Tag Archives: Conflict Skills

As in soccer, as in life

As I was tracking the World Cup statistics from FIFA.com, I found myself recalling a local soccer match I had watched with my mother a few weeks ago. Based in California, my OD consultant mum was in town for the weekend and accompanied our family to Billings for a state tournament.

We both shook our heads as we witnessed the teenaged girls on the field struggling. A month before we had seen this same team play with success and hold strong against their opponents.  “Well,” I remarked, “we’ve both now got a great leadership case study to share.”

This was a set of strong players who played in the fall on a rarely-defeated high school team. Some are fantastically aggressive defensive players, others can run like the wind, and still others have beautiful ball handling skills. Yet, hearing the coach yelling at the girls from the sidelines, I figured she had not gotten the memo on why managing from your team’s strengths is a winning strategy.

As we caught snippets of the coach’s assessment of what the girls were not doing right, I was reminded of a manager from the beginning of my career with IBM. A favorite story whispered around our department recounted when our manager, we’ll call him Bill, began giving one of our senior software developers, Terry, some actions to complete. As Terry listened and mentally noted the “to do’s,” Bill couldn’t stand it. “Pick up the pen, here’s a piece of paper. Now, write this down,” he stammered.  That Terry was African American and probably 10 years Bill’s senior made this slight even more inappropriate. Bill was the same manager who asked me if I was going to have children because that might affect if I could continue to be “on the fast track.”  Perhaps he missed the interpersonal skills, sharing confidential information and EEO sessions during manager’s training, but we were all quickly looking for ways to escape his leadership.

Tell me long enough I am a bad employee/soccer player/partner and I’ll probably begin to believe you. In contrast, focus on what I am good at and notice how I square my shoulders, show up and perform well.

Strengths-based leadership is the concept of focusing on what team members do well, while giving each the opportunity to improve our skills in other areas. As one high tech sales executive illustrated for me, “A new sales rep will land in my office and say, ‘I can’t write,’ and I have learned to say, ‘Let’s not worry about that now, because I know that you are great on the phone. Focus on selling on the phone, and if you’d like to learn to write better we’ll work on that later.’ By acknowledging everyone’s strengths, I have a top-selling sales team.”

Gallup survey of more than one million work teams, which also conducted more than 20,000 in-depth interviews with leaders, tracked why participants followed the most important leader in their life. The research uncovered that, ” the most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organization’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organization’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold.”

A friend asked me to come into her 5th/6th grade classroom last week to tell a story. When I arrived, one of the 12 year olds looked me right in the eyes and said, “You are the best storyteller.” Another added, “I love when you tell stories.” When my friend hugged me and told the class that I was giving them a wonderful gift by dropping by and that they were so lucky to have me, I thought, “what a contrast to the soccer weekend.” Instead of doubting myself as those teenaged athletes did, I sat up straight and delivered a tale from China as best I’ve ever told it in the past 10 years. I bought their assessment of me, just as we are all prone to do.

What a Bit of Encouragement Can Yield

This week I passed a coffee shop table where a friend sat with a pretty red-haired woman. Being introduced for the first time, I blurted out how beautiful she looked in an emerald green sweater set. I think I caught my new acquaintance a bit off guard and upon heading out again I thought, “There I go again…”

My husband shook his head a few months ago as we boarded a plane and I shared with the young, handsome airline staffer that he had great eyes. My daughter cringes when I can’t help myself and tell her friends how I love their outfits. I try to temper this behavior — the poor airline employee blushed apple red just to remind me that this is not common practice — but I still hold a deep belief in acknowledgement.

I believe in acknowledgement and its sister action of encouragement because 1) It’s a conflict resolution skill of the first order and 2) It’s the reason that I have chosen to bravely embark on many favorite accomplishments.

When I am passionate about an issue like good education for all, there is nothing more delicious than another seeing my passion and affirming fully that he’s heard me. “You really care about this. It is what feeds your soul. Here’s what I understand you are saying…” Hearing any of those are balm to the soul. If others are enthusiastically making a point, just let them know that you have heard the content, emotion and impact of their words; this works wonders in conflict. You don’t need to agree; just be clear that you have truly heard them.

