“There was a school shooting in my community. How do I start the conversation?”

I was sitting in a workshop last week and a friend turned me after the Florida school shooting and told me this was her town and asked me this question. She was heartbroken, overwhelmed and at a loss about where to start doing something. When she shared her anguish, others in the group echoed her sentiments.

  • Where to start making change?
  • How to make a difference?
  • How to have the conversation?

Let me start here. Rule #1 about brave, honest conversations is that there are no magic wands, fairy dust or a special recipe that will allow you to have a conversation and know it will all work out just fine every time. You are dealing with people, emotion and complex situations and systems. Let’s assume there is no special recipe. Just people who care deeply and who want something different. Start there with that commitment and that passion and be with them.

These are my thoughts about the brave, honest conversation that needs to happen. I might rock a few boats with these thoughts. I’m OK with that because I’m committed to brave, honest conversations that solve the problems we face in our world. I’m not committed to brave, honest conversations that put bandaids on tough issues so we can feel better for a little while until the next challenge comes along.

This is not a conversation that should only be about gun control. It is so easy to go directly to simple solutions in these tragic, heart-rending situations.

The feeling that if laws are changed and access is limited to guns this will not happen again is urgent and compelling. Doing this will probably reduce the tragedies that happen, but it won’t solve all the challenges that led to the shootings. They will keep happening.

This is not a conversation about mental health or “deranged killers”. It is so easy to focus on blame and easy targets.

The people who have committed the 18 school shootings (and 34 mass shootings) in the US in the past 2 months are human beings with pain, suffering, despair and rage that drove them to these acts. When they were losing themselves to the abyss there was no support or safety net for them. Our energy is better spent on prevention, caring and collective supports than it is on enforcement or blame. Imagine if community was there for these people before they got too far lost. The results would be hugely different.

This is not a conversation about us versus them, or whether we are with you or against you. In deeply painful situations it feels right to draw lines in the sand and say you are here with me or over there on the side of evil, but in reality we are all here in our communities together, with diverse views and values and beliefs and we need to find ways to live together and not get further apart.

Start here:

  • Welcome the emotion. All of it, in whatever form it takes, however it comes. Don’t try to control it, manage it or tamp it down. Expect anger, fear, anxiety, depression, grief, confusion, disengagement, urgency. Support each other to let it all out, to be with it and not hold it in. Reach out and offer support, and receive it from others. Host and participate in conversations about healing — what does that look like? What do people need to begin to heal?
  • Take action to be part of change on the easily identifiable solutions AND be part of conversations that will result in long-term sustainable change in the system. The youth that recently descended on the Florida state capitol should be celebrated and commended for their commitment, passion and desire for change. The noise they are making in the system will no doubt result in changes to laws in many places. This is a great first step, but it won’t solve all the challenges that led to these tragedies. So shake your first, march, demonstrate, sign petitions, call your local lawmaker, get on the news. And then keep working for larger change.
  • We need an inclusive and brave, honest conversation where we all come together to find out what change looks like, together. Remember that long-term change means a conversation that includes all of us, including those who support the NRA, who believe in the right to bear arms, and who are not sure where they stand. If people keep demonizing the other side, and making them the enemy long-term change will never be possible. We need to sit in a room together where we look into each other’s eyes, seek to really understand someone else, learn together and find change together. What we’ve got isn’t working. So what are our options for change?
  • Look into yourself and consider your role and responsibility in building a different society and community. Social isolation, disconnection, lack of social and health supports in community, a culture of blame and shame that celebrates violence and agression — these things all contribute to building systems where violence erupts. What kindness can you show your neighbour today? What role can you play in reaching out to a stranger in pain or with challenges? What responsibility can you take for choosing acts that support the whole community to be well, access their potential and feel supported?

In the end it starts with you.

Let’s build a world where people have Brave, Honest Conversations in their lives, organizations and communities so we can solve the problems we face, together.

Answering YOUR Questions about brave, honest conversations: Edition #1


I get asked a lot of tough questions in my work. People weren’t born knowing how to have brave, honest conversations and it can be really scary, intimidating and anxiety producing to have a tough conversation with a partner, a colleague or a large group of people talking about an important issue.

In this new monthly series I’m going to tackle some of these tough questions. Every month I will address new questions that YOU send me. So if you’ve got a challenge, struggle or hope about brave, honest conversations send me your questions and I’ll put them in a future edition.

The questions this month focus on brave, honest conversations with large groups of people.



QUESTION #1: How do you strategically turn the conversation around in the middle of an outrage situation?

This question is really asking about the moment I call “the shift”, where everything changes and moves from high emotion and high arousal to a pause, a breath of opportunity for the interaction to be something different.

First tip: you need to start watching for that shift moment so you can see it. Start going to public meetings and observing interactions, act like an observer in your staff meetings, watch in workshops for the moments where things change. Build your muscles of observation and awareness so you can see this shift. It’s where the anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety slow down and pause for just a moment. It looks different in different situations, but I know what it feels like — I can feel it in my body like when you come up for air after you’ve been underwater. It only lasts for an instant but its powerful. That’s the moment you want to see so you can step right into it and intervene.

Second tip: know what you are trying to achieve. You are trying to work WITH the person who is outraged or highly emotional to be there with them so they can get to the heart of the issue, and hopefully find some resolution. Know what you are in service to — if you are in service to them in that moment then they will feel it. If you are trying to get them to calm down so you can move on to your agenda or you can have your turn to talk they will feel that too, and will likely feel manipulated and be more emotional. Practice being present and being there for someone else. Practice it with your family, friends, work colleagues. The more you practice, the more it becomes second nature.

Third tip: Use some of your facilitation skills when you see the shift so you can step in, in service to the person or group you are working with. Try asking powerful questions that start to elicit values and start to promote responsibility and ownership. Ask questions like:

  • What concerns you about that?
  • What is most important to you?
  • How have you been affected by this situation?
  • What do you hope will happen?
  • How would you solve this challenge?
  • What do you think others who are not here today would say about this issue?
  • How do we address X (your concern) and also Y (your neighbour’s different concern)?

Try using silence and staying with the conversation until it moves into a breath, creating a pause for the impact of what has been said and felt to be registered. For example, when I was facilitating a large public forum about impacts of school closures a man stood up from the crowd and in an emotional voice said, “I’m a stay-at-home Dad of four children, two of whom have special needs. If our local school closes I don’t know what I will do.” I stood in that moment after he said this, with 200 people listening into the space, and held the silence of that impact. I held it for 30 seconds or more. Then I said, “Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for bringing your concerns and needs to this room so we can talk about it.” I let the silence hold for another few seconds to see if he needed to say anything else, then I moved on so we could talk about his impacts, and other’s too.

Try using physical movement to generate a shift from high arousal to logic and reasoning and ask the person to move to a flip chart, sit at a table, go look at a board, take a walk with you to talk more. Design a conversation where people physically move and talk together. Physical movement helps set a pause button in the brain, and can create a small shift in the intensity of the interaction. For example, in a recent series of sessions I facilitated for a provincial organization on a high conflict issue, we held workshops where we knew the tension would rise to a boiling point mid-session, where people who were worried, concerned or angry would need to let their feelings out. In that moment we designed an exercise where people moved around the room in a series of short, intense conversations with different partners about the different perspectives held in the organization on that tough issue. The act of talking about exact quotes and perspectives they had been afraid to voice and physically moving around the room while they talked released enormous tension and created an environment of alignment where people saw each other as humans rather than adversaries.



QUESTION #2: How to come across empathetically without using cliches or sounding unauthentic?

I once had client ask me when would we start using empathy as a strategy to defuse conflict. To be clear, empathy isn’t a strategy. It must be real, genuine and sincere for it to be felt and effective in an emotional situation. If you aren’t really being empathetic, it isn’t really going to be felt. That’s the first tipbe genuine, sincere and fully present with empathy for someone else who is in an emotional place. There are no tricks or gimmicks to empathy, but it is a practice that you can get better at the more you do it. It is both a mindset and a series of actions / behviours.

  • Listen Deeply
  • Suspend judgment
  • Practice curiosity
  • Try on the other view
  • Stay mindful, present and attentive

There is a great article here at the Greater Good Magazine about the habits of highly empathetic people with some more tips and a quiz to determine how empathetic you are. Empathy builds trust, promotes open communication and builds relationship. As a result, it defuses conflict and de-escalates a tense situation.

Second tip: Practice what you will say so it comes out in your own words and feels natural. I can give you what I would say so it sounds authentic to me, but you need to practice it in your own words. For example, I might say, “I’m going to ask you to speak for yourself, about how YOU have been impacted. Others can speak for themselves.” when people start saying “everyone thinks this” or “we all know.” Would you say it like that, in the same tone I would use? I might intervene when one person is loudly monoplizing the conversation and gently say, “You share some really passionate and important points. I want us to all learn together about this issue. Let’s hear from a couple other people too.”Would you say it like that? Maybe not. But you won’t know what you will really say until you practice and role play so you can get the words and tone into your bones. I know that no one likes role playing, but it really works.

Third tip: Allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Being part of Brave, Honest Conversations is not easy or for the faint of heart. If things are not going well, or you are lost and don’t know what to do then own that situation and acknowledge it. For example, early in my career I was facilitating a workshop with a group of elected officials and things got heated between them. I didn’t see the warning signs, or know how to intervene and one of them got angry, stood up and shoved his chair back so it fell over and walked out, slamming the door behind him. I was shocked, and felt like a huge failure. Without thinking about it, I said “That’s not how I thought things would go.” It broke the tension, everyone chuckled nervously and it gave me a chance to collect myself and say, “How are you feeling? How do you want to regroup? What should we do next?” because I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t going to pretend that I did. We created a plan for moving ahead, and I checked in with the departing participant a bit later. Be real and human if you want to have a real, human conversations. You don’t have to get it perfect, you just need to try, and try again.

Stay tuned for Answers to your Questions, Edition #2 in February.

In the meantime, if you have questions for me to answer about Brave, Honest Conversations post them on Linkedin or my Facebook page or add them to this blog as a comment.

Let’s build a world where people have Brave, Honest Conversations in their lives, organizations and communities so we can solve the problems we face, together.

Living brave: 50 things for my 50th year


I turn 50 in 2018. I don’t even know how that happened; how I’m suddenly that old. Which I realize is such an old person kind of thing to say.

I was talking to a dear friend a couple months ago and she said she was making a list of 60 things for her 60th year and I was so struck by the idea I decided to outright copy it. It’s a way of looking at the world that is expansive and full of growth and possibility, and it allows you to intentionally plan ways to expand your horizons and grow forward. I’m going to do it every year from now on — so that 51 will have 51 new things for that year, and so on. You get it. So here is my list — committing to it publicly makes it real.

6 things about my work in the world:

  1. Grow my business with passion, commitment and love, bringing Brave Honest Conversations to individuals, organizations and communities and inspire a world where people have these conversations together to solve the challenges they face. No small dreams here.
  2. Pick some places I want to travel to and find some work to do in those locations. Like maybe I should plan a 3 day event in Iceland? the South Pacific? I’d be happy to go back to New Zealand.
  3. Write a book about lessons learned and what I see coming in the future from my 25 years in the field of high stakes, high emotion dialogue and brave, honest conversations. (Writing that one makes me throw up a little bit).
  4. Carve out the time to write that book and put it on my schedule. And then actually do it.
  5. Join a mentoring / networking group for women only.
  6. Create new training courses, workshops and products that inspire a world where people have brave, honest conversations at their dinner tables, the boardroom table and in their communities.

6 things that require me to be brave and believe in myself.

(Not that the other things on this list don’t require that, but these ones specifically do.)

7. Participate in the Revelation Project. A workshop, a photo shoot, a reveal to the world. Check it out here. Being fully seen in all my vulnerability — this has my knees shaking. It’s happening April 6th, so now I’ve put that out into the world there is no turning back.

8. Embrace my greying hair and my wrinkles. Or at least make friends with them and appreciate the road I’ve been on that has brought them to me.

9. Do 1 thing every week that makes me a little uncomfortable or scares me. Putting this list of 50 things out there is that thing this week.

10. Play more and let my wild child out more often. Dance in the kitchen, be silly, play games. Lighten up. Go sledding. Ride roller coasters. Skinny dip. Life is short and should include more moments of sheer fun.

11. Stay whole and centered on this journey. I’ve got this long list, and a new business I’m growing, friendships, family and a partner to stay connected to, and lots of ways I want to explore the world in 2018. Being thoughtful about my choices and remembering the things I need in my life to stay whole and in balance will help.

12. Practice self love and acceptance. I’m turning 50 and I think 49 years is enough time wasted thinking negative thoughts about my body and image. I look back at pictures in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and think how beautiful and alive I looked and all the time I was busy telling myself how I wasn’t pretty or sexy enough, thin though, fit enough — just not enough. I’m tired of that all old story. 49 years is enough time wasted on that.

7 things where I explore this beautiful world.

13. Rent a place on Vancouver Island for a few weeks again this summer and check out communities and locations for a future house.

14. Snorkel with turtles, dolphins and manta rays in Hawaii.

15. Get close to the elemental forces of nature exploring lava flows, lava tubes and black sand beaches in Hawaii.

16. Hike the Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island.

17. Bring some more live music into my life: going to see Santana, Ed Sheeran and a Hawaiin cowboy band this year.

18. Make an actual bucket list. I’ve travelled so many beautiful places, and said yes when the opportunity arose and my ideas of where I might go seem endless. I’m going to write them down and prioritize them.

19. Soak in some natural hot springs.

6 things where I let my creativity and artistic expression flow:

20. Take a pottery class (and make some new giant tea mugs).

21. Learn to make sushi.

22. Take more pictures and get more creative with photography.

23. Make jam, pickles, BBQ sauce and more with the bounty of the season.

24. Take an acting or improv class.

25. Write more, blog more, journal more.

6 things where I mark the transition in our lives with children leaving home and patterns in our world changing.

26. Create new family tradditions that reflect where our family is at now, so we keep the traditions that tie us together and build new ones that meet our changing family where it is at.

27. Sell our big house and downsize to a smaller, cosier, more simple space.

28. Do a 30-day challenge for a habit I want to develop or change. Which I will identify this summer. But I think this might really serve me when I carve out the time and practice the discipline to the write that book in #3 above.

29. Declutter the house so we can downsize, getting rid of all the things we’ve been filling this house with for 16 years that we don’t really need but someone else could use.

30. Get rid of cable tv. Or…because there is someone in the house who likes TSN and Sunday football maybe just stop watching the tv myself.

