Friday, March 29, 2013

My love/hate relationship with NLP

I have been involved with NLP (neurolinguistic programming) for more than ten years, and have been training NLP for almost that long. In that time, I have used NLP as a window into developments in the evolution of coaching and the discoveries of neuroscience. I have developed long-term relationships with clients who return to me for training because they find that my teaching is both powerful and practical. There are many, many things I love about neurolinguistic programming and the gifts it has given me in a decade.

There is a lot I do not love about NLP. I hate having to justify and explain that what I do is different than a lot of bad, hokey, undisciplined practice. I hate having to separate myself from trainers who spout a lot of pseudo-technical terms and teach "information" that is current in NLP circles and nowhere else. I hate that much of NLP has come to be represented by people who do not understand academic disciplines and so do not have any reference point for NLP as an interdisciplinary exploration of how people make choices that support their well-being and intentional development.

I hate any form of NLP that reduces people or behaviour to a list of labels to be learned and applied as a replacement for the beautifully effective, sophisticated responsiveness of its original models. I hate any form of NLP that refers only to other forms of NLP to explain its effectiveness and techniques.

My truth about NLP is that it is a set of practices based on a very few core principles that opens up learning and language in a way that is wonderfully effective and naturally energizing. I love the careful observation of natural learning processes that allowed its founders to suggest ways that people could interact more effectively with others to influence and be influenced in the service of intentional outcomes. Yes, I know. This language is dense and a little hard to read. At its very heart, NLP is smart enough to deserve language that is dense and precise and a little hard to read.

The four core principles I teach (and love to teach):
* people are not minds and bodies or even minds in bodies: identity comes from the engagement of mind and body
* everyone has within themselves what they need to make satisfying choices for their lives
* on the whole, people are most satisfied with their lives when they make intentional choices about how to live them
* influence is always built on common ground

You might be surprised by this list. You might want to argue that you don't find exactly this language on anyone else's NLP page or you might wonder what other people find objectionable or manipulative if NLP comes down to these core principles. But I can trace each of these principles to NLP jargon that you would find in other places. I have learned each of these principles down to the bone by training and practicing NLP.

If I could find another more disciplined, more consistent model that included all four of the core principles, I would probably leave NLP behind and practice that. I could derive the four principles from literature or dance, but I couldn't do the practical, hands on work I do from that basis. I could settle for the middle two and practice Solution Focus Brief Coaching (and teaching) if only I did not believe that the body holds so much of our wisdom. The truth is, I find elements of the four in many models but I have not found all four of them expressed as elegantly and effectively as I have in my development of NLP.

Are you curious about these four core principles and the impact they have on people's well-being? Visit and explore some of the resources posted there. Order a copy of my book, Shiftwork, and allow your curiosity to grow. Begin to ask "what if" I apply these principles to a problem in front of me? Ask: What new information do I notice and how is it already moving me closer to a better outcome?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Brief + Positive = Power

This week, I have listened to smart well-trained coaches who believe that any sustainable change takes at least three months, and to another smart, well-trained coach/therapist who says that research shows 3-10 sessions is the optimal length for helping someone make a desired change. Both camps insist that they get results for their clients, although the expert in brief interventions did not claim to get results for everyone. She claimed that it is only possible to get results from people who are ready to change.

Both camps claim to be client-focused (which is to say that they claim the client is the expert on his/her own life), although the longer camp seems willing to be more "directive." 

How is it possible that both camps are telling the truth?  Because the problem for someone who wants to change is that both camps are telling the truth, from a certain point of view.

Directed change does take time. If I have to convince you, a little at a time, that change is desirable and then convince you, a little at a time, to test some strategies I am offering, then change will occur a little at a time. After three to six months, there will be enough little changes that one or both of the client and the coach to be convinced that change has happened. Will that make it sustainable? How many of the coaches check back in after a year or two to find out?

Brief change is counter-intuitive.  We believe that our choices and behaviours are either driven by conscious thought or driven by repetition, and neither of those seems likely to change simply because we redirect our focus.  But our intuition is often wrong. In their new book, Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath note that intuition must be trained to be reliable. Your intuition on what works for change would only be reliable if it were based on rigorous practice in a predictable environment.

A metaphor works better. The one the Heath brothers use is the spotlight. Imagine your life as a stage. There is only one spotlight on the stage: this spotlight is your attention. Whatever it illuminates is the whole of the story until the spotlight moves.

