Mood Check

[Note to readers: Mood Check is the second in a series of posts I’m writing as I study at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. My hope is that these posts spark curiosity and encourage you to explore even more. The first one introduced somatics and the way that I am learning to understand what somatic leadership means.]

Every day, several times a day, during the workshops at the Strozzi Institute, we did a mood check. All twenty-eight of us quickly shared our mood at the start and end of the day and after any practice that might have changed our moods. While I’ve used mood checks as a facilitator before, I had never done them this consistently. I got more curious about this practice–why it was so foundations and how it could be brought into our daily lives.

In a previous course I attended, one of the Strozzi instructors shared a two-part question about mood that I use frequently in my coaching:

  • What is your mood?
  • What’s telling you this is your mood?

I’ve discovered that when I ask these two, related, questions of myself or my clients, we naturally notice our bodily sensations. Turns out that we name moods based on what our senses are telling us. A mood check, then, is an embodied practice. It gives as a moment to ask ourselves: “What is happening right now? And how am I making that assessment?”

So, why is that useful? First, if you are convinced, as I am, that “somatic literacy” is a good and important thing, the beginning of being able to shift, this is a way to start developing that literacy. It’s not something that we are likely to have learned growing up so we need to educate ourselves. Simply noticing and naming what is happening to us at the level of sensation and how a collection of sensations creates a mood has been powerful for me. I am observing my somatic literacy grow–the range of moods I name expands, the granular awareness of what makes up that mood is more accessible to me–I feel less awkward with the exercise.

Once you name a mood, a few things become possible. First, you have more choice. Given this mood, what actions do or don’t make sense? Is this the right time for a challenging conversation? If I don’t stop to check in with myself, I am much more likely to plow through reflexively than act consciously, reflectively. I am more likely to drift “below the line” in the language of the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. (For more on that concept, here’s the link to one of my favorite short videos of all time.)

As part of our practice at the Strozzi Institute, we would do a mood check and then, right away, engage in an activity that was physically vigorous for a couple of minutes. We’d then do a second mood check. The words we chose to describe our moods would, more often than not, change. Becoming aware of mood gives you a chance to shift or generate moods—and, as this exercise demonstrated—rather quickly. A quick walk, a tiny bit of physical activity, a few breaths–any of these can be enough. My personal go-to between coaching sessions practice is either to take a 3-5-minute walk with the dogs or, during this past rainy Los Angeles winter, doing one of the online Zumba routines I’ve discovered. The latter, especially the Bollywood ones, have turned into a rapid, fun way to shift my mood (and no one has to see me!)

Another benefit of a mood check is that it’s a way to expand your emotional vocabulary. When I lead this process in a group, I “forbid” the moods “good” and “tired” and insist that people dig deeper, search more. I do this for myself as well. Naming emotions is a powerful way to build one’s emotional intelligence—in Daniel Goleman’s model it falls in the quadrant of self-awareness. And, it allows for a granular, ground-level self-awareness that supports our capacity to move from awareness to self-regulation—which is the next quadrant of emotional intelligence.

Doing regular mood checks isn’t difficult—like most simple practices, the hardest part (at least for me) is remembering. An app like Mindjogger can be helpful. Program it to ask: “What’s my mood?” several times a day. After a few days, keep up the practice either with the reminder of without. If you do keep a reminder, change it up so that you don’t just ignore it when you see it. If you’re a parent, consider adding it to your conversations with your kids. Encourage creativity, make it a game—it can be a good vocabulary builder–and do it yourself as well. If you add the second question—”What’s telling you this is your mood?” you can build your somatic literacy and help your kids develop it at an earlier age as well. Two birds with one stone!

Our moods are a window into our soma—our whole self. Our capacity to show up, day after day, and face the increasingly complex challenges of leadership (and life) can grow as we learn to tap into the wisdom within us. A practice like a mood check can help us in more profound ways than we might expect of something so simple.

So, start practicing. And, as you practice, notice what happens. How does naming your mood support you? What does it give you access to? Be patient. At Strozzi we were often reminded that it takes 300 practices to begin to embody new practices and 3000 to do so fully. So, it might take time and repetition before the learning emerges.