31. Celebrate the changes in our family — welcoming a new member through marriage, children carving out their own lives in communities they love. Mark those milestones with events and joy.

7 things where I move my body, get stronger, celebrate being alive physically:

32. Run 2 Spartan races in 2018, 1 of them with a dear friend, and 1 with my brother. These are such good markers of the state of my fitness that they are on my list most years.

33. Get a personal trainer so I am focused in building strength and endurance at the same time.

34. Participate in a paddle board regatta.

35. Just get out on my paddle board more often. Play hooky from work and life and go paddling for the sheer joy of it.

36. Run another City Chase race with family and friends for the fun of it. Its as close to Amazing Race as you can get without being on the show.

37. Take a cross country ski clinic so I can enjoy the never ending winter.

38. Snow shoe more often.

9 things where I learn, grow and think deep thoughts. This turns out to be mostly a list of books I want to read this year.

39. Read a book from a writer on every continent. Or maybe about every continent because I’m not sure there are writers from Antarctica?

40. Download interesting podcasts about food, climate change, travel, business, social justice and listen to them while I cook. Since I cook a lot, it’s like multi-tasking filling my mind and our bellies.

41. Read a fiction and a non-fiction book from each of the countries on my bucket list. Since I have to make a bucket list first (see #18) I don’t know which countries these are yet but I do know that when I travel I love to read about the places I go and read authors from those worlds.

42. Read Recovery by Russell Brand. Since Russell Brand is the Philosopher King of this era this exploration into the depths of his humanity should be insightful.

43. Read Behave by Robert Sapolsky.

44. Read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

45. Read Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris.

46. Renew my library card. And actually go to the library because its part of the community and I love books. And also not paying for them to be downloaded to my ipad might be nice too.

47. Read more poetry.

3 things about being grateful for this beautiful life.

48. Practice gratitude on a daily basis for all the good things in my life.

49. Continue to set intentions for each day about how I want to show up, and how I can be of service to others.

50. Celebrate turning 50. Because this is a beautiful life in a beautiful world and I’m so grateful.

What happens when a little vulnerability changes everything

 It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Recently, I took my mother-in-law to the Doctor. The trip left me with some heartache, grief, and a need for a brave, honest conversations with myself.

First, let me say this has been a hard post to write. I’ve had to wrestle with some demons — why am I writing about this? Is this my story to share? Am I hurting anyone in the sharing of the story? How would my mother-in-law feel if she read this? In the end I decided to share it because I have tried to do it with integrity and respect, and because it may serve others to think of the situations where you need to show up with courage and compassion, to have brave, honest conversations with loved ones, and with yourself. It may help others who believe that vulnerability is the path to connection, but who get caught when it catches them surprise.

Back to the story.

My mother-in-law is 89. She has two Doctorate degrees, from a time when most women didn’t get a university education. She goes by her married name and her professional name, when most women were defined by their father or husband’s name. She was a pioneer and a first feminist. She would have strongly supported every woman’s right to march in yesterday’s Women’s marches, but would have never done so herself because the situation might have been a little unpredictable, uncontrolled, where things could perhaps get out of hand. She is opinionated, strongly independent, and confident. She can be judgmental, demanding and harsh in the expression of her views. She has no time for sentimentality or vulnerability in anyone else and believes strongly in always having things handled, even when you don’t. She is an adventurer, having travelled to most of the countries in the world over her life, including wildly brave trips like taking the train by herself through Kazakhstan in the 1960’s. She is all those fierce, independent things. However, she is never nurturing, gentle or vulnerable — those things aren’t in her. She doesn’t believe in what she views as weakness, and she can harshly condemn weakness in others. That is just who she is.

I’ve struggled over the years being comfortable with how she shows up in the world. I applaud her bold courage, her independence and how she lives her life on her own terms. I’m in awe of her trail blazing spirit. I also struggle with her “say it like it is” approach, and honestly, sometimes I’m offended by the things she says. I’ve got a secret yearning for a close relationship with my mother-in-law, my husband’s only family. I wish we had shared interests or deep conversations about the things that matter, but I’ve told myself a story for 17 years that this will never come to pass. Those are my feelings and reactions, not a problem with her. Over the years we’ve mostly found a balance in our relationship and roles.

The challenges started with the assumptions I made.

I thought I was taking this strong, proud, independent woman to her appointment. She asked me to come because sometimes she forgets things and I would remember the details the Dr. had to share. After all, she is 89.

It was a long Dr. appt. with multiple exams. That’s the context of the event. The feeling of the event was a gradual disintegration. In this context, this fiercely independent woman became confused, disoriented, vulnerable, lost, uncertain, wanting to provide the “right” answers. I wasn’t expecting that. I’d never seen her not know the way. Never seen her be vulnerable or confused. Even when her husband of almost 50 years died two years ago she was stern, practical and moving on.

It threw me off balance to see her lost and uncertain, and I didn’t know what to do. She leads, we follow. She is in charge, and we go where she wants us to. But in this moment, she was lost.

I had to ask myself “How do you want to be in this moment? How do you want to show up? What is called for in this moment?” I could have done nothing. That was an option. Instead I chose the roles of advocate, translator, supporter. I chose to act on her behalf, asking questions I thought she would want answers to, channelling her curiosity and directness. I translated the overwhelming amount of information the Dr. shared into bite size chunks, slowed down the conversation, checked for understanding and decision-making after each piece of information. I chose to be supportive, thinking of how she would want to be supported, not how I would want to receive support or how I would want to offer it. I thought she would want things normalized, to receive affirmation that things had gone fine, to not make too big of a fuss over things. I offered that in a no nonsense manner. I’m not telling you what I did so you can tell me I did OK. I have no idea if I chose correctly. What I chose is what I chose in that moment when I was taken off guard and surprised by something I never expected to happen.

The appointment ended, and I returned my mother-in-law to her retirement residence for a much needed rest.

I’ve been left with this unsettled feeling ever since. I’ve been trying to process it and what I’ve been left with is this:

  • People are all vulnerable when their masks come off — and everyone has a mask.Remember that. Don’t think because someone shows up in the world one way over and over again that the vulnerability isn’t there under the surface. It’s just that some masks are harder to take off and deeply ingrained.
  • Vulnerability gives you windows into someone’s soul. What you see there might surprise, unsettle you or make you uncomfortable. When someone is vulnerable, be careful not to judge. I got this beautiful window into my mother-in-law’s soul, and some of the things I learned I wished weren’t true. That means I judged them.
  • Vulnerability in others can make us question what we stand for. How do I stand in a value of “we can talk about anything” if what I learn makes me uncomfortable? I think (and I hope) the moment of learning is in seeing the tension and trying to stay with it. It would be great if I got it “right” but its really more about honouring the other person more than your own discomfort.
  • Vulnerability in others can make you vulnerable too. It can make you question your choices, your values, yourself. After some time to process it, I think thats good and right and beautiful. It makes you stretch and grow, see your own mess more fully, and choose to live brave anyway.
  • Vulnerability creates connection, every time. I have this deeper, more empathetic appreciation of who my mother-in-law really is, in ways I thought would never happen. I’m touched and humbled by the opportunity to have seen beneath the mask, to have had a glimpse into her soul. Those moments will stay with me.
  • Vulnerability in others softens your own heart. I realize that for years I have responded to my mother-in-law based on how has she presented to me. Tough, strong, confident, harsh….I chose to accept that mask she presented and to never look beneath it. I chose to respond in kind, with less generosity, compassion or empathy than I would show most others, because she didn’t want that from me. I closed my heart to her, because of the assumptions I made about what she wanted from me. That’s a story I’ve told myself for 17 years, but its a story I can write a new ending to.

Now, things are back to “normal” with weekly dinners, and phone calls, and her mask firmly in place. But I’m different because of that moment — I’ve been given the gift of seeing her a little more fully, and my heart is softer and my life is fuller because of it. I’m grateful for my own stumble and uncertainty. Even if our dinner conversation goes back to talking about the news, or what is happening in the retirement residence, I’m holding a small window into a bigger picture of her soul. And I’m writing a new ending for the story of our relationship.

Successful resolutions require a look at your whole life

 Most common resolutions. Picture source: Huffington Post

Most common resolutions. Picture source: Huffington Post

It’s that time of year. My gym is full of people I’ve never seen before, the produce section of the grocery store is full of people buying vegetables. My feeds are full of posts and blogs about new year resolutions (like this one!).

New year resolutions a cultural artifact for so many of us, for making choices about changing our lives. I was surprised to learn that people who make life changes at new year are likely to be more successful than people who make change at other times of the year — check out this TED Ed video for some quick insights.

While I’ve been reflecting on the journey of 2017 taking stock of where I’ve been and planning where I’m going next it has occurred to me that identifying actions to take in isolation to the whole of my life doesn’t work. It makes those goals transactional, rather than connecting them to the larger framework of what makes me whole, authentic and fulfilled. Shouldn’t choices about change connect to what matters most to you?

I like to think about goal setting and making resolutions as a Brave, Honest Conversation with YOURSELF.

I came up with this easy exercise that allowed me to connect my new year goals to the whole of my life.

  1. Picture a tic tac toe board. Imagine that your life is the game board — you won’t play all squares every turn, and different squares will be winners during different games, but you need a complete game board in order to play. If you’ve got a board with 3 or 5 squares instead of 9 you can’t play the whole game.


2. Now, name the squares on the board. The squares on the board are the things you need in your life to keep you whole, centered and fulfilled. Each square will represent something different; for example, exercise or time with family or creativity. Ask yourself what do I need in my life for me to be whole so I can do the things that are calling me? When you have 9 different things identified, they become the board game for your life.

3. You may see themes emerge when you write the squares up. It is likely there are connections between some of the squares and the impact they have when they are present in your life. You won’t need to play every square every day, but over time you will see patterns. You will also find that when you don’t have all the squares in rotation over time you are out of balance, and you can easily see where you need to adjust course.

I’ve posted a picture of my board. You can see I’ve named the 9 squares;

  • creativity,
  • body time / physicality / exercise,
  • nature / outdoors,
  • growth & change,
  • return on investment and adding value in return for $,
  • positive impact on world + those around me,
  • adventure,
  • deep thoughts / time to think, and
  • time and connection with family.

Once I identified those 9 squares I realized I don’t need them all in my life every day, but to make my life whole I need all of them. I began to see there were connections or themes between the columns and the rows. The left column is about living wild and free, steering my own course, exploring life in an autonomous way that honours my deep values of choice and freedom. The middle column is all about growing — growing my business, strtetching my body and growing stronger, learning new things and developing new content. The right column is about the connections that are core to making my life sing; time outside and in nature, positive impact in the world and on those around me, and connected time with those dearest to me.



There are also themes in the squares for each row. The top row feeds my soul, and the source of my authenticity with creativity, movement and time outside. The middle row is about my work in the world, always growing and changing, never static, growing my business and having a positive impact. The bottom row are those things that keep me whole and grounded; adventure, deep thoughts and family. Review your squares and see what connections emerge. Move the squares around so you can link those themes together.

4. Now you can set new year resolutions or goals and tie them to the squares on your board so they become specific and actionable, and connect to the things you need in your life to be whole, centered and possible. For example, I’ve got a goal of increasing my fitness in 2018 so I can hike the Juan de Fuca trail and run a couple Spartan races with ease. So I’ve got a goal of the gym 3 to 4 times per week (depending on my travel schedule) and increasing my running and stair climbing each week. This goal connects to something I already have in my life that I need to be whole and it just requires a shift in time allocation. I’ve also got a bunch of goals around growing my business that connect to the creativity square, the growth and change square and the value added finance square.

Now when I set new goals on an ongoing basis I go back to my board — am I setting a goal that builds on and expands things I already need in my life? My likelihood of success is higher because that choice reflects something that makes me a better person. If the idea doesn’t connect to the board I need to check in and reflect on whether its just a good idea, but not for me, or if I’m wanting to reinvent some part of my life. Which is fine too, I just need to ask the question and do some reflection.

I hope this helps you create new year resolutions that connect to the fabric of your life. Let me know how it goes!

An opportunity for brave leadership: The Peel Watershed.

 The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Friday December 1, 2017 marked the end of a long battle in the courts…and the start of a new journey, one just as potentially fraught with conflict, misunderstandings and mis-steps as the journey to this point.

If you don’t know about the Peel Watershed, you can read may of the details on CBC or at Protect the Peel. To summarize:

  • A multi-year collaborative consultation process led by an independent commission between First Nations, government and key stakeholders resulted in a recommended land use plan for 68,000 square km of pristine wilderness.
  • That recommended plan protected about 80% of the land use area.
  • The Yukon government at the time didn’t like that plan and came up with its own plan, which would have protected about 30% of the land use area.
  • Protect the Peel was born out of that decision, and Yukon First Nations and environmental groups took the government to court arguing that they had breached treaty rights.
  • After 5 years in the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the Yukon government didn’t have the right to ignore the commission’s plan in favour of its own plan. A partial re-set button was set that re-starts consultation from the point of the commission’s recommended plan. That means that the Government can approve, reject or modify the plan — after consultation.

Those are the facts. But they only tell half the story. This is an issue that has galvanized Yukoners, Canadians and stakeholders with interests from much further afield. It is a rallying cry for environmental protection and indigenous rights. On a larger scale this case presents an example of how governments respect and value the citizens they serve — or not. A documentary, travelling art exhibit and international campaign were born from the struggle. When you visit Yukon you see bumper stickers, billboards and flyers posted everywhere.

These calls to action create a sense that everyone feels the same about the issue. But that’s a false sense of unanymity. There are other voices that aren’t reflected — natural resource extraction companies, economic development stakeholders, regular Yukoners. Around some board room and kitchen tables in the Yukon, the Peel Watershed is a tough topic to discuss — there are views and perspectives that are afraid to be voiced for fear of intimidation or exclusion. This was a key election issue, and the Yukon Party that made the decision that threw everything sideways lost power in that election.


 Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

This decision presses a partial re-set button that will be a real test of the new Yukon government’s leadership. If I were them, I’d start carefully, slowly and thoughtfully before implementing the consultation process on the commission’s recommended plan.

Here are a couple approaches that might serve to bring people together and create long-term sustainable solutions for ALL of those who care about this place and its people.