Before I left on an year long exchange to Mexico after high school, I was required to go to a Rotary training session over a weekend at a camp outside of Minneapolis. One of the session leaders suddenly required us to give an impromptu speech to about 10 gathered students and adults crowded in a small cabin. 30 years later (can it be that long?) I still remember one of the Rotarians coming up to me and out of the blue saying, “You are really good at public speaking, do you know that?”  I didn’t.

Now, whenever I get up in front of hundreds, or embarrass young airline employees that kind soul is more than partially to blame. His words encouraged me. They mattered, whether were true or just one man’s opinion.

The art of Joshua Allen Harris

The art of Joshua Allen Harris

Check out this fun piece on artist Joshua Allen Harris, who after a bit of encouragement, has taken to creating fantastic pieces using garbage bags and subway exhaust.

Where has encouragement empowered you? How might you acknowledge another’s contributions this week?

Shifting focus to overcome challenges

With the Thriving Through Tough Times tip,  “Give to your community so you can fully recover,” I have been trying to justify it a bit backwards. With the other techniques, I noticed their appearance in many different traditions and thought, “Ah ha, a theme!” For example, surrounding yourself with a caring community is a widespread practice when tough times appear. However, with “give back to recover,” I noticed this by watching clients, effective leaders and how I was able to bounce back after difficult circumstances. As I wrote in my last post, to make my case I have been looking for standard multi-cultural practices to back up what I believe to be true…and had come up short!

 But, I’m now wondering if I had been approaching the research wrong.  Perhaps I am not finding “giving back” as a required cultural practice because helping others has to be a very personal choice. Showing back up in your community after a major loss is an individual test of courage and optimism. Jerry White of Survivors Corps and I were talking a few years ago about how perplexing it is that some people against all odds are able to recover and survive terrible circumstances while others who have all sorts of resources get knocked down and never get back up. Neither of us could point to one factor, other than a firm personal decision that the person wants to get up and involve herself in her community. It seems like a foundational spot where we all have free will.  I can’t make you get back on your feet again; you have to choose to do so.

 Tibetan Buddhism has an interesting take on how we can choose to return and how this relates to giving.  Buddhism believes that our soul comes into being and then is reincarnated potentially multiple times. During each lifetime, we are born, we learn stuff and then we physically die. Yet, after death and before rebirth, we always have a choice. If we need to learn more, we can choose when and to which family we want to be born into the next time. Also, we have reached a level of wisdom, we can elect to instead head off into nirvana or we can choose to return to earth to help others reach enlightenment.

If we don’t understand how the reincarnation process works, according to Buddhism, we aren’t aware that we have choices. Depending on our development, we may instead fearfully jump into the first body available and can land myself in a worse situation than before. However, if I understand the death/rebirth process, I can select a better existence. If I have taken the Bodhisattva vow to help others, I can then decide to be reborn in a place where I will be of most help.

 When things fall apart –we lose a great job, marriage, loved one or our health for example — we experience what Buddhists call “little deaths.” While processing the loss there is a time where I am grieving and not in the world. Tibetan Buddhist call the place between death and rebirth the bardo state (bar –“in between” and “do” – island or mark). Like in the bardo state, during tough times we often land on an “ in between island” after loss and before recovery.

 “In Between Island” living isn’t easy. Bardo states are described as potentially terrifying since there we face what most scare us. Our inner demons appear as visions or nightmares. Similarly, on our between islands we come face to face with our greatest fears. Phrases like,  “I’ll never find another job and will be out on the street,” “My husband will leave me” or “I will never heal and will die,” creep into our heads.  We feel pain while mourning and our worries create additional suffering.

 As with the Buddhist death/rebirth process, if I don’t understand that every difficult circumstance is also an opportunity to reincarnate into a better me, I might jump at the first solution I can find to try to avoid the pain.   I might choose a life where I drink heavily to run away from my suffering. Or I quickly marry so I am not alone yet land myself with an abusive spouse. 

 However, if I am aware that with difficult circumstance, I can back up for a bit and consciously choose my next step, I’m ahead of the game. In transition lays possibility and opportunity to become more authentic and expand. All major religious traditions advise in these junctures if we base our decision on how we can help others as well as ourselves, we will learn to be unafraid of death/rebirth and better play the game of life. Sounds flowery and sweet, but it actually practical when you see it applied.

