I’m writing this in the midst of Hurricane Florence – in Western North Carolina, now just a tropical depression. She continues to dump rain and is taking her time moving on out of here. She has changed people’s plans – and their homes - in both dramatic and subtle ways. She is everything from an inconvenience to a life changer. In thousands of ways, she is a huge pain in the ass - and what I feel and think about her is totally irrelevant.
Weather has a way of reminding me of one of my favorite sayings: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just wrong clothes.”
Growing up in tornado alley, we would have argued with that saying. Some weather just can’t be handled with a better coat. But nasty weather definitely taps into my inner control freak.
When I was a kid, we had tornado warnings regularly – and they were often backed up by actual tornados doing actual damage. We had a “tornado closet” that I got stuffed into more than once with my little sister. To this day, I hate, I mean really hate, being in tight spaces.
While in the closet, I would start inventing ways to eliminate, eradicate, obliterate or kill tornados. I was just SURE that a big enough gun could stop the havoc and get me the hell out of this closet! If a gun wouldn’t work, maybe there was something else like an airplane with special chemicals. It was magical thinking run amok.
The world is still waiting on my great inventions. The weather is still doing what the weather is going to do.
And my inner control freak is still learning what can and cannot be controlled.
Worry and fear don’t solve things – even though they appear like wolves in sheep’s clothing, telling me they have the answers. Complacency and denial don’t solve things either, while they try to “shelter” me from the truth.
The media doesn’t help. Yes, they are giving lots of facts and sharing the best guesses as to storm path, impact, etc. They are also in the business of getting ratings, so they are also going to show the worst of the devastation over and over again. If I’m not aware, my mind will run away with me, fueled by the guy yelling over the wind while people walk calmly behind him.
Parsing out what I can and cannot control takes everything I have. Making decisions about whether to stay or go and what preparations to make takes up a huge amount of mental space.
It’s also great exercise on learning to accept what cannot be changed and do what I can do AND developing the wisdom to know the difference. (This is a not-so-subtle reference to the Serenity Prayer, which is one of the most powerful lenses through which to tame the lion of control freak.)
So I sit here on Sunday morning grateful to be inside, prepared for what I can think of, and planning to enjoy the day while the rain pounds and wind howls outside my door. Will I keep worry, fear and control at bay? Stay tuned.
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By: Lynn Carnes
In the last several months, I have had a series of difficult conversations. What made them difficult for me was this: I was afraid that the other person would be unhappy as a result of the conversation. To some degree or other, I was delivering “bad news”, and just that characterization set me off into “I-don’t-want-to-have-this-conversation-land.”
For almost every leader I’m working with right now, that is familiar territory. Whether delivering the “bad news” of budget cuts, unwelcome mergers, constricting regulations, or failed business deals, they are leading people through change that they would rather not have to do.
Often, no one wants the change – yet they have to lead through it.
Just the thought of delivering bad news can send people into one of two reactive roles. The first is placating. I know this one well. When I go to placating, you get the power to negotiate all kinds of concessions from me. When I’m playing “Patty Placator”, my stance is “Please don’t cry – here, have a lollipop.
The second is to disregard. When I go into disregard, you will get the message loud and clear that I don’t care about you, what this news means, or how you are impacted. When I’m playing “Debbie Disregard”, my stance is “Get over it.”
Both of these stances are great – for making me not have to deal with emotions of the situation. Neither will lead to real change. Why? Because both let the other person off the hook. If I give you a “lollipop” to make you happy, you get to keep rocking along as is. No change required. If I disregard how my news is impacting you, you are justified in fighting the change, either above or underground.
It’s difficult to envision another path. How do you both care about how your news is impacting someone and still move things forward?
It takes practice, self-awareness and wisdom to stay on the “change tightrope” and move things forward without resorting to tactics designed to keep you and everyone else comfortable.
Change is not comfortable and neither is delivering unwelcome news.
Several years ago, we spent the day on the lake with two sets of friends who had young children. One of the families brought along a puppy they were helping find a home. I smelled trouble early on, because the kids from the other family quickly fell in love with the puppy. As the day wore on, I started thinking that this puppy might have found his new home. Also, in the back of my mind, I was wondering “are they really going to take this puppy on their 7 hour drive home?”
The drama came to a head when we dropped the first family off. The big question was this: would the puppy go with the original family or stay on the boat to go home with his new favorite children? “Please Mom, please, can we keep him?” echoed over and over again.
That was when I witnessed the change tightrope in action more clearly than I ever had until that point. The mom gently looked at her kids and said “No.” All kinds of wailing and moaning and begging could be heard across the water. They were SO upset. I’m waiting for her to tell us to go back and get the puppy. (I would have gone back to get the puppy.)
She didn’t yell, tell them to shut up, capitulate or explain. She simply circled her arms calmly around both kids and let them cry it out on the short ride back to their boathouse. By the time we pulled up, the eyes were dry and the children moved on.
