When City-ites go to the Country

Ah, the summer. The time when people think about some kind of vacation. getaway, weekend trip.  I’ve gone from city to country for the summer and have been reflecting on what happens to us city-dwellers when we’re surrounded by trees, not skyscrapers.

First- the shock of silence. Where can city-dwellers experience silence? Our lives are so intense, so filled with rush and roar and irrelevant sounds that intrude on most everything we do. But here the focus is on what different sounds wind and birds and water make. Natural sounds. Not shrill, staccato, grating, banging, clanging, generic noise. The silence makes you notice and breathe and finally turn inward, to listen to your own thoughts.

Then—space. Look at the horizon! When do we city-ites ever get a chance to see or even remember that? How that long look at the foreverness of the earth changes your perspective on what you, and life, are really all about.

And – time. The pace of how you function changes so radically. How easy it is to get from place to place here. And how much slower everyone operates. Time enough to chat with the clerk at the supermarket. To consider when and how you have your meals.  Time enough to read, to talk, to look, to think – even to change plans and zig when you thought you would zag.

But most of all- experiencing the different attitude of people towards each other. You secretly think “how nice the service people are – they ask and discuss, even smile…”  There is a recognition and acceptance of the fact that we’re all in this together- that we each need a little room and a little neighborly nod and some decency as we ply our time on this earth together.

Sure, we city-dwellers need to live where we do, to strive and grow and explore what we can accomplish. To enjoy and admire what people can create, even as it costs us personally. But there’s nothing like getting back to nature to find out what else really counts and what we’re missing


What Happens When You Try a New Career

This blog-voice has been quiet for a few weeks (so unlike me!) but I was hardly silent during that time. I was acting in a wonderful new play, off- Broadway, as part of adding career number 10 – acting – to the others I’ve created in my continuous quest for self-expression and making a difference.

So this blog post is all about what happens when you launch yourself into the stratosphere of a new career. And I hope that it helps you try something new yourself.

The single most important surprise is the depth of the new territory and how much there is to learn. When was the last time you started learning something very deep and very new? Don’t you think that as we grow deeper into the years of our lives, we kind of find comfort levels in what we already know and we don’t face the challenge of new learning very often?

Well, here’s how it felt to go into new territory: I began building the character I was playing based on my small amount of past formal training, my greater amount of experience and my highly developed performer instincts. But my director confronted me with “Why does she say this here?” “What in her past created this reaction?” “ Would she really be this nice here? Why?”  So I found myself articulating answers I just had inside without ever knowing that I did, forcing myself to go into greater depths and think through so many aspects of her life in order to arrive at how I’d play each scene. And I discovered that I really could do that…

I also scared myself to death, thinking, “What have you done? Maybe you can’t memorize 48 pages of mainly you talking (I was the star of the show…) And there you’ll be, with your bare face hanging out!” That voice of self-doubt almost did me in as, true to a self-fulfilling prophecy, I did blank out totally in our first full-play rehearsal! The panic! The terror! The picture of me standing onstage with a full audience like an idiot and going blank! Did I ever reach out to friends to come and read lines with me endlessly till I convinced myself that I really DID know the whole thing. Oh, what agony!

So- taking on a new career meant conquering that self- doubt, that fear. Confronting that voice that seems to be alive and well in all of us, ready to rise up and squash our dreams at a moment’s notice. Talking back to that destructive spirit,  challenging it and finding a way to hold your own and prevail. To believe you can. That you will. And to finally allow yourself the joy of the experience. What new skills! What a new view of myself!

I’ve written this to help you all dare to stick the big toe in some new, very cold water. Although what you don’t know can scare you, you can screw up your courage to try, to dare to learn and explore. Don’t let the insecurity of being out of the old familiar comfort zones make you turn back.  Swallow hard, plant your feet  and fight! Fight for a new adventure—and what new corners of yourself you can explore and grow with. Find yourself in a whole new role, reacting and adjusting in totally new ways. Discover who else you are and can be— this is such a deeply rewarding venture. Try it! One big toe. Very cold water. See what happens… 



Changing Your Life’s Work

In today’s continuously transforming world, where you see yesterday’s plans and assumptions suddenly upended, people’s jobs and life’s work suddenly whisked away, we can all be challenged to question our assumptions and re-think our plans, our choices and our careers. Sometimes that confrontation is thrust at you and sometimes it simply grows out of that age-old question—“Is that all there is?”

