I don’t know about you, but it already seems to me that 2018 is racing forward, the year no longer “New”. Traditionally a time of planning and goal setting, my clients are telling me how much they are in action mode already, with barely a moment to stand still. In my private life, discussions about the delivery of The Man in the Forest have crystallised around this coming Thursday… if not now, we found, it could be another three months before our diaries coincide.
As I sit and write, I think back to the beginning of my career, in the ’80s. (How long will it be – if it isn’t the case already – before we designate this time the 1980s, in recognition that this decade belongs not only to the last century but also to the last millennium?) Starting with a significant recession as the UK government sought to contain rampant inflation, it became a decade of “yuppee” growth and attendant confidence before recession returned and the housing market collapsed in the early ’90s.
For my contemporaries, there was a clear correlation at this time between their willingness to graft and attendant returns. In London’s premier legal firms, for example, talented young lawyers knew their labours would land them a partnership in their early 30s or, if not, a sought after job elsewhere. Success seemed assured if you only put the hours in.
Many of us are still “putting the hours in”, as if this alone is our recipe for success. We do it because it was our willingness to graft that earnt us high performance ratings and early promotions in the beginning of our careers. We do it because technology has, increasingly, wired us in, 24/7, to respond to whatever comes our way. We do it because we are anxious about the consequences of not doing it when our contemporaries do. Perhaps, even, we do it because we haven’t stopped to consider that there might be any other way.
But now? Really?
If, in your leadership role, you are constantly active with never a moment to pause and reflect, the risks you face include the following:
The greatest risk of all is that your responsiveness to others makes you a follower, not a leader. You are not able to shape a vision or direction of travel because you are busy doing things… doing the “stuff” that others require you to do;
There’s another reason why you can’t shape a vision or direction of travel. You can’t do it because you don’t have time to stop, reflect and notice what is true in the world. You don’t know where you want to get to. You don’t know where you’re starting from. You don’t have an informed view of what is true today that wasn’t true yesterday or may not be true tomorrow. How can you think about which way you need to go when you are so ill informed?
And yes, there is a risk that your constant “busy-ness” has left you so depleted and tired that your ability to make sound decisions, or even to make decisions at all, has been significantly impaired. How long has it been now since you felt truly rested? Only you will know.
So, if I am sharing my picture of Jenny Southam’s The Man in the Forest, it is not only from my pure delight at the prospect of welcoming him into my home. Whether you are a man or a woman, he has something to teach you.
You cannot shape a forward path without stopping, first, to notice where you are.
What’s more, even more than you, the people you look up to may have lost sight of the way the world is changing or feel desperate to bring it under control.
We cannot bring it under control.
Sometimes it is time to stop running through the forest of our lives and simply to stand still. Sometimes it is time to stand still and notice every detail of where we are. Which side of the trees does the moss grow on and how much? Is there stillness in the forest or a breeze? Is the forest dry or is there rain? What young trees are waiting for their chance to reach up towards the sun? And is there room for them to grow?
Before the year runs away with you, I ask you: is it time for you stride forward in a flurry of activity or is it time for you to stand still?
Today I decided to re-write the story connected with my JustGiving.com page.
Please help me share this story with the world:
I wonder if you, like me, have been watching the events unfolding in Syria in recent years in horror and dismay. Perhaps, like me, you have wanted to contribute and haven’t quite known how.
If you have, I’d like to tell you a story and to ask you to share this story around the world.
It’s a story of a small group of potters who decided to make a contribution. One of them, Mark Griffiths, put up a pot for auction on Facebook, and others quickly helped him to organise Potters for Aleppo (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1196380770476090/) so other potters could join in.
Even now, more potters are adding some beautiful pieces for an auction that finishes in this group at 00h01 on2 January 2017.
I had my eye on one pot in particular. At first, I wanted to be able to bid more than the first bid at £275.00 and I asked my friends to help me. Then, I thought about the recent sale of a pot by Lucie Rie which went for an eye-watering $170,000.00 dollars.
What if I could help these potters to raise the equivalent of this $170,000.00 – about £133,900.00? For this to happen, I needed this story to go round the world.
I’m asking you to help me get this story round the world.
It’s not about the pots, though I totally covet Hugh’s beautiful platter and have done since he first took it out of the kiln. It’s a work of great craftsmanship and I’d love to welcome it into my home.
*Please send this story round the world. Share this post. Share my link. Tweet. Talk to your friends. Let it be known that this auction is taking place with a deadline of 00h01 on 2nd January 2017 (just after midnight);
*Take inspiration and do your own thing. Is there a community that you belong to that could do something similar? It’s pretty addictive so holiday time is good. Organise and tell the world.
*Leave me a word of encouragement. Engage. Even if you choose not to donate, your words matter.
It’s not about the pots. It’s not about the potters. It’s about the men, women and children of Syria.
We need a larger – much larger – context for leadership than most of us are embracing right now. It’s time to step up.
It’s possible that, in your role as a leader, you are the one who has been telling up-and-coming leaders that they need to think more strategically. It’s possible that you are that up-and-coming leader, grappling to understand what “more strategically” even means. Let’s face it, the day-to-day demands of your job keep you busy enough, without having to “think strategically” – even if you could understand WTF this phrase even means.
In 2016, it needs to mean more – much more – than it has ever meant before.
Seeing the earth from the moon
Recently, I came across a short film, The Overview Effect, which explores the experiences of five astronauts who got to see the earth from space. These men and women describe the experience of awe they had on seeing the earth from afar and the paradoxical effect of both being at a distance from it and feeling totally connected with it – a part of the larger whole. From this distance, they were able to transcend knowledge and to experience things they had previously known – though only at an intellectual level – are true.
From this distance, the astronauts were able to perceive both the beauty and the fragility of the planet. I think of this as pure potential which is also at great risk. The impact of clearing forests to cultivate crops, for example, are not only visible – they become clear. As one interviewee put it, from this distance, it was clear that if the earth becomes sick, we all become sick.
On earth, we know this at an intellectual level and yet somehow remain separate from it. And as long as we maintain this sense of separation, the earth’s future – our future – is at risk.
Our future: an apocalyptic vision
Many commentators believe we are at risk: if we continue in the direction we are heading now, we face a dark and difficult future.
It’s pretty clear – as much as anyone might try to mask it – that we continue to live through major economic challenges and that, in fact, we’re not yet done. Chris Martenson and his colleagues at Peak Prosperity, for example, continue to point to a further economic crisis, as they did in a recent blog posting, entitled Get Ready… Change Is Upon Us. In February of this year, George Friedman gave one view of the emerging global situation, pointing to a fundamental shift in power from Europe to the US. For me, the thought of a new era in which the US, under President D. J. Trump, is in power – well, it’s not a comforting thought to say the least. In addition, Tobias Stone in the Huffington Post offers a truly apocalyptic view of the times we are in – pointing to a turning point in history, and a profoundly difficult one at that.
Why does it matter?
Why do we need to embrace a larger world view?
Even in the best of times, our ability to step back from our immediate concerns and view them in a larger context provides the basis for effectively assessing our situation, weighing the importance (or not) of the decisions that face us, making decisions and taking action. Often, we see this in terms of stress management – to be able to do this is to be able to fulfil our goals whilst minimising the weight on our shoulders that comes with our responsibilities as leaders.
But our decision-making is also far-reaching in its impact. It goes beyond our immediate well-being or that of our staff. It goes beyond the well-being of our customers or even that of our shareholders. Ultimately, the decisions we make contribute to the health of our planet or they undermine it.
If we have in our sights the impact of our decisions on the planet, we have some hope of shaping a future that serves life. This is a future that is bigger than our next pay-rise or promotion and bigger than our next project deadline. At the same time, many commentators are pointing to issues, at global level, that we are barely beginning to acknowledge, let alone to address. Some hope that we can address them now, to avert disaster. Some fear it is already too late.
