Raise your communication IQ

(Fortune Small Business) – How would you rate your skill at communicating? Excellent? Average? You prefer that someone else do the talking? Everybody knows that effective communication is essential to entrepreneurial success. So how can you raise your communication IQ?

Like a hi-fi system, verbal communication integrates input, processing, and output. Communication specialists typically focus on improving output. That is what everyone experiences when you speak: your command of language; your accommodation of social mores and boundaries; how nimbly you respond to nonverbal cues.

Much of the processing function happens unconsciously. As children we’re taught to “use our words,” and before long, communicating becomes as natural as walking or riding a bike. At a conscious level, processing also includes strategies and rules of engagement that require you to put your brain in gear  thinking about where you want the conversation to go, which statements are appropriate in a particular context and so on.

At the deepest level there’s your personal psychology. It includes your gender, ethnicity, and sociocultural background  and it shapes your fears, insecurities, and reflexive reactions and defenses. These elements combine to mold your unconscious “understanding” of how people relate to one another, as well as your expectations of how others will treat you.

How does this all play out? With so many variables, there’s a nearly infinite array of scenarios, some workable, others not.

Consider Robert and Evan, president and senior vice president, respectively, of an established, mid-size wealth management firm. (I’ve disguised some identifying details.) Evan, 52, is a model of Ivy League B-school poise and professionalism. His demeanor, in addition to his savvy and expertise, calms skittish clients with nose-diving portfolios.

The problem: Robert, 71, is an old industry lion. Clients admire Robert, but he tends to be barbed with Evan and undermines the staff. To make matters worse, he’s an execrable listener, perpetually interrupting his colleagues or talking over them. For a long time Evan reacted by muzzling himself. He didn’t want to resign because he’s in line to run the firm after Robert retires. He told himself that allegiance to his mentor and firm – and his handsome compensation – made up for his deeper pain and outrage. But he was breaking under the strain.

What to do? In my discussions with Evan, it soon became clear that he identified Robert with his father. To the outside world, Evan’s dad was a pillar of the community. At home he raged like a Hun. As a kid, Evan was terrified of his father’s temper but could never tell friends what his life was really like.

By decoupling the historical image (father) from the current person (Robert), Evan learned to speak up for himself and his staff. That was a major breakthrough for Evan. Still, he had to learn how to use his newfound voice. Before one important meeting with Robert, Evan ran his presentation past me. He sounded nervous.

“I’d never be so scared if I were just talking to my wife,” he said. “Let’s hear that version,” I proposed. The words didn’t change, but Evan instantly sounded more relaxed and confident. He had been telegraphing his fear without knowing it. Robert picked up Evan’s nervous signals, which in turn triggered the boss’s toxic assaults.

Here are some tips that should improve your communication skills.

Recognize that not every aspect of communication is under your control. We all convey messages we don’t intend. And other people often interpret our messages in unexpected ways. That’s not always a bad thing, especially if you’re comfortable (or can become comfortable) with spontaneity.

Accept the fact that misunderstandings and conflict are unavoidable. The goal is not to evade them but to address them head-on. The longer damaging or uncomfortable things are left unspoken, the longer they remain damaging and uncomfortable.

Study yourself. Know your triggers and how you typically express feeling hurt, angry, or threatened. Cultivate relationships where you can safely air your honest thoughts and reactions. Finally, set realistic expectations. Robert wasn’t about to change, so Evan had to take responsibility for improving their communication. That might seem unfair, until you consider the bleak alternative of keeping things the same.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Break bad habits, make more money

(Fortune Small Business) – Have you ever tried to lose weight or quit smoking? Or been chided to listen better or to be more patient?

Maybe you’re thinking you’d boost business if you exhibited greater confidence, assertiveness or agility, or made clearer, faster decisions, or weren’t so irritable. No question, there’s plenty of upside to making some adjustments.

But changing an ingrained pattern, whether behavioral or emotional, is one of life’s greatest challenges. Entrepreneurs like to think they eat obstacles for breakfast, and there’s no shortage of gurus and pundits dishing out self-improvement advice. But real change is still very hard. As anyone knows who has ever made a resolution only to break it days later, it’s easy to backslide.

