings and to reject often undeserved “shame” messages.

When we act badly, in opposition to our values, it may cause us to have a guilty conscience. Shame, on the other hand, is a deeply held belief that we are an unworthy person. When a child is told, “You are such a bad girl/boy!” it can become a shaming identity.

Shame and Guilt

When we feel guilty, we often want to reject, deny or defend our actions, “acting out” to distract attention from or excuse our bad behavior. Children can experience guilt as early as three to six years old. An example would be telling a lie about stealing a cookie.

The seeds of shame may also begin in childhood, often emanating from childhood experiences of neglect, abandonment, abuse, humiliation or messages of disrespect.

“Good” Guilt

  • We feel psychologically uncomfortable about something we said or did that is wrong or conflicts with our values.
  • A guilty conscience motivates us to be accountable, to make amends, to learn and change.
  • We may seek forgiveness from a person we offended in order to repair and heal the relationship.
    Selfishness, gossip or unfairness at someone’s expense provokes guilt if we value and respect the rights and welfare of others.

Unhealthy Guilt

  • Feeling psychologically uncomfortable about our conduct measured against unrealistic standards or expectations.
  • Feeling guilty or responsible for someone else’s bad or rude behavior (a friend or family member).
  • Feeling guilty for being happy or alive when others are ill, suffering or grieving.


  • A subjective internalized feeling and belief of being a worthless person; fundamentally flawed.
  • A humiliating belief that others see us in the same negative way as we think of ourselves.
  • Treatment of individuals like objects, without regard for human dignity, obliterates one’s sense of self-respect or worth.
  • Degrading, unjust or cruel treatment by others invokes humiliation and shame.
  • Association with and proximity to another’s cruel or disgusting behavior, an environment or circumstance may cause a shame identity.

Understanding the difference between guilt and shame is important. We have a choice to change and also to repair damage caused by our guilt-producing behavior

Shame is more complex. It can become part of one’s identify – a belief that one is a fundamentally flawed or unworthy person. Children who are shamed can be robbed of their own identity. Adults may be shamed when their dignity is stripped away or when they engage in morally offensive, cruel or illegal conduct. Redeeming one’s dignity is much more difficult than simply changing bad behavior.

Most of us have experienced guilt or shame at some point in our lives. What about you? I Certainly have. My soon-to-be-released book will include more about these and other challenging issues. If this information resonates with you, please read my other blogs at

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.

The Power of Emotion

A recent presentation with several colleagues at a training retreat in Toronto for professional mediators opened my eyes to something I had not really thought about before. It was fascinating.

Most of the mediators were lawyers who have tired of, or burned-out from, dealing with the adversarial nature of conflict. Mediation offers them a more collaborative way of resolving disputes.

Our presentation “Mediation Master Class: Changing The Lens” analyzed a commercial/business partnership case. We approached the case from three perspectives: legal, business and psychological, which was my lens. Many mediators who were present failed to perceive the significance of the psychological aspects of the dispute. Nor did they understand the intensity of the parties’ feelings or how to deal with them. Because emotion provides a primary impetus for resolution, it was an important experience.

power of emotion

One of the presentations about the brain science that underlies emotions demonstrated several important skills for accessing and de-escalating the strong feelings that can block the resolution of any conflict. This included experiencing emotion, self-awareness, empathy, and the power of listening and reflecting the other party’s feelings.

While disputants have feelings about their situation, the circumstances and the opposing party, anger is generally the presenting emotion. This is true even when the underlying feelings of hurt and fear may be even more intense. These deeper emotions are seldom addressed effectively, which is unfortunate because they move people much more than words alone.

By inclination and training, attorneys solve problems using the essential skills of cognition, logic and rational thinking. Judges and arbitrators must remain neutral and are required to resolve disputes based on facts, not the personal stories of the parties. Let’s face it, people and their feelings are messy!

It’s important to understand that, even in complex business disputes, emotions often provide the catalyst for resolution. An individual who has been wronged, deceived, betrayed, suffered a breach of trust or an injustice by a business partner has suffered twice. Once for the offense and once for the relationship injury.

This is why a durable resolution requires that parties resolve the presenting problem or dispute as well as repair their relationship. It is very difficult for individuals to recover and let go of unfairness and hurt. Thus, the motivation to adhere to an agreement is diminished unless they fix the problem and fix the relationship.

Lawyers know that parties have strong feelings about their conflict. However, most don’t really understand how to address or manage the emotions that would help their clients to effectively resolve their disputes.

Attorneys also understandably worry about clients getting emotionally “out of control” and saying things that may damage or undermine their case. However, sometimes what a client really wants is to understand what happened and to know that the opposing party cares about them. Sometimes one wishes for an apology or acknowledgement of unfair or hurtful behavior.

Usually, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. This is especially true of business partners where there is a relationship and a dispute. Both must be addressed, cleaned up, in order to achieve a durable resolution that allows individuals to repair, recover and move on, either independently or together.

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 Trust Is Like Marbles In A Jar

Author-Researcher Brené Brown’s abiding interest in the subject of “trust” was heightened by an experience her daughter Ellen had at school when a friend betrayed her trust.

Speaking at a UCLA-based Oprah Winfrey Super Soul Session, Brown used a marble jar positive behavior tool as a measure of how much we trust the people in our lives.

Research changed Brené’s ongoing assumption that trust cannot be built around small moments in our lives. “It is very clear,” she said, “trust is built in very small moments.” Trust is not an event; it collects/develops over time like marbles in a jar.

For example: When asked, one woman said, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom’s chemotherapy was going.” One important marble in the trust relationship. Also, people who showed up for the funeral of other people’s relatives also earned a trust marble.

