Leading From Within

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the statesman

Many powerful people have discussed and described leadership. The hallmarks of leadership include creating a vision, establishing a direction, and demonstrating by example how to pursue the path. As I reflect on those I consider great leaders I think of people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly they were vocal, strong in presenting and pursuing their visions and voicing their passion, most definitely important aspects of leadership. However, they each learned leadership through the crucible of life which honed and prepared them for their mission. They first had to lead from within, so that their integrity shone forth and their personal power established. Without first mastering themselves, and demonstrating leadership of themselves, they would not have had the same power to shape nations.

Imagine spending over 20 years in a prison cell. The courage and the conviction required to abide the appalling conditions Mandela suffered enabled him to emerge as the statesman he is. Gandhi’s did not invent his ideas on nonviolence on a whim but as a result of years of struggle, including imprisonment, and demonstrated conviction to his values. Martin Luther King grew up with a full understanding of oppression, and knew it was dangerous to seek change, but had a vision, a dream, and was willing to back it.

To achieve leadership greatness one must, I strongly believe, lead ourselves first and foremost through and out of our own darkness. All through our life we have built up layer upon layer of programming, training, behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, addictions, emotional responses, social expectations etc. These cover up and detract from our clarity over our life purpose and the values that are core to us. We establish protective mechanisms that keep us safe, maintain security and levels of certainty, but which also rob us of the ability to align with and act in accordance with our core purpose. Cutting through the façades we have built around our soul so we can shine forth in the fullness of who we are is a powerful process and requires deep commitment to self, and personal leadership. Success in this endeavour provides the substance for and basis of our personal power. It enables us to manifest leadership to others because we have triumphed within ourselves.

Fundamentally it is pain and pleasure that motivates us to action. We avoid pain and seek pleasure, with pain taking precedence over pleasure. We grow up with experiences shaping our beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions. We learn who we are and what behaviours are acceptable, and which are not, from our primary care givers. We associate pain with non-conformance, from failure to work within norms and social boundaries. We associate with groups (friends, colleagues, gangs etc) and learn of the rules for reward by these groups. Obedience to norms carries rewards. Breaking from the norms, being odd or different, carries penalty and pain. But a leader cannot work in the norm, as an average person, as part of the group. At some point they must assert themselves, separate from the group, and come into their own space.

Most people start learning this as teenagers, rebelling from parents and choosing another tribe to belong to. They move from one social group to another, establish different patterns and norms, and feel they are closer to being themselves. Later they discover it was their desire to belong that motivated them so they were still being managed by groups. Some never get over this, looking outside themselves to satisfy their need for acceptance and belonging rather than from within themselves.

When pursued further, the maturation process eventually leads us to question who we are, why we are here and what greater purpose we serve. The recognition of our individuality, our uniqueness, and the possibility that we have value enables us to seek within for our gifts. Discovering and being true to who we are becomes important. There is a shift from seeking love and acceptance from outside to a place where we provide that to ourselves, and become less bound to the whims of our “tribal” groups and roots. However there is also pain in this process.

Shifting our focus from outside to inside us requires us to meet and confront all our fears, insecurities, debilitating attitudes and behaviours, and find ways of putting them behind us. Some of us have powerful inner critics that berate us as our parents may have. We hear the piercing criticism from within with greater clarity than the scolding we may have experienced in younger days, which can stop us in our tracks. Whether it is the voice of our inner critic or the rigid walls of protection we have erected over the years, they stop us shining, and to truly emerge we must overcome them. If we stay bound to our insecurities we shun the opportunity to change and to transform ourselves from part of the pack to the leader we can be. If we seek to change ourselves through coercion and internal aggression and anger we have simply substituted the voices of our experience with our own tormentor. We emerge when we have found ourselves to be lovable, acceptable and perfect as we are, and truly believe that. That is not saying we are perfect. Goodness, what is perfection and who can judge that? It is saying that we are entirely acceptable as we are, that we have our own uniqueness based on who we are and what we have experienced, and everything has brought us to this point in life, and all of this is perfect and right as is.