As leaders, to do anything other than take these issues into account is to fiddle while Rome burns.
Current narratives – a wholly inadequate response
I wonder, how is your organisation responding to the issues outlined by Martenson, Friedman and Stone?
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t see progress in the world. Nor is my daily life in any way miserable – I am blessed, truly blessed. I hope you are, too. Counting my blessings – in my case, keeping a gratitude diary – is part of my ongoing practice. Even as I write this, I find myself connecting with heartfelt feelings of gratitude for everything that is in my life.
At the same time, there is a larger picture.
In my work with clients across multiple organisations, I see a narrative that is old, tired and untrue. At best, it points to the cyclical nature of the economy, recognises that we have been in a down-turn, cleans out old wood and carries on as though everything has been sorted. At worst, it imagines that nothing needed to be sorted in the first place or maybe – as a substitute for something as bold as a statement about what is or isn’t true – ignores a larger picture in favour of getting on with this month’s project or this year’s.
It hardly needs saying that our politicians aren’t doing much – no, any – better.
Measures of good health in the world
How do we begin to assess the health of our leadership approach? I offer some thoughts below:
Are we pursuing life-serving goals? How does your organisation support life on earth? Does it frame goals within the context of the health of our planet or of people, animals and habitats? One of these goals relates to the distribution of wealth, such that people can meet their most fundamental needs – for food, water and shelter, for example, and to live in relative safety. Yet research tells us that our resources are increasingly concentrated amongst the world’s most wealthy – only recently the charity Oxfam highlighted how the world’s 62 wealthiest people own the same as half the world’s population. Take a moment to reflect on your goals or that of your organisation and how clearly they are designed to serve life.
Do we value all life equally? In America, the current conflict between Native Americans and commercial interests over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline point to continuing systemic discrimination against particular groups of people. This has also been highlighted in 2016 by the Black Lives Matter movement. The current rise of the right in countries around the world suggest that as much as minority populations are asking for their needs to be given equal weight, majority white populations resist the implications of true equality.
Perhaps more profoundly – much more profoundly – this unknown speaker suggests, in a short video posted on Facebook, that the narrative of white versus people of colour “us and them” has a history and a purpose which distracts – deliberately – from the real issues that underpin the way the world works today. This is the context in which I ask, to what extent does your organisation serve black and minority ethnic populations including your staff, your customers and groups of people who are not within your immediate purview?
Are we looking after tomorrow as well as today? How does your organisation act to conserve the planet for future generations? Culturally, traditional native American thinking emphasises the importance of this goal and, as a result, indigenous tribes have long been campaigners on environmental issues. At the time of writing, their continuing action to protect water supplies from pollution by a proposed oil pipeline illustrates how fiercely our quest for wealth is colliding with the protection of our planet for current and future generations. Initial reactions to Donald Trump’s recent election highlight the likely impact on climate protection – see recent comments by Noam Chomsky, for example.
For some, climate change seems distant and somewhat unreal yet its effects are already visible if we choose to observe what’s going on in the world. The history of the war in Syria – described by Al Jazeera as the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed thus far – points to severe drought as a prompt for migration from the countryside into cities, prompting growing poverty and social unrest. As a leader, you know whether sustainability is about multiple bins for the disposal of rubbish or whether it permeates your organisation’s vision, mission and values – climate, yes, but also education, prosperity, dignity and more.
Do we work within frameworks that support life, both now and in future? There is a much larger question, which is about the frameworks in which we operate. I am thinking not only of your organisation’s policies and systems (though this might be a good place to start) but also beyond this to legal frameworks, trade agreements and more.
Let’s take the economy, for example. In 1992, James Carville, campaign manager to Bill Clinton in his successful bid to replace George H. W. Bush as president, coined the phrase “The economy, stupid”. As long as you get the economy right, everything else will follow.
Clearly, we are not getting the economy right.
It’s clear that the world economy went through a significant downturn in 2008. More fundamentally, George Friedman points to the fact that economics as it is currently conceived and designed doesn’t work, a topic that exercises Bernard Lietaer, author of a number of books on money. Here’s Lietaer talking about Why Money Needs To Change Now.
The economy is just one example of the frameworks that govern us and you may say, “but we don’t create these frameworks”, which brings me to my next question:
Are we proactive in shaping our frameworks with clear, life-serving goals in mind? Are you and others in your organisation playing a role in influencing the context within which you operate, such that the frameworks that guide you also support you in doing business in ways which serve life?
This is the point at which, as a leader, you begin truly to step up. In this context, power is no longer something you seek to gain as proof that you are capable, worthy of the next pay-rise, successful or otherwise “okay”. No, in this context, power is something you receive with humility and seek to exercise with the greater good in mind. I am not talking about mindless self-sacrifice or corporate martyrdom. Instead, I am talking about the mindful recognition that you are the guardian of the resources at your disposal and about a curiosity to define goals which maximise your opportunity to serve. Sometimes, this is about doing what you can in a given context. For the mindful, it is also about questioning whether you are in the right place – the right job, organisation or broader context – to do what you feel called to do.
If you’ve read this far… phew! You have read! And my own sense is that more – much more – needs to be written.
For now, though, I want to end with a question: what next?
Perhaps you want to step back and ask yourself, how big is my “bigger picture”, and is it big enough? Perhaps you want to allocate regular time to do your own research. Perhaps you want to reflect on the questions above or to leave a comment below.
I hope so. Our future depends on the sum of our contributions.
Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II. I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time. And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”. My sharing was met with some resistance. One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.
This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember. On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told. Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate. I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected. After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time; that of looking down on the Americans. Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.
But what do we make of it all? And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?
Groundhog Day and the cycle of history
If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time. In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.
The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past. In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears. The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace. No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership. No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.
In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence. And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future. Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.
Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line. It doesn’t. The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President. Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more. Many Americans are thrilled – but not all. At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.
Is love even here?
For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair. It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past. The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”. For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.
I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business: is love even here? It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here. And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.
These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).
The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign. Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.
Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era. In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers. In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.
Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns. In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”. In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters, was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.
But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did. It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era. This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.
We are all one. When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.
Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding. In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory. The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages. And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.
Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.
Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”
It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay. No. But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious. We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”. What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view? What deeper needs are being expressed? And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with. In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.
Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are. As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach. We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations. These are not small things.
Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day. Our blind spots become those of our children. Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws. We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands. We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.
Creating narratives for future generations
In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding. For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.
For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support. It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.” This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.
I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores. I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad. Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support. For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.
Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:
“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA. Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history. Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions. It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.
So, you’ve been trying to reach your goals. Perhaps it’s your goal to find a new job. Or to attract new clients, new sales. It might be something personal, like finding a partner or conceiving a child.
But somehow, it isn’t quite happening.
If only you could push a little harder.
You think about what action you need to take next. You identify and plan your next steps. It all seems perfectly logical. Easy even – just a half an hour here, a quick phone-call there.
Easy, yes, but somehow it isn’t quite happening.
You’re not taking the actions. Or you’re taking action but not seeing the results.
The truth is, at the same time, you know you’re exhausted. Your head is full of “shoulds” and some part of you is resisting the sense of obligation that comes with “should”. The very thing you’re doing (or planning to do) precisely to make life easier, more comfortable, more joyful, more tailored to you is leaving you feeling exhausted, unable to rest, more joyless.
You feel the weight on your shoulders and you want to put it down.
Are you listening?
Recently, this was the experience of a client of mine.
Some part of her was pushing, assiduously, forward. Some part of her was yearning for rest. She wanted to make progress towards her goals but somehow she wasn’t taking action. She was yearning for rest but never felt relaxed. “On the one hand…” she was saying, “but on the other hand…”
Is this you, too?
