Know-It-Alls, Bullies, Whiners, Gossips, Angry Aggressors, Passives…

          We’ve all come across toxic people, in both our work and personal lives. But what do you do when you’re stuck dealing with one for more than a prolonged encounter?

During a recent seminar I taught on how to read body language, an attendee had a question. It began with him describing how a co-worker sat with one hand behind his head and what that meant. This was easy to decipher. The guy was practically yelling “I’m superior to everyone!”

Businessman sitting in chair, hands behind head, smiling, portrait, cut out

But the attendee’s concern didn’t stop there. He wanted to know how to deal with this self-important co-worker, a guy who thought he knew everything, but didn’t. The man’s ignorance was impacting their projects negatively and he wasn’t sure how to approach the situation.

In many of the classes I’ve taught, no matter the subject, someone usually has a question about how to get around a person who has become the bane of their existence.

If you have someone plaguing your life, here are some thoughts on how to overcome the problem.

  1. Don’t Escalate the Situation

          Many times, toxic people can be neutralized without a fight. In the case of the arrogant and ignorant worker described above, I told the attendee to first try a non-confrontational approach. In Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, a key principle is to yield to an oncoming attack by redirecting the incoming energy rather than meeting it with an opposing force.

Here, I suggested the attendee/manager try letting his subordinate save face by saying “I’m sure you already know this, but…” and filling the guy in on his missing knowledge. Hopefully, by phrasing this in an agreeable way, the co-worker would finish his part of the project and feel kindly toward my attendee for helping him.

Often, people who are arrogant and angry are insecure, or they might have too much to handle in life. Try to look past the bluster and see if you can find a kind way to handle the problem before moving on to a more aggressive solution.


  1. See If You’re Contributing to the Problem

          Many of the people who ask about how to neutralize a difficult person don’t want to. They’re not sure of themselves or don’t want to “cause problems” by saying anything. If this sounds like you, you have two choices: Act or Suffer in Silence.

There’s also a flip side of that, of course. When confronted, some people get angry and the situation becomes a shouting match or devolves into a physical confrontation.

Imagine you’re in a room with a number of colleagues and another co-worker approaches and begins to berate you loudly about the things you do wrong.  No matter if what’s being said is true or untrue, what do you do?


          A good way to stop someone from continuing their diatribe is to remove them from the vicinity.  First, ask them to step outside the room. This takes the person away from their audience and has them comply with something you’ve asked, changing the “power” structure.  If it seems like they won’t go, you can gesture to the door and walk away. They will probably follow. Once outside the room, step closer to them, within 6-8 inches of their face, and hold eye contact. This move invades their personal space, showing by body language that you aren’t afraid. Keeping your voice quiet and calm, tell them you’ll be glad to discuss any issue they might have with you, but in a more private and civilized way.

This maneuver usually stops and de-escalates the situation. If it doesn’t, go with the next tactic.

  1. Don’t Engage the Devil

Although it’s tempting to argue or defend yourself, sometimes it’s best to walk away. Do a calm assessment of the situation. If you come to the conclusion that nothing you say will change the other person’s attitude, leave.

You might want to have it out, but if it doesn’t change anything, wasting your breath and time will have the same effect as saying the same things to a wall. Don’t bother. You can’t always control another person’s actions, but you can control your reactions.



Cabin in the Woods 2015

Once upon a time there was a cabin built on a pine tree-dotted mountain in Northeastern Arizona. At first, it was a simple A-frame used as a summer home, a respite from the heat of a California desert residence.


When my parents retired there, some rooms were added, one filled with windows to let in the sun. It provided a peaceful place to watch birds enjoy the plentiful food provided year round.


There was a deck with a porch swing to watch Blue Jays get up their courage to hop down from trees to feast on raw peanuts left on the rail.

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A window in the living room with glass shelves displayed a collection of Hummels, porcelain German figurines. Upstairs, ceiling fans cooled a large loft where music by Barbra Streisand, Glenn Miller or Pavarotti might be playing.

When entering the house, the scent of freshly baked bread, cakes or chicken & dumplings filled you. You’d find an assortment of homemade pies cooling on the kitchen counter.  The pantry held boxes of recipes, cookbooks and the ingredients needed, its shelves covered with sticky fingerprints as things were fetched.

My dad would welcome visitors by saying “I’m not well you know”– as he had joked for 20 years. My mom might have a little flour in her hair from cooking or she might be quilting. The house was filled with love, laughter and friends.

dadmad mompiescopy

Then, in 2010, it all stopped. Both of my parents passed on within months of each other.

The next tenant was a neighbor whose house had burned down. She moved in until her home could be rebuilt. Then there was a lovely lady from Sweden who stayed until a family crisis sent her home.

The most recent tenants had a great credit score, no criminal history and were just out of the military. The wife seemed a bit hyper- but anyone on the planet is hyper compared to me, so it didn’t send up any red flags. They paid their rent mostly on time and didn’t seem too unusual. Then, they gave notice that they needed to move out early. I advertised the cabin for rent again, with them agreeing to show the place. I’m in California and most of the property managers I’d interviewed caused more problems than solutions.

One afternoon I received a call from some prospective tenants who had looked at the house…the cabin in the woods was NOT how it had looked in the photos I’d posted with the rental ad

Hopping a plane, I traveled to Arizona with a former military friend, who is easily the scariest person I know. What we found was intermittent destruction.