To lead others we must lead ourselves. We must be able and capable of dealing with adversity, the naysayer, and find ways through and out of those difficulties. Our ability to deal with and manage external adversity and opposition is much greater when we have mastered the opposition that comes from within us. Our ability to lead with clarity and conviction in public is greatest when we have already managed that within ourselves in isolation. Perhaps being in prison for 20+ years is something that could benefit everyone. Certainly it provides time to reflect, see ourselves more clearly and deal with our personal demons. However not all of us need to change whole nations. We have good we can accomplish by remaining engaged in the world, but the battle within is just as real. A growing number of people are learning the benefits of meditation, yoga etc for stress relief. Some find it painful because they slow down a little and start to see themselves more clearly, and find things they judge as unacceptable or wrong with them. If we wish to lead others effectively then we must have already learned to lead from within. We must have confronted ourselves and been victorious in engaging with and being comfortable in the presence of our own voices and messages from within. We must have learned about tolerating and working through the issues that surface from our past. We can be hampered by insecurity and doubt or develop a powerful love of ourselves, warts and all. None of us can become entirely free of these things, but we can develop comfort for and appreciation of the fog we create in our lives, and find ways of charting through them. For as we move through our own internal fog we develop the capacity to lead others through theirs.

I have always found the following an inspiring statement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

The more we connect with ourselves, and manifest the greatness within, the greater our capacity to work through life, deal with issues, and exhibit personal power that will inspire others. If you wish to lead others, then first lead yourself.

Where are you in the process of developing personal power and governing yourself? What barriers have prevented you achieving the success you desire? What behaviours and attitudes diminish your ability to lead others and create change within your organisation? As you learn to lead from within you also gain greater understanding of the issues and barriers faced within organisations and how to work through them.

Make Goals Count

There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!
There is little as exquisite as achieving a stretch goal!

Goals are important to planned success but are often half-heartedly approached or considered prepared when the end state is thought of an in the mind. Few individuals truly set goals in a manner that works. Even among the leadership of organisations and projects there is limited personal skill and success in goal setting. I assert that personal experience in goal setting and goal achievement leads to more effective project and strategic management. The better we are able to manage ourselves in inner leadership the better we can influence and affect positive change and results with others.

To set and achieve goals we need:

  • a sense of purpose that the goals support
  • commitment, discipline and focus; stay with the process through thick and thin
  • empathy and understanding; recognise and acknowledge cause for failures and setback and move forward without being over critical
  • willingness to change attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and our level of comfort
  • resilience; getting up as many times as we fall over
  • the ability to celebrate triumphs and grieve failures
  • to celebrate successes (milestone and final completion)

Goal Achieving Framework

To set and achieve goals it is essential we understand what we value. Energy, passion and commitment are accessible insofar as we align our goals with what really matters to us. Primary motivators in life include affiliation, power and achievement. These can have a significant impact on what we do. They are neutral regarding how we act. They are not at all inspiring. Inspiration comes from our values. They determine why we do things. They also affect the ‘how’ since they set limits on what we consider appropriate behaviour.

Values

Core Values are overarching operating philosophies we maintain regardless of how difficult circumstances may become. We typically have 3 to 5 such values. How clear are you on your core values? Do you know what you are not prepared to give up or relinquish in your quest for success in life? By clarifying our core values, some decisions are much easier to make. When we breach a core value we experience a loss of integrity, associated feelings of shame or guilt, regardless of whether we have identified the value or not.

Forces acting on us during change
Forces acting on us during change

General Values identify the relative significance of circumstances, states and ‘things’ to us at the moment. There are two forms of general value:

  • Pursuit Values: states (e.g. success) or feelings (e.g. happiness) we seek
  • Avoidance Values: states (e.g. depression) or feelings (e.g. anger) we avoid.

