I’ve come to appreciate that the holidays present all kinds of opportunities for high-heat moments — awkward social events, challenging family gatherings, stressful retail encounters. One of my friends feels so anxious about her family’s yearly holiday gathering that she literally gets ill during the weeks leading up to it.
Last weekend my friend and colleague Sam Elmore of Brinc Consulting facilitated a workshop called “Holiday Presence” in which participants had a chance to explore different strategies for staying present (e.g., not becoming reactive) in the face of work demands, unpleasant family dynamics, and unmet expectations about to what this time of year “should be.”
During the workshop with Sam I made myself a little talisman fashioned from a bell connected to a piece of leather twine with five knots. I intend to keep this bell in my pocket and whenever I hear it jingle I’ll quietly check in with my physical and emotional state by asking: “What’s up with me right now?” And then if I feel off center or not present, I’ll use it in this way:
I run my fingers across each knot and the space between the knots. Each time my fingers touch a knot I ask myself one of the questions below. Five knots, five questions. Each time my finger runs over the space between knots I take an intentional, deep breath.
Who am I here for? (breathe)
Why am I here? (breathe)
What can I release from my grasp (e.g., an expectation, distractions, judgment, etc.) that will put me into a stronger partnership with my reason for being here? (breathe)
What would my wisest friend or teacher whisper in my ear at this moment? (breathe)
Where in my body can I imagine compassion hiding, taking safe refuge, and reminding me of its ongoing presence? (breathe)
(Note: In advance of the big family gathering or office party I will take a little time to reflect on the first two questions and imagine one or more wise friends or teachers whose presence I want to feel with me over the holidays.)
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Lately my work in teaching and facilitating skillful conversation has felt more urgent. I think that some of this urgency has to do with a number of pronounced and disturbing trends I see in American society.
We are a country that is increasingly polarized. Partisan politics and economic disparities divide us more and more.
Public discourse at national and local levels is becoming less and less civil as name-calling, manipulation, and screaming gain greater acceptance.
Complex issues are frequently reduced to superficial, easy-to-digest media sound-bites.
Boundaries in news coverage between fact and opinion are blurring as pundits and spin doctors become our new cultural icons.
The national conversation about crucial issues moves too quickly in the direction of “either/or,” “right/wrong” arguments.
Economic uncertainty, terrorism, and the environmental crisis leave many of us seeing the world through a lens of “fear of the other” and “scarcity”
The role of the sacred in everyday life — including how we interact and explore differences — is harder and harder to locate
Organizational and community leaders are as susceptible as anyone to being swept up in these trends or in the face of these trends opting to avoid the difficult conversations altogether. How do we model an alternative, even counter-cultural way of being in difficult conversations — one that is grounded in Philosopher Martin Buber’s notion of seeing the other as a Thou rather than an It?
One answer is to integrate some of the principles and disciplines of dialogue into the way we come to everyday conversation. The primary goal of dialogue is to gain mutual understanding. In dialogue we seek to balances inquiry with advocacy, explore an issue’s true complexity, distinguish facts from assumptions, and affirm differing points of view even when we do not agree with them. Dialogue enables us to explore our strong feelings and reactions to what others say without needing to abandon our convictions and values.
To read more about how principles of dialogue can be integrated into skillful conversation, I recommend a book called Difficult Conversations by Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Douglas Stone. Another superb resource is The Public Conversations Project, an organization that has pioneered a distinctive approach to dialogue that shifts communication to enhance understanding, repair relationships, and rebuild trust.
In Standing in the FireI explore what it means to locate and cultivate the place within each of us from which wise choice and deliberate action comes. People have referred to this place as center, true self, presence, and inner wisdom. Whatever we choose to call it, I believe it is emerging as a new and important frontier for leadership training.
Organizations like Apple Computer, Google and Harvard Law School have discovered that leading from a place of self-knowing, calm, and compassion improves performance, increases creativity, and make us more effective at the art of influence. In the face of uncertainty, conflict, and complexity our capacity to shift our inner state from fear or aggression to calm and receptivity is a key pathway toward high performance.
Recently I had the opportunity to study with Erica Ariel Fox, a gifted teacher who stands courageously at the intersection of business leadership and personal consciousness. As we sat together over dinner, exchanging stories and ideas about leadership, we began to suspect we were long-lost siblings separated at birth. You’ll see what I mean when you watch this video. If you ever get a chance to study with Erica, leap at the experience.
For a long time I believed that the key to resolving a difficult conflict was to help the disputants arrive at logical conclusions to which they could agree. I tried to help people think their way through differences and negotiate compromise based on a rational definition of fairness. Over the years I have come to appreciate the role of heart skills — our capacity acknowledge and address the emotional dimension of the conflict in an authentic and non-manipulative way.
I can remember learning this lesson when I was facilitating a meeting between farmers and farm workers in the state of Washington. The goal of the meeting was to create a plan for newly funded farm worker housing. But within the first five minutes old battles, lingering resentments, and name-calling ensued. The long-festering bitterness in people’s hearts made it impossible to proceed with the agenda. I called for a break and when we reconvened I asked farmers and farm workers to pair up and discuss two simple questions: 1) What makes you proud about producing food for others? 2) Can you tell me a story about when it meant a lot to have a house in your life? After about 10 minutes you could literally feel the shift in the room. Through the stories being told, self-proclaimed adversaries were discovering their shared human connection. As hearts opened so did the possibility for getting something done that day.