The minor stuff: The tenants’ dogs had scratched the bottom of doors, curtain rods had been ripped off the frames and bedroom closet doors removed.

Since pictures are worth a thousand words, here’s a tour through before and after photos:

The Hummel display window and shelves had been torn out and the place the shelves had sat were filled in with hammered wood so they couldn’t be used again.

Before Living Room and Window (2)After Living Room Window

The living room and stairs had once featured natural tongue and groove wood paneling. Now, it was painted white and unable to be restored.

Before Stair wall painted white IMG_0753

Random walls were painted dark brown with a wire rack added for no apparent reason.

Before Wall where Wire Rack and painted Brown After Dining Room Wall painted Brown and wire shelf installedIMG_0677

 The carpet in the loft upstairs and a ceiling fan had been removed.

thBefore Loft with Ceiling Fan that was operational After Loft Carpeting and Ceiling Fan Removed

 In the large bathroom, the wallpaper had been partially torn out, a wood cabinet and medicine cabinet removed–revealing a window to nowhere.

After Large Bathroom Cabinets and Wallpaper Removed After Large Bathroom Medicine Cabinet Removed

In the pantry, the doors to the storage and a cabinet had been removed.

After Pantry Without Doors After Pantry Cabinet Removed

The heart of the house– the kitchen– had been painted like a pro in dark brown. But..the cabinet doors, the range hood and the dishwasher had been removed. The hood’s electrical outlet had been drywalled over and the panels in the ceiling lights were removed.

Before Kitchen (4) After Kitchen showing Lights, cabinet doors and dishwasher removed

Now we get to some weird stuff: piles of computers and electronics were in a bedroom and stacked 10×10 feet outside by the garage. The tenants were mining them for “gold.” They even tried to melt them on the barbecue. The cinder driveway and yard was littered with nails, screws, computer parts, glass and other debris. Each time I used a magnet, it took seconds to fill it.

After Electronics Stacked in Bedroom1 After Electronics Stacked by Garage and Backyard IMG_0917 After Debris and magnet from yard and driveway

The best part? They’d used the back of the kitchen cabinets to write in magic marker about conspiracy theory book titles and, randomly,  “Kombucha”. Kombucha is a probiotic drink, written there like someone was going to rip off the cabinet and take it to the store  “Hmm.. what else do I need?”

After Kitchen Cabinet Writing Closeup

Thus began the forced remodel/restoration of the cabin, done over 2 long weekends. Here are a few things I’ve taken away from the experience:

  • It’s great to have friends– even better to have friends who can do electrical work and carpentry. And even better if they are also skilled in weaponry and defense. The tenants had unsecured assault weapons, so it’s nice when you ask “What if they go for a gun?” and your buddy grins and says “That’s when the fun starts!”
  • Those hideous red curtains the tenants kindly left behind make great drop cloths for painting.
  • There is a thing called “Mountain Time.” Do you believe you don’t get much accomplished? Californians operate at the speed of sound and maybe we should slow down, take time to tell stories and reminisce. I’m not sure, however, if it’s a good thing to do when a customer is waiting to ask a question and you’re a Home Depot  or Lowe’s employee. I did, however, become well known enough there that I had groupies.
  • You can get a lot done in between screaming.
  • The local people know things– like how maybe your tenants might have been smoking a controlled substance. Hmm…that explains a lot.
  • Painter’s tape was invented by a demon from that special part of Hell that makes it rip into shreds or come off in jagged pieces, particularly when you’re tired and want to finish.
  • To the electricians who, over the years, put 10 1/2 pounds of electrical crap in  half ounce holes– if you are dead, my friends and I would like to dig you up and shoot you.
  • Taking time to look at paint samples on the walls is for pussies. Pick some colors from cardboard examples, buy the stuff and rock on.
  • Your problems aren’t really as bad as they seem. I hired a painter who told me about his life, how he’d been thrown out of the house at 13 because his dad didn’t think he was his father and he had to live on the streets. He also he has a son with cerebral palsy.
  • My dad used to say “My wants are many, but my needs are few.” I learned all I needed was a pot to boil water for tea, a bucket of KFC and a few hours of sleep.

In the end, the cabin has been restored, rejuvenated and reawakened- ready for a new chapter. We did a lot in six days:

IMG_0907 IMG_0755 (1) IMG_0873IMG_0931IMG_1102


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Even though it was emotionally hard to put a fresh coat of paint over those sticky fingerprints, this story is once again on its way to a happy ending…after urinalysis and a modern day version of the Spanish Inquisition for the next proposed tenants.

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How to Detect a Liar

Let’s face it, everyone lies.

Lies can run the spectrum from trying not to hurt someone’s feelings to toxic manipulation in work, life or love.

Can you tell when someone is lying?

Fortunately, with a little practice, liars can become easy to spot. These simple tips will help you not be deceived.

Listen To What Is Being Said

“Timmy, did you eat one of the cookies without asking?” a mom questions her six year old.

“No, Mommy. I did not eat one of the cookies without asking.”

If you know what to look for, Timmy’s words tell you he’s guilty.

Think about a time you’ve been falsely accused. You probably got pretty heated in your defense. If Timmy were innocent, his words might have been “No, Mommy! I didn’t!”

Instead, Timmy repeats his mother’s words verbatim and in an almost robotic way. The next time you hear this type of response, you’ll know you’ve got a guilty party on your hands.