General Values are associated with two fundamental drivers behind all human action: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. If an action may result in pleasure and pain of comparable magnitudes, we tend to avoid the pain by not taking action. They may also hold the key for personal conflicts we experience. I remember identifying personal growth and peace as two values I sought. I wanted peace in my life but I never achieved it. When I examined the rules for each ‘value’ my rule for personal growth excluded the possibility of peace as I had defined it. I realised I had to change my rules or my expected state. I did both and now have peace and growth concurrently.

Managing Personal Change

Our goals require us to take action, and action necessitates change. Change unsettles. It has to! It requires us to shift established patterns, beliefs, values, and cultural and behavioural norms. The degree of change determines the impact experienced. Change impacts on us via three sources of pain: breaking attachments, breaching protections and dashing expectations.

Attachments (past) are our connections with established behaviours and relationships. Grief is pain experienced when we lose a family member. The pain associated with breaking a habit can keep us locked in. In a work environment, people have preferred patterns of work, ways they use systems, associates they enjoy working with, and some certainty in the results they can expect. They know what works, what does not, and have comfort through familiarity with where they are. Change these attachments at your peril!

Protections (present) are established to bring us security and certainty. Whether performing routines with known outcomes, acting in habitual ways (even negative behaviours) because we want specific responses from others, or being in a physical environment that is familiar, our ‘protections’ provide security for us. Our belief system can be a special form of protective mechanism. To achieve meaningful goals we often must change self-limiting beliefs. Anything that disrupts our protections becomes a source of discomfort.

Expectations (future) are aspirations that we have for the future. Examples include what our ideal partner is like, financial goals, the outcome of our next performance review, and who will be on our project team. Anything that causes our vision of the future to diminish causes pain. Expectations are attachments to the future.

Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations
Sources of pain: attachments, protections and expectations

Pain is a real turn off from taking action. We have a natural (and reasonable) aversion to pain. Gaining pleasure is the reason we do take action. To be successful we must associate much more pleasure than pain with taking action. We must reduce the pleasure and increase the pain of maintaining the status quo, and increase the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with the desired state. The greater the positive difference between where we want to be and where we are, the better our leverage will be. The leverage we have determines how strongly we take action.

Goal Setting Principles

General principles to apply to increase the chances of success include:

  • Get clear about ‘Why’. Before starting work, get clear and specific about why you want to take action. Establish why it is vital that you succeed, what the change will create for you, and what you will miss out if you do not succeed.
  • Specify what you will do and when. Plan the change. If this is a single step goal then this will include how, otherwise you need to map out milestones and time-frames so you can monitor and assess progress. This enables you to work on achievable chunks while maintaining a bigger picture perspective.
  • Identify who will take action or be otherwise involved. This had better have your name next to it. You are responsible for your results. However, it is also important to identify those you need to consult and involve.
  • Define ‘how’ each step will be accomplished. Get specific. The more clearly you define the tasks/steps, the better you are able to identify problems up front and ensure things are happening during execution.
  • Assess pleasure and pain of taking action. This equates to risk management at a personal level. Identify the forces operating for and against change. Consider approaches that enhance the pleasure and reduce the pain associated with achieving the goal.

Write down the goals and the plan for achieving them. This ensures the goals are not whimsical. The planning process helps internalise goals. Passion, energy and creativity is then accessible. Overwhelm the pain that prevents action with the pleasure associated with successfully accomplishing your goals.

If you are working on relationship goals the process of working with your partner and getting specific about what you seek and how you will accomplish it brings the energy and commitment of two people more clearly to bear, with fewer assumptions and miscommunications causing havoc and upsetting the process. Getting clear about what pain and pleasure is associated with the change will place you in a better position to support each other through the individual struggles you will experience.

