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Posts from the ‘Self/other awareness’ Category

Compassionate Leadership Responses to Sexual Assault Allegations

I have been reluctant to use this blog to comment on issues in the public space but I feel compelled to provide some understanding and guidance for leaders and colleagues when it comes to sexual abuse survivors. Our political leaders are not setting a very good example and I believe we can do so much better in our work places.

Before I went into consulting, I was a psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I studied, taught and wrote about the impact of such heinous actions on young victims. After 40 years as a professional, I can tell you with respect and reverence for these survivors, hearing their stories and facilitating their recoveries was the most meaningful work I’ve done. It is with this background that I offer some guidance.

As a leader or a peer, you are working side by side with survivors. They are represented everywhere in our population in astounding numbers. Knowing this, you need to be informed and prepared to show compassion as you navigate the specific work related issue that may cause someone to reveal their past. Survivors are constantly managing things that may trigger a painful memory; often through awkward habits, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If something has occurred at work that exposes peculiar thinking or actions, how this gets handled can make an enormous difference. The person will either feel understood or re-traumatized. Obviously, it is not your job as a leader to know the private details of your staff so you can avoid any potential land mines. But it is your job to respond respectfully when the mine explodes.

Here are a few things to know that can deepen your understanding of what an abuse survivor experiences.

Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a second grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 7 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.

Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have colleagues who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse. These strategies may look childish or maladaptive in adulthood, but they were lifesavers all those years ago so they are hard to let go of.

Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.

Living with secrets and shame. Most victims do not come forward at the moment the abuse occurs usually because of a combination of verbal threats from the attacker and a deep sense of shame. This enormous thing happened but the young person must never reveal it. To people who have not experienced abuse it is very difficult to imagine not telling someone. But to all survivors it is just the reverse; they can’t imagine the new horrors that would befall them if they did tell someone.

The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again? As adults they may appear distant, mistrustful or not comfortably joining in.

For most, their inner strength prevails and they go on to lead productive lives. They have struggled to find a way to cope with the devastation that is still alive in their beings. You will experience them as bright, kind (if not aloof) and good workers. And occasionally, you may need to have difficult conversations with them about odd or inappropriate behavior or reactions. You will have trouble creating a consistent picture of this person.

Here is some guidance for you as a leader:

  • Be mindful of unexplained anxieties. A woman is not likely to reveal her most intimate painful experiences in a work setting (or anywhere for that matter) so you will not know explicitly that this person is a survivor. But if you observe some of the behaviors or thinking listed above or unusual levels of anxiety that don’t seem to fit the moment, compassion suggests treading lightly. If you have well trained HR professionals who have the sensitivity to deal with more challenging emotional situations, you may want to include them in discussions and problem solving.
  • Be acutely aware of power dynamics. All abuse is about power and control over the vulnerable. You are the boss who can dole out consequences and ultimatums. If you are a large man and the woman before you is smaller, beware of your impact. If your style is aggressive, dial it down. This is good advice in general (why would you abuse your position and power under any circumstances?) but more generous with a survivor.
  • Offer respect and support. Listening without minimizing or discrediting a person’s story (if shared) is baseline behavior. Words that are helpful: I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you, what a remarkable person you turned out to be, I believe you, tell me what would be helpful in this situation. Words that are not helpful: I don’t run a mental health agency, I can’t believe you still think about something that happened so long ago, It couldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t tell anyone at the time. It’s true that you don’t have to attend to people’s mental health issues but, as a leader, finding compassionate solutions to make the work place feel safe is your responsibility.

I have said it here before, corporations can set a high bar for compassionate and civilized leadership. Be one of those leaders. Don’t let the politicians or anonymous Twitter ranters shape this dialogue. You’re better than that.

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Where Has Our Humanity Gone?

(These are thoughts weighing heavy on my mind lately. A bit of a departure from my usual posts.)

For all of history, the harm that human beings have done to each other is astounding. Some would say it is in our DNA and that is partly correct. The other part of our essential make up is that we crave connection above all else. We want to be cared for, recognized, listened to and loved.

Yet our history is littered with wars and genocides and lynching and slavery and all kinds of unimaginable damage to our fellow humans. If our most basic drive is to be connected to other beings why, then, is aggression, rejection and hatred so dominant?

