Build and Enjoy the Open Highway of Possibility

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

We all have habitual patterns that supported us at one time. For instance, I was once a worrier, and this served me at the time by pushing me to do more than what was required and to achieve many things. After a while, however, worrying just became a habit—even when it did not serve me. We now know that a neural pathway was formed in my brain and this one became like a big highway.

I worked on replacing this pattern. Rather than focusing on what I didn’t want, such as, “I don’t want to fail or do a poor job or be unsuccessful,” I focused on what I did want. “I want to be at ease and confident.” I not only said such words, I allowed myself to experience ease and openness. I noticed that in this state, I was more relaxed and actually accomplished more with less effort. With worry out of the way, I really felt open and saw new connections and possibilities with my coaching and organization clients, as well as in my personal life. 

I amped up this sense of openness by experiencing gratitude. By not just reciting what I am grateful for but really allowing myself to experience gratefulness, I sense even more possibilities. 

I still have the worry road readily available (the neural pathways are still in place and less prominent). However, I am choosing the newer expanding openness road that is taking me to new and exciting places.

Begin to strengthen your openness pathway by focusing on what you do want rather than what you don’t want, opening yourself to ease and possibility.

Open to Choice

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

“How could he say that in the meeting?! I can’t believe it. He makes me look bad. I can’t trust him. I’ll show him.”  This is what my executive client shared about what he was feeling when a colleague said negative things about him and his team. How do you think he responded? 

While his instinct was to say a cutting remark or to not speak with his colleague, my client was able to notice his reaction, stop a moment, breathe and respond. In fact, he paraphrased what his colleague said and gave him empathy, saying, “I see you are frustrated by the low numbers.” His colleague agreed he was upset and apologized for his tone. Then my client asked questions, listened and they developed a plan together. My client learned how to check in with himself and ask, “Are you open?”

Being open allows us to be at choice in how we respond. Too often we unconsciously react. This is especially true when we feel threatened and have a knee-jerk reaction of fighting, fleeing or freezing. In these states our amygdala is stimulated and cortisol flows through our bodies. Energy is diverted from our rational prefrontal cortex and we are not at our best to analyze a situation and choose the most effective course of action.

When we see the value and make the intention to be open, we are more likely to notice when we are closed or stressed. We can then choose to step back and see things from a larger perspective. We can notice our emotions such as anger rather than just experience anger. When we build the muscle and habit of stopping and stepping back when we are contracted and feel “right”, we are open to more possibilities. The skill of noticing and shifting to being open is one of the most valuable leadership skills these days. You will be able to appreciate different points of view, learn, and be more innovative and creative.

We know the costs of polarization and closed-mindedness. When people learn how to be open-minded and to engage in positive and productive conversations, we are more likely to create shared solutions to the challenges facing the world, workplaces, communities and families.

Notice if you are reacting in a knee-jerk way or if are you open, present, curious and at choice.

Too Busy for Happiness

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

A 75-year Harvard study by Grant and Glueck tracked 724 participants from all walks of life and found that the key to long term fulfillment and happiness are positive relationships. Other studies confirm that those in supportive relationships live longer.

Healthy relationships require more than just knowing people or being “friends” on social media. However, many of us lament that we are “too busy” and don’t have time for relationships given packed schedules, stressful lives and turbulent environments.

Research shows that we build friendships by spending time with people.  One thing we can do, even if we are busy, is to consciously intend to connect with those we interact with at home and work. It only takes an intention and a few minutes to really acknowledge someone. Simple actions such as appreciating a colleague or a family member or inquiring about their day and really listening can create a meaningful relationship.  A few minutes of real empathy and caring can make a difference for you and the other person. You can even silently wish others well. Of course, taking time for coffee, a meal or a walk with a friend will further build the relationship. Don’t forget to call friends too.

Make it your intention to build relationships even with small micro-moments of connection over time. Notice the impact on you and others, as well as the quality of your environment.