When working with others to achieve goals (e.g. on projects) remember you need:

  • clarity about intent, purpose and process
  • vigilance to uncover sources of resistance
  • creativity and empathy to find workable solutions to assist people (your own self when pursuing individual goals) past the resistance
  • communication (2-way) so that understanding and clarity can be developed and maintained
  • celebration to applaud success

Conclusion

The concepts are easy. The practice is not so easy. If you associate pleasure with planning and goals setting, it may become a powerful ally in your life. Overcome the resistance that impedes change. Decide to make your time on this planet count. These principles apply to relationships, projects and organisations so any success at the personal level supports you in other environments.

I challenge you to:

  • Get clear about what you want to achieve and why
  • Create leverage around the reasons for change
  • Get on with it
  • Take up my offer of a free coaching session to get started

Ouch! That Hurt!

Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!
Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!

It amazes me sometimes the things that are said and done by people, supposedly for the help and benefit of others, but which are frankly rude, hurtful and/or damaging. I have recently been a witness to a very unpleasant exchange that has arisen between two “friends” and it is a stark reminder that intentions, motivations, values and perspectives can be very different and play a powerful role in our communications with others. In an exchange of emails one of the participants sought to take a rational path, clarifying perspective by stating their intentions, explaining their motivations, and seeking open dialogue to work through any misunderstanding. Everything was written from an “I feel…” or “My intention was…” perspective. The response was condemning and written as “It is obvious you felt…”, “I know your intentions were…” and fascinatingly accused the first person of being aggressive. I was involved as a coach to the first person, in this instance not to help the relationship but to work through the issues and achieve some positive personal outcome for the hurting individual.

Communications with others is full of opportunity for misunderstanding. In entering a dialogue with others we bring a wealth of personal experience, cultural and personal values, aspirations and intentions, and personality styles. We may be quiet and aloof, bold and brash, warm and welcoming, or any number of other possibilities. And then there is how we view the other and what they have to offer a given situation. Even on a good day, when we put real thought and effort into what we are communicating, and in thinking through how best to present our message, there are misfires, and there can be major breakdowns and misunderstandings. If we fire off messages in an emotional frenzy the likelihood of a positive outcome is LOW.

Relevant to the example I introduced, some principles in communicating that can help create a positive outcome are:

Choose the appropriate medium for your communication. Is it appropriate? Will it maximise your chances of sending a clear, unconfused message that will be understood by the recipients. Do not fall into the trap of believing that sending a clear message means it will be understood. Breakdowns in communication can and do occur with the sender and/or the receiver at any given time.

When communicating the message we send is conveyed 55% non-verbally (i.e. through body language), 38% vocally (e.g. our tone and where we place emphasis) and 7% through the words we use. How many of us resort to using email as our primary means for communicating? We have already reduced our bandwidth for information to 7% of what is possible, assuming we send the perfect message. If you consider the TXTing mentality that is now so prevalent, with its encrypted messages, short forms that are not equally understood, and lack of punctuation, the ability to communicate can only be reduced further still.

If what you need to convey is important or there are sensitive issues or emotional issues around the content, carefully consider a face-to-face meeting which maximises the possibility for understanding, or a phone call that at least maintains verbal content as well as the words.

We live in an information age AND we are really appalling communicators. Don’t let technology lull you into a false sense of comfort about the message you are sending or that the recipients are receiving. What you send as a message IS NOT necessarily what they receive!

Neutralise Emotion – internally and expressed. When hurt or angry, walk away and wait a day to respond, if possible (not so easy in a face-to-face situation, but still may be a valid option). As a minimum, take a deep breath, find your own centre of balance and consciously choose the outcome you want from a message you are sending before speaking or writing.

Own your own feelings and express them as “I feel…” There is no condemnation of the other person if you own your feelings and express them as yours. Of course if you state they made you feel something you are hitting a difficulty. Remember: no one else can make you feel anything. You choose your feelings. The choosing may not be obvious but it is true. For example, someone hits you. How do you feel? It depends. If the person is or has a history of aggression towards you, says “I hate you” and punches you in the face the result may be anger. If a person is thrashing around on the floor in an epileptic fit and in the throes of their fit their fist hits you in the face, you may feel startled, possibly some compassion, but are less likely to feel angry. Circumstance, perspective and values contribute to the feelings you experience. They are your feelings. No one else made you feel them. Something happened. You interpreted the situation. A signal was generated from your brain and a feeling experienced. By owning your feelings you have a choice of changing them and of harnessing them to enhance your personal power.