So how does change click, and how can you make it stick? While I acknowledge that these questions have a thousand answers, here are some of the key areas I focus on with many of my clients.

Getting started

The first hurdle is a reluctance to address matters related to emotions and behavior. If your computer, car or air conditioner isn’t performing optimally, you probably won’t waffle on having it checked. But in working with entrepreneurs, I find that they tend to be more reluctant than most people to acknowledge emotional issues and ask for help. The most typical reasons that I’ve encountered are the fear of feeling weak and the fear of being seen as vulnerable. Both are tough to defeat — so don’t. Instead, take these uncomfortable feelings as stage one in a complex project that will require strength and commitment to complete.

Conflict and resistance

We often work against ourselves to keep things static, even when we want them to move. In most cases today’s emotional impasse started as a legitimate coping device shaped by the innumerable factors of nature and nurture (birth order, innate disposition, parents’ personalities, major events and catastrophes and so on). The instinct to survive takes many forms. One child might learn to be quiet and restrained so as not to ignite a volatile father. Another could learn how to be “up” to counter a depressive mother.

While some of these adaptational maneuvers work better than others in practice, they are frequently marvels of innovation. Problems tend to come later, when we cling to those early strategies even though times and circumstances have changed — repeating contradictory behavior, remaking poor decisions and applying old and often inappropriate solutions to new problems. The son of an angry father might grow up to be a calm businessman who keeps hiring rantaholics. He may think the past is past, but he’s actually still engaging the beast (his dad). Rationality holds little sway over these deeply embedded patterns, and you can’t just yank them away. In order to change the pattern, you must first understand its original purpose and function.


Think of memory as an iceberg: The visible tip is what you can remember. But what is hidden is not forgotten. It lies beneath the surface, operating outside of awareness — until something happens to remind you of it (such as finding yourself at the precise place you’ve worked to avoid or becoming repetitively stuck or stymied). Until you understand the meaning of these buried experiences, they will always take you by surprise — perhaps in the happy form of inspiration or, less constructively, as an impediment or a constriction.


You’re busy managing your business, working to stay ahead of the recessionary typhoon. Why should you think about any of this? Because successful leaders look for every competitive edge. And being emotionally in tune — resilient, agile, aware — is an unmatchable advantage.

There’s no simple prescription for change. But here are the first crucial steps:

Recognize that your personal history plays a central role in shaping your behavior.

Revise any prejudice against emotional inquiry. Accept the fact that fear, rigidity and avoidance are corrosive — and that reaching an understanding about yourself can reap rewards.

Admire psychological complexity; don’t let it intimidate you. Decode your mind to harness its natural ingenuity.

Respect the gargantuan force of your emotional life. Emotions can propel you to success. They can also impede and even straitjacket you. No matter what, you can’t ignore your emotions and still hope to prosper in business or in life.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Smart staffing can save your business

(Fortune Small Business) — My maternal grandparents, Minnie and Izzy Grubman, owned a ladies’ undergarment and accessories shop called Grubman’s, on Springfield Avenue in Newark. In July 1967 the city was rocked by six days of rioting, fueled by unemployment, poverty and corrosive racial inequity. The rioters attacked both white- and black-owned businesses. But when the smoke had finally cleared, Grubman’s was unscathed.

Mr. and Mrs. G., as they were known, had always hired employees from the local community and were celebrated for their fairness and generosity. When trouble came, staff and neighbors protected the store.

My point: Good hiring decisions can save your business. Okay, it’s easier said than done. So what are the ingredients of successful hiring? Think of it as a sequence of double-layered decisions. On top is the conventional wisdom of hiring individuals who are right for the job and compatible with your company’s culture, values and needs.

But hiring also reflects deeper-level predispositions in making decisions and building relationships. As we form new relationships, we tend to unconsciously seek out and rediscover dynamic elements from significant early ones (like those with parents and siblings). For some people this creates a pattern of similar, recurring train wrecks. For others it generates constant relationship R&D. At best this unconscious patterning will attract you to individuals who balance, inspire and bolster you.