  1. Consider what will make the consultation process meaningful. And go beyond just considering and telling people about how you plan to run the process but get them all together in a room, in a rich deliberative multi-way conversation that addresses:
  • where have we been
  • where are we starting from
  • what will make this process meaningful and how can we measure that process. Create some specific indicators of success for that process so everyone agrees.
  • what roles will people play
  • who needs to be part of the conversation to ensure it is sustainable for all Yukoners in the long run

2. THEN plan the engagement process based on that input. Go slow to go fast — make sure you take adequate time to plan out a process that can demonstrate it is meaningful. Don’t rush into this. If you get it wrong this time there are no more chances to build trust and make decisions for long-term good. Make sure your process is fair, inclusive, and meaningful and your decision will be too.

3. Implement the process with neutral facilitators. This is a hot topic and views on it are widely known. If you were a participant who held a different view from a leader in a meeting on this issue would you say what you thought or contribute to the conversation? No, you wouldn’t. Make sure the process is seen clearly to be as unbiased and ethical as possible. Have the data analyzed by someone other than a key stakeholder or the government. Have everyone agree to those terms in the workshops noted under #2 above.

4. Take this opportunity to bravely lead. How do you want to show up? How do you want to be when you engage on this controversial, emotional issue? This is going to be messy, and there will lobbying and positions on all sides. Recognize that the loudest voices aren’t the only voices you should hear — you should hear ALL the voices. It will take courage to stay the course, to trust in a meaningful process, to have faith in the possibility of what really deliberative conversations can create when people from all sorts of life experiences come together. Leaders will need to know where they stand, what they stand for and how they want to show up. And they will need to hold themselves courageous to holding that space for others so they can participate at their best too.

5. When its over, lean into the principles of what makes engagement meaningful. Explain the decision and what you did, and what you didn’t do and why. Demonstrate that the process was fair, inclusive and meaningful — even if the final decision wasn’t exactly what everyone might have wanted. Continue to invest in relationships, build trust and bravely lead as you move into implementation.

It isn’t often you get a “do over” on a major public issue where there is this much passion and interest.

The world is watching.

Take a deep breath, and step forward with courage and compassion and bravely lead a meaningful conversation. And it will all work out.

5 reasons why your organization will fail to create positive change. And what you can do about it.

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I’ve been thinking about what it really takes to build leadership capacity inside organizations, and what is really required to have brave, honest conversations about the things that matter most.

Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to live their values. Everyone wants their organization to be successful, and to feel part of something bigger, doing good work in the world. We all want that, but few of us challenge the status quo, call out the gap between what we say we value and what we really do, and almost no one wants to rock the boat.

It’s like those signs in the London tube system: “Mind The Gap.” The gap comes in many forms:

  • The gap between what we say we believe and value and what we really do.
  • The gap between who we want to be and how we act every day.
  • The gap between the vision we hold and the reality we work in.
  • The gap between how we spend our time and how we say we want to spend our time.
  • The gap between solving the problem and being owners of our lives and work, and waiting for someone else to fix things and lead us.

Here are some examples of what I’ve come across lately in my work.

“Leaders don’t do arts and crafts.” This was said by a woman in a workshop I facilitated to help her organization become more collaborative and innovative in the face of conflict, tension and diverging perspectives on tough issues. She was more worried about being uncomfortable trying something new and different in the session than she was about making progress on the bigger goals of innovation, collaboration and positive change.

“Our values include building trust and practicing empathy, but our organization is in survival mode. The tension and conflict on our leadership team gets worse every day. But we don’t have time to do any team building or leadership development because we have a fiscal deficit and some big new revenue targets to achieve.” The team is in conflict, leadership is lacking and performance is suffering. What might it be like if the team took time out to be better leaders and stronger together so that they could reach their performance goals instead of doing the same thing harder and longer thinking they will get a better result?

“One of our values is ‘Get shit done.’ This translates into the expectation that staff put everything in their lives on hold in order to put the company first.” Getting things done matters when you run a business. Productivity, efficiency and performance are core to growth. However, in the long-term its people who get things done, and people need to be whole, rejuvenated, and valued to perform over the long haul. And leadership is about far more than just doing things.

“All I do is work. I’m so stressed out all the time I just want to escape.” This was said by a woman who also regularly says she loves her job. Or maybe she just loves the idea of her job? Life is short and feeling that way every day means her contribution to the organizaiton, and to the people in her life is limited and less than vibrant.

“We need leadership support for this culture change to be real. They need to understand what they are asking us to do, and have our backs before we can get started.” Sometimes the change starts with you. Sometimes leadership asks you to do things because they do support the change and have your backs. Sometimes you need to look deeper into what is causing the resistance to change. Sometimes you need to lead before you know things are certain and safe.

“Relationships are what I value most.” Except when you don’t. Except when your actions speak louder than your words and what you really practice is lack of communication, respect, response or care. What you do speaks louder than what you say, and if what you are doing is operating from a place of your needs before others every time, it will be evident that is what you value over other people.

Sound familiar? Sound like a day in your organization? I could go on and on. The things people say in sessions roll around in my head day after day, and they’ve come together to create 5 reasons why organizations won’t create positive change — and what you can do about it.

1. Your leadership team wasn’t born knowing how to be leaders.

For the most part, leaders aren't born, they are made through their experiences, choices and commitment to showing up. Technical expertise doesn’t mean leaders have the skills and knowledge in core leadership attributes like empathy, humility, courage, respect, listening, compassion and commitment. If you start to put more emphasis on supporting leaders to lead by developing competencies that inspire and empwer others you will enable them to solve tough problems and achieve meaningful change. Until then, leaders will go towards what they know when things get tough — and technical skills won’t be what helps the team or the organization move forward. Take the time and effort to build capacity for brave, compassionate leadership and your organization will be stronger in the long run. Ideally, don’t wait until you are in crisis mode to do this, but instead make it part of how you operate every day.

2. Others don’t feel empowered to be part of the solution.

My life’s work is in engagement. Public, community, and organizational engagement — the space where people come together to solve problems. Collaboration, innovation, empowering — these are more than words. When you create the spaces for inclusive, honest, transparent dialogue on real issues you build a culture where people feel responsible, powerful and possible. They are inspired to actually ‘get shit done’ because they are trusted to bring their best, every day, every situation. That means loosening up hierarchies, layers of approval and working from the belief that your staff will make choices based on what is best for everyone, and then creating space for them to do just that. It’s tough to change these norms, and sometimes it takes baby steps to test it out but the results speak for themselves.

3. Your staff don’t know how to have brave, honest conversations about the issues that matter most.


The path to solving the problems we face in our worlds are through brave, honest conversations. That means talking about uncomfortable topics, embracing emotion, seeking to understand even when we disagree, speaking truth to power and authentically leading in the most challenging of situations.

These are skills that must be learned, practiced and be part of daily culture to be made real. Learning to give feedback from a place of unconditional positive regard so people are built up rather than torn down, developing norms where people can be vulnerable and therefore build a trusting, supportive culture and affirming courage and compassion as cultural values — these are daily practices. People need skill building and practice to make this real — saying that vulnerability or empathy are your corporate values doesn’t make them so. Living them every day in your interactions with each other makes them real.

4. Your culture emphasizes the importance of doing, being busy and reacting to the next crisis more than they honour the values written on your mission statement.

More than ever, busyness shows up as a cultural value. It’s become part of organizational and individual identity, as if somehow the busier we are the more valuable and worthy we are. When we fill every moment with ‘doing’ we lose sight of WHY we are doing things, and we sacrifice relationships, leadership and community at the altar of busyness. I know people are busy — and I also know that you can be busy and bring your best self, be your most courageous, compassionate self and lead from an authentic place where you are present, listening and respectful. Ego calls out for us to put our own needs first and focus on ‘doing’ at the expense of relationships. Leadership calls for us to put the needs of others are the forefront and create the space to inspire, support and empower. When we are busy reacting, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Do you want to spend your energy on the immediate things or on the really important things? Start by asking questions like “Why are we doing this work? What are we trying to achieve here?” and hold that at the forefront of choice-making. Ask yourself what you can say “no” to so you can say “yes” to the things that really matter. Hold team meetings where you start with prioritizing tasks that connect to values, strategic plans and mission rather than allocating and distributing to do lists and action plans. Choose differently, and your culture will shift to one of values instead of one of busyness.

5. People are probably afraid to try and fail, test new things, be open and act human.


One of the biggest long term tests of whether an organization will succeed or fail is how innovative it is. Innovation comes from a combination of creativity, empowerment and freedom. It needs to be fostered through word and action, in an environemnt of supportive learning free of blame, shame and judgment. That requires a practice of ‘just say yes’ and ‘try, test and learn’ as an operating culture. It means leaders who value performance by measuring how many new ideas were tested out and learned from, and how much creativity was generated by a team. It requires a shift in mindset from measuring action and tasks to measuring positive change, ideas and possibility focused on bigger long-term goals.

Positive change is possible.

It starts with you.

It starts with your leadership, and your words and actions aligned to build a culture that inspires, empowers and enables brave, honest conversations.

How to be messy AND bravely lead

Wallowing in the depths of self-doubt is common. It’s what you do when you realize you are there that makes the difference.

Here are some recent insights on how to be messy AND brave in your life.

I’ve been rolling around in the muck of self-doubt lately, trying to get balance and clarity on the positive change and impact I really want to have in the world, but mostly worrying whether the change I want to create is possible. Then the universe gave me a couple of gifts that helped me shift from messy to messy AND brave.

First, was a conversation with the talented and insightful Rick Tamlyn (if you need a coach to help you grow your impact in the world, check him out), who helped me embrace the mess that comes from taking a stand, showing up in the world and being courageous. It takes effort, energy and heart to do this day after day and sometimes you will get a little tired. Being a courageous leader and having brave, honest conversations isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s OK to need to step a way for a bit. Go with that feeling of wanting to retreat, sink into it for a bit, nurture your soul.

Then get back out there and go again, because how you show up, the impact you can have on and with others, the brave, honest conversations that need to be had — they are waiting for you.

That’s tip 1: When you are a mess, step into it. Be messy. Being brave isn’t possible without the days when you are messy. It’s like how joy isn’t joyful without the days when you are sad. They go together. No one is brave all the time.

I’ve been really reflecting on how I want to show up — what are the ways of being that serve me in bringing brave, honest conversations to the world? How do I help others have those tough conversations? How do we build change experiences where people yearn for more conversations where they emerge believing in possibility rather than weighed down by challenge? What happens when I am human and don’t show up as a brave leader in a tough moment? These are big questions that have been circling in my brain based on recent experiences. I’ve been in conversation with a colleague about creating an agreement for how we work together in the future. Some days I was open hearted and brave, leaning into possibility and co-creating new solutions. I was always responsive, committed and attentive. I had hopes and expectations of quick resolution and forward momentum. However, the longer the conversation went on, the more it dragged me under, and I frequently became frustrated, feeling trapped and held hostage. It’s not a good place to be. It’s like being a cage tiger. It’s tough to lead from that place, locked in a cage. I can’t say I led from my best self every day, but it was a beautiful and important lesson in recovery, over and over again.

Tip #2: Know where you stand. And know how to help yourself recover. How do you want to be? How do you want to show up? Take that stand, and if you falter, get up and recover and try again. You won’t get it right every time. In fact, you might mess it up frequently. When you do falter, acknowledge where you are in that moment, do the things that help you re-center, press re-set, and commit again.

This morning I was sitting down to write a blog and decided to check my email first. (FYI just an off topic tip — that is not a brilliant idea when you are sitting down to get creative, and can be full of distractions and generally allow you to procrastinate about writing for a bit longer. So don’t do what I do. Do what I say).In my email box was a delightful email from the inspiring and entertaining Marie Forleo (if you don’t follow her, you should). Her latest video is about self doubt, impact on others, and kindness. It brought me back to the WHY — WHY I do this work — because if I support 1 person to go home or to their office or community and have a brave, honest conversation that changes their world for the better, I’ve done what I set out to do. Just 1 person who lives brave, honest conversations, whose life is more possible because they can have tough conversations and solve problems….then its all worth it. That’s impact.

I’ve recently spent 3 weeks in New Brunswick, facilitating brave honest conversations with more than 500 internal staff inside an organization. I had a woman leave a session I facilitated and come back 10 minutes later to tell me that when she got the invitation to attend the conversation she was was frustrated, angry and defensive. She was sure it was going to be a negative experience full of conflict. She had to come back to tell me that even though that was where she started out, where she ended up was hopeful, optimistic and positive; that is was a powerful and affirming conversation to have been part of and her views are changed from where she started. That’s why I do this work. The shift.

That’s tip #3: When you are lost or struggling go back to your WHY. What is the impact you want to have? What change are you trying to create? What do you believe so passionately in it calls to you? That commitment to what matters most to you, it makes the doubt less important. Be committed to something more than your doubts or fears. It doesn’t make them go away, but it makes them less consuming.

And tip #4: To echo Marie…reach out with kindness. Practice gratitude. Tell people who have had an impact on your life that they have done that. We need a lot more kindness in the world, and you never know what your kindness or our courage will inspire in someone else.

Then take a deep breath and take a stand and show up again. Bravely lead, practice brave, honest conversations in your life, organization and community. Be the world you want to live in. Create positive change. And rest and recover once in a while too.

Why COMMUNITY matters most in COMMUNITY RECOVERY to disaster

 Picture credit: The Daily Mail

Picture credit: The Daily Mail

I’ve been riveted by coverage of the total devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. I’m speechless, my throat tight with tears for the heartache and suffering being experienced by those who are impacted. I’m motivated to action and to be of service and struggling with doing more than giving money.

This is a call to action I can’t ignore. My life’s work is in brave, honest conversations. I have extensive experience in working with communities post disaster to figure out what to rebuild, where to rebuild, how to support each other and get support for the cycles of challenge, emotion and trauma that comes post disaster. This is what I know, what I do best, how I make a difference in the world.

I’ve worked on community recovery from wild fires in northern Alberta. I’ve worked on community recovery to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. I’ve worked extensively across Australia over many years to build capacity, skill and knowledge for community led recovery to natural disaster with the Australian Emergency Management Institute. And I know help is needed now, before recovery starts to happen form Hurricane Irma.

Right now, communities are in a phase of RESPONSE. Making sure people have temporary shelter, have food and water, taking care of those needing medical and emergency assistance. It’s a time of taking stock of the damage to infrastructure and assessing risks. This is what the military, Red Cross and other agencies do best — come in fast and assess the situation, deal with emergencies and deliver immediate aid.


 National Disaster Recovery Framework

National Disaster Recovery Framework

In many situations in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, like in the case of the British and US Virgin Islands, this is what survivors themselves are pulling together to do. But it isn’t sustainable for the long run for survivors to do this. Community recovery is a long, slow, painful crawl. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And people will tire, burnout, and start to experience psycho-social impacts of the disaster themselves, leaving them less able to help others as time goes on.