It's hard for coaches to put aside the problem-plagued predisposition of our anxious society. It's hard to let go of being the expert who can solve the puzzles and point the way out of the maze.  When they do, when coaches relentlessly focus on what is working and what is desirable, they move the spotlight. Suddenly, a client has a new life because what they can see is really what they get, at least as long as they maintain focus.

Brief coaches work for the moment when the spotlight is focused on the desired future. They know when they've hit it by watching the reflection of that future in the client. They know that one moment of illumination changes everything. Even when the spotlight shifts, we now know what is waiting on that space on the stage. We know that we have the power to shift the spotlight back and take another look.

You can't want what you don't know exists. Once you know what it is you're looking for, it's much easier to find it. Even if you've only looked at it long enough so that you will recognize it when you make it happen.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The gifts of persistence

I recently gathered some of my best friends and closest associates and asked them to bring as a gift a story of persistence. Persistence is not one of the sexier virtues, and it's one of the hardest to define. What's the difference between doing the same thing and expecting a different result (insanity!) and sticking to your plan long enough for it to work? Are you crazy if you keep hoping for something that isn't happening or are you unfocused if you abandon your goal because you don't get instant success?

Here's what my fairy godmothers and godfathers offered me as gifts of persistence:

  1. Sometimes life is like knitting: you have to trust the pattern because the early results don't look anything like the end results.
  2. If there is work that matters at the top, you take whatever time you need to climb 98 stairs while recovering from pneumonia.
  3. You earn your peace with hard, sweaty work.
  4. It takes humour and courage to keep trying.
  5. Structure and support count, but it's the individual who decides to turn it around.
  6. The moments that make you are the hard parts in the middle.
  7. Focus on what is already working and trust that even when it seems weird.
  8. When you persist with a smile, you inspire others to persist too.
  9. Persisting in a goal is like persisting in a relationship.
  10. Sometimes you have to fall down, and even pull your supporters down, to learn.
  11. It's easier to be patient when you work within resistance instead of against it.
My own story for you: I have been persisting for ten years in a difficult field that I believe is the work that meets my purpose. I teach people to be learners, to be more confident in their choice of words, and to be more resilient in holding onto their intentions in a complicated, bumpy world. What I have learned by persisting in the work of my heart is this: it's worth it.

With much gratitude to my fairy godmothers and godfathers. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Making progress stick

It's Friday afternoon and you're looking back at a week of work. What did you accomplish this week? If it feels like nothing, look again. You did make progress and if you don't notice it, you will probably lose it. So if something is better now than it was on Monday, it's a good time to pay attention.

Paying attention to progress helps stabilize it in your mind so that it becomes part of the assumptions you take into Monday morning. It's often not enough to prevent slippage. What you need is to add a little oomph to progress so that it stays in place until you can get back to it.

Here's three ways to add oomph to your progress, illustrated with examples from my own week.
  1. Notice the progress and give it a metaphor.  For instance, this week I have been away at sea without my usual landmarks to chart progress.  But when it's dark, I can look at the stars and begin to notice that I have moved.  Sometimes it is only in the dark that we can focus on the signs that we really are moving.
  2. Think of someone who helped create your progress or who would applaud it. A very dear friend gave me an extravagant bouquet of flowers this week. Through her eyes, I can see something worth celebrating.
  3. Give yourself a task over the weekend that is related to holding onto the state of progress. I'm going to practice parking extraneous concerns when I park my car so that I can pay full attention to the learning and teaching I will be doing.
Notice, relate, and take action.  You'll find that Monday morning, you're ahead of the game.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Add a dash of fun to your work tomorrow

What difference does it make if work is just a little bit fun?  Logically, fun is a distraction and there's no particular reason that a day with a little fun in it would be more productive than a day of focused, serious work.  Practically, we all know that we're more likely to be productive if we're having a little fun mingled into our task focus.  How does that work exactly?

First, it helps us remember that people are not computers and they don't work the way computers do. Our thinking is a complex weaving of reason and memory and sensory awareness and emotion. Fun can involve three of those, and that means that it's actually quite a rich form of thinking. A little fun is likely to be using a lot of your brain, and that wakes up more resources for applying to your work.

