How to choose a courageous leader to vote for in upcoming elections

  Photo credit: Austin Chan, Unsplash

Photo credit: Austin Chan, Unsplash

There are a lot of elections coming up and a lot of leaders out there asking for your support. In some situations every single vote will make a difference as candidates put forward vastly different platforms and look for you to be on their side.

It’s the sides that trouble me. Politics is often presented as a conversation between winners and losers, those who are for and those who are against a particular issue. No one wins in the long run when we are so divided that we leave half of us behind. More than ever we need leaders willing to cross lines, close the divide, and bring people together to solve the challenges we face. We’ve got some big challenges, and its going to take a leader with the ability to collaborate, inspire and have some tough conversations so we can move forward.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Your choices have long-term impacts on government policy, budget allocations and the community that gets created in the future. Choosing carefully matters. Using your voice to take action in support of a candidate you believe in to canvas, fundraise and speak to neighbours and friends contributes to the quality of the democracy we live in, and the quality of the candidates we get to vote for.

The system we’ve got isn’t perfect. In fact, it could be dramatically improved upon. However at the moment it’s the system we’ve got and it is far more open and connected to the views of citizens than many other systems.

So your vote matters — a lot.

I have a foundational belief that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems in our world and that the world needs a new kind of leader who stands for something, shows up and changes the world for the better. You want to vote for someone who stands for something you also believe in and who will work with others to create positive change.

In service to that core belief about brave, honest conversations and a new kind of leader I’ve done a lot of thinking the last few years about what a courageous leader looks like and created a framework of core competencies. I hope this helps you think about the candidates you want to work with going forward.

  A model of Courageous Leadership, copyright The Courageous Leadership Project,    www.bravelylead.com

A model of Courageous Leadership, copyright The Courageous Leadership Project, www.bravelylead.com

Commitment and Faith

Leaders know what they stand for, what they believe in and what they have unwavering commitment to. It is about their values and also more than that; it is those guiding foundational beliefs demonstrated by attitudes, behaviours and actions so that choices are aligned and leadership is deeply authentic. This component of courageous leadership builds positivity and possibility in the conversation with others and creates choices for the future. This mindset allows leaders to focus on what they stand for rather than what they are against.

When looking at candidates to support, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the leader stand for?

  • What are they committed to?

  • Where do your values align with their values?

  • What attitudes and behaviours do they demonstrate that resonate with you?

  • What does the leader want more of, to build or create in the world?

Integrity and Courage

When a leader is acting from a place of integrity and courage they have clarity on what they want to create in the world and are brave enough to move towards it. They are aware of and responsible for their impact on others and the world around them, and work to have a positive impact.

  Photo credit: Oliver Cole, Unsplash

Photo credit: Oliver Cole, Unsplash

A courageous leader is able to articulate the ethics and principles that guide their choice making in a transparent and open way. Integrity and courage combat fear and uncertainty in challenging situations and make people want to work together. Leaders who operate from integrity and courage have a deep well of self-awareness and stay the course when conflict or tension emerges.

When looking at candidates to support, ask yourself these questions:

  • What direction are their conversations and statements going? Towards positivity and openness or towards division and polarization?

  • How well do the leader’s actions and words align?

  • How does the leader respond when differences of viewpoints or conflict emerges?

  • How well do the leader’s responses under stressful situations align with the way you want to show up in the world?

  • What is the change the leader is advocating for? What will be different than it is right now?

Openness & Connection

Courageous leaders create a space around them that fuels connection, ideas and collaboration. They ask rather than tell and demonstrate actions that spark conversation, allow people with divergent views to connect and learn from each other, and build a sense of meaningful inclusion where people feel they matter.

A courageous leader creates experiences and a feeling you want to be part of because that vision reflects the world the way you also want it to be. The sense of connection and intimacy that we are in this together creates powerful momentum for positive change.

When looking at candidates to support, ask yourself these questions:

  • How does the leader make you feel? What emotions bubble up when you listen to or observe the leader?

  • Who does the leader surround herself / himself with? Is there a widely divergent group of supporters and partners who share different viewpoints, backgrounds and experiences?

  • Does the leader create a positive space to solve challenges with others, or solve challenges and ask others to react?

  • Is there a space in the leader’s future ideas and vision you can see yourself in?

  • Is the leader willing to be with uncertainty and work to find the right solution that works long-term?

Influence & Enrolling

Courageous leaders inspire and empower others to make a choice to participate, to be in relationship, to trust in a more positive future. Leaders authentically lead from their own unique set of values and beliefs, commit with courage to a vision and invite others to help make it real. Courageous leaders are willing to fail, to not have all the answers and to work with others to find durable solutions.

Leaders call for change, have clarity on the change they want to create in the world, take responsible actions towards that change and recognize they have bigger impact and create more momentum the more people there are who have an active role in the change agenda that is co-created.

When looking at candidates to support, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel like you could play an active role in the positive change the leader is calling for?

  • Does the leader bring new ideas to the table that challenge the status quo and offer new ways of thinking and acting?

  • Does the leader make you feel part of something and that solutions are possible?

  • Does the leader act from a mindset of invitation, advocating and empowering (rather than telling, dictating or deciding for others)?

  Photo credit: Parker Johnson, Unsplash

Photo credit: Parker Johnson, Unsplash

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

The world needs a new kind of leader who stands for something, shows up and creates positive change in the world.

Your voice matters, and your vote does too.

Creating from chaos, some monkeys and a circus

  Photo credit: Andre Mouton, Unsplash

Photo credit: Andre Mouton, Unsplash

This blog could really be titled how the circus came to town and I got totally lost in the chaos.

We moved this summer after living in the same house where we raised our family for 16 years. Like most moves, things didn’t go the way I planned. The chaos of the move spilled out into all aspects of my life.

I will be honest — I had PLANS, big ones. Plans about how things would go, how fast progress would happen, when all the tradespeople would be done in the new house, when the new house would feel like a home. I took the summer off from work so I could be with my family and do the work of unpacking, organizing and setting up our new home. I knew September would come quickly, and with it a renewed travel schedule and a busy workload and I was excited to “get ‘er done” while I could. The clock was ticking and I had a list.

I set an intention of patience. It was all going to be fine and I was going to go with the flow. Pretty much every morning I woke up and told myself today I would be patient and easy going and our space would become a home. I held those intentions pretty tight. Honestly…I held the intention like there was no way it would be possible for the universe to be allowed to not get its shit together so my house could be finished being organized. Not a whole lot of openness there. Every night I’d be a little more frustrated, tense, disappointed with what hadn’t been completed.

As August rolled through we moved all our belongings into the new house and turned over possession of the old house to the new people. We had the new house painted and new light fixtures and closet organizers installed. Then things stalled out:

  • Furniture deliveries were delayed.

  • The folks refinishing some old furniture are now 4 weeks overdue delivering the pieces they were working on.

  • The basement office and bathroom I hoped would be done by mid August should be done by the end of September.

  • The basement family room remains unpacked with furniture piled up high, and the office downstairs is in boxes while that area remains a construction zone.

  • The furniture being made for my office is 4 weeks overdue, with delivery expected by the end of September, so my office is a lovely green room full of boxes and piles of books.

  • The living room is functional but there are countless boxes of books, paintings and family mementos waiting for the day the cabinet maker finishes building the shelves and cupboards around the fireplace.

On a positive note, the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen are unpacked and work pretty well.

I made a new friend recently, and part way through our conversation he said, “Not my monkeys, not my circus” as we talked about situations of human drama. It’s been playing over and over again in my head. It’s an easy phrase to remember; one of those lines that speaks of a universe of experience in choice making in just six words.

His comment made me think of my last few months and which circuses I visited, and how many monkeys I wrangled. The foundation of “not my monkeys, not my circus” is to be unattached to challenges that are not yours. It creates clear boundaries and borders for what you engage in, interact with and become emotionally invested in. It also connects to which problems you decide you need to fix, and what role you play in those problems; ringmaster, trapeze artist, monkey or audience.

Over the course of this chaos I interacted with every monkey that presented itself (and to be honest I attempted to wrestle most of them back in to their cages). I imagined myself the circus ringmaster. It turns out I wasn’t even an act, much less an audience member. I was on the sidelines without a ticket thinking I was in charge.