One of the best teachers on heart opening skills is Ken Cloke, an author, mediator, and attorney. Ken’s perspective is that we who convene high-heat meetings must learn to be vulnerable and self-aware. In his recent article in ACResolution Magazine Ken offers a number of strategies for mediating from the heart. Among these strategies is to begin the meeting with questions and invitations that go directly to the heart. Here are some of the questions Ken offers:
Why are you here? Why do you care? What did it take for you to come here today?
What kind of relationship would you like to have with each other? Why?
What life experiences have led you to feel so strongly about this issue?
What role have you played in this conflict, either through action or inaction?
What would you most like to hear her say to you right now? What would this mean to you?
What would change in your life if you reached an agreement?
When intense emotions fill the room we often want to take the safe route, pretending the feelings aren’t there or maintaining a superficial frame on the conflict. It’s only when we bring empathy, heart-piercing questions, and and a willingness to move to the deeper levels that we become true catalysts for transformation.
Last summer as strolled through my garden I could see that the leaves of all my green bean plants were turning yellow. So I watered them, fertilized them, and hoed the weeds away. But they just got worse and worse. Then one day I got down on my knees and sat eye to eye with my pathetic looking bean plants. Suddenly I had an entirely new perspective on what was happening. The bottoms of the leaves were covered with hundreds of tiny yellow bugs that were eating away at the plant from below.
Sometimes we need to do what is inconvenient and uncomfortable – to get down on the ground and look really closely at the situation. The difference between standing at arms length and experiencing the issue “on the ground” is significant. Too often conversations in meetings feels a lot like the kind of detached approach I took with my garden – intellectual, comfortable, and completely out of touch with the facts on the ground.
I’ve come to believe that if you want to build a better shopping cart, talk to shoppers. If you want to solve world hunger, talk with those who are finding ways to feed themselves in the midst of scarcity. And if want to create a zero waste company, spend a week diving the dumpsters behind your production facility. Then come together and talk.Ideo’s Human Centered Design Toolkit is a great example of this up close and personal principle in action.
As a consultant and leader, giving up my status as “the expert” and handing over my role as “the authority” is rarely comfortable. And it is almost always what is needed to produce breakthrough thinking, practical solutions, empowered actors — all in service of creating a world that works for everyone.
My friend and colleague Gibran Rivera recently returned from Guatemala where he masterfully facilitated a “think tank” for Reading Village. He describes himself as “shaken up” from his experience.
It’s so easy to think about our facilitative role as a “detached and neutral party.” But Gibran reminds us — and I can certainly say from first hand experience — that so many of the gatherings we facilitate change us in small and large ways. And that’s a good thing.
In Gibran’s most recent blog he eloquently describes the ways in which his heart was “blown open” by his work in Guatemala. Full disclosure #1 — I was a participant in this meeting as a co-founder of Reading Village. Full disclosure #2 — I’m a regular reader and big fan of the IISC blog!
We live in an age of compromise. We’ve learned to be practical and to make concessions — not a bad thing. But there are times when compromise becomes a trap. It becomes a rationale for doing what is convenient, comfortable, and expedient at the cost of our integrity. “Let’s compromise” can at times become a rallying cry for pushing aside our values, abandoning our aspirations, and denying our very well being. It happens incrementally and often in the heat of organizational turbulence when our focus is on simply surviving.
In Standing in the Fire I wrote about the importance of “knowing what you stand for” as a way to locate your clarity and courage when you most need it. Recently Elizabeth Doty has written an exquisite book called The Compromise Trap: How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul. Doty provides six personal foundations that enable you to stay true to yourself. Each of these foundations is brought to life through stories of leaders who have struggled with and overcome the compromise trap.
One of my favorite chapters describes ten misconceptions about compromise. Here are five of my favorites:
1. Compromise is always healthy
2. Good companies don’t create unhealthy pressure
3. You have to go along to survive
4. You’ll always know if you’re crossing a line
5. Refusing to compromise means fighting back
Have you felt pressured to “play by the rules” in ways that undermined your integrity? If you lead in high-heat situations the answer is probably “yes, on an ongoing basis.” Here’s a good place to begin if you want to reaffirm your personal compass and reclaim your integrity – take Doty’s Personal Foundations Diagnostic. It’s free and takes just 15 minutes to complete.
I’ve written a lot about compassion and empathy as leadership capacities — particularly in high-stakes, polarized, high-emotion situations.
Ever wonder how we humans developed the capacity for empathy? Got ten minutes? Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.
Jeremy takes us through the neuroscience of empathy, developmental psychology, and social evolution in this insightful animated piece.
One of the core practices for everyday readiness that I write about in my book, Standing in the Fire is mindfulness meditation. I and several of the veteran leaders and facilitators I interviewed have used mindfulness meditation to cultivate calm and clarity – especially in preparation for high-heat meetings.
According to researchers at UCLA people who are more mindful are able to turn down the emotional response to anger. Mindfulness is a technique in which one pays attention to his or her present emotions, thoughts and body sensations, such as breathing, without passing judgment or reacting. When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they consistently have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. However, people who have the mindful ability to name their emotions (e.g., “I am feeling fearful”) are able to bring prefrontal cortex resources to regulate the amygdala response.
In the simplest terms, this research provides support for the idea that having a consistent mindfulness practice in your life strengthens your ability to make wise choices and take deliberate action in situations where others may be caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment.