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.

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.

An Open Heart is Integral to an Open Stance

During these times of disruption it is critical to adopt an Open Stance. Being open is the path to resilience, well-being, and thriving. Being open is more than a mindset or just related to being available and present to our thoughts. We also need to have a felt sense of opening our hearts of compassion to our emotions and that of others. This open-hearted compassion is essential during times of uncertainty. Naturally, we react to what we perceive as potential danger. Our emotions are signals that we need to pay attention. Then we need to discern if, in fact, we are in danger at that moment and if action is called for. For example, Sherrie’s position was eliminated in her corporation. Her first emotions were distress and worry, and also anger. All of these emotions are real and need attention. She knew intellectually that she would be okay since she had saved money and was marketable. Rather than ignoring her feelings or being swallowed up in them, she became open and aware of her emotions and named them.  She experienced warmth toward her mix of emotions. This supported her in being more responsive in her actions rather than just reacting.  

As an ideal parent listens to a child when she has an upsetting experience, we can be open to our emotions and be compassionate. We simply need to listen and be attentive and open to our range of emotions. This self-compassion allows us to connect with the parts of ourselves that are experiencing emotion. We become better prepared to extend our compassion to others. We can appreciate that we are each responding to uncertain circumstances based on our conditioning and habitual patterns. It is natural to react, and we can practice turning an open heart to ourselves and others. We can learn and adopt new behaviors that will serve us in these times. To be an effective leader or human being, we need both an open mind and an open heart. 

Our brain has different components or neural networks. Our rational brain is associated with our thinking mind. In contrast, our emotional or limbic brain is associated with our feeling heart. It is valuable to learn to recognize what is going on in our hearts and how we feel. Our emotional brain needs to work in tandem with our thinking brain. Fortunately, in recent years research on emotional intelligence has helped leaders, organizations, and some schools to promote the critical importance of understanding and valuing emotions.

Every organ in the human body generates an electric current and an electromagnetic field. The heart’s electric current is sixty times more powerful than other organs in the body and produces an electromagnetic field with a radius of 6-10 feet. This energy affects  those around us.  When we are at ease and in higher frequency emotions such as compassion, joy and peace we tend to impact those around us more positively and create a sense of connection and coherence.  When we are in a state of anxiety or distress others will sense our incoherence and our negative emotions are contagious. According to Heartmath, coherence allows others to feel connected and at ease and incoherence creates disruption and anxiety. Our intention to be open to ourselves and others in a non-judgmental way will create a sense of connection and coherence. This may be experienced at a conscious or non-awere level. It is valuable to practice connecting with our hearts and having the intention of being open-hearted. We can simply move our attention from our heads and thoughts to our hearts and imagine being open to ourselves, others and what is.  

An open-hearted person shows humility and continues to be open to new ideas and others no matter their level in an organization or hierarchy. They generally are confident in who they are and do not see others and their opinions as threats. They are not defensive but open to learning. This creates a positive environment at home or in the workplace. 

An open heart is about being compassionate, sincere, and acknowledging the value of emotions. An open-hearted person is typically warm, kind, and welcoming to others and creates real connections. An open mind supports thinking differently (i.e., opening to new thoughts and ideas). An open heart supports feeling differently (i.e., allowing feelings of compassion and empathy for others). Both are interrelated and needed for effective and positive outcomes. 

[More to come in the forthcoming book Open Stance: Thriving Amidst Uncertainty.]

Are You a Lifelong Learner?

My daughter was worried about how to take all the courses she is interested in during college. I felt the same way when I double majored. There was so much to learn and so much I wanted to know about. 

I subsequently realized that I will always be studying and learning. I have made it part of my life to read, listen to podcasts and to engage in dialogue with colleagues.  

A historian shared that an Ivy degree is not what differentiates successful presidents. Those who made lifelong learning and listening attentively their goal are considered most successful.

We are fortunate that there are many ways for continuous learning these days. There are an abundance of online classes, podcasts, audiobooks, e-books and more. The challenge is making studying a habit. I have combined listening to audio while exercising or walking and reading at the beginning and end of the day or during lunch. I have also joined with colleagues to talk about ideas on a regular basis. This has helped me to prepare and engage in dialogue on areas I want to learn more. I also routinely take classes. 

Find a time and a process that works for you to continuously learn and reflect. I hope it will bring you meaning and joy.

Where Do You Find Hope?

My niece had an assignment for school and asked me and others to answer the question, “Where do you find hope?”  It is a provocative question with many possible answers. I encourage you to reflect on it and find your answers.

One way I stay hopeful is to look for learning and opportunity in situations.  I recall how I have grown through past disruptions. In a sense I choose to trust life and believe in people.  Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”  Granted, this view has not always been easy to have during this year that has been full of challenges. However, I believe that being aware and open to what is unfolding is a useful strategy. Hope keeps us motivated and inspires us to explore new avenues and proceed with energy and confidence. 

We can also look for signs of hope. Seeing the young care about the planet and peace and taking action gives me hope. Seeing so many recognizing the need for equity and that many people are finding ways to do their part to support others is inspiring. While we tend to focus on the negative and the challenges, with a positive vision for the future we can overcome obstacles and be grateful for all that we have and what is possible.

I encourage you to find hope and share it with others. Together we can make our families, workplaces and communities work for all.

Build Social Trust—Be Neighborly

We are facing many challenges these days. An underlying issue is a decrease in social trust. Studies show that there has been a decrease in trust of government, media, religious and major social institutions in America and elsewhere. While most see a decline in people being reliable and able to fulfill their obligations, according to Pew Research Center, 8 out of 10 Americans think that social trust can be repaired.

Where do we begin? We can each choose to take an open stance and take action to make life better for others. We can commit to being a friendly neighbor and a supportive community member.  What could happen if we each used our skills, talents and passion to consciously make a difference for our colleagues, community and others? Simply acknowledging and listening to others, even when they have different views could create a more positive environment.  When we show that we care and desire peace, doors will open. 

We are polarized with divergent political views and different areas of focus. However, we can come together as neighbors and work collectively on projects such as supporting youth or cleaning a park of litter and planting flowers. We can experience our common ground of wanting safe and life-enhancing communities—even when we have different world views.

David Brooks joined with the Aspen Institute to initiate the Weaver movement to repair the country’s social fabric, which is frayed by distrust, division and exclusion.

“People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities.” The organization collects inspiring stories of success. Brooks encourages people to join in “shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.” This is the kind of effort that I envision people choosing an open stance to take.

There are many stresses we are facing and we naturally become fatigued. Many are isolated and feel alone. Whether you start a global community development program or visit an elderly neighbor, we can each do our part to build positive and productive relationships and make life better for all.  When you reach out you will most likely receive more than you give. It is rewarding to experience community connection. It will take all of us to contribute.

What can you do to build trust and be neighborly and a supportive community member today?

See No Stranger

We have seen a lot of name calling and division these days. Family members, co-workers and neighbors are not speaking with one another based on diverse political views and other perspectives. It is often hard to understand how someone can see things so differently from us. We believe we are seeing so clearly and others must have blinders on. 

We are receiving different information on our social media feeds and we are watching different news sources and most often conferring with like-minded people who concur with us. 

Unconscious implicit bias affects all of us. We are primed to see “us” and “them.” We discern in an instant whether someone is one of us or one of them. This happens before conscious thought. Our body releases hormones that prime us to trust and listen to those who are a part of us. It’s easier to feel compassion for one of us. We experience fundamental attribution error where we attribute negative motives to others’ behavior while we tend to be positive toward ourselves when exhibiting the same behavior. We think of us as multidimensional and complex and we think of them as one-dimensional. 

Where do we go from here? Ideally, we begin to look for common ground, treat each other with respect, engage in dialogue and create systems and a future that works for all of us. Rather than be closed, we need to shift to taking an open stance. We need to adopt an open mindset and open heart where we commit to being curious, engaging in wonder as well as being compassionate and kind.  

Valeri Kaur, author of See No Stranger, suggests that as you see people who are different, say to yourself, “Sister,” “Brother,” “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Recognize that each person is facing challenges and desires similar things. Essentially, we can train our minds to emphasize kindness and expand our inner circles. Not only do we support more connection with others, this practice supports our wellbeing. 

We can each take actions to make life better for all and we can begin with expanding our own awareness and commitment to being open rather than closed.

Can We Find Unity?

No doubt, we are experiencing polarization in our families, workplaces and communities. Family members and co-workers are not speaking to one another because of perceived differing points of view. We feel disrespected when others cannot see the value of us or our views. Our natural reaction is to fight back or shut down. 

We need to manage our instincts and seek to engage in more conversations where we are sharing what we are observing and how we are experiencing things. We need to listen to one another, give empathy and engage in dialogue to find what we can agree on and to co-create shared solutions. This is not easy in the heat of an election and amidst the myriad of uncertainties we face with changes in workplaces and the impact of a pandemic, economic challenges and racial inequities. 

However, seeking to genuinely understand other perspectives and finding common ground is essential to create a civil environment that will work for all of us.

We can begin by educating ourselves. There are many resources and we can challenge ourselves to study diverse sources. I recently saw the documentary Social Dilemma on Netflix. It clearly shows that we are each seeing different posts on social media that reinforce different perspectives than other sources. We can easily become more entrenched in our views. We are watching news on different channels and talking to people who reinforce our view. We need to remain curious and open to learning.

We need to look for what we can appreciate in others with different views and listen even when we don’t agree. This is a learned skill. It is doable. We can find unity. It will take each of us.