Whatever will be, will be transformative

This week could easily have been written by George R. R. Martin – amongst my family, friends, and staff, there have been four deaths, two cancer diagnoses, a major heart surgery, the dissolution of a special partnership and, to add insult (and fear) to injury, the outcome of America’s presidential election.

I had a moment on Friday morning when I woke up and, faced with the prospect of my fifth day of back-to-back meetings on top of my throbbing heart, thought “I don’t think I can do this today.” But as I lay there a little while longer, several things occurred to me.

I’ve been reading a lot from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes lately, a Jungian Analyst who breaks down what fairytales and folklore tell us about the development of the human psyche. I had started the week musing on ‘The Skeleton Woman’ – an ancient Inuit story about a fisherman who accidentally pulls up a female skeleton from the sea, and through her being tangled in his fishing line, she appears to chase him from sea to shore and all the way across the tundra into his house. He’s terrified, but eventually he realises that she’s just a poor tangled up skeleton and not a demon intent on his demise, and he feels compassion for her, and he lays her out with all of her bones in the right way and puts a fur around her. While the story of the Skeleton Woman ends with her restoration back to life, the part of the story that really resonated with me was the fisherman’s terror about the Skeleton Woman as the figure of death, his attempt to flee from her, and then his eventual (peaceful) facing of her and seeing her as she was. In the early moments of their interaction, we see all of the discomfort, terror, wounding and fear of death that so many of us hold.

Estes uses the story to delve into the Life/Death/Life cycles that govern nature and relationships. For example: A seed bursts, sprouts, grows, blooms, degenerates, dies… and again. And again. And again. Every year. No part of that cycle is greater than the other, but in Western culture we so often prioritise the joy of Life over the loss of Death. We want things to be in bloom all the time.

At the start of the week it became pretty clear to me that I was heading into the Death component of the Life/Death/Life cycle – a time of endings and transitions into new ways of being – and I was going to have to become comfortable with the Skeleton Woman traipsing along with me in it. That is, I was going to have to face my discomfort, terror, wounding and fear of death (endings), if I was going to be of any use to any one of the people suffering around me.

Over the course of the week I consciously tried to do the following:

Accept: I accepted that Death is an inevitable and valuable part of the cycle, and I started asking myself what I could learn from it. I’ve been sustained all week by a line from Estes: “Whatever will be, will be transformative.” I can’t imagine a better promise – that regardless of where I am in the cycle, I can learn and grow from it.

Know who you want to be: The questions I kept asking myself were “What is required of me? How do I want to be in all of this?” Create a vision for what ‘you walking through this situation in alignment with your values’ looks like. On Friday morning, the thing that got me out of bed was the thought of Hillary Clinton probably facing the same dilemma on a much bigger scale, the question of “How do I front up to a hard reality with grace?” If she could get out of bed to do just that, then so could I.

Reframe the situation: I reframed what was happening as an opportunity to enlarge my capacity to serve others during hard times, and as an opportunity to model the kind of caring and stoicism that I’ve seen both of my grandmothers (one of whom died this week) display throughout their lives.

Honour what you need: I decided that I would create space for my true feelings to be, whilst also not falling into a heap. This looked like me checking in very regularly with myself about what I needed – and on Friday morning that was going to work, and on Friday night it was begging off my social engagements.

Keep attached to the bigger picture: I keep giving myself a good dose of perspective: I don’t know what real suffering is. I’ve had the enormous good fortune to be born as a white female to university educated parents in a country where education is valued and my gender isn’t too much of a hindrance. I don’t know war. I don’t know poverty. I don’t know a situation where I’m treated like a second-rate citizen because of my gender or my race or my sexual orientation. I don’t fear stepping on landmines or having to walk 10 km a day to get water. I haven’t just lost an enormous election campaign to someone who could not be more unfit to hold office, and who may end up causing me to come to know war and poverty in the future. Ultimately, my life is good – endings and all.

I know that 2016 has been a very hard year for many people, and you have my sympathies and love in that. I hope more than anything that we can keep choosing to make each situation that we find ourselves in better (not neutral, and not worse) for our involvement.  

 

How to instigate and facilitate conversations about expectations

This article in a nutshell: We all have expectations about every thing that we face, whether or not we’re conscious of those expectations. Understanding what another person’s expectations are is invaluable information to have, if you want the process of relating with that person to go as smoothly as possible. This article outlines ways of instigating and facilitating conversations about expectations without 'making it weird'.