I’ve asked myself that question and made a major change in my own life now. And I’m writing this blog to explore why and to hope that in this exploration I can help those who also question what’s next or who are compelled to answer that question.

I’ve asked myself “is that all there is?” nine times before this and each time I changed the course of my career and developed a new one. The standards were always about values—about what needed to be done in the world next, about what kind of social change should we be effecting. And after I determined that no one else was doing it, I’d turn my efforts into making that happen., I had great good luck in actually following my passions and doing it—nine times!  Going from musician to dancer to college prof at Radcliffe to television’s PBS teaching the arts to cultural reporting on Boston TV’s nightly news to my own TV talk show to creating the field of jury consulting and communicating at Harvard’s Law school, lecturing and authoring books, consulting on major cases, reaching millions as a contributor on national TV to business communication guru, author, lecturer, coach again —– until now.

Although I still do the consulting, lecturing and coaching, I’ve added number 10. This one’s not about changing the world anymore. It’s back to my roots as a performer and artist. Narrowing the focus. Going inside and in a very close, personal way, reaching out to a few people at a time as an actor, saying and showing what I think and feel through the words of others.  What a new voyage of discovery!! Not only of myself but of others who wanted to touch the world, to learn what they had to say and how they chose to say it. And you know what? I’m really doing it! I’m actually starring in a new play in New York in June, doing a performed reading of another and I’ve just done a short film up at Yale!

Why do this? Why the great effort to forge yourself into yet another framework? To learn and become something you haven’t been before? And at this time of my life when it might be time to consider a little coasting?

Because I’m here ! And alive! Looking to taste what I haven’t yet tried—to find out how this person-with what’s she’s learned and lived through — will process yet another aspect of our universe. And as for the courage to change? To try something new? The passion carries me right through the doubts and fears. “Let’s find out! Try it! If it doesn’t work, nothing terrible has happened. And if it does, what new seas shall you now sail on? What other Sonya Hamlin will you find there?”

So look to your passions. To what you always wanted to do or what you’ve discovered that you might like to try. Dare. Turn a deaf ear to the judgmental “What?”s you will hear. Find out who else is inside. Whom have you been carrying around all these years?  Grow forward. Don’t retreat or fold. Squeeze new adventures out of your time here…

Lena Horne- What Else Did She Do?

As if gorgeous was not enough, Lena was such a fabulous song stylist. To see her was to go on a voyage – she could take any audience and transport them into her private thoughts, her moods, her pleasures, her blues.

But beyond her great gifts she was a fighter with the power to endure. In order to get heard by a larger audience than the Harlem nightclubs where she began, she had to endure all those Jim Crow years of black discrimination when Hollywood only showed her in isolated moments on screen – a spotlighted performer in limbo – never as a character in any story.

She developed a tremendous following in her great nightclub career. I remember the fantastic experience of Lena at the Copacabana as she reined in her audience, looked them in the eye and made them know—this is the essence of woman!

But she also took on the IRS when they refused to allow her to deduct her performance gowns as a business expense, saying she could wear them at any time. After much wrangling they compromised by agreeing to let her deduct only those gowns in which she could not sit down! So — she stood through all her performances…

A great talent and a strong, gutsy woman whose need to sing made her able to withstand shameful prejudice.


The Secret of Getting People to Listen

Everything about communicating with each other has changed since technology has taken over what used to be a live person-to-person activity. Now that we “talk” electronically, the skills of personal communication – of talking face-to-face and making other people listen – is quietly dying. So what’s wrong with that?  We’re all quite pleased with the new ability to get our messages across fast and easy, with us in total control and no waiting.

But here’s the problem and the fact.  In order to finally make any sale, get any job, convince any boss about your new idea or make your mark and create your own brand — you must still, finally, do that in person. And that means not just being eloquent and interesting but making others listen…

Uh oh. Who’s willing to sit still and listen while you just talk, these days? That’s seen as a retro, boring, time-wasting format. We’re the Google generation- we get information instantly, on our own. No waiting! Plus–since the number oone motivation for anything we do is self-interest–how will you handle the inevitable roadblock anyone puts up when you ask for attention–“Why should I listen to this? What’s in it for me?

Major challenges. So what’s the secret to getting and keeping any listener-audience of one or many today. Know your audience! Start with that “Me First” factor. Otherwise you’ll never be able to get past that inevitable roadblock they put up – their  “Why should I listen to this? What’s in it for me?” attitude,  and you’ll lose them at the start.