Be Open to Optimism

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

Research shows that optimists are healthier, sleep better and have fewer strokes. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that optimists live 11-15% longer than pessimists.  Yet, it is hard to be an optimist amidst negativity and disruption and challenges everywhere. 

However, our perspective on how things are unfolding can be modified by a few simple habit changes. For example, I started to consciously notice how often I worried about things working out. It was more often than I realized.    I adopted the habit of shifting to appreciating what is going well. I noticed that quite a few things were actually going well. I then created the game of noticing one of the best things that happened during a day. It helped me to be on the lookout for things going well. I noticed that this simple shift enabled me to experience more ease.

I also find it useful to reflect on at least three things I am grateful for each evening and/or morning. The secret is not just to think about these things. Rather than just be grateful that I could take a walk outside, I focus on really feeling the gratitude and holding onto the positive sensations for 30 seconds to a minute. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist, says that by savoring these positive feelings we are building stronger neural pathways to experience the positive.

I encourage you to experiment with seeing the glass half full and noticing the impact on you and others.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know

I was asked by a board to conduct interviews regarding perceptions of a CEO. A senior staff person was angry with the CEO and complained that the senior staff had not been respectfully informed or included in the process.

Then I told her that it was not the CEO’s decision but the board dictated how the process would proceed. In fact, we changed the process to include the senior staff. She immediately now saw things differently and relaxed her judgment and even became appreciative of the CEO. She realized that he was not purposely shutting out the senior team. She even shared many examples of respect and strong communication.

How many times do we think we see the whole picture and make attributions about someone’s behavior? When we find out there is more to the story, our view completely changes.

Think of times when you saw things one way and then learned more and realized your assumptions were not accurate. Then remind yourself often that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” There is usually more to a story than we see.

Focus on catching yourself when in judgment and seek more understanding.

What’s Your Speed?

I had a packed week with calls, presentations and deadlines. I braced myself for the late nights and all the work required. I regretted that I had a dental appointment that had been scheduled many months before. As I walked to the appointment I focused on what I had to do. However, on the way back, I began to notice the beautiful fall day and the crispness in the air. I noticed the abundance of flowers and the beauty all around me. I began to smile and talk with strangers about the day. I experienced connection with the beauty and my neighbors. It was a wonderful 15-minute walk. I told myself I need to get outside more.

We need to let ourselves experience the small moments of joy that are all around us. When we are stressed and have too much on our minds we miss a lot. I regret all such moments I have missed because of my speed and lack of awareness.

Ironically, when we experience such moments of joy we have a lot more energy for the work and we positively impact others too.

Slow down, feel your feet on the ground and allow yourself to experience moments that bring you joy. Notice what supports this experience. Is it being in nature, listening to music, reading, cooking, or friends? 

Notice what brings you joy and be sure to incorporate at least one such experience in your day.

What Brings You Energy?

So many people I meet are feeling stressed and depleted these days. With disruptions in workplaces, the environment and the world, it can be hard to feel positive. We can feel a lack of control and like things are just happening to us.

Rather than focus on what is depleting you, notice what gives you energy.  Try an experiment. Notice the things that bring you joy and note them. For example, I notice that I feel more positive and alive when taking a walk in nature. I can get a bigger perspective.  I also enjoy reading and listening to podcasts. I love to be learning. I enjoy a phone call or a conversation with a friend in which we feel connected and share deeply. I like sharing a laugh with a neighbor or a friend. I enjoy exploring ideas with a client or team to support their development. I enjoy drawing and exploring art. Listening to music is also fun as is enjoying a cup of tea.

Build your list for a few days and notice the patterns that emerge. Notice the small things that bring you joy. Have your list in a visible place and make the commitment to add these to your day and appreciate the small and big moments of joy.

I encourage coaching clients to check their list often and make sure they are doing at least one thing per day that they enjoy. One client goes swimming or reads her favorite books.