Consider Joe Saba and Stewart Winter, co-owners ofVideoHelper, a successful New York City business that provides music for TV and film productions. When we spoke in their high-tech studio, the partners had recently plowed through 400 applications to fill one full-time composer slot. They devote considerable time and resources to their hiring process, which they described as “brutal and stringent.”

Saba and Winter started by whittling the initial herd down to 10 finalists, whom they subjected to a series of increasingly intense interviews and tests. These probed not just technical ability but also the way each candidate handled criticism, praise and pressure.

This work pays off: VideoHelper enjoys a 95% talent retention rate, and most employees have been with the company for at least seven years.

Few entrepreneurs reach this high standard of psychosocial savvy. I briefly consulted with Bert, as I’ll call him, a guy who tended to make tone-deaf staffing decisions. Bert’s hiring credo was something like “Trust no one, and only hire people you trust.” Unsurprisingly, he had a lot of trouble keeping help.

Bert’s chronic mistrust was understandable, given his traumatic childhood with an abusive father. After just a few sessions, however, he suddenly decided that he couldn’t trust me either. In a flash I fell victim to the very dynamic I’d been engaged to cure.

Like anybody who has ever been fired, I pondered what had happened and what could have gone differently. Based on my own experience and that of my clients, here are some tips that will bolster your hiring chops.

Study the Past. History holds important clues to your relationship patterns. Analyze recent hires/fires for information about your hiring predilections.

Don’t Get All Testy. Personality tests have their place, but they can’t capture inflection, gestures or other nuances of communication. Nonverbal cues can be more meaningful than what’s said.

Do Your Homework. Avoid “going with your gut.” Instinct has limited utility in the hiring arena.

Follow Through. Hiring employees is only the beginning: It takes time, attention and, most important, good communication to retain quality employees. It’s crucial to monitor your reactions to frustration, disappointment and other interpersonal dynamics.

Bottom Line. The more you understand about yourself and the underlying forces that pull you toward or away from somebody, the better equipped you’ll be to make sensible hiring decisions.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a business psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group and Triad Consulting.

Starting a business in a recession

(Fortune Small Business) – Would you consider launching or growing a business in the midst of the Great Recession?

Some would applaud your courage; others might think you had a few loose screws. And yet economic downturns have often been fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship. More than half the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were launched during downturns, according to recent research by the Kauffman Foundation.

Economists offer many reasons for this phenomenon: Corporate layoffs release entrepreneurial talent, the decline of old industries creates opportunities in new ones, and so on. Still, recessionary entrepreneurship is not an easy game. What does it take, psychologically, to pull it off?

Jim Kremens, 42, runs a New York City-based software startup called Fhtml. His product, Fluid HTML, is a Web markup language designed to be an alternative to standard Flash animation. He plans to exit stealth mode this fall. Although Kremens has secured buzz, startup capital and encouraging responses from top-tier companies, Fhtml’s success is not assured, especially in this brutal economy.

“I’ve been working on this project for a long time,” he told me recently. “It evolved into something very real and more powerful than I originally thought. Entrepreneurs like me have to think we’ve got some kind of game changer. That belief, valid or not, drives innovation.”

The impulse toward distinction and accomplishment is very powerful (although its psychological sources are different for everybody). Under the right circumstances it can help entrepreneurs turn inspiration into reality.

If it were that simple, mind you, Edisons and Bells would be a dime a dozen. “This is a high-risk endeavor,” Kremens says. “It’s frightening to come home to my kids and wonder what I’ll do if this doesn’t work.”

Yet Kremens finds the challenge energizing. Why? Like other pioneering entrepreneurs, he combines ambition, optimism, fortitude, resilience and confidence. At the other end of the spectrum, however, you find entrepreneurs whose personalities prevent them from capitalizing on the opportunities that all economic crises create.

Paul F., 37, owns several high-end fitness centers in the Baltimore-Washington area. (I’ve changed his name and other identifying details here.) Paul was looking to add locations, as prime real estate was plentiful and affordable and construction costs were low. But his customers – mostly white-collar professionals — were cutting back or searching for work. If he built, would they come? Paul couldn’t make up his mind, and as a result his expansion plans were going nowhere.

