Steven Gaffney’s Communication Blog

How to Start the New Year Right

The following are 8 crucial actions you can take to Jump Start your new year and make 2017 your most meaningful year yet. These changes, though initially very small, can help to put your life on a different path. Good luck to you and we would love to hear about your successes.

  1. Let go of the garbage that you are carrying. Reach out to someone you have written off (but still think about) or to someone you have given up on or with whom you had a problem. Talk to that person and do what it takes to reach some sort of resolution and put the situation behind you. Ask the other person, “What would it take for us to put this behind us?” Their input can help you create a solution that works for everyone. By reaching out and having a conversation, you are extending the olive branch. This can create a new beginning and trigger conversations and events that can ultimately change your life. Remember: forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.  Make this the year you give that gift.


  1. Stop negotiating things that are not negotiable. Are you suffering because you are being flexible and letting go of standards and principles that are important to you? Decide what is negotiable versus what is really not negotiable to you. If you are not clear, how can others be? Then let others know and take a stand. Many people get inspired when boundaries are set because clarity gives them power to focus their time and energy on areas of flexibility.
  1. Adopt accountability partners. What is one of your behaviors that you really want to change? The truth is that if you really want to achieve this change, you will. Set up accountability partners and consequences to help ensure that you will make that change. For example, if you find yourself repeatedly complaining about a particular issue and you want to stop being so negative, tell five people you are going to stop complaining about the issue. Every time you complain about it, give them each a dollar.  The point is to send a message that your promises are not empty and you are committed to changing the behavior. Being accountable is one of the most important ingredients in lasting change.
  1. Use your strengths. Your relationship with yourself and your talents is the most important one you will ever have.  Appreciating yourself and your strengths is at the core of your ability to create and enjoy the life you want. When you appreciate yourself, you are also more likely to take action and make changes on things that are important to you. Focus on what makes you happy. Don’t overlook your talents and make sure to maximize your full potential. If you’re good at something, why not become great at it? This year, if you remember to appreciate yourself and foster your strengths, you will be more self-empowered and confident to face anything to come.
  1. Choose a coach or mentor. Whether it is personal or professional, everyone benefits from someone who guides and advises them. Athletes don’t get better at their specific sports by simply playing on their own each day. They improve by employing a coach who challenges and inspires them to grow and achieve success. Athletes also don’t improve their skills by playing teams equal to or worse than they are. They advance the most quickly when they are challenged by a better team.  It is important for your mentor to be someone who may be wiser, more experienced, or more successful than you are to help you reach the goals you have.
  1. Apply your personal method of success to a current problem. What is the biggest problem you are currently facing, professionally or personally? Once you’ve identified that problem, change gears and take a moment to remember a specific moment of success in your life. What were the keys to help you achieve that success? Brainstorm a few ideas of why you think you were able to be successful in achieving the results you wanted.  Over a person’s lifetime, we develop a few “go-to” methods to help us achieve success in various situations. Many times, in problem areas, if you think about it, you are usually not applying one of your normal success methods to help you through it.  Now, return to that original problem. Of the ideas you’ve brainstormed, which are you currently not doing to help you tackle this issue? Apply them and you will see new direction to help you resolve it.
  1. Decide on your number-one goal and create a plan to achieve it. Make sure your goal is measurable and that there is a deadline for completion. You might think this is simple – and it is – but people often neglect to set clear goals or create so many that they do not accomplish any. I see this frequently with organizations that have so many goals that people do not know on which to focus. The result is they try to focus on many and often achieve little. Remember confusion causes delay and often failure. Clarity and focus gives us power and inspiration to achieve.
  1. Distance yourself from the dream crushers, naysayers, and negative influences.  Just like we are what we eat, we are a product of the people with whom we spend our time with and the information we digest from them. With whom are you surrounding yourself? Are those people negative or are they inspiring to be around? What kind of books and materials are you reading? How much are you dwelling on negative news stories?  I am not suggesting that we put our heads in the sand. I am suggesting that we fill our minds with the influences that empower us.  Take the time to clean house.


If you run into challenges and need help or have questions along the way, send us an email at or give us a call at 703-241-7796 and we will do our best to help you.