When I reflected on the incident, I realized that she helped those kids accept that they would not get what they wanted by deeply embodying her decision. She left no room for argument yet she still stayed connected to their pain. She was ok within herself with them not being happy. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act.
It’s so tempting to…
…explain – we don’t have enough room in the car
…or capitulate – ok, we can have the puppy
…or yell – are you crazy?, we don’t need a puppy
…or tell them to shut up – I don’t want to hear it
…or do any of the other actions we develop to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
This mom tolerated her discomfort to support the right decision and by doing so, ultimately helped the children accept that decision.
When we are under pressure to lead in situations where people are not doing to be happy, we need good strategies for managing our discomfort as well as theirs. Here are some tips I’ve found useful over the years:
What is your favorite strategy to avoid your own discomfort? (I go back and forth between placating and capitulating) How do you deal with delivering bad news? What practices do you have to keep your inner strength in place for moments like this? Where have you compromised relationships because it was easier to cut the other person off rather than tolerate the discomfort of disagreement? What conversations are you having right now that involve delivering bad news or have high stakes?
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By: Lynn Carnes
Recently, I’ve watched a couple of true-story movies that involved pivotal and historical moments where a key person had a chance to stand up in the face of dissent. In our corporate lives, we often deal with make-or-break decisions in the face of disagreement, conflict and even bullying. What I loved about both of these movies is how they brought us into the agony of making such a difficult decision in a crucial moment.
One moment ultimately led to the longest running news stories of 2010, involving oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The other cleared Captain Wesley Sullenberger of pilot error in ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009.
In the Deepwater Horizon story, the pivotal moment happens when a Transocean employee has to make a go/no go decision to complete the oil well in the face of extreme pressure by a BP engineer. The Transocean guy wants to better understand some conflicting data; the BP guy thinks he understands the anomalies and wants to complete the well asap. (We all know how well that turned out.)
These guys had a history and many other smaller decisions had already been made. Corners had been cut.
With 20/20 hindsight, we can now see the cascade of poor decisions, happening well before theDeepwater Horizon oil spill. However, the final call could have changed the outcome.
In the pivotal scene, Senior Toolpusher Jason Anderson is facing contempt, almost ridicule fromBP engineer Donald Vidrine. It’s Anderson’s decision to make, but Vidrine clearly wants a “go” decision and he’s pulling out every bit of pressure he can muster. In the movie, the tension is thick while Anderson and Vidren face-off and it was intense, especially since we viewers know what’s about to happen.
While there was certainly some Hollywood drama baked into this scene, I’ve seen it happen more time than I can count in the halls of Corporate America.
Someone with authority takes a position and dares everyone else to disagree with him or her.
This doesn’t make them villains – exactly the opposite. It usually reveals their fear. However, all too often by those around them, including me, read it as confidence or a brick wall and we act accordingly.
Watching the scene where the character has to make the final go/no go decision of the movie made me wonder: Given the same set of facts, what decision would I have made?
Would I have had the courage and wherewithal to stand up to someone calling me stupid if I see the data the same way he sees it?
In the movie Sully, Captain Sullenberger is facing off with the NTSB over his decision to ditch US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. The NTSB had data to indicate that the plane could have made it back to LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport. Even though all lives were saved in the event, Sullenberger’s career would have ended in disgrace had the NTSB called his decision pilot error.
In a public hearing with hundreds of people in the room, and facing deep scrutiny by stone-faced NTSB investigators, Sullenberger stands by his decision. Rather than wilt in face of extreme pressure, he shows the NTSB a key data point that they had missed in their investigation: The simulator pilots were warned in advance of the emergency they would face and therefore immediately turned to the airport rather than taking a moment to assess the situation.
Sullenberger calmly points out the time-lag and insists that they run the simulation including a 35 second assessment period. Now the simulator pilots cannot make it back to the airport. Furthermore, the NTSB admits that in the best case, it took the simulator pilots over a dozen attempts before making a successful “dead-stick” landing at either airport. Sullenberger had only one chance in real life – and it saved 155 people.
Developing the ability to stand up in the face of dissent requires cultivating courage, clarity and confidence in what you know and awareness of the limits of your ability.
Pivotal decisions are made with much more than simple smarts. In my experience, they are made based on the cascade of emotions and physical sensations flooding our body at these moments of truth. More often than not, we take care of our feelings, unconsciously of course, rather than standing up in the face of dissent.
We see the hardened faces, we feel the potential for ridicule or being shunned and we might not even be completely sure of our own point of view. So we go along and hope for the best, especially if we are working in a culture where results, authority and order are prized traits.
Rarely are the consequences life and death. Hard decisions will frequently have a time or money component, both of which were in play in the Deepwater disaster and US Airways forced landing.