This would be a tough call for any business owner. For Paul, however, there was more to the problem than calculating risk and ROI. A champion high school and college athlete, he felt that the initial leap from sports to business was trivial.

“I train hard and play to win,” he told me during our first consultation. “This field just uses different muscles.”

Paul had no trouble making tough decisions before the recession. Why was this decision different? The economic crisis brought out the powerful dread of weakness that lurked beneath his muscular bravado. Where did it come from? When Paul was seven years old, his father, a successful Ivy League-educated financier, suffered a debilitating mental breakdown. Feeling sad, betrayed and angry, Paul vowed never to become like his dad.

Problem is, you can’t try not to be like somebody (psychoanalysts call this “disidentification”) without always keeping that person in mind. When Paul tried to be decisive and powerful, he was actually trying not to feel weak and stuck — the way he felt when his father collapsed. In sports, relationships and business, that impulse drove him to create artificial crises in which he could make decisions that would help him feel powerful. In this case Paul faced a real economic crisis and a real opportunity, and he didn’t know what to do.

This story ends well: Paul mustered the strength to acknowledge his weakness and reach out for professional help. By the way, don’t underestimate how hard this is. Confronting unconscious obstacles, then changing patterns and responses, is seriously tough.

My Recommendation: Remember that not all your business to-dos are about doing; understanding why is equally essential. Next time you’re at the proverbial crossroads, think about what I’d be asking you: What’s really happening here, and why?

Oh, and Paul’s fitness center business? He decided to expand.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.

The art of the layoff

(Fortune Small Business) – How many employees have you let go this year? This month? How many more will you have to lay off next month?

U.S. companies with fewer than 50 employees shed 904,000 jobs during the first four months of 2009, according to the ADP National Employment Report. Being laid off is unquestionably a shocking psychological and financial event, but it can be just as traumatic for the business owners who must execute these difficult decisions.

Few entrepreneurs launch businesses with the goal of playing God. In fact, many leave corporate careers precisely because they want to regain a degree of ethical autonomy. So the experience of causing pain or destruction, rather than being an engineer of progress, can be devastating for them. Take Rebecca, 44, owner of a high-end stationery business in New York City. Like many business owners, Rebecca has beenforced to cut payroll as her market contracts.

Recently Rebecca phoned me on the eve of what she called “the next round of bloodletting.” (I’ve changed certain biographical details to protect the privacy of Rebecca and her employees.) Her distress was evident in her voice.

“It kills me that I have to do this,” she managed to say. “Tomorrow I’m going to have to tell three wonderful people they don’t have jobs anymore. Tom and Andr have worked for me for 10 years. Patty is a single mom. Since her brother lost his job in February, she’s been taking care of his two kids as well. What will happen to them, and why do I have to do this?”

Rebecca knew the answer: because the survival of her business depends on it.

In corporate America, layoffs tend to proceed with cold efficiency. The CEO sends out a companywide e-mail, no doubt crafted and vetted by legal and HR, explaining the need to “realign costs” with the company’s strategic goals. Managers then call the victims in for a brief closed-door meeting before security guards escort them from the building.

But for entrepreneurs like Rebecca, whose work environments tend to be intimate and familylike, cutting employees can feel like losing a limb.

Layoffs register high on the entrepreneur’s emotional Richter scale, with aftershocks often taking as severe a toll as the initial event. Business owners commonly experience sleeplessness, depression and the recurrent replaying of events and decisions.

So how do you survive layoff trauma without coming apart? There’s no universal solution, but the following five-point prescription should cover most situations.

Click through for Dr. Stein’s survival guide.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm.

The inner gaze

(Fortune Small Business) – We’ve all been there: a crisis erupts in your business, and because you’re the boss, everyone turns to you for a solution. The little voice in your head wails, “Don’t look at me! I have no idea!” To make matters worse, you think the whole world can see your inner lack of confidence.

So how do you fix it? Meet Andrew S., 49, president of a New York City firm that manages social service organizations (I’ve altered certain details to conceal his identity). Guided by a strong sense of civic responsibility and the desire to help others, Andrew seems ideally suited to his work. And the business has performed well during his 15 years at the helm.

