Saturday, March 26, 2016

What reading fiction teaches us about starting over

Do you read fiction? I tried to search google to find out how many books the average Canadian reads. In my own life, I know some people who always have a book on the go, and they might read somewhere between 20 and 50 books a year. Lots of others read a few books a year, and some mostly read periodicals.

There's lots of evidence that reading fiction does good things for our emotional intelligence. But that's not why most people read novels. They read because they like to explore new experiences and perspectives through language. Reading a novel takes you into the lives of people who are like you and unlike you, and your response to the novel gives you new information about you (whether or not you liked it).

Canada Reads finished yesterday. It's a kind of game show where 5 prominent Canadians each pick a book to represent in a battle to win the title of 'a book all Canada should read.' This year it featured an Olympian, an activist, a movie-maker, a wrestler turned actor, and an entrepreneur. Each had chosen a novel to represent, and the theme this year was starting over.

During the debates, the emphasis is on what makes the books different. Here's what made them the same: all five of these novels told stories of people who had to own their pasts to start over. Starting over in these novels wasn't about escaping from your past: it was about accepting it and moving on.
In these books, there is no such thing as a fresh start. Instead, there's new growth from the roots.

One of the surprising and wonderful things about people is that we are capable of owning our experience. However difficult the situations that drive us to start over, we can make sense of our response to them and use it to build something better. Every debater agreed, these books made them feel new feelings and think new thoughts about their own lives, their own pasts.

Friday, March 18, 2016

3 Magic Words: I Screwed Up

I was teaching a class this week on how to deliver bad news. They were feeling kind of late afternoon grumpy until I asked: "Would you like to hear about how I screwed up this week?" Yes, indeed. They were interested in hearing that story.

When people come looking for magic words, they seldom expect to end up with these: I screwed up. Yet these little words said nicely do magic. They take a situation and turn it on a dime. Potential disaster becomes a chance for a stronger bond. But it's just a chance, just an opening. Even magic words need action to sustain them.

In this case, action meant several things. "I screwed up" by email wasn't enough. Those three little words meant picking up a phone to have a difficult conversation. They meant formulating a plan to overcome the problem I had created, and sharing it immediately. They meant both asking for advice and following through with action.

But still - without them, all the rest of the activity would have been much less likely to salvage a sticky situation. No one wants to say "I screwed up," so when you do, people notice. They see that you take the situation seriously enough to make yourself uncomfortable. When they see that you are also willing to take action to repair the damage, they know that you get it. You really understand (from their point of view) why screwing up was a bad thing.

We all screw up. No one expects someone else to be perfect. But we feel a little better about mistakes when we add a little magic. The next time you screw up: try the magic words. And then take action to make it better.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What does "I don't understand" really mean?

As a teacher, I hear it quite often. "I didn't understand." It's hard not to be a little defensive, to buy into the idea that it was my fault. Somehow I didn't make the material clear enough.

Sometimes that is true, but it's rarely the case when only one or two people "don't understand." It's important to test for resistance before changing the way I teach. After all, people go along with stuff they don't understand every day. Not understanding how cars work doesn't stop us from driving and not understanding electricity doesn't stop us from using lights and computers. Not understanding grammar doesn't stop people from talking.

What "I don't understand" usually means is something more like: "I'd like to stay connected with you and I'd like to hold onto my own beliefs or limits." And that's a tough one. Because sometimes you can only invite people to the party if they're willing to agree enough to play with you. It's not that I'm unwilling to connect with people who hold other opinions about human behaviour: it's just that everyone else in the room is there to experience what I train. If getting your understanding means getting you to agree to a new point of view, that's a tall order for a short program.

As a rule of thumb, if I have explained something in two different ways and most people in a room are happy to move on, I don't explain again. The problem is probably not in understanding and more words won't make it better. Instead I focus on maintaining enough agreement so that we can try again at another time. This happens through non-verbal connection and gentle attention. And that means that the one thing I have to give up is being defensive even when someone really is implying that I should have made it easier.

One of the best teachers I know, gently challenging his audience
Life is better for the brave than it is for people who need someone else to make it easy. I've come to understand my job as a teacher is to help people to be brave enough to explore their understanding and sometimes decide to stretch it.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Purpose: It's a word that takes up a lot of space

Living Your Purpose by Linda Ferguson
Purpose is an interesting kind of word. It's not a long word and almost everyone has some idea what it means. And yet it is a word that takes up a lot of space.

Try this. Think of a situation where you are part of a group that is stuck, busy or at a crossroads. Imagine the response when someone says: "What are we trying to do here?"

Now go back to the beginning of that scene and replay it. This time, the person who speaks says: "What's our purpose here?" Do you feel the difference? That's what I mean by taking up space. When we hear the word purpose, we pull back to a really wide perspective as though we are suddenly viewing ourselves from a distance. 

The fear is that if we go too far back, we are such tiny creatures that our purpose can't matter very much. If we don't go back far enough, we can't see the purpose through all the complications. Getting it exactly right works better if we let go of the metaphor of sight. That's hard to do, because we are accustomed to the association of purpose with vision.

Still, since we are only running mental simulations, it costs nothing to go back to the beginning of the scene. Only this time, you're listening to a radio.  As the scene begins, there's lots of chatter about what to do or not to do. And someone asks: "What are we trying to do here?" What do you hear next?
Does what you hear connect with any physical sensations (tension in a particular spot, movement or twitching? warmth?)?

And one more time, to the beginning of the scene. Perhaps it would help if you switched the radio station.  There's static while you tune in (old school and analog) and then you hear the familiar chaos of competing priorities and opinions. Now someone asks "What's our purpose here?" There - did you hear it? There's almost always a pause in the audio just then, and the pause in the audio is often also a pause in the physical feelings. For a moment, everything stops. And then what happens next?

One way that purpose takes up space is that it creates this quiet, this moment of calm and possibility.