Assign your own importance to feedback received. Most of us want others to be happy with us. We learn from the moment we are born that if we please others we are more likely to get what we want, or at least have a better experience of life. When we learn that someone is displeased with us the reaction can be pronounced as we struggle with our apparent failing. From this perspective we place a high value on negative feedback, and often overlook and quickly dismiss the positive.

An important phase of personal growth is when we shift our measures of success as a person internally and base it on our intentions, our motivations, the values we hold and outcomes we sought, and less on what others say to and about us, negative or positive. With a solid internal touchstone, we can receive external assessments of who we are, how we are viewed and judged, and compare them against our own assessment. Consider there may be truth in anything we receive, but not necessarily, and do not accept negative (or even positive) feedback simply because it has been given.

Feedback can be provided for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • to offer constructive critique
  • to create motivation to change
  • to unsettle and create opportunity for a victory
  • to be spiteful and deliberately hurtful.

Just because feedback has been given by someone does not mean you have to receive it. Positive feedback from someone greasing your palms because they want something is of less value than honest negative feedback from any source. When we are still caught in the need for external approval we like to be surrounded by those who shower us with adoration and struggle when negative comments are made. We may feel devastated when false accusations or assaults on our character are made. As we internalise the touchstone for personal assessment, and we base approval on our values etc, feedback from others becomes information to receive, consider, discard or keep and use as appropriate. I have learned that my integrity does not always need defending. I used to vociferously defend any accusation made against me, felt terrible that someone could consider I was “bad”, and then one day an acquaintance said, “Why do you need to defend your integrity?” Wow! That took me back. I realised that I did out of a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self-esteem. Sometimes integrity does need defending. That is what positive use of anger is all about, but sometimes it is enough to know I am integral and in knowing that the other person has no power over me in that instance.

Next time you receive a message, verbal, written or TXTed that inflames you:

  • Consider what result you want from your response
  • Neutralise your emotion in forming and sending the response
  • Consciously determine the merits and significance of any personal feedback received. Keep the worthwhile and discard the dross.

In all circumstances, consider meeting face-to-face or at least picking up a phone rather than relying only on such ineffective communications media as email or TXTing.

May all your communications be fog free! These are some ways of creating and maintaining clarity in communications with the people you interact with.

Do The Impossible

While sitting in a project kick-off meeting I listened to a senior manager introduce a new project. He set the scene by telling us that we had 10 weeks to accomplish the project, that he wanted a premium result, and that any deviation from the perfect solution must be detailed in papers that explained the reasons for failure to deliver the outstanding result. It was the integration of a supplier’s system with their own. This had only just been completed with another supplier who had a more advanced environment, and it had taken 18 months. The team were clear that what was being asked was not possible. The manager was clearly ignorant of how the system and business operated, and arrogant enough to believe that saying it must be so was sufficient. It was an unhealthy way to commence a project. The team did achieve significant outcomes because of lessons learned from the previous experience, but by no means the ‘perfect solution’, and these were driven by the team’s own interest in realising the best result possible, and not this manager’s erroneous pep-talk.

While the above story is based on a particular event, it is not unique. All too often project teams are placed in situations where they swallow the bitter pill of stressful time-frames, unrealistic expectations, and unnecessary pressure. They judge their management as out of touch with the reality of their organisation and as having failed to take early action in what was an obvious, prudent and timely fashion, and who then speak platitudes in an attempt to solve their own ineptitude. From the outset of such projects there is already an environment of distrust, conflict and blame which undermines the natural desire and motivation of people to perform their work in a satisfactory and fulfilling manner. Compare this “normal but unsatisfactory” environment with the following experience.