Tribalism, yes. Confirmation bias, yes. Imagined threats, yes. But this is a description of outcomes rather than an explanation of what is at the core. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have a couple observations.

We have always lived within hierarchies; in our villages, our families, our offices, our societies and our world. This means that some are at the top and some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. For those at the top, if the middles and bottoms stay in their places there is order. Not to mention that they receive the spoils from this arrangement. But if those in the lower rungs either break into the upper echelon or drop down in status, there are problems. Discontent surfaces if the ruling group gets infiltrated by “nouveau uppities” who don’t belong and the lowest class swells in size and protests their unexpected fate. The order has been upset and must be dealt with to get things back to the way they are supposed to be.

So, the Have’s look at those who succeeded against all odds with suspicion. What are you doing here? Who let you in? Did someone or some program show you undue favor? Whose seat are you taking up who belongs here? Oh, you must be an exception to the rule. And for those that break through, they never fit in. They always feel like “other” because they don’t have the right body parts or skin tone to be accepted into the club.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

Likewise, the Have Not’s (the longstanding ones and the new ones) find they cannot sustain themselves. The opportunities, education, open doors, programs and institutions don’t exist or are designed to keep them out. At best, the societal efforts to make systems fairer are underfunded and encounter extraordinary resistance. “Fair” is not something that motivates the ruling class. Maintaining the order as historically defined is their goal. The pie is small and there is not enough for everyone, they seem to imply.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

This resentment, born from the futility of working hard and the counter valence of protecting the gates, has generated cruel thoughts, words and deeds against humanity. Some on a large scale but most very mano-a-mano. And it’s not just threats to the natural order that fuels the hostility. Much is amplified by imagined fears, lies and the ability to deliver those messages anonymously. Thank you internet. In this hateful morass, people can’t even discern what is worth paying attention to because what matters most is not being shouted over the airwaves. If there is data or news about people being connected in caring ways, it gets lost in the nasty noise and lasts for a nanosecond.

We are encouraged to embrace each other with love and listen to those we disagree with. Not bad advice but it isn’t changing the ethos or the systems. We may have kind connections that sustain us in our small universes but it doesn’t allow us to move up the ladder or ignore the aggression at the office or feed our families. We used to say, “all we need is love” which the hippie in me still believes. But there is no “love-in movement” today. Instead there are horrible things being said and done to our fellow humans that are anything but loving.

It seems that every moment is pregnant with negative possibilities. Someone looks at you sideways. Someone ignores your presence. Someone votes differently than you do. Someone worships differently or not at all. These encounters can unleash vicious tirades that have only one resolution: see things my way or I will continue to attack and marginalize you. We can’t even have simple exchanges without them blowing up. We are anticipating an attack and our adrenaline prepares us for the fight.

Then there is real and significant harm and human suffering. Rape, discrimination, gaslighting, poverty, war. In a humane world, there would be empathy for the victims and actions to right the wrongs. Instead, sufferers are abandoned or not believed or told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When brave souls come forward to tell their stories there is an outpouring of hostility and defensiveness. It seems these horrors don’t match some narrative that is part of the “natural order”. Compassion is for sissies.

It feels like someone has thrown accelerant on petty grievances to ignite the battle of “who has it worst”. A bad, yet offensive, joke is a 10 on the scale of indignities worthy of expulsion from the human race. So, where does gun violence or a global financial crisis rank on the 10-point scale? And why hasn’t anyone been expelled? Lots of handwringing and op-ed pieces and everything stays according to the “natural order”. The top people are still in charge and the middles and bottoms feel further demoralized and invisible.

I keep searching for answers and deeper understanding. I have days when I hold tight to my optimism only to plunge into a week of hopelessness. I want to believe in our better angels. And I naively think there is some silver bullet answer that will pull us all out of this deteriorating mess.

But I’m not quite that naïve. In my work, I guide leaders to have more questions than answers. So here are my questions.