In a fairly low risk scenario, I stood up to a banking decision many years ago. We had made a “go” decision on a large and complex loan. While I had not initiated the deal, it would be mine to close and oversee for its duration.
Unlike most of our local loans, this one was secured by real estate assets in another state. None of us had seen any of this real estate in person. We had pictures, we knew the borrowers well, we had appraisals and we had all of our analysis. What struck me as odd was that no one was talking about doing the final due diligence, which was to actually see what was securing the loan.
So as the most junior person in the room by far, I simply asked this question in final loan committee meeting: “Does it strike anyone else as odd that none of us have seen any of these assets in person? I’m not trying to get a boondoggle here or anything – just wondering how everyone feels about that.”
It was kind of comical to see how everyone reacted. It was a “well, duh” moment, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to go visit our collateral.
Thinking back on it, I accidentally stepped into a strategy that I would later learn to cultivate. I asked a sincere question with no judgment or preconceived notions of what the answer should be.
It would be many years before I recognized and began to cultivate the ability to stand up in the face of dissent, discomfort and disagreement.
I’ve certainly come to learn that cultivating clarity in my “inner world” is required to build this particular skill. Practices like reflection, journaling and meditation strengthen my ability to gain access to my own wisdom.
If I am caught up in fearing the judgment of others, in wanting to be liked, in needing to fit in or be seen as a team player, I have very few resources at my disposal to gracefully disagree or point out anomalies in the group think that is all too common in this fast-moving world.
How do you gain clarity when someone in authority or whom you respect has a strong point of view? Where do you find the resolve to stand up when the river of opinion is flowing in a way you believe to be dangerous? In what ways are you cultivating clarity in your inner world?
As always, I would love to hear how you are answering these questions! And if you find this useful, please share! Chances are someone else will find it useful as well.
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The year was 1983 and I was a baby banker working for THE bank in my hometown. About six weeks before the cookie event, our group found out we would all be getting off work early Friday to go to a “pool party” at one of the executive’s houses.
Woohoo! An afternoon off! Wait – a pool party? That would involve bathing suits (that’s what we called them back then) No thank you – I will just stay at work and hold down the fort.
Then I decided there were six weeks and lots of good eating habits between me and the dreaded bathing suit party. So I started dieting and I was really, really good. For six whole weeks, I abstained from every kind of food I loved. Hunger was ever present and I couldn’t wait for the pool party to be over.
The day of the party arrived and my thing to bring to the party was chocolate cookies. Well, I’m pretty sure I decided to bring cookies because I had eaten enough salads to fill the swimming pool.
On the day of the party, the big box of cookies was sitting next to my desk. Every time I smelled them, my mouth watered. The first half of the morning I resisted – I had been sooooo good for so long. Then I decided that one cookie wouldn’t kill me.
So I ate it. It was as delicious as my mouthwatering dreams had promised. Then the floodgates opened. I had another. And then another. After 3, I had to do something with the rising guilt. How could I have lost my willpower so fast? I had a choice. Either stop eating cookies or find a way to make it ok.
Here was my justification: the fat from eating cookies now could not possibly hit my thighs in the next 3 hours. I will look the same in my bathing suit in three hours as I do right now. So eating more cookies will not hurt a THING! Let’s have one more.
I have no idea how many cookies I ate that day – but it was a lot. Enough to make me feel sick. It might have been the last time I ever baked chocolate chip cookies.
I don’t remember if I gained a bunch of weight from eating all those cookies, nor do I even remember the party all that much. I’m pretty sure my good eating habits went out the window for at least another decade.
What I mostly remember from cookie event was the way I made my choice that day. How I justified going back to my old habits. It was years before I learned to make a real change in my eating habits.
It was years before I learned to make real change in anything that mattered.
Instead of changing, I was an expert in justifying. There is a good reason that I did – whatever it is that you tell me I could do better.
My internal logic went something like this: “If you only knew why I did whatever-bad-thing you are talking-to me about, you would agree that I did the RIGHT thing.” So I would proceed to justify and explain and sell and whatever else it took for you to see than I couldn’t, wouldn’t possible change.
Our minds can work that way. It’s so much easier to justify than it is to actually change something.
It’s so easy to take a grain of dissatisfaction (I need to lose 5 pounds, I need to be kinder, I need to balance my work time better) and decide it’s ok when faced with the reality of what it will take to change.
What I have found works for me is to let that dissatisfaction grow instead of diminishing it. I have to recognize the consequences of whatever it is I need to change rather than finding reasons I don’t need to change it.
Does it work all the time? Heck no! But I have made some substantial changes in my life.
The truth is that it works when I really want it to.
Where are you justifying something you really want to change? What is staying stuck, even though you don’t like it?
Where are you living slightly satisfied instead of facing what you really need to change?