We took time in our coaching to listen. We wanted to connect with the needs she was trying to meet and to explore possibilities for meeting her needs. The more we listened, the more we found that it is possible both to take steps to move forward and to take time to rest.
Actually, we found it was not only possible but also essential.
And there’s more.
As we found a way forward that she could sign up to – that all of her could sign up to – something else popped up.
“Maybe,” she told me, “I need to look at a larger question… not just my next career steps but also the whole of my life.”
In her struggle to carve out her next career move, a more fundamental need was not being heard. It was time to step back from taking steps to make things happen and to ask “What is it that I really want in my life as a whole?” This was a question about every aspect of her life – career, yes, but also leisure, family, location and more – as well as a question about the the weeks, months and years to come.
It was, in short, a time to stop doing and a time to start dreaming.
But how do you dream?
It may seem strange to some, but if you’re used to planning and taking action, it can be hard to know how to dream or even to know how to connect with the dreams you already have. I’m writing this post today because I’d like to offer some simple ways to get started:
Learn from your past (or someone else’s): Has there ever been a time in your past when you had a dream that came true? If you have past experience of conceiving, pursuing and fulfilling your dreams, you already know what happened and can look for moments in the present that are similar to your experience in the past. Did you see it in your mind’s eye? Or have a feeling that something was coming your way? Different people dream in different ways, so tapping into your own experience or getting curious about other people’s can be a valuable source of information about how you dream. The suggestions below are a reflection of the ways in which different people envisage a new and different future;
Taking stock: As a coach, I often begin a coaching assignment by helping clients to take stock using two “coaching-wheels“. The coaching wheel supports self reflection and can help people get started who find dreaming difficult. How content are you, for example, with your professional life? Or your personal relationships? A mark out of ten can be easy to assign and further reflection can help you to explore what’s working in your life and what more you want;
Tracking your emotions: How are you responding to the events of your day, week, month? When do you feel most joyful and alive? When do your energies feel drained. What possibilities excite you? What ideas are joyless and laden with “shoulds” and “oughts”? When you track your emotions in the here and now – when you really pay attention – you begin the process of understanding what you really want in your life;
Listening to the small voice within: Often, when I talk with clients they already know something is off track but are pushing this message away. They may even know what they really want but, because they don’t know how to make it happen, they carry on with life as it is. Sometimes, listening to this inner voice is as simple as saying “yes, I’m ready to listen”. Sometimes, it’s about carving out the kind of unscheduled downtime that allows these messages to come through. A day with no agenda. A walk in the countryside. Time curled up in your arm chair with a notepad and pen;
Cultivating gratitude: To cultivate gratitude is to notice those moments in your life when something meets your needs. It might be something you do, or something someone else does or, simply, something that happens. At first, you may want to dedicate a time to do this, keeping a gratitude diary, for example, which you write in at the end of the day. In my experience, over time, this has morphed into a constant alertness to those things in my life which are most precious to me. I say thank you to myself. I say thank you to others. My personal Facebook Page is now littered with status updates which reflect my gratitude. (These are the ones my youngest nephew thinks are terribly long.) To cultivate gratitude is to become more aware of those things that meet our needs and this, in turn, increases awareness of what we might want more of in future;
Visualise your dreams: A notice board, a notebook or an online application can be a great place to build up a visual image of the things you dream of. What do you see that catches your eye? It may be the different aspects of your life that you are starting to represent or more detail about a particular aspect of your life, from decorating the lounge all the way through to where you want to live or work. It may be photos that catch your attention, or phrases… find a place to bring them together so you can build up a picture of the life you dream of;
Drawing inspiration from others: Who do you most admire or envy? Who – or what – inspires you? Noticing your response to others can also help you to connect with everything that is important, inspiring, joyful or simply yes, that’s it! right for you. This can be about the content of the dream (the thing they dreamt of and made happen) or about their capacity to dream (how they did the dreaming and how they realised their dream).
Why dream? Conceiving the impossible
Right now, my client may not know what she really wants, or how to make it happen. Nonetheless, realities start with a dream. So, as I close, I think of those who have dreamt and whose dreams have come true.
Some of them are clients of mine, men and women who have made radical career changes, who have found the sweet spot where work and family can coexist, who have realised the life they were leading was not for them and moved towards something that was more congruent or fitting.
Some of them have held dreams for society at large – dreams of inclusion and social cohesion, dreams of justice or peace, dreams for the environment we live in, dreams for our health, wealth or well-being.
All of them made something happen because, first, they imagined its existence.
If, like my client, your struggling to make something happen, could it be your time, also, to stop doing and start dreaming?
Recently, and for the first time in my life, I walked into a betting shop.
I wanted to find out if I could place a bet, and at what odds, that Brexit will not go through. It was, after all a plebiscite – a non-binding, advisory referendum. And who in their right mind would implement a decision as complex and significant as leaving the European Union on the basis of such a tiny majority of votes to leave, particularly when the overall statistics suggest a broadly three thirds split between “leave”, “remain” and “didn’t vote”?
It seems we are not in our right mind
So many things about Brexit highlight that we are not in our right minds that I need not mention them all.
Perhaps, even, any.
From the safe distance of the US, a friend wrote on Facebook. First, he responded to the result of the referendum, by saying:
To all my friends and colleagues in the UK and the EU: the “Brexit” vote is a huge deal! My heart goes out to you in the instability and change, regardless of which way you were voting.
Sending hugs and fierce love today.
Then, he responded to David Cameron’s post referendum speech by saying:
Can someone explain the intricacies of UK politics to me around a prime minister resigning? I can’t tell, from what I’ve been reading, whether David Cameron is resigning on principle, or if there is a process in the way the prime minister loses his position when something… changes…? <confused>
After I get an answer to this, I’ll ask about the rules of cricket.
Of course, from the safe distance of the UK, the possibility that Donald Trump might become President of the United States also seems pretty off the wall.
Even so, we might still have to live with it.
Everything about Brexit pointed to one thing for me. It was time to read Nick Duffell’s book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.
For over twenty years, Duffell has been exploring a topic that came to my attention only because of conversations with a friend: the impact on men and women in adulthood of attending boarding schools in childhood.
Duffell’s thesis is that sending children away to board exposes them to the traumatic experience of being separated from their parents before they are ready. Then, as if this were not enough, they have to make sense of their parents’ reasons for doing it, raising fears that they were sent away because their parents didn’t love them or that the fact that they are not enjoying boarding school means there is something wrong with them. Finally, the experience throws up the need to find ways to survive in their new context. They become bullies or buffoons, or possibly both. In Nick Duffell’s language, they become Boarding School Survivors.
Duffell’s thesis is vividly reflected in a documentary film, made in 1994, entitled The Making of Them, which is still available to view.
As his book outlines, the results of boarding in the adult lives of boarders are also plain to see in the behaviours of our political elite.
You are not alone
You could think that this posting is directed only at people who have been to boarding school, or to people who work with former boarders. It’s not.
Reading Duffell’s book, I found parallels in my own experience both as a child transitioning over time into adulthood and also as someone who works with men and women in leadership roles.
If you, for example, are sometimes triggered in the work place… if, at times, you respond at a speed that can only come from some kind of automatic pilot to the events you face at work… if you sometimes regret your reaction but don’t begin to know what to do differently or if you seek to justify your response by finding fault with the person or people you are dealing with… if there are things you desire as if your very life depends upon it… if you are riddled with self-doubt unless you achieve X or Y or Z… you are not alone.
It is common for children to experience things in childhood that are beyond their capacity to understand. It is equally common for children, in finding ways to cope with difficult experiences, to develop strategies that, whilst far from effective, nonetheless get carried into adulthood. These are strategies that protect us – or attempt to protect us – from the worst fears of our inner child.