Here’s how you do this:  The number one human motivation for doing anything has always been, and still is, self-interest. That means we all have a “Me First” factor. To satisfy that, you must focus on your audience’s main concerns – what are their needs, fears, goals—before you satisfy your own.

Great. How do you get this info about an audience you haven’t seen or don’t know? By asking about them or by simply putting yourself in their shoes as you focus on the following:

Who’s your audience (of one or many)? What do he/she/ they care most about right now? How much do they already know about your subject? How and why can your pitch or presentation actually help, interest or intrigue them? How can you best show and tell that?  Plus one more: What do they expect you to say – something you want to avoid at all costs or you’ll lose them.

Just think about today’s issues. You know them. And focus on our common fears. Those answers will come clear to you pretty quickly. Then get more specific for each group as you think about their special issues and problems.

Answering those questions — hitting your audience’s buttons and connecting what you want with what they care about– becomes the basis for how you organize your presentation. Their concerns become your opening- the lasso you throw out to catch them and hang on to them as you develop your theme and explain what you want to tell them.

So, the secret to making anyone listen is – reach out to them with what they care about, first. Then include yourself and what you want.

Finally-A Movie Stays True To The Book

Have you ever read and loved a book and then seen the movie and said What did they do to my book? Dumping the best parts, they just sped through the concept, the themes, the nuances with a lot of noise and zippity do dah and  ruined the quality, the character, the style, the thoughts within the story.

Well,  we got a true-to-the-book winner! Did any of you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It’s a tremendous, suspense-filled tale with great characters and the added spice of being set in Sweden—a place we don’t usually read about. I was kind of afraid to see the new film just arrived from Sweden, fearing they’d wreck what I remembered as a great stay-up-till-three-AM read.

Fear not, dear friends. It’s fabulous! Not only true to every aspect of the book, it’s quite stunning visually as it takes you out to the barren, cold points of land and water in the story and unfolds this detective-clues and the shocking things that happen there. The images and dialogue, with subtitles, take you through the seat-clutching dramas within the story, giving you not much breathing room. The characters- so well developed! The acting—so on target! Like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, they’re really how I imagined them.

So go for it! And if you haven’t read the book- try that first so you can leap ahead in the movie wondering “How will they do this?” “What will they do about that?” and see how they well they handle it all. Great night at the movies!


What’s happened to us in today’s techno-driven time that has changed  how we now choose political leaders?

Take the Sarah Palin story. Think about it. It’s really quite an amazing tale.

Ambitious beauty queen from Nowhere, Alaska. Lives the typical life we’re all familiar with – shoots game from a helicopter, pulls in fish nets in freezing waters, looks out her kitchen window on moose and bears, becomes Governor of a state. Just another American housewife. Did you ever hear of her before last year? I didn’t. Feel her force as an American leader? Uh uh.

So how come she explodes on the national scene in one shot – POW- a candidate for Vice-President of these United States? And continues to stay so visible, even when she lost? Becomes a TV pundit on politics when she flunked the nationally- broadcast current events quiz in Katie Couric’s class. And needs to use crib notes to remind herself of what she believes in.

How come? What happened? We’ve all heard and seen the ridicule. But she’s still here! Why the staying power? What’s she got that still makes her such a viable commodity?

It’s because she’s come in looking so different from your basic politician. It’s because she has none of the usual qualifications we expect that makes some people think she’s come to save them. No law degree, no years playing the game, running for office, climbing the power ladder, making the right connections. Result?

“Gee, she must be pure! Untouched! A clean slate with good intentions!”

“Listen to her language! She even talks like us! ‘Gotcha!’; ‘ ‘How ya doin’ with that hopey, changey thing?’ ”

She “calls out” whole sections of the population for blame and ridicule– sections the rest of us live in and recognize. How satisfying to those who feel left out, disenfranchised, confused and angered by the current scene. Who aren’t part of the visible circles representing us in Washington. What do they care that she really doesn’t even understand government. She’s on TV, talking loudly, with angry accusatory words, about stuff those outsiders are seething about. “She’s our girl!” they think. “She’s even voicing some basic prejudices we weren’t supposed to say out loud any more. And she’s got a load of kids, even a teenage unwed mother and a special needs kid!! Handling it all the good old fashioned way — just sucking it up, like plain folks. Like us. And she’s pretty! Sure I’ll listen to her. My kinda people…”

So what does this tell us about us and how we’re now choosing our leaders and elected officials?  What do we now look for when we decide “this is the one for me?” Since personally experiencing our candidates has radically changed from the live speeches and handshakes of yesteryear to  watching them and their ads on television or on line, we get such a well-coiffed, carefully rehearsed, edited version these days. So how do we know what we’re really getting now? What landmarks do we look for as we short- cut the old process of actually experiencing a real person and making our intuitive as well as our cognitive decisions?