Next, it's useful to think about the patterns in your thought and work. Patterns work the same way over and over.  Real productivity involves doing more than repeating the same patterns: it involves creating new connections.  This happens naturally when these patterns are disrupted. Fun is often a pleasant way to interrupt an active pattern so there's room for change.

Finally, we can think about the role of fear or anxiety in our productivity. While people often assume that fear must be a good motivator (it only seems logical), in actual fact we all know the moment when terror stops us from thinking or moving. Fun is a prophylactic against paralyzing fear: when we have fun, we convert the fear into exhiliration, or we deflate it into irritation. Either way, we are free to move.

So if it's really important that you are productive at work, find the spaces in the day that allow for a little fun. Then make it happen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The value of laughter in coaching

Have you ever had a day when what you wanted most was to laugh?  It sometimes happens that thinking through problems and solutions is overwhelming and grinding out work is exhausting and the only real solution is to laugh.  This is hard for introverts, since we laugh more easily in the company of others (we all know that laugh tracks work because the quickest way to get someone to laugh is to laugh yourself).

Several times a week, I spend time with my laughter coach. She does not charge by the hour, but she does value obedience and full engagement.  My coach is my 18 month old niece. She is a giggle expert, but she has also mastered the grin and the chuckle and the bemused half smile that indicates she can sometimes suffer fools with good humour.

Although spending time with C means lifting and moving and sitting on the floor, my back is strangely compliant while I am with her.  Some of this is the value of love and some comes from the therapeutic touch of small arms giving a big hug.  But I am convinced that much of it comes from nearly continuous smiling, giggling and laughing out loud. 

If you don't have a laughter coach, perhaps you will have to settle for games that surprise you (I have also taken up racing video games) or good-natured comedy (somehow small-minded does not produce the right kind of laughter). Stories with reliably happy endings are also a good bet.  You don't want to be engaged so much as you want to condition yourself that life holds the kinds of surprises that result in giggles.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Coaching with strong mind, strong heart, strong stomach

Influence is not always fun. Supportive influence is not always fun. If you want to communicate in a way that gets results, it will feel good overall. It might not feel good all the time.

Let's take coaching as an instance of supportive influence that can be tough on your sense of yourself and your beliefs about the world. This is not the popular view: visit any of the coaching associations or training advertisements and you won't find this caveat: This activity may break your heart or your spirit. Caution is encouraged.  Nope. Instead you find definitions about 'partnering' and language around 'empowering.'  Yes and.

Coaches training should ask: Do you know how to develop a strong heart, a strong head, and a strong stomach?

Some days, your clients will take your work and run with it. And forget that you had anything to do with it. Yes, of course it is optimal when your clients own their changes. But be honest: where is your satisfaction (and your business plan) if clients cannot or will not articulate the connection between your work and their increased success?

Some days, your clients will show up and then steadfastly resist you. The tough ones are very polite, and they think really fast. They will cooperate fully except that they will not let you do the work they hired you to do.  They will look you in the eyes and lie to you, often because they are also misleading themselves.  You will feel that if only you were more expert, more professional, you would know how to find a better self in them. You will feel that it is your fault they are stuck.

Some clients will tell you things that make your real self (the one under the trained veneer) squirm. They'll have values that are not your values and they'll be defiant about serving beliefs that you can see are directly related to their pain. They will be so sure that they are right they will leave no room for other possibilities and you will sit and be present to the poison they carry into every encounter.

This is coaching. Good coaches are most often the ones who can accept it and let it go. They have strong minds, strong hearts, strong stomachs.  They are curious about what has happened without being attached to it and they forget it as quickly as possible so that they can focus on the good stuff. They somehow keep themselves clear and clean and optimistic.

Good training for coaches is not finished after putting coaches through a process that is likely to work for most clients. It is not finished after coaches model their mentors and practice and read books by famous coaches with famous clients. It is not finished, because strong hearts, strong minds and strong stomachs require ongoing conditioning. They required that you put yourself in a situation where you can intentionally build your coaching muscles so that they serve you well on the days when you are asking more of yourself than your self is happy to give.

Friday, March 15, 2013

No pain no gain?

One of my favourite high school teachers used to say "We grow through pain." I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now.  I look at small children and small plants. They are wonderful examples of growth. And no sane person believes that pain makes them grow faster or better. It's the sunshine the brings out the crocuses, not the ice storms.