RECOVERY starts very soon after the dust starts to settle and recovery takes months and years. In the case of Hurricane Irma, definitely years. After the dust settles and the debris gets cleared, everyone has temporary shelter and food and water comes the hardest part. The really hard work of building lives, connections and community with people who are disconnected, scattered and traumatized.

I know from experience that successful recovery comes from the vision, dreams, hopes and challenges of community themselves. It is about so much more than the buildings, roads and infrastructure. It is about community choosing what their future looks like, and then acting on it with the support of agencies and groups. Not the other way around, which happens so often where agencies act, and community follows. It is about community recovery and it is more than that — it is COMMUNITY LED RECOVERY where lives, connection, social capital and vibrancy of place are built again.

You can build back buildings but can you build back connection, social capital and community values? That is what matters most, and in our rush to take stock and take action we sometimes forget that disaster is about people. And how we care for them and support them, and hear what they want and need. And how we engage them in re-designing their lives.

It is about the WHOLE community creating that vision and developing a long-term plan for recovery that is inclusive and grounded in community values. That is hard when people are scattered and moved from their original connections and place. It’s hard too when just a few survivors are there to take action, supporting the rest.

 Picture source: CNBC. Richard Branson on Necker Island, post Hurricane Irma. Media coverage reports that Branson and his team have been personally providing enormous aid and relief services throughout the Virgin Islands, post disaster.

Picture source: CNBC. Richard Branson on Necker Island, post Hurricane Irma. Media coverage reports that Branson and his team have been personally providing enormous aid and relief services throughout the Virgin Islands, post disaster.

In the beginning communities pull together and are often overwhelmed by the heartfelt outpouring and intense bonding that comes from the gratitude for being alive, and the adrenaline of the experience. The short term aftermath of a disaster celebrates heroic efforts and contributions, and a community pulls together.

Eventually, cleavages start to show. People get tired. Not everyone is strong all the time, every day. People are grieving, hurt, fearful and scared, and they may start to feel the stress, overwhelmed and need support.


 Fort McMurray billboard, months after the wildfires, as evacuated people start to return to the community

Fort McMurray billboard, months after the wildfires, as evacuated people start to return to the community

Those who have been evacuated or left the community feel further disconnected and disenfranchised, and are often isolated from social connections and support.

You’ve got to have a place and a space for everyone, wherever they are emotionally in order to start planning for recovery.

The goal is not to re-build or build back better (as so often is said) but instead to BUILD COMMUNITY, in all the senses of that word. Not just the physical structures, spaces and infrastructure but also the social connections, the vibrancy of place, to create a physical essence of the hopes, dreams and values of a people in a location.

And this takes the community to lead. It takes a plan and a process. It takes an assessment of community resiliency at the outset, to identify vulnerabilities and risks.

 National Principles for Disaster Recovery, Australia. I was lucky enough to be part of facilitating workshops and sharing best practices that led to the Australian framework for these principles, grounded in approaches led by community.

National Principles for Disaster Recovery, Australia. I was lucky enough to be part of facilitating workshops and sharing best practices that led to the Australian framework for these principles, grounded in approaches led by community.

Long-term recovery takes a community led process that is grounded in:

  • Approaches led by community. Where community comes together to talk together about what comes next, what worked before, and what they want to recreate, and what didn’t work and what they want instead. It takes someone to hold space for those brave, honest conversations and to support people to really dig into their needs and where to from here.
  • It takes a connection between community conversations and the actions that are taken by agencies so that what happens reflect the community’s wishes.
  • It takes open and transparent flow of information and free flowing, responsive communication.
  • It takes a recognition of complexity. There are power dynamics, conflicts and diverging views in communities everywhere, all the time. Post disaster these can be heightened and then layered with the trauma, disorientation, loss, anxiety and anger that can be generated by the event.
  • Recovery planning and conversations need be timely, fair, equitable and inclusive. It takes everyone’s views and perspectives on the table, hashing out what happens long-term, who benefits and when and what is needed in a place of diverse needs and perspectives.
  • Recovery means building community with an eye to long-term resilience. Resilience needs to be seen as geographic, structural and also emotional, psychological and social.
  • Recovery takes compassion, courage and consistently held space for tough conversations, all the time so people feel held, supported and accepted right where they are. It also means supporting those who are vulnerable or marginalized and ensuring their voice is heard is crucial.
  • Recovery takes flexibility as needs change over time, and adjusting the plan through conversation, dialogue and community input.

The best community led recovery starts with people at the centre. It starts with a recovery process that focuses first and throughout the long marathon of building community based on community voice, view and needs.

Community led recovery takes a process laid out that says “we are in this together, and together we will choose what comes next.”

And so I’m called to action. To offer my services to support this work. To help build a process for long-term recovery that holds space for brave, honest conversations at its centre, and that allows the long journey of community led recovery and community building to begin.

Talking together: a Manifesto for Brave, Honest Conversations - How public engagement needs to change for the times

 Picture source: Americabythenumbers.org

Picture source: Americabythenumbers.org

Protests, marches, petitions. Riots, police barricades, people injured and killed. Anger, righteous indignation, tragedy and discrimination. Natural disasters, food insecurity, terrorism, poverty. We have some real challenges on this small planet. Some real struggles we aren’t dealing with very well.

What we are doing a lot is talking at each other, over each other and about each other.

We need a new way.

I’ve worked in the arena of public engagement for 25+ years, planning and hosting conversations about high stakes, high emotion issues. And in that time I’ve learned a few lessons, mostly the hard way. This is a call to action, for more, for better, for a different way of solving our problems.

 Picture source: IAP2 Canada

Picture source: IAP2 Canada

For 25 years the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has used the Core Values as the standard for meaningful engagement — for the process of bringing people together to talk about issues, and to make decisions as a result. The Core Values have served us well during that time — helping set a benchmark for meaningful public engagement and a standard for practitioners, organizations and communities to uphold. IAP2 presents awards regionally and internationally for projects and organizations that demonstrate this depth of commitment to the Core Values in public engagement.

In 2009, after much deliberation, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) created a different set of standards, called the Core Principles for Public Engagement. I was part of the team that helped refine these standards, which were presented to the Obama White House Office of Public Engagement. They are similar, and different than the IAP2 Core Values, and are more comprehensive in detail (the long version is here).

 Picture source: NCDD

Picture source: NCDD

But the world has changed. And it continues to change. What worked 20 years ago, or 8 years ago doesn’t work today. Our societies and cultures are in a massive state of transition and flux. Technological advances; changes in how people connect, gather and exchange information and views; the impacts of globalization and climate change; rising public opposition, outrage and resistance to the status quo; polarization, demonizing and fear of those who are not the same as our group; staggering levels of distrust in public organizations and institutions….we are operating in a new unknown context and reality.

The good news is that I’m optimistic. I believe that chaos, messiness and challenges are enormous opportunities. They give us something to work with, they spark the desire for change to burn brightly, and they open us up to the complexity of what it means to be human on this small planet.

I think its time we went beyond “public engagement” and start to think in new ways. It’s time we embraced the reality of the world we are in today, and the world that is emerging. With all its challenges and turmoil, we hold the keys to making positive change real.

So here goes; a Manifesto for Brave Honest Conversations.

1. Practise Courageous Leadership:

It takes more than thoughtful decision-makers or a good process to make engagement meaningful. It takes courage to bravely have a stake, to commit to a tough conversation about issues that have no easy solutions, and to invite everyone in to talk together in ways that build something new. It requires clarity of purpose and integrity, to consciously choose solving the problem over winning or seeing your view as the right one. It takes leaders to host conversations that they don’t have the answers to rather than talking with stakeholders about easy issues, or waiting to come forward until they’ve crafted possible solutions to tough problems. It takes not knowing the outcome and going ahead anyway.

 Picture source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Picture source: Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

It takes practitioners taking a stand and advocating for civil discourse and meaningful process, and being held to account for the design and facilitation of brave, honest conversations that are really brave and honest. It takes practitioners saying “no, that isn’t meaningful or ethical or fair”about processes that are compromised and contribute to damaged public trust, because that doesn’t serve anyone.

It takes participants willing to commit to engaging with those who they may view as the “enemy” on tough conversations. It takes the ability to withhold assumptions, judgments, and the desire to try to see the other human being under the mask.

It takes the willingness to try and fail and not get it right. To acknowledge and accept and lean into our mistakes and mis-steps for the greater good and because we are committed to solving the real challenges that face us, rather than because we want to be right, look good or are afraid of what could happen. It takes being afraid and doing the right thing anyway, because it matters that we change the way we talk together about things that really matter or our own futures will be negatively impacted.

2. Work with the whole system:

We don’t sustainably solve the challenges that face us by focusing on one project at a time. When you pull back to 30,000 feet you see it isn’t about building a bridge or a pipeline, rezoning urban land, cleaning up a contaminated site or changing a health care policy. It’s really about balancing energy and the environment, dealing with racial discrimation and economic inequities or the impacts of colonialism. It’s about changing communities or creating safe living environments for all children, or access to health and wellness for everyone.

We need to stop having conversations about issues one project at a time, and start framing our dialogues around the bigger picture. Stop narrowing down who has a stake or a position or the ability to influence a specific project, and start thinking about who cares about the issue, and the longer-term impacts over time on human systems and environments.

We need to step back from the conflict of X or Y decision and instead find new ways of finding solutions to the larger issues that confront us. For example, once we’ve figured out ways of moving forward on energy and the environment, it will be easy to see whether the solution includes pipeline X.

Stepping out of the specifics and into the larger picture means we also expand our lens of who has power, influence and opportunity to participate in the conversation — and by doing so we expand the possible seats at the table. That enhances the views we hear and creates more possible solutions, more diversity of ideas, the potential of finding better ways forward that consider all consequences and outcomes.

3. Embrace the whole person:

It’s time we just agreed that feelings matter. They aren’t the only thing that matters, but they are important. And they aren’t just important until we can get people to focus on facts — they are part of being fully human, required for fulsome and sustainable decision-making, and a reality of having brave, honest conversations about things that matter. The sooner we release the myth that we are a rational, fact based society governed by science and data, the sooner we can move on to solving real problems. What we are is a rational, fact based society full of emotional, flawed, messy, beautiful human beings, and we will be far more successful at solving tough problems when we embrace the whole of our humanness.

It matters that we put the heart into our engagement processes and our tough conversations. Because caring is the key to building trust, and strengthening relationships. And its no coincidence that trust in public institutions has declined as we have increased our reliance on facts over feelings. Let me be clear — I’m not saying get rid of facts. Facts matter. And so do feelings.

When we have a conflict or public opposition on an issue, we can’t separate the issue from the people. People come with their whole life experience and values — how they’ve been treated by your organization; how the issue makes them feel; their fears, hopes and desires for the future; how other related issues connect to the topic under discussion in their lives. How many times have you heard “that’s not in the scope of this project”? People are more than the topic of your conversation or project, so engage with the whole person, in a conversation about the larger system, in order to build relationships, trust and find a solution to the real challenges.

4. Recognize right and responsibility:

IAP2 Core Value #1 says “Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” It’s a powerful statement that speaks to the underlying value of democratic society. It creates a deep sense of right and infers power on those with a voice to speak it out loud and claim their rights. That value is not to be taken lightly, and must be exercised fully for democratic societies to thrive. However, it is not enough to have a right. A right lacks integrity without responsibility.

We live in societies where right is paramount — the right to protest, march, petition, disengage, blame, shame and ridicule, the right to attack, discriminate and slander. The right to my opinion, to free speech, to proclaim my views on twitter, facebook or in this blog. We’ve created an illusion that when we sign a petition, post on facebook or march in protest we’ve changed the world. We haven’t changed anything — we’ve contributed to the collective exhale of opinions, opposition or resistance without creating the future we are calling for. We haven’t build anything new, we haven’t said what we want instead of what we don’t want, we haven’t taken action that makes anything change. Often we’ve stayed in the comfort of our homes behind our screens, and voiced a righteous view. And we haven’t engaged with or seen into the hearts of those who see the world differently than we do, or who hold different opinions. Usually we’ve talked to people who believe like we do, and demonized and separated further from those who see the world differently, often justifying that they are wrong, and we are right.

Where does my responsibility lie? Responsibility for impact? Responsibility for outcome? Responsibility for others or the collective?

When we value right over responsibility, we are all for one, and no one for all. We value our own right to an opinion over the needs of our neighbours, those who are marginalized, or the collective good. We need to bring back responsibility — for the quality of our democracy, for the practice of talking with each other, for the ability to truly solve tough challenges in our lives, organizations and communities. We are responsible for the future we create.

5. Practice meaningful inclusion:

The dictionary defines inclusion as “The act of including, or the state of being included.”

I’ve long said that meaningful engagement includes representation AND inclusion. By that I mean that when we involve people in brave, honest conversations we need people at the table who represent different interests, groups, experiences or backgrounds. Many conversations start there. The challenge with a brave, honest conversation that includes only representatives is that they grapple with the key issues, work through perceptions, perspectives and possibilities to come up with solutions, learn together and build trust and relationships — and only they are changed by the conversation. The broader organization, community or public are not changed. Others not at the table are still in the place of right over responsibility, and frequently respond to the involvement of representatives as a reinforcing of the status quo and an imbalance of power. And they are often right.

If we expand a conversation to include representation and inclusion, we are identifying who we know needs to be at the table for the creation of sustainable solutions AND we are openly saying that we welcome anyone who cares, who wants to choose to participate, who wants to be part of creating a solution to come talk together with us. We reduce the risk of talking to the same people over and over again (or talking only to those who already hold power and influence), we remove the bias of talking only to like minded people who think like we do, and we expand the pool of values, needs and ideas we have to work with creating possibility for greater success.

It’s the only way forward. Together. A space for all of us at the table.

6. Come from a place of compassion and integrity:

No matter your role in a brave, honest conversations two key things are required.

It matters that you believe in the possibility of the conversation, and have faith in what can happen when people come together to talk with each other about tough issues. When you come from a place of unconditional, positive regard you manifest that in others and in the conversation. When you commit to working through the conflict and to finding solutions, that commitment echoes when things get heated. When you are open to possibility, to new ideas, to deeply understanding other ways of thinking and seeing the world you hold space for brave, honest conversations to emerge. When you practice empathy and commit to building trust and relationships, others follow suit.

When you know what you stand for, why you are showing up as a leader, participant or practitioner, when you consciously choose “yes” to finding new solutions and deeply commit to inclusion, trust, responsibility and the important conversations we need to have, you can change the world. It is about more than what you do or what you know, it is about how you want to be. First you need to choose where you stand, and what you stand for.