A leader needs to make people feel two things: 1. He/she knows and understands our problems, even from personal experience. And 2. This person is strong enough, passionate enough, driven enough to fight for the solutions. But with our sanitized electronic versions, we now rely on shorthand clues — quick symbols we identify with — to tell us that all the above is true. Obama voters saw those not only in his evocative and eloquent language and thusly assumed intelligence. They assumed what else he knew and felt because he grew up black with its attendant hardships and  overcame them to achieve so much that he wants to give himself to furthering our future. His speech, like Sarah Palin’s, and his family relationship, like hers, jibed with what those voters believe in, reassuring them about what he knows and cares about, how he thinks and what they should expect.

So it’s no surprise that Sarah’s constituents feel they’ve got enough from just her shorthand signals to forego any analysis of what else they should think about in order to call her leader. “ Do you realize her husband was part of the secessionist movement for Alaska? He saw what a mess our government was in. Never heard her say she was against it. So she’s sure gonna fix and change all that stuff I’m so mad about!”



The biggest problem about criticism is that it can deliver pain. We all hate that (I think we all hate that) so we either avoid criticizing by letting things slide or we lie or else we’re so irate that we do it full guns a-blazin’ and accomplish only hurt or anger, disbelief or denial. That’s absolutely counter to what criticism is supposed to do.

  • The Main Purpose of Criticism is to FIX SOMETHING
  • It’s meant to be constructive- not destructive
  • It should end with a positive result


What We do Wrong

1. The YOU word. Don’t start with blame- “Look how badly you did that!” “This work (or whatever) you did looks terrible”. Splat goes the self-confidence. Being so judgmental removes step one in fixing anything—the idea that we possibly could fix it.
2. Blaming indulges the critic. But it provokes anger and defensiveness in the “blamee”                                                                                                                                                          3. Blaming derails constructive problem-solving, since you’ve already said you have no faith in this person.

Criticizing Creatively

1. First- reassure your listener that he/she can surely fix whatever by talking about what went RIGHT! What did you like? What worked? That gets you off on the right “I know you can do it” foot.
2. Focus on the facts, never on the person. “Can’t understand how this job went through without X being checked.”. Name what went wrong—not who did it wrong.
3. Ask before you accuse. Easy, non-accusatory questions to discover the roots of the problem, what processes were involved., what didn’t work for you. Then you can start fixing what and who went wrong.
4. Adopt a no-fault policy. Make your criticism a fact-finding mission. Focus on the problem and how to prevent it’s happening again.
5. Be specific. Not ”I didn’t like that report” or ‘The party was terrible”. What exactly went wrong and needs fixing? How can folks fix what they don’t understand or didn’t even recognize?
6. Ask for a creative solution. Don’t solve and dictate on your own—that won’t work or last very long. Engage the other person in helping solve what you didn’t like— then they’ll know what to do and why and also feel empowered. And that you have faith in
7. Build in a fail-safe check-in . If it’s a report, ask them to show you the first draft. A party? Go over the menu and decorations in the planning stage. Engage in what went wrong by helping solve the issue along the way.


What We Do Wrong

1. Don’t react at once, jumping to your own defense. That sets up a competition about who’s right and if it’s the boss or an elder or a person in power, you lose.
2. Defensiveness is a weak and hostile position. It means you’re notready to listen or correct something and cuts off possible constructive dialogue.
3. Denying what went wrong or arguing that it’s not important or telling how others reacted to the issue is another no-no. If this person needs you to fix something, it needs fixing!

Creative Listening

1. Listen first. Concentrate on two things: What is being said and how it’s being said. This gives you a heads-up on how the other person feels and will create more appropriate reactions.
2. Ask questions. Get clear about exactly what you need to fix.  What has made this person so unhappy/mad/critical.
3. Say that you’re so sorry to hear this since you knew how important the report etc. was and that you worked really hard on it.
4. Get specific answers about what else was needed. Ask about the goals, which demographic needs the most focus, what aspect specifically was not working.
5. If you feel there’s more the boss needs to know about what processes didn’t work, add this now, as a helpful , constructive  suggestion, not an excuse.
6. Ask for a progress check. To be sure you’re both on the same page, check in along the way in your next effort.

