The Human behind the Machine: Refocusing on what truly matters


In today’s virtual world, you are never, ever alone. There are five thousand ways for you to get pulled into a conversation, roped into an advertisement, or worse yet, trapped in an unsolicited group begging you to save the last zebra stripped whale. No matter where you turn, someone wants something from you.

WhatsApp (12:02pm) “Gabriella!!! Let’s find time this week to catch up for a drink. When are you free and what happened at the meeting last week. Dying to know!”

Business Email (12:02pm) “Time Sensitive: need your feedback on the PR”

Viber: (12:02pm) “Sweetheart, are you around to skype? I miss you! xx Dad”

Facebook DM (12:02pm) “Gabriella, I’m a friend of Bob who said you do tours. So I’m coming to Porto……”

Personal Email (12:02pm) “Quick Trip to Porto on Sept 24th, you around”

Instagram DM (12:02pm) “Gabriella, Did you see my recent article on education. I think you’d love it”

Slack (12:02) “Need your help to edit this document. Need it by 2pm”

Just writing this completely stresses me out! I want to hide, tuck myself into a corner and eat bonbons until the world slows down to a pace I can actually manage. I have daydreams of walking across the Dom Luis bridge and throwing every electronic device into the river. Every…single…one. I want to be left in a world that allows me to focus on the moment, on the people in front of me, on things that truly matter.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t stop spinning just because we want it to. It’s our responsibility to refocus on what we want, while compassionately communicating our needs to others. 

Ignoring the email won’t make it go away. It will only leave the sender feeling ignored and your company, by consequence, with a poor reputation. Ignoring someone’s WhatsApp doesn’t make you look popular and busy, it makes the person on the other end feel hurt and unloved. And worse yet, ignoring the person directly in front of you in lieu of a virtual conversation, only widens the already fragile connection between you and them.

So how do we handle the myriad of ways our time and attention gets pulled? How do we remain true to ourselves and our dreams despite the 1,001 distractions in our lives?

Here are the Top 3 ways to get off the spinning wheel: 

  1. Say No! Whether it’s for business or scheduling a Friday dinner date, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “no.” No, I’m so sorry, we’re not interested in your project right now. No, I can’t make dinner on Friday, but maybe next Wednesday if that works for you. No, I don’t want to save whales, but I’m super passionate about three-toed sloths. No, I’m not feeling this friendship. Your addiction to Facebook is killing me.” You can’t accomplish your dreams if you’re constantly focused on everyone else’s. Take time to stop, breathe, and figure out what you, or your business needs, then communicate it with compassion. Don’t ignore it. Don’t assume it will magically iron itself out. That “no” allows the person on the other end to make better choices for themselves, so don’t hold back for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
  2. Set Expectations: If someone is waiting on your response, or you’ve committed to support them in some way, set clear expectations. There’s nothing worse then saying, “Yeah, l’ll totally get back to you later on that dude” only to NOT get back to them at all. It’s lovely to want to help someone, and to give everything you can, but be realistic with your priorities. Setting clear expectations allows you, and them to be on the same page.
  3. Be Compassionate: No matter what you’re communicating, place yourself in the shoes of the other person. Feel what they’re feeling. Rather than saying, “No, we don’t like your project. Seriously rethink it.” you could say, “Hey Julia, Thanks so much for contacting us, but as much as we appreciate the time and effort you’ve put in this, we can’t see it working with our clients right now. I might suggest Edith’s Brown’s book on xxx. Might give you the leverage you need. Good luck!” The second will leave Julia with a fab impression of you and your company, while the first will make her hate you, a lot. Can she potentially grow from this? Sure, it’s her choice in how she frames your feedback, but there’s no reason to spread ill will. Empathy will get you considerably farther than half-ass communication ever will.

With this said, allow me to be perfectly clear, I’m no better at this than the next person. I may be passionate about communication, but I will always be a perpetual student. I’m writing because I’ve allowed myself to be a victim to distraction, to virtual pressures and to putting other people’s needs before my own. Practicing good communication takes work, a lot of work, but in the end, it pays off in spades. Fight for what you need while caring for other in the process.



Overcoming the Fear of being Misunderstood

xShe sat with her arms crossed, creating a barrier between her and her father. In a paisley pink dress and leather bound sandals that snaked up her calf, she had the air of a volatile nymph.

“Why don’t you hear me?! I’m not saying that music is bad, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t invest in it when there’s families without food! When people don’t have jobs! The government shouldn’t be subsidising these programs! They just shouldn’t Dad! It’s not fair. The money should be going to programs that actually create work for more than a handful of people. You think Pedro is going to pay his bills as a violinist? No, he won’t, and you know it!”

Sporting a goth-light appearance, her boyfriend shifted to the right as a passive signal that her anger had gone from simmering to volcanic. “Sara, just listen.”

Pulling his button down silk shirt out of the back of his jeans, her father leaned forward and smiled. “May I?” he whispered, reaching for her hand, but she glowered and pulled it away.

“What? What do you want to say Dad? Just say it!”

