Responding to Change

“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”
“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”

The Western world is in an uproar over the predicted-by-some, yet surprising-to-most, election win by Donald Trump. For me, the event and its aftermath is a fantastic example of what many experience as “unwanted change”, and the behaviours that manifest at such times. This is a fantastic public theatre of what occurs on a smaller, often ignored, scale within organisations undergoing change, planned or unplanned, welcomed by or imposed on the employees. This article highlights some of the more obvious behaviours being exhibited and highlights some considerations that may create a more positive outcome at an individual level.

We have seen significant grass-roots responses to unrecognised needs by those in power in the form of Brexit. Now a surprise (to some) Trump victory. As life giving as change can be, it is not always positive. Enough wars show change can be damaging. Fear is palpable now. For many groups, if Trump seeks to fulfil his intent stated in his campaign speeches, there are real threats to loss of rights and liberty. Some of his early choices suggest he intends honouring, as far as possible, what he promised during his campaign.

Based on some of the more obvious behaviours being demonstrated since the Trump election win, here are some ways people react to change:

  • Polarisation and strengthening of positions: Ardent fighters for and against a change strengthen their positions and fight it out. The fight may be peaceful, or might descend as low as individual human morality allows. There will be a mixture of those aggressively assailing others with a different point of view, whether physically, emotionally or through power over. Others will assert themselves, clearly identifying who they are and what they stand for, without imposing on others. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers’ non-violent protests of British rule is a good example of the latter.
  • Run away and hide: This may be observed as people and groups getting busy with something else, a way of distancing from the pain of loss and occupying themselves with something they have control over. It may be literally exiting the scene, leaving the country, becoming a hermit, or otherwise divorcing self from the challenge of being or staying engaged.
  • Filter reality: Notice how many proponents of each side argue, using only the information (often opinions of others rather than real facts) that supports their view, and ignore anything counter to their position. This also shows when others are accused of falsehood when citing something that is counter to the position held. The media are getting a lot of flak for beating up situations if they merely mention something that doesn’t support promoted views.
  • Normalisation: “Give him a chance”, “Wait and see” and in a practical sense, sitting on one’s hands. Then, almost as in a frozen state of numbness nothing is said or done as ongoing change initiatives bring into reality the worst nightmares of those who voiced fear of the worst. For example,
    • Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right nationalists’ recommended media source, Breitbart News, appointed as Chief Strategist
    • Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency
    • Trump’s own children being put forward for cabinet and advisory roles, and simultaneously running his and their own businesses, with a simple, “You can trust us.” Very basic ethical principles are trampled underfoot, and seems to be widely accepted as okay. Not if anyone else tried it!
  • Disavow any responsibility: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realise this would happen?”, “How could I know?” Or as in Seth Meyer’s case, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when challenged on calling Bannon ‘controversial’, he was unwilling to give an opinion because he had not met the fellow conservative. Seth Meyers, of the Closer Look program, called Meyers on this side-step well when he said, “I’ve never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.” It is as though many are running for cover and refusing to say anything that may impact their future position with the one in charge. They could do with taking Lucy Gennaro McClane’s advice to Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), “You need to grow a bigger set of balls!”

When facing change, we each have choice. We can allow fear to overcome us and react to what is happening from that place. We rely on the fear-based survival reactions fight, flight, freeze and fabricate. Alternatively, we can function from our personal power, and manifest the power-based thrive responses assert, attend, act and authenticate. The former requires little consciousness from us, with our amygdala (or reptilian brain) reacting to threat. The latter requires conscious choice and self-intervention to assure we behave in a manner that is of our choosing. The thrive responses also require that we are clear about and are congruent with our values, not relinquishing them when the going gets a little tougher.

What I experienced as warm, heart-felt and assertive was the plea and invitation offered to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton at the end of their show. The play was themed around freedom,  the constitution and diversity. After the final curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mr Pence, inviting him to listen, and said:

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016 (link)

Debate is as polarised around whether this was appropriate as it is on many other issues related to the election and subsequent events. One of the bigger questions is how to voice disagreement in an environment that seems hostile to any opinion counter to the future Commander-In-Chief.

While I have used very public examples from the follow-on of the Trump election, these behaviours often occur in change situations. The choices you make in response determine your contribution to the outcome. When confronted with change, particularly change you do not welcome, what do you choose to do? Do you voice concerns you hold? Do you assert what matters to you? Do you shrink away and leave it to others to work through? Do you get overwhelmed and find it all too much, unable to find anything you can constructively do? Do you look for what you can do, stay engaged and take some action? Do you blame others for what has happened? Do you act from a place of personal responsibility and ownership and attempt to help shape next steps?

Balance and Transition

Young Indian Ropewalker
Specialist balance and transition skills

It is common for people to say they want to be “grounded”, “centred”, “balanced”, “to find their equilibrium”, or “sink roots into the ground”, or “gain stability”. These are natural and important to maintaining a sense of self, though the degree of need differs from one person to the next. They also suggest movement and a desire to achieve a degree of stillness. In today’s rapid and dynamic environment, “balance” (the word I will use to summarise the ideas above) may be fleeting.

