November 11:  Fierce Optimism Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

On Ozan’s Inner Circle forum today, another member posted about his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reminded me of a favorite MLK quote, which came to mind on Saturday as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by acting visibly in accordance with our core values, and by consistently walking the talk.

I texted my friend the morning of the workshop: “I’m 90% excited, 10% nervous…Maybe 15%…”  Then I thought about the people I know who like the idea(l) of Better Angels, but don’t want to participate.  I thought about my friends who express hopelessness at any possibility that people on opposing political sides can ever connect, that we can actually work together across our differences to get things done.  I thought about the pushback I might get, that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.  I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted my friend again, spontaneously, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal that day was to take every example and experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that brings the skills to bear in the most meaningful ways.

This idea marinated for a couple of hours while I pictured the venue, reviewed the workshop content, made notes about delivery.  I thought again about my friends who feel like our world is crumbling around us, that so much progress made the last century is being eroded.  I completely empathize with this perspective, and I understand how it makes us feel we have to fight, to be aggressive and confrontational, to come at the opposition full force, like a bullet train.  Do they think listening and speaking skills focused on curiosity and openness too passive and ineffective?  Does optimism, the hopefulness and confidence that things will be okay, make me lazy about the issues that matter to me?

Below are the words I texted my friend to describe what I mean by ‘Fierce Optimism’.  Normally I would not share such nascent ideas on the blog, but whatever, it’s all an experiment, who knows what better ideas may come from this early sharing?

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Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

Or should it read, “Urgency without Impatience”?  What I mean here is simply that most things worth doing take a very long time.  All important social movements occurred (and continue) over generations.  At times confrontation and revolution are necessary.  But they are not enough.  Consistent, slow, organic, grass roots change on the local level is what sustains consistent progress, keeps it from regressing.  The acute urgency I feel to address my deep concerns (for instance, the profound rifts in our relationships) drives me to action.  But when that action is directed at another person, I must attune.  I have to set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  It also allows me to look up every once in a while and adjust to my surroundings, adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  If I’m bulldozing with strong words and heavy dogma, I am more likely to plow over and through any crack in the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Better Angels does not seek to make everybody—anybody—a moderate.  Rather, the goal is to hold our positions firmly and with principle, and practice seeing why someone else may hold a different position with equally strong principle.  In doing so, two things often happen:  First, by challenging our own beliefs and values, we can reinforce them.  Telling stories about the experiences that led us to our core values reconnects us with their origins, grounds us in and strengthens our own personal truth.  Second, hearing others’ stories helps us broaden our perspective.  Most of the time we only see things from our own point of view—this is our default setting.  But when we share personal experiences, really learn about each other, the curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.  So while I may still hold my goals and objectives firmly, I can more easily release the rigidity of my method, tolerate setbacks with less suffering.  Earlier this year I listened to The Warrior Within by John Little.  He describes Bruce Lee’s life philosophy, which included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the oak may break while the bamboo simply bends, sometimes to the ground, but without breaking.  Both stay rooted where they are planted, but one is more resilient.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed in some ways, while holding steadfast to my core values, makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and, I think, more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

This is about the assumptions we make.  Too often we cast ‘the other’ in abstract as sinister, evil, less than.  We hold up the most extreme members of the opposing group as representative of a dull and dumb monolith.  We oversimplify and overgeneralize, and then approach any individual we identify as belonging to that group as an assembly line package, a completely known entity.  We think we know all about them already, even if we have never met them, just because they identify today as “Red” or “Blue.”  In so doing, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly as narrow minded and prejudiced as the folks we accuse on the other side.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  In my mind this encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every other person, regardless of their political, religious, racial, cultural, or any other persuasion.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny, for individuals as well as organizations and governments.

*sigh*

Well, like I said, these ideas were just born two days ago.  Have I expressed them at all coherently?  Have I shown you intuitively apprehensible paradoxes?  Can you feel the dynamic balance of agitation and peace?  Tension without anxiety?  Potential and kinetic energy?  If not, that’s okay.  I’ll keep working on it.  That’s the essential outcome of Fierce Optimism, after all—we keep working, steadily, to bend that arc.