Interestingly, Andrew hired me as an executive coach after receiving an extremely positive annual review from his board. “Everyone thinks I’m doing great – my staff, my board, the agencies that hire my company, people I do fund-raising with,” he told me. “But I don’t agree. I know I’m underperforming as a leader, and I feel like a fraud.”

Like most entrepreneurs these days, Andrew is anxious about the economy. “My client agencies are battered by dwindling funding, causing them to scale back their use of my company,” he said. “Of course, this comes just as their clients need them more than ever.”

Andrew identifies deeply with the people he serves; he feels their pain, and he’s experiencing some guilt about being successful when so many others are failing. But would he be just as stressed in a boom economy?

I think the answer is yes. Andrew’s issues transcend the business cycle. Beneath his smart, generous, unflappable exterior lurks massive insecurity. In Andrew’s imagination everyone around him thinks (or will soon discover) that he’s really worthless, conniving and self-involved. “I can’t believe I’m not transparent,” he told me with obvious discomfort.

The technical term for this is projection. Andrew attributes his negative self-image to the people around him. He assumes that his colleagues and clients are perpetually on the verge of attacking him, when in reality he’s attacking himself. As a result, it hardly matters whether or not Andrew faces a real, objective threat. The entire emotional game is taking place inside his head.

There’s no Pentium undo button for this one. Andrew’s template for the fraudulent leader comes from his father. Andrew describes him as respected and authoritative in the outside world but passive, unpredictable and rageful at home. Andrew’s mother was depressed and narcissistic, he says; she leaned on him for emotional support without ever praising his efforts. At school he struggled socially but managed to conceal his anger and timidity behind a mask of stoic resolve.

In short, Andrew’s history conditioned him to associate authority with duplicity. That’s why he feels like a false leader today. But by acknowledging and understanding what’s going on in his head, he can learn how to handle his emotions so that he can stay on point in his job.

Step One: Andrew needs to give himself credit for his advantages. His past may have been unhappy, and it may have made it difficult for him to distinguish real threats from imaginary ones. But his early relationships also prepared him to succeed in his chosen career. Having lived through an emotional battering, he knows how to lead a business dedicated to helping others survive difficult times.

Step Two: Andrew must understand that his feelings are normal and acceptable. Everyone feels fraudulent sometimes; that’s part of being human.

Step Three: Dialogue. Andrew has been trapped inside himself. He grew up with nobody listening to him and has made helping others his profession. His corrosive projections are generated partly, I think, by the fact that he wants the people in his life to know him better. It helps to air out these projections with me, rather than at work.

Self-examination is hard work. It’s also worth the investment, for both you and your business. No company can thrive under misaligned leadership. In a tough economy, it’s especially important for entrepreneurs to focus on the business issue that matters most — themselves.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm.

Make your partnership work

(Fortune Small Business) – Successful partnerships account for some of the best companies in entrepreneurial history. Think Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard or Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins. These dynamic duos harnessed shared vision and complementary talents to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

But like all intense relationships, partnerships aren’t always sunshine and profit. In last month’s column I mentioned Mike F., one of three partners in a boutique financial services firm. Mike, you’ll recall, felt trapped. Pressing on one side was his loyalty to clients and staff and a dog-with-a-bone refusal to let go of the hand that beats him; on the other, a growing, healthy urge to get away from Don, the firm’s passive, nonconfrontational founder, and Lorraine, their self-aggrandizing, melodramatic colleague.

As a client, you see what the glossy brochure depicts: high-level professionalism and concierge service. Roiling underneath are power politics, smoldering resentments and rabid disrespect.

The three partners are perfectly right for one another in all the wrong ways. Mike, raised not to expect anything for himself, is Bob Cratchit, toiling to make sure everything and everybody is taken care of while the midnight oil burns low. He’s perfectly suited to the firm’s culture, which outwardly valorizes self-sacrifice. Lorraine is like Lucy from Peanuts, perpetually snatching the football away from the hapless Charlie Brown just before he kicks it. Lorraine’s personal addiction: making herself out as the victim of Mike’s incompetence, then swooping in to save the day. At the top of this pyramid sits Don, always in late and out early, a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, “why should I do it when you can do it for me” kind of boss.

