Enhancing the Old

At the beginning of every new year we read about how people should and do make resolutions that they will try to fulfill in the coming year. Usually noble ones, such as losing weight, eating healthier, exercising more, and so on. Then we turn the page and there are tons of comments telling us that we all make new year resolutions, but we are going to fail. Thanks for the encouragement!

Maybe we “fail” (and that is such a downer to use that word) because we are unrealistic to begin with. I want to frame this by introducing a couple of different perspectives about new year resolutions. The new year is an opportunity to try something new. Let’s keep it connected to what happened in the past, because at the end of every year we are encouraged to reflect back on the year and to note our accomplishments, as well as, what we would like to change. We need to carry these accomplishments into the new year with us and not leave them as a noted accomplishment of the past.

I believe in continual growth and think of it as a spiral. This relates to new year resolutions in that we acknowledge and then build on what we do well, rather than trying to venture out into completely unchartered territory. So if you exercised once a month, what was it that brought you to that point of exercising? What was the motivation? What was the support? What was the challenge? Capture that, learn from it, magnify it and apply it so that now you exercise once a week. In other words, our new goals need a link to our past accomplishments and we can make this a reality by building on what we do well. We need that right amount of support and challenge, so that we experience change and growth without the panic that sometimes accompanies it. After all, aren’t we trying to set ourselves up for success?

It is the accumulation of small incremental successes that makes stable change. And don’t forget to congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Alternative Narratives

I was watching Bill Maher interview Maajid Nawaz the other day and was very impressed with the Quilliam Foundation he and others had founded. I will probably not do justice to the interesting and necessary work they are doing, but in essence, they are creating counter narratives to the narrative of extreme Islamism so prevalent in the world today. What resonated with me was that they recognized that directly attacking or criticizing Islamism, was not productive and in fact, echoed the communication and behavior they did not want to emulate. Instead of taking a critical approach and chastising followers, they are creating alternatives, so that people have choices away from extremism. Instead of pushing against Islamism and developing more resistance, they are leaving it where it is and building something new.

In many situations, we know that our current state of affairs may not be satisfactory and when alternatives are presented to us we want to take the alternative even if it brings with it a whole host of other difficulties. We know the suffering we have now and so we escape into this meta-narrative that promises us relief. This does not develop or generate agency in us to make critical choices about our lives. Creating alternative narratives allows us opportunities to exercise our thinking muscles and provides ways to enhance our self-esteem, as we take more control of our destinies with viable options.

Alternative narratives allow us the opportunity to make a different type of social world within which to live. We can recreate our identities as we let go of the qualifiers that spiral us down into further despair and instead, we can identify those critical moments that provide us the choices to take different paths that spiral us upwards into a more hopeful and generative space. The support of a network of others in the same struggle allows for strength in community.

Public/Private Discourse

There are comments we make in private that differ from the comments we make in public. Some of these private comments might be “off the record,” yet we know that depending on who hears these comments they may be leaked and end up being public and not so off the record. We may strategically position these comments to have other people make them for us because we feel we cannot make them on our own for a variety of reasons. When we have public discourse we are inviting the public in to participate and this leads to the dialogue potentially being co-opted.

In the 1990s there was an increase in violence concerning the polarizing issue of abortion. The Public Conversations Project facilitated a dialogue between leaders of both sides of the issue, held in private for five years. These were held “off the record” because the parties were so dissatisfied with the tone of public discourse on the matter and because they did not want their comments and initiative co-opted, they met in private to hear the other side. They were able to successfully increase their mutual understanding.

In 2008 (Conflict Resolution Quarterly) we conducted a study interviewing 17 dialogue and deliberation practitioners who worked in conflict situations, asking them two questions: how do you bring parties to the table and how do you sustain their involvement? One of the findings was that they had to strategically consider how public or private the conversations should be because that would impact how successful these interventions would be.

Today in Washington, DC, the U.S. government has come to a stand still because representatives of the people cannot seem to have a public dialogue that is collaborative. They cannot seem to have a civil conversation about what is in the best interests of all parties so that they can work together to resolve the presenting and underlying issues. In Japanese there is tatemae and honne that guides what is disclosed and how. Tatemae is the public face of what we say because it is the appropriate thing to say as it saves face and does not compromise either person. Honne is what we really feel that are either not stated aloud or said behind closed doors, off the record.

I really hope there are better quality conversations taking place behind closed doors, off the record, in Washington because the public discourse is embarrassingly scary. Let’s get some real honne taking place so we can get past this debacle of presenting the tatemae of what we think our constituents want. Our elected officials need to be the mature, responsible folk we voted into office.

What We Notice

At the beginning of a project or intervention, we should ideally have a plan about what we will be doing, how we will be doing it, who we will involve and what goals we will try to reach. This may seem very logical, have a rational flow to it and make sense. However, in practice it is not such a straight line.

As we are experiencing the day-to-day developments, the details of our interactions and the nuances of the ups and downs in our communication, it may seem messy and disorganized. It is easy to lose sight of the original goals and our intentions when we first started. This is when it is critical to take a moment to step back to reassess our original plans. It is important for several reasons.

One reason is that new information may become available to us that may cause us to alter our original plans. This can be a minor shift, a change in a sequence or timing, or a radical shift to creating new goals and abandoning our original plan.

Another reason may be that we just need reminding of our original intentions as we get caught up in the mayhem and minutiae of day-to-day events. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when we are focusing on each turn in a conversation.

One example that may further illustrate these points is a project that I have been involved in for about 16 months. We had a plan to start with and that included a needs assessment up front to jointly determine the focus of the project and the necessary steps to take to complete it. This in itself was challenging because some people involved wanted more clarity up front and it was difficult to reach that point of comprehension until more information was obtained. This is somewhat of a Catch 22 as information needs to be gathered before clarity can be arrived at and this information cannot be obtained until a direction requiring clarity has been set.

