How to Manage a Difficult COVID Dilemma Conversation

When I talked with Ken about the death of his elderly father, he shared that his siblings and family were angry at him for live-streaming the funeral rather than engaging in the traditional Irish wake and funeral. They did not seem to understand that he was honoring the wishes of his mother to keep the gathering small and keep the grandchildren safe, since most were not vaccinated. Ken wondered if he would be able to reunite the family.  Sally was facing a similar dilemma.  Her son is getting married and the bride’s family does not support vaccinations. Young family members are expected to be in the wedding ceremony without masks. 

I was invited to speak to a group that was meeting in a restaurant. The convener mentioned how important in person meetings are to him. Others chose not to attend the meetings since COVID-19 cases were rising in our town. 

I hear about such challenging dilemmas people are facing often.  Many have chosen not to talk with friends, family members and colleagues. Others have cut off relationships completely. These are difficult conversations.  

First, it is important to become aware of your own emotions and to be kind to yourself. These are challenging times and we are each required to assess risk and determine our comfort levels without full certainty. I used to say that most things we face with our colleagues and family members are not life and death issues. However, more things raise our fears now and may  feel like life and death issues.  Notice intense feelings and give yourself empathy and ask for real empathy from a friend in order to cool down and have some space in order to to shift to being more open and curious. Sometimes this may take some time.  

When you are ready for a conversation, be respectful of the other person. In fact, you can say something like, “My intention is to be respectful and open. I want to hear your perspective.”  It is easy for each of us to feel that those with other views don’t value or respect us.  Work to be genuinely curious and open to learn. 

From this stance, fully listen and give empathy to the other person’s view. Perhaps they feel that worrying about safety does not make sense. You can appreciate their point of view. Empathy does not mean you agree. You can even say that you value your relationship and can respectfully agree to disagree. We each have different backgrounds and have different reasons for our positions. You want to understand what is below the position and understand what is most important. Ideally, you and your family member or colleague will want to maintain your connection. 

Ideally, you will then be able to agree on an action that will meet both of your needs.  For example, Ken and his siblings agreed to have a family Zoom gathering where the grandchildren and all the family members could freely say goodbye to their father and grandfather.   Sally and her son agreed that the young family members would wear festive masks in the wedding ceremony.  The group I spoke with had an additional video meeting for those who chose not to meet in person. I spoke twice. 

Most importantly,  each of those involved in these cases felt respected and felt that the relationships were valued and even grew as they worked through the potential conflicts. 

These are challenging times where we each need to take an Open Stance and assess how to manage our risks and how to foster our relationships. It requires being self-aware and respectful as well as empathetic as we engage in conversations. 

Find Joy in What is Possible

It is so easy to be disheartened by the many challenges our planet and world are facing these days. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder what we can do.  Many people throw up their arms in despair. The news and social media reinforce the problems.

However, we can take an Open Stance, appreciate what is, and consciously choose to be optimistic about what is possible and take action to make a difference. In fact, we are at a unique time when so much change is possible. Many systems are broken, and collectively we can create new opportunities.

I was fortunate to listen to the Great Leadership Reset Summit sponsored by Barrett-Koehler Publishers and Case Western University’s Fowler Center for Business as an  Agent of World Benefit. Many leaders in organizations shared what they are doing to address climate change and social inequities. Some companies are looking at their supply chains and finding ways to reduce waste. Others are reducing their carbon footprint and even becoming positive in creating energy that can be used by others. Others are developing products such as lights that allow people to have a significantly better quality of life. They make an inspiring case that business can be a force for positive change.

Many of the leaders shared their joy in envisioning a better world for all and the impact they are seeing. Each of us can take action–even small actions –to inspire others about what we can collectively do to make life better. We can choose our disposition and our corresponding focus of energy. We can each be a leader, no matter what our position, in inspiring others.

Where will you find joy in supporting change during this unique time? Start where you are and share your enthusiasm and hope. Together we can make a difference. 

Where Do You Draw the Line?

It is so easy to see us vs. them. There seem to be so many issues that divide us.  We often are putting ourselves into one camp vs. another.  Those for vaccines vs. those against, managers vs. staff, extroverts vs. introverts, those working on climate change vs. those who do not embrace it, etc. It is easy to lack trust in one another and to see some as the victims and others as perpetrators.

This demarcation comes from our survival brain and conditioning that caused us to recognize who was in our tribe and to be aware of those who were not. 

When we recognize that we are judging and we notice our lack of trust and fear we can catch ourselves. We can Stop, Step Back and Cool Down and Shift to be Open.  We can recognize our humanity and our natural tendency for bias and judgment.  We can draw a larger circle to include others and see ourselves as interdependent.  We cannot solve the challenges we are collectively facing when we are focused on fighting each other. 

I have worked with many leadership teams where people are focused on fighting one another.  When they draw a new line, where they are aligned and see themselves as a team,  they are better positioned to achieve collective goals.  Such transformation is beautiful to behold. We can see each other as family and engage in collective conversations to solve challenges we cannot on our own.

Notice the lines you are drawing to demarcate yourself from others. Consider drawing a wider circle, embracing others and expanding the possibilities. 


Practice Kindness and Being Open

Daily I hear stories from family members, colleagues, and clients about misunderstandings, miscommunications, and the challenges of working and living with others. It is so easy to feel wronged by others and to make judgments. In fact, we naturally judge others as a way to protect our self-identities. 

I recently gave a talk and a member of the audience challenged what I was saying in a judgmental tone.  My immediate internal reaction was to be defensive and close to the person.  Rather than argue or be defensive, I was able to notice my closing and stop, step back and cool down with a breath, and I was able to shift to curiosity. I became open to listening. I trusted that I would learn something and reminded myself to not be defensive. It helps to recall that each person is coming from a different background with a different understanding of words and with different needs. 

By being open, I learned that some of my definitions could be made clearer, and I trust my next talk will be better for the interaction. 

When the person began arguing with my premise, her view and energy became contagious and others started questioning things. When I became open and curious the atmosphere changed, and we had a real and meaningful conversation. 

At the end of the meeting, a participant remarked that they noticed that I had demonstrated being open by not being defensive. Ironically, my talk was on the power of being open. My demonstration was more important than my definition. The atmosphere shifted, and the whole group acknowledged that the conversation was rich and rewarding for them. 

We can each make it a practice of catching ourselves when we naturally close and after cooling down a bit, shift to being open. Notice the impact on yourself and others. 

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.