Sunday, November 10, 2013

When Things Go Terribly Wrong at a Lovely Dinner Party

I went to a lovely dinner party one evening some time ago where I was reminded that indeed there are times when we must muster up all of our best restraint and always take the high road. Whether hosting a dinner or attending as a guest there are certain rules one follows – hopefully. This evening drew my attention to two of the most basic of faux pas. I have always advised to not bring along uninvited guests. Imagine the turmoil created when suddenly a table, beautifully set for eight people, suddenly needs to be switched out for nine? As we all know a seated dinner party requires a lot of planning, as we want to make the evening special and memorable. Deciding where our guests will sit is part of this planning process, and to be forced to accommodate an unexpected guest is inconsiderate and also requires rejigging the seating plan, sometimes extensively. As far as I am concerned this is even more of an inconvenience and sign of disrespect than showing up carrying an arm full of unarranged flowers, expecting the host to be able to drop everything and arrange them in a suitable vase on the spot! Add to the situation that the new guest has a big personality and must be strategically seated so as not to overwhelm or irritate anyone, and it’s easy to see why this situation is very awkward. Make no mistake about it; the invited guest was at fault, not the surprise date. At least have the common courtesy to phone ahead and ask if it’s all right to bring a date.

The second potentially volatile episode occurred in between the main course and dessert. Half the people had gotten up for a bit of a stretch and the few of us who remained changed conversation partners. Before I knew it, I was being warned about the dubious quality of work performed by another person at the table who was well within earshot of these remarks. Needless to say, I was taken aback, to the point where I leaned over and in a whisper, asked him if he was talking about the person sitting next to me. He said he was. I suggested that perhaps we could talk about another subject. With a bit of a confused look, he acquiesced.

The point of sharing these two incidents is to illustrate a couple of important principles we need to keep more in the forefront our minds. In the first example, the principle of boundaries and respect is challenged. I don’t care how casually we think we live our lives, have respect for other people who may do things a bit more traditionally. This whole incident could have become an incendiary were it not for the seasoned host who showed true grace under fire. A good host always accommodates surprise guests whenever possible, even if it means stretching the food and wine.

The second situation illustrates the principle I discussed a couple of weeks a go in this column. It is one of Stephen Covey’s core principles, namely to speak about people who are absent as though they were present. In this case, the intention was obviously malicious because the person wasn’t absent. Displaying such behavior in someone else’s house is ill advised. It can be extremely embarrassing and damaging, as most gossip tends to be. Using alcohol as an excuse is over used and rather pathetic. There is never any good reason to wake up in the morning regretting something spoken the night before.

If we do find ourselves in a situation where an apology needs to be made, and some forgiveness needs to be shared, then so be it. Call or send a note and make a heartfelt apology. Express a lot of gratitude for the hospitality extended. Ask for forgiveness if necessary. Sincerity has a way of clearing the air and makes a smoother path for forgiveness to be extended. Some hosts can be most forgiving, especially those of us who have behaved badly in the past ourselves. As human beings we are going to behave regrettably upon occasion. We’re complicated and often ill equipped to gracefully handle some of life’s challenges. Compassion for us and for others is important to incorporate into our lives to help smooth some of the rough times.

This little party on balance was great fun. I use it only as an example of how our behavior can influence the lives of others both in good and in bad ways. It happens in our social lives, and it happens in our professional lives. Most importantly, these behaviors dominate our lives at home and of those with whom we live. If we want a kinder and gentler world, we need to begin by having a kinder and gentler community, and that begins at home.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

This is a short and very telling tale about the power of teaching by example. However, this time the shoe appears to be on the other foot! A niece related this to me, and I think it is very illuminating!

“I recently stopped at Dunkin' Donuts and held the door for a woman and her grandson, who was repeating the words "chocolate sprinkles" over and over again, obviously excited for the donut he was about to get. While we were standing in line she realized she didn't have her wallet and moved out of line to look for it in her purse. After I watched her empty her entire purse out to no avail, I bought a chocolate sprinkles donut, handed it to her and walked over to wait for my sandwich. The little boy came running over to say thank you, and I looked over to see his grandmother standing there shaking her head. He walked back over to her saying "she's so nice!" The grandmother looked at him and, I kid you not, responded with "yeah well I don't need her charity."

“The little boy's answer? "She was being nice, grandma. Maybe you should act like her."

“ I muttered to myself, “Clearly I knew you weren't in need of my charity, considering I watched you step out of a brand new Benz and search for your wallet in your Louis Vuitton purse, you crow.
At least your five-year old grandson understands how the world works.”