This has been such a great reminder to set a real honest intention about how you want to show up in times of chaos, before the chaos has its way with you.

  My office in chaos, the day we moved in.

My office in chaos, the day we moved in.

Back to the move. This was what my office looked like the week we moved in to the new house. It looks better now. Now the boxes are nicely piled up along the edges of the room. I can sit on the couch and use a lovely big plastic bin on top of a stool as a desk.

It is now September and summer is gone and I’m back in the thick of work.

I’ve got a new intention. It goes like this — life is crazy, messy, and unpredictable. There are countless circuses I could attend, and thousands of monkeys seeking my attention. Life doesn’t go in a straight line or according to plan. In the larger picture of our lives who really cares if my desk is a large plastic bin surrounded by boxes? We will eventually be unpacked. Home is where the heart is and I’m deeply grateful for our family, our lives and this new adventure. It’s just going to be what it is, and that includes moments of fun, happiness, frustration, anxiety, discomfort and straight up construction mess. But probably not patience — I’m not going to commit to patience this time.

When you are setting intentions in a chaotic time in your life, maybe ask yourself some questions so you can be present and open. Put your to do list away. These questions would probably would have been good for me to have used too!

  • How do I want to show up during this chaotic time in my life?

  • What emotions are probably going to run my life?

  • Where might I get stuck?

  • How can I be gentle and care for myself while I ride the storm of chaos?

  • What do I need from others to support me in this mess?

  • How might I offer support to others riding the storm?

  • When this is done and I look back, what do I hope will have happened?

  • Are these my monkeys? Is this my circus? Do I want them to be?

  • If I do step forward into this circus, what’s my role?

There is no avoiding the chaos; its just part of life. The difference is in how you ride the chaos, moving through the drama rather than into the middle of performance.

If you can, try not to ride it the way I did. But whatever happens, the chaos will give you gifts of learning, insight and opportunity if you are willing to see them.

What is your super power?

  Me, wearing my super hero cape, stepping into my super powers that allow me to have brave, honest conversations.

Me, wearing my super hero cape, stepping into my super powers that allow me to have brave, honest conversations.

No one is born knowing how to brave, honest conversations about issues that really matter. This isn’t a skill anyone comes out of the womb with, and being in a particular position or role doesn’t mean you’ve figured out how to talk about tough stuff. It takes a combination of skills, knowledge, attitude and behaviour to be able to really have brave, honest conversations with yourself, in your organization, community or family.

It takes deep self-awareness to have tough conversations, because what I step into when I have these conversations is different than what you will step into. We are different people, and our strengths are different. You need to bring your whole self to brave, honest conversations, and leverage your own special gifts and strengths in service of talking together to find solutions about complex problems.

I like to think of these special gifts and strengths as your very own super power, that you step into and embody in emotional, challenging, high stakes conversations.

Recently I attended Rick Tamlyn’s Bigger Game Live conference where I asked people:

  A participant finds her super power and puts on the super hero cape.

A participant finds her super power and puts on the super hero cape.

What super power allows you to have brave, honest conversations?

I heard some amazing answers from participants at the conference:

  • Empowering others to see their own worth
  • Listening and asking powerful questions
  • Tapping into people’s happiness meter (described to me as helping them see and use what makes them happiest)
  • Cutting to the chase! Getting to the heart of the issue.
  • I am approachable and people feel they can talk to me about anything
  • Sensing when to be silent
  • I create relationship, connection and intimacy really fast
  • Big, bold vision
  • I am a safe space for people to talk to and bring their pain, challenge and heartache
  • I help others see the greatness within themselves
  • I bring reverence and irreverence to the same conversation
  • My super power is generosity
  • I bring energy and excitement
  • My super power is boldness
  • I can be fully present and in the moment
  • My super power is listening
  • I bring certainty and I simplify things
  • I am courageous and brave

This is a beautiful list of attitudes, behaviours and skills.

What strikes me about these super powers is that when the people who hold them step into them fully, they are powerful, committed and in service to others. These things that are about them being their most authentic become about more than them alone. They extend their impact beyond themselves into the world around them. Their super powers create positive impact and possibility because they are committed to someone else.

We live in a world intensely focused on personal growth, self-help, individual needs and desires. In that world, we can get trapped in our heads, worrying about our needs, fears and anxieties. Yet when we step into our best selves in service to others we become more possible, more powerful than we were before.

I think we all want to bring our best selves to the situations and relationships that matter most to us. If you want that too, here are my questions for you to think about:

· What is your super power that allows you to have brave, honest conversations?

· What gifts and strengths make you your most powerful and possible?

· What can you step into that will allow you to connect with others in brave, honest conversations?

How NOT to write a book: facing fear & inadequacy in the woods

  The setting for two weeks in the Canadian wilderness.

The setting for two weeks in the Canadian wilderness.

I turned 50 two weeks ago. I’ve never been someone who had challenges with birthdays; more often I’ve seen them as opportunities to reflect, be grateful and celebrate. Fifty has felt totally different — big, heavy, expectant; asking me what I am doing with this one short, precious life.

In anticipation of my fiftieth year I wrote a blog about the things I was going to do over the course of the year — #3 on that list was to write a book. I’ve told countless people in my life that I’m going to write that book this year. Its not pride or ego, instead it’s a desperate attempt to hold myself accountable to accomplishing this task that feels truly ginormous and fills me with fear.

I don’t know what makes your knees shake, but for me it is showing up fully as myself and being fully seen. That brings the risk of being judged and found lacking that comes with showing up and being seen. Writing this book is not a project for me, instead it feels like an unfolding.

In service to kick starting the writing of my book, I carved out two weeks in my schedule and booked a friend’s cottage in the woods. I came up to spend some days by myself to get things going, and then a week with the family (where I would continue to write for a few hours every day).

  The path to the lake. Where I went when I needed to escape from my own thoughts. Which turned out to be pretty often.

The path to the lake. Where I went when I needed to escape from my own thoughts. Which turned out to be pretty often.

Like most things in life, things did not go exactly to plan. Here is how it went:

Day one:

This is going to be so great! I’m so excited to have this space and time to myself. I can write, paddle, read and get some space in my heart and head.

Day two:

This day starts really well. I meditate, do yoga and journal to start my day.

I feel nervous and anxious — what if I don’t accomplish anything while I’m up here? I’ve got my fear engine running in low gear in the background and I’m full of nervous energy searching for something to hold my attention.

I don’t know where to start.

It’s lonely up here by myself.

I have no cell service — I can’t call anyone, do research (or watch Netflix). I also can’t distract myself mindlessly online instead of writing my book.

Mild panic sets in. I spend an hour creating poems with magnetic poetry on the fridge, then go sit on the dock and read a novel. Finally I get bored enough that I can’t avoid working on the book.

I go back to the cottage and brainstorm all the different ways / areas of focus I could take with my book and write them on sticky notes. I post them on the wall and think about that for a bit.

I pull out a puzzle and start it. I tell myself I’m letting my thoughts percolate, but really I’m avoiding big thinking. That eventually gets boring so I go back to the book project.

  One of many puzzles I used to distract myself and avoid writing the book.

One of many puzzles I used to distract myself and avoid writing the book.

I write all the things I know for sure about brave, honest conversations and put them on sticky notes and post them on the cottage windows. It turns out this is really interesting and captures my attention! These ideas reveal themes and suddenly I’ve got an outline with twelve chapters and topics and sub topics! I reconfirm my commitment to creating a call to action and a “how to guide” full of stories and lessons, so more people can have brave, honest conversations. This is why I came up here!

That was hard work — time for some chocolate to celebrate. And maybe a glass of wine.

Now I’ve got this outline but its suddenly overwhelming to think about how I go from 3 pages to 300 pages.

I have a sad little moment where I cry and feel really sorry for myself. Then it starts to rain so I feel even worse. I question my ability to do this. It’s a pretty ugly scene.

I realize its possible I might be sabotaging myself because if I write this book it might mean I will be fully seen — and judged — in the world.

I mull that over while I finish the puzzle. I go to bed early, but am awake for four hours in the middle of the night reading a novel. When I do sleep I have nightmares of zombies chasing me. You don’t need Freud to know those zombies are my fears.

Day three

Today is going to be different. I’m going to feel what I feel and do this anyway. I’m determined and committed. I meditate, do yoga but don’t journal because I’m not going to get sucked into a pity party this morning.

Its pouring rain so I can’t go distract myself on the dock.

The power goes out. I’m in a cottage in the woods alone, in the rain, and now I’m in the dark too. Freud would have a party with the symbolism of all of this.

I feel pissed off, sad and lonely. I didn’t journal about it but here I am anyway. A little scared too. This totally sucks.

I decide to open my computer and just see what happens. Next thing I know three hours have gone by and I’ve got notes, ideas, quotes, resources listed in all the chapters. It’s definitely not like chapters are written yet but what might fill each section out is starting to take shape. I can suddenly “feel” how this thing might come alive, like that first kick of a baby in my belly.

I grab a quick lunch and keep going. Now I’m wading through articles and research I’ve got on my computer, searching for examples, quotes, content that supports the topics in each chapter. After two more hours I feel like my head might explode.

The sun comes out. I spend an hour in the sunshine on the dock, meditating and reading a novel. I realize I’ve got some space in my heart and my head. I have a moment of deep gratitude for being alone in the woods with time to think.

I have a glass of wine, start another puzzle and feel pretty good about my day.

I create another poem on the fridge with magnetic poetry as I reflect on how you break free of your shadow self when you step into it.

  One of many poems I posted on the fridge.

One of many poems I posted on the fridge.

I have a restless night full of dreams of running and searching and never quite finding what I’m looking for, always one step behind.

Day four

I wake early and go through my morning routine. The sun is shining and the weekend is supposed to be scorching. Some of the family will arrive late this afternoon.

Suddenly I’m worried I’ve only got this one last day by myself to write, when before the days alone felt endless. My fear engine has changed gear — now I’m focused on what if I don’t get enough done instead of whether I can do this at all.

I’m glad I did research and read other’s people’s thoughts yesterday but I wonder if that was another form of distraction. I realize I was looking for validation from scholars that I’m on the right path. I decide I’m going to write from my heart today.

Hours go by. I’m writing random stories, moments and ideas in each chapter. I’m not very good at colouring in the lines and I realize this book isn’t going to come together in an orderly way starting with chapter 1. It feels more like me to swirl in the moments, ideas, words, stories and then see the patterns and connections and see where they land in the book.

Hours and hours go by. I realize I’m still in my pajamas, haven’t showered and should clean up the sticky notes and flip charts scattered around the cottage because people will be here soon. Now I’m wondering how to best create a schedule that allows me to write while the family is here, so I can focus.

I’m in it now. It is calling to me. This has been such a beautiful human lesson in going through the trench before you can get to the other side (I make a note that this should be a section in the book, and consider how brave, honest conversations can sometimes feel harder before the pathway through them emerges.)

I write a new poem on the fridge. I wish for more magnets with different words so I can write poems of gratitude and possibility.

The next week

The next week flies. There are board games, swimming, paddle boarding, lots of great food and wine, good conversations and many novels read. There are hours on the deck, writing and thinking.

  Countless jumping competitions off the dock into the cool water.

Countless jumping competitions off the dock into the cool water.

My mind has the book running in the background so I wake up each morning with new ideas and thoughts. While family have been here with me, I’ve written for a couple of hours every afternoon — trading naps for writing.

This book project has shifted from a burden to a choice in my mind, and that alone has been a valuable learning experience. While I’ve only got 30 pages written, and there are few guarantees anyone is going to want to read this book one day, it’s a great start to collecting my thoughts and getting clear on the contribution I want to make to others wanting to have brave, honest conversations in their lives, organizations and communities.

If you find yourself with something you want to bring alive in the world and are getting lost, overwhelmed and confused, try this:

· Get some awareness about what is going on. What are you afraid of? Recognize how that is showing up — are you avoiding? Distracting yourself? Really dig into what is happening for you.

· Be with your own crap. Feel sad, lonely, unworthy, confused, anxious. It’s counter intuitive, but the sooner you step into those emotions, the faster you move through them. You have to be really with them before you can get to the other side. The harder you try to avoid them, the longer they will hold you prisoner.

· Open up your heart and get some space in your head. Lock your phone in another room, turn off your email, go for a walk in the woods. Breathe. Let go of busyness and doing. Colour, paint, write poetry. Get on a paddle board. Open up your heart to creativity — it’s the place where possibility lives.

  A remedy for the soul — an hour on a paddle board in the wildnerness.

A remedy for the soul — an hour on a paddle board in the wildnerness.

· Make a bargain with yourself. So you feel whatever you feel — now dive in and do something anyway. If you aren’t feeling it, set a timer and bargain with yourself; do the thing you need to do for an hour and then come up for air and see where you are at. Might be you can go another hour. The longer you go, the more committed you will be and the less overwhelming your emotions will be.

I’m still months away from being done this book project, but now it feels like a real living thing in my life waiting to be born, needing care, nurturing and attention. I’m still afraid about whether I can really do this and what will happen when I put it out into the world. But I’m happy to just be with those fears for now. At the moment I’m more committed to bringing brave, honest conversations to life than I am committed to being afraid. I can be afraid any day. These days I’m writing instead.

What your kids are NOT talking to you about

  A circle of chairs waiting for the conversation to begin.

A circle of chairs waiting for the conversation to begin.

I recently spent a week of afternoons at our local elementary school running a series of workshops about Brave, Honest Conversations with a group of grade 7’s and 8’s. These kids are 12 and 13 years old.

I asked them how they feel about tough conversations, and what would be a hard thing for them to talk about, and who they would talk to about it. I asked them how they needed to act, behave and think in order to be in a tough conversation. They were thoughtful, insightful and touching. They were brave, smart and heart-breaking too. They were funny, quirky, awkward and earnest; everything kids at that age are meant to be.

When I asked them what topics are hard to talk about, I heard this:

  • Divorce
  • When someone in your family is doing something you don’t like
  • Not trusting someone close to you anymore
  • Death
  • Being bullied, feeling left out and lonely
  • Grades (and not getting the grades that are expected)
  • Being themselves instead of what other people want them to be
  • Being touched when they didn’t want to be
  • Talking about feelings
  • Asking for help

These are BIG, heavy issues — for anyone, but especially for 12 and 13 year olds just beginning to navigate the emotional minefield of human interactions. Some of these things continue to be on my list of tough conversations to have and I do this for a living. Like asking for help. Or being myself instead of what other people want me to be. These are universal topics, and they are hard to have no matter your age. I’m grateful the group felt like it was OK to even identify the issues so we could see the things they are thinking about — but not talking about.

Here is something that surprised and saddened me. When I asked them who they were talking to about these things, more than half of them said NO ONE. Not parents, family, teachers, coaches or friends. So many of them said they wouldn’t know how to start the conversation, and that they held the view that those they might have the conversation with aren’t interested. The kids talked about how they don’t have dinner with their family most nights, how their parents or family members are too busy with other things, or how they live in the same house but everyone eats separately or hangs out doing things on their own like watching t.v., doing homework, on the computer.

Some of the kids said they might talk to a friend or teacher about these things, but for most of them the hardest part was knowing where to start the conversation or how to say they needed to have one.

Most of the kids said that they approached tough conversations by avoiding them at all costs.

How is it that by this young age our children have already integrated the message that to be vulnerable is to be weak? What does that mean for their future? For their ability to build resilience, emotional intelligence or to solve tough problems? How will they build connection and intimacy with others if they can’t talk about real things?

Knowing how to have Brave, Honest Conversations is a LIFE SKILL.

Every day doesn’t need to be full of tough conversations, but when you need to have one it matters that you can step into the conversation so you can find your way through. So we started there — what do they see in others who are having tough conversations?