If this sounds like a nasty situation, it is. But you’d never know that if you hired them, because it all fits together seamlessly. They work in this perverse disharmony like a well-oiled Wankel rotary, each doing his or her part to propel the others around and around. Whatever his shortcomings as a leader, Don was smart enough to hire Mike and Lorraine. Intuition told him it would be productive to pit them against each other like piglets jockeying for a teat. Lorraine’s cruel mistreatment of Mike only incites him to do more, trying to outdo her and regain some advantage. And Don’s noninvolvement in Mike and Lorraine’s mutually demeaning shenanigans and his callous disregard for their 100-hour weeks just push them harder, with each trying in vain to land his praise.

In business terms, this partnership works: The company makes money and the clients are satisfied. The problem is that Don, Mike and Lorraine aren’t. They’re stuck, but they don’t know exactly why, or how to change things. So now what? Obviously, the bad behavior has to stop (or at least there has to be less of it), and communication must improve. But the underlying problem is that Don, Mike and Lorraine relate to one another like warring parents, children and siblings, not like professional colleagues.

The partners must acknowledge boundaries, be respectful and fair, give due praise and appropriate criticism and transcend inhibitions to frank discussion. Don, as managing partner, must confront the difficulties he has being an effective leader and exercise real authority (not waver between authoritarianism and absenteeism). This is already a tall order, but Mike and Lorraine may have the hardest road ahead. To begin, both must stop trying to make Don be somebody he’s not – caring or communicative. Of the roles he can (and should) successfully fill in the firm, surrogate father isn’t one of them.

If Mike weren’t so invested in fighting Lorraine for Daddy’s attention, he would probably start to see her legitimate contributions. He might also stand a better chance of helping Don recognize his tremendous stamina and skill. Lorraine, in turn, must stop making Mike into roadkill while racing to win Don’s approval. Note to Lorraine: Driving a truck through the firm isn’t winning you friends or respect.

And then? Think of it this way: These partners expend 85% of their energy settling scores, avoiding responsibility, lighting or putting out brush fires and managing emotional flare-ups. Yet they still manage to turn a profit. Imagine how well they could do if they focused on business.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.

How to control negative emotions

(Fortune Small Business) – During an economic storm, everything solid melts into air. When it’s not clear if there’s a tomorrow to work toward, how do you keep morale up and communication channels open? To help you stay afloat, here’s my brief field guide to anger, fear and ambivalence, three negative emotions that many business owners wrestle with today.

Anger – Mark B., founder and president of a textile manufacturing company, is upset about the state of the world in general and of his industry in particular. “I feel angry nearly all the time,” he told me. “I’m lashing out at my employees, vendors and clients.”

Fear – John M. runs a successful mid-size telecommunications company that he inherited from his father 14 years ago. With the headlines full of bleak economic news, John fears imminent failure. He’s melancholic and pessimistic, feeling like “an all-around wet blanket.” “I’m convinced my talented team and loyal customers will head for the hills any day now,” he says.

Ambivalence – Mike F. is a partner in a boutique financial services firm. He sees his managing partner, Don, as passive, indecisive and nonconfrontational. Forever compensating for Don’s shortcomings without acknowledgment or reward, Mike is torn between loyalty to his firm, clients and staff on the one hand and his desire to migrate to a more positive work environment on the other.

How to calm Mark’s anger so that he can stay focused on his business, even when he doesn’t know how it might evolve? Can John turn his pessimism into something more constructive? Is Mike an unsung hero or a naive patsy? After he figures out the answer, what are his options?

Sigmund Freud famously said that in case of fire, the first task of firefighters is to extinguish the flames before seeking the cause. His advice holds today: Help individuals (and businesses) cope with their immediate problems, but keep an eye on root motivations and recurrent patterns.

Contrary to popular stereotypes of psychoanalysis, this doesn’t mean that Mark, John and Mike must put their family histories on the couch. It’s more about helping each of them calm down, move forward and feel stronger by recognizing old behavioral templates, revising the outmoded responses they generate and creating solutions that are appropriate to the present day.