The Power of Appreciation

How to Create an Organizational Culture of Appreciation that Impacts the Bottom Line

My grandfather lived in a nursing home during the last several years of his life. During one of my visits to see him, a nurse pulled me aside and told me what a great man my grandfather was. I appreciated that and asked her why she thought so. She said, “He is on of the only people here who consistently says thank you.”

That’s the power of thank you. They may be just two words in the English language, but those words mean so much to so many people. To this nurse, they meant everything.

Thank you. How often do your employees or co-workers hear those words? Many work extra hours, often for no additional money or benefit, and often without the benefit of hearing someone say thank you. Why do they do it? Because, like you, they want to make a difference in their jobs, and they want to contribute. In fact, through conducting seminars, I have learned that one of the biggest fears that people seem to have in common is the fear of dying without making a difference. We all want to know that our lives count, and we need to feel like we matter to someone. That’s what makes appreciation so powerful.

In fact, appreciation is so powerful that it affects the bottom line. People who feel valued and appreciated are more likely to remain in their jobs, making appreciation a key factor in employee retention. Furthermore, sincere expressions of appreciation open the lines of communication and improve teamwork because people tend to be more open with co-workers who appreciate the job they do. This makes people more likely to express ideas and feedback, which also positively affects the bottom line.

As managers and co-workers we often need to share difficult feedback and constructive criticism. But how often do we share positive feedback – praise for a job well done? I’m not talking about employee awards. Those have their place, but I’m talking about words. “Thank you, that was just what I was looking for.” “Thanks for the extra time that you put into this. I know you had to sacrifice some personal time.”

I heard from an employee of a Fortune 500 company who was recently nominated by her team for a formal award. She appreciates the nomination – particularly that the entire company received the text of her nomination. She said, “The public nature of it was quite validating. It doesn’t even matter if I receive the formal award. The initial nomination is enough. It makes me want to work harder and motivates me to want to invest myself more fully in what I do.” But she went on to say this: “Receiving acknowledgement from people throughout the year, in a less formal way, helps me to get through each day in a way that no amount of money could.”

When you express your appreciation, you are basically saying, “I notice you. You are important. You are significant. You are making a difference.” Acknowledging others comes with a wonderful side effect. When we express appreciation, we have to think positively, at least for that moment. The more we acknowledge and appreciate others, the more positive moments we have. Over time, that makes us feel better about those around us and about ourselves.

Developing an organizational culture of appreciation may sound like a lofty goal, but it’s worth the effort. Once it gets going, appreciation is contagious. It creates positive feelings in the person saying thanks and in the one receiving it.

Do you know anyone who has ever left a job (or a relationship) because they received too much appreciation? Of course not! Now think about the people you know who have left jobs – despite a good salary and benefits – because they didn’t feel appreciated for the work they did or failed to see how they made a difference. Managers often think a salary increase is what employees value most – and for some that may be the case – but for most, receiving appreciation is even more important.


Four Keys to Effective Appreciation

To ensure that your expressions of praise and appreciation have a significant impact, remember these four keys:

I = Immediate

Even if it is over the phone or via e-mail, express your appreciation immediately. Often we want to do something special to show our appreciation, but that can take time. It’s important to do something quickly, even if it is something small. You can always do something special later. If you don’t do something immediately, the person you appreciate may feel unappreciated. Seize the moment. Do it right away.

S = Specific

Make the acknowledgement specific. Rather than saying, “Thanks for all your help,” say, “Thanks for the detail you put into the report. It obviously took a tremendous amount of time and dedication.” Being specific adds importance and validity to the appreciation.

O = Often

Few people have ever suffered from too much appreciation, but many have suffered because there was not enough. Don’t be stingy. Offer it frequently, appropriately, and creatively.

S = Sincere

Say it only if you mean it. People are smart, and they can tell if you are faking it. A sincere expression of appreciation that comes from the heart is a powerful motivator.


Make It a Habit

There’s an exercise I sometimes do with my seminar attendees to help them practice the power of appreciation. I ask everyone to write down sincere compliments and “thank yous” for their co-workers. At first it feels like a silly game, but after a while people feel less awkward and begin to enjoy it. The exercise opens up lines of communication. During debriefing at the end of the seminar, people always talk about the unexpected results of this exercise. Some participants even save the notes of appreciation for years.