Another way people tip off they’re lying is when they change mid-story from using the pronoun “I” to something else. When people talk, they want the spotlight on them, but if their actions are called into question, they want a metaphorical crowd to share responsibility.

Here’s an example:

I got that project completed by coming in early today.”

“Did you add in the stats that the manager asked for?”

“Well, we planned on it.”


Watch For Added or Deleted Facts

Let’s take a simple question to a significant other, “How was the gym?”

If there isn’t deception, he or she might answer, “I had a great workout. I got really pumped.”

What if they’re feeling guilty about something, maybe having a flirtatious conversation with a hot fitness instructor?

Their answer could change into a lengthy description of the crowds, the equipment, and the lack of towels in the locker rooms or forgetting their water bottle. Why all the unnecessary details? They want to divert the listener from what they perceive as a potential problem by adding facts.

Next, imagine conversing with someone about their day. They talk in detail about things that happened, like what they did at work in the morning or what they ate for lunch. That afternoon, unbeknownst to you, they got into a car accident on their way to the store and fled the scene.

Here’s the conversation:

“How was your lunch?”

“Great! I had some pizza with Lisa at this great little Italian place downtown.”

“What did you do after that?”

“Not much.”

The speaker has gone from detailed and natural to closed.

They might also use passion in their words where it’s unexpected. For example, “I drove to the store” might be injected with more passion than is warranted for the words and seem out of place.

In both of these situations, it’s likely that the speaker isn’t telling the truth or is hiding something. In order to catch them out, keep asking specific questions and see if you get direct and appropriate answers.

Watch Body Language

In addition to listening carefully, you can tell someone’s lying by their body language. Using these two skills together increase your chances of not being fooled.

  • People who lie put up barriers. Maybe it’s a hand, fingers or raised water bottle placed over the mouth, folded arms, crossed legs or getting up and going behind a desk, table or other object mid-conversation.
  • They fidget. They play with their clothing, touch their nose, tap their fingers, twitch their legs or move their feet.
  • They drop eye contact, signifying shame or that they’re hiding something.
  • Their gestures change. People normally gesture straight ahead and up in front of their bodies. Their gestures might move to the side, like they’re shoving something away when trying to deflect guilt.
  • Their facial movements don’t match their words. Think about at time someone gave you a gift you didn’t like. You said “I love it!” and then you smiled. If you had truly loved it, your smile would have coincided with your words.
  • Sometimes when people lie, they lock down their facial gestures or have tight lips.

A Few Final Tips

Think about a skilled interviewer, like Barbara Walters. She’s able to elicit information by building a rapport with her guest before going in for the hard questions. When she is going to ask a more difficult question, she moves her body forward, getting closer to her subject so they have confidence that they can share openly with her.

If you want to uncover the truth, first establish rapport. Then use a series of clear questions that elicit a narrative response, rather than a simple yes or no. If you suspect that some of the answers aren’t true, ask more questions.

Keep your body in a power position, with your shoulders squared and maintain good eye contact. Watch for verbal signs, especially unnecessary facts. See if the person becomes more or less talkative or diverts away from the topic.

Watch for body language changes such as blocking, fidgeting or facial expressions that don’t match the words being used.

A fun way to practice your skills is to watch people being interviewed. Check for all the things we’ve discussed and see what you can spot. Soon you’ll be a human lie detector and it will be of great use in your personal and professional relationships. Happy Hunting!


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Hey! Get away from my keyboard!

So rude. I hate it when other people’s characters sneak into my head when I’m writing.

*puts out Do Not Disturb sign*


I blame it on all the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve watched.  The authors who created places, people and fantastical stories inspired me to think I could come up with something of my own. Occasionally, I have to stop and tell myself, “You know, that’s a bit of a trope. Do over.”

At age eight, I began experimenting with paragraph-long tales written in colored ink and hidden in a notebook. If it was a story about faeries, I added glitter. I wasn’t monogamous. I played around with all types of genres and became addicted.

When I got older, no matter what I wrote, my characters ran amuck. They waltzed in, spoke their lines and sighed with impatience as I typed their words onto the page. They developed characteristics I hadn’t considered.

When had my tough protagonist become such a pussy?

That’s who I am, okay?”  he said, clearly tired of putting up with me.

Maybe it’s a bit like God felt when Eve went for the apple.

Plot twist!


Writing is like Willie Wonka’s world of pure imagination and limited by nothing except grammar rules and plot conundrums.

Like Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Some people are all about facts and reality, while those of us who write are about slipping into another dimension and turning ideas into stories.

Look, I’d love to talk more, but there’s a character that just came in and she’s got a lot on her mind.

Catch up with you in a good book somewhere.


5 Reasons Leaders Crash and Burn

Can you recall when a supervisor/manager/CEO in charge of a business, committee or project caused everything to derail?


Why does this happen?

  1. They Aren’t Natural Born Leaders

Leadership comes pre-loaded in some people. They’re the ones everyone turns to when a decision needs to be made. They step in and say “Here’s what we should do…” in a crisis. Of course, they can always be better leaders by learning more about how to be effective, but it’s in their DNA. If they don’t recognize they are natural born leaders, they might walk through life wondering “Why does everyone always want me to be in charge?” It’s simply been a fact of life for them.


