Words are Branches, Thoughts are Roots

My face has always been pretty easy to read. Indeed, my wife occasionally tells me that she doesn’t like how I’ve reacted to something, to which I’ll reply, “but I didn’t even say anything!”

“Ah, but you were thinking it.”


We all have versions of this, the non-verbal cues that we communicate irrespective of what we do or don’t say.

The question then arises: when we discover that we’re not showing up how we’d like to the people around us, when we learn that their experience of our non-verbal, energetic responses to them aren’t what we thought they were, what do we do?

Maybe, we think, we should change the words that we say.

Do we feel timid? We can say something confident.

Are we often quick to contradict? We can stay quiet for longer.

Have we been finding a colleague frustrating? We can complement him.

Do we secretly know that we’re not up to this new stretch assignment? We can talk the talk.

All of that is a start, certainly. In fact, often it works to behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

But we can also fall into a root/branch trap here, and never claw our way out. When this happens, we let ourselves off the hook of digging into the underlying thoughts that are what’s really going on.

Where that fear comes from.

That judgement.

The avoidance of a courageous conversation with that colleague.

The skills you believe you don’t have that you so desperately need.

To create real and lasting change in how others experience us, we must begin by observing, with intent and curiosity, where our root thoughts come from. We must bravely drag them out into daylight and see them for what they are.

Then, slowly, slowly, we start chopping away at the roots of our habitual responses.

Without doing this work, we end up hand-waving in defense of the words we said (or the micro-expression that flashed across our face), instead of acknowledging the work we still have to do on the underlying thoughts racing through our minds.

Speaking of which, we’re turning the page to yet another low point in American politics. It seems like soon we will all be discussing whether the President of the United States said the n-word, and then surely, if he did, watching smokescreen discussions of why “it’s just a word” and how we are all overreacting.

Let’s not forget that the real conversation isn’t about the word, it’s about the thoughts that lead to it.

The real conversation is the unspoken truth of the ugly, hateful, dehumanizing root thoughts that give rise to those words, roots that are indefensible and immoral.


Symptoms and causes

You tweak your knee and start limping a little, only to find that your lower back on the other side starts to ache.

Your job has gotten overwhelming, you are working too many hours, and now, no matter what kind of day you had, you’re finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Two colleagues have misaligned expectations for who will do what, the deliverables get botched, and, going into the next client presentation, they are reticent to work together.

We’re all told to work on the root cause, and not just the symptoms. But often the symptoms become just as real as the thing that caused them – whether pain in your back, learned anxiety, or another deliverable that’s not up to snuff.

If the thing you can work on today is the symptom, and you know how to do that work, then that’s the right place to start.

Often, we behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.


Generosity and social risk

In addition to all of the beautiful, touching stories I’ve heard about Generosity Day, I’ve also heard some very honest, usually light-hearted stories about people who tried to be generous on Generosity Day and failed.  People reached out to help and their hand was slapped away, often by an unknown stranger.

What we know about feedback (e.g. product reviews) is that the people who speak up are at the extremes, so I know that the stories I hear about Generosity Day are the best ones and the worst ones, the most moving ones and the failures.

The failures are quite interesting, and they are teaching us something.  There’s a certain class of spontaneous generous action that is all about taking social risk. This is why taking these actions makes us feel uncomfortable. We are breaking social norms and our own patterns of behavior.  We are practicing deciding to take a social risk and keeping our promise to ourselves.  And we have the chance to reflect on the validity of that pattern and, maybe, to decide to break it.

Guess what?  The new behaviors usually work out, and even when they don’t it isn’t all that bad.

So we add another layer in our understanding of why a deliberate practice of generosity might be transformative: because it is a safe opportunity to take social risk and to explore the difference between our terror before the risk and the actual experience of taking that risk.

Behavior changes don’t come from what we read or from what people tell us.  Behavior change comes from behaving differently, having something positive happen, and wanting more.

For those of you who had some generosity failures in the midst of your generosity day, I hope you keep at it and I hope the failures showed you that failure isn’t all that bad.  Better yet, I hope there were also some great successes that keep you coming back for more.

(HT to Keith Ferrazzi for helping me see the relationship between generous acts and social risk).