Balance is a capability we can learn and develop. As babies, we developed strength in our bodies to support ourselves, to shift from a prone position through crawling on all fours to walking on two legs. We also had to master balance. Balance is first learned in a still state, and then learned in conjunction with movement. A toddler clings to a door frame or a piece of furniture, developing their vestibular, visual, and skeletal and muscular systems awareness and capacity to hold themselves still and to balance. They take their first step. It is a whole new learning to reclaim balance after a step. It is true for us as we face transition. Transition requires us to relinquish balance, shift state, and then reclaim balance. Balance is not referring only to the physical sense of balance. It includes the balance we carry within our being in our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects.

This process became vividly apparent to me two and a half years ago when I had surgery that cost me my right acoustic or vestibulocochlear nerve (losing hearing and balance capabilities of my right ear). After surgery, sitting up was a challenge. Over a few days I learned to sit up, stand up and walk around the ward with assistance. I then learned to walk on flat, hard surfaces, then flat grass, then sand, then uphill. My brain had to relearn how to balance because a significant portion of the information system it had relied on was gone. All that was with my eyes open. Shutting my eyes was both comical and frustrating. Initially, standing still and shutting my eyes saw me immediately fall. Over time this shifted to falling almost immediately, and then to ‘after a little while’. The visual system is a significant element of the capacity to balance. Lots of training later my capacity to physically balance is vastly improved, yet it is immediately and significantly impaired if one of the main remaining components of the system are disrupted (e.g. tired, blurred vision).

Some people are highly adept at regaining their balance as they hop from one place to another. Others need more time between steps to settle their sense of balance. As it is with our physical balance, so it is with our emotional, mental and spiritual senses of balance. Where balance in those areas are desired, these capabilities and skills can be developed. Once we develop balance-enabling skills we can then integrate them within our active life. For example, learning meditation and mindfulness practices can support emotional, mental, and spiritual balance. First learned as an independent skill, we can then choose how and to what degree we integrate them into daily life. Exercise, healthy eating, reframing perspectives on situations we face, and shifting our attitudes and beliefs that are not working for us are other examples of creating or finding space within ourselves even while facing change. They can help restore or strengthen our sense of balance. There is no single recipe for all. We each have our own needs around, and preferred approaches to restoring, balance. Whatever we choose to use, it is a conscious intervention into a hectic life. One of the toughest lessons with fast paced change is that slowing down within, and providing space for self, provides greater energy, focus and capacity to address the external world with greater effectiveness.

When I work as a coach with people in transition, part of what I bring is the recognition that the state of your inner world does contribute to your power and productivity in the outer world, and that balance and transition are immutably connected. The “balance” between balance and transition varies from one person to the next, yet it still features. How important is a sense of balance in your life? What constitutes balance for you? Do you experience a sense of disconnection from “being in balance”? How do you restore yourself at such times? Another way of restoring balance can be through coaching. Is working with and through transition important to you? How about giving coaching a trial? You are invited to have a free coaching session with me so you can experience coaching and determine if I am the right coach for you.

Pause Your Judgement and Notice the Beauty

Steam locomotive
A beautiful example of a steam locomotive

I had a wonderful experience the other day that reminded me of my own biases and judgements. I got to see them clearly, and the beauty that exists in those I might judge. I was richer for the increased awareness.

I caught the train into Wellington city and one of the conductors collecting tickets walked along and clicked each ticket and said in a very robotic, short, sharp fashion, “Thank you.” He was stern looking and seemed quite stiff in his body. Click. “Thank you”. Click. “Thank you.” Click. “Thank you.” My judgement: he was bored to tears and going through a learned process or routine. Then magic happened. He finished the ticketing process and stopped to chat with a small group. His whole being softened. His face lit up. He changed roles and was instantly a bright, engaging, excited and friendly character. In that moment, for me, he shifted from being alien and difficult to fathom to a beautiful and vibrant human being. I got to see the problem with my own biases and judgements.

Judgement is a very natural survival- and fear-based process that occurs within milliseconds of meeting anyone. It enables us to simplify the complexity of life and make decisions quickly. It was massively helpful when walking around a corner and meeting a sabre toothed tiger or a mammoth, or a strange cave person. It does help us now as well. Is this a hostile or a friendly audience? Is my customer pleased to see me, irritated, or angry? Judgement is natural and essential. It is not always accurate. Some of our judgements are biases we have learned, as children from our parents or from our own experiences. Often they are very contextual and then get applied generally. They limit our openness to others, particularly those we judge as different.

A friend of mine, who has some clear understanding of some of his biases, was taking his daughter to choose a new school. In meeting with the principal, he heard, paraphrased, “We are largely a white school”. His response: “I may be a racist but that doesn’t mean my daughter has to be.” They went looking for a different school.