Very often we are tripped up in our relating with others by our unspoken expectations. These expectations run the gauntlet from what we each need, to how we think things will or should proceed, to ‘what good looks like’, to what ‘normal’ relating to each other looks like.

Expectations are driving our behaviour, and thus our relating with others, whether or not we acknowledge it. It’s somewhat like change management – if there is a big change then you can be assured that people will be reacting to the change, whether or not you undertake a formal change management program… if you choose to do no formal change management then you’re choosing not to strategically influence people’s response to the change. Similarly, in relating with others you can be assured that people will be operating from their expectations… if you choose to not talk about what is driving each person, then you’re choosing to remain blind to all of the factors that are influencing the quality of the relationship and your experience of that relationship.

Expectations are often unspoken for several reasons:

  1. We don’t realise that we have them, because we are still operating from a belief that others think like us or that we all understand ‘how things work here’;*
  2. If we don’t realise that we have expectations, then we certainly don’t know what they actually are; and
  3. Even if we did know what they are, we don’t know how to bring them up without ‘making it weird’.

I frequently have upfront conversations these days with the people in my life about the expectations that I have which will influence our relating well. That might sound confrontational, but it rarely is. There’s an art to creating a safe space between two or more people, where the participants are able to explore what they really think about - and what they need in - a certain situation.

How you go about doing this effectively can depend on underlying power dynamics between individuals. For example, the way I approach a member of my team or my boss (where formal lines of authority exist) would be different to how I approach a peer, client, friend, family member or a lover (where there are no formal lines of authority, but where expectations run rampant).

Regardless of power dynamics, I structure these conversations as follows:

  1. Open the conversation confidently – if you don’t act like it’s weird, then the other participants will likely follow suit;
  2. Seek to understand from the other person what they need;
  3. Articulate what you need; and
  4. Keep the conversation light, open, exploratory, curious and non-judgemental. Create space for different options to emerge.

For example:

“You know, I’m conscious that at some point in this process we’re probably going to find ourselves in conflict if we don’t have a chat upfront about how we expect that this is going to go. So I thought perhaps we could explore what we would need from this for it to be a ‘good’ thing, like, “how do you prefer to be communicated with? If I’m struggling to get what I need from you, what would be the best way to approach you about that? What are your pet peeves when working with people?”

For me:

  1. I don’t like things sprung on me, so email works well for communicating with me, or if you’d prefer to have a face-to-face then I’d like to have that scheduled in before-hand with a small heads-up about what it’s in relation to. I prefer not to talk on the phone, though texting does work well for me.
  2. If you’re struggling to get what you need from me, just bring it up every day until I give it to you – that won’t annoy me, it’ll help to keep it on my radar. If it’s a really detailed, form-oriented kind of thing, offering to sit with me or finding some way to make it fun will always help me to get through it quicker.
  3. My pet peeves when working with people include when people don’t renegotiate time-frames that they know that they won’t be able to keep - I need a heads up when that is going to happen.

How about you?”

Understanding:

  • How people like to be communicated with (“are you more of an email, phone or face-to-face person?”);
  • What they need when they’re in conflict with another person (“How would you like me to approach you about any issues I’m experiencing?”);
  • What’s particularly important to them when relating with another (“What would you need from me in this interaction for it to be considered a good experience?”);
  • What particularly presses their buttons when relating with another (“Is there anything that particularly presses your buttons when working with people?”); and
  • What ‘really good’ would look like to them when it came to your interaction (“If you had it all your way, what would the end result of [this interaction] look like?”).

is invaluable information to have. You will be able to hurdle a huge number of invisible obstacles that otherwise would have tripped you up without you even knowing they were there.

* and, behind that belief, we tend to hold the more insidious belief that we are ‘normal’. Check last week’s article for more of a spiel on how we think our ways are self-evident.

Our way is not self-evident

This article in a nutshell: The way that you see the world/ a task/ a certain situation is not self-evident. If you want something to proceed in a certain way, then you’re going to have to have an upfront conversation about what everyone’s expectations are.

Time and time again as human beings, we make the mistake that our view of the world is shared in a large part by other people. It isn’t. You are a once-in-a-lifetime outcome of your personality, physiology, experiences, your parents’ issues, and how much inner work you’ve done as an adult. The reality is that no one else could possibly come close to your level of uniqueness*, and this is true about everyone.