For those who have had leadership bestowed upon them and don’t have a clue how to be a leader, it’s different. They have to learn how to do it. Many times, unfortunately, they don’t.

  1. They Want to Star in their Own Show

Some people who are given leadership roles merely want what comes with it: the corner office, the view, minions…


Their thoughts aren’t about what’s best for all; it’s about what’s best for them. Instead of doing work, they want to brag about their position and think about more important things, like their next vacation. They guard their position and never tell anyone what they’re thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing. The words consensus, cooperation and connection remain in their dictionary under C and are not real life concepts for them.

More traits of self-interested leaders are bad tempers, anger, ingratitude, harassing employees, demeaning subordinates and more. It’s like working for a toddler no one has ever told NO.


  1. They Have Poor Communication Skills

Bad leaders don’t know how to communicate. Perhaps no one ever taught them or pointed out there was a problem, but many don’t care enough to think about it. Maybe they don’t collaborate with their staff because they think that they (and perhaps a few cronies) know better. Maybe they’re wedded to the status quo, scared of opposite opinions or are afraid of change.

Imagine there’s a decision that needs to be made that affects the entire company. An inadequate leader will make a unilateral decision then send out a memo stating there’s been a change with little or no explanation about the thought process or reasons behind it. If the leader had taken the time to consult the staff, maybe they’d learn that this change didn’t need to be implemented or there was a better way.


 Instead, those learning of the decision will raise their eyebrows, do some head-scratching or perhaps have a nuclear meltdown with shouts of “Why? echoing through the corridors.

  1. They Don’t Want to Do the Work to Inspire and Connect

Inspiring and connecting with people takes time and energy. Sitting in an office, tapping on a computer sending out emails about policy or what needs to be done is ineffective. A good leader will get up and go out to talk to people– and not just about business.

I had a good friend in hospice care at a convalescent home. I went to see him every day and got to know the nursing staff, the cafeteria workers and receptionists. I’d stop and ask how their day was, chat briefly about their vacation plans or other things. It never took much time. After awhile, people told me they wished I ran the place. Do I know anything about nursing homes? No. What these people wanted was someone who would listen and connect.

Their manager stayed in the office and never came out.


Sub-standard leaders don’t work on themselves or their relationships with others, then wonder why things aren’t going well.

  1. They Don’t Stay Focused on the Goal

When working to attain a goal, knowing what needs to be achieved and moving towards it sounds simple. To an ineffective leader, distractions, internal squabbling, indecision and more can keep a project from getting done. Because of all of the previous reasons listed above, they can’t get a group to work together and get things done.


In order to be a good leader, it takes good communication, consensus, connection and leading by example. A leader inspires others to do what needs to be done then stands back and gives them credit when the goal is achieved.


Be A Better Leader 

If you’ve recognized something you’ve done wrong in this blog post, congratulations! You can now make changes and learn to be better as a leader. Learning is a constant process and everyone makes mistakes. It’s a new day– get out there and lead!


How To Be a More Effective Communicator Than the President

I’ve been a fan of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast quite awhile and was surprised President Barack Obama had decided to visit Marc’s garage in LA and give an interview.


Then I listened to it.

And I got annoyed. (And for anyone who thinks I’m going down Politics Road, sorry to disappoint.)

President Obama is known for giving moving and commanding speeches. However, delivering a prepared speech (read from a teleprompter, notes or even from memory) is a lot different than answering extemporaneous questions or giving an interview.

If you want to be a great communicator, you have to think about all areas of speaking and abstain from some of the problems that have crept into the President’s speech.

Avoid Filler Words

Our Needs Improvement Communicator- in-Chief’s words were sprinkled with ums, uhs and you knows. Known as “filler” words, they have no place in your discourse if you want to sound authoritative.


Here are some examples of things you should work to eradicate from your speaking:

  • Uh, um and er creep into speech when you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next and forget to close your mouth.
  • Like is Valley Girl speak. Or as used by Will.i. am and scolded hysterically by Miriam Margolys in this clip from the BBC’s Graham Norton show
  • Don’t use xerox or repeat words. Here are some examples:  “I-I” or “You know- You know” etc. Just say it once.
  • You know is a phrase that you shouldn’t use unless you need to say “Do you know what you’re doing?” or other appropriate sentences.
  • The words so or and so are unnecessary when you’re transitioning from one sentence to the next.

Don’t Drop Your G’s

Here are some examples of some words ending with g’s: reading, thinking, going, caring, saying…You get it.

Here’s how the President pronounces them: readin’, thinkin’, goin’, carin’, sayin’…


I don’t know where he dropped his G’s, but I hope he doesn’t have to pay for them to stay  there.  Not completely pronouncing a word is fine for casual conversation, but consistently missing a G doesn’t elevate your level of conversation.


Whenever President Obama refers to people, he calls them “folks.”  If this happened occasionally, it could work. However, he does it all the time, even when discussing serious matters.

Please stop.


Being A Great Communicator Takes Practice

Once you’ve learned how to listen for filler and crutch words, you’ll notice them everywhere. You’ll hear them used by politicians, professional athletes, actors and anyone who hasn’t practiced speaking in front of the public.

At Toastmaster meetings, where people can learn to become better speakers, a dog clicker is used each time a person slips up.  The once innocuous tool used to discipline pets becomes a dreaded but effective method to eradicate bad habits in speech. Filler words quickly cease.

