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?

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.

You “Should” “Just” Do It

"Just": Only This
“Just”: This and Only This

Anyone who has read my book, “Appreciate The Fog: Embrace Change with Power and Purpose”, will be aware that I believe the words we choose can be empowering or dis-empowering. “Should” is a strongly coercive word, and whether instructing someone else, or directing it at ourselves, it has the effect of removing choice. It dictates the path that must be followed with a veiled threat if not performed as required. It is a word often associated with shame. A manager speaking to a subordinate with “should” is edging on, if not already immersed in, micromanaging. “Should” stifles creativity and spontaneity, establishes expectation, and those hearing that word argue with the predetermined at their peril. “Should” requires us to park our intelligence at the door and follow the prescribed path, irrespective of how unproductive, futile or irrelevant the instruction seems to us. Replacing “should” with “could” opens the possibility for new ideas, innovation, testing and challenging of the status quo, or of the proposed request, and allows a degree of freedom that is unavailable with “should”. Such a small change in word can lead to a significant shift in meaning.

The adverb “just”, another word I frequently hear myself using, is similarly problematic. Meaning “exactly, precisely; actually; closely, close”, “just” can be used to box or contain ideas and expression. Often when we use “just” we don’t mean it. The effect is to suggest precision in what we are saying and that only what is being proposed or stated is the case. “Just” impedes us from engaging in a deep and meaningful manner. Stevie Wonder’s song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, a song I love hearing, is a classic example. If he truly just called to say “I love you”, he would hang up as soon as he said it. Preposterous, but that is what the line means. Read the rest of the song. There is so much more he wishes to convey. If the song was “I Called to Say I Love You”, there is no similar exactness, and it “unjustifiably” allows more to be said. Using “just” in this way creates an emotional escape hatch, putting an artificial limit on the conversation. While we may say more, “just” signals that what is coming is all there is. “Phew! I said that. Now I may say something more.” It is highly habituated in everyday use. I hear myself using it and cringe, and then ask myself “What am I afraid of? If I were to fully express myself here and now , what would I say?” That has the effect of connecting me with what is going on within me, and freeing me up to be more fully present and authentic in expressing myself. That, I find, is highly productive to the relationship I am in at that moment.

A related favourite is “I just wanted to say…” That may be followed by “I love you”, “I cherish our friendship”, “I find you incredibly annoying” or any number of possibilities. In using “wanted to” the sentiment has not actually been delivered, only the suggestion it is there to be said. It is a safety mechanism used to test the waters without fully committing to the statement. I have been known to respond with: “Are you going to actually say that to me?” The common response is a somewhat startled or perplexed expression. Recognition of what was said and its meaning often leads to a cognitive shift, with a fresh statement being uttered that is more fully aligned with their real intent. Such a shift often relates to what is referred to as an “ah ha” moment.

And then words like “always” and “never” are absolutes that are rarely the real truth in terms of how we use them. “It always rains on my day off.” That may feel true sometimes when weather is inclement for several weekends in a row, but it isn’t actually true. Such absolutes are may be used to artificially end debate or to express a global belief that the speaker holds. Usage often highlights a black and white, on or off, blinkered view of the subject, where colour or shades of grey are not recognised or acknowledged. The effect is to contain the dialogue, dismiss uncertainty, and to ensure distance from feeling, opinion and connection.

I am not suggesting that every use of these words is wrong. Rather I am offering that what we say, including the specific words we choose, can have significant and unexpected consequences in our communications. Taking time to reflect on the message we wish to convey and ensuring our words, tones and gestures are aligned and support our intent can assist us be clear about what matters to us, and reduce the risk that we gloss over something important. “I just called because I wanted to say I love you”. I just called to say I love you”. “I called to say I love you.” “I love you.” If your significant other was on the phone speaking to you, assuming love is part of the expression of your relationship, which of those phrases would you prefer to hear?