At the same time, in our adult lives, our inner child remains stuck unless and until we are able to recognise our pain (the “wounds” implied in the title of Duffell’s book), to understand the source of our pain and to seek out and embody the learning we need to move forward.
When your inner child is running the show
Early in his book, Duffell reminds us of David Cameron’s now (in)famous remark to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Calm down, dear”, which he analyses in some detail as an example of the kind of strategies boarders adopt. It’s the kind of strategy that works in the moment, at least to some degree.
At the same time, as you may know from your own experience, strategies that come from your inner child can only work to a limited degree and may even be harmful.
What are the consequences of these strategies, of which we may or may not be aware?
Often, they are accompanied by high emotions, particularly anxiety, on the part of the inner child. We may look as elegant as swans on the surface, but maintaining appearances takes untold energy and can lead, over time, to exhaustion, stress and more;
Formed in childhood based on the thinking of our immature child, the harm to ourselves is self-perpetuating, because the thinking that drives them is taken as true. You think you have to work ten times as hard as your colleagues to be accepted? You think you have to be top of the corporate class in order to be liked? You will strive, constantly, in line with your inner belief. Worse still, because you fear, at some level, that you are not, fundamentally, okay, it can be hard for you to receive feedback that brings your hidden belief into awareness, lest it be proof of the flaws you fear so deeply;
Paradoxically, the very strategy that you adopted as a child may prevent you, in adulthood, from achieving the needs it was designed to achieve. This can become more and more apparent as your career progresses… when, for example, the attention to detail that made you an asset early in your career becomes a failure to see the larger picture in your role as a leader;
There may be consequences for those you lead. These are likely to be designed into your strategy but also unconscious. If you strive for perfection, for example, in order to prove you’re okay, you may be highly intolerant of any mistakes, wherever they come from. As a consequence, you will come down hard on the mistakes of others and may even try to make others responsible for your own;
If you’ve read this far, you may already be aware of some hidden anxiety or behavioural pattern that is running the show. You may even be aware of the implications for you and for others in your career.
You don’t need to be alone with it.
It’s not just that you’re one of many people who have one or more stress responses which date back to your childhood experiences.
In addition, there are many ways – such as learning to pause before you act or learning to meditate – to begin the work of re-shaping your approach. In addition, professional support is available from highly skilled therapists, coaches and trainers. Far from being a sign that you’re flawed or failing in some way, the decision to seek professional support signals a step towards conscious self-awareness and making adult choices.
Nick Duffell would, I think, propose that Brexit is the natural consequence of attempts to survive a boarding school education. In the prologue to Wounded Leaders, he writes presciently:
Having had to do without loving parents and being thrust into a false community – a single-sex institution with a narrow age-range – most ex boarders develop a very complex relationship with groups and communities, characterized by a mixture of suspicion and unfulfilled longing. Despite their intentions, those with an overriding thirst for power seem to end up suspicious of Continental values, backing self-reliance and prolonging a deep conservatism that keeps the old for the old’s sake and robs the country of the benefits of its natural dynamism. This, of course, affects the whole of society from top to bottom.
If Duffell is right, our decision, by a narrow majority of voters, to leave the European Union, is the result of unconscious survival strategies at the most senior levels of Britain’s political elite. In my view, it has also been met by similar survival responses across the electorate.
As for me, I did not get to place my bet.
I explained to the man who was serving me that I had not missed the result of the referendum (as he assumed) and talked about the process of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, there were no odds on offer (and I missed the opportunity to place a bet on Theresa May.)
A fellow customer, standing next to me at the next counter, looked quizzically at me and told me that we’ve already left Europe.
Nothing I could say persuaded him that this was not, actually, true.
Last month, I started to write a post for publication before Christmas. Finally, I’m publishing it today.
At the time, it was about two weeks since I started to experience some low-level, lingering lurgy. It had the irritating quality of being not quite serious enough for me to take time out and not quite, well, not serious enough for me to perform at full strength.
It’s interesting to notice that this lurgy coincided with some very difficult world events. Friday, 13th November, brought vicious attacks on the men, women and children of Paris. And as if this were not bad enough, the French president responded by launching attacks of their own. Belgium staged a lockdown. In the UK, the House of Commons passed a vote which was swiftly followed by targeted attacks on Syria. And there was more, much more.
More locally, my value-for-money courier company had failed to collect on the day I booked them for. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. Again. I wish I could say that I managed my inner state with grace but I didn’t. I responded by feeling frustrated and angry. Again.
Fortunately, Christmas brought rest, plenty of rest. Even so, I notice that for many people stepping into the New Year, there’s an uncomfortable gap between the way they are feeling and the pressure they feel to bounce back into the New Year full of energy and New Year’s resolutions.
What’s grinding you down?
I wonder if you, too, are feeling out of sorts as you read this. You’re not alone.
Perhaps Christmas was stressful for you, highlighting stresses in your family and personal relationships or the need to “go public” about your pending (or recent) divorce. Perhaps you have experienced major life events, such as bereavement or redundancy. Perhaps, like me, you are deeply affected by major world events.
Perhaps you reached the end of the year exhausted after working intensely on a number of fronts. Christmas was far from enough to restore you. What’s more, you still face the need to balance your work with your commitments to friends and family, to organisations you belong to outside of work, even to maintain and manage your home.
Perhaps you face uncertainties in your personal and professional life including potential reorganisations (again), health scares (for you or for members of your family), the uncertainty of challenges in your marriage or of children transitioning to the next phase.
Perhaps you find yourself bumping up against the same problem, again and again, in some corner of your life. This could be the repeated conversations with your noisy neighbour or the demands of a difficult boss or the misunderstandings with colleagues in department X.
It may even be that you feel weary as you face the same issues again and again and again… and not just one but all of the issues that create a cumulative cocktail of challenges.
It may be that even reading this list leaves you feeling yet more out of sorts.
Favourite ways to stay out of sorts
If you are feeling out of sorts, it may be worth asking yourself how you’re keeping yourself in a state of imbalance. Here are some of my favourite ways to do this – do you recognise any of them as yours, too?
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I keep pushing through. I keep doing the things that need to be done. I keep telling myself I will get better soon… things will get better soon. I keep thinking that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, something will change;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming others for ongoing problems. I look at what other people are doing that is causing the problem and I feel frustrated. I analyse what other people should do differently. I look to other people to make changes;
Sometimes, I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming myself. Perhaps I blame myself for the difficult things that are happening in my life (the misunderstandings must be my fault, right?). Perhaps I blame myself for my failure to rise above the experiences I am having;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I imagine a future that may or may not happen and treat it as if it were true. When I think about what could go wrong in a conversation or generalise from current difficulties to all the other difficult experiences I have had I am creating a false reality rather than connecting with what really is true;
I keep myself out of balance when I take responsibility that’s not mine to take, putting time and effort into sorting out problems that belong elsewhere;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I fail to face the truth of the issues affecting me. The biggest failure is my failure to look the truth squarely in the face and recognise that something I want to change just isn’t going to change so that I continue to behave as though this change is both desirable and possible.
And whilst I’m doing these three things there’s one thing I am failing to do. I am failing to acknowledge and bring care to my own experience. And because I am failing to notice just what’s going on for me, the experience continues.
Bringing care and restoring our equilibrium
In the midst of writing this posting, more than one conversation I had with clients made me reflect on what we can do to bring care and restore our sense of balance.
One conversation was rooted in the recognition that our sense of imbalance comes largely from the way we are reacting to events. Restoring balance is as much about shaping a more effective inner response as it is about choosing what actions to take out in the world.