I think we all want to believe that pain causes growth because it makes sense of pain. Since we all experience pain, it's rather nice to think that we gain something from the experience. We are even motivated to make that seem true, motivated to turn our thoughts or our actions in a new direction after pain.

For the past two months, I have had the opportunity to explore pain from the inside. A yoga injury led to a back problem which led to problems standing.  I have become creative at manoeuvring through my day without being too limited by my limits. It does not feel to me like growth. It feels to me like being stopped in my tracks and forced to admit how much I want growth to happen.

Pain makes it hard to stand still. For me, this has been a literal truth. I still don't believe that pain is the only or best way to grow. I don't even believe that growth happens during pain. I do acknowledge that pain focuses attention on the parts of us that want to grow. And when I have provided enough of the good stuff to promote the growth, I believe the pain will move to the edges and allow me to focus more peacefully.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Applause is contagious

One of the most effective tips I have learned after decades in post-secondary teaching and adult education is this: encourage people to applaud for one another.  The form of the applause will change depending on the situation, but the effectiveness of applause will be constant across different ages and different circumstances.  Applause is contagious.

What happens when people clap?  It doesn't take long before they begin to smile. And not long after that, they begin to suspect that there's something worth applauding. This is true whether they offer genuine applause or whether they applaud because the leader tells them it is required. I have watched many different people under the influence of applause. Most of them look embarrassed, at first. They look like they are not sure that the applause is really for them.

And then, after it starts to become clear that applause is non-negotiable, something lovely begins to happen. Although people might still squirm a little, there's a light in their eyes as they do. They begin to stand a little more firmly. Even the quietest begin to feel a little more safety.

And then, the best part of all starts to become clear. When people applaud, they begin to listen. Because they clap, even their ears open and their eyes open, just a little.  Because there is applause, there begins to be the possibility of communication.

So if you're running the room, make people applaud.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Too many fun things to do

This became a refrain in our house when my kids were young.  I'd say: do you want to go to the park or to the library or watch Star Wars?  They'd say "Don't make us choose. There are too many fun things to do."

Yes, it is a first world problem.  We don't worry about having too many good choices when we are sick or stuck or broke. We worry about just one thing.  But first world problems are problems too. In some ways, they are the most interesting problems. In the exhibit Massive Change, Bruce Mau asked the question "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?"

It's a way of waking up in the morning. While most of us do not feel that "we can do anything", we can do a lot of things. We are more often afraid that we will be embarrassed than we are than we will starve. We are more often afraid that we won't make it to the gym than we are that we won't be able to get out of bed.  So we can do a lot of things, and that means that the things we do are the things we are doing by choice.

It's strangely difficult to accept that we are choosing our problems, too. We are not choosing to have problems necessarily. Life tends to provide them. We are choosing what to see as a problem and which of a range of problems we will own. It's easier to see in other people. We know that the people we coach or advise or love are choosing their problems. We often know that they have the resources to cope between than they are coping. We can predict, with some precision, the likely outcome of the choices they are making.

We cannot see our own situations in quite the same way. We may have too many fun things to do, or too many sticky problems to resolve, but at heart we have only one problem: our choices matter. They make a difference for our own lives and for the lives of people around us. Having too many fun things to do means that we pay the price for the one we choose, although we cannot always calculate that price from the limited perspective we have on our own lives.

Try this for a little while today.  Every time you begin to say "I have to," stop and say instead "I choose to. . ."  It might feel a little like launching into an adventure. "I choose."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why passion matters

We often talk about passion as though it inevitably flares up and disappears.  I wonder if passion is really fleeting. While romance certainly changes over time, there are other things that inspire passion in us.

Yesterday I had coffee with friends from my days as an undergraduate at Trent University.  We last saw each other thirty years ago. (Yes - thirty years.  It freaked all of us out a little). The meeting happened because we connected on Linked In. It was a case of social media doing actual good.

What I discovered through the meeting was that we have had widely diverse experiences since Trent and we are still so strongly committed to the ideas and ideals that inspired us that our conversation was deep and wide and much too short.  Apparently we did know what we liked and what was important thirty years ago, because those same things seem to be important to us now.  The world has shifted and we have changed (not as much as we might have feared), but we recognize in ourselves and one another that same excitement about language and truth and community that we felt so many years ago.