And there’s more…

Since returning from my sessions at Strozzi I’ve started all calls (especially group ones) with a mood check. I’m discovering that it’s the fastest way to create connections between people when time is limited and the group is too big for doing longer check-ins. The other day I was meeting with a group and we did a mood check. It was our first session together. The mood check revealed that everyone was distracted, stressed and overwhelmed (and this was AFTER a centering practice!!) Turns out the following week was a major marketing event and this group was almost entirely marketing people. I hadn’t known that in advance, so the mood check gave me data that allowed me to gauge the group within a few seconds. We collectively decided to reschedule the session—it wasn’t going to serve anyone to be on this particular call in this particular moment. That decision was made and a new date found within less than five minutes. The group was appreciative–they felt heard. So—if you lead a team, the mood check is also a source of data for you and can allow you to assess where the group is in a given moment and how you, as a leader can best move forward.

Ready for more? Here’s the next in the series.

Learning from Head to Toe: Embodying Leadership

Photo: Petaluma, 2019

I arrived home last Monday morning from eight days at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership in Petaluma, California after completing the first two parts of a year-long program in Somatic Coaching. “What’s that?” is likely to be the question in your head right now. This post is all about providing a clear and meaningful response to that question—and, in doing so, share why I’m doing this work, why I think it is important—and hopefully interest you enough to continue to read more as I chronicle my journey!

If you’ve read my most recent posts (especially here and here,) you will have noticed an emphasis on paying attention to and working with small practices that are “embodied.” These practices require that we use our whole self, from head to toe, to effect the changes we desire in our lives and our leadership.  We learn to embody what we most want to be and become.

The “head to toe” part of this has become more and more important to me in my own life and in my work with leaders. I am increasingly convinced that one of the main reasons that change doesn’t stick, or feels hard, is that we typically try to do the work only in our heads. Many of my clients begin a coaching engagement telling me they are self-aware, which is often true. And yet, it’s not enough. They are likely to be seeking coaching because that self-awareness isn’t resulting in them fully showing up in ways that will best serve them as leaders–especially leaders who must navigate increasing levels of complexity.

Some of us might go a step further: “I get that I need to practice and that being aware is not enough.” So, we practice adopting new mindsets, new thoughts, new coaching or conversational strategies. And we are still not getting the results we seek.

Here’s where the “head to toe” part comes in. Our ways of being exist in our “somas”—a word that describes our mind and body as ONE. We have patterned or conditioned responses that live in our bodies that we adopted, in many cases, when we were quite young. These patterns were created in response to the conditions of our lives—and they served us well. In the words of one of my teachers, they were “hard-earned.” For the most part, these patterns and responses are invisible until we pay attention in new ways. When we try to shift our minds and ignore the patterns in our bodies, turns out it’s really hard. And, our bodies are probably not going to come along for the ride unless we consciously bring them along. Our patterns are strongly rooted and powerful enough to hold us back from the changes our minds want to make. So, even as our heads desire change, our bodies continue to operate in the ways they have organized themselves until now. Our bodies remain committed to our conditioned ways of being.

Let me share an example. A simple one.

Because you’re self-aware, you’ve realized that it is hard for you to say no. You take on too much, delegate too little, and end up overwhelmed and overloaded. So, you commit to saying no more. Once in a while you do, but not much changes. It’s still really hard. If you were working from head to toe, you’d spend time noticing that your whole body is “in on” this challenge. You recognize that this is a pattern that goes WAY back, so it’s pretty firmly within you. When you slow down and pay attention closely, you might notice that you have very specific sensations and ways of holding yourself when requests are made of you—all of which are oriented towards being uneasy with a “no” and conspire towards a “yes.” [Note: This is just one example. Perhaps you struggle more with whole-hearted “yesses” or with being able to ask for help.]

So, your brain is struggling to say “no,” unaware that the your body is perfectly organized to say “yes” and be fearful of the “no.” With further investigation, you can get granular about the way “yes” operates in your body, better understand how THAT shape supported you in your life. You can begin to explore and practice a new shape (literally—a new physical way of being and responding) that better supports your ability to choose your “yesses” and “nos.” Maybe you need to move back, breathe downwards, “ground” yourself. You practice that movement again and again (and again and again) and, over time, you notice that this new shape is beginning to become available to you even as the stakes get higher and the situations more pressured. It’s simple but not easy. A whole lot of repetitions are required to be able to access this new shape in high stakes, high pressured situations—so you also practice being a little more patient with yourself in the learning process. You are literally rewiring your nervous system.

