By Johanna Willett
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson.
Deborah Bright learned to take pressure while hurtling from platform to pool as her coach screamed at her.
Now, she is a management consultant and entrepreneur with six books to her name. Her newest book, “The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance, and Promote Change,” draws on her experiences working with corporate executives and her college years as an Olympics-bound diver.
Her company, Bright Enterprises, Inc., moved from New York City to Tucson in 2004 when her husband retired. She gives presentations, workshops and one-on-one coaching to promote leadership, workplace skills and stress management. Since she founded the company in 1975, she has worked with clients such as Raytheon Missile Systems, the University of Arizona, the FBI and the Professional Golfers’ Association, to name just a few.
But Bright floundered a bit before getting here. When she was a college senior, a doctor’s diagnosis sidelined her diving career indefinitely. She had retinal tears in both eyes. At the time, she was one of the top-10 women divers in the country, she says. She had her eye on a spot on the Olympic team, but to continue diving meant she would eventually go blind.
Even now, with Bright’s diving dreams no more than a memory, those years of competition influence her.
“When you’re an athlete, you develop habits,” she says. “You want a coach to stay with you, so you’re always trying to please … so you take what they say hook, line and sinker.” As Bright did research for her newest book, she began to realize that the receiver of criticism can assess it before internalizing it.
From 2003 to 2010, Bright did a study with workers in the northeast part of the country on performance enhancement and stress mitigation. The study revealed that giving and receiving criticism were among the top-10 stressors in the workplace.
Bright specializes in mastering stress — in her books, at the corporate level and in a class she teaches at Body Works Pilates, 1980 E. River Road, called personal quiet time — because she applies the professional lessons to her private life.
“The book has helped us very much,” says Paul Donnelly, her husband since 1985. “We have established that we will give no criticism that does not have a helpful intent.”
Donnelly says his wife is someone who “gets along with just about everybody,” but not because she avoids the tricky topics.
It’s all about how she does it.
“We need more skills with delivering critiques, not more criticism,” she says.
She learns as she goes.
Diving at new decibels: Diving at Arizona State University, Bright encountered a coach who said “as long as I’m yelling and screaming, it’s because I believe in you. When I stop is when you better start worrying,” she says. “He would use words that would make a Marine cringe during basic training, but I was beaming. I was beaming because I knew he really believed in me, and when I listened to his criticism, it worked. … I was left understanding that criticism done well is very motivational and helps people achieve levels of success that they themselves might not have realized. With that coach, we never had to second-guess each other. When he said, ‘That dive was terrific,’ I knew it really was.”
Bright started receiving coaching for diving in her early teens, when her bridge-playing parents made a swap with a national diving champion at the bridge club. They would teach the diver’s daughter how to play bridge, and Bright would learn how to dive.
“All I wanted to do was dive,” she says.
From pools to professionals: After her diagnosis, Bright stayed in school, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education, a master’s in health sciences and a doctorate in adult education.
“It’s not an easy transition because you train four to six hours at the pool site, and you’re running to keep up strength and doing weights and ballet to stay graceful. And so your whole life is wrapped around your sporting event,” she says. “I was a senior in college when this happened, and it was a devastating time in my life. I was so close to being on that Olympic team, and to have it taken away … I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Bright started researching transcendental meditation for her master’s thesis, skeptical of the practice. She says she found that the tangible health benefits from the relaxation technique weren’t enough to keep people from quitting. She discovered that many had religious concerns about repeating a Sanskrit word they didn’t understand, and others just got bored.
So she eventually westernized it, and still does the practice personally and at Body Works.
“I take people to luxurious scenes with soft musical background sounds and help them walk through to learn what it is like to relax mentally, emotionally and physically,” she says.
Mental games: For Bright, pursuing healthy ways to cope with stress began first as an aspiring athlete and then as a college student scrambling for a new career path.
She remembers the “mental game” of athletics and says, “There was very little work done on how to be able to perform under pressure and deal with your own negative thoughts.” She took her questions to the lab, and eventually got a job teaching a mental health class at Scottsdale Community College “because no one else wanted to teach it, and I was the lowest person on the totem pole,” she says.
Still an educator: Bright’s management career began at a Phoenix hospital, where she worked with psychiatrists to develop a relaxation program for patients based on a technique she started teaching to her community college classes.
The books followed.
“I educate with my writing,” she says. “I’m not a writer; I’m an educator … I really have stayed an educator, and I landed in the business world because it moves fast and requires a lot of creativity and has a certain amount of risk associated with it.
“Because if you don’t meet the bottom line, you don’t get to play.”