After 16 months of a winding road, the first seven months being very confusing to live through, I can see the path and the rewarding development of relationships. The project we are working on with a diverse community is proving to be more enriching than I could have expressed at the beginning. I knew it could be good if we were able to survive certain turns in the development of our coming together to work effectively with one another. I did not know the details of which ways it could be good.

I like to think of the progression as moving in a forward spiral direction. A key ingredient in being able to stay with the flow and see it through to completion is trusting in the process and the people. I think we need to believe that if we stay focused and at the same time open to new possibilities, in addition to, elevating our relationships to priority status, we can move forward in this spiral trajectory. I noticed that we developed fondness for each other through appreciating who we are for what we are. While sounding like a cliché, if we are really open and trusting it can become a reality.

Complexity of Relationships

I was recently noticing how complex and layered relationships are, both personal and professional. I was also feeling grateful that since I have been learning and reflecting on this complexity for most of my adult life I have been privileged to encounter practices that enable me to live into this complexity with the possibility of more constructive outcomes.

In general, I believe that people want to do well, want to be in productive relationships and most of the time are doing the best they can, even if it does not feel that way when interacting with them. Workplaces can be difficult environments and unfortunately they do not always bring out the best in us. In my experience in working in organizations, in consulting to organizations and in coaching people working in organizations, there are situations that emerge in which we may not feel appreciated, we become territorial and are more defensive and protective, rather than open, trusting and collaborative. This is an unfortunate development because when we feel threatened we build walls around us and do everything we can to not feel vulnerable. I believe we need a degree of vulnerability to learn and grow individually and together.

Collaboration requires an element of trust and belief in us and in others. We need to trust that we will rise to the occasion and that others will, as well. The more we trust ourselves and each other and live into our relationships in trusting ways, the better the quality of these relationships and the more rewarding the outcomes. We have choices along the way and these are what can be considered critical moments. They are fateful in that they determine the quality of subsequent interactions. I can live into a relationship being focused only on that moment and not caring or paying attention to what happens after thinking I will deal with it when it comes. However, if I do not live into the moment in a constructive and trusting manner, I will be repairing the damage I caused by not considering “what happens next.”

The recognition that we have choices in the actions we take, how we communicate and how we behave is liberating, scary and a burden all at the same time. This sense of agency means we have some influence and control over our lives and our relationships, so why not take it?

Interrupting Communication Patterns

Have you ever been in a situation where there are words coming out of your mouth in response to something someone has said or done, and even as these words are coming out you are thinking, “Noooooooo, don’t go there?” The words keep coming out though even if it seems  to be in slow motion and there is nothing you can do to retract them. You know from past experience that these words will not help your cause, will not get you your desired results, yet you say them anyway. Why do we do this over and over again?

One reason could be that we do not realize we are stuck in a rut or “unwanted repetitive pattern” (URP) of communication. On some level we think that if we say the same thing just this one more time that it will magically work when the other hundreds of times did not. If we do manage to have the awareness that this is a pattern, yet it is the only resource we have then we are consciously stuck.

The first step toward resolving this issue is to be aware of it. Developing more self-awareness is critical because we need to be aware of what our goals are in our communication before we can even begin to do something about it. In addition, we need to be more aware of the reactions we are getting from our communication partners and if they are in sync with our desired goals. If they are, then super we are on track. If they are not, then this could generate questions we may ask ourselves or our conversation partners to get more clarity. These may include: I am curious about your reaction because it wasn’t what I anticipated. Could you tell me more about what you are thinking, feeling?

The second step is to learn new ways of responding. Lifelong learning need not be just an aspiration, but rather a part of our everyday lives. There are many ways of improvement from seeking formal instruction, to reading on one’s own, to writing reflective journals to deepen our learning. The learning process can be done solo or with others, depending on your learning preferences.

The third step is to want to make the effort to make these changes. Learning new ways of being in the world only really work if they are applied and done so with good intentions. So, developing new patterns of self-awareness, taking steps to communicate in ways that generate desired responses and building better relationships is something to look forward to in 2013.

Insider, Outsider

When working with groups there are times I am an insider because I am a member of that group, or I am an outsider because I am brought in as a third party facilitator or mediator. There are benefits and challenges to both roles.

As an insider there is a personal investment and so there is a higher emotional charge attached to any actions, interactions or decisions made. There is an in-depth wealth of knowledge from firsthand experience that can enable us to make more informed choices and decisions. At the same time it is more challenging to practice collaborative skills of engagement, such as listening to understand and not respond or refute, empathizing with the other person and being open to other perspectives and points of view.

As an outsider who is called in to work with a group, perhaps facilitating a decision making process, there is less personal investment in what the actual decision is and more a sense of responsibility for creating the space that supports the group in getting to where they need to be. The benefit of being a third party is that we can maintain our focus on the process and not get caught up emotionally in the content. The challenge is that we do not have in-depth knowledge or expertise of the content and we may not have the awareness that the group is off track from the content of what they need to make thoughtful and realistic decisions for action.

As a facilitator I am very conscious of communication and the use of language. I pay attention to the seemingly slight nuances in what people say because every word, tone and mannerism is fateful in influencing the response, the relationship and the social world the conversation partners are co-creating. This becomes increasingly challenging when I work with interpreters because the language of the communication is not my native tongue, English. I am one step removed from being able to focus on the nuances and delayed from the immediacy of experiencing the communication.

Internally, I have had to make peace with this drawback and believe that the value I add is still felt in that I am able to support people in shifting the quality of their interactions and relationships to being more positive and constructive. If I am not able to do that because the language and cultural differences are too great, then I need to have this awareness and step aside so as not to further obstruct the communication and potential relationship building.