Research highlights that diversity in our teams and organisations creates an environment where we get better solutions and results. The varied opinions, experiences, thinking processes, however annoying we may find them from time to time, create variation that challenges and improves the outcomes.

I remember an organisation that decided project managers must be Myers-Briggs ENTJ. Any other type was excluded from being a project manager. Their projects all had a common look and feel, and failed to respond to variation in a similar fashion. It is difficult to learn from others when those others are the same as you. In a different organisation I had consulted with them for several months, and had worked with the manager in a different context for several years. Then, because he was considering offering me a permanent role, he had me psychometrically assessed. I did well in all the cognitive and behavioural aspects, but he turned me down for the role because, in his opinion my Myers-Briggs suggested I was a business analyst, not a project manager. That was a thoroughly unscientific judgement based on his own misuse of the tool. This was in spite of him having observed me as a successful project manager in a variety of different contexts over the years we had known each other.

What challenges are you aware of in building diversity and inclusion in your teams and organisations? What benefits have you noticed? What judgements get in your way? Do you surround yourself with those you feel comfortable with or do you actively engage with those who are different from you, who may challenge your ideas? What value is lost when there is a push for sameness rather than diversity?

Trust: Essential for High-Performing Teams

"High"-Performing Team
“High”-Performing aerobatics team working in unison

Whether strategic, project-based or operational in nature, organisations want high-performing teams. Why? High-performing teams are recognised for the quality and quantity of work, and their capacity to solve problems and create solutions that are not tenable to a lesser team. With several decades of experience in team settings, I can count on one hand, without repeating the use of fingers, the number of teams I have been part of that were truly high-performing.

My absolute favourite team was a short-duration team of 4 of us brought together for a very specific purpose. None of us had worked together before, or even known each other. For the six weeks we were together we spent most of our waking time together. We were in Twizel, highly remote back in the 90’s, and effectively we only had each other. We were individually and collectively committed to success. We worked tirelessly on our individual tasks. We collaborated whenever we dealt with interfaces or one of us had struck a problem that was anything more than routine. We had rich conversations about problems and possibilities, potential solutions and validating client expectations against our deliverables. As the project manager, I managed the work, not the team. Other than attending to issues and concerns as they arose, team management was not needed. In the context of what we were doing, I was an equal member of the team to everyone else, with my ‘technical role’ consisting of work, delivery and customer management responsibilities. We were peers. We trusted each other thoroughly. We knew all the others had our backs, were supporting us, and that if we were straying from what we were there to do, one of them would respectfully bring us back in. It really was hard work. Being on that team was fantastically rewarding. As much as I would love to claim ‘I created a high-performing team.’ I cannot. It was high-performing, and I certainly ensured that my contribution did not thwart it being high-performing.
High-performing teams result from the team as a whole creating the environment and enabling it to happen. If anyone opts out, or gets in the way, of the process, the fullness of a high-performing team cannot occur.

Why do I put such stock in trust that I name it as an essential ingredient? You can manage teams, assign tasks, ensure roles and responsibilities are clear, establish clear decision-making and problem solving protocols, and monitor performance. The bigger the team, the greater the management burden, which may also extend to ongoing recruitment, performance management and other human resource processes. While all that is in place for a high-performing team, you don’t “manage” the team. You facilitate it. You lead it. You allow and encourage and attend to the culture, values and interpersonal relationships within the team. High performance is nurtured and developed, not mandated. It is established through leadership and owned by everyone. It requires commitment, shared purpose and values, and a willingness and capacity to name and deal with whatever is getting in the way. Those behaviours within a team environment require significant trust. High-performing teams really are all about trusted relationships.

Common behaviours that erode team performance include one-upmanship, back-stabbing, political positioning, withholding from others (relative to team function and work space) and irresponsibility for self and to others in the team. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. What other behaviours have you observed that undermine trust and interfere with achieving cohesion and performance?

Developing high-performing teams is a prime area for team coaching. The coach, as an impartial outsider, is able to observe team functioning and dynamics, and call attention to behaviours that are getting in the way. A coach cannot make a team high-performing. That requires the team’s effort and commitment, but a coach sure can make it easier for those committed to the process, willing to receive feedback, and open to personal growth (adjusting their own attitudes and behaviours where necessary). High-performing teams can and do occur, and the experience of being on one is an incredibly satisfying and fulfilling experience.

Contact me if you’d like support in developing the performance of your team.

 

What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.

Reclaiming Self, Again

Dark, dreary and forlorn
When all seems dark and dreary… how do I find and reclaim myself?

The world seems dark, closing in around me. My vision has dimmed. My inner emotional and mental turmoil grows. Dense, dark clouds of desperation choke me. I feel like I am losing myself, my grip on reality, and wonder how or why I should carry on. And only moments ago I felt okay. What changed? Why am I pitching and tossing as though I am in a tiny boat on a raging ocean storm? Where is my virtue? Why has my positive sense of self vanished? Why do I feel abandoned and alone? Is there a way out of this seemingly impenetrable darkness? Why can’t light flood in as easily as the darkness? What am I to do?