If you want to be a better speaker, practice eradicating these small problems from your speech and you’ll be able to say that you are a more effective communicator than the President.


Adding Drama to Public Speaking

Every time we talk, we use different tones of voice, gestures and body language. When it comes to public speaking, it’s no different. After determining what message you want to convey and crafting a speech, be it inspirational, educational or humorous, the hard work has just begun, because it’s time to determine how to present your material.


To give perspective, imagine that tonight you’re attending a charity event where the keynote speaker is going to advocate for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

The speaker comes on stage, stops in the center and stands still. He doesn’t make eye contact with the audience. When he speaks, it’s difficult to hear him. If he moves his arms at all, it’s to clasp his hands in the front and wring them together.  In a monotone, he talks about his elderly father, who had once been the CEO of a successful company, who liked to compete in tennis tournaments and had a fondness of dancing. Now, his father can’t remember anything or anyone in his family. These facts are conveyed like the speaker is reading from a list. The speaker urges you to give money to help fund research to eradicate Alzheimer’s, then walks off the stage, still not looking at the crowd.


How would you feel? Would you be moved to give money? You probably would because you care about the cause.  However, did the speaker’s words as conveyed move you to action? Did they move you to contribute even more than you’d intended? Probably not.

Now, imagine a speaker coming on stage and looking out at the audience. He begins by saying “My father achieved many things in his life. He started from a poor background, put himself through school working several jobs and became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” Now, the speaker moves, reaches out with his hands above shoulder height and, in a vibrant voice, says “He was larger than life to me.” Then he drops them back to his sides. “He used to be a top tennis player.” The speaker makes a motion like hitting a ball. “And he loved to dance.” He mimes dancing with a partner. He goes on to say “Now, Dad’s in a wheelchair.” His tone has changed, softened. His hands grip an imaginary chair and he pushes it a few feet along. Then he stops and looks back at the audience. “When I visit him, he doesn’t know who I am. He doesn’t know my mother, his wife of 45 years, or remember any of the successes he’s had.” The speaker pauses. “All because of Alzheimer’s.”

Are you there with the speaker? Do you imagine his father as he was, and how he is now? When you’re asked to contribute money, will you give a little more because the devastation of the disease has been brought so clearly into your mind?

Back to your speech: It’s time to begin rooting out unnecessary language. Hone your words until you communicate exactly what you want. Consider whether your words are telling the story and evoking the emotion you intended from the listener.

When performing a speech, you should always think about the following:

  • Vocal Variety, including tone of voice, rate, pitch, use of different voices to bring characters to life and pause.
  • Body Language, including gestures, use of act-outs to bring drama to words, facial expressions and eye contact.
  • Energy

Vocal Variety

Varying your voice is what emphasizes your words in a speech. Rate is the pace of your words, tone is the intention behind them and pitch is the sound of your voice.


 Rate is perhaps the easiest to understand. A basic mistake is talking too fast because of nerves.  It takes practice to slow down and speak like you’re having a conversation with a friend. If you have jokes, are you pausing after your punch line to give the audience time to laugh? If you’ve said something you want the listeners to take time to digest, do you pause? Your rate should vary throughout your speech, so be sure to analyze your text and practice.

Tone is more complicated, and takes even more thought.

There’s a poem by an unknown author called The Tone of Voice. It says, in part:

It’s not so much what you say

          As the manner in which you say it;

It’s not so much the language you use

          As the tone in which you convey it.

          “Come here! I sharply said,

          And the child cowered and wept.

          “Come here,” I said-

          He looked and smiled

          And straight to my lap he crept.

         Words may be mild and fair

          But the tone may pierce like a dart;

          Words may be soft as the summer air

          But the tone may break my heart;

          For words come from the mind

          Grow by study and art–

          But tone leaps from the inner self,

          Revealing the state of the heart…

I’m sure you’ve had to sit through lectures delivered in a monotone, been scolded by a parent, enjoyed soft words from a loved one, heard an emotional plea from a friend or a call to action by a politician. Each time we speak, we need to consider what tone of voice to use and, throughout our speech, what response we want to evoke in our audience. Our voice is our primary tool to bring about the result we hope from our listeners, but can be made more dynamic by our use of the stage or lecture space, our energy and body language.

Look at the words of your speech. What tone do you want to use for each phrase? Some speakers think they need to increase volume on their key points, but sometimes softening and speaking in a quiet tone actually brings about a better effect.

The best thing to do is tape yourself reading your speech exactly as you’d perform it, then listen. You’ll be able to hear where you need to improve. Better yet, enlist someone you trust to give you honest feedback.

Pitch is how you sound when speaking. Sometimes, when people get nervous or excited, their voices go up and up in pitch. The deeper tones of a speaker’s voice resonate better with a listener’s ear. If you’re gifted with a resonant speaking voice, that’s a starting advantage. Still, no matter whether you’re blessed or need assistance, you can always improve the richness and quality of your voice by doing voice exercises or hiring a voice coach. You will learn body posture and breathing, do tongue twisters to loosen up, exercises to improve the timbre of your voice and more. All of this will add to the quality of your performance.

When speaking in a large facility without a microphone, you have to project your voice so everyone can hear you. Picture bouncing your voice off the back wall and you will get some idea of how much energy you’ll have to put into it.