This may be the best of all the reasons for doing work that inspires passion in you.  Year after year, you can recognize yourself by the commitment you feel to the same ideas and ideals. As much as you change, as much as the world changes, some things continue to feed your sense of who you are. It's kind of amazing to sit down with old friends and realize you knew what you were doing and where you wanted to go even though you were much too young to be that wise.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

DARE to be a more effective coach

"The ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."

Coaches talk people into thinking and behaving in ways that they wouldn't think or behave on their own. Their process is always about communicating through language and relationship so that their clients make changes in what they think and accept the task of changing what they do. This doesn't mean that coaches tell people what to do. The "partnering" in the ICF definition is meant to walk the fine line between having no influence and having too much.

How can you lead a conversation so that your clients discover their own best approach to their problems or goals?  The best way is to DARE: to use a simple four step process that maximizes the effectiveness of the coaching relationship while minimizing the danger of undue influence and the resistance which accompanies that danger.

DARE stands for Dissociate, Add, Return, and Energize. It describes a process in which you help your client identify what they want to work on and park it until they are ready to deal with it more effectively (dissociate). Then you help them Add new resources by exploring around the edges of what you have parked to uncover strengths, capabilities and connections that will be useful.  When you calibrate that the client is in a more resourceful state, you Return to the parked goal or problem and encourage the client to notice new information and new possibilities.  This pattern can be repeated until the client knows what step to take next to approach the future they want.

The final stage is to energize the changes that your client has made so that they stick. We all know that the problem with good intentions is that they require will power to carry out. Will power is frequently in short supply. While your client is still working to own new plans or perspectives, it is useful to imaginatively root those changes into the world your client will encounter when they leave the conversation.

When you DARE to coach your client this way, you minimize your opportunity to offer opinions on their problems or plans because those problems are parked for most of the discussion. You minimize resistance to change because you are not suggesting change: you are helping the client retrieve and recombine the strengths they have already experienced. Your influence depends on your discipline in uncovering, tracking and stabilizing evidence that your client has what s/he needs to achieve satisfying progress.

It is a daring approach: it asks that as a coach you put all your eggs into the basket of believing your client can achieve a satisfying outcome even when you cannot see how they are going to achieve the goal or solve the problem. It asks that you find within yourself the kind of joy and energy that comes with daring: the ability to imagine a better future and move toward it without hesitation. It demands that you pay 100% of your attention to the client before you, testing your observations and verifying that your client is stronger, smarter and more flexible than either of you knew.

People come to coaches largely because they are afraid that they cannot move quickly enough or accurately enough on their own. DARE them to find the path that will move them forward.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

FACT: The best process for personal change

Often often do you catch yourself wishing you could change something about you? It can be easier to wish for change than to do the work to make it real, whether that change is personal (weight loss, addiction, or bad emotional habits) or professional (time management, diplomacy or confidence). We often know what we need but feel like it's unreachable.

The change you want will be unreachable until you reach for it.  And then you need a process that will help you manage your will power and persistence until the change becomes natural. There is no road to intentional success that does not require some hard work and discipline. But the FACT process will allow you to be more effective with less suffering and no room for the self-loathing that sometimes accompanies failed efforts at personal change.

FACT begins with focus. To get something you want, you have to be willing to know what it is that you want, to spend some time developing a representation of it that is detailed enough to be compelling. You also have to be willing to want things that your whole self is willing to want: if you're going to be pulled in two directions, you are wasting your time. People who allow themselves to "sort of" want their goals are "sort of" ready to fail before they begin.  If you cannot find support for a goal in your whole self, let go of that for the time being and embrace a change that all parts of you are willing to accept.

The A is for accessing and adding. What you need to change combines external support with internal strengths, skills and capabilities. The most important of these are the internal resources that you already own. Change requires two steps: accept that you are already stronger, smarter and more flexible than you think and go looking for experiences where you have demonstrated qualities that would be useful in making the change you want now. As you connect with more of your internal resources, you will find that it becomes easier to also find the external resources you need.

C is for choice. The most difficult part of change is knowing what step to take and making the choice to take it. Sometimes you will know what you need to do and adding more resources will allow you to simply take the step you need to take. At other times, you may have a hard time identifying the first step (you only need one at a time).  Either there are no obvious possibilities or there is no obvious way to choose among the steps that are possible. In either case, the answer is to build your ability to choose. If you want to move, move. This might mean making a change in another part of your life (one where you do know the next step) or it might mean moving your body so that you mind can follow suit. Choice is a muscle that grows with use. If you're stuck, find somewhere else to make a choice and practice.