Ever known moments or periods like that? I have. It can seem like goodness has evaporated and darkness is all that is available. What causes such experiences? How can such moments/periods be overcome? Answering questions such as these was part of the motivation behind my book, Appreciate the fog: embrace change with power and purpose. I continue to experience and learn.

Many things can create the loss of light, disconnection from what feels positive and good, and plunge us into chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Trauma certainly can. New trauma messes with our sense of safety and trust. Events may remind us of past trauma and return us emotionally and mentally to old states. Loss, and the accompanying grief, is another trigger. Losing someone through death, capability through illness or accident, a job through retrenchment, or any number of other sources, can cause us to question life, purpose, and our place in the scheme of things. Shame can trigger the downward spiral or dramatic plunge, as the case may be. It could be through returning to an old habit, one we thought we had beaten, or being reminded of something we have done that we regret. Shame can also accentuate the downward process initiated by other causes. This one has a fabulous ally in the descent into darkness, our inner critic, who, through shame, has received a package of evidence of our uselessness as an individual. We may have a massive job disentangling ourselves from our critic’s habitual negative messages before we can even consider climbing out of the pit. The critic is such a potent voice, and if we attack the critic for being critical, it only serves to strengthen the critic and deepen the hole we are in. There are many other triggers that can take us down.

With the brain surgery I had several years ago came a raft of such roller-coaster experiences. It was traumatic in the extreme, far more so than it actually seemed to be. One moment I was fine. The next I learned I had a life threatening tumour, and had life-saving and life-changing surgery with loss of physical function and capability. It is all invisible disability, but I know it is there. So does my critic. Every now and then I find myself back in the negative soup, needing to yet again extricate myself. In response to the trauma, I found myself plunged back into unproductive patterns I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager where I had little trust that I would be okay. For all the miraculous outcome of the surgical intervention, a brain tumour does highlight safety concerns, and I found myself working with very old patterns and attitudes: isolation, distrust of others and life in general, and a generally bleak mental outlook. “There goes 30+ years of personal work down the toilet” was one of my evaluative internal comments. “Hey, I have written a book about this stuff. How could I get caught in this trap?” Pretty easily actually. The brain never drops old wiring. We may manage to create new pathways and implement new habits, including mental and emotional responses, that are useful and forward moving. In some ways trauma can unearth disused paths and bring them back into use. The difference this time however is that I have worked my way through and out before.  I am armed with that knowledge and capacity. This whole process became another chance to bed down the restorative processes, and heal past old hurts at a deeper level.

So, how can we reclaim ourselves at such times? This is the equivalent of redeeming ourselves from hell, the turmoil created within one’s psyche by mental and emotional processes gone awry. Some examples of methods for reclaiming self include:

Implement new positive routines. These have the effect of reminding ourselves we matter and provide positive feedback and self-care. For me, something as simple as stopping each hour to do a few stretches that break up my day of sitting and working on the computer makes a massive difference to my sense of self and my outlook.

Inventory the qualities and virtues you seem to have lost, and reclaim them. When I hit these sorts of dark places I tend to lose playfulness, trust, hope, delight, innocence, many other child-like qualities. The world seems to be too big, bad and unsafe, so they get stowed for a brighter day. Without them the brighter day doesn’t actually happen. Check in on what you don’t seem to have access to, because you have hidden them away, and reclaim them. Bring them back into active use. For me I metaphorically throw my items into a sack I carry on my back. To reclaim them I go through a process of recognising that has happened, and mentally opening and exploring my sack to find the qualities I want back. Sometimes I use a physical bag full of items and enact the process to strengthen my mental and emotional connection to reclaiming myself. That has a great effect in opening my awareness, establishing the importance of the qualities I am reclaiming, and reasserting them as valuable and available in my life. The world gets brighter in that moment.

Practice loving and accepting yourself. A simple way of doing this is to say: “I love myself and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself… and I forgive myself.” You could even list the things you find difficult to understand about yourself. This phrase asserts love and acceptance without judging yourself as good or bad . You can up the experience by standing at a mirror, taking up your own gaze, and then saying it. Do this multiple times and notice your inner response to yourself saying such a simple statement. I find this is an invaluable feedback mechanism. Any difficulty I have when holding my own gaze and saying this statement quickly informs me how strongly judgemental and unaccepting I am of myself in that moment. Staying with myself, when it is difficult, and finding a way back to loving and accepting myself, is a powerful, valuable, and often challenging, investment in self.

Phone a friend. Reaching out can be an incredibly difficult action when surrounded by your judgement of how pathetic you are. A real friend loves and accepts you even when you don’t know how to. It is a great lifeline to have and call on when the moment requires it. If you don’t have a friend available in the moment of crisis, call a helpline or see a counsellor. All these options are positive steps that say “I want and deserve better for myself.”