Many of us inherently understand the power of appreciation, but few of us practice it regularly. To successfully develop the habit of acknowledging others and expressing appreciation, ask everyone in your office to commit to appreciating five people a day for one month.

Sticky notes are a great way to express one’s appreciation. Remember ISOS. We all have them in our offices and all it takes is a quick note to say “thank you.” Adhere the note to a good report or memo you’ve just reviewed, or stick a note on your co-worker’s computer monitor or chair. However you do it, the note will always be received positively. People do save these notes and soon, you may even see these sticky-notes covering one’s office wall!


The Greatest Gift

Benjamin Disraeli said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not to share your riches, but to reveal theirs.” That is the job of any leader – of a family, of a team, of a department, or of a company. Reveal the riches in others by expressing appreciation for what you see. Remember to say thank you. The gift of appreciation is the greatest gift you can give. Tell someone today what a difference they have made in your life. Then watch the difference you make in theirs.

Beware of the Halloween Principle


Spooked: Beware of the Halloween Principle

Are there life principles that you used to live by, but now you don’t? Have you ever allowed someone to spook you to such an extent that you change your behavior? It’s natural to let someone’s bad reaction derail us from doing what we know needs to be done. I encounter this reality so often as I speak with people across the country about communication issues that I have a name for it: The Halloween Principle – because people get spooked, and then they start living according to fear rather than the life principles they believe in. The sad part is we often do this subconsciously, meaning that we’re unaware of how much a past situation is affecting our present. If left unnoticed and unchecked, our changed behavior could even alter our future. It often takes someone to point it out before we can say to ourselves, “That is so true. I know what needs to be done and I know certain life principles work, but I’m not living that way.” To help you see whether you’ve been spooked, let’s look at a few life principles that most people believe in but have trouble living by because the Halloween Principle has taken over.



Honesty Is the Best Policy

Most people I meet believe that honesty is the best policy. They may even believe they live by it. But on further examination, they don’t. When they are upset, they stuff what they are thinking and feeling and tell others that things are okay. Or when people ask them for feedback, they spin their answers to sound nice and pleasant out of fear that if they say what they really think, that person will get defensive and react badly. The result is that people don’t get their issues handled. In our personal lives this can lead to all kinds of trouble. Spouses fall out of love and get divorced. Kids fear telling their parents the truth or just don’t feel comfortable talking, so they stop talking with their parents and get advice and support from peers instead. Good friends get annoyed or angry, drop out of communication, and friendships slips away. When issues aren’t handled in our professional lives, program and project problems can escalate into bigger problems; good employees get fed up and leave, and clients and customers stop hiring us. Considering all these negative ramifications, why do people continue to withhold, spin, and alter the truth when they know that honesty is integral to fixing problems? After all, someone can’t fix a problem if they don’t know about the problem. When I ask people why they withhold or spin the truth, they often say, “I used to be more honest and straightforward. But awhile back, I was in a situation and….” And then they proceed to tell me how a boss, a spouse, a co-worker, or a friend got upset when they spoke the truth and took it out on them in one way or another. No wonder people get spooked.


The Law of Reflection

The Law of Reflection says that whatever we give out in life, we tend to get back. You may say it another way: what goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, do unto others, but it’s all the Law of Reflection. Most people know this is a sound principle to live by, but few implement it to it its fullest capability. For example, sometimes a person chooses not to give as much as they could because in the past they encountered someone who took and took – and kept on taking until they drained that person dry. So that person allowed someone’s selfishness to stop them from giving their heart and soul to others. In other words, they allowed the person to spook them and started to live by the Halloween Principle. On further reflection, this person may realize that we all run into selfish people from time to time, even people so selfish that they’ll take advantage of others. But that is no reason to stop living the Law of Reflection — because there are always exceptions to the rule. In general, however, the more we give and help out others — whether that’s our boss, our co-workers, our employees, our spouse, or our friends — the better our life will work.


