“Your mess is your message.” With Madelaine Claire Weiss

Turning complaints into requests is another great habit to build. People respond so much better to requests than complaints. Complaints put people into fight, flight, freeze and shut them down so they can’t even hear what you are saying about what’s not working for you. A request puts the listener in a stronger position more […]

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Turning complaints into requests is another great habit to build. People respond so much better to requests than complaints. Complaints put people into fight, flight, freeze and shut them down so they can’t even hear what you are saying about what’s not working for you. A request puts the listener in a stronger position more conducive to caring about you and your well-being, because they are not all tied up and busy defending themselves.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingMadelaine Claire Weiss.

Madelaine Claire Weiss, MBA, LICSW, BCC helps high achievers learn how to master their minds so they can have more hours in the day, more peace of mind, more freedom and fulfillment — maintaining high performance without burning out. She is a Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach who trained in Psychodynamics at Harvard, in Organizational Dynamics at BU, and in Coaching with Erickson International.

Madelaine is co-author in Handbook of Stressful Transition Across the Lifespan, and author of the forthcoming Getting to G.R.E.A.T: 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life…Based on Science and True Stories (including her own.) She is a former group mental health practice Administrative Director, Treasurer, and Psychotherapist, a corporate Chief Organizational Development Officer, and Associate Director of the Anatomical Gift Program at Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, Madelaine spoke before the Joint Committee on the Status of Women, and designed and delivered training programs for the Center for Workplace Learning and Performance. Madelaine lives in Washington, DC, where she enjoys her family, friends, and clients from around the country.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Think Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) and his beloved Madeline books: “She was not afraid of mice, she loved winter, snow, and ice. To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said poo-poo.” Truth to power. Madeline is my avatar, and why I spent most of my childhood grounded, as in not allowed out.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I was 15 years old, my father died of a stroke. Spirited as I was, I was pretty sure he died of me — until the day I broke down with my mother about how ‘all my fault’ it was. In her shining moment as a mom, she responded, “No honey, it wasn’t you, it was work.” So now I help high achievers learn how to master their minds so they can live happier, healthier, productive lives.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My dad’s sister, was a “schoolmarm” who connected with my mind like no other in my early life. This happened through letters I wrote to her from summer camp, and the ones she wrote back. Since Aunt Jeannie, who passed in her fifties, there has been a long line of men and women who invested in me, and engaged with me, in the love of ideas and learning we all share.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

“OMG, they took the typewriter.” That’s right, one day, years ago, I walked into the office and the file cabinets, all of the patient records, and the fancy typewriter were all gone.

It was a group mental health practice, the anchor office for a number of satellite offices spread so thin that they bled our healthy and active office dry. So, without notice, the owners pretty much just took their toys and went home.

We were seven full time clinicians with a few part timers and 200+ clients counting on us to take care of them — with or without a typewriter, no matter to them. And we did. There was no question we would continue to see our clients, but what about the money?

Nine months pregnant, swollen feet up on a pillow, I said, “Well, my mother kept the books for my father’s business,” to which they responded, “Oh good; you’re Administrative Director/Treasure. Just put all the money in a brown bag, take it home, and figure it out.”

Soon enough we and our clients were all just fine. But it was a pretty crazy time that could have been a lot saner had we been a little more alert. I knew something funny was going on with those others offices. And I, who spent a childhood in trouble speaking truth to power, never said a word, depriving us all of the benefits of planning for the transition of ownership that was to come.

Here’s my 2-point takeaway for now: 1) Everything is connected to everything else. We can’t live in a bubble. The overall health of the ‘company’ we keep matters a lot. So now, when my clients show up exuberant about a new opportunity, one of my questions is always, “What do we know about the company’s health?” Company applies to people and organizations. 2) There is a time to speak, and a time to not — it is good to know the difference. My forthcoming book has a whole chapter on “Mastering Your Mouth.” 😉

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Personal and Professional Development. I am a classically trained psychotherapist morphed into a Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach because I believe the more future forward, solution focused, action-oriented approach is more powerfully effective than the traditional talking cure. No surprise, the coaching industry has exploded, and I have had the pleasure to meet so many people highly motivated to serve in this way. I believe it is important for us all to be as fit as we can to do the best we can when people put their hopes and resources in our hands.