“Listen, we all know I’m biased, but music is more than just a hobby, it’s a way of being. Throughout your entire life I tried to show you how to listen, how to pick out different notes, distinguishing one from the other. This skill allows you to be a better listener over all, and it gives you a universal language, that sings to everyone. Honey, music may not give you job security as a strict profession, but it will give you incredible skills that can be applied in different professions – finding patterns where others can’t find them. Seeing harmony where others see discord. Music is filled with incredible tools that can be applied in a thousand different ways. Does this make sense?”

Slamming her glass down, she snapped, “No it doesn’t! While you went off to go play gigs in bars at night, Mom had to do everything and we were still broke! So no Dad, I don’t see your guru perspective. What I see is a man who eventually got his break, but who made everyone else suffer in the meantime. So do I think the government should encourage this, no I don’t! Because I know the pain it causes!”

Her anger never let up that evening. For hours I watched the father plead with his daughter to let go of her anger. His own tears of frustration morphed into pain and anguish. He begged for forgiveness, praying that she would not fault an art that had no direct correlation with her own pain. His choices were his own, and the consequences were what they were. He would take ownership, but she couldn’t take away something that perpetually brings immense amounts of joy to the masses. She simply couldn’t.

She pulled her arms into herself, forcing her breasts to spill over. “No, I don’t have to do anything! And that means talk to you!”

Getting up to leave, her father quickly followed after and grabbed her, pulled her close and whispered, “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry.”

From what I could tell as a voyeur to their riveting conversation that night in crowded Lisbon restaurant, the daughter’s position never changed but their empathy towards one another did. For the first time in 25 some-odd years, they found a common place to dialogue and feel the other person’s pain.

The irony is that no matter how hard we try, the other person may never understand our point of view. They may never agree with our position nor support our way of thinking. But if we’re willing to be vulnerable, and show the underbelly of our emotions, there’s a good chance that the walls will come tumbling down

Here are 3 ways to overcome misunderstandings:

  1. Ask “Why?” – When we feel affronted it’s easy to dig in our heels and tell the world to bugger off. It’s a wall we create to protect our hearts from more pain and anguish, unfortunately it typically backfires. When we feel defensive, our arms protect our squishy insides, our face folds in on itself to indicate rage and our heart beats a thousand miles an hour to kick in our “fight or flight” hormones. What does the other person do…the same! We’re mirrors of one another. By asking yourself, “why are they angry? Why don’t they see my point of view? Where are they coming from?” we’re allowing ourselves to see through someone else’s lens instead of reacting to their behaviors. Their experience is their own, but their pain is the same as ours. Emotions are universal. By asking “why” we’re climbing into their own soft spot to see where the volcano began.
  2. Let down the Wall – Show your own pain and frustration. It’s a hell of a lot easier to empathise with tears than it is with rage. Rage can escalate, while tears can satiate. By sharing why you’re feeling the way you are, we’re connecting to the human infront of us, rather than the monster inside of us.
  3. Let go of Control – The best we can do is “see” the person in front of us and phrase the information in a way they’re more likely to be receptive. But we can’t control their reactions, their needs or their desires. If someone isn’t signing onto our position, then respect their viewpoint and make choices that are good for you. We can’t force someone to like, love, agree or play with us, but we can choose our next steps.

Inside every human being is a person who simply wants to be loved and respected. By empathizing with their position, their life experiences and their feelings, we’re not only validating them as an individual, but us as a fellow human. Maybe it’s worth a try.

The Language of Introspection

She said nothing. Sitting on the subway traveling 8 stops from the center of Madrid to the northern outskirts of Tres Olivos, her face remained stoic, emotionless and void of thought. As passengers came and went, brushing her sleeves, hitting her knees with their bags or simply falling on top of her in a rushed attempt to make it to the door, she never, ever moved. The only sign of consciousness was a tight, jagged twitch from the right corner of her mouth just before the interior lights went black.

During my two year stint in Madrid, blackouts in subways were as common as impromptu jam sessions between stations. These episodes only lasted a few seconds, but for her, it was an eternity. By the fourth blackout, something snapped. Her eyes bulged, her heartbeat soared, and her fists started pumping in a slow rhythmic beat.

For all practical purposes, she was a normal woman going on her everyday life, unless…you were reading the signs.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon Mariano Sigman’s Ted Talk on how your words may predict your future mental health. Through semantic coherence, Mariano has developed an algorithm that can predict the future development of psychosis. By analysing the pattern of your speech – or the speed in which you jump from one semantic group (fruit) to another (cars) – he can measure discordance. It’s an incredible breakthrough in neuroscience, but relies solely on one’s verbal communication.

What if words aren’t giving away the psychosis? What if the psychosis, the pain, are being communicated another way?

On that steamy summer morning in Madrid, the world continued on. Books were read. Phones were engaged. People were ignored. Instead of connecting to one another, from reading one another’s signs and patterns, we disconnected. We checked out, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to wrap ourselves in apathy then to live in empathy.

