“I, Cathy Cheng, living and working at my highest and best, am Honest, Curious, Generous, Humble, and Kind, so that I can cultivate the best possible relationships with and between all people.”
How does this statement land? On me, not on you. Well, maybe a little on you—is this how you experience me at my highest and best? The personal vision statement is just that—personal. It’s my own beacon to navigate life’s storms. But what good is it if it’s only for me? Shouldn’t it also be the light I emanate to make my best contributions in this one brief existence?
Thanks to Braver Angels pal Sharon Kristjanson and her Engaging With Difference class, I have protected time these two months to spelunk this inner work. Sweet! Though I have had a Why statement for a while, it’s high time to test and refine it. How does it hold up when relationships get really hard? What does it mean to be honest all the time? To be generous and humble when I’m tempted not to? What is the shadow side of curiosity?
It’s deep work, but not necessarily heavy. I’m not drafting a final life mantra for my headstone. I’m noodling with a saying that fits at the same time like my most comfy pajama pants and my most flattering black dress. I am my own best seamstress, taking in and letting out as my relational habitus changes over time and experience. I’m always me, with evolving roles, tasks, and projects. Playing lightly and lovingly with words, purpose, and meaning, in whatever context surrounds me, with a trusty journal and smooth-writing pen…this is an ideal weeknight! Adaptive. Resourceful. Connected. Possibility. Oh yeah, this is gonna be awesome.
Happy Fall, my friends! Are the leaves near you as brilliant and wakening as they are by me?
This morning I had another Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals Mande and Sharon—we have met monthly since soon after the pandemic’s onset. I come away feeling seen, valued, and loved every single time. And we hatch plans to change the world, too—stay tuned. 😉
Mande’s rock star sister hosts “Jeffersonian Dinners,” where friends gather and discuss a meaningful question—a modern day salon—oh, be still my heart. This week’s question, for the Jeffersonians and me alike: “After the election, how can we come together?”
Coming together now means connecting and healing. It means committing to this as work, no more blaming and playing victim. It means each of us owning our part, because we are all active participants in all of our relationships, and the current state of our culture is the sum total of all of our complex, inextricable relationships. Coming together fosters peace, which I think we all yearn for, especially now.
I believe we cannot die at peace unless we live in peace first, and peace must be cultivated. A life of peace necessarily embraces openness, curiosity, humility, vulnerability, patience, and generosity. How lucky I am to know so many models in these domains, like Sharon, who teaches these exact skills—she helps us train. It’s like prehab—getting the body healthy through clean eating and good sleep before surgery. Then we build on this foundation in rehab, increasing range of motion as well as both core stability and mobility—think of this as a metaphor for interpersonal encounters and relationships. It doesn’t just come, even if you’re a natural, and times like this will test your talent as well as your skill. “If you don’t have the practice then you can’t show up consistently,” Sharon wisely explains. So what are the practices?
How do you make people feel?
By now you must recognize Maya Angelou’s simple and profound words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In these coming weeks and months—actually for the rest of our lives—what if we each attended more to this? What if we all take responsibility for at least half of how people feel after they encounter us? And what if we all committed to making every encounter as positive as possible for the other person, ahead of ourselves? Tonight I will review only two of the myriad practices for pre- and re-hab’ing our ailing culture.
What are you already doing to make things better?
Listen More Deeply—Much More Deeply
Listen through the words and beyond your own head.
The most superficial listening level focuses on what I think of what someone is saying. I listen to refute and proclaim, to be right, to dominate, to dismiss, and maybe even shame. Conversations and relationships go south and disintegrate quickly in this scenario. Yuck.
We can connect, however, when we start listening holistically to the words, imperfect and inarticulate as they may be, to hear what people think. How do they perceive, understand, and rationalize (we all rationalize)? Where, intellectually, do their opinions and positions originate? This kind of listening can lead to truly curious questioning and when done well, to important insights and deeper understanding.
At the third listening level, where we truly connect personally, we hear how people feel. Humans are fundamentally emotional beings with the capacity for rational thought, NOT logically thinking beings who happen to have feelings. If I’m able to hear emotions, then recognize, identify, relate to, and acknowledge them, I diffuse and de-escalate. This is often the first moment of deep connection in an encounter.
Lastly, listen for core values. When conversations escalate and we suffer emotional hijack, often some core value (eg honesty, fairness, integrity, equality) has been violated. When I recognize this I can then relate and connect, and this mutual understanding almost automatically further de-escalates a conflict.
Elevate Your Opponent’s Humanity
Some years ago driving to work, I saw a young man, maybe in his twenties, cross the street in front of me. He looked fit, dressed casually, a little scruffy on the face. Suddenly I saw him not as a pedestrian, or an office worker, or a fellow Chicagoan. I saw him as a mother’s son. I wondered to myself, is she thinking of you right now? I bet she’s proud, no matter what you do. I hope you carry her love around with you all the time. I hope it sustains you. I hope that for my own children.
Listen to Simon Sinek interview Bob Chapman on his podcast about leadership. Chapman, a father of 6, likens leadership to parenting. His Why is to make people feel cared for rather than used. He sees each of his employees as someone’s precious child, and thus someone to be valued and loved, just like he would want his own kids to be treated.
How do we do this? We recognize people’s strengths. We acknowledge their core values, we validate their feelings. We respect their opinions and engage in disagreement with understanding and not ad hominem attacks. We aim for 5 positive interactions/exchanges for every negative one, to cultivate relationships of deep trust and safety.
What if we did this with the people who disagree with us? If we imagine debating someone with each of our parents watching, how would that change the dynamic? If we truly cared for each other as members of one human family, how much better could this all really be?
I’m thinking hard (and soft) about how best to use my time, energy, creativity, relationships, and writing in these coming months. We’ve dug ourselves into a great, big, muddy (sh*tty) hole, yes. And we absolutely can dig ourselves out. But it will take all of us. I’ll try to keep reminding us.
The only way out is through. The best way through is together.