Special Way to End and Leave

1. Say “Thanks for Telling Me.” What? Here you are, you’ve just been criticized. It may have been done badly, or cruelly, or  whatever and you may still feel angry or hurt and you should do  what? Yes, say “Thanks for being so straight with me. It gives
me a chance to fix what went wrong and tells me that you have  faith in me, in my handling the truth and in my ability to fix this.
I like to do good work and this helps me understand more of  what you want.”
2. Walk out with a smile and your head up high. No hangdog slinking  0ut of the room. This also helps the boss feel better, seeing that you could take it in and not fold. Since no one likes to criticize, this helps.


For all you Readers

Two new books I’ve just read and loved. Coming from utterly different parts of the worlds, and of our history, each of them is full of insights into aspects of our worlds’ societies that we don’t normally touch or think about.

The first is City of Thieves by David Benioff. It takes you back to the German’s siege of Leningrad (for 4 years !) during World War II due to which over one million people died. The people trapped inside the blockade were desperate, starving and dying, trying to survive with whatever creative solutions their human spirit and will was still capable of. This is an adventure story of what happens to two intrepid survivors, the unlikely duo of a 15 year old Jewish boy and an AWOL Russian soldier. With amazing glimpses into the pervasive Soviet mindset as well as the foibles of war and those who fight it, how the boy and the AWOL soldier (both in grave danger of being captured and killed by either side) manage to outwit and survive various hair-raising, steamy, often wacky escapades makes it a real page-turner (with me up until 3 A.M. as I had to finish it!). What touched me was what we didn’t know about that horrible siege and what reinforcement there is seeing how our indomitable human spirit – no matter who or where we are and what we experience- keeps pulling us through amazing feats of endurance with our built-in will to live. Filled with humor, great glimpses of life and culture on another side of our world and heavy- breathing suspense, it’s a helluva read.

The other one I strongly recommend is The Help by Katherine Stockett. Another page turner. It’s set right in the good ole USA in the early 60’s in Mississippi (did you learn to spell that with a tune, like I did – MIS-SIS-SIPPI? ). It’s an intimate, behind-the-scenes view of the lives and accepted attitudes and beliefs of both the Junior League (read establishment) ladies in Jackson, MI and of their help. Played against the background of the inherited Southern life style, it’s about a brave, secret project launched amid tremendous hostility by a white and black woman. It’s insightful, thoughtful, but most of all revealing to any Northerner who didn’t live that life or truly feel that entrenched heritage or its effects and tacit acceptance by both sides. It’s such a compelling read to us who only knew about the civil rights struggle in more general and emotional terms—who maybe understood the principles but never lived and breathed the reality daily. So well-done and provocative, it pushes you to see what happens next. Don’t miss it.

Why Hawaii Means AAAH

Why Hawaii Means AAAH
(written the day before the tsunami scare)

To all you urban dwellers—let alone northeast urban dwellers: why, at this time of year, when people say ”I’m going to Hawaii” do you all think “AAH! If only…?”

I’m on a plane back from Hawaii and I think I know something now that I’d like to share.

“AAH” isn’t about the weather- (although that helps). It’s about being able to see the horizon…

Just think. In our urban environment, what we look at daily is verticality. Our urban landscape is in a continuous active battle —with gravity. What we see is an energized landscape, forever fighting to stay upright. Sure, we don’t think about it consciously. That’s for the architects and contractors and city overseers to worry about. But implicit in what we look at every day is a death-defying fight. We accept it but it affects us deeply, since we too are fighting that same overwhelming force daily, throughout our lives. So we’re not only doing it, we’re surrounded by it. And we’re doing it in throngs — people and buildings.—full to bursting with it. How exhausting!

Now —Hawaii. What does one see there? Not only spaces where the world is at rest. But no one and nothing is fighting anything. The landscape and the ocean are simply there. And the horizon? It lays there- peacefully, simply marking the end of the sea we can see. It’s horizontal—far off but so definite and reassuring. It’s just laying there, giving us the gift of the ocean and its waves. Letting them roll onto the shore. Letting us experience its power, but so gently. And – no effort. The moon does it all. No work, no struggle. Just rhythmic. Even. Regular. Dependable.

What great words to say to any city dweller. Contrast our lives with those words. That landscape. All you need to do in Hawaii is sit. Watch. And breathe… There’s the AAH.