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November 5:  Peer Coaches Make Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

When you’re working through a challenge, who helps you?  What is it about them, how are they most helpful?  How not?

Through the years I have learned what I can get from certain people.  I know to call this person when I need validation, that person when I need a devil’s advocate.  I also know which people to avoid altogether—those who cannot be trusted with my vulnerability or confidence.

But when I need to hold space and tension with an issue, to patiently look at it from different angles and process the perspectives, I look to my peer coaches.  I feel gratitude and gladness for these friends today, after my LOH group had our monthly peer coaching call.  As we progress through our 10 month leadership training, we take tenets and skills home from each retreat to practice.  Monthly Zoom calls have no agenda, other than to reconvene, share, and mutually support.  Every time I come away appreciating just a little more how nothing in life—work, personal things, social context—can really be separated from anything else.

These friends are not my first or only coaches, however.  In 2005 I started working with Christine, my life coach.  Every session, 14 years later, is still transformative.  How is this possible?  Curiosity.  Christine coaches every call squarely and unwaveringly from this perspective.  It was not long before I realized how powerfully this method could alter my own encounters with patients.

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The best coaches have no preformed or decisive answers.  They have the uncanny ability to ask the best questions–Open, Honest Questions (OHQs)–which then lead clients to their own best answers.  They help frame and reframe problems.  They point us to alternate perspectives and help us open our minds to narratives other than the ones we too often grip so desperately.  It was my second year in practice when I started asking coaching questions to patients, and I have never since feared any symptom, syndrome, or answer.  When there is no clear diagnosis or answer for someone’s distress, I can just keep asking until something helpful emerges.  Most often it’s not a single piece of information that gives clarity; rather, it’s the story that materializes.  Coaching skills help me help my patients find and tell their stories of health and wellness, illness and pain, agency and action.

Here are the tenets of true Open, Honest Questions, from the LOH syllabus:

  • The best single mark of an honest, open question is that the questioner does not know the answer and is not leading toward a particular answer.
  • Ask questions aimed at helping the other person come to a deeper understanding (help them access their own inner teacher).
  • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale—which make a question into a speech.
  • Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem or story—for example, questions about feelings as well as about facts.
  • Trust your intuition in asking questions. Inviting metaphors or images can open feelings, new lines of thinking, and unexpected possibilities.
  • Try to avoid questions with yes-no, right-wrong answers.
  • Avoid advice disguised as questions.

My best friends are my peer coaches.  And now I have my LOH cohort-mates.  We make no judgments about one another’s circumstances, feelings, or experiences.  We make the most generous assumptions about our motives.  Our role in each other’s lives is almost never to give advice; rather it is to hold space, listen reflectively, offer moral support, hold up core values, and help one another query thoughtfully and honestly.

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Questions asked and reflective statements made on the call today:

  • If you left work tomorrow with enough money to be unemployed for 6 months, what would you do?
  • How does it feel to speak (your issue) out loud?
  • When you think about current state compared to past, how does it feel physically in your body?
  • Sounds like you’re working on a core tension.
  • What do I/you want now?
  • What’s roiling around in you?
  • Who around you can get creative with you?

We each bring diverse questions and challenges to each call.  But somehow we always relate deeply, and listening/querying helps us each learn from every other.  Today I saw central themes emerge around identity, contribution, voice, and meaning.

In the end, I think there are few things more important in life than meaning and connection.  These are the gifts from my peer coaches, and they always make me better, no question.

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We Are Really Bad At This

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Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado, March 2019

How many truly meaningful and fulfilling conversations do you have in a day?

How many such relationships do you have?

Though I wrote my Pit Crew post almost a year ago, its ideas recur regularly.  I have linked to it on multiple subsequent posts.  I share it with patients and reference it in conversations often.  My patients are leaders of large corporations and organizations.  My colleagues and I lead teams in the hospital, the medical group, and the medical school.  My friends lead their families and communities.  When I think about our health and its consequences, it’s about taking care of those for whom we are responsible, ourselves included.

Are you generally the one who always takes care of others?  How does this affect your style and effectiveness as a leader?

Who Takes Care of You?