We talked about youth leaders championing tough issues and watched videos of a variety of youth doing hard things in tough situations. The group identified things they saw in those youth leaders:

  • compassionate
  • brave
  • courageous
  • kind
  • thoughtful
  • calm
  • knowledgeable
  • know your own mind
  • not caring what others think

There was this beautiful moment when I asked the group to review the list and then take a couple of dots and put them on the things they had in common with youth leaders having tough conversations. It was beautiful to see that these youth could see themselves as leaders who are also brave, courageous, compassionate and more. The look in their own eyes when they saw that these character traits were not about someone else, but were inside them was where the shift happened.

I gave the group homework — to interview other people about brave, honest conversations with 3 questions, and to take a couple conversation cards home and see what happened when they tried to have the conversation with their families. All of them conducted the interviews. The majority of them tried to have conversations at home, and we debriefed what worked, and what didn’t.

We slowly shifted from a group who was going to avoid tough conversations about feelings at all costs, to a group who was having these conversations and reflecting on their own contributions to the discussion.

We got into this rich, deep conversation about what it means to be brave, because the group kept coming back to how important courage is when having a tough conversation, and how hard it is to find it when you need it most.

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Answers to “what does it mean to be brave?” from 12 and 13 year olds.

In the end, we had some brave, honest conversations about the issues the group identified, practicing out specific skills and tools and standing in courage. We talked about what works, what doesn’t and how to keep flexing that muscle of talking about the things that matter instead of avoiding them, because they don’t go away when you hide from them.

My hope is that the lessons in those afternoons together will stick, and when a tough issue comes up, they will try to stand in courage and test out their new skills. My hope is that parents, family and friends of youth will choose to be in the conversation with them when they need to have them, so they build a practice and experience of it being OK to walk this path.

If you want to have a conversation with youth in your life, here are some of the questions I asked over those afternoons.

  • What are things that are hard to talk about?
  • How do you approach having a tough conversation?
  • What do you need from others when you are emotional or feeling stressed out about something?
  • How do you need to be in order to have a tough conversation? What do you need to draw on?
  • Who is someone you could have a tough conversation with? How would you reach out to them to get started?

Dying sucks.

This isn’t a profound blog about finding meaning and beauty in death. Because the process doesn’t always work out that way.

All living things die. But the dying isn’t always beautiful, peaceful or gentle. It can be a struggle for the dying and those trying to support them. It can be a fight for dignity, the right to choose, a struggle to make hard choices in difficult situations.

My mother-in-law died today.

I’m equal parts sad about the loss of her fierce spirit in our lives and relieved that she is no longer suffering.

A woman of formidable strength, independence, opinions and certainty, she made a choice about what she was prepared to live with — and ultimately what she was not prepared to live with. She brought that fierce independence and will to her final choices, choosing a difficult path to death.

We had countless family conversations about what to do, how to support her, how to challenge her choice or encourage a path towards life instead. Ultimately we chose as a family that the independent, fierce, tough woman she was is who we would honour and respect. While we encouraged life, we chose no invasive procedures that would prolong that life. It sounds like it should have been a peaceful, smooth process. But it wasn’t. It was bumpy, hard and challenging. Perhaps death is always like that? I know it’s not meant to be easy, like its portrayed in the movies. I wonder though if it could be smoother.

Along the journey to death, we encountered retirement residence staff ill prepared to support palliative care so she could stay in familiar surroundings. These same staff lectured us about how we needed to undertake invasive procedures in order to “give her a chance”. In my head, I would think that we would be giving her a chance at what? A life in circumstances where she wouldn’t want to live? A life that didn’t meet her definition of a quality life? Where this exceptionally proud woman experienced shame, humiliation and embarrasment on a daily basis? For me, the impact of the interaction with retirement residence staff was to leave me feeling like I had failed her for trying to honour her wishes.

She was transferred from familiar surroundings to the hopsital. There we met with doctors and nurses familiar with real palliative care, in the best interests of the patient. They made her as comfortable as possible with pain medications, sedatives, and kindness. A day and a half later she breathed her last. I’m grateful for the kindness and support of hospital staff, but I’m deeply saddened by the lack of dignity and respect provided to people who are dying along the way, or who choose that their time has gone.

My mother-in-law was a few weeks shy of 90. She had lived a full and beautiful life. She had a DNR (do not resuscitate) on file. She communicated her wishes, her views of what made a quality life, of the indignities she felt were acceptable, and those that were not. Over the last few months, as her cognitive abilities declined, many of her friends and care staff suggested our family needed to step in and “fix” the situation, and make choices about interventions on her behalf.

There is a line. A line where we respect another human being’s right to decide for themselves, and where we support them when they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves. I have learned this from my husband, who has gracefully and with deep compassion now supported both of his parents through the series of tough choices that end in death. Where he supported them to stop driving, choose living circumstances where they were supported to be independent as long as possible. He didn’t decide things based on how he wanted them to be, but on how he interpreted they would choose and what they would want. It’s been this beautiful dance of respect and dignity and he is a master at it.

There is this prevailing view I’ve been witness to that when people become elderly, their family members should step in and make decisions as if they are children. I feel deeply that when we step in to make decisions for others, we should be making those decisions based on who they are, and what they value, from a place where we hope to be channeling what we interpret would be their wish if they could decide for themselves. Not where we make choices based on what WE want for them, but what they would have wanted for themselves.

There is this tension in society that so many people say they don’t want to live in these painful, totally compromised situations when they are elderly. And yet when their family members become elderly, every measure is taken to keep them alive, regardless of the consequences. How do we reconcile that? How do we bring back dignity and respect for the dying to the forefront of decision-making?

We don’t want to talk about these things. So many of us put off these conversations, thinking that we will talk about them when we need to, or one day long in the future. I think that by the time we need to have these conversations it is often too late. Sure it might be uncomfortable, but so what? Living in pain, in circumstances you would never have wanted to be in is far, far worse.

Here is my advice to you.

  • Don’t leave it to your family to channel your values, hopes and wishes and second guess whether they got it right. A DNR is not enough to provide guidance n the day to day choices that lead to death.
  • Have the conversation with your family TODAY about what you want, and don’t want. Sit at your dinner table and talk about cognitive ability, physical impairment, and quality of life.
  • Write your wishes down. If you don’t know where to start go to Dying with Dignity and look around. They have some great resources, including advanced care directives.
  • Choose someone as your power of attorney who you really believe will respect YOUR wishes, values and needs rather than make decisions based on the wishes of others or out of their desire for you to stay around a little longer. Choose someone who will treat you as an adult, even when your cognitive ability declines, and who has deep respect for you.
  • If you decide to leave your home and live in a retirement residence, make your choice in a way that includes knowledge of their view, approach and ability to support you in your final days. Know how they can support you in your independent living days, but your last days too.
  • Make sure your medical team knows your choices, and is prepared to support them. If they don’t, pick a new medical team.
  • Recognize you can have a full and meaningful life even with physical and mental impairments that come from illness. Decline is a part of aging, and your family and friends will want you around as long as possible. You have much to contribute even if you are incontinent, need a cane or walker or your mental abilities decline. There is still much life to be lived, so don’t make your choices too restrictive.
  • In the end, life is so very short and over in a flash. One day you are 16, and then you are 50, and then 80. It goes by in a blink. Take care of your mental and physical health, life well and fully and don’t waste a moment of it. It’s deeply precious, and gone far too soon.
  • Make your choice carefully. Know that even if you make your choice to die, and the people who love you support that choice, you will be missed and there will be a hole in their lives where your spirit once was.

Redefining success: our new normal is outrage, opposition & polarization

  A picture I took of a protestor (with his permission) who set up camp outside the B.C. legislature week after week to protest tax changes.

A picture I took of a protestor (with his permission) who set up camp outside the B.C. legislature week after week to protest tax changes.

It used to be that when we brought people together to talk about tough issues we had the idea we’d done it well if people were happy, agreed and thought our processes were good. Those days are long gone.

It used to be that we applied all our skills and knowledge to resolve conflict, eliminate outrage and earn people’s trust. Those are honourable but unrealistic goals.

It used to be that we thought conflict resolution could resolve conflict, interest based negotiation could result in durable solutions and that we could create processes with a goal of people agreeing to a way forward. The days when conflict resolution was effective are gone.

Conflict resolution is dead.