  • Why are humans so frightened of each other?
  • Why do humans hold onto stereotypes and caricatures of people who are different than our own tribe? Why do we substitute “stories” about others for actual real life experiences?
  • Don’t humans understand that we are made of the same skin, bones, muscles and blood even if we look different? Why do we not see our similarities?
  • Why do humans prefer the company of people who look, sound, act and earn the same?
  • What is so awful or threatening about people who look, sound, act or earn differently? Aren’t we curious to learn about people and places beyond our life experiences?
  • Why do those at the top want to control everyone and everything else? What do they fear would happen if there was more access to the top?
  • Why do humans look at those with difficult circumstances and blame the people rather than the situation? Why don’t our hearts ache for all the injustices that cause suffering?
  • Why don’t humans understand that where we are born and to whom is random?
  • Why are humans in the public square (IRL or virtual) so vicious? What feels so good about making others feel so badly?
  • Are all these nasty interactions because we fundamentally feel terrible about ourselves? If so, how did that happen during the self-esteem-Olympics decades?
  • Why is being kind and assuming positive intention so much harder than being cruel and assuming the worst?

We have lost our humanity. That precious connective tissue that allows us to know with certainty that we are all in this together and that our similarities far outstrip our differences. We are all just one county away from poverty, one country away from a war zone, one neighborhood away from gun violence, one boss away from sexual harassment, one generation away from slavery, one brother away from PTSD, one cousin away from addiction, one friend away from rape, one paycheck away from homelessness. Not even the very top folks are protected from life’s dangers. And when those bad moments occur (and they will for all of us), it is the kindness of people we know and many we don’t know that helps us survive.

So, is our reliance on the decency of our fellow travelers only valid when we personally experience hard times? That doesn’t make sense. It seems we would carry within us the warmth of that generosity and act on that during the good times when our well beings are intact. Sadly, that is not where we are today.

As humans, we have the gift of consciousness; the ability to think things through and not just act on instinct. Cruelty and denigration are choices we make. The stories will tell ourselves about why our mistreatment is justified are simply that…stories. They are not based in the ability to see, hear and understand that person sitting across from us or speaking on the TV. We must reclaim our sense of humanity so we can see, hear and understand that when we treat others so poorly that we are doing harm to ourselves. Because, after all, we are all the same and we are in this together.

 

 

 

Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.

What We Learned In Kindergarten But Forgot

I had the pleasure of picking up my granddaughter from kindergarten last week. As she ran towards me (for a smashing great hug!), I noticed a big sticker on her shirt. Hugs and kisses over, I put her at arms length so I could read her sticker. In big letters it read “I Was Proactive Today”.

Me: Sweetie, do you know what your sticker says?

Her: Yes, Grandma. It says I was proactive today.

Me: And do you know what that means?

Her: Yes, it means that I did something without being asked first. That I was helpful just because I saw someone needed me to be.

Me: Right! What exactly did you do to earn your sticker?

Her: I gave a picture to one of my friends because she needed it to finish her work.

Me: Oh honey. I’m so proud of you.

With her chest puffed out, we walked over to the other door to pick up her big brother as he exited his second grade classroom. More hugs and kisses for me.

Me: Hi sweetie. How was your day?

Him: Mostly good. But also not so good.

Me: Really? What happened?

Him: Yesterday I wanted to play with my friends at recess but they didn’t let me. I was really sad about that. So today I brought my football so we could all play together. But they didn’t want to play football. I really, really wanted to play football with them but they didn’t want to.

Me: What did you say to them? What did you do about it?

Him: Nothing really. It’s just making me feel bad.

Me: I’m sorry that happened honey. But I know you and I know you will figure out how to solve this problem.

And off he ran up the hill towards home with his sister trying to keep up. It was a bittersweet moment for a grandmother. How proud I was of how each of them handled a peer situation and how stunned that there would be one child on the planet who would not want to play with my grandson! I mean, seriously, he is awesome!!

The two interactions got me thinking. If a 5 year old is learning to be proactive on behalf of others, when do we un-learn that habit? If a 7 year old persists in appropriate ways to get his needs met and handles the disappointment when it doesn’t happen, when do we become frustrated whiners? Where is the reaching out to help our peers in the workplace? Where is the self sufficient problem solving that doesn’t require escalation to higher authorities or trash talking about our peers?

Several decades ago, the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was all the rage for businesses. It was a reminder that playing well with others was quite elementary and it was important for adults to get back to some good habits. We are years down the road, the world has changed significantly and we, once again, have forgotten our childhood lessons. I did a bit of digging to learn more about my grandchildren’s school curriculum because I was curious about 5 year olds learning big words and concepts like proactive. It turns out that the kindergarten curriculum is based on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People!! Imagine that; teaching small children how to be independent, interdependent and to strive for continuous self improvement. What lovely synchronicity. Learn great habits in kindergarten, practice them throughout school and hopefully you will become an effective adult.