I estimate that about 20% of the time when I ask this question, my patients say that nobody takes care of them; they do it themselves.  They don’t mean that nobody cares about them.  It’s that they don’t really depend on anyone for counsel and/or support.  They hold everything together themselves.  I always have mixed feelings when the conversation takes this turn.  On one hand I feel admiration and respect, especially when they seem generally healthy—apparently unaffected by physical, mental, and emotional dysfunction.  On the other, I get curious.  How do they sustain this Lone Ranger method?  And what does it cost them?  I believe we all need tight, vulnerable, and safe connections through which we can get raw and real, and work through life’s ultimately messy sh*t.  We need others, even if it’s only one or two, to help us truly hold it all together.  My default assumption is that if we don’t have such connections, we are not living into our full potential.

And today I feel cynical.  I think we are getting really, really bad at taking care of each other.

Driving to work this week I wondered to myself, why do we feel the dearth of mental health services so acutely these days?  Is it that more of us are living on the psychological razor’s edge of mental health and illness?  Are we not diagnosably mentally ill but simply, profoundly, stressed to our limits of sanity and function?  Is that why none of my patients can get in to see a psychiatrist or therapist for weeks to months?  Is that why physicians are increasingly leaving the profession and killing ourselves?  Why do we feel so hopeless?

It’s easy to blame social media.  And I do, partially.  The cruelest irony lives here.  My non-evidence based impression is that cyberbullying bears equally life-threatening consequences as face to face bullying.  If you know of evidence to support or refute this premise, please share.  Negative interactions on social media, which rage so easily like wildfires, are now understood to contribute significantly to the rise in loneliness across the country.  Worse, cultivating truly positive relationships via social media is much harder and more complex, even deceptive.   So on balance the risks and harms of social media may far outweigh the benefits.  There simply is no substitute for personal, physical contact, for sharing the same space, breathing the same air, experiencing another’s full presence.

Worse yet, too often we can’t even get that right!  Ozan Varol wrote about this in his last post, “3 Ways to Be Insufferable In Coversation.”  They are:  1. Always turn the conversation back to yourself; 2. Pretend to listen; and 3. Ask no questions.  How many people have you already met today who do this on the regular?  If you’re honest, how many times today have you committed these relational sins?  It’s okay, we all do it sometimes.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  The other half is doing something about it!

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Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, July 2019

So what do we do?

First, Attend.  Pay attention.  How much time do I spend on social media?  What do I get out of it?  When does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drive my scrolling?  Am I really connecting?  Or am I stalking, comparing, judging, flaming, agitating the echo chamber, and otherwise wasting time and energy?  How can I set alerts and redirect my routine?

Second, Intend.  What is the best use of my time?  If I want to see how my friends are doing, rather than check my Facebook feed, why not call them up?  Send a text, photo, or—gasp—a handwritten note just to say hi, I’m thinking of you?  It may cost you time, energy, and $0.55 in postage.  But aren’t your real friends worth the investment?  You can do it on social media too—if you slow down and think about it first.  Consider the return—brightening someone’s day, feeling that personal connection.  Dopamine drives FOMO, and is also associated with addictive behaviors.  Bonding behaviors elevate oxytocin, the hormone that mediates empathy, safety, and connection.  There is even evidence that higher levels of oxytocin correlate with increased longevity of romantic relationships, or even a person’s own life span (could not find a reliable, peer-reviewed source for this claim—I just believe it intuitively).

Third, Get Curious.  This was the first skill I (re)learned in life coaching, ‘way back in 2005, and it serves me well every single day.  If we let go of the competitive, scarcity-based thinking that surrounds us, what more could we learn?  What novel and inspiring stories could we hear from anyone we meet, or even our closest friends?  If we listen to understand rather than to reload and refute or one-up, what vexing problems could we solve, together?  Just wondering about it makes me feel lighter and more optimistic, what about you?

Subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter, the Weekly Contrarian, to get his list of solutions to conversation insufferability this Thursday, 9am Central Time (I have no financial interests in Ozan’s site; I just really admire his work and the community of critical thinkers he has convened).  And today, I challenge us all:  Monitor our attitudes and facial expressions.  Manage our self-absorption for a few minutes at a time.  Look strangers in the eye and smile as if they’re already our friends.  Ask a Facebook friend what they did this weekend that really made them feel alive and well.  Let’s all get our caring on, shall we?