We live in a different time, where we need to redefine the new normal.

We need to stop creating processes where failure is defined as the presence of conflict or outrage and instead define success as the presence of emotion, concern, outrage and conflict and our ability to really hold the space for those brave, honest conversations that need to happen.

We need to recognize conflict, outrage and opposition will be present, welcome it in, and create conversations where we build capacity to talk together about tough issues and build alignment rather than agreement.

A new definition of success is working WITH the conflict, outrage and opposition people bring to a tough conversation and creating spaces where everyone recognizes we have some tough decisions to make together. Where we design processes that take everyone on the journey in recognizing there is more to conversations in our communities than just our own needs.

I gave a speech last week in Vancouver where I was asked “What is the future of public engagement? What do you think needs to change or adapt in the field?” It’s a BIG question, not easily answered, but here was my attempt at a response.

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It’s time we recognized outrage and opposition are here to stay. Social norms and expectations are vastly different today than they were five years ago, and people go right to protesting and saying no when a project is proposed that doesn’t align with their values or meet their needs. I have no problem with that; its the basis of democracy. However, it creates an environment where people tell you what they DON’T want, rather than what they DO want. Let’s bring in the concerns AND talk about solutions too. Let’s also start recognizing we don’t live alone in our communities and there are others who might think differently, and we need to consider those views too.

It’s time we stopped having all our conversations about tough issues on a project by project basis. Instead, let’s talk about the real values driving opposition and reaction to projects. Let me give you an example: imagine if we had a national conversation about the environment and the economy instead of a series of separate conversations about pipeline after pipeline. Imagine a conversation where indigenous communities, oil companies, environmentalists, government and regular Canadians came together to talk about HOW we really create a viable economy that leverages our natural resources, respects and recognizes indigenous rights and territory and protects and stewards the environment? Just imagine that conversation! I can envision that conversation would result in multiple solutions that met all those needs and included options like renewable energy sources, economic development possibilities and benefits for indigenous communities. Instead, we have these deeply polarized conversations one pipeline at a time, and people chain themselves to fences, threaten to wreak havoc on the economy or suggest legal action. How is that a way forward?

We need to drop the “public” in public engagement, and recognize we need to focus on how we create a way of talking together through brave, honest conversations every day — in our lives, organizations and communities. Some organizations do a great job talking to the public or stakeholders and have a dysfunctional internal culture where meaningful conversations are hard to have. Other organizations do the opposite. In the end we won’t find viable solutions unless we keep having hard conversations whenever and wherever they are needed, so we can move forward together.

We need to build real leadership for brave, honest conversations on really tough issues. We’ve solved all the easy challenges in our communities and we’re left with the really tough ones. Think climate change, poverty, intensification, reconciliation, environmental damage and more. We need leaders willing to take a stand for the CONVERSATION, without knowing the answers, solutions or outcomes that might result.

It’s time we changed the paradigm from indivdiual right to have a say, to reocgnize people have a right AND a responsibility to their neighbour. It’s time we all advocated for the collective good and stopped putting bandaid solutions on tough problems. I totally respect each person’s right to their view, perspective and need. I’m also tired of people who can’t see beyond their own needs. It’s time we understood we live in communities together, and it will take all of us to find our way forward.

Tell me what you don’t want and then also tell me what you DO want. Then tell me how those wants also meets the needs of your fellow neighbours. Bring your “no” to the conversation, and also your solution to the situation. Let’s ask more of each other, dig deeper, and try harder to really solve the challenges facing us.

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Let’s agree that vitriol, public shaming, marginalization and hate is just not a go. Let’s call it out as unequivocally not all right and be clear it is the behaviour we won’t tolerate, not the people who are upset we take issue with. An enormous number of people — including politicians — are removing themselves from social media because of the total disrespect that is generated in online conversations. It’s time we all stood up with brave hearts and said that it isn’t OK.

Lets take the inform and consult levels off the IAP2 spectrum once and for all. In 2015 I wrote a blog re-imagining this core tool of the engagement practice, and called for the removal of inform, and offered suggestions about removing consult as well — because they aren’t real, meaningful engagement. Let’s agree that in a world of outrage, opposition and polarization we need to meet people where they are at, and have real conversations in meaningful ways about the things that matter most. It’s time the tools of our practice reflected the world we live in.

Stand for something, and act like a courageous leader. This work is not for the faint of heart. Engagement in this environment is risky business. Let’s take a stand for courage, compassion and integrity and step forward and invite people into these conversations, ask more of them and create spaces where we talk together about tough stuff. Let’s recognize there are no easy solutions or magic wands to make things perfect, and recognize the hard work we are doing of building communities and creating capacity for brave, honest conversations. Let’s stand for that, and believe in our ability to really have these conversations together.

Socratic Circles: a method to support high emotion, high conflict conversations

  Me facilitating a socratic circle conversation about a high conflict issue in a rural community in Chile

Me facilitating a socratic circle conversation about a high conflict issue in a rural community in Chile

In workshops and trainings I am asked over and over again HOW to bring people together when emotions run high and tensions are overflowing. A Socratic Circle is a group conversation process that supports learning, relationships, and embraces high emotion. I’ve used it in countless situations as a method to embrace the intense concern, anger, fear, worry or frustration participants are feeling so that it can be understood, and the path created for a constructive conversation.

How does it work?

Participants are divided into two concentric circles, both circles facing in to the centre, with generally equal numbers of participants in each circle. The circles create a container for the emotion that models the space that gets created in talking circles and it intentionally builds deep understanding by creating the outer circle meant for listening.

The inner circle starts the first conversation based on some prompt questions, designed to spark thinking. The outer circle listens to the conversation to hear and understand what is said and are also asked to watch for insights, similarities and meaning.

The inner circle can last for 10 minutes, or 30, or somewhere in between depending on the flow of conversation, the topic, and participant’s energy. When circle 1 ends, the facilitator calls for a switch, and the inner circle moves to the outer circle to listen, and the outer circle takes the inner circle talking seats.

When both circles have completed discussion, the facilitator engages both groups in conversation to identify what stood out for them, what had meaning or insight, where they saw patterns or similarities, or where there may be more that needs to be discussed or considered. The facilitator can start with hearing from participants in the outer circle, then welcome input from all.

If it feels like there is more to say and the issue hasn’t come to any conclusion then you can call for another “wave” of conversation. In this wave you can allow people to self select who sits in the inner circle, allowing those with more to contribute to hold those chairs. If you take this option, be sure to debrief fully with those in the outer circle before going back to the inner circle at the end.

When do you use a Socratic Circle?

When you want to engage people in powerful thinking, sharing and learning that does not require a resolution, consensus or other fixed outcome. Socratic Circles are a great way to ensure participants have ownership of the discussion because they lead and direct it.

The process also encourages equal contributions between participants, and this can be encouraged by tracing the “web” of conversation as participants talk, documenting the pattern and energy of the conversation. At the same time, recorders can document the conversation that is taking place.

Using a Socratic Circle creates a safe place for emotional conversations. It is important to set the stage for the conversation by creating conversation norms by explaining how the process will work, and acknowledging some of the challenging issues that may be raised.

It is important for all participants to be in the conversation including the organization, stakeholders, technical experts etc. so that there is a fullness to the conversation.

You can use the Socratic Circle in groups of up to 50, with largest circles being 25 people in each ring. When you’ve got more than 50 people, create multiple circles.

Step-by-Step

1. Prior to starting the Socratic Circle the facilitator should identify a number of key questions or inquiries to serve as prompts to kick-start the conversation. The facilitator sets up the circle.

2. Prior to beginning participants collect their thoughts related to the prompt questions and write some reflections.

3. Equal numbers are seated in the inner and outer circles and the facilitator reminds folks that talking takes place in the inner circle, and listening takes place in the outer circle.

4. Anyone in the inner circle can begin the conversation, and the conversation is organic from that point. Silences are normal and the discussion may ebb and flow.

5. The facilitator calls time for each session. The facilitator does not start the conversations, and must remain silent throughout, unless participant safety is at risk.