Isn’t it contemptibly poor how self-centered the world has become. Yet, notice the innocence still preserved in the child, which he expresses as a pearl of wisdom. Out of the mouths of babes, as the expression goes. This vignette illustrates the point that connecting with other people is the most important need we have as human beings. This is instinctual, and apparently this young boy’s parents taught him, more than likely through example, that being nice is the right thing to do. The reason it is the right thing to do is the simple fact that it makes it easier for us to connect in a friendly, kindly manner.

The venomous retort from the woman was rude and embarrassing for everyone around her. She illustrates the opposite end of the spectrum from her grandson. There is a major disconnect in this dynamic, and in this case, one for which one can be thankful. Behavioral patterns are generally passed from generation to generation, as that is the primary way in we learn. This little story appears to show clearly that unhealthy cycles can be broken. My sense is that we are all guilty of behaving like barbarians from time to time, and when we do slip up, out actions do not go unnoticed.

I am reminded of a line from H.M. The Queen when asked once how she learned to be Queen. Her reply was delivered in her usual dry wit, “I learned the same way as monkeys – from my parents”. As children we are sponges and everything our parents do and say, we mimic. If we are presented with bad examples of how to behave we take these with us through life. A young person growing up with rude or inappropriate behavior will face the consequences in both social and business relationships. The ways of getting on in the world that our parents show us serve as our filter for the world, one that we assume to acceptable and appropriate. This is obviously not always the case. In our seemingly time-starved world, we rush around like the granny above, allowing our egos to run amuck, and in our wake we leave heaps of selfish behaviors and rudeness – all for our children to devour.

I hope this short story helps us to remember times when we were either the victim or perpetrator of such outbursts. There may even be times when one remembers simply witnessing such behavior and wondering what to do. As I see it, no matter what our position, we can stop perpetuating this rudeness. By drawing the offender aside privately and expressing our feelings about the rudeness, suddenly a solution is possible. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder that we have stepped over the line.

As we can see, the grandson did a fine job of understanding and explaining to his grandmother just how rude she was. He did quietly, and I am going to guess very effectively. When we catch ourselves being rude, we can apologize. Such acts of kindness can ease the bite of rudeness in a heartbeat.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Getting On Board

I have been reading an advance copy of a soon-to-be-released book, The Bully’s Trap, by Andrew Faas. The subject is corporate bullying and the effect it has on the business climate across North America and Europe. The book sheds light on a topic that is underappreciated, but has an enormous impact on the bottom line of most companies, and definitely on the health and well being of its employees. I will be exploring this subject much further, but the topic did get me thinking about the responsibilities of boards of directors in general. Having served on dozens of boards, I have seen my fair share of board dynamics. Here are just a few of my observations.

1.    In an effort to economize on valuable time, any efficient board, whether for profit corporation or a not-for-profit charity, will ask its various committees to submit committee reports ahead of time so members can read them and be prepared to ask any questions they may have. Too often, committee members fail to read these advance reports, and as a result, tend to ask questions already answered within said report. This not only wastes the time of the rest of the group, it also points out a lack of interest and respect for the organization. If one is to be taken seriously, a person must take their responsibilities seriously.

2.    Some people have a habit of arriving late to a meeting. This is unacceptable. Meetings need to begin on time and end on time. One should not be penalized for showing up on time. It’s not as though meetings are called suddenly. In fact, most meetings are scheduled far in advance giving everyone an equal opportunity to be on time.

3.    Many people today are addicted to their cell phones and fail to turn them off (or put them on vibrate) when they go to a meeting. This is also unacceptable. When one attends a meeting, one’s undivided attention is required.

4.    Discussions tend to wander off topic. Keeping a meeting moving along smoothly and staying on topic is the responsibility of the chairperson. However, it is also the duty of each member to respect others and not fall prey to ancillary discussions.

5.    Whispering to others at a meeting with comments and asides is a very common occurrence. There is little that is more disruptive than whispering. Not only does it serve to distract the rest of the group, those who are engaged in this distraction cannot be listening to what the speaker is saying.

6.    Inevitably, there is going to be someone who dominates the discussion. These know-it-alls have free-range egos that seem unsatisfied until they get their way. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and forcing oneself on a group by raising one’s voice, or other grandstanding tactic is selfish and counterproductive.

Oddly enough, all of these behaviors are rude, and they are also a form of bullying. Some may argue that the term is overused. I take the opposite point of view. I think the act is much farther reaching than many people realize. This unhealthy behavior has developed and continued because no one has recognized the severity of the damage it can cause or has done anything to stop it. There is no better time than the present to begin to change these harmful practices.