Here are just some of the things that help me and my clients to bring care to our experiences and restore equilibrium:
Whether we are experiencing ongoing exhaustion or a sudden surge of emotion, it’s so easy to let our emotions “run the show” or to push back with self-blame or -judgement. Instead, it’s good to check in with ourselves – to notice what feelings are coming up and ask what we need right now. When I take time to do this with love, I feel calmer, more settled as heightened feelings subside;
One of my dearest friends responds in challenging times by reminding himself that they are only temporary. Somehow, knowing that intense feelings or ongoing exhaustion will, ultimately, go away helps him to “hang in there” when times are tough;
I find it helpful to notice what thoughts I am having and to ask myself “Is this really true?” Is it really true that I have to keep ploughing on, for example? Is it true that I am on my own in dealing with a person or situation? This kind of curiosity helps me to separate what I know, objectively, to be true from the hidden beliefs and assumptions which sometimes guide my approach;
Sometimes, the process of asking questions reveals something that is true and that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps, for example, you need to acknowledge the real pressure you are under to deliver more than you can possibly achieve in your contracted work hours. Perhaps you need to acknowledge that, no, you don’t have any support from your line manager. Facing and acknowledging difficult truths opens up the possibility of taking action based on knowing what is rather than knowing what “should be”. Taking action from a place of awareness is an important way to restore balance;
As you connect with your feelings and needs and as you acknowledge the truth of your experience, it becomes easier to identify and take practical actions to move things forward. If you’ve identified an assumption that you need to do something “right now”, for example, you can check it out. It’s always wonderful to me to discover that the thing that’s being asked for is not needed until next week. Equally, when you’ve faced up to the lack of real support from your boss you can make requests for the support you need or find other ways to meet your needs, such as looking for a mentor or coach or starting the process of looking for a job which affords you the support you long for;
When you’re exhausted and overwhelmed or triggered in the moment, the solution may seem enormous. In practice, maintaining or restoring balance often depends on identifying small practical steps. Far too much work on your plate? This may be a sign that you need to delegate more rather than a sign you need to work harder, for example. One colleague often asks “What’s the smallest and easiest step I can take right now to move things forward?”
Sometimes, examining our thoughts also reveals a disconnect between what we know is objectively true and what we experience when exhausted, triggered or overwhelmed. Think you don’t have what it takes? Objectively, you know of your successes and yet, somehow, this knowing goes out of the window when your emotions are high or your energy levels are low. Over time, it’s possible to design a practice that helps you to feel the truth of your successes (or whatever you need to know) even in times of stress. Taking time to write, for example, can help you to capture your successes – what happened, how you felt, what feedback you received and more.
I hope you find something in this posting that helps you to restore your sense of balance. Equally, if you’re wondering if and how coaching might help you to restore balance, please contact me directly to arrange to talk.
Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns gets passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.
It has been my tradition to mark Remembrance Day here on my blog. This year is no exception.
I want to start by mentioning an experience I had recently and by talking through the learning that has been unfolding for me in the days and weeks that have followed.
One Monday morning, a few weeks ago, I found a response amongst my e-mails to something I had said to a colleague. It was clear from her response that my words had not landed well with her.
I wanted to reach out and open up the opportunity for connection, so I let her know that I was open to discussion if she wanted to talk things through.
A few days later, I reached out again. I sent her a personal message and asked her how she was. We had some exchanges. I asked her if she wanted to talk things through.
I wondered what to do next when the answer seemed to be nothing. I was not at peace.
On the end of a coercive style
I knew my colleague was unhappy with something I’d said and I didn’t know what. Equally, in the course of our conversations, my correspondent said and did a number of things that I found difficult. I experienced them as attempting to control my behaviour – to coerce.
If ever you’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s attempts to coerce you, you may know how challenging it can be. Whereas some people make requests of you, the person who coerces does so from a place of believing he or she is right. You are told what you should do or should have done or, indeed, should not have done. Requests are made (or orders given) by implication. (Why ask “Would you mind doing…?” when you believe the other person ought to do something because it’s the right thing to do?)
You may also receive feedback from your correspondent to support his or her case. He or she uses labels, for example, to describe you or your behaviour. These are not used with the awareness that they are labels or constructs of the imagination. No, the speaker believes that they are an accurate description. Descriptions of behaviour are not neutral. The other person does not repeat the words that you said or accurately describe what you did. No, he or she tells you that you “spoke out of turn” or “deliberately crossed someone”. “You offended someone”. “You made a fool of yourself”. Anything that you did or said is lost in the midst of holding you responsible for somebody else’s response or beneath layers of judgement about whether or not you should have done what you did.
The fact that none of these descriptions accurately described what you said or did doesn’t matter to the person who is addressing you: his or her map is the territory. You may see that the other person has made assumptions and is treating them as if they were true. At the same time, the confidence of your correspondent that he or she is right is such that he or she has no reason to listen to anything you may have to say. Unless you can talk things through, it’s hard to correct misunderstandings.
How do you feel when this happens and especially when these behaviours are sustained (whether from time to time or on an ongoing basis)? For many people, they can trigger fear, anger, anxiety. Over time, they can undermine your confidence and make you question yourself. Perhaps you resist, asserting your right to choose your own behavour – and you do. You can even use some labels of your own to describe the person whose behaviour you have found so difficult.
Even so, it can be hard to feel at peace.
Good bye to bad rubbish
If you have read this far, you may think I am going to talk about the limitations of coercion. Regular readers already know I am a fan of research summed up by Daniel Goleman (in the article Leadership That Gets Results) which shows that when used inappropriately and excessively, the coercive style can have a negative impact on the way people experience their workplace and, in turn, on their productivity at work.
I promised to talk about my learnings in the midst of my experiences and this is what I am going to do.
I want to start with a path I chose not to take.
In the vernacular, there’s a phrase that is often used to describe one possible response when we are experiencing difficulties in our relationships with others: “say goodbye to bad rubbish”. This is the kind of phrase friends use to comfort loved ones after a relationship break-up, for example.
In the workplace, we may not have the option to walk away from a relationship and still, covertly, we say goodbye to bad rubbish by holding to our view that our colleague is out of line, has values that stink, is totally incompetent and more.
On a global scale, we look at our neighbours – neighbouring countries, religious groups and more – through the eyes of judgement and disbelief. This is the kind of disbelief that asks “How could they possibly do X?” without ever really seeking to know the answer. It may even be the kind of disbelief which asks this question of others whilst overlooking the times when we, too, have reacted in haste and, in doing so, have behaved in ways we would rather forget.
I am not saying that anyone should seek to make a best friend out of someone they find difficult. Men and women in abusive relationships are well advised to walk away. In organisations, we may want to work effectively with someone whose behaviour we loathe and still, to look after our own wellbeing. At the same time, as much as we want to gravitate towards and hang out with people whose company we enjoy, many times, we will encounter people whose behaviour we find difficult. Do we really want to walk away from them all?
On being human
Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Just as I was grappling with my experiences, I decided to listen to a recorded conference call with Miki Kashtan (who is a trainer of some repute in the field of Nonviolent Communication) about collaboration in the workplace. I did not expect to take anything from her call which would help me with my colleague, but many things she spoke of landed with me.
Firstly, she described an instinct we have to withdraw when we encounter difficult behaviours. In this way, we protect ourselves from further harm. Even though I was only half listening to her as I did other things, I realised there was a message for me in this. I did want to withdraw and protect myself from more of the same. Yehuda Berg puts it this way: “Hurt people hurt people”. When we meet behaviours from people who are triggered, consciously or unconsciously, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt.
In her discussion, Miki pointed to something else. It can be easy, as we withdraw, to fall into judgement. It’s so easy that we do it without even realising that we are doing it. Their behaviour was difficult. It didn’t meet common professional standards. It clearly wasn’t rational. When we come from a place of wanting to protect ourselves, these judgements escalate a cycle of distance and mistrust so that the people whose behaviour we have found so difficult also want to step back and protect themselves.