How we see the world is called a paradigm: it’s the lens through which we make meaning of what happens to and around us. Except, the word ‘lens’ makes people think that it’s like glasses that we can take on and off, and beneath the glasses we’re all the same. The reality is more like we are looking through glasses on glasses on glasses, many of which are invisible and unknown even to us, and we couldn’t take them off even if we tried. We just need to become aware of what they are, so we can understand whether or not they actually help us or hurt us. And, in fact, our glasses ARE us, in a large part.

We’re often lulled into a false sense of security that the way we see the world is understood and shared by others, and that we ourselves understand the other people in our lives. Workplaces, for example, are often governed by implicit (and sometimes explicit) norms of behaviour or communication, which help us to comprehend what the prevailing view on ‘acceptable’ is and then subsequently to conform to it. However, we’re also regularly taken aback by what people ‘get away with’ in workplaces, or what they thought ‘might be okay’… this is the issue of us thinking that we comprehended what the rules were, but we fail to remember that we’ve all read the rules through our many layered glasses and thus our understanding of the rules is different from each other.** Our way is not, after all, self-evident.

The issue of assuming that our way is self evident is that we hold people to a standard that they don’t know that they’re being held to, and which they’re almost inevitably going to fail to meet. In addition to not getting from A to B as efficiently as possible, this failure to clarify expectations is going to cause conflict, which tends to then upset people, with the end result being that we’re not going to get to productive outcomes as quickly as we might have if everyone was in a calm and non-defensive space.

Conversations about our individual expectations can be incredibly powerful when they are had upfront. A lot of people find this difficult to do, particularly in situations where they have no formal authority (such as with a peer, client or lover). Next week I’ll be talking about how you might instigate and facilitate conversations about expectations.

If we can accept that our way is rarely self evident, then we must also accept:

  1. That people are frequently going to behave in ways that confound us; and
  2. That we need to recognise that confoundedness for what it is – a symptom of our expectation that everyone thinks like us.***

Once we’ve recognised those things, and remembered both ours and others uniqueness, we could do several things:

  1. Have a think about what we thought was going to happen and why;
  2. Discern what our expectations tells us about the way that we personally see and experience the world;
  3. Seek to understand what the other person was attempting when they engaged in that behaviour; and
  4. Express calmly and clearly what, if anything, we might need to feel okay about what just happened.

I find it helpful to remind myself that each of us are considered crazy by at least one other person in the world, and that is why grace is essential to relating. It’s far easier to point to someone else’s crazy and to say that that’s the problem, than it is to acknowledge that there can never be complete understanding between humans. From my own experience, our judgement of others won’t help us to get a better outcome.

*If there was a formula for uniqueness, I speculate it might be: (Personality x physiology)^(your childhood experiences * your parent’s shit) – your inner work done as an adult + (the impact of your adult experiences * your level of self-awareness about your own shit).

**Also, human beings are so complex that the rules will never entirely cover the gamut of what human beings might do! We are pretty incredibly creative.

*** Or, if we don’t have this expectation, the confoundedness is a red flag from our unconscious, telling us something about how we see the world.

"What does leadership look like, in this situation?"

Like many organisations, the business that I work for has gone and is going through massive amounts of change. We’ve expanded our workforce by almost 30% over the last year, with the bulk of that expansion happening in one week as we insourced a previously-outsourced component of our business. To get the business ready for the insourcing, there was a large restructure resulting in an almost entirely brand new management team, and an enormous amount of work to do to get the various aspects of the business ready (from a process, people and technological point of view) to service the expanded employee base.

While the “Go Live” date has been and gone, the fall out of gaps in the process, incomplete aspects of the project, and people who are struggling to adjust to the new environment is becoming increasingly apparent.

I believe in the notion of ‘leadership at all levels’ – that is, it doesn’t matter whether you have any formal authority or not, you can model the qualities of leadership in your job without needing any permission from anyone to do so. “What does leadership look like, in this situation?” is a question that has been burning at my insides for weeks. “What is required from me, here? When I see problems and people struggling, what is my response?”

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of massive change which has also been accompanied by a tsunami of niggling issues to resolve – human beings tend to love certainty and comfort, and one way to provide that for yourself is to retreat from the issues that you see and silo yourself off from the whole. But “I’ll just work on my bit” doesn’t work when each part of the organisation is so interconnected that “your bit” has big implications for the effectiveness of “everyone else’s bits”.

