The Doing and Being of Difficult Conversations

Years ago, I bought—and read—every book I could find about challenging conversations. Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Fierce Conversations—all of them. Each added to my understanding of how to have (and why not to avoid) the conversations that we least want to have. I attended several workshops that focused on shifting difficult conversations into productive ones. The most intensive of these workshops was three days long and involved meticulously analyzing a single conversation that we knew we needed to have. We focused on reframing our thinking and mindset and precisely examined the impact of the words we chose for the conversation. At the end of the three days, I was able to have that conversation in a way that shifted the relationship I was working to improve. At the same time, it was painstaking and I wondered if that particular process could be consistently replicated.

Over the years, I began to design and conduct workshops on the topic of difficult conversations—including this as a core topic in any leadership program I offer. In my workshops I drew most heavily from Sheila Sheen’s (and her co-authors’) Difficult Conversations, and from her second book, Thanks for the Feedback. More recently, I added powerful ideas garnered from two wonderful books by Diane Musho Hamilton, The Zen of You and Me and Everything is Workable.

My commitment to improving—and supporting others’ improvements—at having hard-to-have conversations is premised in the belief that our ability to speak candidly, openly and with compassion allows us to create better relationships at work. And, if we can create those stronger, more open, more honest relationships, we can work more productively, with greater ease and get better results. The same is true in our personal lives, as well.

The most important thing I took away from these authors and from the work I had done was the importance of shifting from a mindset of “it’s about them” to “I’m a contributor to what is occurring.” In some way, small or large, we are missing part of the story and have a blind spot about our contribution in challenging relationships.

I also realized that to successfully transform a conversation from just plain difficult to productive and constructive, we needed to genuinely be able to hear the other person—to listen deeply, see their perspective, and shift our own, accordingly. It’s not about one person being right and the other wrong. It’s simply that we each see the world through our own eyes and, by definition, our view is limited. Bringing this awareness into a challenging conversation is essential–and not easy. It goes against our default mode of “listening to win” rather than “listening to learn.”*

Over the past few years, as I expanded my coaching toolkit to include embodied leadership, I began to rethink the way I approached, and taught, difficult conversations. Embodied leadership asks us to consciously bring our whole soma (body) and not just our heads into our work and personal lives/relationships. Wouldn’t this then require us to bring our whole soma into difficult conversations? If we are to genuinely shift our frame of mind to allow ourselves to see multiple perspectives and to respond rather than react to the things that trigger our defenses, then we need to think not only about the “doing” of the conversation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the “being”–and that’s where the body can be an enormous resource.

Until I started doing somatic work, my preparation for a difficult conversation was almost entirely focused on the words I would use. What questions would I ask? How would I frame the conversation? What would I do to ensure that I was communicating that I, too, was a contributor and that together we were looking for a new way of seeing? I took the same approach with my clients. Both in coaching and in workshops most of the energy was on planning the “what” or the “doing” of the conversation. Using our heads.

If we expand and include the soma then we arrive at the “being” of a conversation. We attend not only to what we say—but also to how we show up energetically, physically and emotionally. The preparation we need to do to show up in a state that is open, receptive, and present is quite different from the planning of the “doing.” It’s not surprising that I missed this. In general, we have learned to be better at—and put more emphasis on—doing than being.

Growing our leadership capacity and developing as humans requires that we create a better balance. I’ve written about the distinction between complex and complicated—it is relevant here as well. When things are unpredictable or unknowable we are in the domain of complexity—and our job in complexity is to navigate, not to know where exactly we’re going (we simply can’t know.) By definition, a conversation—especially a challenging one—is complex–unpredictable. Two of the most powerful tools in complexity are openness and curiosity which come not only from our heads, but from our whole self.

When we prepare to be present and curious, then we can be prepared for the response that we didn’t expect to hear. We can navigate in the moment when the other person does not conform to our predetermined script. And, let’s be honest, no one aside from the imaginary people in our minds will ever adhere to the predetermined scripts we write. If we are unprepared for the complexity of the conversation, wed to our plan, then the instant the other person veers from our script, we are thrown—we lose center and presence. The conversation is far less likely to move forward in a meaningful or satisfying way for either person.