This is the escalating cycle of pain to which Yehuda Berg refers and which is present in our most intimate relationships. And because I write this posting on Remembrance Day, I think it worth adding that the same pattern that causes us difficulty in our relationships with friends and family is also present in our relationships with our colleagues. And as much as it’s present in our relationships with colleagues, it is also present on a much larger scale in the relationships between nations or religious groups. If we follow this pattern, take the “goodbye to bad rubbish” approach, we can only look forward to conflict at the local and the global level.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It happened that, a little while before I had the experience I have described above, my friend and colleague, Tamara Laporte, had a hot date (okay, conducted an interview) with Byron Katie, author of the book Loving What Is. I’d been meaning to watch this interview and I knew that now was the time.
Part way through this interview, Tamara asked Byron Katie about an incident that had taken place in her life, when she found herself face to face with a young man with a gun. Her response in the moment blew me away: she was able to connect with what might be going on for this young man, without in any way losing her composure.
Byron Katie was able to respond with composure because she has worked extensively to catch her own thoughts, to question them and to turn them round. By transforming her thoughts – her “story”, if you like – she is able to transform her emotional experience both in the moment and across her life as a whole. She calls this process of enquiry “the work”.
You could say that Byron Katie’s work is the manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi’s often-repeated invitation to “be the change you want to see in the world”. This small change of focus can bring huge results. It was as a result of her extensive work prior to this experience and of her ability, in the moment, to do her own work that she came away from this experience alive.
The mother of all things I want to learn to do differently
Sometimes, lessons are humbling. Not least because, at times, we have to learn them again and again until they become second nature to us – or perhaps return us to our primary nature. As I sit here and reflect, I wonder what three things I would most like to do going forward.
Rupture and repair
The first thing I take from this experience is a reminder that, in any successful relationship, there is a process which another friend and colleague, Melanya Helene, calls “rupture and repair”.
This is not just what happens in our most difficult relationships.
Rupture and repair is what happens in our most intimate relationships. We experience some misunderstanding and draw away. But we also value the relationship enough to want to reconnect. It is this desire to reconnect that motivates us to do what we need to do to overcome misunderstanding and repair our relationships.
Bringing this desire to overcome difficulties is also what allows us to transform our most difficult relationships into relationships of trust. In her densely-packed teleconference call, Miki Kashtan talks of spreading around goodwill when you most feel distrust. On a much greater scale, the process of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa came from this intention to repair what was broken.
When rupture happens, in whatever form, on whatever scale, I choose to be open to repair.
You can’t change the others
My experience with my colleague reminded me of another essential truth: the work of repairing difficult relationships begins at home.
It begins at home because we can’t change the others, we can only change ourselves.
It begins at home because our instinct to pull away from difficult relationships, our lack of trust, is itself a barrier to creating positive and healthy relationships, because it causes us to behave in ways which compound the problem.
As long as our focus is on how things should be, for example, we will struggle to deal effectively with how things are. In her conference call, Miki Kashtan describes one thing as under-rated in our society, and I agree: that thing is mourning. She talks about how much we need to experience our grief, our sadness, our disappointment, that this is how the world is – to feel this crushing disappointment all the way. All the thinking we do about how things should be leads us to harden our hearts as a protection from everything we know, deep down, to be true. Mourning helps us to maintain an open heart and it is this open-hearted softness that keeps us open to the other, even when we find their behaviour most difficult.
Both Miki Kashtan and Byron Katie invite us to examine our thinking about the other person. Indeed, Byron Katie’s work is all about examining our thinking. How are we thinking of this other person? (Our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours at local or global level). The biggest story we have to catch is that because there is something we find difficult about this other person, they are somehow, fundamentally, not okay.
The more we can catch ourselves in the midst of this story and question the thoughts we are having, the more we open up new possibilities in our relationships with others. We begin to see that whilst we find some behaviours difficult, other behaviours support us in meeting our needs. This means we can express our appreciation for those behaviours that nurture us and this, in turn, begins to change our experience and the experience of the other.
So, my second choice is this. I want to examine the stories I tell myself about myself and about others, especially when my attachment to that story is strong.
The healing power of empathy
The more we can catch our story, examine and transcend it, the more we can come to a story that opens up the possibility of a different forward path. This requires us to understand that, no matter how others behaved, they acted with positive intentions. Kashtan points to this: that the fact that someone behaved in ways we found difficult probably means that there is something we did or habitually do that they perceive as standing in the way of them fulfilling their needs. Empathy helps us to understand this and to connect with the other person and this opens up the possibility of a dialogue which, in turn, helps us to build a cycle of increasing empathy and mutual understanding.
It’s possible, too, that we need to meet our own experience with great empathy and understanding. Beneath the judgement of the other, for example, there is often a judgement of ourself or, at least, the fear that self-judgement may be justified. For yes, we, too, are human and react, at times, in ways we abhor. When we can bring self-empathy we can hold our positive intentions with great care and mourn, rather than condemn, our own behaviour. This leads us to greater honesty with ourselves, opens up the possibility of transforming our approach over time and, in addition, makes us more forgiving of others.
So, my third commitment is to recognise both my own and others’ need for empathy. I want to bring empathy even to the most difficult of relationships.
Implications for world (and office) peace
Why does any of this matter?
There are those in my life who have encouraged me to step away from any relationships which might be described as abusive, toxic or bullying and I certainly do not seek them out. I’m sure Byron Katie didn’t go looking for the young man with the gun.
At the same time, there are times in our lives when we do have regular contact with someone whose behaviour we don’t enjoy. Perhaps their emotions are frequently triggered. Perhaps their behaviours are unpleasant. He may be a colleague. She may be a family member.
We can, of course, move jobs, change friends, walk away from family. But new jobs bring new people who may also behave at times in ways we don’t enjoy. And it’s my experience that people yearn for a sense of connection with their family members even whilst walking away from situations where they can find no possibility for that connection to occur.
On a much more global scale, condemning “the other”, whether we are talking about men and women of a different political persuasion, national identify or religious group brings us no closer to finding ways forward which support everyone in meeting their needs.
Our relationships at work require us to find ways to connect with the people we most fear or despise, to move beyond our fear and hatred and to come to a place of empathy and understanding.
On Remembrance Day I want to add that this, too, is what is required of us. This requires us to understand that, in war, the most appalling acts are carried out with good intentions. This requires us to recognise that “appalling acts” are not the unique preserve of enemy forces. Looking into our own history, even our recent history, we find that our own countrymen and women have committed appalling acts. We need to recognise that we, too, are capable – as much today as we ever were – of committing appalling acts. Only when we can face this truth can we begin the long walk towards peace.
Hurt people hurt people.
I want to be one of the people who is no longer hurt. And when I feel hurt, I want to respond rather than react.
I offer thanks to my colleague, to Miki Kashtan, to Tamara Laporte and Byron Katie, to Melanya Helene and to many others who have provided the inspiration to write this posting and whose thinking has also informed the content.
Sometimes, clients ask questions that aren’t easily answered without further exploration, though the time needed for further exploration isn’t easily available. A contract or agreement doesn’t allow for it or perhaps doesn’t allow for it in a timely way. Even so, the question is worth exploring.
Recently, I fielded a request for resources on remote networking. You may know the kind of thing. How do you build relationships with your colleagues when you are geographically diverse and hardly ever see each other? How do you make sure the right people know who you are? How do you network when the last thing you want to do with your time – maybe the thing that is least natural to you or enjoyable for you – is reaching out to make contact with people you don’t know?
When you need to expand your network and don’t know how
It may be that you’re reading this posting and wondering what the fuss is about. You know so many people around the business that you never hesitate to reach out for help and support or maybe you’re the “go to” person for other people in the business. If you’re happy with the way things are, this article is not for you. On the other hand, if you wonder, from time to time, why your wide network of relationships doesn’t translate into more interesting opportunities in your work or even the odd promotion, you might want to keep reading.