T is for testing.  It's not enough to choose a direction. After each step, it's worth making sure that you like where you are heading.  Not every step will be equally rewarding, but each will give you a chance to make subtle course corrections so that you make the best use of your resources to get where you want to go. The first test is whether or not you know what your next step should be.  The second is checking in with how someone you respect might view your progress. And the third test is knowing how the step you have taken fits into the bigger picture, the whole story of your life and achievement.

If you find you're moving in the right direction, take another step and then test again. If you're not sure, go back and gather more resources.  Then check in again.  If your more resourceful self is still not sure, revisit your goal. Perhaps it needs fine-tuning.  Keep moving in and through this process until you find that change has happened. You are more what you want to be and you are doing more of what you want to do.

Everyone changes in response to changes in their relationships and environment. You can change in response to your own will: you can shape yourself, step by step. FACT will get you going, keep you going, and enable you to set your sails in a new direction after you have achieved the change you want.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A mountain of monotony

Does it happen in your work?  There are many different reasons for ending up with a pile of work that bores you. It's a chore that needs to be done and you have to get through it before you can get back to doing something that engages your full attention and feels productive.

There's lots of advice on how to tackle the mountain, from taking frequent breaks, to stressing out (a little stress is productive when the task doesn't require inventive thinking) to delegating the work to someone who will love it (there are some jobs no one loves).  Over my years as a teacher facing a mountain of marking, I have tried most of the advice.  It has all left me convinced that sometimes a chore requires a little mental toughness and a lot of persistence.

You don't have to love what you do all the time. You do need to nurture two very different parts of yourself. One part is the one who runs conscientiousness and duty and persistence.  That part is habitually low maintenance but it does require fuel if it is to overcome a mountain. So think about who you are and what you need when you are persistent and honour that. You might need a treat or you might need to be a little scared. You might need to jump out and see the big picture.  I don't know what you need, but you do.  Think about it for a minute, and stock up if you're facing a big chore.

The other part of you that needs nurturing is the dreamer in you, the part of you that is the flip side of the realist who persists and takes responsibility.  The dreamer in you needs your promise that this chore is only part of the story, that you will not lock her inside monotony forever.  You might even welcome her when she pops in to interrupt the monotony and give your mind a change of pace.  The dreamer knows that your real self in a perfect world would not be doing this chore and she looks for ways to inspire you with visions that will be quite helpful after you get past this mountain. Your heart beats more strongly for the dreamer, and your senses open.

If you're facing enough work for two people, allow yourself to be two people: the one who will plow through the chore and the one who lives in a bigger world where this mountain is just one step on a long and engaging journey.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Managing Pain at Work

There's a kind of rule that people stop having bodies when they get to work, at least in jobs that do not involve obvious physical labour.  To be professional is to stick to ideas and tasks and objectives. That means that while we may ask "how are you?" we really mean something like "of course you are fine because you are at work." We mean this although we all have experience of the difference between working when we feel well and working when we are in pain.

How do you feel when you think about police officers, fully armed and allowed to drive, on patrol while suffering from migraine, back pain or sleep deprivation?  What about when you think of your doctor or nurse making decisions or giving medication while distracted by pain?  Perhaps the person marking your child's exam is suffering from a repetitive strain injury or nerve problem.

Someone in pain is and is not disabled. They do not want to give up the chance to do their work and we, as a society, do not want to give up claim to their abilities. Someone in pain can work. And yet, it is obvious to us when we are in pain that we make all kinds of changes to accomodate our physical selves. We sit (and look up at people standing). We take breaks (often using washrooms as a place to hide for a few moments of privacy). We send signals that we are tense and uncomfortable (because we are). People read us differently because we are different when we are in pain.

Pain management is a workplace issue.  It's not enough to pretend that professionals are people who can turn off the connections between their minds and their bodies. They need those connections to think and perform at their best.  It's also not enough to pretend that if you're well enough to get to work, you are not really in pain. For many people, pain is a daily reality.  Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that all smart, professional people are healthy and began to find out how smart, professional people work around their pain.

