Love where you are as much as where you’re going so you never miss a moment of the journey.—Katrina Mayer
Recently some friends were talking about a colleague. They were saying how positive he is and that he is a great person. He shared that he has had an amazing life and if he died tonight he would say that he had a wonderful life and was grateful. True, he has been successful in his career, traveled around the world and had a positive relationship with his family and is happily married later in life. But what most impresses his colleagues is his positive attitude. He is able to see the bright side of things and to envision possibility.
We all face adversity and challenges in life. Hopefully, we learn and grow through these experiences. Ideally, we also are present for the positive experiences and allow ourselves to enjoy them too.
I am consciously focusing on being grateful for all that I have and allowing myself to enjoy my days. I regret that in the past I was so focused on the future and worrying about others that I did not allow myself to be fully present. I am experiencing a wonderful life by simply catching myself and being present to what is. I now look for the joy of the moment rather than thinking that someday things will be in order and then I will be able to enjoy.
The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.–Jon Kabat Zinn
No doubt, you’ve heard of the power of being mindful. Given the uncertainty and stress of our times, more people are engaging in mindfulness practices. For many, this is taking a few moments of silence. Some people recite a mantra to themselves such as the word “one” or notice the pattern of their breath. One person I know catches herself in this way. She realizes she is thinking about what she needs to do, and she gently goes back to reciting her word or noticing her breath. There are many other forms of practice.
However, many of my clients say they don’t have the interest or time for this kind of meditation. In fact, you can enhance your mindfulness by simply paying attention more. Ellen Langer, Harvard researcher, says that “mindfulness is an effortless, simple process that consists of drawing novel distinctions, that is noticing new things.” We have formed many habits and find ourselves driving to work, attending meetings and doing the dishes without awareness. You’ve had the experience of somehow eating a whole bag of chips without recalling the experience — or of arriving at your destination without awareness of the ride.
You have also enjoyed the experience of being fully engaged in something such as an art project, game or a conversation. You are present to the experience and noticing new connections.
If we focus on being a bit more observant, present and curious rather than judgmental we are likely to experience more aliveness and creativity and less stress.
Be mindful by practicing paying attention and noticing new things.
Alice always sees what is going wrong or what can go wrong. While she is a bright and interesting person she feels alone. She has alienated people with her negative disposition. When I asked her to share a few things that are going well she said she would need time to reflect since she habitually saw the negative.
We all have habitual patterns that are so automatic that we don’t see or believe that we have a choice. At one point it had served Alice to see what could go wrong. She was able to anticipate and prepare. This served her greatly in her early childhood where she could ask for what she wanted and get the help she needed and also in her career—to a point. Her early bosses knew that she was reliable and she would produce impeccable reports. However, as she progressed in her career her negativity and pressure to have things a certain way caused her to turn people off. She failed to perceive that her negativity is what caused people to not want to work with her. Instead, she tended to think that it was the others who were not bright, capable or as hardworking.
I worked with Alice to build another path. Her well-worn neural pathway of negativity activated her amygdala and caused her to react with anxiety and employ fight and flight strategies. When she noticed her contraction she could use it as a signal to shift to another pathway and look for what was positive and what she appreciates in the moment. In addition, she reflected each day on what she was grateful for. This was not an easy new path to develop but after a short time she learned how to make the shift and activate the polyvagal nerve which released oxytocin. Literally, a different part of the brain is activated and she experienced more ease and relaxation.
Over time, Alice reported a better quality of life with more positivity and greater connection. We all have habitual patterns where we can learn new paths for greater well-being. And our well-being influences those around us.
Dr. Tererai Trent was an uneducated black woman born in 1965 into an oppressive colonial society in rural Zimbabwe. She tells about an impactful moment when a woman asked her what she dreamed for. At first she did not respond but the woman waited. She declared that she wanted to come to the United States and study for her masters and doctorate. This seemed like an impossible dream since she did not have a high school education, was poor and had a number of children. Her mother encouraged her to have an even larger dream that would benefit others. She identified what she calls her “sacred dream” to give back to her community and build schools in Zimbabwe.
She worked hard and it took her eight years to get her high school GED through a correspondence course. She eventually traveled to the United States with her children and struggled with three jobs and school to support them. It was not an easy path. She clearly had grit and determination. Today, she has successfully created impactful schools in Zimbabwe.
Most profoundly, she attributes her success with getting her doctorate and starting schools and fulfilling her dream to the inspiration others gave her. The woman who asked about her vision declared that it was possible. Her mother and other villagers believed in her dream. She shared that at some of the most difficult moments in her life she gained superhuman strength because others gave her opportunity and believed in her. She believes that “the secret to our success in this life is to allow others to stand on our shoulders.”
What if we each worked to inspire and support others? How can you make a difference today?
A client told me that she did not trust or desire to work with the management team of her company. This was a challenge since she desired to progress in her career and joining the leadership team would be her next step if she stayed with the organization. She had drawn a line of us versus them. I encouraged her to expand her sense of “us”.
Brain research using functional imaging is confirming our natural inclination to assess whether others are with us or against us. When shown pictures of “others” in an fMRI our amygdala naturally reacts to differences (of race, gender, age and other factors). Our amygdala or emotions quickly react (in a tenth of a second) before our prefrontal cortex or thoughts come on board and we can remind ourselves to be open to others.
Research also shows that we can shift our boundary to have a wider sense of us and them. We can include people in our team, division, organization, neighborhood, country etc. Under the same brain imaging scan, sports fans did not react to race, gender or other factors when their “us” were supporters of their team based on the emblem on their baseball cap.
Notice where you naturally create categories separating individuals. This awareness and the skill to shift to being open and becoming interested in others’ perspectives are critical skills needed today.
