Recently, I was driving to a healthcare client site through the mountains of Virginia.  It was a sunny day that illuminated beautiful fall scenery.  Going downhill, a sign that read “Trucks Use Lower Gear” grabbed my attention.  A short distance later, I saw a runaway truck ramp and thought, ”Yep, definitely better to use a lower gear”.

The same is true when navigating relationships at work and at home. We all have a Relational Gear-Box that allows us to shift into the right gear to navigate the conversational landscape.  In their excellent book, 5 Gears: How to Be Present and Productive When There Is Never Enough Time, Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram point out how to shift into the right gear for the circumstances we face (including Reverse Gear for when we need to back up from mistakes).

The Relational Gear-Box from Kubicek and Cockram looks like this:

  • First gear— you fully rest and recharge without any outside interference from work or technology.  You are completely off-line:  no smart phones, no computers, aka al natural.

  • Second gear—you connect with family or friends without the involvement of work.  You have arrived home from work and set boundaries to guard specific time for family.

  • Third gear—you are socializing.  You are at work or home and able to shift up or down as needed.  This is pivotal as it connects social to business (not just all business, all the time).

  • Fourth gear—you are working and multi-tasking, running and gunning.  Most of us spend about 80% of our working time in 4th gear.  Some of us wake up in and stay in 4th gear all day.

  • Fifth gear—you are fully focused and in the zone, working without interruption.  This is deep thinking strategic or creative time.

  • Reverse gear – you are stuck in a ditch.  You made a mistake and have to back up and take responsibility to get out of the ditch.  For example, “I am so sorry I missed the appointment, may we reschedule?”

Using these gears consistently allows us to bring a new level of relational intelligence to our lives which offer a competitive advantage in our task-driven world. 

So, on a given day I would ask these three questions:

 1.      What is your Gear order?

2.      What are your Stress Gears?

3.      What are the Gear Tendencies of the people around you?

All too often people go through life without truly connecting and, as a result, miss out on experiences and relationships that could have the power to bring them great joy and fulfillment.  When we recognize what gear we are in and then understand what gear we ought to be in for the particular time or place and shift accordingly, we can improve our ability to connect with the world around us.

So avoid the runaway ramp by down shifting when necessary and never forget that we always have reverse gear as an option to navigate our relational landscape.


One of my favorite training topics is about crucial conversations based on the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and Ron McMillan. This is because it provides a solid framework from which to navigate potentially energized human situations.  In a perfect world, leaders are 100% rested, engaged and focused.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

When the heat is on, we multi-task (also known as attempting to do multiple things at once with the risk that only a portion of them will turn out right) and we become vulnerable.  Our workplace landscape has shifted in the last 8-10 years.  This is sometimes referred to as the New Normal.

We may triple-book the calendar to the point where it looks incoherent, respond to electronic communication at all hours of the day (or night), and have the hammer so far down we have forgotten when to let it up again.  In this attention-starved condition of sensory overload, is it any wonder that what comes naturally may not be our best?

“Deadlines and commitments…. What to leave in, what to leave out” Bob Seger.

Crucial Conversations defines a “Story” as our default position.  It is a response to the lens through which we view the world around us.  The images we think we see can become energized quickly when we are too

·       Hungry

·       Angry

·       Lonely or

·       Tired (HALT).

I have a colleague who has a son in college in the Midwest.  His phone rings a fair amount with his son asking for an electronic transfer of funds.  Naturally, the request comes with little or no warning and usually at a time when my friend is multi-tasking to the max.

After one of these requests, my colleague stopped what he was doing to fill out and copy forms, IDs, account numbers, addresses and sent it all off as instructed.  Then the bank called and said that the account was closed.  My friend’s Story about his son immediately surfaced. “You are so irresponsible!  You must take after your mother’s side of the family.”  (Apparently they can’t manage their bank accounts either.)

But guess what?  He was wrong.  Can you believe it?  He was the one who, in his haste, transposed numbers on a scanned form which resulted in the account closed message from the bank.  The happy ending is that my colleague put some new boundaries in place for his son.  He now insists that these requests come with respect for his calendar (and bank account.)  And so they do because his son recognizes these boundaries. 

The point is that my colleague jumped into the angry blasting mode because the circumstances triggered an internal Story.  This was his internal set of beliefs about a person or situation formed over time. This did not happen with a co-worker or customer, but it could have. The story was there.

According to Jon Kabat-Zin (1994) “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way- on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  It’s a good model to follow in our New Normal.

So when the heat is on, step back.  Go slow enough to allow yourself to respond instead of react.  You’ll be glad you did.  Especially if there is a story waiting to escape that could seriously damage relationships.