  An example of tracking the conversation and the web that gets created from a conversation about community recovery to natural disaster

An example of tracking the conversation and the web that gets created from a conversation about community recovery to natural disaster

6. The facilitator or another nominated person tracks the conversation using flip charts. Tracking involves identifying the seating position of each participant, and tracing a line from each speaker to the next. During the outer circle feedback, the facilitator directs participants’ attention to the tracking diagram as a concrete expression of the conversation.

7. After the first conversation the inner and the outer circles change roles and positions.

8. At the conclusion of the second outer circle feedback, the facilitator can lead an open discussion about the process and the content, and pose a question about ‘where to from here’.

Some example prompt questions

Noted here are a number of example prompt questions used in previous conversations.

In a long-term conflict situation between a corporation and an indigenous community:

  • What makes a good neighbour?
  • What do you hope Company X learns about you and your community?
  • What do you hope to learn about the people at Company X?
  • What might allow you to work together to have a better relationship?

In a recovery situation to natural disaster with community workers:

  • How do you make meaning of what has happened and care for yourself when you spend so much time holding other people’s needs and emotions?
  • How do you play a role in contributing to rebuilding community?
  A socratic circle I facilitated about community recovery to natural disaster in Queensland, Australia

A socratic circle I facilitated about community recovery to natural disaster in Queensland, Australia

In a recovery situation to natural disaster with community recovery workers, agencies and community members:

  • How do we find a way forward to rebuild our communities?
  • How do we reconcile all the diverse and urgent needs that are calling for attention?
  • How do we create a recovery process that works for all of us?

In a high conflict situation on a health care issue:

  • What are the challenges, struggles, and considerations we need to talk through before moving forward on this issue?
  • What will we need to learn so that all perspectives can be fully understood and the complexity of this issue be considered?
  • What would an informed decision for moving forward look like to you?

Give the method a try in your next tough conversation and create the space for people to see, hear and understand each other. New connections are made, tensions release and possibility gets created for a new way of working and talking together.

Answering YOUR questions about Brave, Honest Conversations: Edition #2

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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 monthly series I 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. You can find Edition #1 here.

This month’s question is one I get asked at EVERY training session about engagement and/or leadership. The question looks like variations on these inquiries:

How do we get senior leadership to try something new?

How do we get people who don’t see the value of engagement (examples are often given like engineers, project managers, technical experts, scientists etc.) to engage the public or stakeholders in a meaningful way?

How do I convince elected officials / senior management / leadership that what they are trying to do won’t work? Or get them to understand there is another way to do things?

How do I explain the benefits of trying new things / addressing public opposition or outrage in new ways to decision-makers?

How do I get people in my organization to understand the value and benefits of meaningful engagement? How do I get people to allocate the necessary time, money and resources to do engagement well?

These questions are all related to what it means when you have a culture of engagement in your organization — and when you don’t. A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about organizational culture and the five reasons why organizations don’t succeed in creating momentum for positive change, and what you can do about it. The issues I touch in that blog are all directly related to these questions in Edition #2. So start there and read that blog too.

Here are some answers to the questions listed here.

  1. There is no persuading, informing, convincing others about the things you believe — You can’t convince, persuade, inform or wish people into believing the same things you believe. People don’t change their views based on information alone; they change their views and behaviours based on a combination of experience, feeling and new understanding. So often when people see things differently than we do, we hope that by providing them with information they will see things differently if we explain things to them. However, facts don’t make people feel better. Tip: If you are tempted to try to persuade, convince or inform people so they will see the light and think differently RESIST the urge. STOP and pause. Think about how you feel when people evangelize to you about issues they care about but aren’t top of your priority list. It builds resistance rather than support.

2. Treat internal engagement like engagement in the public arena — If you want to build support for engagement you need to create the experience of engagement inside your organization. For people to feel comfortable having brave, honest conversations with people outside the organization they need to be in the practice of having those kinds of conversations inside the organization. Focus conversations on ASKING versus telling, in understanding your colleague’s or decision-maker’s needs and reflecting those in the approach. Build experiences where people feel what a meaningful conversation is like, so they want more of them. That will help them envision what the conversation will be like with the public. Tip: Start team meetings with icebreakers, run your project meetings with facilitated processes using the tools & techniques of engagement, ask people who are uncomfortable about engagement about what they see as risks, challenges or hopes for the conversation, and gently help people see that engagement is an expertise, discipline and practice the same as any other technical discipline.

3. You need a culture of brave, honest conversations internally — People weren’t born knowing how to have rich, deep conversations about important issues. There are countless issues inside organizations that need brave, honest conversations; harassment, work-life balance, stress, equal pay, organizational culture, decision-making processes, values and so many more. When we build cultures where we talk about our conflicts, disagreements, and struggles with openness, courage and compassion we solve our challenges AND we learn to talk together about the things that matter most. Tip: use your engagement skills and knowledge to design conversations for issues that are being talked about around the water cooler but not being talked about openly. Name the elephants stomping around the office and invite a conversation. Ask decision-makers to support a project where the organization tackles a couple tough issues internally. This builds experience that hard conversations are possible, and a sense of potential that they could happen with the public or stakeholders.

4. Reduce or remove some of those invisible lines we create in public organizations between administration and elected officials — There are boundaries between administration and elected officials in our public organizations, and they are there for many reasons. However, these boundaries become tall impenetrable fences in some organizations. Elected officials are seen as a sort of strange mythical unicorn herd, and assumptions and stories about their motivations, desires and needs are shared within the organization as if those stories are reality. Elected officials are people too, committed to serving the needs of their constituents, with concerns, hopes and challenges when it comes to engagement. They are also the first line of democratic process, where their role is to directly represent the views of those they serve. Tip: Start to build a practice of engaging with elected officials about their hopes, concerns and needs especially when it comes to highly controversial issues. Do it before the engagement is planned, not after the planning has been done. Remember that like all other professionals, elected officials want to get it right, and may need the experience of talking together about what will work, and what won’t work. Talking with them about perceptions, impacts, risks and benefits can help build support for new approaches.

5. Share the learnings, build the collective experience, grow, iterate and change — Lots of organizations have work units dedicated to public engagement, employee engagement or communications. Those units serve as centres of expertise within the organization, in the same way engineering or human resources are centres of expertise. However, they can also contribute to the sense that engagement is someone else’s responsibility rather than a collective responsibility for talking together about issues that matter. Tip:Create a community of practice to share experiences, lessons and learnings made up of people from across the organization. Create tools, case studies and lunch and learn sessions to share skills, knowledge and experience. Build capacity for brave, honest conversations as a core competence of all employees, decision-makers (and elected officials too where that applies).

6. Try and fail, and try again — There is no magic wand or perfect recipe for success when it comes to bringing people together to talk about issues that matter most to find solutions for moving forward. There are a lot of good practices (and quite a few bad ones — like let’s please all agree to never hold another town hall or open house on a controversial issue again…see a blog I wrote about that in 2016 here). It matters that everyone understands that engagement is risky business AND it is the only path to finding solutions that work. There are no guarantees of success or outcomes, and it is a journey grounded in relationships, trust and courage. That means everyone in an organization needs to start getting comfortable acknowledging when things don’t go well and inviting the sharing of lessons learned. When we have cultures of risk aversion and getting things perfect before we do anything we stifle creativity, innovation, growth and learning. When we try and fail and try again we invite possibility, change, innovation and new ideas. Tip: Invite people to brainstorm risks and create plans b, c, d, e and f so everyone sees it is an iterative, flexible process. Invite people to conduct participatory after action reviews so you learn together. Share those learnings publicly and throughout the organization.

7. Phone a friend — Sometimes decision-makers and leaders in an organization need to hear from someone outside the organization about what has worked, and not worked elsewhere. They need to expand the sight lines in the landscape so they can understand what other organizations have done well, done poorly and what they might experience. Lots of time someone external can deliver that information because their experience extends to a variety of sectors, communities and situations. Tip: Call an external expert and ask them to support the organization in extending its understanding. Call me and I’ll run a participatory workshop full of stories of what works — and what doesn’t — and what it means for you.

