Tag Archives: personal reflections

On the road to world (and office) peace

An act of remembrance at Birkenau
An act of remembrance at Birkenau

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.

Yehuda Berg

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.

She didn’t.

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.

She didn’t.

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.

But no.

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.

Small change

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.

From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.
From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.

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.

Reflections on my 50th birthday

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating
about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.
With even a glimmer of that possibility, joy rushes in.
Yet when we’ve been striving to make “Pillsbury biscuits” for a lifetime,
the habits of perfectionism don’t easily release their grip.
When mistrust and skepticism creep in, we might be tempted
to back down from embracing our life unconditionally.
It takes practice, learning to bounce back
each time we’re dragged down by what seems to be wrong.
But […] when we stop comparing ourselves to some assumed standard of perfection,
the “biscuits of today”, this very life we are living right now,
can be tasted and explored, honored and appreciated fully.
When we put down ideas of what life should be like,
we are free to wholeheartedly say yes to life as it is.

Tara Brach
Radical Acceptance:  Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha

On Saturday, I had a moment of awareness of being in heaven.  I was sitting in the You Don’t Bring Me Flowers cafe in Hither Green on my way back from a visit to my hairdresser.  It helped that the sun was shining – had shone, indeed, on my walk from Lewisham, through the underpass at Hither Green Station, along Springbank Road and all the way to Hither Green Cemetery and back.  It helped that my sandwich was freshly made and accompanied by a (very rare and much savoured) cup of coffee.  It helped that I was seated by the window and enjoying the bustle of the cafe.  Most of all, it helped that, in this moment, I was present to each and every one of these things – even to the strange juxtaposition of my feelings of sheer bliss with the rather prosaic view out to the rows of cars parked on either side of the street.

Life has not always been bliss, is not always bliss at this time.  Regular readers know that the year started with the final illness and death of my uncle and more recently the death of Sir Colin Davis with whom I have regularly performed in recent years as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  There have been other deaths, too.  Business has been relatively quiet this year.  Initially I was grateful for this period of quiet and even now I know how much it has benefited me to take my foot off the accelerator for a while.  I have taken time to assimilate the death of my uncle and to notice how it signals to me the passing, one by one, of my mother’s generation.  I have been busy with the house and am thrilled that, having completed the kitchen last year, Gary returned to prepare one of the spare rooms for a second lodger (so that the house can work harder to pay for itself) and to strip and varnish the floors in the hallway.

There are, though, bills to be paid.  As the months have gone on at this slow pace I have been feeling increasingly anxious about money, even whilst some part of me feels totally calm.  With the anxiety about money come all sorts of thoughts …about the future consequences of this quiet patch, …about whether after almost eleven years of running my own business, I should be looking for a proper job, …about what I should do  next to make things happen… about… about… about…  It’s not that I have been entirely idle.  I have not.  I have continued all sorts of activities which, over time, keep me connected to the world and let people know that Learning for Life (Consulting) is open for business.  At the same time, in recent weeks, as these different voices within me seek to hold sway, I have found myself neither fully resting nor fully productive.

There are moments when I have been touching into a layer of thinking that is deeper still.  I have been surprised, for example, to catch myself fearing that friends and family will not join me in celebrating my 50th birthday.  I know these fears are not rational and still, they have, at times, been present – or I, at times, have been present to them.  These are fears of being alone and unloved.  In my work life I have also had fears – old, old fears of being incompetent and unable to find my way forward.  I recognise the tenderness and feelings of vulnerability that comes with these thoughts.

I know from my work with clients that I am not alone with my concerns.  Yes, the particular thoughts relate to my own circumstances and still, others also grapple with a plethora of thoughts and with the fears that accompany them.  Currently, I am reading Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance:  Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of a Buddha.  Brach begins her book by describing what she calls the “trance of unworthiness”.  I have met it in the Board Room.  I have met it at every level of the leadership hierarchy.  I have met it in my own experience.  Brach is not alone in naming our common experience.  I think of Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, of James’ and Jongeward’s Born to Win and even give a nod and a smile to authors whose names and books will come back to me later.  I am blessed in having skills and also friends and colleagues who have skills to help me to respond compassionately to my own deepest fears.  On Monday, I took time with Steve Matthus, from my mastermind group, to bear witness to those parts of me that are struggling and filled with fear.