Our brain does hear what we say, and does pick up on the nuances, even if we don’t consciously recognise them ourselves. Coercive or constraining language does impact our performance, our experience, our attitude, and the meaning we make and take from our experiences. As we choose language that is more fully aligned with our intentions, our capacity to realise the results we seek increases. As a coach one of the areas I attune to are the words and messages of the coachee, and whether their thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned with their declared aspirations. Take some time to check on what you are communicating and if it is “just as it should be.”

Ripples From Authenticity

Rodriquez Signing autographs in 2007
Rodriquez Signing autographs in 2007

I love inspirational stories of people who triumph over the odds, who defy the norm, and come up trumps against significant challenges, who in the process have manifest extraordinary inner strength. I have just come across another hero, and in this case the amazing feat was his authenticity. The movie ‘Searching for Sugar Man‘ won an academy award in 2012, but I have only just seen it, and found myself deeply moved.

In the 1970’s Rodriguez wrote and performed two albums that were phenomenal flops in the USA, ‘Cold Fact’ and ‘Coming from Reality’. Practically no one knew he existed. Yet, unbeknownst to him, copies of his music were circulating and inspiring a generation of people within South Africa. His earthy words and messages provoked recognition that the norm does not have to be accepted, particularly the political establishment, and his work inspired musicians during the rise against apartheid in their expression. My wife grew up in South Africa in the period and was well aware of this man and encouraged me to the movie.

Rodriguez came and went without being noticed within the USA, and carried on with his labouring near poverty while his name and music was stirring a nation. In South Africa it was believed he had committed suicide, with several grizzly stories circulating. Rodriguez was eventually discovered alive and well by South African fans seeking to learn more of their star. He subsequently performed a number of concerts to sell-out crowds of thousands, and did so with a modesty and groundedness that belied the newness of such adoration to him.

For me, the fantastic lesson and inspiration is how Rodriguez lived and played his music with authenticity, true to who he was, both in writing and singing, and also in failing as he continued with his labouring career, and even later attempted running for political office. His motivation was he wanted to make a difference. His authenticity touched millions, went so very far beyond anything he knew existed, and it was only luck or serendipity that he learned he was a fabulous hit for a people he had no reason to know, millions of them. And in finding out, he was comfortably the same, as unchanged as any person could be with sudden fame, and my admiration increased as a result. Rodriquez is a reminder that when we align with our purpose and live it, we can have a fantastic impact on lives around is, and may never know it. Sometimes we may be blessed with a glimpse of what we have created with our life.

Are you living your purpose? Are you true to who you are regardless feedback? Do you love and accept yourself and know your worth, even if the world has not caught on to support your belief? Are you living with authenticity to who you are even if there is no evidence that it serves any greater purpose?

Survive vs. Thrive

When you are experiencing fear, even if unconscious of it, the tendency is to contract and strengthen protections around you. Much of this process is unconscious and the patterns so ingrained that you don’t even know it is happening. There are some broad categories of fear-based reaction, which I generically refer to as Survive Reactions, fight and flight are very instinctual, based in the amygdala of the brain. Freeze and fabricate are higher brain level reactions. These all carry a short-term focus, are reactionary and at best could be considered tactical. Thrive Responses are based on consciously making choices that are longer-term focused, are based on love rather than fear, and have the potential of creating positive results into the future. The individual thrive responses are assert, attend, act, and authenticate. By recognising when a survive reaction is being used, you can develop a capacity to intercede and choose a thrive response, and create different results. Through practice in developing awareness and owning your ability to choose your own actions, your quality of life can change and your personal power will increase.

Want Authenticity? Be Authentic

In this crazy rat race we live in it can all too often feel superficial and divorced from reality. You might find yourself alone and adrift when surrounded by many people clamouring to ‘connect’ with you. Where is the real connection? Where is authenticity? What and who can you trust? Start with yourself. Forget your personality and all the learned baggage and protection you have developed over your lifetime. Build and strengthen the relationship you have with yourself, and allow others to see and experience the real you. That can be a scary and highly rewarding journey. Once initiated life and expansion becomes increasingly available, rather than contraction and effort of maintaining a façade. As you become more willing and able to present yourself authentically then you’ll find you draw into your life more people who are authentic with you.