What Can You Do to Create a Wonderful Life?

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.

What will support you in appreciating this day?

Be Mindful

Drawing be Ann Van Eron

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.

What Path Do You Choose?

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

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. 

What new pathway can you begin developing today?

Are You Inspiring Others?

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?

Where is Your “Us” Boundary?

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.

Encourage Perspective Taking

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.

What is Your Word?

I find it useful to identify a characteristic that I want to embody.  Each year I create an intention of what I want to experience. Our intentions and words matter.  Selecting one word helps us to focus with clarity. It helps us to set priorities and actions to fulfill our aspiration.  There is something powerful about making a declaration to ourselves (and others we trust who can support us).

When we set an intention for ourselves, we are more likely to move toward that aspiration.  Our intention is more about who we want to be than what we want to do. Our word is what is important to how we want to be.

How would life be different for you if you embodied your characteristic? One of my favorite intentions has been ease.  I have a tendency to take the difficult road and work quite hard. I desire to be more at ease and create ease in those around me.  I envision more space and time to reflect and more of a sense of flow in my life. By setting the intention to embody ease I became more aware of when I was experiencing ease and when I was not. It is useful to post your word in places you will notice it to remind you of your aspiration.

I remind myself each day of my intention and visualize experiencing the word and I notice that I take steps to embody that intention.

Be open to identifying a characteristic or word that you would like to embody this year. Make it a practice of recalling your intention, envision how your life will be embodying it and notice ways to take action to make your aspiration a reality.

Pay Attention to the Emotional Climate You are Swimming in

Swimming

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”—Rabindranath Tagore

“I am not looking forward to the team dialogue session. Some people in this organization are sharks; they only care about themselves and are biased.”  “I just want to do my job and keep my head down.” This was the sentiment of some of the participants I spoke with before facilitating a retreat with a team focused on building connection and aligning the team to achieve a shared vision.  Some felt like they were alone in dangerous waters rather than engaged in vibrant waters.

At the team retreat, a long-time employee shared the pain she experienced when she was not able to answer client questions because she had not been made aware of developments. People were shocked since they assumed she did not need to know given her position and quite frankly thought she did not care.  Her abruptness was a reaction to feeling not included and disrespected. Some realized that they had made assumptions about her and had isolated her. Others shared what they needed to feel respected and most realized they were making assumptions about one another and not having meaningful conversations.  The negative emotional environment had limited people in appreciating the exciting vision they shared and the synergy that was possible.  By assuming positive intent and engaging in a productive conversation, the tone began to change for this team.  A long-time foe even asked the person to lunchsomething that had not occurred in their long tenure together.  In fact, several commented that they believed this was the first time they had a genuine conversation.  Open-minded conversations can be quite powerful.

Attending to and creating a respectful climate that the team is “swimming in” and having productive conversations are two essential skills needed for success these days.

In a recent New York Times Op Ed, David Brooks argues that a warrior ethos has reduced politics to friend/enemy or zero-sum conflicts.  He recounts that in the 90’s people adapted an unconscious abundance mindset where there was a climate of confidence in the future and a more welcoming environment. Today, there is a feeling of limited resources and a more win-lose mindset.  People have a “stick with my tribe” mentality.

Given the political environment, we are acutely aware of polarization and we feel the tension.  Often people see each other as less than human. The philosopher Martin Buber call this an “I-It” perspective rather than an “I-thou” view. Some argue that the fast pace and drive for short term results, the challenge of incorporating new technology and globalization are requiring us to be inattentive to those around us and the environments we create.

I see this kind of polarization in organizations across many areas: functions, roles, age, gender, race, people from one part of a merger or those new to the organization and those with longer tenure.  These divisions and conflicts often seem insurmountable.  They take people’s time and attention and suck energy out of a system.

When people don’t feel respected they often shut down and disengage, or become angry and fight either directly or act out in more subtle ways. Too much energy is wasted that could have been devoted to collaboration, innovation and results. People feel drained and often report a sense of toxicity.

It is useful to check on your environments and ask how you are contributing to creating a positive and safe oasis.  A key ingredient of an effective team is psychological safety.  We can each have the intention of being respectful of those around us. The challenge is that we each have different definitions of respect. It takes paying attention and an open and kind stance to ensure that others do indeed feel respected and valued.

We can make a difference in our teams and organizations and in our neighborhoods by committing to connecting with others. Notice people and see themreally work to see them. Look beyond our first labels and recognize that we are all suffering and experiencing life’s challenges in some way. We often don’t see that people have challenges with their family members and kids or are maybe struggling with technical, financial or health issues.  Even if we don’t know the details, we can all benefit from empathy and compassion and caring.

We are swimming in an environment and we can each work to ensure that it is a pool of respect that is lively and vibrant rather than one where people feel isolated, not valued and disconnected with sharks nearby.

With an open mindset and commitment to respect we will be positioned to have meaningful conversations.  I am fortunate to witness the transformation in teams, organizations and families when we create an environment of respect and engage in productive conversations.

Make it a practice of paying attention to the atmosphere in your team, organization, family and community. Do you feel respected, included and engaged?  How do others feel? What can you do to create a positive environment?  Notice the impact.

Contact us at any time.

 

What do you win when you win?