2007 ‘The Archetypes’ Oxfam Trailwalker team successfully finished

In March 2007 I did the impossible, or so I had been told by a number of people who knew me, successfully walking 100km (62 miles) in 25 hours 4 minutes as part of the Oxfam Trailwalker Challenge. For years (at least 20 years) I was a desk potato. I sat behind my desk, worked on my computer, and “prided” myself in having a body that mostly did what I needed without any maintenance. Over time its capacity diminished due to my lack of fitness apparent through tiredness, shortness of breath, and unresponsive, easily injured muscles.

Six months earlier I first heard of the Challenge. Within 60 seconds I had volunteered myself on to the four person team. I was more than surprised at my decision. Something unfamiliar within me took over. Time for a change.

I was part of an endeavour with others relying on me. Though a team event it was not a relay. We all had to complete the entire distance together, and I was the weakest link. My team mates included a marathon runner, an actively competing cyclist, and a mountaineer. On electing to participate one of them made the comment: “You know your own body.” Never a falser word spoken. I had no clue about my body, but something had called me and I felt compelled to answer.

My busy schedule, always too full previously for exercise, suddenly changed. Training was undertaken. I struggled with 3–5 kilometre walks, pulling muscles on a regular basis. Anger and frustration were common feelings. My body did not perform as I demanded. It rebelled. Then I started to listen to it, dialogue opened up, and I sought outside advice. New shoes were tried. I defined regular training routes, distance goals, and I partnered with my body so we better supported each other. After a month I walked over 10km and I felt totally wiped out by the effort.

At just under three months, the week of Christmas, I achieved a goal of exceeding 70 km within one week, including a 20km walk. A month later I walked a marathon. Serious pronation required specialist shoes. Blisters halfway through a 40km walk took 4 weeks to heal – wrong specialist shoes. My knees gave out under the strain of carrying me the distances being asked. However, I got to the event with the issues resolved and in the best shape I had been in since I was a teenager. As a team we ran over the finish line together. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

What got me through? Irrational belief in myself, determination and commitment, and an incredibly supportive team. I am sure there were times when they felt major concern about the overall success of the team because everything that could go wrong for me with my body seemed to. My result would impact them, yet they persisted, worked with me, encouraged me, and at the end of the event we did cross the line together.

It was a potent experience. I did achieve what health professionals and others had said I could not do in the time I had available. The event was not easy. It did pose its challenges, but I always knew I would succeed, and fortunately did not have to deal with lessons associated with failure.

The contrast between the unfortunately common project environment and my experience in the 100km walk is quite stark from which I draw the following. The “impossible” can be achieved when you foster within yourself and your team:

  • Unreasonable belief in your capacity to succeed
  • Desire and intention focused on the outcome
  • Commitment, dedication and the intelligent application of hard work
  • A great support network
  • Ownership and responsibility individually for actions and collectively for results
  • A genuine possibility that success is possible even if it does require extraordinary effort
  • Resilience to setbacks; they become failure when we succumb
  • Inspiration and motivation based on genuine desires, interests and beliefs shared by participants

So what seemingly impossible endeavour or insurmountable problem are you engaged in or going to be?

  • What resources can you draw upon (people, knowledge, techniques, tools) that can make a positive difference?
  • What negative elements can you offload so they do not hold you back?
  • How can you communicate objectives, seek commitment and garner support that builds on and extends a shared concept of success, value and possibility across the stakeholders?

Success comes from knowing what you want, committing to it, and always getting back up. Getting back up is motivated by finding reason to. A leader builds ownership of the reason among their team and stakeholders. Together the impossible may become possible. Personally and with your team, make a commitment, honour the commitment, and DO IT. Do something impossible.

What is Your Social Footprint?

Footprint in the sand
What is your social footprint?

