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.”

Possibly.

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.

 

The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

Those closest to us

Our friends, allies, the people who care, they are the ones who are most likely to say the little things that we need to hear. Especially the things we don’t always want to hear.

Yes, we all crave more pats on the back, but as long as people are speaking up and telling us what’s not working for them, it means they still care and they’re still paying attention.

The dangerous thing is when we speak and we hear nothing back. Crickets.

What we need to avoid isn’t criticism, it’s the deafening silence of apathy.

Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.

You, Me, We

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.”  It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.

Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.

In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements.  Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”

Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far.  “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”

In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change.  In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting.  We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.

There’s no “we” but you and me.

What’s sacred about you?

Here’s the one thing I can’t stop thinking about after writing yesterday’s post: what’s sacred about me?

Meaning, Jonathan Haidt’s research tells us that to understand people and how they make decisions, you have to understand what they hold sacred.  Around these sacred beliefs, there’s a halo of willful ignorance, one that few facts can penetrate and, if they do, these facts fail to dislodge the core belief.

It must be the case that this applies to self-image, that there are things I fundamentally believe about myself (that you believe about yourself) that blind me (you) to the facts.

The capacity for change comes from the willingness to observe the things that are most dear in my self-image and expose them.  Most obviously, Jonathan challenges me to look at the notion that I’m an open-minded person by asking me how much I understand the perspective of people whose core beliefs differ fundamentally from my own.  More broadly, we all walk around with notions of who we are, namely…

I am:

[   ] good

[   ] bad

at public speaking; writing; analysis; closing a sale; inspiring others; leading a team; coming up with new ideas; getting things over the finish line; fundraising; meeting new people; taking risks.

For example if you’d asked me when I was 23 what job I would never, ever want to or be able to do successfully I would have said “any kind of sales job.”  Whoops.

There are only two ways to break this cycle.  The best way is to decide not to listen to the stories you tell yourself and to start doing things that contradict your most sacred beliefs about who you are and what you’re best and worst at.  Then supercharge your efforts by creating a culture of honest and open feedback (a la Open 360) – a work environment in which people who know you and who deeply care about your success and that of your organization actually sit down and tell you what we’re best at.

I promise, you’re your worst critic.   In the act of trying, buttressed by feedback from invested and caring colleagues, you’ll show this critic who’s boss.

The right time

There is a right time to have that direct, elephant-in-the-room conversation with a respected colleague.  The one where you say out loud what both you and she have been thinking.

That time is now.  Right now.  Today.

Conversations swirl around in every which way, between everyone but the two people who need to sit down and talk.  As if that truth is somehow not really out there if we don’t look it in the eye.  As if we can get anything – anything – of substance done if we don’t get this out of the way first.

I promise, it will be a huge relief to everyone to talk about this – that thing that matters most, that thing that’s keeping you from getting from here to there.

These conversations need to be rife with respect and dripping with caring.  You can’t fake wanting the other person to succeed.

And you can’t wait another day.

The open 360

I recently participated in a powerful, surprising, and very positive experience of open communication and feedback.  The idea was simple and a bit terrifying: bring a team together and have, one-by-one, an in-person, open 360-degree feedback conversation about each member of the team.

Meaning: sitting in a room with 5 of my colleagues, they went one-by-one describing how we work together, what it’s like to work for me, examples of my strengths and their wishes for how I could grow as a professional.  We then went on to the next person.

Going in, it felt scary.  Most people are nervous both giving and receiving feedback; doing so publicly feels (at first blush) either like a way to turn the intensity up to a breaking point OR to run the risk of having the whole experience be so watered-down as to not be of much value to anyone.

It had neither of these pitfalls.  A little skeptical going in, I found it motivating, supportive, constructive, and reinforcing of the team.  As one person in our group said, describing the experience, “We all wear who we are on our foreheads, but we never create a space to really talk about this with each other.”  Indeed, in nearly all cases the feedback about each person was honest, clear, and very consistent.

Having done this once, my guess is that this needs to be done in the right way to work.  Here are guidelines we used, which I found very effective:

  • The goal is to give clear supportive and constructive feedback to each member of the team
  • We picked one person at a time to whom to give feedback
  • Each of the five people giving feedback had four minutes in which to give feedback (we used a timer and allowed ourselves to go over a little but not a lot)
  • Feedback consisted of:
  • Context of one’s working relationship with the person
  • General assessment of the person’s working style and performance, with at least two positive statements and specific examples.
  • At least one piece of developmental advice, phrased as, “My wish for you is….”
  • Once the full group has given feedback, the person receiving feedback is invited to ask questions, comment, etc. and have a short (10 minutes or less) discussion

With our group of six, it took about a half hour to give feedback to each person, plus time for discussion.  So this is definitely a serious time commitment, and we broke it up into three sessions (with the most senior person in the team going first) so we’d have the emotional energy to get through the whole process.

The most surprising thing, to me, was the expression of a shared commitment to each others’ success.  Person after person describing your strengths and where you shine is incredibly affirming – and it’s something we do too rarely.  The “my wish for you” framing of developmental advice steered everyone clear of comments like “it’s bad when you do this because….” and created a sense of support and collective ownership of the wishes, while at the same time providing clarity about ways each of us could take steps to realize our full potential.  I also suspect that going through this process as a group cracked the door open to more open conversations that will happen much more naturally and will flow much more easily now that we’ve gotten this experience under our belts.

This process may not be for everyone and may not work in all groups.  You’d need a starting foundation of support and constructive conversation, and you’ll need, I suspect, at least one member of the group who is good at making these sorts of conversations successful and productive and who can model the kind of conversation you’re looking to have.

But if you’re even a little bit curious I’d encourage you to take the leap.  As I said, going in I had a lot of doubts and I found the experience to break through a lot of the junk that keeps us from real and open dialogue; and it was about 100 times more real than the much more formal, constrained process I’m used to seeing as part of typical year-end performance reviews.

Give it a go, and let us know how it went.