When we focus primarily on the doing of the conversation then we may know, intellectually, that we are contributors, but we are still likely to be hooked into responding defensively. Seeing multiple perspectives is not what we were wired to do—being reactive when we feel threatened is a more “natural” response—even if it is unhelpful. Despite our best intentions to not be hooked and defensive, it takes time and practice to respond differently. When we focus exclusively on what we are doing and don’t give equal weight to our being we aren’t resourced to be fully present and capable of navigating the complexity inherent in a challenging conversation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It’s about putting as much, and often more, focus on the question, “How do I want to be in this conversation?” as on “What do I want to say?”  I do this by taking a moment and finding center—the process I use to center (described here) is one I learned over six years ago and has been an anchor for me ever since. Once centered, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What qualities do I want to bring to the conversation?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • How will I find that way of being before I begin the conversation? (This may involve a commitment to center before starting the conversation.)
  • How will I return to that way of being if I feel triggered during the conversation?

This process does not offer a magic bullet—it’s a practice. Like all practices, it requires repetition and reinforcement. It can be immediately helpful and when it becomes part of our way of operating it can positively impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Once it is ingrained in our being, and we can access this process rather than react defensively, even the challenging conversations that are not initiated by us, the ones we unexpectedly find ourselves in, will no longer be as difficult or daunting.

As I’ve embodied this practice, I’ve come to see “difficult conversation” as simply conversations. This simple, and yet not so simple shift, enables me to be curious, attentive, and open-minded while growing my relationships.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who needed to speak with a colleague who, based on all the data available to her, was not delivering on an important commitment. This was not the first time she’d had this experience with her colleague.

At the start of the session, we centered. After centering, and becoming more open and present, she noticed that she had never broached this topic with her colleague. Her colleague was unaware of how his actions, knowing or unknowingly, affected her. It was from this reflection and realization that my client was able to sense that her limited perspective of “this is how he’s disappointing me” only told half the story. My client then consciously set the intention to remain open and curious so that she could genuinely, and without bias, discover where things were breaking down. She made a commitment, from center, to hear his perspective, to learn more about her own contribution, and to figure out together how to move forward.

The preparation for her discussion went as follows: centering and setting intention, recognition that she is also a contributor, and committing to find center before, during, and after her conversation. She would also need to remind herself that her colleague would not follow her predetermined script and that she would not be able to control the ultimate outcome of that conversation. She felt ready to enter the conversation with genuine openness and curiosity, prepared to be surprised.

And another example:

I recently worked with a client who had to let staff go for the first time in their organization’s history. As I worked with the leadership team to prepare for these conversations, we brought the dimension of being into the process. The leaders reflected on how they wanted to be in the conversation to support the people to whom they were delivering hard news—and to support the people who were remaining. In this case, even when the words had to be quite precise, there was an opportunity to attend to how they could use the practices of centering and the emphasis on bringing their whole self into the conversation to convey the genuine compassion that they felt.

And…

Sometimes we are called upon simply to listen, to be present for another person. It is often all that is being asked of us. Our work begins and ends with the question of how we want to be. If we simply allow ourselves to be present and caring listeners, then that is enough. Our need to do or say the “right” thing or to fix a problem is often the thing that gets in the way of what is most important.

And finally…

The next time you find yourself carefully planning your words, take a step back and make sure you are also attending to how you want to be in order to best serve the intent of the conversation. And then, do that again, and again, and again.

We become what we practice.**

* See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps–my favorite book of the past several years for more on this distinction (and so much more than that!!)

** Gratitude to Richard Strozzi Heckler and the teachers at the Strozzi Institute for helping me to experience the power of practice.

My series of posts exploring what I’m learning as I become a somatic coach begins here. You can also find a post here that explores ways to think about practice or, to be more precise, “micropractices” that might make this just a little easier to incorporate into an already busy life.

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.