But my observation is that the simple guidance of these books is not so evident in the workplace today. I have been thinking about several of these behaviors.

  • Take turns. Adults want to be first, best, the only, the winner. If someone else has that designation it can only mean: someone cheated or behaved poorly to leap in front, someone has an affirmative action advantage, someone is the boss’ favorite, someone is brown nosing the boss, someone is just crazy not to see how much better I am. I hear people everyday believing that if someone else gets a turn or a piece of the pie, that means there is less for me or something unfair has occurred. A 5 year old doesn’t think that way. We all take turns, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it will be my turn again soon so there really isn’t less to go around, that’s just the way the world works. Besides, we are supposed to be nice and fair.
  • Play well with others. Maybe as we age we focus more on Covey’s independent habits and think less about all that win-win and mutual understanding stuff that is required of interdependence. I used to teach team development skills so people could learn how to collaborate for better outcomes. It used to be the norm that we had to be good team players. But I’m not convinced that people see the personal cost-benefit to participating in the collective. It seems that individual recognition is preferable because I can count on the value of my own work product more than others. The team pulls us down to the lowest common denominator or so I am told. Again, kids understand that everyone needs to make a great effort to create a fun and exciting learning environment. Everyone has to participate in this.
  • Be responsible. I’ve been hearing the word “lazy” a lot recently. Colleagues describe how others are just not working as hard, staying as late, being as responsive or following through. Emails not answered lickety split: lazy! Requests for work products delayed six nanoseconds: lazy! Leaving the office at 8pm: lazy! My granddaughter is learning about SMART goals. Remember that day in B-school? When did we forget this?

I see these three behaviors as a related cluster. Intolerance that others may be talented or better than you, not wanting to count on the contributions of others and being pissed off when others don’t march to your beat all strike me as insecure and self centered. When we have to denigrate others by projecting negative attributes onto them and believe superior ones about ourselves, then we are in a whole world of self doubt. And things get ugly quickly.

It may be time to revisit those kindergarten lessons…or Steven Covey. Develop good self awareness and self reliance and be mindful and generous with those around you. As my grandchildren could tell you, if you do these things you will learn a lot and make good friends. And then you get to go to recess where I’m sure my grandson will have figured out how to get you involved in a rowdy game of football!

The Conversational Leader

Remember that course you took in grad school about listening and engaging in good conversations? Oh right, there was no such course. Not in grad school or any school before that. If we are lucky, we learn how to have a decent dialogue through good role models or supervisors along our way. Sadly, most of us do our best and call it a day.

And then there are those folks we call “naturals”. They are people who are comfortable asking interesting questions, waiting through long pauses, listening intently to responses, asking follow up questions to probe more deeply, sitting back calmly while conflicting ideas emerge, hearing what people have in common and making everyone feel heard and valued in the process. Do these people just pop out of the womb like this? Or are these skills that can be learned? And why is this important to being an effective leader?

This seems to be the focus of much of my work lately.

  • “I know that the staff just wants me to tell them what to do but I’d rather have a conversation about the issue.”
  • “We’ve had enough conversation on this topic. Now I just want to decide and move on. When is it okay to shut it down?”
  • “My style is much more conversational but I have to get up in front of larger groups to deliver our key messages. I just don’t like the bullet point driven type of communication.”
  • “I’m much better at one on one talks than conducting team meetings. I can’t keep track of all the dynamics when there are more people in the room.”
  • “I believe in consensus building for all the big stuff. But the staff seems frustrated by having to have long conversations.”
  • “I’m very comfortable letting the dialogue meander and when there are long pauses. But I can see that others are very uncomfortable. Do I have to lead these meetings differently? Or how can I get the team more adept at hashing things out?”

Although I have worked with plenty of introverted and socially awkward leaders who are very effective, those that can engage in productive conversations fare much better in the eyes of the staff. What any of us want in our interactions at work is to be heard in a respectful manner. Sure, we’d also like to get our way and for you to see how brilliant we are but we can settle for being heard. What’s more, we do our best work and have a good attitude if we know that our leaders have respected our point of view. This is why it is an important skill to develop.