Energy is what you bring to your performance. Think about when you’re tired, sick or simply “not feeling it.” If you don’t have energy to put into your performance, you’ll come off as uninspiring or merely adequate. Sure, you might be better than other speakers on a technical level, but you have to amplify your energetic output for your message to be fully conveyed and appreciated. Sometimes we think we’re putting across an emotion, but it’s not enough. It’s easy to bring to mind an actor’s performance that felt flat. That person didn’t put enough of themselves into their role. The same thing goes with public speaking.

 Body Language

When you first start out in public speaking, gripping the edges of the podium and glancing nervously at your notes might be the best you can do. That’s okay. As you progress, moving away from the podium, even if you have to keep a hand on it like a life preserver, is a good move forward.

We use gestures when we speak and don’t really think about them. They come naturally. When it comes to public speaking, it sometimes seems that we suddenly don’t know what to do with our hands and arms. Our facial expressions become wooden and we can’t make eye contact. The first thing to do if this happens is to take a deep breath. Breathing helps to relax your body and bring oxygen to your brain. Breathe deep into your belly, below your navel, for best results.

At the start of your speech, you should stand still and have limited movement. The audience needs time to get used to you.


In speaking, whenever you’re using gestures, they should be both natural and planned. Imagine when you’re telling someone how tall a child is. You might bring your hand to the height level to further demonstrate what you’re saying. Gestures in a speech are no different. If there are phrases that can be emphasized through use of body language, think about them and plan them into your talk. Gestures are made above your elbow height and can also include your head, nodding or shaking it to emphasize your words.


 A quick way to see if you have gesture is to videotape yourself doing your speech.  Sometimes we unknowingly make the same gesture repeatedly, which can distract from the message. Also, the larger the stage, the larger your gestures should be. What might be appropriate in a one-on-one conversation won’t convey the same message to a larger audience.


Darren LaCroix, the 2001 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, famously fell to the floor of the stage during his world championship winning speech and stayed down for uncomfortable moments. This was done purposefully to emphasize failure, by literally falling on his face. He then talked about how to get back up and overcome obstacles. This dramatic move was an “act-out” of his words and something that caught the audience and judges’ attention.

Darren Henderson, 2010 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, wore a World War II bomber jacket, helmet and goggles to add to his words about pretending to be a pilot. He then acted out play-fighting arial battles with a childhood friend, pretending to talk into a hand-held radio microphone to emphasize his words, which were “Snoopy One to Snoopy Two.”

Act-outs can be as simple as smelling an imaginary flower, pretending to open a door or anything that adds to the picture you’re painting with your words. You don’t have to be that dramatic to emphasize your words, but look at the text of your speech and determine if there are movements you can do that will add to the visuals of your message



If you’ve attended a live play, you might notice an actor who doesn’t grab your attention. That’s because they might be having an off day and not putting as much of themselves into their performance as necessary.

The energy level of a speaker can affect the way his or her message is received. For instance, if you have a cold and have to give a presentation to an audience of 200 people, you’re right to be concerned. A speaker has to give out their own energy and enthusiasm to engage an audience and, if you don’t feel good, you’re going to come across as flat.

Unless you’re Steve Jobs, with an audience already on the edge of its seat waiting the announcement of a new Apple product, speaking to live audiences requires your energy  be “larger than life.” This doesn’t mean you have to be someone else. In fact, the best public speakers sound like they’re having a conversation with an old friend, but you need to be aware of the venue and audience size so you can gauge how much energy you have to put into your performance.


After you’ve written your speech, look for opportunities in the text for vocal variety and use of body language. Adding these ingredients will make your message more dynamic and stay in the minds of your listeners.

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My Lessons about Suicide Survival and Support

My last post dealt with the suicide of a dear friend and colleague. It’s been over a month, but my questioning and self-reflection hasn’t ended. The one abiding question for me remains: What can I do to stop this from happening?

Unfortunately, this is a question many of us will need to ask ourselves. Suicide rates have risen in the U.S. and make it the 10th leading cause of death.


In the news this past week was the story of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who flew himself and 149 people into a mountain. Since then, it’s been discovered he was depressed and he had researched suicide methods and how to secure cockpit doors.

Also in the news was a study showing no link between suicide rates and deployment in the U.S. military. This study has not taken into account some important subgroups of people exposed to combat that might change their  conclusion.

Military suicides have doubled since 2005. Active duty suicide has increased. Since 2001, more veterans have died by their own hand than in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. While only 1% of Americans serve in the military, former service members account for 20% of all suicides in the U.S. The Oscar winning documentary Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 put a spotlight on the overwhelming issues being faced by counselors trying to assist those in the military who are considering ending their lives.


 Unfortunately, those former troops with the highest rates of suicide don’t often qualify for assistance because they were discharged for other problems or misconduct.

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 24. LGBT and questioning youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, having one of the highest suicide rates.


This is a topic that needs to be openly discussed. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with suicidal thoughts and/or mental illness seems to keep society from having an open dialogue about it.

Do you feel uncomfortable talking to someone frankly about their self-harm intentions? Think of it this way: What if you knew someone was going to commit a murder and they had a plan to carry it out? Hopefully, you’d contact the appropriate authority. You shouldn’t feel any different about getting involved if it’s a person considering ending their life. It’s an act of violence, but against themselves.

I’ve met suicide survivors online and have learned more about what to say or do when someone close to you is considering ending their lives. I keep replaying the last conversation I had with my friend. I’ve now learned I should have asked the following questions: “Are you thinking about killing yourself now? Do you have a plan for doing it? What’s going to make you stay?”