It may be that you have good relationships with your immediate circle of colleagues. You feel comfortable in your relationships and you trust your mutual respect. At the same time, you know that you need to widen your circle of contacts but somehow, you don’t quite know how. With your immediate colleagues, you don’t have to think about why or how to network. Even if you’re based on different continents, you have a built-in reason to keep in contact with each other, because you’re working on the same projects or have some other shared agenda. And the how falls out of the why – you have a schedule of meetings (using whatever technology suits), you send e-mails in between, you pick up the phone when you need to.
So why is this additional networking so difficult?
Questions to reflect on when you’re expanding your remote network
Working with a diverse range of clients, I’ve become aware that the word “networking”, like the word “selling”, can strike fear into many hearts. The fear may not be the same for each person and still, it’s there.
At the first pass, people feel daunted by networking (and yes, by selling) because the term itself is so vague and woolly. How can I learn how to do this thing when I don’t quite know what it is that I’m supposed to be doing? The concept is clear but the word networking says nothing about what you need to do in practice to… well, network.
At the second pass, there may well be some particular barriers that you need to overcome. These will vary from person to person and they reflect both the situation you find yourself in and your own personality and preferences. Some of them may be cunningly disguised – beliefs disguised as “facts”, for example. So, part of the work is to uncover these barriers and to find ways around them.
The implication at the first and the second pass is clear: you need to dig into this amorphous concept and make sense of it. And you need to do this in a way that is tailored to you. Only by getting under the skin of this rather vague idea can you work out your own way of networking.
What sort of things do you need to think about? Here are a few ideas:
What do you want to get out of it? If you think you need to do more networking, there’s probably a “because” lurking somewhere. Before you take any further action, it’s worth identifying it. Perhaps you want to open up opportunities for promotion. Perhaps you want to deepen your understanding of the wider business. Perhaps you want to have more fun at work – and fun for you is all about people. Whatever your reason for networking, getting clear on your motivation supplies the motivation for you to take action and guides you in identifying actions that fulfill your purpose.
Many people, for example, come to understand that career progress isn’t just about merit. People get the best opportunities who want them. People get the best opportunities who put themselves forward. People get the best opportunities who are in the right place at the right time. Making it easier to make progress in your career may be one reason why you need to expand your network. (And if it is, don’t wait to get noticed!) There may also be others.
What assumptions are you making? Sometimes, we make assumptions that get in the way of doing what we want and we don’t even know it. These are our hidden and maybe limiting beliefs. You want to get to know your boss’s boss but you assume that he or she has no time to interact with you. It may be true – but do you really know it’s true? You think that remote networking is more challenging than networking with people who work down the hall. It may be true – but how do you know? The nature of assumptions is that they are often out of sight, so it may help you to sit down with your coach, a friend or colleague and ask them to listen to you whilst you talk about remote networking and write down any assumptions they think you’re making. This helps to bring your assumptions into view so that you can check out whether or not they really are true.
(And here’s a tip. Even if you think they are true, notice how you feel if you imagine the opposite. Your boss’s boss is keen to get to know you. Remote networking is the easiest thing in the world. If you feel differently, you’ll act differently. This may be enough to set a different journey in motion.)
What’s getting in the way? It may be your assumptions that are getting in the way. It’s worth circling round them more than once to check for any limiting beliefs. Equally, there may be other issues. It’s worth asking yourself what you think they are and what it is about them that makes them an impediment.
Some things will be, at first glance, all about your circumstances – about what’s true out there in your world of work. There are time differences between you and your colleagues, for example. Or you want to be more visible to your boss’s boss but you’ve been asking for time for six months now and you’re still struggling to have the conversation you hope to have.
Some things will be about your inner world. You want to speak with a colleague in another department, a colleague who is also on the other side of the world. But you feel afraid to reach out to a complete stranger. You have all sorts of stories in your mind about how they might respond. (Obviously, they’ll say no.) You have all sorts of stories in your mind about the meaning of their response. (Clearly, saying no is a sign that they totally reject you.) It’s easy to be glib about this but the truth is, whatever fears you have are very real to you.
Identifying what’s really getting in the way can help you to address any barriers, one step at a time. Perhaps you need to know more about your boss’s boss in order to find a way to be more visible. Your boss may be able to position you with his or her boss without any action on your part, for example. Or your boss may know what you don’t, for example that the best way to get through to the boss is to phone between 7am and 9am and to ask for just five minutes’ conversation.
Equally, when you start to understand your own concerns you can bring care to them, too. There are many ways to bring care to and transform a fear of rejection.
Finding ways to network that work for you and for others. Sometimes, small actions make a huge difference. And it’s easier to take small actions when they’re actions you feel comfortable to take. Part of your job is identifying each step, one step at a time. Maybe you want to broaden your understanding of the business beyond your immediate department. But your department sits in a building away from other colleagues. If you’re naturally gregarious, you may love the idea of reaching out to colleagues to arrange a visit to their department in another building. But if you prefer getting to know people slowly, you might prefer a step-by-step approach. Perhaps you can start by asking someone for a specific piece of information and, when you get it, drop a line to say thank you. Whatever step you take, you’ve taken a first step. You’re now known to your colleagues, and they to you.
Equally, it can help to think about what needs your colleagues have that they might meet through their contact with you. Your boss’s boss might appreciate regular updates on the project you’re directing but prefer it to be brief or, when you highlight problem issues, to have very clear requests about anything he or she can do to help. The more you get to know different colleagues, the more you can find out about what they value. Even when you first start to reach out to people, asking how you can support them is one way to find out what they most value and enjoy.
Celebrate small steps. In some sales jobs, it can take years to make a sale, though when it comes it’s huge. Imagine selling fleets of aircraft, for example, or gaining approval to build a new town. If you wait until you’ve made the sale before you celebrate, you’ll never get there because the goal seems so far away. People who are successful in making big sales are able to hold a vision even when they don’t know how they will achieve it, to take many actions that might move their agenda forward, to feel okay when an action they take doesn’t work and to sustain themselves along the way. Even if your networking agenda is on a much smaller scale, you may find it helpful to learn from this approach. Give yourself credit for taking action, for example, whether or not your action works. This will help you to stay on track with your networking agenda.
Remote networking isn’t just about cause and effect. Like selling, the results you get from your investment in remote networking are not always linear. In my business, for example, I’ve noticed over time how business may come to me as a direct results of my actions. At the same time, sometimes, it comes to me when I take action – but from somewhere quite different. I send out a newsletter to my existing subscribers. Independently, I field a call from someone I have never met before. The same loose and unpredictable relationship can exist when you’re networking.
In my business, for example, there are times when people contact me who have never written a word of response to things I have said on my blog or in public discussion groups to ask for more professional help. They turn up, ready to go, having already decided that they’d like to work with me. They do this because they have been reading what I have to say for a long time and relate to me via the medium of the written word (and yes, this is a medium I really enjoy. This may be different for you).
In the corporate environment, in which many of my clients work, it may be your role in leading an important project that attracts the attention of key stakeholders or the fact that you helped someone who works for someone you’d like to know about your work. It may even be that you are all the more noticeable precisely because your intention was, simply, to provide the help. There is, here, a paradox. It’s great to know why you want to build your network. At the same time, it may be your authentic desire to contribute that catches the eye of key stakeholders.
It’s all about relationship
In the end, like so many other things, remote networking is all about relationship. What relationship do we have, for example, with ourselves. Do we know what we want? Do we recognise our fears and limiting beliefs? Are we willing to take action? What actions work for us? One implication of this is that our ability to network begins with our ability to relate with ourselves. The more comfortable you are in your own skin, the more you will feel comfortable to reach out to others and the more comfortable they will feel in responding to you.