Right now, though, on the day of my 50th birthday, I take time to bear witness to everything that is in my life at this time.  I bear witness with deep, deep gratitude to friends, family and colleagues for the love and care which nourishes me in my life.  I bear witness to the extraordinary privileges that are in my life at this time or have been in my life in the past, including my life and career as a trainer, consultant and coach, including my diverse roles amongst friends and family, including my experience as a lifelong student of what it takes to live life consciously and fully, including my years of singing, including more than half a lifetime of singing as a member of the London Symphony Chorus.  And I bear witness to the twists and turns that take me, at times, by surprise and to the fears and doubts as well as to the yearnings and even the needs fulfilled.  This is my own imperfect and messy life.

Most of all, I wish myself a very happy 50th birthday.  

Sending you season’s greetings for Christmas, 2012

Christmas Day is just four days away and today I shall be sitting down to write Christmas greetings.  The last few weeks have been busy and I feel as though I am running to catch up.  I take a moment to – well, breathe –  and find myself looking back over the year which is rapidly drawing to a close and forward to the year ahead.

It’s been a mixed year.  Please don’t tell my Mum but in March, I was actually quite pleased at the thought of a sun-drenched drought and connected with pleasant memories of 1976 – and then it started to rain, and rain, and rain… My tomatoes were a wash-out, though many other vegetables did well despite the slugs.  Any suffering is nothing compared to what many people are enduring who have had to leave their homes in recent weeks due to flooding – it seems quite out of order to complain.

In London, people did complain about every aspect of the Olympics ahead of time – until the opening ceremony blew our socks off and we all (yes, I think it was very nearly “all”) got caught up in the spirit of the games.  After Chad le Clos unexpectedly beat Michael Phelps in the swimming I bumped into his father on the underground and enjoyed a moment of celebration for him and his son as our eyes met on the stairs.  It was a sweet moment.

It seemed to be a year of holidays for me as I took in a few days to soak up the Olympic spirit, a meditation retreat with my dear friend Andy, a week in Scotland (around Scotland by train – the photo is from this trip) with my mother and, just last weekend, Luxembourg and Paris on tour with the London Symphony Chorus.  In the choir, Simon Halsey has taken us by storm since he joined us in the autumn.

Work has been steady, with coaching and assessment at its core.  I have particularly enjoyed the quality of relationship both with coaching clients and with colleagues (you know who you are).  I had some articles published.  Some things have taken longer than I intended – my new website is still a work in progress and yet to be unveiled.  At the same time, the process of working on my marketing and website has helped me connect to my yearning for one or two big projects in 2013 – working with an organisation to develop an effective senior leadership team, for example, or to develop a coaching style and culture throughout the organisation. I bless these yearnings and send them out into the world.

In my private life, there were entrances and exits amongst family and friends – my mother recently attended four funerals in a fortnight.  Some were timely but one was untimely – or so it seems to me at this time – and I hold his family in my heart.  In public life, one scandal followed another.  Barack Obama got elected for a second term.

I started the year in the midst of building works as my new kitchen was in progress – now much loved and enjoyed.  It ends with some work to the hall and stairs in progress – the sander, and Radio 4, are the background today to my writing this posting and sending Christmas greetings to you.

I would say “to you all” – but I catch myself just in time, taking time to connect with you – yes, you – individually even as I write.  I take a moment to notice what I wish for you as Christmas approaches and as 2012 gives way to 2013.  I notice I want the ultimate for you – not riches and prosperity in these challenging times so much as faith, deep faith, that your needs matter and that you will be supported on your journey no matter what life brings.  This matters not so much because (in the words of the song) there may be trouble ahead.  No, it matters because, when we have faith, as well as facing the challenges with equanimity, we can enjoy the good times without worrying for the future.

With that, and whatever road you are travelling, I wish you a merry Christmas 2012, and many good things in 2013.

Armistice day for the family

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you.
If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too.
But you were only an idea to me before,
an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response.
It was that abstraction I stabbed.
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me.
I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle;
now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.
Forgive me comrade.
We always see it too late.
Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us,
that your mothers are just as anxious as ours,
and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony
– forgive me comrade;  how could you be my enemy?”

Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front

On Sunday, I took a moment to reflect on Armistice Day, drawing on the above extract from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.  Today, I am taking a few moments to translate the passage above for the family:

“Beloved, I did not want to snap at you.
If you did the same again, I would not snap at you, if you too would hold back.
But you had become an idea to me before,
an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth an appropriate response.
I snapped at that abstraction.
But now again – maybe even for the first time – I see you;
I see that you are human, like me.
I thought of your shortcomings and felt the pain they stimulated in me;
now I see your face, your place in our family and my own.
Forgive me.
I always see it too late.
Why did they never tell me that you are human just as I am,
that you, too, feel the pain of misunderstandings,
and that we both fear the loss of identity and needs unmet as we negotiate family life
– forgive me beloved; how could you be my enemy?”

Armistice day for the office

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you.
If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too.
But you were only an idea to me before,
an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response.
It was that abstraction I stabbed.
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me.
I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle;
now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.
Forgive me comrade.
We always see it too late.
Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us,
that your mothers are just as anxious as ours,
and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony
– forgive me comrade;  how could you be my enemy?”

Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front

On Sunday, I took a moment to reflect on Armistice Day, drawing on the above extract from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.  Today, I am taking a few moments to translate the passage above for the workplace:
“Colleague, I did not want to speak ill of you at the water cooler.
If you acted in the same way again, I would not do it, if only I could be sure you, too, would not speak ill of me.
But you were only an idea to me before,
an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response.
It was that abstraction I spoke of.
But now, for the first time, I see that you are human like me.
I thought of your department and the way you never deliver on time,
I thought of the risk to my own department and our reputation across the company,
I thought of the way you always seem to get promoted ahead of me even so;
Now I see that, like me, you have a mortgage to pay, a family to feed –
You are doing your best.
Forgive me colleague.
We always see it too late.
Why do they never tell us that you – in Accounts, HR, IT, Sales – are poor devils like us,
That you are as anxious as we are,
and that we have the same fear for our jobs and the same doubts buried beneath our fears
– forgive me colleague;  how could you be my enemy?”

On Armistice Day, November 2012

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you.
If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too.
But you were only an idea to me before,
an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response.
It was that abstraction I stabbed.
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me.
I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle;
now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.
Forgive me comrade.
We always see it too late.
Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us,
that your mothers are just as anxious as ours,
and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony
– forgive me comrade;  how could you be my enemy?”

Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front

Today is Armistice Day, November, 2012.  It’s a long time since the armistice was first signed – on 11th November, 1918.  Few people alive today have memories of that war.
Nonetheless, many of us live in the shadow of that war.  We have family members who fought in World War I, who were injured, traumatised, perhaps even died.  These experiences are part of the story of our family and shape our own experience.  On a larger scale, and in many countries, the war also played a role in the story of the country in which we live.  Erich Maria Remarque, in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, strips back the rhetoric of war-time ‘heroism’ to reveal the human experience of the young soldier.
The themes of war are also the themes of peace and for this reason I chose the extract above from Remarque’s novel.  It is a theme I have touched on before at this time of year.  For it seems to me that it applies as much in the office or at home as it does on the battlefield.  How often are our colleagues (in Finance, IT, Sales, whatever…) ‘an abstraction’?  How often do we take a stab at the same ‘abstraction’ when we speak to our spouses, siblings, sons and daughters from a place of anger or frustration?
On this Armistice Day, 2012, we remember those who fought in World War I and in subsequent wars.  Let us remember, too, those closer to home.  And whether our opponents in war or our colleagues or loved ones, let us take a moment to see beyond our abstractions and to connect with our ‘enemies’ from a place of recognition of our shared humanity.

Reflecting on my gardening year

Summer is drawing to a close – and what a summer!  Predictions of a drought to knock 1976 into a cocked hat became the subject of ridicule as the rain poured and poured and, well, poured… breaking one record and then another.  Sitting in my garden recently, I found myself reflecting on my gardening year.

