Empathize for Connection

So many people are continuing to have conflicts with family members, coworkers and neighbors about being vaccinated or wearing a mask. It’s not easy to navigate.  Using the OASIS Conversation skills has saved relationships. For example, Jeri faced a big family dilemma. Her brother Jim, who chose not to be vaccinated, was feeling isolated and not supported by his family as he prepared for his upcoming wedding. Jeri and several of her siblings did not feel comfortable having Jim and his fiancé visit them and their children. They debated if they would attend the wedding.  The tension grew among the family members with people taking different positions.  After Jeri and her siblings avoided Jim they worried about losing the relationship altogether. On a family group text Jim wrote, “It would be nice to have some support as I plan my wedding” and signed it as “unsupported”. The whole family was suffering amid the turmoil.

While it is our instinct to tell someone with a different view why they are wrong or to not engage, Jeri had the courage to listen. She was able to receive empathy herself from colleagues as she shared her frustration and worry. With this understanding, she was able to shift from being judgmental to curious.

She called her brother and instead of berating him as she felt like doing, she was able to shift from being closed to open. At first her brother was quite defensive and expected her to tell him and his fiancé they were wrong for not being vaccinated. Instead, she said she genuinely was interested in hearing his point of view. While at first surprised and hesitant, he began to share his concerns. Jeri continued to listen and give empathy. For example, she paraphrased and said, “I recognize how sincerely you have thought this through and how it is difficult for you to go against the family and that you feel isolated and not supported.”  She continued to listen. “It must be difficult for you since your fiancé’s family does not feel comfortable with being vaccinated.”  Jeri noticed that Jim relaxed when he felt heard. Jeri felt excited to reconnect with her brother and this ultimately supported the family’s unity.

While they remained with different perspectives, Jim closed by asking Jeri more about her view and said that he could understand her perspective and that he would be open to considering his choice. Jeri was surprised and welcomed his openness. She offered to help with the wedding planning from a distance. 

It is natural to hold our position on an issue when we feel defensive and do not believe others are interested in our point of view. Research supports that when we can be calm and open and really listen with empathy, we are more likely to find common ground and enhance relationships.  With genuine listening and empathy, we can clarify what is most important. Jeri and Jim learned that they both value their family connection.

Practice taking an Open Stance and shift from being closed to open and listen for understanding and connection. Explore the OASIS Conversations process for positive and productive relationships.

Can We Be Joyful During this Time?

I have wondered, can I dare to be joyful when faced with so many world challenges–conflicts, climate changes, systemic racism, health crises and geopolitical tensions? 

Much of my life I believed that I should not experience joy when others around me were suffering. I don’t think it served me and others to be worried and stressed.

It is the human condition that we face challenges. We grow as we work through the obstacles. Rather than strive to be right, we need to become comfortable with the uncertainty and not knowing.

I have come to believe that we need to lead with joy and openness. Emotions are contagious. If we are stressed, judgmental and contracted, we literally are limited in the opportunities we see. However, when we model being joyful and open, we see possibilities and inspire others to be open to possibilities and creativity. 

My colleague and I are defining JOYBeing as the state of being that allows us to experience the moment and supports us in the moment to move forward. It is a feeling of wellbeing and aliveness–a felt sense or sensation in the body. We feel connected with ourselves and resources and enabled to take purposeful action. JOYBeing is experienced when we are at peace with who we are and we allow our authentic self to guide our actions.

JOYBeing is not an outcome;  it is a way of being. If it becomes an outcome for us, we always run after it and we lose the moment.  We are in choice all the time and we can choose how we respond to the moment.  When we intentionally choose openness and joy we experience more fulfillment and aliveness. We are then open to explore options for the challenges and together co-create solutions. We need joy now more than ever. Of course, this does not mean we are uncaring or disrespectful to the many needs. When we are experiencing JOYBeing, we have more energy to give to others and tackle the challenging issues before us. 