We are coming to the end of another year – what is it time for you to truly change?
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Here’s the question I hate more than any other: “Will you do me a favor?” This question is especially tough when it comes from someone I’m close to, because, well, yes, I would love to do you a favor. So my reflexive answer is “yes”, or “sure”, or something affirmative like that.
Now I’ve made a promise. With my yes still ringing in the air, here comes the request: Can you drive me two hours to the airport? Or will you lend me $100? Or will you come over and spend 8 hours helping me figure out my computer? My preferred answer to all of these requests is NO. All of these requests are really outside of my abilities or time available or better judgment.
At this point, I have a couple of choices. Weasel my way out of the promise or just do it because I said I would. I did all of these because I said I would. Groan. There must be a better way.
Think about how you make promises for a minute. How often do you make a promise that you would rather not fulfill or cannot fulfill once you realize the entirety of the situation? How far have you gone to “keep your word”? If you are like most people, making a promise can be an almost sacred contract.
You will do anything to keep your word.
But what if keeping your word is ultimately the wrong thing to do?What happens if you discover that things have changed, you did not have all the information or you made the promise in error. That happens.
What if you are keeping your word simply because you don’t know how to break a promise? Now what?
This is almost the exact situation one of my clients recently experienced. He had decided to leave his company for a new one, and was ready for a move to a new city and exciting job. The day he was to sign a lease on a new apartment, his existing company made him an offer to stay.
He had not played one company against another, so the offer was a huge surprise to him. His original employer had done a reorganization and realized he was the most qualified person for a newly created role. Having him stay was far and away the best solution. When he heard the offer, he was delightfully surprised--- and then he remembered all the consequences.
His biggest dilemma was dealing with the string of promises that he had made, the biggest of which was to the new employer, who was counting on having a position filled. (In a nice job, but not his dream job.)
He also had to talk to his wife and of course, there was that apartment expecting to fill an empty unit. He is such a man of his word that he almost declined. Breaking promises is not in his repertoire. Keeping his promises meant he would have missed the exact job he would create for himself in a perfect world.
So we talked about how to break a promise. Without having to “weasel.”
Our first step was to clear his conscience. Could he honestly say that he was not angling to play one company against another? No – but he feared that it would LOOK that way. It was important to just be honest and stay grounded.
The second step was to look at what changed his mind. Was it cold feet? Nope. He was dealing with a completely different set of facts than the ones that drove him to seek the new job.
Then we looked at the scenarios. Yes, he could keep his word, move his family, start working with a new team and then what? How much would he wonder what could have been?
Or he could break his promise and stay with the newly created position. The decision was clear: he needed to break his promise, and it was very important to him that he not “weasel his way out” of it.
So we explored his approach. The first question: What could he do to minimize the damage done by him not fulfilling his promise? He came up with several thoughts on how he could leverage his network to help them fill the position.
With those questions completed, he was ready to have the conversation, with a clear conscience and a position of strength vs feeling like he was “weaseling”. He also was aware that he was not the first person ever on the planet to step away from a job acceptance.
The conversation went so much better than expected. The second employer was both gracious and committed to staying in touch with him.
And there was more. The second-choice candidate had REALLY wanted the job and was sorely disappointed in not being chosen.
This broken promise paved the way for two people’s dreams to be realized.
Sometimes promises must be broken. When the facts change, when the situation gets rearranged, when our capabilities change or sometimes, when our clear thinking finally comes on-line.
Breaking promises doesn’t make us a weasel – as long as we do our part to own the decision and ameliorate the damage.
And before we make that bold promise to do our friend or loved one a favor? Get more information on the request. It will save you countless hours of fulfilling the automatic yes!
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Note: This blog post was originally published as a bonus chapter in my book “The Power of Positive Intent: An Inspired Way to Deal with Change in Any Business.”
￼I ended my TEDx talk with this sentence: “You can become the co-writer of an entirely new story for your life.” If you are looking for a new source of power in your life, look no further than the truth of this sentence. Now for the difficult part: implementing it in your daily life.
Master your stories and you virtually remove the ability of others to get to you.
Notice, I said “your stories”, not “the story.” Mastering your stories is super challenging, because most of the time, our story is invisible to us, hidden in the background informing what we see, hear and feel.
We don’t realize that we are telling ourselves a story about a situation. We just assume we see the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when in reality, we have just a few teeny data points.
Our stories determine how we act in any given situation. Because our stories are so automatic, we rarely notice that they are stories instead of facts. Our story is certainly not “the story”.
Those stories create a cascading effect. When you choose negative stories, filled with inferences about how someone is mistreating you or disrespecting you, or how your employees don’t know what they are doing or the board member is out to get you, you set certain things in motion.
These kinds of scenarios play out every day in business:
Epictetus, the philosopher from Rome said: “He was sent to prison. But the observation ‘he has suffered evil,’ is an addition coming from you.”
