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

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.

Note: The Socratic Circle is copyrighted and trademarked by Stephani Roy McCallum of the Courageous Leadership Project. We encourage you to use the tool in your work having brave, honest conversations and please remember to give credit where it is due with proper attribution. If you have any questions about the technique please contact Steph at stephani@bravelylead.com

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.

“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

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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 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.

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.