When thinking about what's possible in a situation, we also need to acknowledge the constraints of the situation. A few that I've picked up over the last decade that are relevant here include that:

  1. It is usual for businesses to struggle with some combination of ill-fitting process, inept people, and technology that leaves something to be desired - perfection is highly unlikely, but great is always a possible outcome;
  2. I can’t change others, but I can change myself; and
  3. Change takes time, but that doesn’t mean that I give up on pushing for great outcomes.

Thus, in the current context, leadership (to me) looks like:

  1. Holding myself to the standard of behaviour that I want to see, rather than expecting to see other people modelling it first;
  2. Taking responsibility for being part of the solution, even if the problem is not squarely in my area;
  3. Being gentle but absolutely relentless about getting issues resolved;
  4. Being gentle but absolutely relentless in challenging behaviours that are damaging to what the organisation is trying to achieve;
  5. Building bridges to those parts of the organisation where we are having the most issues – this has included me choosing to set up my desk in the middle of “enemy terrain” several mornings a week so that relationships can be built, questions can be asked and answered, and information can be shared;
  6. Letting go of my usual, comfortable way of communicating (I confess, I prefer email and I hate to talk on the phone) and appearing in person whenever I want to discuss something; and
  7. Constantly reiterating to my team what I want from them – I have become a broken record with my slogans of “build a bridge”, “partner with”, “lead by example”, and “do it once, do it right” (With this skill, I suspect I could be the next prime minister of Australia).

I have found that it has become easier for me to remain engaged with the difficulty of the situation when the standard of good that I'm measuring to is one that I can control - that is, when I'm measuring myself and my behaviour, and not someone or something else. 

What about you? How could you be modelling leadership in your current situation?

Your life is controlled by your perception of it

Whenever I start to feel like life is out of control or going badly in some way, I am constantly (and thankfully) brought back to a realization that I have more power in the situation than I think. That my experience of ‘out of control’ or ‘going badly’ is mostly my perception and not generally objective truth, and perception is something that can be changed.

The ability to change your perception links in a large part to the idea of ‘locus of control’ – that is, in your sense of your ability to affect change in the environment around you. People sit somewhere on the spectrum between an ‘internal locus of control’ and an ‘external locus of control’.

People with a well developed internal locus of control believe that they can affect change in the environment around them; people with an external locus of control believe, ultimately, that they are the product of external forces rather than personal choice – they are the victims of others’ behaviour, the weather, genetics, God etc. You won’t believe that you can change your perception, or, indeed, that a situation could be perceived any way other than how you’re perceiving it, if you have an external locus of control.

So, how does one shift from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control? Through conscious, ongoing choice. You have to start seeing yourself as someone who:

  1. Can ask for what you want;
  2. Can choose to leave situations that don’t serve you; and
  3. Can make things happen.

That is, you have to start taking personal responsibility for yourself, your life, and your interactions with other people. Start seeing yourself as someone of power, and not as the victim of life, God, or others*.

Change is always a ‘shifting away from’ and a ‘shifting towards’, and there are things that we can do to make both ‘shifting away from an external locus of control’ and ‘shifting toward an internal locus of control’ more doable:

Shifting away from an external locus of control often requires a lot of reflection, and noticing your behaviours as they happen. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Where do I feel ‘stuck’ in my life?
  • Where am I passive-aggressive in my life?
  • Where, or with whom, do I feel like a victim?

And, then:

  • What would it take for me to get ‘unstuck’ in that area?
  • What would it take for me to be able to say what I really think, or ask for what I really need?
  • What would it take for me to stop feeling like a victim in that situation or with that person? What would be different? Could I ask for those changes to happen?

An idea to assist in shifting towards an internal locus of control is to create an alter-ego that you can slip into whenever you need to – the consummate ‘fake it until you make it’ technique.  Just like how Beyonce has her alter ego Sasha Fierce, you might like to spend some time:

  • Visualizing in great detail what a future-you with a very high internal locus of control looks like, does, behaves, thinks, lives etc;
  • Give that visualization a name; and
  • Choose to slip into that character when you need to channel some of that power and personal responsibility.

Unlearning victim-thinking can be hard. It isn’t fun to look at your life and say “I am, at least in part, responsible for the state of this”. But it is exciting to look at your life and say “because I am, at least in part, responsible for the state of this, I can also affect massive change and make it something that I really, really like.”

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* This leads to another interesting thought – that your beliefs about death and utopia influence your locus of control in a profound way. If you subscribe to a more fatalistic religion where everything is predestined and ultimately the world is evil and there’s not too much we can do about it, then you’re unlikely to believe that you can affect change in the environment around you.