The “addition coming from you” refers to the stories we tell about why things happen.
Our stories are fertile ground for learning about ourselves and they are the pivot point for assuming positive intent.
Any intent that we assume on another person’s actions is based on a story that we are making up. We simply cannot know all the facts. And as you saw in Chapter 7, even a “Fighting Francis” can be disarmed by sticking with the facts and not adding fuel to the fire. (Note: You can download the whole here.)
Have you ever had someone not answer an email and you start telling yourself stories about why that is?
Why is all of this so important?
Your stories are a window into YOUR internal operating rules and beliefs.
They reflect a compilation of your victories and defeats, your happy moments and your despair. They also create the roadmap for how you write the story for your life, and when you couple the tendency of the survival brain to see the worst in everything, your hidden stories create negative outcomes.
I’ve hurt myself more times than I can count by telling the wrong story.
I had a simple, funny and embarrassing incident recently with my husband and the bottle of soy sauce. He brought home some chicken fried rice from his favorite Chinese restaurant. The day he brought it home, he made a point of asking if we had soy sauce as he opened the refrigerator looking for it. Before I could answer, he held up a full bottle and said, “Never mind – we have a brand-new bottle.” Strike that one from the grocery list. I thought, “If I decide to make the dish needing a soy sauce marinade later in the week, we are covered.”
The next morning, he had finished his breakfast before I came into the kitchen. The first thing I noticed on the counter was an empty bottle of soy sauce. Now, let me tell you – I don’t think of soy sauce as a condiment for anything involving breakfast. So, I had to ask, “What happened to all the soy sauce?” My incredulousness touched his impish button, so with a twinkle in his eye, he said “I used it all.”
Now my crazy self-talk started. I was thinking “How could he have used a whole bottle? What is he cooking that might need a WHOLE BOTTLE of soy sauce? What about me – what if I need soy sauce? How am I going to make my dish? He is making more work for me. Is he trying to be wasteful on purpose?” This thoughts came one after the other, at a speed that would get me arrested for going double the speed limit.
The stories I started making up were epic. One involved my husband suddenly deciding to cook and something delicious was marinating in the fridge as we spoke. Another involved him emptying the bottle into another container just so he could mess with me. The most ridiculous involved him actually eating the whole bottle on a single serving of rice. The more stories I made up, the more my mind closed in on finding an explanation for how a full bottle of soy sauce was now empty.
I wish I could tell you how funny this all was – but I can’t.
I actually got quite annoyed when he refused to explain the empty bottle to me. My wise husband stopped the nonsense by opening the door and pulling out the still full bottle of soy sauce. “I found another one that was almost empty and decided to use that one first. You leapt.”
What a simple explanation! It never occurred to me that this might be a different bottle. Now I felt relieved and embarrassed. Relieved that there was a good explanation and embarrassed because I let my mind run away with making up stories. Again. I leapt.
The stories we make up are a significant barrier to assuming positive intent. Our minds love to find a reason for things. In the absence of a full explanation, we will fill in the blanks and not even realize we are doing it.
Artists use this tendency to leave something to the imagination in their work, knowing that the brain will fill in details, often in a way that is pleasing to the viewer. Writers do the same – often the passages that set up a gripping scene and stop short of giving every detail are the ones that we enjoy the most.
We have the same power to generate more empowering stories in our day to day lives. However, our survival brain, personal history and context tend to send our stories in the “OMG, I’m about to get screwed!” direction. Because it happens so fast and is so reflexive, we take those stories for true. We often don’t consider that something else might be going on.
Understanding the stories we make up is incredibly fertile ground for developing deep self-awareness – transformative awareness of our own personal patterns, habits and operating rules.
These patterns, habits and rules operate in the background, taking over our decisions without us even being aware of it. Your mind is lovingly offering you an “easy button” to create shortcuts that make your thinking automatic. Ever feel like you just keep doing the same thing over and over again? That’s your background operating system at work, making life “easy” for you. The stories you make up are not based on the facts of the situation. They are based on your personal filters much more than on what is really happening.
I will say this. I find it really hard work – hard personal work – to make up a better story. With the help of my coaches over the years, I’ve learned more about myself by learning to assume positive intent than almost any other practice that I have implemented. (Meditation is another regular practice I have found extremely useful.)
In some ways, it’s more fun to act on those negative stories, filled with ill-informed assumptions about how others feel and think. More often than I can count, I have set off a cascade of unwanted consequences, which predictably enough, actually magnifies the negative stories.
When you watch my TEDx talk, you will hear the stories of the ways those other stories negatively impacted me in my career, sidelined my goals, isolated me from others and left me feeling pretty angry at myself and the world around me.
My negative stories caused me to co-write a story for my life that did not work very well at all.