Suicide survivor, and Live Through This founder, Dese’Rae L. Stage was kind enough to share some of the things she has learned photographing and speaking with other suicide attempt survivors.  Ms. Stage speaks about suicide and raises awareness, including my own. I highly recommend reading the stories of survivors at her website to get a better perspective of the varied motivations of people who feel like ending their lives.

Per Ms. Stage, there are things you should not say. These include: Suicide is selfish and You have so much to live for! She says to tell the person that you love them and support them. If they’re in imminent danger, have them engage with you so you can get them help. Stay involved in their lives to make sure they have a voice in their own treatment and/or recovery by offering to be their advocate. The most important things are to be supportive, receptive and loving. She cautions that none of this will be easy.


Sam Dylan Finch is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism, the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up, his blog, and a suicide survivor. He recently wrote an article titled 7 Ways to Actively Support Attempt Survivors. He reminds us of several important facts: 1) Not everyone who attempts suicide will die. 2) One-third of people who attempt suicide will try again within one year. 3) People who have attempted suicide before are at greater risk to attempt again.

Most of the survivors whose stories I’ve read wanted and needed loving support, and still do. In the recent book by Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he discusses people who have posted to social media then been the recipients of world-wide sturm and drang by people judging and commenting on their actions. Imagine taking that same form of judgment and applying it to suicide survivors, who already feel vulnerable. They get labeled as selfish, unstable, pathetic and other equally judgmental terms rather than receiving understanding and support. It’s not okay to shame and/or label people who are already struggling with mental health issues. Would you approach a cancer  survivor or any other near-fatal disease survivor and say “Wow, I can’t believe you survived. We’re not going to hire/support/care about you because that was selfish.” (Although any cancer survivors are told about how cancer comes back and they’re going to die, but that’s another story.)

I’m not an expert. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve tried to educate myself since my friend’s death. Now that I know the stats, I’ve come to realize how prevalent this is.  Because of this, I wasn’t shocked when, just yesterday, someone told me about her suicide attempts.

I’ve learned these lessons:

  • When someone wants to talk about suicide,  listen and try to help.
  • Don’t  ask for details or to intrude in their story, but fully hear the survivor’s narrative.
  • Let them know you care and will be there to help get them treatment and any further support they might need.
  • Don’t use the phrase “I’m going to kill myself”  in a joking way about trivial matters . It isn’t funny.
  • Don’t judge, use labels or shame suicide survivors. 


Here are some great organizations who help attempt survivors and some prevention hotlines:

Military Veterans Support:

The Trevor Project (LGBTQ Support) :

Grief Speaks (A discussion of grief, including suicide survivor support)

International Suicide Hotlines:

Live Through This (Stories of Suicide Survivors) :


Remember, if you’re going through this, I care. You can always contact me via email at this site (click on the About Me tab) and I will listen.


Blogging for Suicide Prevention:Ode to a Friend

Four days ago I answered my phone and was greeted by the sound of weeping. The call was to notify me a friend and attorney colleague had committed suicide, and I was being contacted because she’d left a note for me to take over her cases.

I’ve never lost anyone to suicide. Death isn’t a stranger, taking both my parents in 2010 within four months of each other, and many others over the years. Yet, the news of my friend’s final act shoved me into shock.


There were two immediate questions: How and Why?

The How was easily answered. At midnight, she’d stepped off a 200 foot bridge, a location that’s a suicide magnet in our area. Had she looked out at the lights of the downtown skyscrapers and peacefully left the ledge, her eyes on their twinkling beauty, or had she stared at the water churning below and cast herself into it, wanting desperately to end whatever pain she’d been feeling? I knew she’d made a previous suicide attempt years before and now, perhaps, she needed a certain near-guaranteed finality.


It’s the second question, the Why, that lingers. Speculation and piecing together events will never resolve this. Her detailed notes about what to do with her cases, the list she left of her online passwords, a handwritten letter to her father, the thoughtful paying of her office rent through the coming month…these are acts of someone clear-headed and prepared. On her last day she was seen in court, laughing, talking, smiling and going through her normal routine. Was it because she knew that at midnight she’d drive to her final destination and it would be over and whatever pain she felt would be gone?


Initially, the guilt bus rolled in and stopped in front of me with questions. Why couldn’t I have saved her? What could I have done? What had I missed? I replayed all conversations I’d had with her over the past five months. I knew she’d felt increased anxiety and was desperately trying any method, both holistic and traditional, to combat it. Things began to spiral when her mother, who had abandoned the family years before, resurfaced. A few weeks ago, we’d had a long talk. When I’d first answered the phone, her voice had been panicked but, as we explored her feelings, she’d calmed down. I’d offered assistance if she needed me to make court appearances. I’d told her she could call me any time to talk. Then, on her birthday, I’d called and gotten her voicemail. I’d left a message and she’d texted me back, all happy and normal with a smiley face rounding it out. Four days later, she was dead.


In addition to my guilt, there’s anger. As coolly and calmly as she’d planned for the ramifications of her death, she actually left things in a bit of a mess. Her accounts were frozen. Her office had to be packed up by her grieving father, the certificates removed from the walls, the hidden chocolate thrown out, the contents of her desk and credenza explored. As I helped and locked down my feelings of grief, I wanted to shake her for the anguish I saw in her father’s eyes as he dutifully taped together boxes to pack her things in. My mind played a loop of “What a WASTE” over and over.