Remote networking is also about our relationships with others. This may seem axiomatic – the ultimate statement of the “bleedin’ obvious”. At the same time, it’s often overlooked. People respond to people. Even on remote discussion groups people build relationships over time. The links I have supplied in this article is just one example of how this works. They were supplied to me by my good friend and colleague Hilary Cooke of Merlin Consultancy. I know Hilary because we have both been members of Training Journal’s online forum for more years than I care to remember. First we read each other’s postings. Then we started to respond. Then we started to correspond directly. Then we arranged to meet. I doubt if either one of us saw this as remote networking and still, it’s one example of how remote networking can work.
Early in his career, Nathan was lucky enough to have a line manager who was also a valuable mentor. Nathan’s boss took a particular interest in his progress, giving careful feedback and delegating work. Under this boss, Nathan’s skills developed quickly and he made rapid progress through his organisation.
Nathan welcomed this support. He was eager to learn and ambitious, too. Professionally, the relationship was everything he could wish for. Personally, Nathan noticed how his line manager became a father figure to him, too. This was not unwelcome. Nathan’s father had died when he was just sixteen years old. What’s more, Nathan was the first person in his family to gain a university degree so that he lacked professional role models to look to within his family. For a while, the match between Nathan’s needs and what his boss had to offer meant that both of them thrived in the relationship.
Ten years later, however, the relationship was in difficulty. Nathan felt frustrated at the way his former manager continued to treat him; as if Nathan were inexperienced and in need of guidance and as if he, James, had all the answers. Nathan also felt increasingly concerned at the quality of James’s decision-making. James, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly vocal around the business. It was as if every relationship he had was a battle to prove he was right.
As much as he cared for his former manager, Nathan started to wonder if he needed to move organisations in order to be taken seriously. He was painfully aware that his former mentor and champion continued to talk about him around the business as if he were young, inexperienced and in need of James’s guidance. He also wondered if James was setting himself up for a fall. As frustrated as he felt with his former boss and mentor, this was something he didn’t want to witness.
Are you convinced you’re always right – or telling yourself that you should be?
Maybe you find yourself making judgements about your staff (“Am I the only one around here who can make sound decisions?” “What a terrible way to do things!” “Do I have to baby-sit every decision my team makes?”) Perhaps you feel frustrated with your staff and, although you ask for their suggestions, you usually end up going with the ideas you put forward yourself.
Maybe you’re telling yourself that, the more senior you become, the more it’s your job to make the right decision and the more decision-making is down to you. Maybe you feel anxious about the decisions you have to make and still, you see it as your job to make them. Even when you lack confidence and don’t know what to do for the best, you put on a brave face and champion a decision – any decision – with the aim of creating a clear sense of direction for your team and inspiring confidence.
Either way, the more you make the decisions for your team, the more you experience some of the challenges faced by Nathan’s boss and his team. `
What Nathan’s boss didn’t know
In his quest to be “right” and to be seen to be “right”, Nathan’s boss was making a common mistake and with common repercussions. As much as he complained about the team, it was James who was holding back the team’s performance.
What was it that James didn’t understand?
Firstly, without input from his team, James was rarely “right” in his decision-making.
Because James didn’t value the input of his team members, he tended to overlook the amount of information they could bring to the table to which he wasn’t party. Because he didn’t ask for the information (and because he was so dismissive towards members of his team) nobody gave it to him. He was making decisions based on limited information when he could have made decisions that were more fully informed.
What’s more, because he didn’t ask his team members for their views (or asked for and then dismissed them) he didn’t test his own thinking for potential flaws or seek out ideas from his team that, potentially, were more compelling than his own. He was drawing on his own brainpower rather than benefitting from the combined brainpower of all his team members.
Regrettably, his thinking was stagnating as a result.
There was something else James didn’t understand about being “right”: it was proving highly divisive.
Some of his team members, like Nathan, were confident in their own thinking but, increasingly, frustrated by the quality of decisions being made within the team. Some of them had given James clear feedback about their concerns. Occasionally James had even acknowledged the legitimacy of their concerns. However, because James was doing nothing to change his behaviour, the most capable members of James’s team were quietly considering their options.
On the other hand, even though his team comprised some of the most senior leaders in the business, by putting himself in the right, James repeatedly put others in the wrong. Even without this, James’s team members faced a challenging business environment: they had to make tough decisions with only partial information. This was already stretching them. Add to this challenge the dripping tap of James’s feedback and some of them were starting to doubt themselves. How could they be so wrong? Increasingly, they lacked confidence and felt disempowered.
There was a third repercussion of James’s quest to be “right”.
The more James promoted his own ideas and decisions over anyone else’s, the more his team-members recognised the futility of trying to make their own decisions. Some felt frustrated. Some felt anxious. All of them started to delegate decisions – upwards.
Instead of looking at what he needed to do differently to coach, nurture and empower his team, James focussed his attention on blaming his team members for their incompetence – and making decisions himself on behalf of his team.
The result was a vicious downward spiral.
Simple steps to empower your team
Nathan’s boss needed to do two things differently.
Firstly, James needed to get curious about each member of his team and to understand their needs. What coaching and support was needed for each member of his team to make progress in his or her confidence and decision-making? Yes, it might be true that one team member, new to the job, needed to learn more about this area of the business or about the kind of decisions that came with his or her new job. But this was not true of every team member.
James needed to develop his understanding of the needs of each team member and to respond appropriately. He also needed to adjust his approach as each person matured in the job and as his or her needs changed.
Secondly, James needed to let go of the idea that he even needed to be “right”. As much as, at times, he needed to provide support and coaching for new members of his team, he also needed to recognise those team members whose thinking, knowledge or other abilities matched and even exceeded his own. He needed to know when it was time to let go of being a father figure and to stand shoulder to shoulder with those he was responsible for leading.
Getting out of your own way
In case you’re wondering, James is not a real person.
At least, he is, but not just one. James is one, two, three, four… any number of men and women I have interviewed for jobs, met on leadership development workshops or worked with in coaching partnership. He is the boss of friends and family members. He is even a friend or family member. He’s me. He’s you.
Nothing I’ve said so far will help James, though it may help those who work for James or for someone like him. No. For James to change, he needs to understand what’s stopping him from letting go of his need to be “right”. He needs to recognise that putting himself in the right is his (or her) way of meeting a need.
Perhaps he wanted to command the respect of his team or, by securing his position, to maintain a sense of purpose, meaning or empowerment.
Perhaps his need was to find acceptance amongst his team members when he could not find acceptance within himself or was losing his sense of self-worth. Perhaps he yearned for love and reassurance, thinking that if he positioned himself as a father-figure, people would be grateful towards him and like him.
Perhaps he was trying to maintain his most fundamental needs – for physical security, shelter, food and drink – by seeking to persuade those around him that he had something to offer the business.
Sometimes, though, we try to meet our needs in ways which only plaster over the cracks.
When we do this, our sense that our needs are met depends on a growing blindness to the reality of our situation. What’s more, it depends on a near-willful blindness to the experience of others. We become increasingly tense. We become increasingly stressed. We become increasingly alienated from the reality of our situation and experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In practice, you might be like James. You could hold tightly to being “right” and view every situation through the lens of your intention. You want to prove to yourself – and to others – that your thinking is sound.
You could, though, choose a different path.
Nathan, for example, chose to understand what needs he was trying to meet in his career that, increasingly could not be met whilst still working with James. He realised he wanted choose his own path, to live in integrity according to his own values, which included values about how he wanted to work with and support others. Getting clear about his aspirations made it easy for him to choose to leave his organisation.
He cared for James. He was grateful to James. He was concerned for James given the path he had chosen. And still, he knew it was for James to chose his path and to live with the consequences of his choices.