By the 5th stop, I was able to persuade a kid to switch seats with me so that I could sit beside her. Gently taking an apple out of my bag, I offered it to her, sharing how I had procured it from a quirky vendor who lived just up the street from me.

Looking at me, she smirked, patted my leg and took an enormous breath. On the exhale, it was if her entire life blew out across the train, a bittersweet release of responsibility and fear. And though she never took the apple, nor uttered a word to me, her face softened to into a soft fleshy mound of content.

One of the greatest tools we have is our ability to connect, to listen, to watch, to participate in the world around us. Can Mariano’s research potentially help thousands of people get the support they need before a psychosis gets out of hand? Absolutely! But what about the here and now? What about you in that moment? The woman on the subway may not have been able to scream her anxieties and fears to a crowd full of strangers, but her nonverbal gestures were blatant.

Maybe it’s time we learn how to read the world without words…

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”  ― Daniel Goleman


The Hidden Voices of Portugal – Masterclass with Connect to Success

Jumping into the backseat of a black Peugeot in Porto, I breathlessly asked the Uber driver if he knew where I was heading.

Shifting slightly in the front seat, he adjusted his GPS and whispered, “Are yo……..go………on.”

“I’m sorry,” I prodded, “would you mind repeating that?”

“Are you go……to…statio…..?” he mumbled into the rearview mirror as if the reflection would help me decipher his clenched teeth.

By the third attempt, I just about climbed into the front seat and begged, “Dude, just get whatever you’re saying out! Don’t keep it inside. Just let it all go!”

That sense of quiet determination has been one of the many calling cards for Portugal. If you’re looking for some of the most loving, kind and caring people on the planet, they’re here, but to find their humble voices above the roar of the world, you’ll have to listen very carefully.

This past weekend, Speak UP Portugal! had the privilege of hosting a Masterclass with Connect to Success and FLAD to tackle this very question: what are the top 3 ways Portugal can effectively compete in the international market. Traveling as far as Brazil, our Portuguese speaking audience was packed with powerful, determined female entrepreneurs seeking a cross-cultural jump into new markets. They’re hungry for information, eager to grow and more than happy to engage with new ideas. Quite frankly, we couldn’t asked for a better audience!


What follows below are a few cross-cultural communication tips we explored during the session:

1. Know Thyself and Keep an Open Heart 

Despite our need to take on a half-dozen roles throughout the day, the age of the professional self versus the private self are over! Because quite honestly, who wants to feel sterile, robotic and completely void of a emotion or personality anyway? You’re human! And as long as you don’t have a secret twin roaming the planet, there’s only one of  you, which means we need you! All of you! Unfortunately, many of us feel a need to hide who we are, thinking a suit or a powerpoint of graphs and charts will sell it. Guess what? It doesn’t! If you’re not proud of who you are – whether that’s Portuguese, female or budding basket weaver – your body will express it.

Communication Tool: Always keep your heart open and ready for business. Crossing your arms, shifting your shoulders forward or looking down at your feet all communicate “I’m not open for business.”By grounding yourself, and leaving your upper body exposed to the world, you express an eagerness to learn, to grow and to tackle new challenges. Risk feeling vulnerable!

2. Take a Long Deep Breath and Ask for It! 

How often do you make a “To Do” list? For some, it’s daily, for others, it’s on the hour. But…how often do you make an “I Want” list? More than likely, it happens on New Years, major birthdays or after you’ve overcome a bad case of food poisoning. “Jesus, I never want to eat at Carlos’ Churrasqueira again!” To know what you want is scary. We get it! But by not knowing what you want, what you truly want, you can’t ask for it. If you’re dreaming of partnering with a Fortune 500 company and are terrified they’ll slam the phone down before you can even utter the words, “Hello, my name is…”, you’ll remain stagnant. The unknown is part of the package, it’s part of life, but there are solid ways to overcome that fear.

Communication Tool:  Use that big beautiful set of lungs you have! They’re your guiding ship, your compass and your port of safety. When fear strikes, breathe! Practice a pause after each sentence when putting together your pitch. It may feel ridiculous in the beginning, but those pauses help slow down your thoughts, narrow your focus and calm your nerves. Effective breathing allows you to control your message and help cultivate a sense of confidence and determination.

3. Trust the World Around You

How often have we been told not to trust strangers? If you’re coming from my neck of the woods, Chicago, it’s daily! The irony is that strangers are your best link to getting what you need and want. This is what makes networking so powerful! Everyone needs something, right? By exposing your unique set of values to the world around you, by being bold and vulnerable, the world will reciprocate in kind. It’s the law of attraction!

Communication Tool: Don’t hide! When going beyond Portuguese borders reach out in any language you can muster. The act of connecting, of making the effort to find a middle ground, will open hundreds of doors. Remember, there’s no such thing as perfection when speaking a foreign language! People genuinely want to see you succeed, and are willing to go a long way to help you reach your goals. So take a leap and connect!

An enormous thank you to the Connect to Success team and all of the women that joined us this past weekend. More information about future workshops and events coming soon!