Choose to Overcome the Spook

No principle will always work out just right. But as a whole, these life principles do work and provide benefits to us and to others. For that reason, we have to stop letting people spook us. We need to make our choices and live by our principles rather than allowing others to derail us and dictate how we’re living. When we become aware of the Halloween Principle, it gives us the power to choose a different course of action— the one we know is right for us. Here are a few practical recommendations for disarming the Halloween Principle:

1. Separate: When you feel an internal disconnect between the way you want to live and the way you currently are living, try to remember when that disconnect started. Then ask yourself why you’re allowing that situation to continue to affect you. Maybe it is time to separate from the situation by forgiving and letting go. If you can’t let it go yet, implement some practices to work on it. If you are not sure of one, contact us and we can give you some simple recommendations that produce a profound effect.

2. Counteract: There are several ways to counteract the Halloween Principle. First, surround yourself with people who have the attributes you want to live by. If you believe that honesty is the best policy, make sure the people around you are willing to tell you the truth and who won’t get defensive as you speak your truth. If you want to live by the Law of Reflection, then choose to be around people who try to help out and give value to others. Another important key to counteracting the Halloween Principle is to read books and articles, listen to podcasts and radio broadcasts, and watch DVDs that provide information, advice, and encouragement to live by the principles that are important to you. Remember this: insights can happen in an instant, but sustained change takes effort, reinforcement, and reminders.

3. Model: In the future when you encounter someone who spooks you from being yourself, ask yourself whether this is an exception or the new rule. Remind yourself that every life principle has exceptions, but overall, they do work. Choose to live your life principles – modeling them for yourself and others — rather than being controlled by your reaction to an exception. Think about the situation as a valuable reminder of the importance of standing up for what you know is right and taking responsibility for your life. Who have you allowed to spook you? Have you stopped living by any of your life principles? Now that you are aware of the Halloween Principle, what are you going to do about it?


Effectively Deliver Bad News


Effectively Deliver Bad News

Sharing bad news and difficult information is part of everyday life. The key is to proactively share such information before the other party discovers it. In the end, people usually find out the truth. Therefore, honest communication is critical to establishing credibility and trust, which in turn affects teamwork, productivity, profitability, and long-term success. Honest communication is the way we gain and keep the trust of our customers, potential clients, co-workers, and staff, as well as our family and friends. You can tell how open and trustworthy a relationship is by how willing someone is to share things that are difficult but important to hear.

When it’s time to share bad news and difficult information, keep in mind three excuses to avoid and four techniques for effectively delivering the message.

Three Excuses to Avoid

1. “It was not my job.”

That rationale may seem okay, but it usually upsets the other person and makes you look like you are not a team player. After all, even if it was not your job, couldn’t you have taken action and done something to help? History is filled with successful people who seized the moment and took charge.

2. “No one told me.”

If this is the case, the question to ask is, “Why?” Did you create an environment in which people are afraid to tell you difficult information?

3. “Everyone agreed with me.”

Just because everyone agreed with you does not let you off the hook for the outcome. After all, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us. Also, psychologists who study group dynamics report that people who don’t think like the group tend to be alienated, left out, or even fired from their jobs. Just because everyone agrees with you does not mean you were right. In the 1400s, people thought the world was flat, but their collective thoughts didn’t make it so.
Four Techniques for Effectively Delivering the Message

1. Deliver it immediately.

Bad news about us is better coming from our own mouths than from someone else’s. If someone else discovers our bad news before we divulge it, it undermines their trust in us, and they may begin to wonder what else we’re hiding.

2. Take 100 percent responsibility for your actions.

Remember, no one makes us do anything. We choose our actions for a variety of reasons. Great leaders and great coaches take responsibility for their team’s actions as well as their own. When they take such responsibility, their fans usually receive any news favorably. Despite Ronald Reagan’s popularity as president, he started slipping in the polls during the Iran-Contra affair until he took full responsibility for what transpired. Once he took responsibility, his popularity rose again.

3. Get ahead of the curve on bad information.

If the future looks bleak or more bad information is possible, find out as much as you can and share it as quickly as possible before someone else discovers it. Years ago, tainted Tylenol killed people, yet the company survived the crisis in part because company officials quickly and openly shared what they knew with the public.