For those of you who struggle with easy, productive dialogues, think about the person across from you as a storybook. There are interesting story lines, unexpected plot twists, nuanced descriptions and new chapters all waiting for you. You ask a question and hear part of the story. That makes you curious to know what happens next or what new idea or character enters the scenario. Or you hear a passage that makes you sit and think or evokes some emotional response. Although we don’t interact with a book, learning about someone else can be as reflective as reading.

Many of us are reactive rather than reflective in our conversations. That causes quick, often short sighted, responses that creates tension. Listening has stopped. Respect may not be felt. Withdrawal or aggression may ensue. Conversation has turned into combat.

But if you think of dialogue as learning the story of someone else, you can shift away from how awkward you feel. When we read, we want to know what is going to happen next. When we listen to someone else, we can ask questions to learn more. We don’t have to think as much about responding in a smart and clever way. Instead we can think about reading the next chapter.

Being adept at authentic conversation is a critical leadership skill. Creating space and dignity for others to tell their stories, to share their ideas and to feel respectfully heard is essential in developing a healthy organization. If you have received feedback that you don’t do this well, see if you can think of people as interesting novels that you are dying to read.

 

 

 

 

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

Monologues and Dialogues

Pop quiz. Which would you rather….

  • Sit in an hour long meeting just listening or speaking up when you have something to say?
  • Being told by your boss how you are performing or having a conversation about how things are going?
  • Work on a team with a leader who doles out directives or contributing to the planning and shaping of the project?
  • Attend a conference where you soak up the expert’s wisdom or having a chance to ask her questions?

Chances are you would rather be more engaged but you still appreciate taking in information too. If you scored yourself “it depends” then you see this as situational. Good answer. But I guarantee that most of us spend way too much time on the receiving end of a monologue that we are desperate to shut off. “Make it stop” is what we are screaming in our heads. Politeness is what we display. After all, we still want a job when this person comes up for air.

Set aside the experts we love to listen to for a TED talk. Think about daily work situations. Remember a time (probably 5 minutes ago) when someone dominated a conversation; s/he cut others off, talked over people, didn’t ask a single question, displayed arrogance or aggression. What did you make of this behavior? This person is insecure, loves a good fight, has no emotional intelligence, needs to be the smartest person in the room, needs to show you that s/he is the authority on the topic, is just a royal pain in the ass? It doesn’t actually matter which of these conclusions are true. It is more about the lasting impression this person leaves. We will ascribe all kinds of crazy to him/her. And we will try to minimize our time with him/her. The reason: grown-ups and professionals do not appreciate monologues when dialogue would be so much more effective.

Monologues have the impact of cutting off conversation. Almost all work is more dynamic and productive when there is dialogue; the back and forth exchange of ideas and questions to arrive in new spaces that weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. Monologues don’t go anywhere. The language tends to be “I this” and “you need to that”. It is experienced as condescending and frustrating. When you try to interrupt the lecture with questions or different opinions, you quickly realize this is fruitless or painful. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or the person not even acknowledging that you have spoken.

People who see themselves as The Expert or The Smart One favor monologues. What could we lowly knuckleheads offer? Of course, this masks insecurities and comes off with loads of arrogance. Sadly, they don’t appreciate that most of us know that the smartest among us never have to broadcast it.

Some people prefer to be constantly in charge and in control of the environment; further signs of psychological vulnerabilities. This presents a dilemma for everyone else who is hungry for collaboration and shared responsibilities.

The bottom line for those who are more comfortable delivering monologues and cutting off all conversation is that they have low tolerance for being challenged. They fear being diminished or stupid or unable to respond to a new thought. Their anxieties loom larger than any likely reality so their behavior persists. It’s a shame, really.

The ability to engage in a lively dialogue can be the envy of these one-way communicators. A good leader asks questions, is curious about others and their ideas, enjoys riffing and generally finds other people interesting. They have a ton of experience that indicates that conversations and debates yield better solutions, ideas and outcomes. They also know that professionals are more satisfied under these circumstances.

If you are someone who struggles with dialogues, get some help. Engage a coach or mentor who can teach you some of these skills. If you sense that this is a life-long pattern that taps some deeper sore spots, get a therapist. Chances are your friends and family don’t enjoy this behavior any more than your colleagues do. Something is holding you back from truly connecting with others. Figure out what that is and fix it. Work (and life!) will be so much richer and more fulfilling if you do.

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