Alternatively, when you assume a position of positive intent, you set a completely different set of cascading possibilities into motion. When you become aware of the stories you tell yourself, and decide to change those stories, you inspire a new direction for your life and create true strength in yourself.
The first step in learning to change the story is to start with a question or two. Rather than leaping to a conclusion, take a step back and gather more data.
Here are some questions that you can ask someone who is acting in inexplicable ways:
At a minimum, it’s useful when you are making up stories about why something is happening to ask yourself this question: “What would explain this behavior that also fits the facts of the situation?”
Make a note of that question, highlight it, write it down. Because that question will help you make up a better story on which to act and can set things off in a much more productive direction.
The second step is the beginning move of a deep journey of self-discovery. You do not have to tell the stories that you have been telling – you can change the stories.
Assuming positive intent is that simple, pivotal action that empowers you to become aware of your own motivations, hurts, patterns and operating rules. When you can’t assume positive intent by telling a better story, it’s because of something operating in you that is NOT YOU. It’s an old story that you adopted. It can be changed.
Imagine being the master of your stories. You don’t have to “buy” this idea – instead, rent it for a while and experiment for yourself.
The third step is to practice, practice and practice some more. When you get stuck, ask for help.
Learning to tell a new story has changed the trajectory of my life. It can change yours too.
With practice-and sometimes the support of a friend or coach- you can truly become the co-writer of a new story for your life.
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After my last blog about getting back on the horse, it seems I’ve been surrounded by lessons in dealing with fear hits, managing nerves and preparing for big events. This is the season for state water ski tournaments, and we have had several people training on our lake. There has been lots of talk on the dock about how to prepare, whether the training is working and how people react to the pressure. We all have our ways, whether it is to get quiet, be more talkative or something else that works for us.
Thinking about better ways to respond to pressure everywhere reminded me of a story in my banking days. I was doing my first big presentation of my first big job. Talking has never been a big problem for me, so I wasn’t really nervous going into it. In fact, I was overly confident, thinking about how I liked to just wing it. Things would just flow beautifully right out of my mouth. So I was counting on being able to say something smart when my turn came. We were sitting at a big table, and as other people made their presentations, I was kind of smug, thinking in the back of my mind I would be great when it was my turn.
Finally, it was my turn to speak. All eyes turned to me. In that second, the adrenaline hit me-- hard. My heart started pounding. My palms got sweaty. My mouth was suddenly dry. Everything brilliant thing that I had prepared to say left my brain – just flew out of there like a bunch pigeons scared by a gunshot. Now the only thought in my mind with all those eyes on me was “Am I even wearing clothes?” I could not remember feeling this exposed ever in my life. No wonder public speaking is one of the greatest shared fears with humans. Only I would call what I was feeling pure terror. And I was unprepared for it.
I started talking – and I have no idea what I said in those first few sentences. I’m pretty sure it was jibberish. At some point, I said something that snapped me out of it. Their eyes changed, my nervous system calmed down and I got connected to my material and to them. By the end, it was an accidentally good presentation. But what did I DO that made that shift? How did I get through that without making a complete ass out of myself? What could I have done in preparation to be ready for the nerves? And what could I have done to reengage my brain after I got that adrenaline hit? Because no amount of preparation keeps that adrenaline from hitting when we are doing something big, something that really matters.
Making intentionally good presentations – as opposed to accidental hits or misses – became more and more important as I took on added responsibility in my role. It wasn’t until much later when I started becoming an athlete and working on building a capable mind that I began to learn what makes the difference between getting lucky and being intentionally grounded and confident.
On a whitewater rafting trip with my family, we all got to experience some good adrenaline taking a trip that involved being in our own kayaks and a couple of Class IV rapids. This was definitely not for chickens – usually I couldn’t tell if my heart was pounding from the workout or the steep drops through the rapids. The river is full of rocks, and getting stuck on one or hit by another was a very real possibility. We watched several in our crew end up in awkward situations.
About halfway down the river, my nephew made an observation that I’ve never forgotten: “Hey Aunt Lynn, if you look at where you want to go instead of all the rocks, your kayak just goes right by them!”
Good point! It’s not like it was the first time I’ve ever heard that principle. I use it in snow skiing in tree filled slopes, I use it in tennis and I even highlighted it in my TEDx talk. Focus on what you want and you get more of that. Flow is restored.
What do you do when you get hit by that sudden request to have a mystery meeting with the boss? How do you handle the nerves when getting in front of a lot of people? How do you remain centered and calm when the pressure gets high? What is your self talk when you are in fear or think you are messing up?
We can be more prepared if we are willing to become more aware. It is possible to deal with those fear hits with deliberate practice.
I would love to hear from you! And stay tuned for news of a workshop that is all about flow.