Gratitude. Find and name a few things for which you are truly grateful. If you can’t find anything, ask yourself what you could be grateful for, and then be grateful for that, and for asking the question. If you have done any of the previous actions, or anything else that works for you, express gratitude to yourself for doing them, for investing in yourself. Work with whatever small sliver you can find, and build on it.

Practice while the going is good. Build up your capacity to reclaim yourself when you don’t need to. It is easier to hit those negative experiences if you are already resourced. As challenging as my process of working through my surgery and aftermath has been, it has been much easier for having already established mechanisms for reclaiming myself. There have been times when, regardless of all I know, I wondered what the point was, but underneath I have known there is a point, and I that I could find my way back.

These are by no means all you can do. What are ways that work when you need to reclaim yourself?

Refer to “Reclaiming Self” for an earlier article on the same subject.

Embrace Change with Power and Purpose

Changing your mental context
Changes, a new mind-set required

According to James Baldwin, the American novelist, “Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

Regardless of its nature, we need to embrace change with power and purpose. While there may be some change we do want, I also refer to those changes we do not want or seek. It is the challenge found in the unwanted and significant changes that truly tests our character.

Resilience, fear, and letting go are three factors we need to address when responding to change.

As humans, we have physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Our emotional and mental bodies are similar to our physical in that without exercise and challenge they become flabby and lose tone. Our spiritual body does not so much get flabby. Rather we disconnect from it and lose sight of the being we are, or become aware we never have truly known who we are. It is our relationship with who we are that gets flabby. Change is the catalyst for encouraging and requiring “whole-of-being fitness”. How cleanly and powerfully are you able to respond to change? Does change throw you into a stressful place? Can you ride the wave of change and maintain your composure? The fitness of our whole being forms the basis of our resilience. Physical health, emotional intelligence, mental acuity and a powerful sense of who we are amidst change ensures we are internally resourced.

Fear is a natural reaction to change, even when we want the change. We fear losing the status quo, our current state. There is comfort in the familiar. We don’t KNOW what the end state will be like, even if the grass seems greener. There is the motivating force that pushes for change, and our reactive fear that retards our fluidity. If the reactive fear is greater than the motivational force, we are stuck.

When faced with fear we tend to be reactive and the four F’s come into play: FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE and FABRICATE. The first two are instinctual, reactions driven by the reptilian brain, the amygdala. Freeze is related to higher brain function becoming overwhelmed with information and decisions, and shutting down. We become stuck. Fabricate relates to creating or projecting a mask, a false image, like a chameleon changing colours, so we don’t have to fully face what we fear. It is a learned behaviour, often from our childhood, used to cover our fears. Whether belligerence, shyness, a whimpering “poor me”, these devices seek to control the actions of others in relation to us. We often use fabricate so fluently, these manufactured behaviours become confused with our personality, embedded patterns.

When I received the surprising news that I had a six cm benign tumour in my brain I left the specialists office and told my wife, Juanita, very matter-of-factly that I had a life threatening condition that needed urgent surgery. An observer could have misjudged me as being remarkably calm. I certainly portrayed calm. I was in fact overwhelmed, emotionally closed down. I coped by distancing myself from my emotional world. I was fabricating calmness. All natural, understandable, and in fact necessary. Time and space was needed for me to internally process and get my ducks in a row. However, I had to move past this initial reaction and connect with what was really going on for me to powerfully and purposefully work with the change.

To move forward powerfully, we need to bring the fullness of our being forward. We need to change our F’s to A’s. Fight, flight, freeze and fabricate need to transform to ASSERT, ATTEND, ACT and AUTHENTICATE. Assert who we are and what we need. Stay present. Take action. Be real and call on others to be as well, in themselves and in relationship with you. Then we are responding to change rather than reacting.

For the first few days I maintained my calm demeanour. There was also some overwhelm, self-pity and helplessness. I couldn’t be bothered looking for ways to be powerful or purposeful. Knowing the specialist was referring me to a surgeon, I was prepared to let the hospital process take its own natural course. My wife proactively followed up on it and found it was stuck in the system and would have never got to the surgeon without intervention. I would be dead without her efforts.

My overwhelm shifted. I took ownership of the process. I researched the tumour, and thoroughly understood its impacts and what the surgeon could do, and what the implications would be. By the time I saw the surgeon he was telling me what I already knew, apart from the date for surgery. A friend was a grief counsellor. In speaking with her, she suggested I actively enlist the support of friends as that would make the process easier for me and Juanita. I informed friends in various networks I was part of about my situation. I had been a facilitator of programmes for men for a number of years. I attended a meeting of men and shared my news, my terror and my uncertainty. I experienced a wonderful outpouring of love and support. That grew when the network of several thousand men were informed. We had friends from all around the world in a vigil while I was under anaesthetic, praying or otherwise actively sending positive energy in my direction. Over 120 people were on the update list who chose to be kept informed of my progress for the first few months. Many of those who were local visited me as I had strength to receive them. As shocking and frightening as the news was for me that I had a tumour, I never would have learned the power and support available in such time without it. It really was quite humbling. There was more good will available than I had the capacity to receive.