A first step to cultivate JOYBeing is to begin to notice the small moments of joy in your day. For example, you may enjoy a walk in nature, a greeting from a friend and a cup of tea. Notice how you approach life and others from this joyful and open state.

​​Benefits of an Open Mindset and Open Stance

Vital benefits of an open mindset and open stance are that you will experience more aliveness, more positive emotions, and better health and wellbeing. Operating with an open mindset enhances our experience and success in life. Most importantly, having an open mindset and stance enhances the quality of our relationships and connections with others. We are naturally more attracted to open people than those who seem to know it all and are self-focused. For example, so-called experts may have little patience with others whom they perceive as less knowledgeable, and thus, they may seem inaccessible or closed. Intentionally or not, they shut people out. Another example we can all relate to is how when we are stressed by deadlines and pressure to get something done, it is harder to be patient and open to others. People sense our stress and lack of tolerance and may shy away and label us closed. On the other hand, when people sense that managers and colleagues are open to new ideas, feedback, and even criticism, they are likely to be more engaged and experience greater satisfaction.

In a project called Aristotle, Google studied many teams to find out the keys to high performance. They discovered the differentiating factor was that people were more engaged and more trusting when they felt psychological safety. This safety resulted from leaders and team members being open to one another, listening to different ideas without judgment. Members of Google’s high-performing teams indicated that they felt they could express their views and opinions and take risks without fear of negative repercussions. When a team member feels their ideas are shut down, they don’t feel valued, respected, or recognized, and they are hesitant to speak up freely in the future. This hurts the team climate and positive relationships. When most people work in teams with various locations, functions, and differences, trust and openness are critical to creating positive and productive cultures and environments where innovation is possible.

When we are closed-minded, we quickly consider ourselves an expert and easily discount new or different information. History is replete with examples of how well-meaning people did not pay attention or adopt new ways of doing things. Many were slow to validate that the world is round, the value of penicillin, or the importance of washing hands to avoid the spread of illnesses in hospitals. Experts simply felt they knew better, so they discounted different ways and appeared closed-minded. When we are open-minded, we freely admit we don’t know what we don’t know and can explore new ideas and perspectives. This openness is quite useful for making effective decisions. Researchers suggest we make thousands of decisions a day. These decisions take energy. When we improve the quality of our decision-making, we can make better decisions and experience positive outcomes. If we have an open mindset, we are likely to consider more aspects of a decision and perhaps be open to others’ views.

After years of studying successful leaders, Al Pittampalli concluded that the archetype of leaders having “strong convictions” of their views and “staying the course” was outdated. He learned that many of the world’s most successful leaders have a willingness to be persuaded—to be open-minded. Many successful leaders build processes where they challenge their thinking and are open to examining new data. They are willing to admit being wrong about an earlier view. In our increasingly complex world, successful leaders see the power of an open mindset and the value of considering emerging evidence to be advantageous. 

Besides, people are more inclined to follow open-minded leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and open to change. It is hard to work for a manager who perceives themselves as always right and is not interested in others’ views, thus appearing to be closed. When people feel they are listened to, their ideas are valued, and they are included, then their motivation, engagement, and wellbeing soar. This difference is particularly critical since research by Gallup consistently suggests that as many as two-thirds of US employees are not engaged in their jobs.

Children also feel shut down and less engaged when they perceive that their teachers, parents, and caregivers are not open to hearing their perspectives and providing empathy. Rather than saying, “Because I am your parent, that’s why….”, caregivers can create more positive relationships and respectful environments by being curious, being open to listening, and being open to being influenced.

A sure sign of being an open-minded leader, parent, or influencer is to inquire and genuinely listen to others’ views and gain understanding. We should each seek feedback and recognize that creativity and innovative solutions can come from anywhere. We all need to recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know and could be wrong in order to manage our natural blind spots of assuming we are open when others may perceive we are not. It is also easy for our egos and sense of identity to be tied to being “right.” We need to remember that during these times of uncertainty, no one has all the answers. It is useful to recognize our own and others’ resistance to change as a natural response. When we appreciate that resistance is natural, and we are open to listening, we can address concerns more readily.

-Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Open Stance: Thriving Amid Differences and Uncertainty

 

Are You Open or Closed?

It is easy to react and become closed these days given our differences on so many things.  While it is natural to contract, we will be more resilient and thrive if we adopt an open mindset and take an open stance. 

Our mindset naturally falls on a continuum between closed-minded and open-minded. Of course, we move along the continuum at different times, depending on various issues. When we become more aware, we realize where, when and with whom we typically lean toward closed or open.

The state of being open-minded requires the primary intention to be compassionately curious and respectful toward yourself, others, and the situations or environments we face. It begins with the intent to be open to discovery and learning rather than focusing primarily on safety and avoiding pain. The accepting stance creates awareness of possibilities and mobilizes energy for choices.

Open people are grounded and present to what is. They appreciate current circumstances and are optimistic about what is likely to unfold. They experience gratefulness and are often open to new ideas and inspiration. They share connections with others and can receive support as well as give support to others. An open stance involves being curious and recognizing they only see a slice of the big picture. They are open to learning more and remain confident that possibilities are emerging. They dare to be vulnerable and take risks and to admit they don’t know everything. They welcome diverse and unique perspectives and take respectful actions. 

Open-mindedness incorporates what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset—an openness to continual learning rather than having a fixed mindset and a desire to maintain current success without making changes. Another element is the ability to be present in the current state. Ellen Langer, a psychologist, has conducted many studies and demonstrated that the simple process of noticing new things enables us to be present, to experience the world with excitement, and to see new opportunities. Often, we are closed, and ironically, we are not there to notice we are not there. When we are open-minded, we seek new ideas and perspectives.

Emotions are Contagious

Research has demonstrated that emotions are contagious. Within milliseconds, our bodies are picking up others’ emotions. When we sense that someone is open or closed, we tend to react similarly. Your openness or closed-mindedness can spread to others and influence the climate. You may have experienced the contagious nature of emotions at a gathering of people. If you walk into a room where people are in conflict, you will likely sense a heaviness. On the other hand, if you walk into a space where people are in a positive mood and enjoying each other, you are likely to feel more upbeat and light. We pick up the emotions of others in a matter of milliseconds, and it can be unconscious.

When judging, we experience the classic fight, flight, freeze, or appease adrenaline reaction to a perceived threat. Our older brain structure and limbic system, which are the human brain’s emotional parts, immediately react to potential danger. This happens even before the neocortex, the brain’s thinking section, can register the perceived threat and provide rational input. Our reaction occurs so quickly that it appears automatic, so we may not be immediately aware of it. That’s why it is useful to get to know our predominant sensation signals and understand when we are closed to new information.

It’s important to recognize our impact as leaders and to take an Open Stance. We can do this by engaging in practices such as grounding and being present, being optimistic about what is unfolding, being grateful and being curious and compassionate. When we recognize that emotions are contagious we can influence those around us.  

– Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Open Stance: Thriving Amid Differences and Uncertainty

Be Aware of Your Inner Sense of Safety

You do not have to look far to experience the challenges of polarization these days. People tell me that they do not speak with family members, colleagues or neighbors who represent a different political position or other view.  When they do speak, it is often with the goal of showing how the other person is wrong and anger and distrust persist.  People on both sides share their concern about the “other side’s” views and that they are worried about the effects of the divide on our country, government, community, workplace and family. 

When I ask about their conversations with people on the “other side” they often say they are not having real conversations. And many are literally not speaking with the “other”  at all. They say they are too angry and don’t feel safe. Organizations, like Braver Angels, offer workshops where people with different political views talk with one another to see the humanity in the other and the shared concerns and desires. There are heartwarming stories of people with differences across many areas who have even become friends as they listened and became open to one another and found common ground.

We know that we have each had various life experiences that influence our perspectives and beliefs. Some of these beliefs are clear to us while others are less conscious. Our bodies have a way of alerting us to danger when our beliefs and self-identity are threatened. We naturally experience tension in the face of a difference; we contract and become closed. This is a natural process that helps us keep our identity and sense of self. Can you imagine if we remained totally open, without this built in mechanism? We would find it hard to live as we changed so rapidly. However, we can also remain too tightly closed and miss opportunities to grow and experience more and create more.  