When one agrees to serve on a board of directors, it is important to understand exactly what one’s responsibilities will be and what kinds of commitments are expected. A rule of thumb is that every board member must be able to give or get two of the following three things – time, skill, and money. By learning and really understanding what is expected, a board can be most effective. Without this, a board can bring an organization to its knees.

I highly recommend every not-for-profit organization with a board of directors have a copy of Before You Say Yes, a book by Doreen Pendgracs to which I have contributed bits and pieces of advice. In it many questions are answered on how to go about the decision making process of accepting or declining the offer of a position on a board. A lot of nasty surprises and disappointments would be avoided if people did their homework before leaping onto a board.

The responsibilities of a board are many. They are to be taken seriously. Learning what defines one’s role is crucial. I suggest doing one’s homework before one accepts a position thus avoiding a whole lot of hassle. Once one makes the decision to join a board, there are endless opportunities to do great things! 

Monday, September 2, 2013

On Hosting

One of the benefits of traveling and visiting friends from time to time that live a good distance away is being invited out for lunches and dinners. Everyone has his or her own style of entertaining. Given my profession, I notice a lot of the fine points of what hosts do to make a party a success. Some hosts have a natural ability to make their guests feel welcome, while others do not. For instance, guests do not want to stand around holding their coat, hostess gift or bottle of wine while the host is otherwise engaged, seemingly unaware of the latest arrival? 

It amazes me how often guests are simply ignored or are allowed to stand awkwardly by without being acknowledged. This occurs not only in private homes but in restaurants as well. By following a few simple guidelines our guests will feel more than welcome; they will feel special!

A mentor of mine with a lifetime of experience as a host to all kinds of people reminds us to “avoid the avoidable”. We can accomplish this most easily by making a plan ahead of time and sticking to it. This plan works most effectively and efficiently if it follows a time line. Begin with issuing invitations and conclude with serving after dinner coffee. Considerations include deciding how many guests to invite, what the menu will be, and what the tone of the party will be. We all have our priorities and different styles of entertaining. I have always been a proponent of flexibility and fun and do not believe that there is a clear-cut black and white way to do anything. Only in the most formal situations does strict protocol come into play.

Conventional wisdom or common sense might dictate deciding on the guest list, followed by the menu, the various table wears and finally the flowers or other centerpiece, all in that order. I find choosing the flowers first or the menu first can help set the tone for the party and may well influence the guest list. An example might be a lobster boil or a mussel feast. Inviting people who are allergic to shellfish could be problematic. Cooking two menus – one for those who will enjoy the lobster, and one for those who wouldn’t, can be hectic at best. If you enjoy hosting parties then by all means have several and your food allergy problems will be blissfully solved.

Most of us have rather impromptu dinners with invitations delivered by a phone call or even an email. Being a traditionalist, I am not likely to issue invitations (not invites, by the way) via email, but this seems to be a growing trend, and for informal gatherings I say, “Why not”? For more formal gatherings, handwritten invitations are proper, but amongst close friends the trend towards phoning is gaining ground. I draw the line with text messaging and social media being off limits and just plain lazy. Given the amount of effort one puts into planning, preparing and hosting a party, the time required to send an invitation is minimal and it gives real style to any event. My advice is to go the extra mile. Your guests will notice the effort!

If you are cooking the meal at home, resist trying a recipe you haven’t tested before. Not all recipes actually work, especially if your culinary skills are a bit rusty. Plan a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, with perhaps a bit of a warm up or last-minute carving, if at all possible. This allows a host to be gracious and focus more attention on guests.

Be ready to greet your guests when they arrive. Let them know where they hang their coats, leave their shoes (if you have a shoes-off policy), and offer them a beverage. This of course means having a bar set up complete with ice and glasses. Many parties in the Maritimes are BYOB affairs; some are not. With the decline in the consumption of hard liquor and an increase in beer and wine, be sure to have a designated area where beverages can be kept cold.

As the afternoon or evening progresses, keep an eye on each of your guests, making an effort to have a meaningful conversation with each one. If you are seating the dinner party at a table or group of tables, place cards do come in handy. They are not pretentious and actually help guests. This also allows you to control where people sit, being sure that husbands and wives to not sit next to one another, but that dating couples do. Small children should be seated next to or very near their parents.

Try to position yourself near the door as the party comes to an end to make it easier for guests to thank you properly. Keep in mind when saying good night not to engage in lengthy conversations and hold other guests up who are trying to leave at the same time. Let common sense and awareness prevail.

These guidelines should help to maximize your guests’ enjoyment and make you look like a star!