4. Take immediate and widespread action to correct the situation.

This will help prevent erosion of trust, because people will feel more secure when they hear and witness that someone is doing something about the situation. Unfortunately, organizations often take a reactive wait-and-see approach — only to have the situation worsen. One organization I worked with waited to take care of their financial woes until they were forced to proceed with massive layoffs. The employees who remained became skeptical and lost trust that the situation would be reversed, so they started to seek employment elsewhere. How we respond to mistakes defines us. Consider the Tylenol example again. The company immediately pulled all the potentially deadly products off store shelves. They did not wait to be forced to take action; they proactively told the public what their company was doing to correct the situation and prevent further accidents.
No one likes to share bad information, but doing so honestly is imperative to maintaining the bond of trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and honest communication is the key to developing and building the relationships we desire.

Embracing Mistakes

We all get stuck sometimes, but nothing is much more frustrating than making the same mistake again and again. When that happens, feelings of failure can set in and further derail us. But recognizing that mistakes can ultimately propel us forward can be just what we need to release ourselves from the mistake trap.

One key to getting unstuck is to recognize that blaming others for our mistakes is a lie that not only traps us but dooms us to repeat our mistakes. Instead we need to really look at what’s happening, take responsibility, and apologize. The good news is that the more we accept responsibility, the better off we are. Change is possible as soon as we recognize our mistakes. It’s critical to not be in denial about our own fallibility. The quicker we can do this, the better off we are.

If you look at your life you probably can see how you’ve grown from your mistakes. In fact, I would say most pivotal points in your life originate from mistakes. So why are we so slow to recognize and admit our mistakes to ourselves?

I gave a speech when I was starting my career over twenty years ago, and the speech was so bad that people got up and left. They were unforgiving about it. They just left.

I took a look at it, and of course I was incredibly embarrassed so I did the very first thing: I apologized to my customer. She was great about it. I actually offered to give back the money and she said, “No, no, no. It wasn’t that bad.” And then I went home and sulked for three days.

When I stopped sulking I realized that if I studied what happened, I could actually correct the situation. That speech—which is on honest communication—has now turned into one of the top speeches I give across the world. If I hadn’t accepted responsibility, I would have never grown. We grow by mistakes not by successes.

The reason I didn’t get stuck in the mistake of that terrible speech is that I accepted responsibility. Next, I looked at the lessons, and then I created a plan to correct the situation. Seeing the lesson isn’t enough. You have to formulate a plan and implement it; otherwise history will repeat itself.

In the case of my speech I realized that I didn’t know much about group dynamics and I hadn’t studied the audience. As a result I studied group dynamics, and with some help I developed a way to learn about the audience. That enabled me to adjust my content as appropriate. That’s one example of what I learned from my mistake and a plan I implemented to address the issue.

One place where people commonly make mistakes is in hiring. If you make a bad hire, what can you do? You look at what you missed in the interview and how you can better detect that in the future. Acknowledging your error is the first step. Be honest with yourself first.

I am thankful for that terrible speech I gave more than twenty years ago, because I didn’t get stuck there. My mistake taught me a lot about honesty with myself and about addressing errors. It helped to propel me to where I am today. Don’t hide from your mistakes or pretend they don’t exist. Embrace them as teachers and you won’t be doomed to repeat them.

What to Do When You Make a Mistake


The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” I could not agree more. Mistakes are inevitable, but history should not repeat itself. Through almost 20 years of working with corporations, associations, government agencies, and the military, I have found that executives and leaders are usually understanding when a mistake happens but will not overlook it when the same errors happen again and again. Fortunately, there are three simple steps to ensure history stays in the past where it belongs.


Step 1: Just Be Honest—Own the Mistake Immediately and Fully

Research from the University of Michigan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that doctors who admit to their mistakes and apologize are far less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who don’t do so. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Things change when someone comes to you and says, “I really messed up. Will you forgive me?” Somehow, a genuine apology is disarming. It begins the process of repairing trust and respect.

For this reason, you must own your mistakes. Although it’s a terrible feeling to have to admit an error, the quickest way through these painful circumstances is to acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility. In fact, I would say it’s actually good news when you are the one responsible for a mistake because you can change you. If a mistake is out of your control, it forces you to wait and hope that others will make the necessary changes, which feels like being stuck in the back seat. I prefer to be in the driver’s seat myself, even if that means a mistake is mine. That way, I can learn, grow, and change—and prevent the mistake from happening again.