This is the first year I have sown anything from seed and I have had a good number of successes.  I have grown broad beans, runner beans, French beans – the runner beans from beans harvested from last year’s crop.  I have grown Swiss chard, and three different types of courgettes – green courgettes, yellow courgettes and summer squash.  I have grown butternut squash, potatoes and tomatoes.  I have grown marigolds and nasturtium.  I have grown aubergine and cucumbers, lettuce, fennel – even cauliflowers.  Recently, visiting my local farmer’s garden, I noticed how many of the vegetables I most admired were ones I have in abundance in my own garden.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing.  The tomatoes have suffered terribly in the rain and I have had to pull out and dispose of tomatoes with blight.  Of those that remain, I have only had ripe tomatoes in the last two or three weeks and even then, very few – what a wash-out!  I have discovered that some plants really do need to be in a green house – the aubergines and cucumbers in particular.  I don’t (yet) have a greenhouse, though I have started to ponder what size greenhouse I need and where I might put it in my garden which is spacious by urban standards and nonetheless modest in size.

I really celebrate my learning.  I can grow things from seed and they are naturally inclined to grow.  In this less-than-sunny year my vegetables have grown much better on one side of the garden than the other.  I’ve learnt a few more ways to reduce the number of slugs and snails in my garden.  I’ve learnt – after upwards of 40 years without eating a broad bean – that I can eat broad beans and (in some dishes at least) enjoy them.  And as I learn more about my garden I am also slowly developing a plan for it.  I know where I want to grow vegetables, taking into account the position of the garden and where the sun shines.  I know where I want to have a seating area for breakfast and another shady seating area for lunch at midday.  I have learnt that I experience an unbelievable amount of pleasure – a deep, deep joy – from sowing and tending and planting my own seeds.  I have been reminded of nature’s abundance and the joy of giving away my excess harvest.

After a while I realised that my reflections were like the annual reviews that are carried out in many organisations.  I also realised that my reflection in hindsight were rather different from my reflections at certain moments during the year, when my focus was overwhelmingly on the challenges of my garden – the blight on my tomatoes, the impossibility of staying on top of the weeds and the slugs and snails in what seemed like interminable rain.  For me, this ‘annual review’ of my gardening year, seated with a cup of tea in the midst of the harvest of my labours brought nothing but joy, pure joy.  I was able to embrace my successes and to notice areas where I still have much to learn.  I was able to look ahead and to begin to plan for the year(s) ahead without any sense of being somehow in ‘deficit’.  I was able to differentiate between gaps in my learning and the impact of circumstances beyond my control.

If only the workplace annual review could be a joyous event, too.  I wonder, what would this take in your organisation?

When it’s time to harvest your dreams

I’m away on holiday this week – on the day this is published I shall be tucked away in Kent on a five-day meditation retreat.  It will be good to turn off the mobile for a few days and to leave all sorts of modern technology behind for a few days.

Preparing for my holiday I wanted to give you something to read whilst I’m away, and decided to borrow the photo above from my dear friend James More.  James and I were briefly at school together and had something in common – farming.  My parents farmed and James also came from a farming family and has gone on to make his career as a consultant to farmers under the name More Rural Consultancy Ltd.  Recently, James was involved in a successful attempt to create a new World Record – with fifty Case Quadtracs (that’s big tractors to you and me) spending five minutes ploughing just one field.

As a farmers’ daughter, this event touches something in me – a part of me which is deeply connected to the land.  But there’s more than this – this successful attempt at a World Record was the fruit of a vision.  I don’t know much about the vision, but I do know that someone had the vision and, having had it, set about making it happen.  This meant finding a suitable site and farmers willing to travel from across the country to join in.  It meant inspiring them to join in.  And it meant handling all the bureaucracy that is involved arranging an official (and yes, in this case, successful) World Record attempt.

If you’re on holiday, too, and even if you’re not, it’s harvest time.  This is a time when you can look at the fruits of your labour and say, it happened because I followed my dream.  It can also be a time when you look forward and ask yourself, what are my dreams for the future?

May your dreams be worthy of you.

For the fox in my garden

Living in London I am in the constant presence of the urban fox.  At night I hear the eery sounds of their mating dance – like a child screaming.  By day I encounter them in my garden or catch glimpses of them from the train. Sometimes, when I’m walking, I encounter one in the road.  There will be a distance and wary glances but no running away.  In London, foxes know they belong.

