Saturday, February 06, 2016

How to understand other people better

How many times a day do you hear what someone says and wish you understood what they meant. Vocabulary is one kind of language barrier: if you don't understand the words being said, it's hard to grasp an overall meaning. But sometimes language itself is the barrier: you understand all the words and yet they don't add up to understanding what is being said. You are focused on the words and losing the message.

There's a better way to listen so that you understand. Before you get caught up in what the words mean, pay attention to the experience of the communicator. Notice changes in their emotions or attitudes as they speak. Where are they more tense or more relaxed? What changes do their words trigger in them? These changes carry as much of the message as the dictionary meaning of the words. The best listeners don't worry about the meaning of the words until they have a good idea how those words are changing the speaker.

Here's an exercise. With people we know well, we are often more interested in how they are than we are in what they say. Take that unconscious pattern and make it conscious. As you begin to interact with someone this week, let yourself label what you are noticing about their mood or attitude and energy level. (You can do this because you can think almost 10x faster than they can talk). Once you have a label, notice how that changes what you hear in their words.

There's a bonus. You'll find you also understand your own responses better. Some part of your mind has already been tracking the state of the speaker. Now that part is welcome to cooperate in making meaning instead of being at odds with your understanding of the words. You'll feel clear and more grounded as you listen.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

We tell stories in the dark

I took this photo before training last weekend. The trees are mostly bare now, and although the days have been warmer than usual for this time of year, they are still getting shorter.

For many people, the shorter days mean hours spent working in the dark. There is no less to do. Often there is more to do as people prepare for the holiday season and carry the same load as always at work. Students prepare for exams, but they are not the only group to feel that December is stressful. Most of us find that the darkest month of the year is a time for anxiety.

In a time when short, dark days meant less time to work and less work to do, people found hope in focusing on lights. We have the lights of Christmas and Hanukkah as focal points that remind us that darkness is temporary and not as powerful as it seems. And yet, these lights have come to also remind us of long to-do lists and the pressure to celebrate in a way worthy of Facebook likes.

If a focus on the lights we make isn't working for you, take a few moments and appreciate the dark. I didn't look out and see a grey, unpleasant day when I took the picture. I saw what Ireland taught me to call 'a soft day,' a day that seemed to welcome quiet and focus. Beyond the grey, there is dark. And like the darkness at the back of your mind, dark mornings and evenings can provide soil for new thoughts and new hopes. We dream in the dark.

We tell stories in the dark, too. They are not stories of the 'real world' in front of us: they are stories of the worlds we only see when we stop looking at what is right in front of our noses. They are bigger and wider and more dramatic and more full of possibility than the stories we tell in the light.

Perhaps the answer to too much to do in days that are too short is simply to look beyond the day and through the darkness. When you're not distracted by the light, you might find you see much farther.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How far have you stretched this month?

There are weeks and months when it feels we are called to stretch our consciousness to extremes. We encounter fear and sadness and excitement and laughter all within a short walk of each other. In the back of our minds, all the regular concerns about work and family and life keep running.

The statue of Jesus as a homeless person outside Regis College

Waiting for Santa Claus to come
I took these pictures last Sunday morning. They ended up being thematic. All day inside the training we encountered the same strange mixture of excitement and connection and old grief and new confusion. It's the nature of the work that people find they are ready to deal with stuff they have left just outside their awareness while they got on with their lives.

Life is this crazy mixture and we either stretch to reach all of it or shut ourselves off from information that we could use to make better choices. If you ignored all the world's crises this week because they are overwhelming and discouraging, you might be making the best choice you can with the resources you have. Yet you know that some part of you is tracking the news and incorporating it into your expectations of the world. This is how priming works. If advertising can get into your head, then tragedy can also find its way to your edges. And so can families playing street hockey while they wait for Santa to arrive.

At the gym, you might stretch out to prevent injury. But if you over-stretch, you'll cause injury instead. When you know that life is pulling your attention in radically different directions, you are stretching. To avoid over stretching, you need to pay attention and you need to create small parts of your day when you simply shut down and notice what you are feeling. 

Your social media feed will urge you to respond to everything - now! The media will provide an endless stream of information that is out of your control without being outside your awareness. You can try to outrun information, but it's hard to outrun the part of you that's noticing. You can try to stretch to understand it all, but the differences are so wide. You'll be in danger of over-stretching.

Or you can just notice that you are not immune and you are not in control of anything except the choices you make. You can choose to stretch and then rest, knowing that the rest is as important to developing your potential as the stretch is. It's not so much the middle way as the moment of stillness while you choose a new direction, the moment when all is possible and no stretch is required.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Engaging the monkeys in a conference room

Carole Luft opens Leading Words

On Saturday, we held an unusual conference. Although it began much as every conference begins (with a welcome from a podium), there had been an unusual amount of hugging as people found their seats. Scattered around the tables were monkeys–monkey cutouts, monkey stickers, monkeys sitting in the fancy chair at the front. Everywhere were reminders of what the Buddhists call Monkey Mind. And our goal for the day was to get the monkeys to focus, engage, and show their most loving, cooperative, and ingenious selves.

What do you think of when you think about monkeys? Do you imagine playing, shrieking, mischief or cuddles? Do you think of mindless activity or of a sudden, focused interest in a puzzle to be solved? All of these are typical of monkeys. All of these are typical of the monkeys in your mind–the troop of ideas, emotions, biases, memories, and hopes that are in perpetual motion as you try to focus, to think, to make decisions.

What would you do to control a troop of monkeys? Do you imagine that threats would be effective? Probably not.  Instead of force, you would want to engage the monkeys, to make them want to play nicely together. I have never been alone in a room full of monkeys. But I have been in a room full of dozens of small children. And I watched them gather, and still, and focus and cooperate because I had something they wanted. I had a story.

The next time you stand at a podium, ask yourself: what will engage the monkeys in the minds here? If you feed only the logical monkeys, what will the other monkeys do? You've seen experiments where only some of the monkeys get fed. That never leads to focus: it is more likely to lead to chaos. It's important to feed all the monkeys: the ones that feast on numbers and logic and the ones that feast on social connection, on purpose and on play.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Is time management really energy management?

Do you have enough energy for what you want to do?

So many people are busy managing their time, and yet they can do nothing to change the number of hours in a day or days in a week. The calendar programs and expert tips all talk as though 5 minutes were always 5 minutes. And yet, you have experienced 5 minutes as an eternity and 5 minutes as a heart beat. In NLP, we would say that your state determines how much time 5 minutes contains.

When people complain they don't have enough time, I wonder if they are really saying that they don't have enough energy. It's a much different question and harder to solve with an app. It would mean that instead of auditing how productively you spend your time, you would need to understand your personal economics of energy.

What if every activity consumes energy but some activity also produces energy? You know this is true. It always takes energy to get started. But sometimes you are so engaged in something that you become more energized as you go along. Your energy may temporarily require a rest, but overall that activity may linger in the background and keep you motivated for days. You can think of things you love to do that have this effect on you: when you do them, you are energized by your activity.

When you were very busy doing things that produce energy, you would have the focus and motivation to move through many events or interactions in a single day. Each moment might open up into flow and allow you to accomplish more thinking in less clock time. You might find that you were able to hold the bigger picture well enough to think in patterns instead of pieces. Others would be amazed at how fast or deep you were able to go.

If your calendar seems too full, maybe it's not your time management at fault. We all know people who are very busy with very little on their schedule, and other people who always have time to connect although the don't have time to list all their activity in a calendar or an app. If your day feels overwhelming, perhaps it's not the number of activities that is the problem. Perhaps you haven't scheduled enough activity that generates energy.