The key skill is to notice when we experience tension and begin to close or contract and to then Stop and Step Back to cool down. This gives us some space from immediately reacting to a different view with aggression or by collapsing or leaving. We can then ensure our safety.  Each situation will be different. Sometimes we will need to take a breath and remember that we are okay and have the skills to engage. Other times, we may need to disengage and take a time-out to cool down the cortisol rushing through our body. Sometimes we may need to have a facilitator or outside party to support a conversation. In cases where there is the threat of violence or physical danger we may choose to never re-engage. There is value in honoring our propensity to close down and seek safety and then skillfully returning to being open. 

Once we have stepped back and cooled down and feel safe, we can shift to being Open where a different part of our brain is engaged. When we are feeling safe and open, we will hear in a different way and ideally see new connections and understanding. When we attend to our own inner environment and ensure our safety, we are more prepared to attend to the climates we are creating in our interactions. 

I believe there are two critical skills needed these days. One is to know how to take an Open Stance (which includes being aware, ensuring safety and with courage, being curious and open to learning, connections and possibilities). The second important skill is to engage in open-minded conversations where we consciously inspire a psychologically safe OASIS-like environment to create shared solutions.

Should You Front-load Rest?

A leader I am coaching has a huge project with a deadline in a few months. He and his team have been working diligently to make progress including working 7 days a week. In some ways, it feels like writing a dissertation, except he has many meetings and other responsibilities too and cannot devote all of his time to the looming project. As time passes, he understandably has become more tired and is not experiencing the excitement of the project. He is not alone these days. The added stresses of COVID, economic uncertainty and polarization create a greater sense of exhaustion for many of us.

Experts suggest that rather than focusing on managing our time, we pay attention to managing our energy. While our instinct is to push through the tiredness and keep stretching ourselves, it is best to front-load rest and allow recovery. It is much more efficient to prevent fatigue than recovering from it later. This means before we allow ourselves to get to the burn-out stage we build in rest and rejuvenation. For example, we can start our day with exercise, reflection, breathing, connecting with our values and intentions or make time to connect with friends. We also need the basics of enough sleep, nourishing food and down-time.

Research with executives and in sports science have demonstrated that effective energy management is the rhythmic movement between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery). Stress can actually be a stimulus for growth. The problems come when we experience chronic stress without recovery which depletes energy and leads to burnout and hurts performance.

I try to encourage my college-age daughter, clients and myself to build in this rest even when it seems hard to make the time. When we build some of these habits they will support us during the challenging times.

Leaders need to model how they build in recovery. In addition, they need to encourage team members to take care of themselves with rest and rejuvenation. Too often, bosses say they respect people but are not aware of the costs or the time and energy required for projects and do not support people in taking rest. Leaders need to model their commitment to managing energy by taking time off themselves and asking team members how they are supporting themselves.

I know this is easier said than done. I have a long project list and many commitments. I have had to create habits such as building into my calendar time for exercise, reflection, time with friends and even time to watch a movie with family members.

Focus on what sustains your energy and build habits that support you. Model up-loading rest and encourage others in your life to do the same. Engage in conversations about how to build and manage energy to experience more joy and more productivity too.

What’s Your Story?

We are always making assumptions about others, ourselves and our situations. We naturally create stories based on our past experiences as a way of ensuring our safety. 

David, a manager, shared with me that team members did not support his ideas and were out to make him look bad. He felt frustrated. With this story, he worked harder to demonstrate his expertise and how he was correct in his proposals. However, the harder he worked to demonstrate he was right, the less he seemed able to inspire people to listen and align around a strategy. 