Often, the state of their fur will tell its own story of their age and the challenges of living in an urban environment.  Only rarely do I see a young fox, free from injury and with a coat that speaks of a rich diet – perhaps of its mother’s milk.  And when I do I am both struck by the beauty of the animal and slightly unsettled as I remember my heritage as a farmer’s daughter.  It’s easy to imagine my father rolling in his grave – wielding some celestial shotgun, even.  Farmers and foxes are not friends.

Recently I woke up one weekend morning to spy a fox – a vixen – in my garden, nestled by the fence behind my baby broad beans.  You can just about see her in the grainy photo I took (above) on my mobile phone.  With a day’s gardening in prospect I wondered if she would still be there after breakfast.  She was.  When I stepped into the garden it was easy to see why:  as she left the garden she was limping, badly.  I had the sense she would not go far.

She didn’t.  Returning to the garden a little later I found her still there.  I trod lightly and still expected her to move.  She didn’t.  I started digging, knowing that she needed to rest and even so, quite quickly, I began to wonder.  It is not a natural thing for a fox to stay in the presence of a human, especially a human armed with a spade and digging just a few feet from its head.  I wondered whether to offer her water and sustenance and even as I wondered what I would use to put water in I realised that no, I needed to take advice from the RSPCA.  In the end they came and took her away.

It was only shortly before they arrived that I realised the full extent of her injuries.  Watching her move I caught a glimpse of the bones exposed at the top inside of one of her legs.  No wonder she had been so still and quiet.  I sensed that I was probably in the presence of a dying animal.  I wanted to ask the man from the RSPCA what the likely outcome was – and somehow could not bring myself to.  I am still wondering.

It’s hard to find words to convey the sacred quality of this experience.  It was a time to honour her in the midst of her own experience and, by honouring her, to honour life – and death.

Who do you rely on?

On Friday, I went with members of my family – my mother, my nephew and niece Edward and Rebecca, and Rebecca’s husband Phil – to The Spice of Life Indian restaurant in Lewisham to celebrate Edward’s and my birthday (same day, different year!).  It was probably late in 1988 or early in 1989 when I first visited the Spice and I’ve been going there ever since.  Meals at the Spice with friends and regular take-aways have formed a backdrop to the times in my life when things have been going well and the tougher times, too.

Today, responding to a couple of invitations to Link In and sending out a couple of my own, I pause to reflect on the question:  who do I rely on?  Because in these days of mobile careers and social networking the number of people we can call on and the number of people we actually do can be quite different.  There are friends and family who have been with me since my earliest years and others whom I have met along the way.  There are colleagues who have stood out along the way as offering wisdom and providing welcome support.  There are people from whose work I have learnt from and which I continue to explore – some by my participation in training programmes and others whose work I have devoured by reading and other means.  There are those people who have supported my practical needs (Moody at the Spice has looked after my need for food over the years and Gary has had ample mention for his great work on my kitchen over the turn of the year).

It’s interesting to reflect on how many people contribute to my well-being and in how many ways, even whilst none of them has the skill or time to make the right contribution every time I need support.  This can make for an interesting paradox – with so many people who can and do support me it is nonetheless easy to find myself without the support I need unless I ask.  I have already mentioned on this blog just how much receiving support relies on the willingness to make a request and to hear a ‘no’ as well as a ‘yes’.

Many of my clients, progressing through successive layers of leadership, find it challenging to balance reaching out for help with other considerations.  Early in their leadership careers they are keen to maintain the image of ‘someone who knows’ and this can make them hesitate to seek support.  At more senior levels, telling themselves they need to maintain confidentiality in any number of business matters they find the pool of peers and seniors is ever diminishing as a proportion of the people they interact with.  And still, they do need support.   You do need support.

In case you want to check in with yourself around the extent to which your needs for support are easily met here are just four questions for you:

  • How confident are you that you notice in time when you have a need for support?
  • How confident are you that you have people in your life who have the means to provide support when you need it across a range of needs?
  • How confident are you that, when you need support, there are at least three people you would be willing to call on to request the support you need?
  • How confident are you that, if one person says no, you’d be willing to keep reaching out and asking until you find the support you need?
Give yourself a mark out of ten for each one – the higher the marks, the more confident you are that you have the support you need.
(Oh!  And supper at the Spice was wonderful – good food, good company, with fun and laughter as well as plenty of popadoms)