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Last week I did a short workshop with the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce to kick off a Woman in Business Series. Our topic? Using Fear to Thrive and Grow. These courageous women tackled the topic of fear in a profound way. Fear is an interesting topic – because it’s like eating. We need fear to survive, just like we need to eat to survive. And like eating, we can overdo fear, becoming bloated with woulda, coulda, shoulda instead of living the big life we are meant to live.
Every single woman in this session had a story of doing something big and important in the face of fear. Some of these actions involved physical danger – like jumping out of an airplane. Others involved following her own spirit instead of falling prey to “what will people think?” And some involved speaking truth to power, where the danger was more political than physical.
Since that session, I’ve been corresponding with some of those women and reflecting a lot more on how fear can help us learn and grow. Here is what I’m learning.
You don’t jump out of an airplane without some training. You start with some level of skill and then continue to build on that until you are ready to do a tandem jump, and eventually, with enough skill, you do a solo jump. Skilled skydivers do all kinds of things a newbie would never dare to try. Me? Not interested in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane! (Nor do I want to get over that kind of fear!) I would rather fly them.
When I was in pilot training, my first flight had me to do the takeoff, flying around and landing, with the instructor in the right seat of the plane. Even though I had a lot of fear and no skills. You can bet he wouldn’t hand me the keys to the plane without him being in there! He gave me the illusion of control and it was exhilarating. It made me want to learn to fly – which was the point of giving me the challenge of being in the left seat. The key was the support of having someone in the right seat who could fly the plane – and more importantly get us out of any trouble I got us into.
As my flight training advanced, I came to learn that flight instructors train specifically to handle rookies, who are probably scared or sometimes too cocky. They learn to do everything from the right seat, which is very different than the perspective of the left seat. While it can be very scary to turn an airplane over to abject beginner, they are trained for it.
So if I had accidentally gotten our airplane into a stall the very first day I flew, the instructor was trained to get us out of it. Would he have been scared? Probably not, because it is a maneuver he had done successfully so many times. Was I scared the first time we intentionally stalled the airplane? Heck yeah! Was I scared after doing many times? Not as scared, because I eventually learned to do it without being totally freaked out.
If fear is stopping us from doing something we would like to do, we need to build our skills to deal with the fear.
First, we have to acknowledge that we even have fear. Take the idea of speaking truth to power. This is not an impossible task. Somebody has spoken truth to power before. They did it knowing they could be fired. They did it knowing that the person in power might get mad. They did it while being aware that they may not be listened to. All of that is ok. The point is to learn to say what needs to be said, to not let fear stop us.
Fear almost stopped me from learning pottery. I tell that story in this video (which also includes our drawing for who wins the mug in today’s drawing!
Fear can help us thrive and grow. It points us to our personal edge of discomfort.
When we reach that place, we have a choice. We can either turn back and say – nah, I wanna be comfortable. I want to feel secure in what I know, I would rather be really good in my sandbox instead of learning to play at the beach or swim the ocean. Or we can move forward and decide to learn and grow.
We can seek the skills needed to help us navigate the “discomfort zone”. We can take a risk and act while being scared.
Where is your discomfort zone? Do you have more fear in physical danger, or social and relationship situations? What do you do to overcome your fear?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I want to learn from you!
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What is the thing we want more than anything else in the world – and yet we don’t want it at all? In my experience, that would be change. It’s as if our brains somehow think that the order of the universe is stability and equilibrium. Nothing could be further from the truth. The order of the universe is change. From the minute we are born (actually, from the second we are conceived), we are changing. The earth of today is not the earth of yesterday. The same is true of our businesses. From the time we start them, they are in a cycle of life and that cycle includes death. The Fortune 500 list has lost 88% of the companies from 1955 to 2014. It brings to mind one of my very favorite quotes: “You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”
The order of the universe is dynamic, not static.
This lesson was brought home for me recently in an early season water ski lesson. The coach encouraged me to do something that scares the you-know-what out of me – create more energy and acceleration out of the turn to get to the next buoy more quickly. He said, “Do it stronger and shorter.” Once I found that body position, I was elated! Leaning that way is actually more stable and effective. So what did I do? I tried to STAY that way. In other words, I got the stronger part, not the “shorter” part. As a result, I got out of balance and almost fell. At the end of the lake, the coach said this: “Water skiing is a dynamic sport. Nothing is static. Your job is to always be moving in relation to the boat.” So what he was telling me was this: Just because you changed something in a good way doesn’t mean you get to keep that good thing forever. Dang it!
And there in lies the problem with change. No sooner do we get adapted to the “new way” than it becomes the “old way.”
It’s hard to let go of what we like in order to change to the unknown! In my banking days, we had a project that we nicknamed BOHICA. This was actually the term we used much more than the official title of the project. Before I tell you what it stood for, you can probably guess. Ok, I’ll tell you: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again. It’s pretty difficult to create positive change in an organization when everyone feels like they are getting screwed. And frankly, work sucks when we feel like we are out of control of what happens to us.
