Saturday, August 20, 2016

The many meanings of "make" all lead back to this: you make yourself

We'll open this post with a quote from W. B. Yeats, my favourite poet:


What does it mean to make something? The Oxford Online dictionary lists 13 different meanings for this one little word (one of the 1000 most used words in the language). That's a hint: this word is important (and "make" doesn't always make sense, but it does always make a difference.)



You can make a bed without creating one. You can make a change or a mess or a mistake (and sometimes have a hard time knowing which it is). You can make art or make things happen or make yourself go there. But whenever you make anything, you become a cause of something and not an effect.

Making matters because when we make, we are active in the world.

Whenever we are active, we encode both the action and its results in our brain/body/mind and the combination becomes a pattern we use to predict. When we act, we learn how action leads to changes that will satisfy or hurt. As we make, we make our expectations, which makes us into a kind of person who expects some things and not others. Whatever else we make, whenever we make, we make ourselves.

What's the alternative to making? You can be made: you can be defined by someone else or something else. You can be acted at or acted upon instead of making action happen. You can remember effects without causes and live in an unpredictable and mostly frightening world. You can be shaped by expectations made without willpower and lived without hope.

It doesn't matter all that much whether you make a mistake or you make a pie. Either way, you are giving yourself agency: the ability to change the world so that you can also change yourself. When Yoda tells Luke, "There is no try" what he means is that making an effort always has a result and that result makes a difference in determining how you predict what is possible.

So choose to make.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Surprise! Language doesn't have to make sense to be effective

Recently I read a very good book by Amy Herman called Visual Intelligence. In the end, however, I thought her comments on effective communication should have been defined better. Her advice is very good when the purpose of language is to have information jump from one person to another. But that's not the only purpose of language. There are other roles for language to play, and other ways to use it brilliantly.

Surprise! A burst of lavender doesn't make sense but it does activate your senses.

While it is useful to be preoccupied with making sense (which means taking sensory information and understanding it as having meaning), it is less useful to be preoccupied with having your words make sense. Here are three times when you might be brilliantly effective by being less clear and sensible:

  1. Your primary purpose is to build a connection. If this is true, your language needs to mostly mirror the style and strategies of the person or people with whom you are speaking. This is especially true when you are conveying information that challenges their beliefs or frames. Because you will be communicating  two things at once (that you connect, and that you disagree), your language will not always be as clear and sensible as you would like.
  2. Your primary purpose is to build a feeling. This isn't just likely when you are motivating a big room; it's actually more likely when you are speaking privately with one person. You may need to change their feeling (in NLP terms, their state) before you offer any information you want them to remember.  Think of it this way: if someone gives you information when you're angry, the easiest way to recall that information will be to get angry again. If you want to convey information, you probably don't want the other person to have to recall being angry every time they think of the information. The easiest way to avoid this is to change the feeling before you introduce the information.
  3. Your primary purpose is to explore. We use language because it allows us to explore new territory in remarkably efficient ways (no travel, no expense, and not much terror). If your language is very clear, it's because you're not trying to say anything new. When you want to use words to explore, you'll sacrifice some clarity because you'll be on unfamiliar ground and you won't yet be sure what you're perceiving around you.
  4. Your primary purpose is to surprise. Surprise is under-rated. Although we talk about it in terms like "surprise and delight," we focus mostly on the delight. Surprises are uncomfortable. They create a full stop, and then a sense of unfamiliarity. This is very helpful when the familiar pattern is no longer a useful pattern, whether it is a pattern of thought, communication or behaviour. You can shock someone with clarity, but the result will be confusion, not immediate clarity. "Seeing the light" is a metaphor. Think about it. What happens when you look into a light? You're momentarily blinded by it. That's why the best way to surprise someone is often with a bit of nonsense. It gives their eyes time to adjust before they take a closer look at what you are communicating.
I started each of these sentences with the same three words: your primary purpose. There is no good use of language that does not begin with knowing what you want to do with it. Once you know, language is a surprisingly flexible and resilient system for making connections and for making sense.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

A bridge can be breathtaking


This is the boardwalk at Greenwich in PEI's National Park. It allows people to cross a fragile ecosystem and a pond to reach a beach that is absolutely breathtaking (I'll put a picture at the end of this post, so you can get your own glimpse of it).

The boardwalk reminded me this week that the work it takes to build a bridge is not compromise and it's not a necessary evil. It's a necessary beauty, an effort to connect resources and build something that is both useful and beautiful. This is how I like to see communication.

Communication of all kinds requires that we build bridges: we must build them with the craftsmanship that knows what will be stable and what will last in different environments. The work is often painstaking and troublesome and it feels like the slow way to a result. And yet, when it succeeds, communication builds connections that are not only strong and stable: they are beautiful in their own right.

I can guarantee that you will need to build a bridge this week to get somewhere you want to go. And I can guarantee that some of the ground you will need to cross will be fragile or unstable or just plain mucky. It might feel like the people you need to communicate with are deliberately making your path slippery or steep. It might feel like there should be an easier way to go it alone.