However, the surgery was only part of the journey. I found that as the post-surgical reality set in, I had enormous grief related to loss of function – primarily hearing, balance, and emotional composure. From time to time, uncontrollable grief welled up, and I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I would have fits of rage, something entirely alien to me before surgery. These, among others, told me I was not functioning correctly, that I was broken. That is where the third major factor came into play. I had to let go of being who I had been and learn to accept my new self. Over time many of the extremes have disappeared, but my emotional world is much more volatile than it used to be, and some of the qualities I really liked about myself prior to surgery have been lost. Part of the process of letting go has been to reframe my new reality into something meaningful and workable for me. Reframing provides the brain with rationale for why the new situation is okay, positive, good. Once the brain becomes can then settle and find new and productive ways of working within the new context.

This experience has been a series of challenges for me. I have not always managed to embrace the change with power and purpose. In fact, sometimes I have struggled against my new reality, a thoroughly futile thing to do. However, I have never lost sight of the fact it is up to me, no one else, to create the life I want moving forward. While potently and patiently supported by my wife, who has been my rock, it has still been up to me to positively move forward, to assert myself, stay present, take action and be real.

What challenges are you currently facing? How could you strengthen your response to the changes so you claim and maintain your purpose and power? Whatever it is you face, I wish you potency and strength to face up to the challenges. May you find your resilience, your way to overcome your fears, and a means for letting go of what is no longer available in ways that work for you.

The Next Step is My Responsibility

Taking the next step
Whatever my next step, I am responsible for taking it.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, whether organisational strife, a need to change our own circumstances, estranged children, meeting the consequences of previous action or any number of other possibilities, the next step is, in my world, my responsibility, and in your world, yours. That may seem sweeping and bold as a statement. It is. If it is not your responsibility to create the difference needed in your world, whose responsibility is it?

If I am in conflict with my partner, and I don’t take responsibility to take some positive action, at least attempt something towards a reconciliation, the message is “Darling, I don’t care and it is your responsibility.” If I am in a work environment and observe an injustice, and choose to do nothing, in the inaction I am saying, “I accept and support this form of injustice.” If something I value is being eroded, and I do nothing, I am declaring “I don’t really value this thing.”

People who do pursue their passion and seek to correct something they see as out of whack are often labelled “Activists”. For those who are not engaged in their passion, the activist can be a real challenge to things as they are. None of us can possibly pursue every cause, right every wrong, or address every injustice. Bring any two of us together and we won’t agree across the board on what matters and how the issues ought to be addressed. Hence a variety of political parties, religions, nations, cultures, clubs and so on.

Yet, if we do nothing, sit back because we are busy or someone else can do it better, or for any other reason we concoct, we are saying “What is occurring is okay.” Creeping Normality, otherwise known as Death by a Thousand Cuts, highlights how inaction over an intrusion into what we value leads to greater acceptance of greater wrong, until our world has changed and the new normal is massively out of step, and we feel powerless to intervene. The often cited, usually as a poem, speech by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), “First they came …” speaks of inaction as first one group is taken, then another, with no intervention, until they come for “me”. Oops.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Global warming, genocide, war crimes, pollution, racism or any other –ism, political and business corruption, and a host of other intrusions into what some people value are classic examples of Creeping Normality. It occurs within organisations as well when a person imposes their values on others and remains unchallenged. It is easy for those with authority within a system to assume that they speak for the whole, or that they know best. Status is a great opiate. Many “leaders” choose to reach decisions in isolation. It is a difficult and courageous act of leadership to engage with and hear the voices of subordinates or others impacted by decisions. You may still have to make the hard call. Doing so while engaged with those affected, understanding and appreciating the values of those impacted, enables heart as well as head to be engaged in the decision. Conversely, it takes great courage to raise one’s voice and speak out against processes and decisions that appear inappropriate, especially if also seeking to maintain open and constructive dialogue. It is not unusual for those fearful of opposition to silence objections.

As with all things, balance matters. If every idea raised were to be shot down by someone else, we would have anarchy, and little chance of progress. When there is no ability to voice concern, we have a dictatorship. Somewhere in the middle is a place where ideas and counterarguments can be voiced and respected. That is a difficult and valuable place to reach and maintain. That requires willingness and commitment of all involved.

We are responsible for how we feel, what we think, what we say, the actions we take, and the behaviours we exhibit. We are also responsible to others to let them know how we feel, what we think, how they are impacting us, and what we need. After all is said and done, in any situation, we are each individually responsible for what and how we contribute to the results that are achieved.