7. Do it again, and again:

Engagement isn’t about projects or one-time activities or events. It isn’t simple or easy. Brave, honest conversations require time, effort, trust and relationships. They require ongoing investment by organizations, communities and practitioners. They require us to recognize that engagement is an ongoing process, over time, and is about all of our interactions, connections and the inter-relationship between people in organizations and communities over the long-haul. When we do that we contribute to vibrant communities, thriving organizations and quality democracy. And that’s worth a brave, honest conversation any day.


Join me in this Call to Action. It’s time we all showed up courageously and called for brave, honest conversations for the issues of our time. It’s time we all stood up and said we are leaders committed to conversations that create a new and different world.

We need more brave, honest conversations. We need more courageous leaders.

  • Violence in Charlottesville.
  • Climate Change impacts destroying property, wildlife, the environment.
  • A growing divide between rich and poor.
  • Discrimination, polarization and a rise in hatred.
  • Globalism and the refugee crisis.
  • Depressing levels of trust in government, media and big corporations.
  • Addiction, substance abuse and family violence.
  • Impacts of colonization on indigenous peoples.
  • Burnout, stress and a lack of innovation inside companies.

Should I go on? The list is endless. All these challenges are facing us, and there are no easy solutions. But there is a different way.

The answer is inside each one of us.

To show up, to pull our heads out of the sand, out of our devices, off our couches and CHOOSE TO MAKE CHANGE. When we sit complacent or silent or talk only to those who agree with us or have the same views, we contribute to the challenges we face. When we choose to have a voice and use it for the collective good, we are part of action for change.

When we make a choice to be part of a brave, honest conversation about the tough challenges in our world we OPEN THE DOOR TO POSSIBILITY by talking to people who are different than us, who hold different values and views, who see the world through different eyes and have different experiences. You can’t change the world with your Facebook friends, but you might be able to change the world by opening your mind to different views so you can help find solutions that work for all of us.

When you choose to LET GO OF ASSUMPTIONS AND OPEN YOUR HEARTyou can engage with people you are thinking of right now as the enemy, or as wrong, or as evil. You can let go of your need to be right or to win, and recognize we inhabit one small planet, we all live here and its in all of our interests to solve the challenges that face us. There is no winning if some of us lose.

When you acknowledge your fear and discomfort and choose to STAY IN TOUGH CONVERSATIONS TO FIND A WAY FORWARD you embody courage and choose leadership over the mob. When you reach out to someone whose values are different than yours, who you are in conflict with and bravely say “Let’s talk.” you allow for a different future than the conflict trodden path we are walking now.

After 25 years working on high stakes, high emotion public engagement projects I was asked the other day why I’ve started a new company. These are my reasons.

The world needs a new kind of leader. Leaders who show up, stand up and bravely step forward to solve the problems we face.

The answer in solving the challenges we face in our homes, communities and organizations is not in the conversation between community or stakeholders and government or company. The answer is not in the dialogue about the project, or how we spend the budget better, or build the bridge or where we put the pipeline. When the project is over we go back to our couches and devices and the world is no better, and sometimes its a little worse.

After 25 years of public engagement I know the system is not working. Yes people have a right to a voice, and when decisions are made those decisions should reflect and consider that voice. Projects should gather the insight from a variety of voices in an inclusive way and people should have the information they need to participate meaningfully. However, in so many ways we are focusing our conversations on the easy stuff, the simple stuff. We’re mostly not talking together about hate crimes, racism, gun violence or the harm we’re causing the planet. We’re not teaching people to speak to each other with love, to reach out and seek connection and common ground and solution. In fact, we’re teaching people to demand what they want as the solution at all costs, and that the answer is in shouting about what they DON’T want, not what they DO want. We’ve eroded trust in government, decision-making and even the media now to the point that we don’t know which way to turn. I say “we” purposely because aren’t we the people who participate or choose instead to sit back and comment on Facebook, or protest and also demonize the other side, who are in the role of decision-maker but who check the box on gathering citizen, employee or stakeholder input so we can say we did and then do what we planned anyway? These are OUR communities and organizations and we need to choose differently.

It breaks my heart. And it moves me to tears. And it calls me to action to know I’ve got no choice but to be part of building something new and different, where we hold the really tough conversations bravely and honestly, with space for all of us, and we find solutions together.

We need a new way.

I’m inspired by so many beautiful leaders before me that call to a world of possibility where we come together to solve challenges together. Barack Obama tweeted this quote of Nelson Mandela’s on August 12th about the Charlottesville violence. 4.4 million people liked it and 1.7 million people retweeted it. It is the most popular tweet ever on twitter, and it gives me hope for the future.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ~Nelson Mandela

The answer is in each of us, in how we want to lead our lives, in how we want to show up, and in how we come together to address the challenges we face. The answer is in an army of brave leaders who choose hope, connection and possibility. The answer is in leaders willing to have brave conversations about the things that matter, conversations that create space for everyone not just the folks who agree with them.

Join me. Let’s talk. In our homes, communities and organizations. Let’s bravely lead our own lives, so we can lead where we work and live. Let’s step into the conflict and the challenges with open hearts, integrity and courage. Together we can find solutions to the challenges that face us. Because every change starts with a brave, honest conversation.

Leading from nothing: why “holding space” is your most important leadership skill

 Photo credit: National Geographic

Photo credit: National Geographic

“Retreat 3 is a week of learning to lead from nothing.”

I’m part way through a year long Leadership program with the Coaches Training Institute and as I recently headed into Retreat 3, I was thinking; What is going to happen here? What are we going to learn about NOTHING? How do you lead from NOTHING?

And yet here I was. I thought I would be able to connect my experience of facilitating tough conversations and “holding space” for people in dialogue to what I would learn in this retreat. With my work focused on high emotion and conflict I was fairly sure I knew what holding space was and how to do it. Turns out I had a lot more to learn.


The more work I do in creating shifts through dialogue and brave conversations, the more I realize I have so much more to learn. Twenty-five years of experience is a drop in the bucket of what there is to know about the power of this work to change the world.

What is holding space anyway? Why is it a leadership skill? Leaders inspire others to make choices or take actions towards a goal or vision. Leaders works with others to make change happen, whatever kind of change they believe is needed. Leaders empower others to be better.

In order to do that, leaders need enormous self-awareness, authenticity and deep commitment to their beliefs. Leaders need to create from others, to draw from them potential and possibility, and to lean in to others as well, to bring new ideas to life that couldn’t exist without the energy of 2 or more working together. Leading from “nothing” becomes an important skill when it allows leaders to read, understand and work with the energy and possibility in the space around people and issues, and the space within themselves.

To make the concept less nebulous, think about a few tangible examples: reading the tension between people or groups; understanding that there is something that needs to be said that no one has the courage to say; following an urge to ask a question that seems off topic because your intuition tells you there is another issue underlying the one you are talking about with people; seeing the bigger picture and how 1 issue connects to a system and bringing that into focus; and clearing the space inside you so you can be receptive and aware of what is happening with others.

Leading from nothing allows the future to emerge.

In 2015, Heather Plett wrote a blog called “What it means to hold space for people, plus 8 tips on how to do it well”. It’s a beautiful blog about creating a supportive, empathetic, loving place for other human beings to be held and nurtured and cared for, especially in tough situations. I don’t want to repeat and duplicate Heather’s good work, and think we could all aspire to step into the 8 tips she offers. So if you haven’t read her work, start there. I want to build on it. After spending a week in the woods learning to lead from nothing, I offer insights from a “yes, AND…” perspective to the work of holding space, and leading from what you cannot see.

#1 Create a stake and live in it: When you are leading a session/event and interacting with others it’s really important to have something to ground yourself. I like to ask myself 3 questions: What do you believe? What do you bring? What are you in service to? Let’s look at an upcoming situation — I am leading a workshop next week with 60 leaders in the health care field, talking about conflict and controversy with the community. I BELIEVE that when I am courageous and open hearted I can serve others. I BRING my depth of experience. I am IN SERVICE TO their growth as leaders in connecting with and serving their communities. Put it all together and my stake is “When I am courageous and open hearted, I bring my experience in service of stronger connections and better care.” This stake will serve me in creating a space for learning, deep conversation and growth. It’s the reason WHY I’m doing this work. This belief will hold me courageous and committed to the people, the content, and to the space I create. I try to create a stake for every day, every event and every interaction to ground me. When I forget to do it, I can tell right away why I’m blown off course by the winds.

#2 Step into what arises, whatever it is: In my work we talk so often about “naming the elephant” when you can feel the unsaid things stomping around the room that need to come out. Notice the energy in the space between people — what does it feel like? Is it crunchy or smooth? Is tension building or easing? Did the tone or emotion in the room suddenly change? Did you say something and trigger something for someone else? Watch for and be aware of everything that is happening, far beyond what gets said or how people move their bodies. It takes courage to step in when you don’t know or can’t name what is there. Centre yourself, and move forward to whatever arises, knowing you are in service to the group.

#3 Recognize that the space inside of you is as important as the space around you: You need to be clear, open and committed in order to lead from nothing and hold the space for others. That means doing your own work in terms of self-awareness, peacefulness and openness. Whatever it takes to manifest that for yourself, it will need to be a regular practice in order to build the muscles that support you in this work. For me this includes exercise, meditation, journalling and time in nature. The clearer and more open I am, the more able I am to serve. In addition, I’m learning that this practice also helps me recover faster and more fully when I’m thrown off balance by challenges, difficulties or my own reactions to situations.

#4 Open up your senses: Deep awareness of what is in the space is required. Listen with your ears and your heart, see with your eyes and your intuition, feel with your skin and your emotional radar, taste with your imagination and your phsyical reaction to the space. It’s easy to become caught up in the content, issues, details and forget what is most important. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head wondering if you are credible enough, knowledgeable enough or thinking about the next thing you need to accomplish. I’ve taken to spending time in nature listening to the wind blow in the trees, watching the spaces between the leaves, watching the feeling the air move beneath the wings of the birds. Sounds like a lot of “woooohoooo” doesn’t it? What I do know is that doing this has strengthened my awareness and ability to read what is there AND what is coming. It’s helped me serve my team, clients and participants because I am fully aware of and connected to what is in the space around the issues or content we are discussing. Our conversations are richer, more nuanced and results are improving. So go spend an hour staring at some blades of grass and see what changes!

 Photo source: outtv.ca

Photo source: outtv.ca

#5 Connect, connect, connect:Leading from nothing and holding the space means a constant checking in with what is happening for the people and in the space to see what is emerging. You can’t check in once at the beginning, or a few times if things get challenging, and think you’re really holding space. It’s more like turning on the lights and leaving them on in the background as you go about your activities. Because the lights are on you can see things you need to see while you’re facilitating the conversation or leading the session or whatver you are doing. If you don’t keep the lights on, things get dim and you only see what is right in front of you. It’s takes a lot of energy to always have the lights on, but the outcomes are brighter, clearer and everyone can see the way forward when you exercise this skill.

#6 Seek awareness of how your leadership impacts the space in intended and unintended ways: You’ve got a stake to ground you, you are centered and open, you are practising awareness and checking in to connect with what is going on, so everything will go well, right? Yes and also no. There is no certainty in how things will go because you are dealing with real, live energy that comes from people, situation and place. You may impact the space in the way you intend. And you may also have unintended impacts — like people tune out, turn off or react negatively. Enhancing your ability to read these impacts, to step into them as they emerge and to seek feedback on what has happened will serve you and others. For example, when I get frustrated that people can’t see what I can see and I try to tell them how to move forward, I lose them instead of making the way clearer. They tune out or react to me being frustrated. That’s an unintended impact, because I’m in service to helping them find the way forward on the issues they are dealing with. However, once I follow the frustration urge and step into that, I’m no longer serving others, instead I’m serving myself, and then I’m thrown off my stake. But if I can say to the group, “I’m feeling frustrated here and I know that means I’m acting forcefully. That’s not my intention. I’m anxious for you to find the right way forward for YOU, rather than follow MY way forward. Lets begin again. What do we need to do to regroup?” then I’ve noticed and named my unintended impact. Every day we have intended impacts, and unintended impacts. The key is in building your awareness, stepping in and beginning again in service to the group.

There is no easy, straight forward path to holding space.

It takes effort, energy and practise to flex your leadership muscles to lead from nothing and hold the space in service of others. We will succeed, and we will also fail and get up and do it again. We are all capable of it. It just takes a commitment to something other than yourself, to creating a positive impact on your world.

Where are you holding space? What are you committed to beyond yourself? What do you want to create in the world?

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What happens when you act from a place of 100%?

 Photo credit: clipartkid.com

Photo credit: clipartkid.com

We live in a world where we value the 50/50 equation as a path to partnership, career, relationship and life. We look at it as a way to equally divide and share the experience, benefits, challenges and investment of an undertaking. When we equally divide, we split the good, the bad, the favourable and unfavourable. We also divide the effort, energy and resources needed by each of us to make something real — we’re each only responsible for half of what gets created, and need only to give half of our effort, creativity and care.

By focusing on 50/50 the result we create is half as powerful, creative and impactful as it could be. If I only bring half of myself and my passion, and you do the same e are divided, two halves of a whole, each of us incomplete in our efforts and commitment.

What if instead we each approached life, partnership, work, relationship with 100% energy, effort and care? What would result? What would it look like for two wholes to come together with energy and effort, committed to an action and impact?

It seems like a simple shift of perspective to move from 50/50 to 100/100 and yet it is profound in its impact and results. When you look at the world from a place of wholeness, and you call forth that wholeness in others, the difference is significant.

I’m in the Coaches Training Institute 10 month Leadership Program, and we’ve been exploring the concepts and ways of being that result in powerful, impactful leadership in the world. One of those concepts is 100/100.

I’ve been experimenting with putting this into action in my life in multiple ways.

In my work: I’ve been practising discipline and focus on what I choose to do, what I say yes to and what I say no to, so that when I’m at “hell, yes” I’m all in. It’s been challenging to be more disciplined instead of chasing after every shiny new idea however I’m starting to see results in terms of productivity and creativity. What I’m creating and designing is more powerful than what I was creating before. I’m not “phoning it in” on anything. I’m showing up in the training and facilitation room as fully present, with 100% passion, energy and my whole, authentic self. Participants and students are responding — more interested, engaged, and invested. As I work in the 100/100 space more and more I’m opening up to more abundance and possibility. It’s like the more I give it my all, the more the universe throws things my way because my energy and effort is already there to catch what comes along.