When we “know” we are right and feel such frustration and contraction, we need to stop and take a look at the story we are telling ourselves. We could say to ourselves or a coach or friend, “The story I am telling myself is . . . that my colleagues are not interested in what I have to say and that they are even against me.”  Then we can assess what is a true fact or observation and what is our assumption or judgment. It is true that team members questioned the findings. They asked, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”  Is it true that they are against you? This is more likely your story and your self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The more David believed his colleagues were against him, the more he pushed for his ideas with the leader and others and the less he involved his colleagues in his process. It was his internal story that they were against him that ironically influenced his moves that alienated him.  We can only control ourselves and not others. (And managing ourselves is not easy.)

When David became aware of his role in the tangle, he was able to take the first moves to listen and include colleagues in his thinking process during development and to show that he was a team player. He reflected on what he appreciated about team members and became more caring toward them. He was able to forge a more positive and healthy dynamic. 

By questioning our stories and separating facts from assumptions, we are better positioned to create more positive and productive relationships and unparalleled results.

Are You Judging or Discerning?

It is our nature to judge ourselves and others. We each have an inner voice that accompanies us and tells us when things are not “right”. When we are contracted or closed, we can be harsh in judging ourselves, others and situations. Sometimes we call this judge our “inner critic” or saboteur.  If you are like me, you may have many forms of this inner critic.  

We can recognize our judge when we hear that we or someone or something “should” be different. We sense in our bodies that we are “right” and others “should” agree.  In addition to the berating inner voice, we usually have a predominant physical sensation that can be stronger depending on the issue.  For example, I notice tension in my back, as if someone is pushing me or a tightness in my stomach and a feeling of pressure.  

We can use these signals to alert us that we are closed or judging.  If we can shift to a more open stance we can be less harsh and more curious or discerning.  

For example, say you feel you did not do well on a presentation you gave. You could notice your judging part saying things like, “You are a failure! You are not a good speaker; you never have been and never will be. Others are so much better.”  You may notice your signal and contraction. Your amygdala part of the brain is activated.  If you can shift to a more open stance, you could more calmly assess the situation, learn from it, and determine your next steps. From an open state, you could see that you would have benefitted by allowing more time for preparation, practicing and getting support with the technology.  You could learn from this experience and you may even choose to hire a coach or take a course to improve your skills. 

Discerning comes from an open and growth mindset. You recognize that we all can learn and develop. You are more centered, open and compassionate.  A discerning parent helps a child learn and recognizes that developing knowledge and skills takes time and ongoing improvement.  There is empathy and support appreciating the intrinsic goodness of the child. 

We can practice shifting into an open stance so we can be more discerning, support  development and value our intrinsic nature and that of others. We can learn to build the muscle of shifting to enjoy an open stance and continual growth.

 

We Have Different Definitions of Respect

I recently gave a talk on the critical skill of taking an open stance. I shared that we all have different definitions of respect and that often it is the small things that matter to us. Respect is what employees all over the world want. Half of employees don’t feel respected by their bosses. (HBR, Porath 2014.) Other research shows that those who experience or witness disrespect have a significant decrease in performance. 

One person shared that when volunteering for an organization, that she sat in for a person who was on leave. Everyone passed by her as they entered the workplace and only one person spoke with her during her week stint and that was the head of the whole organization. She kindly described this leader as respectful and that he made her feel valued and seen.  Another person in the group had a very different experience. She shared that when she had an administrative position, many people greeted her and asked her about her day. She felt that they did not respect that she had work to do and that it was okay to interrupt her. She often had to stay late to complete her work and was glad to leave that position. 

How do we know what people perceive as being respectful? We need to engage in conversations with one another. We often fail to have conversations about respect since we tend to believe that people “should” know what is the “right” respectful behavior. It seems obvious to us. However, we each have different background experiences and learned different strategies. We have different personalities and clearly intention does not equal impact. 

We need to have the intention to be respectful. We also need to be aware and engage in conversations where we effectively share what we need to experience respect and be curious to learn what others need.  Teams and organizations need to incorporate check-ins where people can safely share their experiences of respect. 

Conversations about respect are essential these days when we collectively need a sense of openness and opportunity for all.