5 Points to Consider

  • One of the prevailing mantras is “Your mess is your message.” This can be true and right for some, and not for others. Either way, we each have to know our own ‘mess’ well enough that we can tell when it’s getting in the way of the work we aim to do for others.
  • A related point is that we can only take our clients as far as we have gone ourselves. For this reason, my own personal development is ongoing, has no end, as a matter of care and responsibility to those I aim to serve.
  • I believe the art and science of coaching is to know which tool in our toolkits to pull out when. That’s why it is good to have a number of different approaches in the toolkit. So, for example, my clients know that early history “peeling the onion” is only as much as is necessary to get the job done. The job is their present and their future, not sitting stuck in their past, as can happen when practitioners mean well but overuse the past history tool.
  • Give yourself the best education and credentials you can find and afford. Many people are helping others without formal education and training, but having it will only make you stronger and elevate the profession you wish to join.
  • And finally for now, enjoy this work and here is how: Resist any temptation to accept clients not open and ready to grow. This work can be an out-of-this-world privilege and pleasure if we work only with clients we truly believe we can help.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Yes, there is a book that transformed how I practice my craft for the people I serve. The book is How People Change by Allen Wheelis. It was decades ago when I first read it but it didn’t take hold right away because back then the gold standard was long term insight oriented, psychodynamic psychotherapy. In other words, the talking cure. And I do think that I am much stronger for having this kind of traditional training as my foundation, just like a jazz dancer with a foundation of classical ballet, or a modern artist informed by the classics.

But Wheelis said something different from the rest, which was that how people change is that — they just do! So with Wheelis, there was an emphasis on action over talk, consistent with a favorite William James quote: “Action does not guarantee happiness but there is no happiness without it. So now every session ends with an action plan, which I am thrilled to report has changed everything for me and for them.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

My favorite life lesson quote is, “Life is what our thoughts make it,” Marcus Aurelius. What I love about these words is how well they capture the idea that it’s pretty much all on us. It’s easy to blame other people and events for the way life is happening, but we know from research that genetics and external circumstances account for about 50% and 10% of our happiness, respectively, leaving a whopping 40% of our happiness hooked to what’s going on inside our own heads. Good to know if we want to upgrade our lives.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Not too long ago I asked myself, if I had to put it in a bottle, what was it exactly that was working for my clients. Reverse engineering revealed 5 steps they all took to get from where they were to find their smile. It turned out that, no matter how different they were in age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, and so on…they all went through this 5-step process that just happened to fall into the most wonderful acronym, G.R.E.A.T.

Hence, the book Getting to G.R.E.A.T: 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life…Based on Science and True Stories, with a publication date of March 2021. Each chapter, on everyday issues, starts with personal story on the topic, before getting into theory and research, and concluding with a case study and exercise for the reader. People are saying it’s “A marvelous book…with a deep message: We have the power to change our lives for the better — and Madelaine shows you how,” and I’m excited by all of the opportunities to let people know that this practical guide to life and living is coming soon.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits are energy savers. That’s why the brain prefers them. Think about how hard it would be if we had to figure out how to ride a bike like it’s the first time every time we got on. Or every time we get behind the wheel to drive a car. So habits make things easier by being the automatic pilots of our lives. And that is why we have to make very sure that these habits are “good habits,” meaning that they are driving or flying us in a direction we really want to go.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I am a morning person, and don’t really know whether that’s a story I tell myself or something physiologically determined. Either way, I have built habits consistent with this about me to support my success.

So, for example, especially before Covid, clients wanted to be seen either before or after their work day. I knew that they’d get more and better from me if we met in the morning, which most of them were happy to do. This meant I had to build a habitual routine to accommodate the early morning work.

Since I see myself as an instrument for my client’s use, I feel obliged to keep the instrument that I am as fit and fine-tuned as possible. The morning ritual, therefore, includes a habit of meditation and exercise before the workday begins. This means I also had to create a new habit of getting up at 6am every morning, which impacted a new bedtime habit and mid-afternoon power nap.

So, as I like to say, everything is connected to everything else, as a lifestyle of good habits, each one supporting the other. It’s more like a constellation of lifestyle habits more than any single habit existing on its own.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I wholeheartedly agree that there is no point in spending time and energy on trying to bust old bad habits, and prefer to think of the brain as a garden instead.

From Susan Warren at The Breakthrough Depot:

“Imagine your brain is a garden, except instead of growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you grow synaptic connections between neurons. These are the connections that neurotransmitters like dopamine, seratonin, and others travel across. ‘Glial cells’ are the gardeners of your brain — they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves.”

So the brain is a garden that practically gardens itself, and the old habits are the weeds. The neural connections you work, the ones associated with the things you think and do, grow strong. What you neglect gets deleted. That’s why we have to be so careful what kinds of habits we plant in our minds. Plant your seeds, tend them every day, repeat, repeat, repeat, and watch your new upgraded, healthy new habits grow!

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Wellness: As above, I’m a big fan of a morning routine that includes an early wake-up, meditation, and exercise to set oneself up strong for the rest of the day.