In my relationships: I’m thinking about each of the important relationships in my life, and leaning in to them more and more by being present, invested, and asking for what I need while generously giving of my whole self. I’m deeply grateful to have strong and supportive life partner, family relationships and friendships and yet I see that when I show up as 100% and ask the same of them there is more passion, energy and sheer joy in the interaction. We aren’t just together because we are in the same space, we’re together because we “see” each other and we value and connect with intimacy.

What I’m learning about 100/100 along the way is still evolving.

  • You can’t do it unless you practice self care, and are able to be grounded and centered yourself. I’m meditating and journalling more, I’m taking time for myself to think, breathe and just be. I’m listening to my body and my mind. When I’m whole for me, I can be whole for others too.
  • When I’m thrown off balance I need to recover so I can be all in. I’m recovering faster than I did before and I’ve got more clarity on what grounds me and holds me in courageous space, so that I can recover. My goal isn’t to be 100/100 all the time, every moment. My goal is to live my life from that place, knowing there will be crappy days where bad things happen AND I can pull back and recover and keep going.
  • I can’t be 100/100 on everything all at once. I need to pick my priorities and focus on those. I’m saying no more often and practising more discipline. I’m going for quality over quantity, richness and depth over shiny and sparkly.
  • I’m asking for support more, and trying harder to articulate what I need from others so they can bring it. Or not. Because its OK if they can’t bring it all the time, and I won’t know if its there for me unless I ask. I’m seeking collaboration more from new and different partners as well as those I’m already connected to. I’m craving the energy of 100/100 that comes when you fully create with others.
  • I’m becoming more self aware, allowing myself to be seen and be fully vulnerable. It’s ironic that the more vulnerable I am, the more courageous I am, and the easier it is to access my capacity to bring 100/100 to my focus.

Try it out yourself and see what emerges for you when you are all in, when you hold yourself as whole and complete and invest in others, ideas and possibilities with 100%.

Try calling forth 100% in your partners and see how they show up, and what they bring to the opportunity.

 Photo credit: quotefancy.com

Photo credit: quotefancy.com

Living from a place of 100/100 is powerful, transformative, and impactful personally and on the people around you, and on the community and organizations you interact with. It shifts perspectives, possibilities and the potential impacts.

Imagine if each of us involved in communities and government worked from a place of 100/100 to solve the problems and challenges that are facing us? Climate change, poverty, health care, inequality and more…if we focused 100/100 on the world we live in we’d be far further ahead than what we are presently creating with half the effort, investment and energy.

What kind of life and world do you want to create? It’s there for you, if you come from a place of 100/100.

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How NOT to create consensus. And how to learn from the experience and try again.

 Photo credit: dailyquotes.co

Photo credit: dailyquotes.co

In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberal party of Canada led by Justin Trudeau, campaigned on a promise of electoral reform. He promised that 2015 would be the last election that used the first-past-the-post system.

After the Liberals won the 2015 election and took office, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “I believe that fundamentally we can do better. We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and gives us a better level of governance.”

The government launched a public consultation process that included:

  • a special Parliamentary committee that conducted hearings and travelled the country (I couldn’t determine how many hearings were held or who participated).
  • the Minister embarked on a national tour.
  • MP’s hosted dozens of public forums / town hall meetings (I couldn’t determine how many public forums were held or who participated).
  • postcards were mailed to 14 million households to promote an online survey.
  • The online survey asked a series of questions and asked participants to rate their views about various issues related to governance, leadership and the electoral process by comparing choices against each other. After completing the survey, pariticpants were informed what their individual governance style is. Mine turns out to be “innovative”, although I’m not sure what relevance that has on this complex conversation.

It wasn’t clear what specific question the government was asking Canadians, or what commitment they were making to change the electoral system, beyond the promise that “change is needed”. Little information was available to the public about this complex topic, although Macleans magazine did a great job of outlining the key options, explaining each one, and even preparing infographics that outline the key elements of each option.

When the consultation was over the government identified three obstacles to moving forward. They included:

  • The lack of “consensus” on the issue.
  • That moving to a system of proportional representation could have made it easier for “extremist” parties to win seats in the House of Commons (with information from CBC Canada).
  • That a referendum would be divisive for the country.

The government said this, “A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.” The Prime Minister added that, “There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada’s stability. I’m not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.”

On February 11, 2017 protesters staged demonstrations across Canada to express their concern about the Liberal’s decision to abandon electoral reform. At the time of writing 130,000 Canadians had signed a petition calling on the government to reverse their decision and to implement electoral reform. Fair Vote Canada also created an online petition with resources and materials to provide information about electoral reform.

Here is the thing: you get what you ask for. If you want consensus you need to ask the questions that get you to common ground. You need a process designed to create alignment and a path forward from a diversity of views and values.

There is a different way, that gets a different result. It requires a different approach. Imagine a world where conversations, like one about electoral reform, are held regularly and people talk together with courage, compassion and curiosity to find a way forward.

 Photo credit: onecommunityglobal.org

Photo credit: onecommunityglobal.org

What is consensus?

Consensus is one of the most overused words in public engagement, and frequently misunderstood. Consensus results in group solidarity of sentiment and belief for a path forward.

It takes a specially designed process to create consensus — it doesn’t just naturally emerge. It requires a process where people share their values and understand each other better, where multiple ideas, suggestions, and possibilities are weighed. A consensus process allows people to weigh the pros and cons of different ways forward, to offer solutions that address their own needs AND the needs of others. It co-creates a path forward that didn’t exist before people worked together to find the solutions for the challenges they face. Consensus results in people supporting the way forward, and supporting the solutions created by the group, even if they don’t love it, or if it isn’t their ideal solution.

Alignment versus agreement

So many public engagement processes focus on finding agreement; for example, here is solution A, can we get people convinced or persuaded to like it? When we design processes around agreement, we move directly to solutions and we create camps — people who agree, and people who disagree. And then polarization emerges and we start to characterize each other as “good” or “bad” or as “right” or “wrong”.

Instead, we can design our conversations around alignment and start with processes that allow participants to deeply understand values and WHY we each hope for the future we desire. Once we understand and see each other and our respective needs, experiences and hopes then we can start designing ideas and solutions for a way forward that addresses those respective values. In that way we create sustainable and durable solutions for the long-term; solutions that have the support and buy-in of participants.

Commitment and shared power

A conversation designed to achieve consensus requires a commitment to the time, energy and effort it takes to allow consensus to emerge. It also requires a levelling of power — if all the power is held by the host or proponent to veto or decide on the preferred outcome, then the stakes for creation and participation don’t exist for participants. A commitment to support the solution(s) that emerges from the consensus based conversation is needed by all parties. It can feel like a risk to make this commitment, but the results of well designed consensus processes speak for themselves in terms of long-term, durable agreements.

Information that serves the conversation

It seems obvious to say that balanced and objective information is needed in order for people to understand each other and the issues, and to be able to create new solutions.

Inclusion and Representation

The more diverse and different views brought into the conversation, the better. You can’t create durable solutions with a small group of like minded people. Or even a small group of diverse people. Why? Because the like minded people go quickly to agreement, and then get stuck there if alternate views and values are expressed by those outside the group. The small group of diverse people do the heavy lifting to find a solution that works, but the larger community or society that aren’t part of the hard work to build the solution generally tend to oppose or react negatively to what they weren’t part of creating.

The answer is in larger groups that are diverse in terms of interest and demographic AND inclusion of those with passion and interest in the issue.

Powerful Questions

Earlier I noted that you get what you ask for. That means the questions you ask need to result in answers that support the goal of the process. Are you seeking agreement? alignment? Are you looking to find a long-term durable solution for a complex issue based on the diverse values and needs of Canadians? Are you wanting comments and opinions on a preferred course of action? Your questions matter, and they connect directly to your results.

If you are seeking consensus on an issue like electoral reform, you start with asking fundamental Canadian values that need to serve as guiding principles for whatever gets created. When you’ve got those answers — things like fairness, transparency, representation etc. you move to the next conversation. Then you could ask what ideas or suggestions are out there for creating an electoral system that serves those values? Once all the ideas are on the table, move into weighing the benefits and challenges of different options. What are the consequences, costs and impacts of each option? Where are the options aligned with values, and where do adjustments need to be made? What do people suggest? As a third phase of conversation, move to prioritizing solutions. And a way forward emerges that is durable and sustainable for the long term.

The right methods

There are techniques designed for these kinds of participatory, values based conversations on complex issues. And there are techniques that don’t serve these kinds of conversation, that don’t create the space for conversations that result in consensus. Techniques that DON’T serve these conversations include public hearings, town halls and online surveys. You will note these were the techniques used in the public consultation for electoral reform.

Techniques like open space, world cafe, deliberative forums, workshops and more allow opportunities for consensus to emerge.

If you approach a complex issue in this different way your chances of success are high. You could be talking about consensus, common ground and a way forward at the end of the project. I’d love to see a conversation on electoral reform re-start in this way. Wouldn’t you?

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What connects us is greater than what pulls us apart

 Hong Kong government officials participating in a session on how to meaningfully and effectively involve the public in decision-making.

Hong Kong government officials participating in a session on how to meaningfully and effectively involve the public in decision-making.

Recently I had the privilege of spending a few days working with Hong Kong government officials to improve how they interact with and involve the public on projects. I was asked to design and deliver a training program about public participation in environmental impact assessment. I did that. And I also had the opportunity to share the attitudes, behaviours and ways of being that make our relationships and communities stronger and more vibrant.

I’ve worked around the globe, most of the time in western democracies. Until now, I’ve never worked in Asia. Culturally and socially, this was an enormous opportunity for me to learn about the experiences, challenges and successes of others, and to share my experiences, lessons learned and best practices.

Here are some highlights:

  • All human beings want the same things in the end. Safety, a better life for their children, a clean environment, a home, to be treated with respect etc. It doesn’t matter your culture, geography or the system of governance you live under, some things are universal.
  • Doing good work you can be proud of, and making a contribution to the world matters to all of us. The effort, energy and time required to thoughtfully complete a task reflects a sense of personal accomplishment and credibility.
  • Finding a way through the maze of human reactions, responses and concerns is something we all want to accomplish. No one wants to be mired or sidelined by conflict, controversy or opposition. We all have a deep desire to be seen as credible, trustworthy and responsive, and we each want tools and ideas to address the anger or opposition we face when trying to make positive change in our organizations and communities.
  • The values of respect and consideration run deep. Those values enable people to come together to find common ground and alignment, and ultimately to make better long-term decisions that reflect the values of the communities and public they serve. Your geography and political system are only context for the motivation to respect and be respected, and to find common ground with others.
 Co-creating opportunities for shared listening and learning.

Co-creating opportunities for shared listening and learning.

We all struggle with the tensions of addressing the concerns of the public, and the needs of our organizations.How do we find the middle ground? How do we balance divergent views?

  • Personally, we all strive to learn more, stretch our skills and knowledge, and be more open, caring and responsive.

It is in the attitudes and behaviours of how we show up that we make the biggest difference in this work and in the world. If you want to be seen as trustworthy, then you have to care, be committed and thoughtful.

These are ways of being that go far beyond your ability to share information or plan a project. In the end it is how you show up that matters.

I live in Canada, and this group of colleagues live in Hong Kong, and our geography, political environment, social norms, and culture are different. Our humanity, values, commitment and care about building stronger communities and improved long-term decisions are what connects us. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Hong Kong, and to continued learning, sharing and connection.

When fear rises up: fight, flight or freeze?

 Wise words. Photo credit: livedogrow.com

Wise words. Photo credit: livedogrow.com

Our reaction and response to fear is variable. It can be influenced by the situation, the depth of our fear, and our state of mind. It can also be highly influenced by our desire to make a choice to overcome the fear itself.

Some fears have little impact on our lives. For example, if you were to overcome a fear of spiders, but never plan to spend time in the desert or jungle, making a choice to address that fear isn’t necessarily going to result in you living a bigger, fuller life. However, if you are afraid and deeply uncomfortable with conflict or anger, and you’ve chosen a career as a facilitator, mediator or public engagement strategist, making a choice to overcome your fear will be enormously impactful on the potential possibilities your future can hold.

If you have a fear of failure, or of people thinking less of you, and you have a dream of writing a book, giving speeches on a topic you are passionate about or starting a business, then that fear can hold you back and stop you from creating the future you dream of. That fear could rule your life, resulting in you making choices to live a smaller, less fulfilling life.

Life is short. Making choices to live small could mean you wake up one day full of regret, your life a little less fulfilled than you had hoped for.

It takes courage to face your fears. It takes even greater courage to make choices to live your life and step into your fears even though they make you want to freeze, run or hide. Stepping into your fears will unlock a bigger, fuller life of potential and possibility.

The year I turned 40 I made a list of things that scare me, intent on facing each of them. At the time, most of my fears were physical and I took them on one by one, focusing on getting through the experience so I could check it off a list. For example:

  • Heights: I climbed the Sydney Bridge in Australia
  • Scary things you can’t see in dark water: I spent 5 hours underground blackwater rafting in New Zealand
  • Caves: exploring lava tubes in Iceland

It’s 8 years later, and now I’m in the middle of the Coaches Training Institute(CTI) Leadership Program, exploring all aspects of what it means to be a leader and make a positive impact and change in the world. Turns out that like most humans, I’ve got fears that need facing so I can make choices for positive change. Of course, the brilliant minds at CTI knew that when they designed the leadership program.

I’ve got two really big fears: heights (or more accurately a fear of falling) and a fear that in the end I’m not worthy or have value — that I’m not enough (for whatever I want to do or be). The act of even writing that out creates a pit in my stomach. In January at a CTI Leadership Retreat, I faced both fears at once.

 My amazing partner  Carmen Ekdahl  and I on the high wire, teaching a workshop to the folks on the ground.

My amazing partner Carmen Ekdahl and I on the high wire, teaching a workshop to the folks on the ground.

To be clear about what this experience was and wasn’t; I was pretty sure I was going to vomit and pass out the whole time. My mouth was dry, my heart was racing, my knees were shaking. I could barely think, or even move.

 As you can see, we fell. It was inevitable. AND we got back up and tried agin.

As you can see, we fell. It was inevitable. AND we got back up and tried agin.

It was a really tough experience. AND I survived it. AND I learned from it. AND I am so much richer as a result.

 We can even smile about the experience — after its over.

We can even smile about the experience — after its over.

Facing my fears created an opportunity for learning that I’m still reflecting on. I’m learning that facing your fears requires more than trying something scary and checking it off a list.