Yesterday while enjoying coffee by a beach, my wife and I watched an enjoyable series of related social interactions. A grandfather and two young granddaughters (or so they appeared to me as an outsider) parked their car and got out. Half the car was blocking an entrance to a parking garage, well over the painted yellow writing “NO PARKING”. The grandfather took no notice of this, getting the girls, no older than 5 or 6, out of the car. As he continued preparing for their day at the beach they started to quiz him about where the car was parked. One even paced out the portion of the car that was in the NO PARKING area and challenged him about it. He finally took on board what they were saying and bundled them back into the backseat of the car, belted them in, and got in the car himself. Just as he was starting his engine, a car across the road in a legitimate car parking space started up and pulled out. Granddad reversed his car back to exit his space when another car came along, indicating it would take the newly vacated park. Granddad had not even indicated he was moving, let alone that he wanted that space, but he put his hands together, as if pleading with the man who had just arrived to take the space. With a smile directed at Granddad the man granted granddad the space and carried on. Granddad and the girls parked in the legitimate spot and then went off happily to play on the beach. Any number of those events could have played out differently. A few examples:

  • Granddad leaves his car in the original, bad parking position and someone is blocked that needs to exit or enter the parking building. Granddad gets towed and possibly fined. Unhappy outcome.
  • Granddad could have argued with the granddaughters that they should respect their elders, ignored them, rather than giving them an experience of their own legitimacy, and the beach could have been a less than happy experience. The girls clearly liked their granddad. It was great that they could reason with him and have him take on board what they clearly identified as a problem. Granddad added a lot of value to his granddaughter’s self-concept.
  • The man in the car, with legitimate right to claim the car space, could have. That would be a neutral result for him, parking and knowing he was justified, but instead he made someone else’s day. He added a lot of value in that moment to granddad and the girls with some inconvenience to himself.

Counter that with a story my wife then told me, having watched this episode, of how she was waiting to turn into a car parking space a few days ago, paused and indicating to allow the exiting car the time and space it needed to reverse out. Once the car was out and before she could move in, a man sped into the space, stealing it from her. From an ego perspective he may feel he won the space, battled for or stole it, perhaps feeling smug with himself. It reminds me of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” While not in the same league as the experiences of Nelson Mandela, stealing a car space is to be aggressive, to invade another’s space, to rob them of what is theirs, to withhold one’s own compassion, and to diminish humanity in that moment.

In every moment where we interact with another human being we leave our social footprint. Does yours add value, or does it leave a polluted mark on this planet. There is enormous concern and attention placed on ecological footprints, and we often hear that as individuals we cannot make a difference. It’s a global problem. The social footprint you leave is entirely up to you and the choices you make and the actions you take in the moment with another being. Do you pollute or improve this planet by being here? Do you recognise the impact you have on others? Do you choose to improve the experience of those around you? Are you so focused on yourself and what you want that you fail to miss precious moments of value adding opportunity with another being? If we were to check your social ledger, would your social footprint show you as reducing the net value of social interactions or of positively contributing? Do you experience compassion towards others or do you remain isolated and attentive to your own world alone? Each moment with another is an opportunity to, through even the smallest of choices, make a positive contribution to your life’s social footprint.

Celebrating Relationship

Couple in relationship
Being in relationship

Being in deep relationship with others trumps any other approach to learning about ourselves. We may take a journey into ourselves through solitude, meditation, and a myriad other ways to get better acquainted with ourselves, and raise our consciousness and awareness of what makes us tick. At times we may need space and time to disentangle from the complexities and crossed messages that play out when in relationship with others. However nothing beats relationship for creating an environment that enables growth.

I have enjoyed solitude, going on silent retreats and developing awareness of my inner world. None of that comes close to the pressure cooker of being in relationship with another human being and learning while in process. I manage that in small doses, then claim some space for myself before reengaging.

Also, I am not suggesting all relationships are positive. Some are diabolical, or at least damaging, and that we allow them to persist suggests lessons of self-worth and of ending abuse we have yet to learn.