  • Are there situations, issues or challenges that threaten your values?
  • How might you contribute to creating outcomes that reflect your values?
  • Do you value and respect the rights of others to justice and fairness? If so, what are you doing or could you do to ensure the voices of impacted individuals and groups are heard and considered?
  • How can you balance expedient decision-making and action with understanding and consideration of relevant issues and concerns of others?
  • If you choose to bypass or minimise opposition or counterarguments, what is your motivation?
  • Are you functioning from a place of personal power or reacting to fear?

To Give or Not to Give Advice? That is the Question!

Know your customer
Great advice! Do you receive it entirely positively?

Mr Fix-It is a well known male stereotype, the one who hears a problem and instantly gives a solution. Males are not the only gender that likes to give advice. In the context of communication, males are known for seizing a problem and wanting to rescue the situation with a fix whereas women like to voice their issues and concerns, be heard, and know there is connection rather than a solution (another stereotype). They may still enjoy a solution but after they have connection.

There is something really satisfying about giving a juicy piece of advice, a solution to someone else’s dilemma. ‘Irrespective of the chaos and issues in my own life, I feel in control and satisfied when I can solve someone else’s problems, … and I don’t carry any of the responsibility for the repercussions.’ It seems easier to address someone else’s issues than to take a cold, hard look at one’s own situation, and apply energy to personal challenges and barriers.

Believe it or not, this thought process was reignited a little while ago as I walked along a rocky shoreline behind my wife. It can be very easy to say “Follow my lead across these rocks”, something I saw being modelled by another couple. I was naturally following my wife yet found myself stymied and frustrated. I could not see my own path because I was too close to her. Her path was not working for me because she takes smaller strides than me. I quickly ventured out on my own route. I felt freer and had more fun rock hopping as soon as I did that.

Our brains are similar to this path exploring process. Each person has a unique brain with its very own set of neural pathways. We have different experiences and approach situations differently. While a similar approach may often work, insight, the basis of learning and personal illumination, has to be individually earned. When we experience insight our brain literally creates new neural pathways. In the moment of insight the thing we realise becomes ours, hard-wired into our brain circuitry. The more significant the process of discovery that led to the insight, the stronger the experience of insight. Insight also carries benefits of personal ownership of the learning, and a marked increase in the motivation and capacity to implement what has been learned.

Spoon-feeding information and solutions does not create insight without an independent cognitive process that deepens awareness and understanding. Advice giving has poor results in idea uptake. It is an improvement over mandate, yet it is not a benign act. It carries a message of “I know better.” While that may be true sometimes, it does not strengthen or develop the capabilities of the person receiving the advice. It undervalues the autonomy of the recipient, indicating a lack of belief in them to take responsibility and action to create their own results. Advice is often given out of impatience, an unwillingness or personal inability to nurture and support the other person, believing that giving advice will get the end result quicker. If the end result is purely about finishing a task to specification, then it may be the way to go. If developing the recipients’ capabilities matter, then advice is counter-productive.

There are certain situations advice, in the professional sense, is necessary. Then, someone credible provides feedback on a planned approach before investing in something that might be doomed to fail. I have spent much of my career in this space, giving and receiving professional advice. However, advice is often received as a “thou shalt…” which carries a sense of coercion that most independent, autonomous beings resist. Even when asked for, advice can be difficult to receive and does not map into personal insights or ownership for the recipient. Regardless of intent, advice is often received as a coercive or aggressive instruction, even if below the level of consciousness. I have seen many excellent ideas not implemented. I am not advising you to never give advice. My intent is to open the door to an alternative way of engaging with others when the situation allows.

Engaging with others in a more meaningful manner has been a primary motivation for me moving into coaching, an area in which advice is a complete no-no. An agenda held by the coach is also a big no-no. Coaching relies of establishing a relationship of trust, and the coach asking sound questions, without agenda, and meeting the client where the client wants to be met. Coaching supports them to develop their own insights. There are a lot of professed coaches who revel in the opportunity to give advice. This is not coaching as defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF), the professional body I associate with. The ICF defines a set of core competencies that they assess their coaches against. Advice giving, even with the permission of the client, is counter to the best practice of coaching. I continue to learn to deepen this capacity within my own being.

The following are some questions I use to develop my awareness of my advice-giving tendencies. Perhaps you will find them useful:

  • How often and when do I offer advice to others?
  • When I do give advice, what do I notice happens to the receiver of my advice? To the connection between us? Do they expand or diminish in their role?
  • What would I need to change within myself to engage with this other being without giving advice?

The Role of Rigidity and Flexibility in Adapting to Change

A gale rages. Grasses bend and allow the energy to pass by. A forest of tall trees copes by backing and supporting each other. The lone pine, finally worn by the buffeting, breaks. That is one analogy of the effects of rigidity and flexibility.

Have you noticed you judge some people as rigid and others as flexible? Which one is better? Where are you, if you assessed yourself as rigid or flexible? Why are you like this?

How does flexibility and rigidity affect your capacity to change?
How does flexibility and rigidity affect your capacity to change?