For long-term impact and a fuller life, facing fears requires a different way of thinking, making choices and moving forward for the long-term.

It requires:

Authenticity: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What is holding you back? What do you need to let go of so you can step into possibility? What values do you hold? How do you want to be in the world? What impact do you want to have? Knowing the answers to these questions grounds you, gives you purpose and will allow you to access strength and resilience as you face your fears.

Ask yourself — What are you committed to MORE than your fear? (All credit to the amazing Rick Tamlyn for this powerful question).

Vulnerability: The original definition of the word courage means “from the heart”. You will need to be truly open, courageous and willing to be seen in all your beautiful mess if you want to face your fears. You won’t be able to hide or run if you want to make the positive change that comes as a result of facing your fears.

Leaning in: I think facing your fears isn’t a thing you do halfway, or 50/50. It’s all or nothing — the same with the result. Put all your effort, energy and heart into facing them. Lean into your support network or your partner, ask for help and give support in return.

Staying power: I recognize that when my fears rise up my mind will do just about anything so I can avoid the discomfort that is created. That includes excuses, avoidance and rationalization. Be aware and watch for these patterns to rise up. Practice mindfulness and keep breathing! Its important to note that facing a fear once isn’t going to change your life. Making the facing of your fears and the choice making that results a life long practice is what will change your life.

Positivity: Choose a perspective that serves you as you face your fears. Think positive thoughts like This will be over soon, I will sleep in my bed tonight, I haven’t fallen yet, Look at what you are doing that you never thought you could do, and on and on.

Seek and learn: Redefine failure for yourself. Failure isn’t trying something new and not being successful. Instead, success is trying new and different things, and then trying again. And again. Define for yourself that success is in the taking of action and the exploration. Practice curiosity — what can you learn from this? How are you changed as a result? What has opened up for you? Where to from here?

I’m making different choices in my life each day as I step into fear as a life practice. I’m reaching for a bigger future full of more possibility and potential. I’m trying new things, and then trying them again. In service of that, I’m in Joshua Tree National Park this week with my family on vacation. I’ve been hiking, scrambling up hundreds of feet of rock scrambles, stepping over deep cracks, and rock climbing. I’m not great at it, and I’ll never make a career as a climber. And yet every day and every step, I’m a little more alive, and a little more positive because of my choices.

 Facing my fear of heights to scramble up a 450 feet high rock pile in Joshua Tree leaves me feeling grateful for the whole world.

Facing my fear of heights to scramble up a 450 feet high rock pile in Joshua Tree leaves me feeling grateful for the whole world.

If YOU want to learn how to make different choices in your life and face your fears, Carmen and I are creating an online course, available soon!


Building a wall will NOT keep us safe: how public engagement and democracy are failing

 Photo Credit: AP / Gregory Bull

Photo Credit: AP / Gregory Bull

We should be afraid, very afraid. The world is a very scary and dangerous place. We need safety — from each other, from “others”, in our communities. There are bad people out there and they are coming for you.

The media tells us this every day. Over and over again, on replay.

We experience it in social media ourselves, when some of our “friends” and “followers” belittle, bully, intimidate or threaten us or others. Peaceful events are taken over, men and women are shot or killed in the street because of the colour of their skin, their nationality or religion or the uniform they wear, we hold meetings so we can yell our anger, fear, hurt and frustration at each other — all in the name of freedom of speech and democracy.

Democracy is based on the foundation that people have a right to have a say about issues that matter to them. This is a fundamental principle underlying democracies around the globe. And taken to extremes, without a sense of responsibility or accountability, it is amplifying the worst in humanity.

For example, this week actor Leslie Jones closed her twitter account because of hate, misogyny, racism, harrassment and abuse from other users.

 Photo credit: Daily Mirror, UK

Photo credit: Daily Mirror, UK

This is a common story, and a growing phenomenon in social media — where digital tools were created to amplify our individual voices, equalize power, connect us to each other, and rapidly engage on important issues. These have all been really positive developments in society, and have changed the way we interact, engage and raise our voices.

Unfortunately, many of these tools are now routinely used to promote hate, fear and blame and to exclude, marginalize or bully. There is no sense of responsibility, accountability or consequences for individual users who take these actions or by companies like Twitter, who have a conflict of interest — with a goal of increasing users there is little incentive to police the actions of its users or reduce their numbers.

In 2013 I wrote a blog about mob mentality and group think, and the harm it was causing to our democratic processes. I cited a number of projects and situations (including some of my own experiences), and described the phenomenon in detail. In the last 3 years the challenges have only gotten bigger and more extreme — and we seem to be heading to more desolate destinations in our engagement processes moving into the future.

The last few days I’ve taken some deep breaths and decided to watch segments of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. I’ve tried hard to suspend my judgment, get out of my own head — about how I’m good, right and on the side of the future we need, and the idea that what I’m seeing is crazy, bad and downright scary. As you can see from that sentence, its taken some real work to set that belief aside.

 Photo credit: salon.com

Photo credit: salon.com

I looked at the sea of caucasian faces, more male than female. I listened to the cries of “Make America Great Again” and “Make America Safe Again” and the litany of woes about how the last 8 years have destroyed and forever damaged the “greatest nation on earth” beyond repair. I also heard fear, anger, hope, anxiety, frustration — and the deep wish for things to change. I heard speakers I have previously ridiculed say things like “Vote your conscience. Vote your conscious for candidates up and down the ticket...”

And of course, the wall. That the wall should be built. To protect people and keep them safe.

The truth is that I’m NOT on the side of angels, and Trump and his supporters are NOT bad people.

They are afraid. Afraid of their future hopes falling short, of their lives not living up to their expectations, of the gap they see widening between the life they think others are living, and the life they want to live — and they need somewhere to focus that fear, frustration and anger. They believe in democracy as they define it — where they have a right to a voice, and are entitled to use that voice as they see fit.

They need to believe someone sees them and is fighting for them. And in order to believe in the possibility of the future they hope for, they need to marginalize, blame, sideline and limit anyone who thinks differently. Because that is threatening. Kind of like my line of thinking when I sat down to watch the convention, just that I’m on the other side of the spectrum. I’m “left”, the Republicans are “right” — and we all justify how wrong the other side is by ridiculing, sidelining, belittling and de-humanizing each other. (On a personal note I’m pretty far left in my political leanings, so far left that my dear departed grandfather — a good ole Texas Republican himself — used to call me a “pinko”).

Even when we hold public engagement processes to talk about really important issues we seem to fail each other. There have been a plethora of town hall meetings held in the last few years, often planned and hosted by elected officials, to deal with serious, important and complex issues where emotions run high.

 Photo credit: thestand.org

Photo credit: thestand.org


I can’t believe I need to write that. Isn’t it obvious?

Anyone who has ever planned a public engagement process on a really important and potentially emotional issue knows that.

Except for the people who keep planning them (usually for politicians) over and over again.

They are NOT the right process for complex, controversial and emotional conversations. They pit people against each, build emotional contagion, create a forum for venting high emotion and don’t generate ideas, solutions, or allow people to learn from or understand each other better. Earlier this year I wrote a top 10 list for public engagement techniques for complex, controversial and emotional topics — and the town hall, public meeting and advisory committee are NOT on the list.

When we come together in this environment we generate fear, blame, shame, anger and a sense of the “other” — instead of coming together closer.

For examples of what can go wrong when you hold a Town Hall Meeting on an issue that needs some really deep, heartfelt deliberation, listening, understanding and collaborative problem solving, and instead gets line-ups of people at microphones and no solutions in sight, check out these missed opportunities:

I could keep this list going on for pages and pages.

Here is what all these town hall meetings have in common:

  • they are complex, important issues that affect the society we live in — systemic racism; climate change; the viability of rural communities and the livelihood of farmers, violence and safety in our communities, religious freedom, discrimination and the right to practice faith;
  • there are multiple, varied viewpoints on each issue, and each of these perspectives come with different values, needs and experience;
  • there is a lot of emotion that needs to be acknowledged, addressed and really understood on the issues at play. People are hurt, fearful, have been harmed, are anxious, worried and frustrated.
  • solutions are needed to these issues — long-term sustainable solutions that require thoughtful conversations, idea generation and deep consideration. And generating those solutions will require informed participation about the issue.

These forms of public engagement do NOT get us these solutions or understanding. They generate anger, hurt, blame, shame, frustration — and a venting of the right to have a say. They get us venting, defensiveness, emotions boiling over — and no forward momentum in sight.

We need to re-think this. Public Engagement and our present form of “I have a RIGHT to have a say” democracy needs to be adjusted.

 Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

How about public engagement and democracy where we have both a RIGHT AND A RESPONSIBILITY for the quality of the world we create?

We each have a RIGHT to have a say. AND we each have a RESPONSIBILITY to participate in our democratic processes with respect, accountability and care for our fellow community members.That means we don’t just vent our anger, hurt and frustration. We also try to understand the experiences and perspectives of others. We need to dig deep and try to find solutions to the challenges we face that go beyond blame, shame and humiliation. And if we have been harmed and hurt along the way, we are no further ahead if we harm and hurt others in the name of our cause. We don’t make our situations better, help anyone else, or even feel better ourselves when all we do is come together and yell at each other.

We can’t solve the problems that face us if we are yelling at each other.Politicians and leaders in organizations please consult a public engagement practitioner who has worked in high emotion situations before planning your next public engagement session. They will tell you NOT to hold a town hall, and how to create a respectful space for EVERYONE to be heard, with the potential to create solutions to the problems that face us. And we need solutions to the problems that face us in our world. Racism, climate change, our democratic systems — these are big issues we need to tackle together. And we can’t solve problems if we are yelling at each other.

Fear begets fear. Hate begets hate. Anger, shame and blame beget more of the same. Building a wall doesn’t keep us safe — because the fear is inside us. If you want something different in this world, if you want conversations where we hear each other, where we figure this out, this is not about the “other side” acting properly and stopping their bullying and intimidation. Start at home, in your own heart. This is about YOU stopping your judgement, your righteous belief that you are right and they are wrong, that you have the answers and those other people are bad people. Because if we keep going this way, we’re only going to get more hate, fear, anger, blame and shame.

We need to do better. Ask more of each other. Rise to the challenges of our times and practice HOPE instead of hate. Hold ourselves accountable for the processes we plan, host and participate in. Right now we’ve got the democracy we created. We built this. Let’s create something different instead.

What is a leader?

 Photo credit: changeyourresults.com

Photo credit: changeyourresults.com

The news is full of stories of leaders; thoughtful, capable, accountable, inspiring leaders, and divisive, authoritative, polarizing leaders. Leaders succeeding, leaders failing, leaders being toppled. When we talk about leadership, it seems we each have different ideas and images that come to mind about what constitutes a leader, and what makes a good or great leader.

In a recent workshop I facilitated with a group of senior leaders, I asked “what is a leader?” I heard things like:

  • Humble
  • Inspiring
  • Accountable
  • Authentic
  • Open
  • Courageous
  • Empathetic
  • Supportive
  • Ethical
 What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

 What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Those descriptions sound like the attributes of an amazing human being — one who is aligned with their values, supports others to be great, and who can create a better future for all. A person who brings out the best in others by consistently being their own best self, and who acts with an open heart in service to a greater purpose.

I’m not sure all the “leaders” in the news meet the description. Traditionally, we have granted the title of “leader” to those who hold a position of authority or power. Again and again it seems that role doesn’t necessarily equate to the qualities of an inspiring human being.

 What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is leadership? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

The Center for Creative Leadership recently completed a white paper assessing the Character Strengths of Leaders, which identified 4 core strengths: Integrity, Social Intelligence, Bravery and Perspective.

While the study focused on organizational leaders, the attributes of top level leaders could be applied to politics, community, and other situations where leadership is called upon. Of note, the study indicated a tension — the focus on performance of mid level managers often means less emphasis on integrity. And yet where do we draw our top level leaders from if not from the mid management pool? And then we seem surprised when behaviours and actions taken by top leaders lack integrity.

The OECD regularly reports on Trust in Government. Recent research shows that only 40% of citizens trust their government — and trust is the cornerstone of robust economies, effective policies and programmes, and vibrant societies built on cooperation and social acceptance and capital. OECD sees key actions that are required to win back the trust of citizens, asserting that: “we must address “big trust”, the ability of government to reassure citizens that it is taking care of the things that are beyond the control of individuals, though in a fully accountable, transparent, fashion. Government has to demonstrate that it can “govern for the future” and “govern for the unexpected”. Third, we need to build fairness in policymaking. This has at least two dimensions: first, prevent undue influence in policymaking by addressing the challenges posed by political financing and lobbying, and second, make policymaking and implementation processes more inclusive through information, and consultation with the public.”

The OECD identified 6 areas for government to win back trust: Reliability, Responsiveness, Openness, Better Regulation, Integrity & Fairness, Inclusive Policy Making.

The Edelman 2016 Trust Barometer, noted a mounting trust inequality, where trust is rising in those who make up the “informed public” but decreasing in the mass population / general pulic. This rise of trust inequality, means a shift of influence to the general public — across the globe.

There was a federal election in Canada in November 2015, which resulted in a change of Prime Minister and the political party in power to the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. EKOS Politics has been tracking the impact of this swing election on public perception. Confidence in the direction of the federal government and the country are at historic highs, across demographics, and show no signs of waning. Confidence in Justin Trudeau as a leader is extremely high. For 20 years, EKOS has been asking Canadians what type of vision they prefer for Canada’s future — stay the course or a bold new vision. Canadians consistently prefer a bold, new vision — but haven’t historically gotten it. However, since the election, EKOS reports that, “For the first time ever, we now see a consonance between what the public want and what they feel they are getting. By a margin of 63–37, Canadians see the federal government as headed in a bold new direction, as opposed to maintaining the status quo.

Last week, the CBC published an analysis of Prime Minister Trudeau’s approach to leadership, as compared to that of Donald Trump, or David Cameron and the impact of the “Brexit” referendum. They quoted Trudeau’s speech at the World Economic Forum, where he stated, “Simply put, everybody needs to benefit from growth in order to sustain growth. I believe in positive, ambitious leadership. We need to trust citizens. We need societies that recognize diversity as a source of strength. Not a source of weakness.”

All of this brings me back around to my original inquiries:

What is leadership? Who is a leader? Why does it matter? What impact does it have?

In that same workshop where I asked these questions about leadership, we also talked about engagement.

What is engagement? What does it accomplish? What impact does it create?

 What is engagement? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

What is engagement? Photo credit: Dialogue Partners

Engagement is about bringing people together, to speak with open hearts and minds about the things that matter most to them, so they can build a better future.