Chipping away at walls

When Mark and I met one afternoon, he seemed ready to bite somebody’s head off. “You’re angry,” I observed. He hadn’t noticed – sometimes people have no idea what they’re feeling. When I asked what was going on in his life, Mark started fuming about the incompetence of his staff.

“What did they do wrong?” I asked. The infractions were minor, and in enumerating them aloud Mark saw how disproportionate his fury was to its catalyst. In addition, just telling me brought his temperature down a few degrees. Now he’s learning to articulate what’s bothering him in the moment. A little steam now is better than lava later.

By contrast, John suffers from feelings of dread that predate the recession by many years. The story is simple and painful. John’s mom didn’t punish; his dad did. “She made me wait for him,” John recalled. “He wouldn’t say a word – he just hit. It seemed like forever while he took off his belt, lifted it up and let loose. I’m always waiting to be hit.”

Fears like that don’t vanish overnight, but you have to start somewhere. “Can you see the downturn as just that, and not as a belt?” I asked. He’s working on it. Meanwhile, John holds an ace in the hole that many of his type A competitors lack. All that childhood waiting made him a very patient man, and you need patience to survive crises, economic or otherwise.

As for Mike, he looks better than he feels. Outside: big job, big salary. Inside: He feels muzzled and on a short leash. “Why can’t I tell Don to take care of all this admin sh-t himself?” he complained. “I’m not his chore boy. I’m a partner with high-value clients. Why does he make me do it? Why don’t I leave?”

“What would happen if you said something to Don?” I asked. “He’d be upset and then ignore me,” Mike replied. That may be true, but it’s probably not the real impediment. At bottom, Mike hates to upset people. Understanding this is the first step to building a healthier relationship with his partner. Eventually, Mike will figure out that he’s neither hero nor patsy, but simply himself. That’s a worthy goal for all of us.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.

Fear of flying

(Fortune Small Business) – The doors have closed and my seat belt is buckled tight. Flight attendants are rushing to close the overhead bins. I feel a lurch, and out the window I see the terminal recede as the plane taxis toward the runway. But I don’t really notice any of this. My chest is pounding. My stomach is a churning pit – I’m nauseous. My shirt is drenched in sweat, and I can barely breathe.

That’s how Nick Warner imagines himself flying. The real thing? Not gonna happen. Warner, 33, is a tech entrepreneur based in the Midwest. (I’ve changed his name and some biographical details to protect his privacy.) He creates visualization technology for computer users, and then assembles hives of code writers and businesspeople to develop and deploy it. Even though Warner is a successful entrepreneur, his fear of flying – aviophobia – is paralyzing. He’s concerned that his business will eventually suffer if he can’t travel to trade conferences and client meetings.

Warner has tried to conquer his fear of flying by using alcohol, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, hypnosis, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy. Nothing has helped. Realizing that aviophobia was affecting him both professionally and personally, Warner phoned me.

We met in his home office because, obviously, he wasn’t going to get to mine in New York City. Flat-screen monitors surrounded us. Over the quiet whir of computer fans, I could hear his 11-month-old son playing in a nearby room. “The most upsetting thing is not being able to take him to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas,” he told me.

“I feel bad that everybody else on the plane has to die too,” he continued in a chillingly matter-of-fact tone. “It’s not fair. They’re innocent. I’m the only one who has to be punished.” Why so? “I know the plane will crash because I’m not supposed to go,” he explained. “I’m not allowed to go anyplace.”

Phobias are exaggerated fears accompanied by avoidance behavior – not flying, in Warner’s case. Psychiatrists typically classify them as a form of panic disorder. Common phobias include fear of public speaking, crowds and confined spaces. Of course, not every fear is a phobia. There’s nothing irrational about occasionally feeling nervous in the air, even though the risk of disaster is statistically minuscule.

But Warner’s fear goes way past planes falling from the sky. For him, flying is a punishable offense. That’s an important clue in discovering the roots of his phobia. Like many entrepreneurs, Warner was drawn to both the challenges and rewards of starting and running his own business: no boss, lots of responsibility, full accountability, setting and exceeding self-appointed goals. Entrepreneurship seemed like the epitome of independence.

Nice work if you can get it. But this type of freedom has a counterpart – psychological independence – that’s more complicated to achieve. It’s not just a matter of having a life on your own or a mind of your own. It’s also about shedding fears and inhibitions.