Winning

“If you lose your temper, you lose!”—Richard Diaz

A senior executive, Leo, stopped by a colleague’s office to thank him for putting in long hours to resolve a significant organizational challenge. After acknowledging the thanks, Jerry, the colleague, began to complain about the organization and the leaders’ decisions. Jerry blamed the senior management team (of which Leo was a member) for cutting off funding for the project. He felt the design was sound and more funds should have been allocated. Leo worked hard to explain the reason further funds were not forthcoming. It made sense to Leo. There were other more pressing priorities and such business choices had to be made. Jerry continued to blame senior management for creating a problem. Leo began to focus on what Jerry could have done to make the project go more smoothly and worked harder to defend senior management’s choice. Jerry would not agree and continued to blame senior management. Leo lost his cool and said something all of us have thought at one time. “If you don’t like it here, you can always leave.” Who has not had such a thought toward a colleague, partner or friend.  Unfortunately, verbalizing the sentiment did not support Jerry in being positive toward Leo.

What happened here?  Both Leo and Jerry were each trying to influence the other and each were using logic from their point of view while they were experiencing strong emotions. Each believed that he was “right” and the other was “wrong”. Each argued their case and worked hard to “win.”

Each felt he “won” the argument and each thereafter shared their perspective with others who agreed. However, what did they win when they “won”?  Now there is negative energy between the two men and the negativity extends to others around them. Each felt drained and their anger persisted. They felt at a standstill and each probably hoped the other would disappear. More likely, they will spread the negative energy further to others in the organization. Future meetings will be uncomfortable. I have seen such negative interactions influence decisions between people for decades in some organizations. The negativity may go underground but influence future interactions and decisions.

Ironically, Leo had good intentions to connect with and show appreciation to Jerry. What could he have done differently? He could have noticed when he was becoming defensive and used a strategy such as consciously breathing and taking a moment to shift to a more open and curious state. He could catch his tendency to want to “win” and ask himself, “What do I win when I win?”  He could recall his intention to create positive and productive relationships. When he could manage to be open and curious, Leo could have given empathy to Jerry.  “It is upsetting to lose funding for a project that you feel could have been successful with more time and resources.”  “It is hard to understand and support some of the decisions made by senior management.” “It is frustrating when you believe senior management does not see the whole situation and the ramifications of some decisions.” Leo could give authentic understanding without meaning he is in agreement. He could even say, “I hear your frustration about the decision. What else should I be aware of?”

While our instinct is to use our intellect and other resources to win at all costs, we can tame that disposition when we reflect on “what do we win when we win?”  It is useful to recall our desire to influence through noticing and managing to be open and curious. Our openness and empathy will be contagious and support others in being open in return. It is helpful to also “assume positive intent.”

Like Leo, we all have become defensive and aggressive in our efforts to “win”. Forgive yourself and you may want to apologize and envision you both on the same side, winning together.

Contact us at any time.

Where Do You Find Challenge and Support to Achieve Goals?

Together

“If I am through learning, I am through.”—John Wooden

Face it, we are all so busy these days. Our to-do lists are long and it takes a lot of energy to be a leader, manager or collaborative contributor.  When I ask leaders and those I coach, many report that they have little time for career development or meaningful friendships. Some indicate that they don’t find their workplaces to be respectful and that it is hard to trust colleagues and there are few avenues for real feedback. Often people are competing for positions and it is hard to find the space to be real or vulnerable.

One exception that I have experienced is peer coaching groups where people make the commitment to support and challenge one another to create successful outcomes and to develop their skills. I have facilitated many of these groups as part of a larger corporate leadership program or as stand-alone coaching groups for leaders or those responsible for an area such as diversity, project leaders or senior executives.

I recently facilitated such a group for organization development and coaching professionals. We met virtually each month as well as with individuals in between. The experience was dynamic with significant results. Participants described it as “magical” and each were astounded at the progress made on their projects.

We began the process with the clear intention of supporting one another as well as each person working on a specific goal or project. As part of the norms, participants agreed to confidentiality, an open-mindset, vulnerability, focused participation, respectful listening and sharing and having fun. Each person identified a goal and received suggestions and feedback from the others. We had pair coaching as well as work as a whole group. In between the group meetings, people worked on their projects as well as connected with one or two other members.

We began subsequent meetings sharing progress and agreeing on next steps. The accountability with the group supported people in making substantial progress. The supportive environment inspired people to take action. For example, one member created a new program, developed a website and offered his course and gained clients. Others also embarked on cultural change projects and started significant new endeavors. Participants received just-in-time coaching and enhanced awareness and actions. Depending on the need, we provided models and tools that fostered learning and skill development. For example, I shared my OASIS process for positive and productive conversations.

What made the experience valuable was the oasis-like environment we created in the coaching group. We created an open environment for learning and we freely supported one another. There was not hidden competition where people were posturing. It is not easy to find such an environment of openness and genuine feedback. Participants felt seen by others in the group and made real friends that will last beyond the formal meetings. People were generous in introducing people to others who would be useful. Most importantly participants felt valued by peers and positive about their outcomes.

When we shared the experience with other professionals they said they yearned for the same sense of community and progress on their projects and goals.

Where are you getting support and coaching for your personal and professional development? I encourage you to join a coaching group or create this opportunity for yourself where you make progress on your goals amidst the support and feedback of colleagues.

Contact us any time.