In my Christmas Letter, I announced I’d share some of my ideas and resources to boost balance and leading the way “emotionally” in our times that require frequent readjustments and thus clearly favour people who embrace change effortlessly.

Thank you everyone for your email reactions that encouraged me to start working on the text right after Christmas… you definitely kept me off the streets!

I mentioned that I’d tackle three points:

  1. How to focus on what we have control over,
  2. How to keep our anxiety in check, and
  3. How to bring a sense of purpose back into our lives.

I’ve divided these points into 3 emails, which you’ll get over the next month.

Let me start out with a quote: Socrates (in „The Way of the Peaceful Warrior) remarked “If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.” Very wise words indeed. So much for believing that a negative experience of change is somehow linked to our present times!

Focus on what you have control over

Change-induced suffering is part of the conditio humana. Even if we lived in a boringly stable environment, we’d still grow older and would thus see our possibilities, capabilities, needs and tastes change… not always for the better. So no matter how we dice it, reflecting on our attitude towards change seems like a good idea. When we focus on what we can influence, it is much easier to accept the many things that look totally out of our reach.

You probably know what’s coming: the part you can control (and even that takes intention and training) is your experience of life, and your (re)actions… I will look into the reaction and action bits in parts 2 and 3 of this series. In this episode, I’d like to focus on reflecting more deeply about the conversations we engage in, and especially, the ones we initiate.

Focus on how you communicate first

I want to start out by giving you a communication exercise that lets you experiment with the influence you actually have on conversations – without even trying to convince anyone.

  • Be mindful of when you make a judgment, as opposed to a statement of fact. We are often a bit careless about distinguishing the two, in and outside work contexts.
  • Engage in exploring “root causes” with children… Adults can ask six times “why” too, it can be a fun game – this isn’t limited to shop-floor root cause analysis workshops J
  • Just notice your reaction to, and willingness to engage in blame speech/scapegoating around you (your choice: “those politicians”; “corporations”, “the upper classes” etc);
  • Try and encourage others to explore the core issues by first talking about YOUR experiences – so not “you are wrong/you should(n’t)…” but “I often observe that…”;
  • Handle the sources of news you expose yourself to with care (cf. my post 3 years ago on “Telling the noise from the signal”, long before I knew about companies producing fake news with the sole aim to post them on social media platforms);
  • If you want to go one step further, ask yourself and others, what you can do at your level of influence, to promote better, more reflected, or more mature conversations that can lead into better actions. What does this mean for how you engage in discussions, what behaviours you encourage, or question into…? The point here is to observe what actually works, not just to reiterate existing beliefs.

This little exercise is surprisingly difficult for a variety of reasons. And these reasons have a lot to do with what is so wrong with how we communicate…

For one, we like to arrive at, and then address, a root cause. Yet for a lot of the issues we are dealing with today, linear causal relationships are an oversimplification, and mapping out the influencers gets very complex, and is also beyond our sphere of influence. So we cannot just roll up our sleeves, and “go fix things”. This can be highly frustrating… If it helps, systemic theorists say that today’s problems mostly constitute the side effects of earlier solutions… and they have a point!

Secondly, chances are we come to a point in our analysis where “I don’t know” is the most likely answer. But that’s not something we like to say – we much prefer to come from a position of knowing. Whether we like it or not, we have to become more comfortable around “not-knowing”, and admitting to it, in order to free space in and around us: Only when we are truly interested in new information, skills and strategies, rather than pretend together that we need just more of the same, we can actually learn. All else just triggers “yes, but” responses, no matter how elusive and gripping the learning context – we won’t go for it unless we WANT to know. This requires us giving ourselves permission to be imperfect. No small feat, and it is often especially difficult for people who have a huge knowledge base, which has served them just fine up until just now. So, clearly, this requires that we hold our egos at bay…! Now here, we “just” talk about communication, but this is also a reason why true innovation is often problematic: for that to happen, we also need to be exceptional at curiosity-based questioning, unlearning and relearning. Uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes. Unavoidable? Absolutely!

Even more complicated are things when we cannot understand “why they are the way they are”. This frustrates our need to make sense of our experiences – one of the main characteristics that make us human, as Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (“people are meaning-creating machines”), and I am sure many others, noted.

That sixth dimension… – and a powerful resource

I’ve promised I’d share some highly useful resources, and here is the first: Non-Violent Communication by Marshal Rosenberg. The great thing about this resource is that these thoughts work as well applied to our self-talk, as they do in communication with others. The above bullets are the bare minimum; for my coaching clients, I’ve compiled some powerful thoughts on 11 pages, which, as a New Year’s gift, I’ll share with you – upon request. While not all ideas will be self-explanatory, you’ll definitely get a good idea, and perhaps decide to read the entire book as a second step. Can’t recommend it enough.

Being human means having moral character – and “honesty-humility” is one of the six key personality dimensions that modern psychological research distinguishes. This dimension was actually overlooked in the old 5 dimensions (acronym “OCEAN”), which has been widely in use since the 1990s, based on 1960s lexical research. Thanks to today’s statistical computing power, the old data could be re-run to consistently produce this 6th dimension, as Scientific American Mind reports in its Jan/Feb 2017 issue.

So in face of what you cannot change, I strongly advise to accept-and-acknowledge using your sixth dimension. This isn’t the same as “agreeing” – yet when we fail to accept and acknowledge, it’s just a stone’s throw to denial: the cognitive dissonance becomes too painful.

Let me end with a classic Socrates quote: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” That’s the whole point.

After all the recommended reading in this post, let me announce that the next issue will be more visual: in addition to some thoughts, I’ll share two powerful videos on how to keep our anxiety in check, so that we can ultimately make a difference in the life of others…

Till then, be well!

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