8. It starts with you — When you model courageous leadership and a willingness to step into brave, honest conversations in your organization you set a precedent for what you want to see in the world. This is a way of living, not just skills and experience you apply to an event. When you take a stand for talking together, you contribute to a culture of engagement. All of it takes time, energy, effort and leadership and it doesn’t happen overnight. What is that saying? A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

By asking questions about creating a culture of engagement you are taking the first step. Keep walking, bravely leading every day.

Send me your questions and I will keep writing. My list of questions is getting long and varied. I look forward to hearing from you.

How your right to a voice on Facebook doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk

  In a world of social media with thousands of friends, follows and likes we are increasingly isolated and disconnected

In a world of social media with thousands of friends, follows and likes we are increasingly isolated and disconnected

This is a story of how I lost my cool, re-found my centre and spent some time reflecting on the harm that social media can do to our relationships and our emotional well-being. The whole journey happened because of some posts on Facebook.

I’m writing this blog in a different story telling order than usual; starting with lessons and insights for future interactions, then back to what happened, and then a bit about the past and why it matters.

PART 1: Lessons and insights for future social media interactions

I had some challenging interactions on Facebook recently based on a promotion I ran for some training. Ironically, the training was for strategies to deal with public outrage and opposition. (More details on what actually happened in Part 2.) When I finally came up for air and worked through what I could learn from this situation a couple of insights rose to the surface.

SEE AND BE SEEN — We all have a built in need to be seen. It’s the essence of love; to be fully seen and accepted as you are. When we aren’t seen or accepted it hurts, makes us vulnerable and wounded, and it makes some people angry as well. Social media is about “connections” but the connections run miles wide and skin deep, where we see people mostly at their best based on the image they want to present to the world, or where we have no real relationship with them and therefore no sense of who they really are. When we interact with people on these platforms we only see pieces of them, which can lead quickly to assumptions, judgments and shame and blame. Take a look at your “friends” on Facebook — how many of them do you have a real relationship with? How many would you call in a crisis, to share a hardship or sadness, or to celebrate an achievement? When our relationships are shallow we aren’t fully seen, and the harshness of criticism, blame or shame can come across louder and more intense than with those we have real relationships and intimacy. Choose your friends wisely, and invest real time and energy in the relationships that are a mile deep.

WINNERS AND LOSERS — We live in a world where the media, politics, work environments and society are framed in terms of harsh competition where winners gain and losers decline. You win an election over an opponent, you get a job over another candidate, your community gets a recreation centre or new school and another community doesn’t because there is only so much funding to go around….you get the picture. Those who “win” are positioned for future benefits because they now hold advantaged position, and the cycle goes on. This pattern can extend to our social interactions, particularly on social media where many of our relationships are shallow. Think about how quickly a video, tweet or post can go viral. Little thought or reflection is required to make that happen, just a quick “jump on the bandwagon” with no consequences or impacts. We make these seemingly simple choices to “like” something without seeing the whole picture, asking tough questions or understanding the impacts on the individual in question or the conversation overall. I see it in myself, and I see it in the space over and over again — this quick reactivity and jump to judgment where we assume that the one post, quote or situation makes up the entirety of a human being or experience. As if it is right to judge someone solely on one act and condemn them as bad, wrong or undeserving and move right to shame and blame. Aren’t we all human? Don’t we all err? Wouldn’t you want to be judged on the whole of your actions versus one moment in time and be seen fully as a human being? When we jump to condemnation we dehumanize each other and create a divide between us. The conversation becomes one of “you are with me or you are against me” and then we all lose because there is nothing to talk about from there. I’m going to start curating my “likes”, start reflecting before I comment, retweet or contribute to things where there are winners and losers. I hope you do too.

GENEROSITY AND BOUNDARIES — A balance of generosity and boundaries has frequently been my response when I’m asked how to handle the anger, vitriol and righteous indignation sometimes thrown my way in a tough conversation. I continue to stand by that perspective and I want to nuance it further on the boundaries side of the equation. When I approach the person or the situation with generosity I am closer to compassion, to holding the space for the emotion they bring to the issue that matters so much to them in the hopes that will serve them so we can have a constructive conversation where I can really understand what is driving their reaction. My generosity tends to be pretty big when it comes to those moments, reflecting on where the anger, hate, fear or frustration is and knowing that this really matters to the people at hand. When it comes to boundaries I often focus on two: respect and civil discourse. Respect for all — others in the room, myself, the organization. We don’t have to agree or like each other but if we are treating each other as human beings we’ll get further in our conversation. So I intervene and ask for respect.

When it comes to civil discourse I think it comes down to integrity — no matter how heated the issue is, the way we talk together matters. We can’t find a solution if there isn’t fairness, equity or inclusion in the conversation. If I don’t stand for both the right and the responsibility to participate in civil discourse then what is my role? I’m responsible for advocating, encouraging, inspiring and holding the space for civil discourse so we can all talk together, and when it doesn’t happen I need to own my own responsibility for that, and also put a hard stop to the conversation when that is no longer happening. That means making choices for myself that allow me to be in those conversations, or to tap out of them when I can’t be in them with integrity. I tapped out of the Facebook conversation in this case by blocking the commenter on my Facebook page and I continue to be mixed about that choice. Could I have done more to promote a real conversation? I’m not sure but I think the fact that I’m wondering about it tells me the answer is yes. My hope is we all try one more time for civil discourse when we want to quit, and see where it takes us.

IT STARTS WITH YOU — More than ever I am certain that what you stand for matters. We all have the potential to be leaders, and to lead brave, honest conversations and we can do that when we know why we are motivated to be in that conversation. Is it because you are committed to solving the challenge? Is it because you believe better solutions will result? Are you motivated by connection and inclusion? Is it because you hold the values of courage and compassion? It could be all those things. You have to BELIEVE in the conversation and the people in it for it to work. Your choices in that conversation either result in deeper understanding, respect, agreement where things are shared or agreement to disagree where things are different, and the shared experience that together you are stronger than apart. Or your choices result in something different. You won’t always get it right. There is no magic wand or fairy dust for brave, honest conversations. No matter how many times I get asked for it I know there is no special formula that makes them come out just right every time. Sometimes you won’t get it right, sometimes you will fail. This time I didn’t get it right and I walked away without trying one more time. But every day I get back up and try again because more than anything I believe that brave, honest conversations are how we solve the problems we face. What choices will you make to lead today? What do you stand for? How do you make that real in your life?

PART 2: So…what happened on Facebook?

I run a business called the Courageous Leadership Project where I help people show up as brave, compassionate leaders in their lives, organizations and communities so we can have brave, honest conversations about the challenges we face, together. It is not just a business, it is my values in action, every day.

That doesn’t mean I get it right every time. In fact, lots of times I get triggered, angry or just have a run of the mill bad day where I’m not courageous, compassionate or even listening to other people.

I’m offering training courses this spring in Vancouver and I decided to run a Facebook ad to promote them to spread the word and promote registrations.

It never occurred to me that promoting training on Facebook would spark outrage. Which is mistake number one.

Here is the description of the course I was promoting. The irony of the topic of the course is not lost on me.

It got almost 9,000 impressions in the week of the promotion. It also prompted this first exchange between a commenter and me.

(Note: names have been removed because I didn’t ask the commenters if I could use their identities here. Although they commented publicly for the world to see on Facebook it feels right to not just name them here without their permission. Let me know what you think about that and I may go back and add in their names. Does it matter? Does it serve a purpose? Does it support the greater good or promote civil discourse?)

Exchange #1

  • Commenter: Or maybe you’re just wrong?
  • My response: You mean the organization is just wrong? Yes totally that’s absolutely possible, and part of the learning to engage with the public with a different mindset, approach and attitude. How organizations show up and interact matters, and that includes acknowledging when you’ve got it wrong.
  • Commenter: I think it’s the first and most important question I’ve been on the receiving end of more than one ‘change management’ manipulation process… when in fact it became apparent, some months in, that they were just plain wrong and they were so locked in to their process, of driving onwards, of ‘getting buy in’ that they had stopped asking any questions. I am rather jaded by this I admit, but if you have active in the street protests… you may have a very serious moral / environmental issue and THAT should be your question, not messaging and communications.
  • My response: Absolutely, I hear you. The first step when you’ve got opposition or outrage is to stop what you are doing and start to understand why. Not to keep pushing forward, convinced you are right and the public is wrong. Because if the public is outraged you are doing something wrong. Flat out. Messaging and communications won’t fix that, and you shouldn’t try that approach. Plus it never works anyway — people see through it. This is a course about learning to be different, to show up differently, to make different choices about your relationship with the public or stakeholders, so that in the long run you build trust. The answer is never in trying to convince, persuade or sell the public on something. It’s about acknowledging things aren’t going well, understanding why, and choosing something different. Thanks for sharing your experiences — I know how common they are. It’s time we did something different in the public arena.
  • Commenter: thanks for the honest answers!

