Leading in the Time of Coronavirus

To say that this is an unsettling time is an understatement. Having been in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War, I am noting sensations I’ve experienced before. For me, doing what we need to do to address Coronavirus has the sense of being on wartime footing. Especially in this moment–not knowing what to do and what not to do–and beginning to absorb the significance of what we are collectively being asked not to do for the greater good. My mother-in-law describes wartime England–and the long period of hunkering down. And, it is all happening so quickly, only increasing the uncertainty.

So, what do we do?

First, we remember that this is a moment in time and it’s not permanent. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers about impermanence. What they offered me was the understanding that for impermanence to be meaningful and helpful, it needs to be more than a thought or mental concept. I would suggest that you stop, several times a day, and drop in to what you are sensing. Notice the tension, the anxiety, the fear. Be with it and let it be. Giving those sensations space and allowing them to run through you (without the stories) is a way to a more peaceful (at least for a little while) state. Every time we do this practice we experience just a little bit of that impermanence–feeling a little better in the moment and reminded that this moment will not last forever. Research suggests that it takes about 90 seconds for the sensations and the emotions behind them to run through us (when we avoid rumination and piling on the stories.) These days I am finding it’s take a little longer to get out of my head when I do this practice–and am working to accept that as well.

Working With the Polarities That Are Arising

Polarity thinking is one of the tools that I draw on–and this time is replete with polarities. It’s a time when we can get caught in either/or thinking–so seeking the both/and can be a powerful practice. Here are a few of the polarities I’ve been working with:

I’m challenged to BOTH stay informed AND create distance from the information. Each are important and each needs to be attended to.

We are all confronted with the polarity of Distance AND Connection. Are you calling people? Checking in with them? Picking up your phone and dialing (no appointment, not a text…a  phone call.) If you can step outside and walk and see and wave and say hello to people, are you doing that? Are you allowing more time than usual for check-ins in your virtual meetings? Finding out how people are (really) doing?

One idea I found in Deborah Preuss’s Twitter feed (yes, Twitter can actually be a resource!) was to create virtual co-working. Her suggestion: “Open a zoom call with friends. Set a co-working timebox. Set (personal) goals. Start timer. Turn off all audio/video (or use individual breakout rooms) Work, work, work. Check back in at end of time. Take a coffee break together. Repeat.”

And another polarity: Taking care of self AND Taking care of others. Even if you are scared about the economy and what this will mean for you–how can you give to others right now? Who can you donate to? What can you do to support someone who you know needs support (a phone call, a note)? Not only is it a good thing to do, it’s good for us–there’s a wealth of research that shows that. And, are you caring for yourself? Remember, we need both and will not be able to care for others if we don’t care for ourselves.

Last, but not least, consider, as a leader, how you live in the polarity of realism AND optimism? Think about the people who are doing that for you, and look closely at the way that are showing up, the way they are balancing that message. For me, Anthony Fauci has been a model. I like watching him to see how he is able to deliver a sometimes sobering message and remind us that we have power and that this will pass. Getting that right creates a much-needed authenticity. It allows us to be both vulnerable about what we are experiencing and aware that we have a role in helping people stay grounded and calm.

These are just a few examples. Holding the mindset of polarity thinking and simply knowing that there can be an AND is a way to navigate this moment that I find particularly helpful.

A Few Resources

First, in the spirit of staying informed. This is a podcast that helped me to understand the Coronavirus better and why, from a medical and epidemiological point of view. It breaks down some of the myths I’ve been suspicious of and adds some of the information I’ve been seeking. Michael Osterholm, a highly respected epidemiologist who has a broad and deep view of our situation is on the Joe Rogan  show.

Second, in the spirit of creating distance from the information, Tara Brach’s meditations are a generous gift from a talented meditation teacher. I listened to this one this morning and it seemed just perfect. Starting your day with some type of reflection or meditation is something that can radically shift how you “be” in this time. Tara offers meditations that are both shorter and longer.

Third: Since it launched about eleven  years ago, Glo has been my go-to resource for online Yoga. Over the years they’ve expanded the styles they offer, included meditation, extended to Pilates. The teachers are exceptional and the range of duration, intensity, level, etc., extraordinary. They have a great search engine. The monthly fee is less than most single yoga classes.  If you’re stuck at home and needing a way to practice, I can’t say enough good things. (And I am not getting a commission!)

Please take good care of yourself and those you love.

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 care 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.)