My intention in studying somatic coaching—and specifically the system developed by Richard Strozzi Heckler–is two-fold. I want to become more skillful in supporting my clients in making the changes they most want to make to become the leaders they most want to be. The tools I’m learning are some of the most effective I’ve encountered to help translate self-awareness into consistent new behaviors. Just as importantly, I am studying for my own sake—so that I am able to do the same. I am learning to return to center more easily when I am feeling pressures—internal and external. I am learning to expand into the possibilities I see for myself—while allowing space for the people I are most about to do the same. That balance has always been one of my challenges and somatic work has been revelatory for me. Thus, my excitement about sharing it with others.

This is just the start of my journey. My plan is to write throughout the year and share some of what I’m learning. My teacher, Doug Silsbee, wrote not long before he died that “teaching is learning in public.” That phrase has stuck with me as it so well describes what I am doing when I write. These pieces are most definitely an act of “learning in public.” I hope you find value in them. (The next in the series can be found here.)

Practicing Leadership

Practicing Leadership

“Awareness creates choice, practice creates capacity.” Amanda Blake

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle

About thirteen years ago I began to practice yoga seriously. A few years later, I added a regular morning meditation to my practice and began to attend meditation retreats. Both practices are now part of my daily routine. When I first began practicing yoga, I noticed that I was showing up differently at work—and that my team was behaving differently. There was a remarkable decrease in reactivity as I learned to be more present. My first response was to evangelize. I had a similar impulse when I began to meditate—if this did so much for me and my capacity to be present and engaged, why wouldn’t everyone want to meditate?

While both practices have been essential to my capacity to be present, which I view as a core leadership competency, I began to temper my evangelism as I noticed two things:

  • Not everyone is ready or able to adopt this kind of practice. Many of my clients are already struggling to make enough time for the things that matter—family, work, friends, exercise. Just thinking about how to find the time for one more thing is exhausting.
  • A regular practice can feel insufficient. For example, even though I meditate every morning, by mid-day I still can often feel unsettled, tense or anxious.

A little over five years ago I began to study Presence-Based Coaching with Doug Silsbee. At our first gathering Doug introduced a centering practice (I write more about it here) and gave us homework to do between the first two gatherings. The instruction was to center multiple (fifteen or more!) times a day. In order to do that, the three-minute practice we learned together had to be truncated, which is exactly what Doug encouraged us to do. I was able to center in ten to fifteen seconds, with four intentional breaths. Then, the challenging part—figuring out a way to remember to practice. I created cues that would remind me to center:

  • A bell that would ring at random intervals during the day
  • Transitions in my day such as when I took a break or before a meeting
  • Sensing mild stress or frustration

Getting into the habit of centering as a response to stress became a hugely helpful habit—helping me to find presence in the moments when it felt most elusive. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, just as important as the specific practice, I was learning a new way of thinking about practice—and discovering the “micropractice.” Today, micropractices, together with self-observations, are the most important element in my coaching toolkit.

More About Micropractices

Micropractices can include both generic practices, such as centering, that are available and useful for anyone. These are typically designed to support one’s general capacity to be present and reduce reactivity. Custom practices are specifically designed to support a goal or commitment that is unique to the person doing the practice and can support almost any behavior change that a person is looking to make.

Both types of micropractices work on the premise that, with enough repetition, these new behaviors will become more available—we eventually embody them in our nervous systems. If we’re diligent it’s not even that hard to amass thousands of practices–which is what it takes to truly change our bodies and brains.

Here are three examples of custom micropractices:

  • I’m working with a client who noticed that her shoulders slump and her overall posture “crumples” whenever she feels any sort of push back from people around her. It makes it hard for her to be receptive to feedback—and hard for others to give feedback—even though she knows (in her head) that feedback is important. Her micropractice is simply to notice her posture multiple times a day and lift up from her seat to her shoulders to her breath. It takes about ten seconds.
  • I describe a micropractice (though I didn’t label it as one at the time) that I designed to help me listen without being caught up in my intent to reply—and without interrupting. I learned to pause after a person speaks and before I start to talk. You can read more about that practice and how I came to it in this post, from a couple years ago.
  • Many years ago, I was listening to a talk by a Buddhist teacher Ken McCleod. He offered up a question that grabbed my attention. I wrote it on a post-it and placed it on my computer monitor: “How can I experience THIS and still be at peace?” My micropractice was to catch myself experiencing minor anxiety and simply ask myself this question. Just by asking it, I would immediately relax, breathe, and remind myself that I could be at peace, regardless of what was happening on the outside. Within a few weeks of discovering this practice, my father unexpectedly died. I found myself returning to this question and using it as a way to ground myself in one of the most challenging moments of my life. At least for a few seconds, I could find center.