I really appreciated that exchange. I felt pretty good about it. It felt respectful, like we were both trying to understand each other and we weren’t going for agreement but for an open exchange of views and experiences. People started to follow along and like the posts between us. I’ll be brutally honest and offer that I had a moment where I was thinking to myself, “look at this, living my values in this conversation.” Yes — that is foreshadowing for the dangers of ever thinking you got things figured out.

There was a second exchange with a different commenter, who got a little more straight to the point.

Exchange #2

  • Commenter: (replying to the comments in the feed): …or, alternately, your organization’s goals are shitty, and you should get your act together. I don’t think outraged street protesters are there because your “messaging” is off about “stakeholder motivations”. Would you say there is any benefit to an organization taking your course if they have no interest in changing their goals, but just want to effectively defuse public outrage?
  • My response: No. Because here is the thing — you can’t effectively defuse public outrage without being willing to change yourself. There isn’t a way that works. So change has to be possible within the organization for it to have a possible outcome where the conflict is de-escalated. This isn’t a course about managing, controlling or manipulating other people. It’s a course about finding a real way forward on high stakes, high emotion situations where both sides come together.

The exchange ended there. Some people “liked” this exchange but the commenter didn’t come back and reply again, which is totally fine. Sometimes you just want to have your say and move on.

Exchange #3:

  • Commenter: Yes,I feel a lot of people could benefit from this coarse ,as long as what ever your teaching is true ???? Becoming angry is a normal reaction to what ever is going on in people, its a reflection of other emotions and those other emotions are the ones people have to understand and how and when to control them so that it doesn’t become the forefront of your thought processes to be able to work things out the right proper way. but all and all sometimes anger helps to get things done,its a good thing if its for a good purpose
  • My response: Yes absolutely, great points! I always say that conflict is a signal that something needs to change. Anger is the emotion most often associated with conflict — it’s an opportunity to understand what isn’t working so it can be adjusted.

Momentum was building.

  Momentum builds and it starts to feel like I’m on the “wrong” side of the exchange

Momentum builds and it starts to feel like I’m on the “wrong” side of the exchange

Different commenters start expressing concern that the course would result in people being manipulated or controlled when they were expressing their views.

Random comments by different people started to point an escalation and a sense of me as the representative of the “wrong” side of the issue gets expressed:

  • Or, you could stop and ask yourself, why is what I’m doing making people angry? Is what I’m doing wrong?
  • Look at all these people already protesting. Its an advertisement for Christ sake, on how to deal with hypothetical pylons like yourselves. See the irony here?
  • Nutley and Phillips could use about a years worth of this training. By that time they will be out of office. Can you send them tickets please.
  • How about just start telling the truth and stop trying to massage them into cooperating with whatever you have already decided? This patriarchal thing has gotten too far out of hand.

Remember that all of these posts are happening on my company Facebookpage — all over the course of a week. I’m equal parts curious and concerned. I didn’t enter “protesters” in the demographics for for my Facebook ad, but I’ve attracted them!

I’m also starting to feel personally attacked and like my integrity and values are in question. Of course I’m not offering a course to manipulate and coerce people out of their right to a voice or to being angry when they don’t agree with decisions! Who would do that?

I’ve got a little outrage building myself by the time Exchange #4 rolls around.

Exchange #4 — where all my buttons got pushed.

  • Commenter: People protest on the street because politicians lawyers and/or big business haven’t listened and are pushing through an unpopular item. There is no compromise. I guess that’s when they hire spin Doctors like you. Us common folk call it bullshit.
  • My response:‪ Thanks for sharing your experience. As I’ve replied to others — this course isn’t about spin, and isn’t about supporting politicians or organizations to continue to do things that erode the public trust. It is about changing the way they approach decision-making so people come first. If that shifts, maybe so many protests won’t be necessary.
  • Commenter: Your just trying to put a positive spin on what your trying to do. If the people come first then the unpopular project would not be put forward. Ok? If I want you to give me all your money are you suggesting if I only take half a compromise has been made? and it’s all good? If I want to build a forty story condo next to your modest house if I only build a twenty story building instead that’s a compromise and you will live happily ever after?
  • Politicians and decision makers in general are bought and paid by big business. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Either they push through their sketchy get rich schemes or they don’t
  • You can phrase it any which way you want but it is merely an exercise in semantics
  • When selfish privileged monied goofs stop lying and cheating then maybe politicians and lawyers and all the other white collar criminals will start listening to the public. Till then honey, you just selling snake oil.
  • By the way how is Hamilton these days?
  • My response:‪ Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will always be in favour of people having a right to voice their views. Just like I will ALWAYS advocate for the need for civil discourse, respect and a sharing of views where we try to understand each other not blame or shame each other. Based on that, this will be my last public reply to you. I will always participate in a respectful exchange, rather than one focused on the “win” that comes through shame, blame and uncivil discourse. You know, we need to live on this planet together, all of us. I can imagine you are teaching your children how to talk to together when they disagree, and that it doesn’t look like this. We need to take the time to try to hear each other rather than shout over each other.

This is the THINKING process I went through through the course of this exchange:

  • Who the hell does this guy think he is? I really don’t appreciate being accused of having no integrity by someone who has no idea who I am or what I am about.
  • I need to NOT reply to this right now. I took a couple minutes to breathe.
  • I asked myself “What do I stand for? What do I believe in? How do I want to show up in this conversation?”

I made a short reply to the first post. Reading my response now I can see I was defensive and also trying to be open to having a real conversation.

Then that last comment came.

And my internal reaction and dialogue went to “What the f&*#$? Don’t call me “honey” you condescending, patronizing, misogynistic jerk.” I was plain mad. I had flames coming out of my ears.

I went to the gym to work through my own anger until I could be calmer and respond to his last comment. All I could see was “honey” “spin doctor” and “Hamilton”.

While I was calmer I wasn’t peaceful when I replied. I then blocked the commenter from my page so he didn’t come back afterwards and say something else. Not exactly open, compassionate or courageous on my part. I tapped out.

Later I took time to reflect and came up with insights and thoughts I shared in Part 1. This was as messy situation, and while I’m committed to learning from it, I’m also committed to acknowledging I could have done more and differently.

Part 3: The past and how it matters

Let me go back a few years and name the elephant that is in that last commenter’s post. Those who know my work and follow me likely know the story of my experience with a public engagement project in Hamilton, Ontario in 2013.

The reason that the Hamilton story matters is this:

  • Stories never die, especially on the internet. People can bring them up years later, like the commenter did in this recent situation as if I should want to hide from the experience and they are shaming me by revealing it. I spent years openly talking, writing, blogging and even hosting workshops about this situation and others and what we learn from them so I’m not shamed by the reference. However, the person who I had the exchange with intended to use the reference in that way. Here is an interview done with me less than a month after the situation as an example.
  • The experience on the Hamilton project taught me lessons and insights about the risks of public engagement, social media and the impact of uncivil discourse. I am forever grateful for the experience and it has shaped my work in brave, beautiful and very painful ways.
  • The experience gave evidence to what can happen when we let fear, blame and shame and risk aversion guide our decisions about public engagement on tough issues that really matter.
  • The experience provided insights into what real leadership looks like — and what it doesn’t look like — and how loudest, angriest and most intimidating voices are not always right.

It led me to today where I hold at my very centre your right to have a voice AND your responsibility to participate with others in ways that build us up and help us find solutions — together.

Let’s talk together face-to-face and online with respect, compassion and courage. And let’s try not to be jerks to each other.