While these questions are interesting, I have realised they are too narrow and do not reflect the complex nature of what may constitute rigidity or flexibility. In fact, the question I find myself with is ‘What is the right balance of rigidity and flexibility?’ A person practising yoga, for instance, if too rigid cannot get into poses, needing greater flexibility, but if too flexible, without the requisite rigidity and they collapse.

Here are some contexts where we might assess people on their degree of rigidity and flexibility:

Principles and Values

People like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Adolf Hitler could be assessed as rigid to their principles and values. Each changed the world in their own way and refused to desist from their courses regardless of pressure. Their own lives were at stake, but they were firm (rigid) to the end.

You can probably think of people who change their principles and values to suit the situation. A victim of such flexibility is trust, any sense that the person has integrity. In ‘The Game of Thrones’ terminology they are ‘Sell-swords’, and their allegiance goes to the highest bidder, whatever the currency is for them, and past commitments only matter if it suits them.

Conserved or Spontaneous

In the area of change, conserve relates to our reliance on and application of established beliefs, practices, attitudes and behaviours. Someone bound to the conserve might say “But this is how we have always done it.” For example, the Corporate conserve may include formal processes, rewarded behaviours, and cultural folklore of ‘how we do things.’ The conserve makes us rigid to what has been, how we do it…

Spontaneity is the capacity to act or behave in a new and adequate manner (I.e. is not a perfect response but is suitable and productive ), whether it is new or pre-existing situation. Spontaneity builds on what is emerging now, rather than holding on to how it has been, flexibility in action.

Fear or Power

Fear causes contraction. What was flowing and easy becomes stifled, awkward and stiff. It robs us of the capacity to easily respond to what is present, and places us in a reactive state. Instinctual reactions of fight, flight, and higher brain reactions of freeze and fabricate, erode our capacity to take productive action. We might still do so, but it is not as easy as when free of the rigid and binding nature of fear. Many behaviours stem from fear. Examples include controlling behaviour (of self and others), micromanagement, denial, avoidance and biases/prejudices.

Power is our ability to do or affect something strongly. For us to exercise power we must expand, opposite to the effect of fear. Many confuse power with being able to MAKE yourself or others do your bidding. That is aggression, applying force, part of the fight reaction. Opposite to fear, power enables us to assert, attend (stay present), act and authenticate. I speak to these in my book ‘Appreciate the Fog’. It enables us to work with what is present now, take positive action, and develop and strengthen relationships. Fear makes us contract, rigid and reactive to what might be, while remaining in our power enables us to expand, be flexible and responsive to what is.

Attachment and Expectation

Attachments are those things we hold on to from the past. Expectations are our hopes, visions, dreams and aspirations of the future. In and of themselves they do not make us flexible or rigid. However, our inability to let them go when circumstances change does create the effect of rigidity as the individual pauses to process and adjust. At about the age of three one of my children threw a massive tantrum because they wanted something different from what was. Clinging to the pole of the clothesline in the middle of the backyard, screaming and crying, there was total refusal to let go of what they wanted. Not rigid in their body at all, they were stuck in place. Once the tantrum was over, their emotions fully expressed, the pole was released. Acceptance, then contentment and movement returned. Minutes later they had forgotten the tantrum. What we hold on to can make us rigid, especially when it is important to let go and move on.

I am very aware of how lightly I may hold on to things I consider safety-making, whether they are beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, or any number of other things, I often hold on beyond their use-by date and rob myself of my power.

Emotion

Many people, men particularly, are emotionally rigid, unable to connect with and express their feelings. Some cannot even discern what they feel. Childhood messaging such as “Boys don’t cry” served to teach a generation what previous generations had learned, that quashing the natural flow of emotion is important to control life and actions. Shame, embarrassment and fear are commonly associated with open expression of feeling, especially of grief and fear. Anger, in a man’s world, seems acceptable, though its link with violence is frowned on. Emotional rigidity has led to emotional illiteracy.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are easily overwhelmed by their emotions, caught in a torrent of feeling, with little capacity to rein them in or manage them. That might be considered flexibility in the emotional world.

Healthy emotional expression lies between these extremes, with the capacity to recognise feelings, comprehend their significance, and express the needs that underpin the emotions. As we loosen emotional rigidity and gain access to and expression of our feelings, we gain a fuller, more authentic capacity to be ourselves. We are able to process what is happening to and within us more effectively, and adjust more easily to change. We are attuned to what is happening to us and the meaning we are making.

Conclusion

When it comes to adapting to change, your ability to adjust to the new situation depends on your beliefs, values, expectations, attachments, degree of fear, and your authenticity with yourself and others about what matters to you. These are part of what defines your personal power.

What gets in your way? What robs you of your capacity to be powerful? What robs you of fullness in relationships? What impedes you from responding to what is new and unexpected in a manner that serves you? How have over-rigid aspects of your being undermined your freedom to act? When have you been so flexible in a situation you lose track of what really matters to you? This is not about right or wrong. It is about the continuum of possible ways of being, and whether you are achieving what you want in a way that best serves you and those about you.