As a young person I felt awkward and uncomfortable with myself, and even more so with and around others. Key messages from my internal critic were that I was inadequate and unworthy, and no one would want to know me. No wonder I felt awkward. Those messages still play though with less intensity. They interfere with engaging smoothly and easily. I watch others who seem to flitter easily into and out of connection with others, and sometimes I feel jealous. I wish it was that easy for me.

However, I have learnt how to be with others, some others, in a deep, intimate and very real way. This includes recognising that:

  • a relationship comprises three primary entities: them, me and the in between.
  • deepening a relationship requires me to share something of myself. As I am more vulnerable and trusting I invite the other to join me. What they do then is their choice.
  • as a relationship deepens feelings are unleashed from within as past experiences (often unconsciously) manifest as current behaviour. Recognising those feelings are not about this person but are about past wounds can assist the relationship building process, especially if I don’t make the person with me the dumping ground for my past hurts. Staying with those feelings and allowing myself to be seen and held in and through those moments is healing. Dumping them on the other person is damaging for them and the relationship.
  • being with the other person as they struggle in their own experience is a privilege so long as they are not dumping their past on me, making me the target of their pain.
  • Empathy, forgiveness and love are crucial ingredients for moving through hurt between me and the other person.
  • in addition to the three primary entities, a relationship includes all those who have been part of both our lives. Their voices, their shaping of our beliefs, attitudes and perceptions, and how they may have hurt us may manifest in our minds or be reflected in the other person at any moment.
  • Not all relationships are equal. Some people will not respect or positively respond to my vulnerability or genuine attempts at being in relationship. Choosing wisely about when and where and with whom to share myself is important.
  • Being in relationship is a dance. It is not a linear process, going deeper, deeper, and deeper still. Instead, it is learning how to engage with this person in front of me, different from all others. Which steps do we share and that enable us to flow together? Which steps do we struggle with and how do we develop in them? What causes us to step on each other’s toes or to trip and fall? How do we pick ourselves up and start again? When is it appropriate to let go and move away? When do we choose to return and reconnect?

These things I have learned are about being in relationship with anyone, not just an intimate partner. The degree of intimacy (“in to me see”) and engagement can be contextual, but often it is choice.

Being in relationships is not an easy exercise. It can be deeply rewarding. At the end of the day success is, in my mind, defined by how I have engaged with others, and what I have learnt about being more fully and authentically with others. In the process I will have seen aspects of myself previously unconscious, and encountered challenges that require me to dig deep and develop new capacities. By being in meaningful relationship with others we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves more deeply and intensely than any other way I know.

What have you learned about being in relationship with others? What gold have you gleaned from your experiences?

Bubbles of History

Bubbles
Bubbles rising towards the surface

I have noticed that I can be having a really good day and be emotionally hijacked by something from my past arising within me and clouding my experience. It may result in minor negativity or cause total turmoil. It could even be a positive impact. The key point is that my current state is suddenly changed from within, not at all related to my external world. Sometimes the bubbles of emotion come in clusters, really upsetting my equilibrium; other times they occur singly. Each bubble arises with my awareness growing as it nears the surface, and then it reaches the surface and pops. Its contents then become part of my current experience. Like real bubbles that carry gas and scent from the bottom of a lake, the bubbles from within are more intense in their moment of bursting, erupting emotion linked to some past experience into our current world.

At such times I find it best to recognise and acknowledge that I am working with emotion from the past, and process the associated feelings through journalling, talking with my partner, or some other means that enables me to accept and release the emotional eruption. Even positive emotion bursting on the scene needs releasing otherwise we are losing our connection with the present and are being dragged back into the past. The most important thing is realising and accepting it is a natural part of life. The past does reinsert itself from time to time without provocation. It does not signify that we are stuck with an old issue or have some fault with our emotional world. Our psyche naturally lets go of it rubbish, its own cleaning process of our attachments to the past, and when it does we get to deal with it in our current state.