When Robin Williams had killed himself, she’d blogged about how she could relate, and what she was doing to not go down that road. She was smart, always exploring her feelings. She attended self-improvement workshops nearly every weekend and sought ways through alternative treatments and exercise to stay healthy.  As another mutual friend put it so well, she looked like a duck on a lake. Serene, floating along, but under the water where no one could see, her feet were paddling like mad.


Here is where I could list a bunch of statistics about suicide and mental illness. I could talk about how there’s a guy at the State Bar who has dealt with lawyer deaths for 20 years who kept his voice as calm and quiet as a person whispering in church when he spoke to me about what to do about wrapping up my friend’s practice. Or how there’s been at least five lawyers in this county in the past few years who have taken their lives and how the added stress might have contributed. Or how everyone who knew her is still reeling with their own versions of the WHY question and seeking answers.

All I know to say to anyone who is considering ending their lives is:

No matter how isolated you feel, there are people who will be profoundly affected by your death.

No matter how carefully you plan things, you’re going to leave loved ones and friends picking up the pieces.

People LOVE you and want you to stay, even if you are having a hard time believing it.

We will do ANYTHING to help you.

Please let us.




The Hobbit: The Battle of Peter Jackson’s Ego

Spoiler Alert: Please don’t read any further if you haven’t seen The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. That’s it. I warned you. 

Yesterday I went to see the final installment of The Hobbit saga with a crowd of moviegoers who were either unsure what to do on Christmas or who wanted an excuse not to have to talk to their relatives for 2 hours and 24 minutes.

I wondered if J.R.R. Tolkien would be happy that Peter Jackson had used some of Tolkien’s obscure notes to stretch his slim Hobbit tome into three bloated…A dragon! Lots of fire! A dragon!

The dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield, his crew and our hobbit Bilbo Baggins watch from the mountain as Smaug lays waste to Laketown. Thorin’s mind has been tainted with “dragon sickness,” known today as capitalism.


Meanwhile, his merry band of dwarves do nothing while he threatens them and acts like a general asshat.


The people of Laketown have been promised a share of the treasure, but Oakenshield goes back on his word. Thandrial, King of the Elves, shows up with an army and a flimsy excuse that he wants a jeweled necklace that’s in with the treasure. What he really wants is money to pay for the moisturizer all his elves religiously apply to keep their skin glowing before battle.


All the main characters ride some type of animal. The representative of the men, the Bard, rides a horse. Well, he tries. Thandrial rides a moose while his personal hairstylist follows with a brush.


Dain Ironfoot, another dwarf king, shows up on a…pig. Yes, it has tusks, but it mainly looks cute and completely useless for battle, except maybe for a post-victory luau.


Then, when Thorin shakes off his crazy and decides to go to war, he and his men get to ride Rams they got from….Um, anyone?

Meanwhile, Gandalf has been captured by orcs and held in an iron cage. (Watch Fellowship of the Ring to see he didn’t learn his lesson about this) Elf queen Galadrial shows up to rescue him.


When she has to fight off Sauron, the dark Lord, she turns into a green, glowing zombie queen from Hell. This is the same image she showed Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring, when she refused the one ring’s power, stating it would turn her into a dark queen, beautiful and terrible. (Yes, I’m paraphrasing.) Was Peter Jackson just using old footage to save money v. having Galadriel use a white light of goodness?


Finally, the Battle of the 5 Armies. Men, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs and…Eagles. Giant eagles who snatch up an unsuspecting grizzly bear, minding his own business while eating honey and catching salmon, and drop him into the fray. Wow, is he pissed. (Yes, I know it’s Beorn who has transformed into a bear, but imagine if it was just a bear…)

The orcs get the crap knocked out of them despite their immense numbers due to aluminum foil armor, or some other reason. War bats fly in, mainly to look cool.  Legolas defies the law of physics by catching a ride to a place he needs to go by grabbing one’s feet. I don’t know about you, but most animals that get grabbed unwillingly by someone the size of a person probably aren’t going to be happy about it. Maybe this little bat trip was so we wouldn’t question Legolas not falling from a stone bridge that disintegrates beneath his feet while fighting an orc and running up stairs made of nothing but air.


The remainder of the movie goes like this:

Alfrid Lickspittle of Laketown is a coward who dresses as a woman to hide and makes off with enough treasure in his bra to give him size E stripper boobs. We’re all bummed when an orc doesn’t get him.

A large, grotesque monster courteously waits to kill the Bard’s children until the Bard can cascade down a path in a wooden wagon and save the day.

Kili the Dwarf and Tauriel the Elf play Romeo and Juliet, but only one dies.


Thandriel shakes his golden hair and advises his brokenhearted son Legolas to forget Tauriel and to go find Strider. That’s actually good advice because Strider (a.k.a. Aragorn) is so hot he’d make anyone forget being dumped for a dwarf.


Thorin doesn’t know that when your enemy is down, a good double tap will make sure he doesn’t come back. Maybe it’s because that’s a hard thing to do with a sword.

Bilbo Baggins makes it back to the Shire with The One Ring, leading you to rewatch (and/or watch if you’ve been under a rock since 2001) the Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King.


It’s a last goodbye to Middle Earth. I bid you a fond farewell.