A common misconception is that bad mothers lie at the root of most psychological problems, but in Warner’s case it happens to be true. When he was growing up, his mother was needy, intrusive and self-involved. To this day, Warner lives as though he were tethered to her – this doesn’t fully explain his personality, but it’s a central code sequence in his operating system. (To be clear, this relationship exists mainly in his mind. In reality, Warner and his mother live far apart and speak only occasionally.)

As an adult, Warner is haunted by the fear that his mom can’t survive without him. When he tries to mentally distance himself – something flying represents more vividly than any other mode of transport – images of his mother’s distress snap him back. Result: His flight (think airplanes and fleeing) is canceled. Hence his phobic vision of crashing planes and innocent victims.

Warner’s cure won’t come overnight, but there’s cause for optimism. By taking action and getting help, this dynamic entrepreneur has already shown that he’s got the right stuff. Every pilot learns in a flight simulator, a safe place to practice landing and taking off.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.

An entrepreneur struggles to shake off her past

(Fortune Small Business) – Debra Cullen (not her real name) has spent her life trying to keep things the same. “I don’t like change,” Cullen told me during our first therapy session. But her life has changed, and she’s at a loss.

Cullen, 44, owns and runs a mid-size East Coast sports-management agency. For two years she was sexually harassed by one of her best employees – let’s call him Todd. Cullen had hired Todd away from a rival agency. He was married and 15 years her senior. For a while they worked well together; Todd was a star agent and trusted confidant.

And then he changed. Cullen is tall and athletically slender, with blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She’s single, and in a male-dominated industry, her good looks had always been a strategic advantage. Until now.

Beginning as suggestive compliments about her appearance, Todd’s insinuations rapidly became explicit propositions. Distraught, Cullen considered jumping her own ship to escape. Then Todd announced that he was leaving and relocating to a distant city. Bullet dodged. But the pressure of fending him off and hiding the matter from her staff and friends had taken its toll.

Cullen was upset when she walked into my office, and I could understand why. But I was filled with questions. What had prevented this apparently strong, capable businesswoman from ending an abusive relationship? Why would she consider abandoning her business instead of firing Todd, her employee? Why the secrecy? And given her apparent passivity, how had Cullen built a successful business in a cutthroat industry dominated by powerful men?

Many folks behave self-destructively, despite knowing better. But most successful entrepreneurs are able to formulate a positive image of the future (also known as a goal) and then take concrete steps to realize that image. In other words, they embrace change.

Shadows of the past

But Cullen’s childhood experiences had left her with an abiding fear of change – at least in her personal life. By the time she was 12, Cullen and her family had moved 10 times, following her father, a college athletics coach, from job to job. “We left our house, school and friends one day, and the next, moved into a new house, started a new school and charged ahead without a hiccup,” she told me. No complaints. No whining. Just do it.

At critical junctures she was forced to abandon familiar surroundings and end important relationships. Her rare displays of sadness or anger were usually met with derision. “I tried to be perfect,” Cullen said. “I did everything I was supposed to, but nobody said ‘Thanks’ or ‘Good job,’ because we didn’t consider it anything special.”

I’m not suggesting a migrant childhood is traumatic by definition; a lot of families move around. But Cullen’s parents and siblings never let her adjust to all the changes or even express her true feelings about them. “I’d come home from school, Mom would tell me to pack, and we’d move the next day,” she recalls.

To a great extent, this childhood pattern explains why Cullen was unable to dismiss her obnoxious subordinate. He triggered painful memories of being pressured to do things she didn’t want to do. He made her feel weak, over-powered and humiliated – just like when she was a child.

Fortunately, in her analytic work with me, Cullen is gradually confronting and revising those debilitating ideas about strength and weakness, about admitting vulnerability and expressing feelings. At the same time, she’s learning to value the assets that made her successful in the first place: a deep understanding of her clients’ issues and an extraordinary ability to advocate their interests.

Slowly Cullen is learning to embrace change, not fear it. And that’s a lesson we can all take to heart in uncertain times.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in theBoswell Group, a consulting firm.