Make it your intention to draw a wider boundary beyond your team and even organization. By stretching our definitions of tribe we can tackle greater issues together.
We’ve heard about how measles are spreading at rapid speed significantly influencing communities. In a similar way emotions are contagious.
In a study a group of nurses were asked to keep a daily log of their mood, work challenges and the overall emotional climate of their team. After three weeks, the researchers could significantly predict the mood of the entire team based on the positive or negative mood of any one nurse. The emotional contagion occurred when the moods were influenced by those outside of work and when the nurses only spent a few hours a day together. Overtime, a mood can spread through an organization and greatly influence the culture.
Another study showed that just witnessing another person who is stressed can cause stress to a person. That’s kind of scary given how many people are stressed these days. However, another study suggests that worrying about being stressed may be a real killer. In a study with thirty thousand participants people who had a lot of stress but didn’t worry about being stressed lived longer. Those who had a lot of stress and believed it was hurting them were over 40% more likely to die after eight years. Other studies suggest that we need some stress to support growth and seeing it as positive may help people to live longer. People who retire and don’t engage are more likely to live less.
Given emotional contagion, how can we accept stress as a part of life and realize that it can even support focusing and longevity? How can we more consciously create a positive mood for ourselves and those around us? A simple step is to be aware of your mood and to reflect on what you are grateful for.
Recognize that your mood is influencing others and see how you can be more open and positive.
Two companies merged and each continued to see and talk about the other predecessor in negative terms. The conversations in meetings stayed on the surface level and there was a sense of mistrust. Each perceived the other as not interested in collaborating but “winning” and desiring to be in charge. The senior leaders had been working on the merger for a longer time and failed to signal how they expected people to work together. In fact, the senior leaders joined in negative comments about the other company and demanded results. Just as it is challenging when people marry, it takes effort to integrate companies that have different mindsets and values.
How can we support more prosocial behavior and working with people who are “different” than us? Polarization and judgments often keep people from engaging and seeing each other as human.
A first step is to encourage perspective taking. Ask people to identify what something is like for a different party. “How do you think the other group is perceiving the situation?” It does not mean you have to agree or change things. “How do they find it working with the agreed system?” It is essential to give empathy and understanding to individuals. “It is painful to lose a system that you developed and know well, especially when you believe the new one lacks important aspects.” With dialogue and understanding, you can identify agreements that will work for both parties. For example, you can agree to change language to “we” and not refer to each other by the predecessor organizations.
Be kind to yourself. Notice your tendency to judge the other and focus on taking their perspective. Imagine how you might perceive things and your related emotions. Focus on being open and listening.
I often work with clients to clarify what is most important to them to ensure they are actualizing their values. We have so many decisions to make regarding how to spend our time, energy and resources. Given the fast pace of change and our need to be agile, we are served when we are clear about what is most important to us and our larger goals or vision.
I recently had the opportunity of hearing about the vision of the Basque region of Spain to become known internationally as a center for advanced manufacturing and social inclusion. Industry generates 29.9% of its GDP. Their focus on manufacturing comes from a vision and strategy to ensure excellent health and education systems for their citizens. They have developed an integrated training and education system that is recognized as a best practice in the European Union.
Their vision to focus on human development and manufacturing has enabled various businesses, and public and private organizations to work together effectively. Together with a shared vision, they have positively influenced their citizens and are now sharing their learning across different communities to make an even bigger difference.
It can be challenging to create a vision within an organization and even more challenging in a city or community where people have different interests. However, the collective effort to work toward shared visions is greatly needed these days and can be quite rewarding.
According to the April Gordon Report (www.Imperialcorp.com), in the US over 10 million jobs remain vacant where there is growing unrest among Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. The changes in technology make the need for more public-private partnerships and broader visions to understand changes in the labor market demands and the needed changes in education.
I meet many people who want to make a difference amidst the wide range of challenges. We need to focus on systemic change. These larger goals require vision and the ability to be open and engage in dialogue.
Consider your purpose and how you can convene and collaborate with others to make an impact.
An immense amount of energy is spent when we don’t trust a coworker or family member. When we can’t count on someone to follow through on their promises we experience higher levels of cortisol which limits our openness and relationships with others. We are less creative or open to new ideas. On the other hand, when we are interacting with someone we trust, there are high levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin which creates more of a sense of bonding and openness.
It is valuable to pay attention to how we are trusting others. Do we have an habitual pattern of expecting the worst and mistrusting people immediately? It is useful to notice our level of trust and to work to create positive trusting environments. We can experiment with being more vulnerable and sharing more about ourselves. We can be explicit about expected norms or terms of engagement that we can reflect on from time to time and modify as necessary. We can ask for what we need and follow up.
Pay attention to your level of trust and take actions to elevate the environment of trust with those in your workplace and elsewhere.
A senior leadership team was surprised to see negative scores on an employee engagement survey. I conducted focus groups and confidential interviews to learn more. Like many organizations, the company had gone through significant changes and restructurings and this caused uncertainty. However, the thing that seemed to be at the core of the negative scores was the experience of a lack of inclusion or respect. People did not feel that their managers cared about them or listened and valued them. A climate of distrust had been created where people did not openly speak with one another.
The cost is high when people don’t feel valued. Usually they believe it is because of the way they look or their function or role. When people feel there will be retribution for speaking up even more energy is required to create an open and inclusive environment where people feel engaged.
Just as in any relationship, we need to take stalk of the climate we are creating. Are we respecting others and seeing them as individuals with hopes and needs? How you can create an open and inclusive environment? Begin by genuinely engaging in conversations to demonstrate interest and respect.