Performance: Another favorite book of mine is Bob Rotella’s Golf is Not a Game of PerfectRotella was on to mindset at least as far back as 1995 before mindset was even a thing as it is today. And so was I, so I was a fan. Rotella and I agree that good optimal performance habits begin with believing in our own dreams for what’s possible, then getting to know who we are, so we can align who we really are with an external environment best suited to our success.

Focus: Habits supporting focus also center on mastery of the mind. The mind wanders about 70% of the time. So first we need to practice bringing it back to the task at hand, over and over again, until the mind can do this better as a habit of its own. Another important habit to cultivate for focus is to completely put down whatever we were doing when it is time to do something else. This is actually hard, but once we are no longer dragging around the tasks that came before the one currently on, focus will come more naturally as a matter of habit. A third idea may be counterintuitive but can work. Difficulty focusing on a task can be eased by pairing the task with something more desirable than the task itself, e.g., one client finds it easier to focus on the report he has to write if he does it at Starbucks, instead of at home where he is distracted by the quiet. Whatever works.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Cultivating a habit of meditation is the best way I know to strengthen the mind’s discipline for all things Wellness, Performance, and Focus. But wait, there are so many types of meditation (click here for an article on 23 of them), how are we supposed to know which one works best. The one that works best is the one you will do. So try a few and see which one you like. That is the best one for you. You can also find mind management exercises on the “Complimentary…” pulldown at my website:

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

Let’s talk about work. The best advice I ever heard was, “Just do good work.” What this means is to develop a habit of ‘nose to the grindstone’ especially when things get crazy around you. What’s great about this is that then it cannot be said about you — nor felt by you — that the mess was in any way because you didn’t do good work. And your good work habits also prevent you from getting sucked into becoming a part of the problem instead of its solution.

Turning complaints into requests is another great habit to build. People respond so much better to requests than complaints. Complaints put people into fight, flight, freeze and shut them down so they can’t even hear what you are saying about what’s not working for you. A request puts the listener in a stronger position more conducive to caring about you and your well-being, because they are not all tied up and busy defending themselves.

Another good idea is to make a habit of taking care of the people we count on to take care of us. This is called Managing Up. Most folks I know have to learn this new way of thinking about their work relationships, a new habit of the mind, a mindset of service all the way around.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Practice, practice, practice. That is the best way, only way, to build these new habits for optimal wellness. Learning by doing, and doing, and doing. Neurons that fire together wire together. And that is what we are doing. When we make a habit, we are building neural connection that fire together so readily that it hardly takes any effort at all. That is what a habit is, a behavior or set of behaviors happening with hardly any effort at all.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

Absolutely, so glad you asked about flow. Philosophers talk about the working surface. The working surface is where the paintbrush hits the woodwork we are painting, where the knife hits the skin of the tomato we are slicing, where the dish rag touches the plate we are washing, where the sound of the speaker’s voice hits our ear… Philosophers tell us that the working surface is where the bliss is, because taking the mind out of its past regrets and future worries has got to leave the mind with nothing but bliss in the present moment, where everything is relatively just fine. It’s so simple that one may need to see it to believe it, so hope you will try it and see for yourself.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Once before I said that if I could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good it would be Good Company, which includes things like the books we read, the wine we drink, the music we listen to, the people we invite into our lives, the thoughts in our head… Good Company is the very finest quality of any and all things that we can find and afford. For this interview, I would like to give a special shout out to the finest quality of the words we say. The ancients recommend that our words be True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial. Especially in these times, Good Company would have to become more possible when we become more mindful that our words meet this test.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

It is Arianna Huffington. As I mentioned earlier, my father died of a stroke when I was 15 years old. For all those years, I watched him work himself into exhaustion, from 5am to 10pm, every day but Saturday when it was 5am to 6pm, and Sunday when it was 5am to noon. We used to live on the third floor of a building attached to the factory our family owned. I’m told that as a toddler I used to tug at his sleeve while he napped on the sofa during the day and say, “Gellup, Gellup, Gellup.” One day he took one of those naps and never woke up. My mother said he died of work; that, and the death bed promise he made to his mother that he would make sure our family business survived after she died.

Arianna’s The Sleep Revolution has been on my shelf for years, and words cannot express how much I appreciate the contributions Authority and Thrive Global are making to wellness for us all. There was nothing I could do for my father then so it is my great privilege to contribute in some small way here and now. Thank you!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would love to hear from your readers, who can go to my website and find Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram links right there. There are also mindset exercises in the “Complimentary…” pulldown, weekly blog posts, and upcoming book launch announcements by joining the email list.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

My privilege and my pleasure. Thank you!

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