When you feel that, stop and remember a bridge or a boardwalk that you have seen or crossed and believe to be beautiful or, at least, well-built. Take a moment to study it in your mind, noticing the supports, the materials, and the shape of the bridge. Imagine standing in the middle, and looking to either end. If it's a bridge over water, take a look over the edge with all the curiosity and interest of a small child. 

This bridge represents communication. Your job is not to struggle through or to dump information or to fight it out. Your job is to build something as sturdy and useful and elegant as my boardwalk, made out of your attention to where you are, where you need to land, and what you need to cross in the middle.

Here's the beach I found at the end of the boardwalk. I am very grateful to the craftsmen who made it possible for me to discover it.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Trusting the silence in conversation


Silence doesn't sound scary while you're looking at a photo of a path through the woods. Primed by this photo, you are likely to imagine silence as calming or peaceful. 

In the middle of an important conversation, this may not be your first reaction to silence. Most often, when we say something significant and get silence in reply, we are rattled. Silence is not processed as calming; it's processed as a warning. The quieter it is outside, the more alarms go off in our brains. "Danger!"

Is silence always a bad sign? Probably not.  Think of a time when someone said something and your reaction was "I need to process this." The time when you were processing was best spent in silence (processing out loud is not always a good idea, even for extraverts). This processing time could have been used to do many things: to understand; to tease out an association at the edge of your awareness; to think several jumps ahead; or to disagree.

Disagreement is only one of many options. There's no reason for it to be the one that is top of mind while you are waiting through a silence. But while the other person is processing, your highly engaged mind is looking for an activity. Waiting with a clear head and a clear heart is optimal, but for most of us, it is out of reach.

Here's what to do with your busy mind after you say something important.  Take a breath and deliberately be present with what you have just said. Observe the other person closely and non-judgmentally, noticing changes in posture, expression or colouring. Be mindful of your own state by objectively labelling what you notice in your own state. Start at the top of your head and work down, detailing the tension, temperature and movement you notice. As you do, you may notice that you begin to feel calm and curious. Now you can wait.

It is possible that the other person is using the silence to express resistance. While you're waiting, they will think about what to say next. That's probably in your favour, since it is often easier to respond to a specific, reasonable disagreement. They might be trying to understand. You can help after they've found the point where they want to begin. They might be jumping through possibilities, and you will can respond to the one that lands (not the first one that pops up).

Silence is your friend in the woods. It's your friend on a wide open beach or under a wide open sky. Perhaps it's time to make friends with the silence that shows up in conversation.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The fine line between observations, suggestions and commands

I have been watching Tony Robbins this week in the documentary called "I Am Not Your Guru." You can read a nicely ambivalent review in the Financial Times here.  I think the ambivalence is built into the process, which might be surprising given the loud celebration that characterizes the Date with Destiny in the film.

For those of us whose work has evolved from NLP, there are lessons to be learned from modelling the most famous and successful practitioner of NLP (Robbins has far surpassed all the founders by all measures of success). Because he does so much so well, Robbins lets us see how fine the line is between observing and suggesting.

Let me explain. Robbins frames his "interventions" both with the exercises and performances we do not see in the film and with his invitations. The film opens with an intervention with a young man who says he is suicidal; it is only later that we see Robbins say he is looking for someone who is suicidal to work with. Since many people go to the event with the hope that they will be directly influenced by Robbins, it is easy for them to decide that they are suffering from whatever he suggests. That's the first round of problem.

The second round happens when Robbins reframes what they say and then solves the problem as he has framed it. This is true in all the interventions. It makes for great, dramatic theatre. The participants agree eagerly that he knows them better than they know themselves, and accept all the suggestions he makes as if they were hypnotic commands. Which is what they are, because they are sensory tangible, directive statements issued from a person with power and permission.

You don't have to be Tony Robbins to be viewed as a person with power and receive permission to reframe someone else's experience so that they find new meaning in it. It's the core of influence, good and bad. Watching Tony Robbins manipulate an intervention requires all change workers to take a good look at how much of what they do is more a powerful illusion and less a response to the careful observation of another person.

The postscript to the movie tells us that the two people who were 'suicidal' have decided to dedicate themselves to helping others - essentially, to reshape their lives as Tony Robbins. A woman who was told to break up with her boyfriend as a part of an intervention is back with that boyfriend. A couple has had a baby (and the 'greatest sex of their lives') since Tony helped the husband find his roar. (Literally and metaphorically). The husband, too, has become more like Tony.

As much as Date with Destiny is framed as helping people find their personal vision and motivation, it seems to help lots of people find Tony's vision and motivation. It's full of life and power and passion. It's just not what is advertised.

That's why I said the review was nicely ambivalent. Ambivalence is a natural response to someone who creates useful ends with means that, if he understands the mechanics of what he is doing, are less than ethical. (If he doesn't understand the mechanics, then Robbins is completely in the grip of confirmation bias. He has swallowed his own koolaid).

I am willing to believe that Tony Robbins believes that making people more like him is a great thing to do. I am not convinced the change sticks (since most people aren't actually Tony Robbins) and I am not convinced the change justifies the lie at the heart of the process: the lie that tells them they are becoming themselves when they feel more like Tony Robbins.

And it makes me wonder: what exactly am I doing when I think I am opening up choice and healing for people? Where is that fine line between opening up possibility and shaping the choices that other people make?