 

The Hard Conversations

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Life is about learning.  Learning requires acknowledging lack of skill, knowledge, understanding, or all three and more.  Boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment make it so much easier; too bad we tend to lose these natural traits (or they are trained out of us) early in life.  Then we have to relearn them as skills.  What happens when we reacquire boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment?  We get much better at having the hard conversations.  What makes conversations hard?  Not sure?  Just think of the conversations we avoid.  What are we actually avoiding?

I resist apologizing when I don’t want to admit that I misunderstood, that I made wrong assumptions that led to behaviors that hurt people, that I was not my best self.  I worry that people will think less of me and not trust me, not include me in the future.

I avoid giving negative feedback because I don’t know how the other person will take it.  Will they crumble in a heap of self-flagellating despair?  Will they lash out and attack me, verbally or physically, threatening my safety?  Will they disparage me to others, try to split our colleagues between us, sow discord and undermine our culture?  I worry that I will lose control of the situation.

We resist conversations about politics, religion, and issues like abortion because they can escalate in a nanosecond, filled with emotional tumult.  These are precisely the exchanges during which we blow past all of our boundaries for civility, language, tone of voice, and rhetoric.  We lose all interest in understanding what the other person thinks or, more importantly, how they feel.  We stop relating.  We judge everything out of their mouths as oppositional, ignorant, and unworthy.  We worry that we will lose our status, self-efficacy, agency, or our friends.

* * *

My friend Earnestine * has migraines.  Over the years she has worked out their patterns: timing, location, aura, duration, and triggers.  She hydrates, protects her sleep, and, most importantly, manages her stress with vigilance.  This way she generally avoids medications and keeps her symptoms under good control.  Recently she got caught in an unavoidably stressful situation with family.  A migraine hit her like a Mack truck out of nowhere.  She could barely walk, stumbling around, hanging onto walls and railings.  Her speech may have been slurred.  Thankfully she was able to escape to a friend’s house.  Her childhood friend, also a sufferer of headaches, offered her a handful of pills—her own prescription medications.  Earnestine struggled for the right words, and not just because her head was splitting.  If she refused, would she offend her friend, who has just rescued her from serious family chaos?  Would she trigger indignation, anger, resentment, rejection?  E found her personal values and boundaries tested, unexpectedly.  She felt ambivalent, as the core values of connection with a friend and right use of substances clashed.  She desperately desired relief from her pain, and she also needed to set an example for her boys, who were watching her response—what would she want them to do if one of their friends offered them ‘relief’?  Somehow through the fog, she found a way to acknowledge her friend’s generosity, and also explain that she was not comfortable taking someone else’s prescription medication.  She maintained her boundaries and stayed curious to monitor her friend’s and her boys’ responses.  Since that time, she continues to hold her friend in non-judgment, understanding that although she would not ever do the same, her friend’s intentions were loving.

I tell this story because I see it as a perfect example of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment in action:  Holding space for one’s own needs while attending to the needs of others and our relationship with them (both her friend and her sons).  Earnestine practices honoring her boundaries, which can, in some ways, be equated with her core values.  When they are challenged, she can stay in curiosity and explore the feelings that get triggered. She can withhold judgment on the feelings and simply experience them in the present moment, asking what they are trying to tell her.

This combination of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment, practiced regularly in small, everyday things, prepares us to face the harder situations and conversations with greater confidence.  We can trust ourselves, even if we don’t walk into any given situation knowing the right answer, to find it when we need it.  On the other side, these skills help us look back with fewer regrets, because we brought our best selves at the time.

I have learned to recognize opportunities to practice these skills, and now I resist apologizing, giving negative feedback, and talking about politics a lot less.  In fact, these are precisely the scenarios in which I can really test and hone my skills—sharpen them and improve my relational dexterity.  I almost look forward to them—sometimes.

It’s all a continuous journey, is it not?  Will we always face our fears with heroic courage and the perfect words and behaviors?  Hell. No.  AND, every day is a new chance to try.  What hard conversation might we come closer to doing better tomorrow?

*Not her real name