Life is good when you have a full stomach and a dry diaper.

My granddaughter—six-month-old Claire Elise McMinn—lives in our home.

Since babies can’t talk, the only way they communicate when something is amiss is to cry. When Claire cries, she needs something. She’s either hungry, needs a clean diaper, needs a nap (or doesn’t want one), wants to be held, or doesn’t like the position she’s in. It’s really quite simple. We intuit what she’s crying about, meet that need, and she stops crying. 

Needs met = happy. Needs unmet = unhappy.

As adults, our needs are more nuanced. Like infants, we have physical needs for food, sleep, and shelter, but we also have emotional needs such as attention, encouragement, support, acceptance, comfort, respect, appreciation, and security. When these needs are met we feel satisfied and blessed; when they’re not, we’re unhappy. It’s really quite simple.

As adults, we have a more sophisticated way to communicate our neediness than infants do—we can verbalize our needs to a friend or family member. But sometimes, even when we communicate our needs in a mature, productive manner we are ignored and neglected and that hurts. If the neglect persists we begin to express our neediness in unproductive ways: we clam up, slam cabinets, become passive-aggressive, say things we shouldn’t, or walk away. 

The solution to this dilemma is straightforward. Realize that every human has emotional needs that can only be met by another human. Proactively meet people’s needs, particularly your family members and close friends. Acknowledge your own neediness and allow others to meet your needs. When emotional needs are properly expressed and lovingly met, we feel loved.

Remember this formula: Needs met = happy; needs unmet = unhappy. I double-dog-dare you to be proactive in meeting other people’s emotional needs and notice the marvelous results. 

The Ministry of Your Presence

When I was a young minister, I often felt awkward making hospital visits because I didn’t know what to say. I asked my senior pastor’s advice and he said, “Don, you don’t need to say much. The most important thing is the ministry of your presence. Just being there is enough.”

Never underestimate the power of being present with someone, particularly when they realize you don’t have to be there.

Two members of my staff spend many weekends watching their kids play sports, sometimes 8-10 hours a day. Sometimes in the rain or cold. Their presence is a profound act of love and devotion.

In his must-read book, How to Know a Person, political writer David Brooks shares this story: “I recently read about a professor named Nancy Abernathy who was teaching first-year med students when her husband, at age fifty, died of a heart attack while cross-country skiing. With some difficulty, she managed to make it through the semester and carried on with her teaching. One day she mentioned to the class that she was dreading teaching the same course the next year, because each year, during one of the first sessions of the course, she asks everybody to bring in family photos so they can get to know one another. She wasn’t sure if she could share a photo of her late husband during that session without weeping.

“The course ended. Summer came and went, and fall arrived and, with it, the day she dreaded. The professor entered the lecture hall, full of trepidation, and sensed something strange. The room was too full. Sitting there, along with her current class, were the second-year students, the ones who had taken her class the year before. They had come simply to lend their presence during this hard session. They knew what she needed, and didn’t need to offer anything more.” 

“This is compassion,” Abernathy later remarked. “A simple human connection between the one who suffers and one who would heal.” (Brooks, pgs 52-53)

I want to do more of this. I want to sense when someone feels the pain of being alone and alleviate their discomfort with my presence. Not to teach or coach, but simply to be with them.

Before making major life-decisions, solicit input from other people. 

One of my favorite leadership mantras is: All of us are smarter than one of us. There’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors. Any idea, plan, or decision will be improved upon when we get multiple opinions. It’s good advice for leaders and it also applies to our personal lives. 

As a leader, I always try to follow this advice, but in my personal life I have failed miserably. I’ve made major career moves without seeking advice. On my own, I decided which colleges to attend and what to study. When Mary and I were considering marriage we didn’t ask for input. I’m not proud of my Lone Ranger approach to life and I’m trying to figure out why that has been my default setting. I suspect at least two reasons. In the early stages of my life I was emotionally alone, and I am self-reliant and over-confident. 

How about you—do you struggle with this issue?

The Quakers have a wonderful solution to this problem: the Clearness Committee. They have a well-structured approach to allowing others to have input into major decisions. This article by Parker Palmer, “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment,” is worth the five minutes it takes to read.

Proverbs 11:14 teaches: “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers” (NLT). Personalize this verse by substituting “a person” for “a nation.” When making decisions, ask for advice. There’s no downside to doing so. 

Get the monkey off your back. Who is responsible for the next move?

In a now-famous article titled “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” (Harvard Business Review, November, 1974), authors Oncken and Wass created a clever and memorable illustration on how a person can unwittingly accept responsibility for activities that should be handled by others.

In the illustration, the “monkey” is simply the next move. It is not the problem, or the project, or the goal, or the desired result; it is the next step.

Read the three scenarios below and picture a monkey leaping from the back of the direct report, teenager, and repairman to the shoulders of the boss, mom, and homeowner. Once you visualize the long-tailed primate jumping from one person to another, you’ll never forget the illustration. Since becoming aware of this phenomenon, sometimes in conversations I can almost feel the weight of a monkey as it jumps from my back onto someone else’s or from their back to mine.

    • Imagine that you’re walking toward your office when one of your direct reports approaches and says, “I’m not sure how to handle a problem we’re having on a project.” You reply, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back with you.” The monkey is now on your back.
    • Imagine that your teenager approaches you and says, “Mom, I can’t find my baseball shirt.” You reply, “I may have put it in the washing machine, let me check.” The monkey is now on your back.
    • Imagine that you’re having some repair work done at your house and the repairman says, “I’m not sure this repair will meet city code.” You reply, “I’ll call the city and ask.” The monkey is now on your back.

I fall into this monkey-on-my-back trap often because 1) I like to do things myself, 2) sometimes I think I can do a better job at certain things than others can, and 3) I’m a people pleaser so I’m inclined to do people’s jobs for them.

When we allow employees, children, workers, and friends to handle their own monkeys, they will grow, acquire new skills, become more responsible, and more work will get done. And we’ll have more time to do those things that only we should do and more discretionary time to enjoy life.

Here’s a copy of the article.