You can own up to mistakes on an individual level, but you can also do this on behalf of your division or organization. Customers need to hear apologies when they are necessary. I am not suggesting that you take sole responsibility and say that something was your fault when it wasn’t. However, if you are a part of a team or division that messed up, you can step in and apologize. If an external customer deserves an apology, simply say, “On behalf of my organization, I am sorry.” Be straightforward and don’t ever say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” If you plan on saying that, you might as well just not apologize at all. For more strategies on what to say when you make a mistake and need to apologize, please see our booklet “21 Rules for Delivering Difficult Messages.” The bottom line? Take full responsibility whenever you can, say you are sorry, and then move on to Step 2.


Step 2: Evaluate and Share the Lesson Learned

In the context of an apology, it can be helpful to share what you’ve learned from your mistake. This can increase the goodwill of those you are making the apology to because it shows that you’ve reflected on your error, your apology is genuine, and that you’re not just trying to smooth things over. Of course, before you can share the lessons learned, you first have to know what those lessons are. If you’re not sure, then take a step back, investigate, and even ask others what lessons they think you could draw from this experience. Generally speaking, managers and executives don’t expect you (or anyone) to be perfect, but they do expect people to learn and grow. Sharing the lessons you learned shows a certain amount of introspection and maturity, which can showcase your ability to analyze and move beyond difficult circumstances.


Step 3: Rebuild Trust—Implement a Prevention Plan

A step beyond the lessons learned is understanding how you will prevent the mistake from happening again. What will you do differently? If you don’t know, it is okay to ask others for feedback. In my experience, people are generous when someone asks for help and they often provide great insight. People who are great at customer service will say that the best way to fix mistakes and prevent them from happening again is to ask the customers how they would like the mistake to be resolved. Surprisingly enough, when a customer is asked how they’d like the situation to be fixed, they usually don’t ask for as much as you expect.

Your plan to avoid the mistake in the future requires specific actions. Making vague assurances such as “I will work harder,” “I will do better,” or “I will be more proactive” is not enough. In fact, those kinds of statements may actually serve as a sign that the same mistake is likely to happen again—because the plan to fix things is inadequate. Specifics are critical for two reasons: first, you really do need to know what you will do differently. Second, the number one reason why people tend to be skeptical about moving forward from a mistake is because they are worried that it will happen again. If you’ve completed Steps 1 and 2 and are accountable for a specific plan in Step 3, you will give others the confidence that the mistake won’t be repeated, rebuilding trust in the process.

Barefoot Wine once put the wrong bar code on a shipment of Cabernet, so the wine rang up for less than it should have at the store. When the mistake was discovered, one of Barefoot’s founders, Michael Houlihan, delivered a check covering the store’s loss to the store’s corporate office. The check also covered the time and expense of dealing with the problem. Houlihan then described to the manager how Barefoot’s internal processes would be changed to make sure such a problem would never happen again. The manager thanked Houlihan for doing the right thing and continued to place orders for Barefoot Wine.


Discretion Required

These three steps are critical in all situations in which a mistake has been made, but they don’t necessarily all have to be shared outwardly. What you do share depends strongly on your relationship with those you are apologizing to. Furthermore, some aspects of the steps are more relevant to certain kinds of relationships. For instance, a customer cares about Steps 1 and 3, but they do not necessarily need to hear all of the lessons learned that you will use to grow from the situation. Customers generally just want you to own up to a mistake and fix it. Your boss, however, is interested in all three of these steps (although he or she may not be overtly asking about them), most likely to ensure that you are growing and that the issue won’t happen again.

Once you have an understanding of these steps, you can use them as a coaching tool in a group setting – with your team or division, or even with your family. It’s a great process for working through the issues that arise when a mistake happens and apologies need to be made.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we dwell on our mistakes. We do need to put our focus on moving forward; but I have found that people who practice these three steps—even if only internally for their own benefit—grow from the process. Those who shirk responsibility for errors are destined to repeat their pasts and get stuck there. It is the process of taking responsibility and examining the lessons learned that frees us from the past and propels us into a better future.

Detect and Implement the Three Levels of Honesty

For the full article and interview click here