Trust marbles

Another huge marble jar moment for people: “I trust him because he’ll ask for help when he needs it.” That is to say, I trust him because he trusts me enough to be vulnerable. Brown knows that we are much better at giving help than asking for it because we are reluctant to be vulnerable with another person.

Brown decided to create her own definition of what trust is and the result is BRAVING. “When we trust, we are ‘BRAVING’ connection with someone.”

Here is an abbreviated version of what BRAVING means. For her full definition, you may watch the video in its entirety.   

BoundariesI trust you if you are clear about each of our boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

Reliability –“I can only trust you if you do what you say you are going to do over and over and over again. In our working life we have to be very clear about our limitations so we don’t over commit and come up short. In our personal life, it means the same thing.

AccountabilityI can only trust you if, when you make a mistake you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends.

VaultWhat I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me I will hold in confidence. This must be reciprocal.”

IntegrityI cannot be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity, and encourage me to do the same.”

In non judgmentI can fall apart and ask for help and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart and be in struggle without being judged by me.”

Generosity Our relationship is a trusting relationship only if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions and behaviors and then check in with me.

Brown believes that we cannot talk about trust if we generalize. Understanding trust gives us very specific words to say instead of using this huge word that has tons of weight and value around it.

One of the biggest causalities with heartbreak, disappointment and failure in our struggle is not just the loss of trust with other people but also the loss of trust of ourselves.

When something hard happens in our lives the first thing we often say is “I can’t trust myself. I was so stupid.” This BRAVING acronym works for self-trust too.

What Brown invites us to think about when we think about trust is – “If your own marble jar is not full, if you can’t count on yourself, you can’t ask other people to give you what you don’t have.” We have to start with self-trust. The poet Maya Angelou said, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves, but say I love you.”

If you find yourself in struggle with trust, first examine your own marble jar. We can’t ask others to give to us something that we do not believe we are worthy of receiving. You will know you are worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

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.

Grrrrrrrrr! When Unfairness Gets Personal – Part 2 of 2

It’s startling to experience a sudden burst of intense emotion. It often feels like anger! Where did it come from? What’s it about?

It could be from unfairness, injustice or humiliation — all justified causes of anger. However, anger is often a “secondary” emotion that accompanies hurt or fear since we frequently experience more than one emotion at a time.

The amygdala in our brain helps us to survive by managing many automatic functions in our body. It remembers our experiences and assesses threats, physical and emotional. We all have experienced “triggers” — sudden intense feelings that seem to come from nowhere. Yep, that’s the amygdala working.

Here are a few examples of “triggering” experiences. I’m sure you can recall many of your own.

  1. A friend fails to keep an agreement, a promise or a secret.
  2. A child runs into the street after a ball without seeing a car coming.
  3. A family member forgets to include you in the picture of a family celebration.
  4. Your brother criticizes and belittles your daughter or spouse.

Any of these situations may cause us to feel hurt, angry or afraid. However, anger is often the first emotion we experience without recognizing the underlying feelings and, when triggered, our impulsive reactions often seem angry. This often provokes us to say or do things we later regret.


When we react without thinking we may cause emotional harm to the relationship. Better to choose our reply once we understand the situation. This is exactly why the first rule of managing anger is to stop and think before taking action. It’s not what happens that matters so much. It’s how you handle it, and what it means to you, that matters most.

I know. Easier said than done! Intense emotions usually interfere initially with our ability to think clearly. Take time to differentiate between your feelings. Anger is different than fear. Fear is different than hurt. Trust me, it is possible, and necessary to regulate your behavior so you don’t act in ways that you will later regret. Just because you feel hurt or angry, you may not kick the cat or lash out at the policeman.

Triggered? Here’s help:

  1. Take several slow, deep breaths! Count to 10!
  2. Then, identify your feelings. General categories are: mad, sad, glad, afraid. If you are unclear about your emotions, ask yourself, “Is there a mad part about what happened? Is there a hurt or scared part? Because we often experience more than one feeling at a time, this will help you decide how to respond.
  3. Don’t assume you know the other person’s intentions or meaning. Be willing to engage to understand what happened. State what’s true for you along with the impact or meaning. “It seems to me that…” Then, state the impact or meaning for you. “I am disappointed, surprised, worried, hurt that…” Then, listen to understand the person’s meaning.
  4. Sometimes, misunderstandings and mistakes occur that can be quickly cleared up and dismissed. Start by giving the person the benefit of the doubt.
  5. When intense feelings linger, address the matter directly — sooner rather than later. When we feel vulnerable we may fear that the person will not recognize or acknowledge how their behavior affected us. When we avoid understanding and resolving issues, we diminish and disrespect the relationship.
  6. Trust that the strength of the relationship will allow for repair and recovery from mistakes and poor choices. When issues, large or small, are avoided, the relationship is compromised, thus causing distance that erodes affection, respect and trust.
  7. If you continue to feel upset about a situation 24 hours later, know that it will not simply evaporate. It will linger and fester, contaminating the relationship.
  8. If the person is important to you, take time to understand the transgression. Decide what you want to have happen and initiate contact. To have an argument? To prove you are right? To request or make an apology? To repair and recover? Let that decision guide your behavior. How you respond will be based on your values and principles.

Do not rely on someone else’s bad behavior as an excuse to be crabby, to rage or ruin your day. And, certainly, don’t allow another person’s bad behavior to control you.

The good news is that — with very few exceptions — willing attitudes and necessary skills can avoid or repair difficult interactions. Carpe diem!


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.