Each of these sample practices are designed to help us be at our best—more present and more resilient. They include these elements:

  • Personally Meaningful:: It resonates for you. The same question that was so powerful for me might not be helpful for you at all. Similarly, you may need a different strategy to be a better listener than the one that I found so helpful.
  • Memorable: The practice has to be sticky for you. When I identify a practice that feels right for me, I know it—and I find the same is true for my clients. Sometimes that means working a bit to find the memorable practice and sometimes it becomes clear quickly. (Designing micropractices has become one of the most enjoyable and playful parts of many of my coaching sessions.)
  • Physical: Micropractices are embodied practices. For example, when I asked myself the question “How can I experience this, and still be at peace?” I stopped, noted the question, took a conscious breath and was able to feel myself shift.
  • Available: All of the practices described here, and most practices you’ll design, can be done without anyone else even knowing that you’re “micro-practicing” and are available at any time.
  • Quick: From start to finish, each of these practices requires just a few seconds.

Getting Started

Identifying or designing a micro-practice does note need to be difficult. I recommend starting with a centering practice. In addition to the one I describe in a recent post, here’s a 30-second video that provides an alternate practice from one of my favorite teachers, Wendy Palmer. Even simpler is to pause and take a couple of conscious breaths at various intervals throughout the day. Centering helps you shift form a reactive to a more responsive mode quickly.

Once you’ve chosen a practice, think about how you are going to remind yourself to do it. Use any or all of the methods I describe above—or find your own. What’s important is that you make a plan for remembering.

As you practice, be kind to yourself. You may forget to respond to your planned cues—just notice that and start again. You may find that the practice was not available to you when you could have used it most—that’s going to happen until you’ve practiced enough to match the level of stress or pressure you’re facing. Practicing when when the stakes are lower (e.g., just randomly throughout the day) makes it more available when the stakes are higher (when you are triggered.) Richard Strozzi Heckler,  founder of the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership, writes:

When we’re under pressure, stress, conflict, or some form of transition we will inevitably fall to the level of our training and rarely, if ever, rise to our level of expectation.

When we feel as if we’ve “lost” the practice it simply means that it’s not yet fully embodied. So, celebrate when you do remember rather than berate yourself for forgetting—practice more and it will eventually be more available. The last thing most of us need is a new reason to beat ourselves up.

Finally, create some time for reflection. On a regular basis, check in:  What are you noticing? What’s working? What’s not? Is there anything you need to shift in the way you’re practicing? Treat you micropractice as an on ongoing experiment and adjust it over time as needed.

One thing you’ll want to plan on adjusting is the way you remind yourself. One piece of advice I got from Amanda Blake (author of Your Brain is Your Body)  is to change the reminders. When I use Mindjogger (an iOS app) to randomly remind me to practice, I need to change the message every couple days. If not, I’ll invariably stop paying attention. Our brains do better with novelty.

A Word About Practice

If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our life, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen; to become more effective leaders it’s necessary to practice. Richard Strozzi Heckler

As someone who used to believe that the answer to a problem was going to be found in a book, recognizing that change requires practice has not been an easy lesson for me to learn. Awareness is critical, but without practice the thing you are hoping to be different will simply not be available when you need it most.

As I did more yoga—and eventually added meditation—I gained significantly greater capacity to remain calm under pressure because my nervous system had an alternative path to follow. The enduring value of both practices–and of the micropractices that I have been experimenting with–is the result of many, many repetitions and a good deal of patience as I learn to accept how much practice is required.

The final quote that I’ll share is also from Strozzi Heckler–it’s helps me to come back, again and again, to these practices and micropractices because it reminds me of the nature of practice and the value of conscious practice in enabling me to show up in the world, and especially as a leader, at my best:

It’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that we are always practicing. In other words, the body is incapable of not practicing. And what we practice we become.

With that, happy practicing (and micropracticing!)

And, if the exploration of embodiment and leadership is intriguing, this is the first in a series I’m writing this year as I dive deeply into the study of Somatic Coaching at The Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. You can continue to learn more here.