Pain is a signalling system. It lets us know that something is changing or needs to change in our bodies. When we deal with pain, we learn how to deal with messages that are difficult and frightening and useful. This is not at all pleasant, but it might be a survival skill. It's time we got smarter about using our experience of physical pain as a model for dealing with workplace pain. After all, we already talk about businesses as bodies that bleed money or are crippled by debt.

The next time you catch someone wincing at work, don't wonder who has screwed up. Wonder what hurts.  And then wonder what you could learn from the way that person is coping.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Being present while someone is grieving

This is my challenge this week. A young friend is grieving one of those unexpected, brutally unfair deaths.  I know that such deaths make us all feel inadequate and that there is always huge guilt, and I want to say to this young friend: you will survive this feeling of guilt. You will survive this feeling that you didn't say the right things, didn't do the right things, didn't pay attention to the right things. You will have this huge, gaping wound inside of you and you will make it through to tomorrow, and the next day.

There are no words to say these things.  The words I wrote above will connect with you because we are not talking about you. They will connect because you can see from a distance that such things might be true, especially of someone else.  They will not connect with my friend because my friend is living them. And words are slippery things when they are trying to connect with the core of your life.

So I will say I love you and I love you and I love you. And breathe.  You can take one breath and then another.  Just breathe.

That will not be enough. But it will connect. At the crucial moments, we connect through touch and breath and the sounds of a voice that hurts with us. It is not enough. It is just enough to move us through to the next story, the next laughter, the next moment of pushing the awful thing to one side. So that we can all take a breath. And another. So that we can move, not away from grief but inside it.

Words may help. But not now. The best words can do is become seeds, planted deep to push through the surface another day.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Improving your choice of words

There's a truism that says you are more likely to hit something if you are aiming at it. We say things like "keep your eyes on the prize" and mean that paying attention to your outcome is likely to give you both a strategic advantage and the willpower to persist until you achieve what you want. We say these things because they represent a hard lesson.

Take, for instance, a desire to be better spoken, to be able to talk in a way that impresses people more favourably. Most people try out new words or model great speakers in a concentrated effort to improve their choice of words. Ironically, their very first steps take their eyes off the prize.

The prize is the good impression you make on a specific person or in a particular situation. And the only way to know how to make that impression is to become curious about the people and situation you want to influence. You need to notice what actually captures positive attention, what needs to be true for people to pay attention to words in this context, and what needs to be true in your audience for them to pay attention.

Then stay out of your own way.

The more attention you expend on thinking about your words or your positioning, the less attention you have to be genuinely responsive to the people you want to impress. What they are likely to notice is that your attention is not with them or with the content of your conversation: you are so busy trying to make an impression that you have little mental energy left for that. You are trying to make an impression. And we all know that the first rule of cool is that if you have to try to impress, you are not cool.

Instead, be curious and present and committed to using whatever comes up to move toward your outcome.  You will find that you say things that impress even you (in a good way). The key is to challenge yourself to be more attentive and responsive. Your brain knows how to track language, to pick up words that most closely correspond to things that matter, and to make the connections you need.

The roots of being well spoken are congruence and connection.

Friday, March 01, 2013

What we all want

I'm going to suggest that there are four things that everyone wants, and that you can chart them on a quadrant.  The first axis has autonomy (control over one's own life) at one extreme and relationship (connections with other people) at the other.  The second axis has living comfortably with one's body at one extreme and escaping the confines of one's body at the other.  Everything that people want falls into one or more of the quadrants.

It seems that anything we want serves one quadrant at the expense of the others. If we want autonomy for our bodies (perhaps the ability to support ourselves financially), that comes at the expense of escaping the body through connection with others (perhaps through reading fiction). If we want to be physically connected (to hang out with people we like), that comes at the expense of setting our thoughts free.  It's obvious that we cannot simultaneous move to both ends of the axis.

It's obvious, but it is not always true. Dancers and athletes seek to transcend their bodies by being present in their bodies. Leaders blur the lines between their own vision and shared vision, making room for genuine connection and genuine autonomy. Great teachers hold onto their own state and knowledge as part of their desire to connect and stretch.  It takes fierce determination to make progress towards both ends at once, but it is not at all impossible.

It's easy to deny part of yourself to serve a particular goal. It's productive to sometimes chart what you're doing on a graph like this and ask yourself: what would be it like to want fulfillment in all quadrants?