“Yes, I Hear You” Challenge–Acknowledge Work+Life Frustrations to Move Forward

(This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post as part of the National Work and Family Month blog carnival)

This year’s National Work and Family Month blog fest has celebrated successes, articulated pressing problems, and laid out a vision for the future. But for meaningful progress to happen over the next 12 months, we also have to acknowledge the very real frustrations of those touched by the challenge of managing work and life today.

There is no doubt that we are in the middle of a difficult economic and demographic transition. Most likely, the level of work and life frustration is going to grow. What would happen if, for the next twelve months, our first response to every challenge was an affirming, “Yes, I hear you…”? Hopefully, it will coax us out of our respective corners. We’ll release our tight grip on individual agendas (even just a bit) and create a fuller, more flexible shared vision of work and life fit that matches reality.

For the past month, I’ve kept track of some of the work+life frustrations expressed in my presence. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a representative sample to get us started.

I thought it would be interesting to see what happens if my initial response was, “Yes, I hear you” rather than launching into an answer or opinion. In my experience, this simple act of validation sets a tone that supports an ongoing conversation and creates even a small opening for progress.

It may sound a bit Oprah, but before we can change, we need to feel like someone is listening.

Here’s what you told me, and here’s what I said (or wished I’d said):

Why do we keep focusing only on the financial return of work and life strategies? Why don’t we demand organizations and leaders put equal emphasis on the human costs and benefits as well?

Yes, I hear you. We do need to find a way to have more “Yes, and…” conversations. “Yes, the research proves that there are significant financial returns from work and life strategies and the benefits to people are equally as important and impressive.”

I understand that people have lives, but we have a business to run in a very competitive, difficult economy. If there’s no business, there’s no job at all. I just wish sometimes I heard a little bit more about that important fact in the debate.

Yes, I hear you. The reality is that businesses are facing incredible competitive pressures. We need to find a way to acknowledge this fact without shutting down the conversation about how we can work and live smarter and better to meet that competitive challenge. And do it from a place of strength and well-being for all.

Why can’t a mother take time to focus on her family and not suffer such a severe career penalty? Why are retirees who want to come back to work viewed as ‘valuable’ and mothers aren’t?

Yes, I hear you. Whether for parenting, illness, education, retirement, career breaks or slowdowns are going to happen. They just are. So how do employers adapt the ideal career track model and how do we shift expectations about our own career trajectory?

Stop telling me I need to do more and more for my child or I’m a bad mother. Should I sacrifice my family’s financial security to spend more hours that I don’t have on even more activities that experts tell me are critical to his success? What if I just can’t and run my business?

Yes, I hear you. The cultural expectations of mothers have not caught up to reality and the guilt can be withering especially when the message is that you need to do even more and you just can’t.

What burns me is that a mother in my group walks out every night without a second thought saying “Gotta get home,” and we’re sitting here expected to do the work. But guess what? My wife works. I have kids I’d like to see. And yes, our colleague is single, but she has a life too.

Yes, I hear you. You and your colleague’s interests and responsibilities outside of work are just as important. This is one of the great challenges, broadening the understanding that we all have full lives. And we all need greater flexibility in how, when and where we work as individuals and together as teams. How do we communicate and coordinate better and smarter to get the job done while living our lives?

Why do we celebrate the parent who calls in sick to care for a child with strep throat, but then give the person who’s walked the halls all night with his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s a hard time?

Yes, I hear you. We don’t do a very good job acknowledging the prevalence of adult care giving or understanding the unique challenges these caregivers face.

New York City’s Christine Quinn abandoned working families when she pulled her support for paid sick leave legislation.

Yes, I hear you. Choices being made in the current economy are difficult for all. It’s frustrating that we are not able to find solutions that address the economic concerns voiced by business owners and the equally compelling needs of families who can’t afford to not get paid when they get sick.

The “Yes, I hear you” Challenge: I’m going to try. It doesn’t mean that I’m always going to agree with every perspective or have all of my ideas agreed with. But simple validation does increase the likelihood that someday everyone — business leaders, public policymakers, academics, mothers, fathers, those who are single, those caring for aging adults, and anyone else — can sit around the same table and begin to answer the question, “Now what?” Together.

Let’s see how far we can come by National Work and Family Month in October, 2011.