And leaders…what role do they play in engagement?

We are all leaders.

In reflecting on the research, and my own experience with leadership, great leaders reflect the best of all of us: they bring their best selves so others can be more, dig deeper, take brave actions, overcome and achieve a better future.

More than that, leaders inspire us, and allow us to see the possibilities that are out there. They don’t just dream that better future, they inspire us to take action every day to achieve it ourselves. They empower us. They model integrity, ethical behaviour, responsiveness and accountability. They are aligned with their values, and working towards a higher purpose.

If we are all leaders, and there are challenges with the systems and structures of our world, are we each not responsible in some way for those impacts and outcomes? If the shift in influence resides with the mass population and the general public, imagine what could happen if we each stood up — with integrity, fairness, compassion and courage — and created the world we want to live in?

Imagine if we each acted like the leaders we are and called forth the future we want. If we came together in honest, open dialogue about what we hope for (and not in conversation about what we DON’T want because that is the easy way out, and a path to being our lesser selves).

Who do you want to be? How do you bring your best self to that future? How do you live your life with integrity, courage and compassion and inspire others to do the same? What kind of leader are you?

Practicing empathy, where I was least expecting to need it

 Photo credit: torontohhs.org

Photo credit: torontohhs.org

You know those sayings that make light of hard or challenging times, like “Look on the bright side”? Or “Every cloud has a silver lining?” I’ve recently been given the “privilege” of working hard to find that silver lining.

My partner in life and work, my best friend and dearest companion, recently suffered a life threatening injury. My entire focus was on him — what did he need, how was he feeling, how could I be supportive, what could we do as a family to support him in this journey, what could we do at work, how could we see this through so he was supported…the list went on.

I kept hearing Brene Brown say that sympathy is “me over here in my own world where things are OK, looking down at you in that place over there where bad things have happened, saying it must suck to be you” while empathy is “Me here, with you, so you know you are not alone. I’m with you.” (Obviously, I’m summarizing, not quoting!) I wanted to be sure that he knew I was here for him, in his physical pain, and the emotional pain that goes along with it.

I thought through the 5 steps to practicing empathy, so I could be there for my partner:

  • 1-Perspective Taking
  • 2-Staying out of judgment
  • 3-Recognizing emotion
  • 4-Communicating emotion
  • 5-Mindfulness

Once he got through the initial crisis, and came home from the hospital, I thought we were on the road to recovery, and my spirits would lighten and while I’d still be empathetic and supportive, we could start on the path to recovery — phsyically and mentally. I thought I could shift from “danger, danger” to “where are we today” in my own mind. While the heightened adrenaline of the initial situation has decreased, I find my self daily in this tightly wound, reactive place of fear, isolation and worry.

Almost 4 weeks from the injury, my partner is physically recovering. He is healing physically, and is starting to see what the road to full recovery will look like for his body. He is patient, thoughtful and working hard to accept the moments of boredom, worry and frustration he is experiencing. I’m so deeply grateful that he is healing that it brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it.

I’m now realizing that this situation has given me an opportunity to learn an important lesson — one I seem to need to keep re-learning over my life!

In order to care for others, you need to care for yourself.

In order to be there for my partner, our family and our work, over the last 4 weeks I’ve been stretching and extending myself in all directions. And I’m tired, grouchy, tearful and worried. I’ve got pain in my body, and a heart that aches and keeps re-picking the scab of worry from when he first got hurt.

This week I remembered that self compassion is as important as empathy.The work on self compassion by Kristen Neff has been a powerful reminder for me. (You can watch some of her videos on self-compassion here). The steps include:

  1. Notice Suffering — that one is easy. I’m so busy telling myself this is not about me, and asking what do others need, and how do I hold it together - that I’m a disaster. All right — I’ve done this one!
  2. Be Kind in Response to that Suffering. Here would be the source of my problems. Totally shitty at this. No time for the gym, time alone, time to rest, relax or care for myself. If I do take any time I parcel out in tiny bite size pieces, because I better get back to doing what I “should” be doing.
  3. Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience. This one is funny — I’m chuckling to myself. Imperfection is part of OTHER PEOPLE’s experience — I am going to be a really great wife, mother and team member and have my shit together for this whole ride.

So I’ve got the lesson. I’m re-learning it. Duh.

I went to the gym last night. I’m going out for a walk as soon as I finish writing this. I’m going to lighten up a little and find something funny to read. I might even do a craft or colour. I’m going to make some more jam, or some pickles. I’m going to bed early tonight.

I’m going to remember that I don’t need to get it all right, and to accept that this is where I am at today. And that if I’m kind and caring to myself, I’ll be better able to be kind and caring for others. And while my partner’s injury isn’t about me, it is OK that I too have suffered through it. And to be deeply, deeply grateful that my partner is here with me, and whole, and on the road to recovery. And there is nothing I could be more grateful for in the world.

Ready to Engage? Probably NOT.

 Photo credit: National Post

Photo credit: National Post

Over the last week I have been watching a situation unfold and rapidly escalate in the City of Calgary. I think there are some big questions that should be asked about the nature of public engagement, and the ways in which citizens and government intersect.

In short form, it goes like this:

  • The City of Calgary did public consultation in 2010 on long range transportation visioning and planning. Then they announced a plan for a $40 million South West Transit Way project. The project includes Bus Rapid Transit with dedicated bus lanes and buses running every 10 minutes during peak periods, lots of stations, and basically lots and lots of construction over a very large area. They held a couple of information sessions in the summer and fall of 2015 to let institutional and community stakeholders know the project was coming. You can read the fact sheet about the project here.
  • Some citizens were supportive, excited and happy with the project. And some are probably neutral. I say this because I know that is always the case from my past experience in countless public engagement projects. It is never true that “everyone” is opposed to a project or a process, even if it feels like that in the media or online.
  • Some citizens are really concerned — and from a quick review of the issues it seems the biggest concerns relate to lack of information, lack of respectful and meaningful engagement process, lack of understanding about why, how and what is being implemented, and concerns about impacts and costs.

It had been building for a while, but things really blew up last week.

 Photo Credit: Wikipedia, nuclear explosion

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, nuclear explosion

Last week at an open house for the project (reportedly one in which thousands attended), things got out of control.

Councillor Pincott (a local Alderman) stated that a small group of citizens “acted like classic bullies and prevented their fellow citizens and Calgarians from engaging on the issue.”

Mayor Nenshi stated that there was “yelling, swearing, pushing, shoving, physical assault and even a death threat” at the open house.

Emma Stevens, a Communications staff person at the City of Calgary went public in a Facebook Post and stated “I spend many of my nights at public engagement events. Lots of citizens have great ideas that help us improve our projects, and I’m thrilled that I can be a conduit for those voices. But not all citizens demonstrate the respect that my colleagues and I deserve, not just as City staff trying to do a job, but as human beings. I have been berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions.”

As a result, Mayor Nenshi cancelled all future face to face public engagement on the project, because of the “history of bad behaviour on this file.” He attributed the “bad behaviour” to a small group of organized citizens known as Ready to Engage. He referred the death threats and physical assault to the police.

Ready to Engage asked for an apology from the Mayor, noting that they do not condone or participate in what he accused them of. You can learn more about Ready to Engage here.

The Mayor refused to apologize, and reiterated the group was responsible for the cancellation of the public engagement process, further accusing them of spreading misinformation. More on that here.

As a public engagement practitioner with more than two decades working in high emotion, conflict, and controversy I am truly astonished to see things get to this point, with so many signs along the way that challenges were occuring. *See my note at the bottom of this blog about previous engagement work with the City of Calgary.

I believe there is an opportunity to learn and improve this existing situation and also the way citizens and government engage for the long haul.

Here is my first quick list of lessons to be learned, and I hope others add to it:

  • NO ONE should be treated in a way that subjects them to harm, intimidation, fear or threat. Ever. Seems ludicrous that it needs to be said out loud. And it applies all around — to citizens and City staff too.
  • You need some “rules of engagement” for public engagement, especially in situations of high emotion, controversy and conflict that are created WITH citizens, stakeholders and organizations (not delivered to them like a list of rules on how they should behave). These rules should be made public — online and face-to-face, and should be moderated, supported and encouraged by participants and proponents alike. That way everyone is clear on expectations, and can work hard to support each other in a respectful process. This creates a sense of reciprocal responsibility and promotes civil discourse. No one wants to be treated with disrespect, on any side, but there can be nuances and variation to people’s definitions of what is acceptable in a given situation. For example, one of my “rules” about what is not OK is defamation of character, libel or slander. Don’t say unproven, bad stuff about other people’s characters or intentions without proof. I would suggest in this case that includes suggesting that all members of the citizen’s group Ready to Engage are bullies intentionally intimidating other citizens and engaging in “bad behaviour” (with the implication that this includes shoving, physical assault and death threats). I wrote a blog recently about being really clear where the line is on behaviour that is acceptable, and where it is not, and how you need to balance generosity with boundaries. That blog still applies and can be found here.
  • If you aren’t prepared to take a little passion along with the supportive comments, you might need to rethink your compatability with your job. Let me clear, I’m not saying public engagement practitioners should be OK with being yelled at, abused or anything else like that. All employees have a right to respect and a safe work environment. I AM saying that public enagement involves people, in all their intensity, emotion and care. And when people feel strongly about something that really matters to them they can sometimes get a little heated. If you are OK only with positive, supportive comments or people providing input to “improve projects”, then you might not be right for public engagement. You might be better at communications or public relations. And that’s OK. Because public engagement means people tell you everything they think, and you don’t have to agree with it, like it or believe it yourself, but their voices — all of their voices — are your job.
  • We live in a democracy, and participatory processes are messy. Just because a decision has been made, doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, and in a democracy people HAVE A RIGHT TO HAVE A SAY ABOUT ISSUES THAT IMPACT THEIR LIVES. That includes the right to say they want the project stopped, changed, or improved. In the end, we all have to live together in our communities, and we are far better served to believe the best of others when we come together to talk about issues that matter.
  • If you plan a public engagement process then YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS. If things go badly (like this situation), the first question you should ask is how did public expectations and organizational expectations get so far apart? How was the process planned to support constructive, meaningful conversation — or not? Because I’m pretty sure it isn’t a surprise to the City that people were upset and concerned, and that this was building. I can think of 20 things off the top of my head that could have immediately been done to adjust, enhance and improve the engagement process for this project — just based on the media reports and website reviews. Just because you have a public engagement plan doesn’t mean you can’t change it. And if your job is public engagement, then you are responsible and accountable for the engagement process.
  • I can’t believe it needs to be said but OPEN HOUSES ARE NOT TECHNIQUES FOR SITUATIONS OF HIGH EMOTION. Enough said. Instead, they are probably generators of high emotion, especially when large groups of upset people converge together. Read Dialogue Partners Top 10 Techniques for High Emotion, Controversy and Complexity here. Open Houses, Town Halls, and Public Meetings AREN’T on that list.
  • We need to stop engaging people about the little things when what they want to talk about are the big things. Stop asking about station design, noise attenuation etc. when what they really want to talk about is route, necessity, cost etc. It feels disrespectful, condescending and irrelevant to people. My blog on the Myths of Public participation sums up this common but mistaken approach pretty well.
  • If you’ve got high emotion and outrage on a project, you need to address that before you address the substantive issues or things go BAD, FAST. When conflict is building any organization is best served to ask why, and to seek to understand what is triggering it and then to step into the conversation so that the concerns are clearly understood. If citizens are saying the engagement process has been disrespectful and lacking meaning, that might be a good thing to understand better before you keep driving the train forward (or the bus in this case). Creating that opportunity to understand more is a basic sign of respect, and that step can deal with a lot of the concerns that are raised.
  • Practice a little empathy and a lot of respect. Citizens have clearly taken enormous amounts of energy to participate in this process, whether they are for, against or neutral. That passion and energy is a gift. Be respectful of it. Seek to understand it. Be aware of the power of it.
  • The biggest barrier to dealing with the outrage of public and citizens is your own outrage at their outrage. Mayor Nenshi is outraged. Citizens are outraged. And things have escalated, and will continue to escalate. I anticipate law suits, court cases and increasing polarization, with ripple impacts on many other City engagement processes. Take a time out. Step back.
  • The more polarized the debate becomes the less likely things are to resolve, and everyone loses out. When people start characterizing each other with negative attention and talking about each other, rather than with each other things go from bad to worse. It’s best to stop demanding apologies, and responding via the media, and hold off until things are calmer.
  • We live in a blame and shame culture, and it gets the best of all of us sometimes. Sometimes the societal desire to place blame at the feet of someone, or to seek out a scape goat, cause or villain for evil doing is so appealing we don’t even see it happening. Look at U.S. politics right now for some examples, or situations where cyber bullying have led to horrific results. Or check out the twitter feed about this situation in Calgary. Consider resisting the urge to blame someone for what is happening and try to believe the best of others. Imagine if citizens believed elected officials and City staff had the collective interest of Calgarians at heart, and were working to build a better City? Imagine if City staff and elected officials believed citizens were engaging to make projects work better in their communities, from their knowledge of their lives and experiences?
  • Online engagement DOES NOT decrease high emotion, conflict or controversy. In fact it makes it worse, removes the requirement to look each other in the eye as humans, and removes the need to be accountable for the impact of our words, accusations and fears. If you think there were challenges with face to face engagement, I can only imagine what will happen when things go online.
  • Don’t be afraid to push the “STOP” button, call for a pause, or admit mistakes were made. All round. All sides. Things got way out of hand. Lines have been crossed. We are all human. Calling for a pause so you can figure out what is next is the best thing to do in a confict. They call it a truce, and it is usually a prelude to peace talks. Either way it lets tempers cool, allows the dust to settle, and at its best creates an opportunity to remember we are all in this together, and we want many of the same things for our communities.

I’ve got lots of other lessons swirling in my head for this list, but these are the most obvious ones. I’d love to hear your ideas, lessons and observations.

In the end, we are in this together. And when our organizations and citizens fail to interact and connect respectfully on issues that really matter, we all stumble. I’m rooting for everyone in this situation, and have high hopes things can improve. But the first step is to stop.


  • Here is my disclaimer and fine print. I’m a consultant in public engagement and work at Dialogue Partners. We’ve done work with the City of Calgary in the past, and have trained many of their staff over the years in public engagement. I have not worked on this project, and my knowledge of it comes from the media and online research. I’m hopeful this blog will be read by the City and citizens alike in the spirit it was intended — as a reflection on the practice of public engagement. But I’m realistic that it might not be. And that is life.