The irony of the “BOHICA” project was this: I learned so much in that project, and it launched me to a new level in my banking career. If I had actually embraced that experience as a learning moment rather than something to be endured, chances are I could have leveraged it even more. Instead, I defaulted to a bitter, cynical point of view designed by me to keep me safe and comfortable.
The problem in BOHICA – and in so many other changes – was my attitude relative to change. I developed my “strength” based on what was happening yesterday, and something new came along today to knock me off balance.
What I recognized on the ski course that day was that per my usual, I was seeking a comfort zone. I do it all the time. That little “comfort zone box” carries an illusion of safety that might as well be a gallon of Elmer’s glue. It also keeps me stuck.
Chasing comfort keeps me from growing.
Of course! Discomfort is the path to growth. Or the path to paralysis. And therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge in change. There is a range of discomfort that is productive. Too much discomfort leads to paralysis. Too little discomfort leads to stagnation.
When we manage it well, we can take big change from “here we go again” to “here we grow again.”
So what’s the alternative to chasing comfort? The first thing we have to do is recognize the reality of change. Things are going to change. Period. Hunkering down and hoping it blows over just makes it worse. So if that’s the reality, what should I be doing to manage it better?
It starts with you. Recognizing change as an ongoing reality helps a lot. Learning to develop practices for keeping your level of discomfort in the productive zone also helps. For example, I give myself a break. I really watch the inner chatterbox – any time I start beating myself up, judging other harshly, or trying to prove myself, I intentionally shift the thought to something more productive. When I hit the constructive level of discomfort, I stay in the learning and growing zone. Now, I will confess – I don’t do this all the time! Simply having the intention to do to it helps.
What strategies have you developed to learn and grow in times of big change? In what ways does your “inner chatterbox” help you? And where does it hinder you? What is the most important shift you could make in your mindset to help you consistently perform at high levels?
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers.
In one of my recent workshops, a very successful businessman was struggling with balance. He adores his wife and children and also has a hugely demanding job that includes long hours and travel. He came into the session wanting mostly to find a way to produce that elusive dream of “work/life” balance. His high achieving mind was determined to make it happen, yet the more he forced the issue, the less balance he felt. Worse still, when spending time with his family, he felt guilty about not being responsive to the people he worked with. You can guess how he also felt at work. Yep. Guilty. Guilty that he was not spending time with his wife and children. Guilt is a heavy weight – it’s certainly not the best emotion to make life feel harmonious and in balance.
With further exploration we discovered his definition of balance was defined by a core belief that was making him miserable. Since time is quite measurable, he was under the belief that equal minutes spent in work and home would generate work/life balance. With a new definition of balance, he saw a totally different possibility for his life. The weight could be lifted.
What I have come to realize for myself is that time is the wrong measure for balance.
Being able to fully shift from one activity to the other has made all the difference in my own well-being and sense of balance. When I first started experimenting with watercolor, the most difficult thing for me to do was actually do it when I went into the studio. I would leave my office, full of left brained work, and enter the studio, which begged for the unshackled right brain. Then I would be paralyzed, intimidated and scared. Sometimes it would take me a couple of hours to really get into it and actually paint something. My untrained brain just did not want to shift and instead of painting, I would organize things. One day, I tried doing a warm up instead of trying to instantly paint a masterpiece. (Somehow I thought every painting should be a masterpiece.) Just putting paint on paper with no intention other than to get the creative juices flowing helped my brain make the shift more quickly. With practice I’ve been able to train my brain to make the shift almost the minute I walk into my studio. This has had consequences – my studio is pretty messy, because I almost never feel the urge to organize anymore!
What if balance is actually a function of attention and being present to where you are at the moment?
Maybe the reason we bring work home and then bring home with us to work is that we are not good at the shift. What if we trained ourselves to truly bring our full attention to our families and then bring our full attention to our co-workers? Imagine being able to master your attention (which sometimes operates like an unruly child in a toy store, running around from one noisy attraction to another.)
One of my all time favorite quotes was in the George Leonard book The Way of Aikido. I’m paraphrasing here: The student said to the teacher “Master, you are always in balance. How can I ever learn to do that?” and the Master replied “I am out of balance many more times than you are. I just recover more quickly.”
This quote and idea were quite useful to the businessman seeking balance. He found a way out of guilt and into attention. Not instantly, but with clear intention, he eventually was able to magnify those tiny moments of attention into something that brought him closer to his vision for a balanced life.
What would it take to practice the shift? What happens if you put down the phone? (I am terrible at this!) What do you need to do to train your brain to focus? Imagine being fully present with the people who matter to you when you are with them.
How do you get balance? Do you measure it in time or in some other terms? Do you even think work life balance is possible? Let me know in the comments below.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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