We can take responsibility for noticing and embellishing our days with positive energy. Start today and notice the impact on you and those around you.

What Kind of Mood are You Creating?

Sarah was excited about the birthday gathering planned for her spouse’s big day. A lot of thought went into some special details and family and friends were attending. When a family member walked in it was immediately clear the person was in a bad mood.  Sarah immediately thought that the event would not be as positive as she hoped. Her first thought was to be angry at the relative about ruining the atmosphere. Then she recalled that emotions are contagious and that she could influence the mood. She chose to remain positive. She consciously smiled at the relative and remained upbeat. She noticed that within five minutes the relative and others started being positive and joking with her spouse. The event was a success.

It is worthwhile to be aware of our own mood and how we are influencing others. Even if the other person does not shift, you are likely to have a better experience when you are aware and more positive. 

Start noticing your mood and others’ and the impact on the environment.

Try an experiment of shifting your emotion and notice the impact on others. You can do so by your intention to be open, body language, words and humor. Sarah was excited to share her experience with me. She realized that in fact, emotions are contagious and that she could be more intent on influencing her environment.

Leaders recognize their influence and focus on enhancing their awareness of how they affect others. It is worth noticing your openness.

Attend to Relationship and Task

Often, executives I work with feel a lot of pressure and the need to produce results. Sometimes they feel they don’t have time or energy for addressing people’s emotional needs. First, they need to attend to business. One client experiencing serious business challenges said, “I need to attend to the fire. Then I can connect later.” However, people had begun complaining about his leadership style and more work was required to reconnect. If he continued along the same path, then there might not be a later opportunity for him.

We are each wired differently and have different preferences. Some of us like to get the work done first and then we have more energy for connecting with people. Others, start their day with the need to feel connection and may reach out for coffee with others and then have the energy to focus on the task at hand. 

If we focus on relationships too much then the results are likely to suffer. We never complete the presentation or job. If we focus on task too much, people don’t feel that you care and tend not to trust you. Ultimately, there can be negative consequences, since you may not retain strong people and in the worst case, they may not support your tenure. Trust—the glue of successful teams—requires valuing others, giving empathy and building relationships.

Of course, we always need to attend to both the task and relationships. It doesn’t necessarily require a lot more time—just intention and focus. I liken it to speaking with a puppy and letting it see you have positive intentions before rescuing it if its leg is trapped or if it is in an unsafe place. It takes a moment to pet the pup and speak with a soothing voice before pulling it to safety. The moment of attention can save you from a bite and scratch.

Consider your situation and identify how you are attending to both task and relationship and what balance is needed.

The Ukulele Effect

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

I have a lot of aspirations. For example, I want to write several more books and want to support open-minded conversations to create shared solutions around the many issues facing our world.

I talk to a lot of leaders who have such goals and feel pressed on how to best make a difference given the pressures they are facing. We so often put off taking action because we don’t feel we have enough time or space to start big projects.  I introduce the Ukulele effect.

I recall that my daughter hoped to learn the guitar and yet she was too busy with a full schedule. We visited family for Thanksgiving and her aunt brought a ukulele. Within an hour she learned a few chords and was strumming songs. She wanted a ukulele and we ordered an inexpensive one and she continued playing within a few days. She then naturally grew her repertoire and with confidence moved to playing the guitar and singing.

What if we could each take small steps toward our aspirations. If you would love engaging in art, take a small step and doodle with colored pencils or explore an app on your phone. If you want to write a book, start writing blogs. If you want to make a difference in an area such as food safety, read an article and talk with others about what you are learning.  If you want to become a better leader start listening to blogs on your commute, hire a coach or read articles and talk with your friends about what you are learning. 

Notice an issue or an area that excites you and take one small ukulele step in that direction and then pay attention to what the next step may be.  At a minimum you will know you have taken a step. Experiment on a small scale and see what emerges.