 Buckminster Fuller, after losing his business and daughter to illness, found himself on the brink of suicide. In that moment, he made a choice to stay and to serve humankind. As a result, in his biography he wrote of deep joy throughout the rest of his life as he developed inventions like the geodesic dome, agricultural strategies and  the dymaxion car. In looking for solutions to serve the greater good, he was undaunted by failure and tragedy.

 I was lucky enough to interview Nadwa Sarandah and Robi Damelin when writing Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Each had faced horrid opponents. As an Israeli Robi’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while in required military service and Nadwa’s Palestinian sister was stabbed to death on the West Bank while walking down a street. Both had been knocked down, but through the Parent’s Circle, an organization committed to create peace in their region by refusing to seek revenge for the loss of loved ones, they returned to life. Through their focus on helping their community, they both had found purpose and a degree of peace. Robi explained, “I can speak in front of 60,000 people without fear.”

 If we can shift our focus from our personal pain to how we can be of use, we paradoxically we will relieve our suffering.  Pick a tradition and I find this concept hidden. Hmmm, perhaps this is the daily practice for which I have been searching. 

Creating Connections

This past week had me contemplating what it means to be of use. Listening to one NPR Morning Edition program, I began to tally all the problems on the Obama administration’s plate: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Supreme Court Justice nomination, lack of US cyber security, the economy, the environment…and the list continued. It was overwhelming as I thought about what it must take to attack all these issues with a calm and thoughtful approach. You’ve got four years to change the world, so where do you begin?

Meanwhile, watching volunteers and brave souls in the Dominican Republic the week before, I was struck by all they each could add to their list — sanitation, nutrition, access to education, reduction of teenage prostitution…you’ve got the rest of your life, so where do you begin?

When studying how those who take on societal problems, or engage skillfully when fighting against an institution like a culture or a government, I notice that it is about planting seeds. It is rare that you will win the whole battle within your lifetime, so what seeds can you plant that might take root? It is about doing your part as a generation within many generations before and after you. For example, Rosa Parks did her part, as did those before her and as we must do today in the battle of basic civil rights for all citizens.

Sand Mandala

Sand Mandala


Author and conservation activist David Quammen describes the importance of creating connection between wilderness areas as critical to ecological health. Fragmentation creates islands and it is within islands that we experience extinction. As I listened to David describe this concept last night in support of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, I realized that this was a beautiful reframing of how we might think of fighting a good fight to resolve what seem to be irreconcilable differences. In other words, in my actions am I creating islands or corridors? As these great long battles shift and redefine itself, so what can I add to create more connection rather than fragmentation? Is this not only the work of the environmentalist, but also that of every individual who seeks to improve a society?

Navajo Sand Painting

Navajo Sand PaintingTibetan mandala

I wanted to include a brief video of Peter Donnelly of Christchurch, New Zealand, who plants seeds of connection, creativity and a reminder of the temporal nature of being here. He reminds me of the practice of the Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand paintings, as seen above, which are painstakingly created only to be erased. In all three there is the message of bringing forward your gifts regardless of the final outcome.

To see more of Donnelly’s art, go to http://www.donnellygallery.co.nz/sandart/index.html

It’s a project

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you are capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.     Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation

Foraging my memory for blog post ideas, I remembered the phrase, “The Listening Project.” With foggy details that included volunteers going to the Middle East to just listen to participants and the healing that emerged, it seemed like an important NGO to pass along.

Well, searching on “the listening project” yielded a new award-winning documentary at www.thelisteningprojectfilm.com. The short trailer describes a movie that asks open-ended questions about America’s impact of people around the globe. I haven’t seen the movie, so cannot recommend it, but the experience of watching just the trailer reminded why I believe in listening and why it can be so darn hard to do.

Here’s an experiment, watch the trailer and notice where you cringe. Is it when the interviewer asks, as it was for me, “what you think that America is doing wrong?” Or perhaps, do you wish to zone out when another participant responds, “All Americans are liars.”

If we do not listen, we cannot learn. Yet, who likes to hear about their failures or the anger of another? I know when I am teaching it takes a deep breath and a dose of courage to ask, “What could I have done differently?” Listening is a discipline. It takes work and practice not to turn away when the rhetoric contains malice, prejudice or even misinformation. And, for me, it takes a few tricks.

 First, to stay present when listening to unwelcome information I repeat to myself, “that’s one window.” Listening to heated dialogue, I like to picture that everyone is looking through a unique window on the world. I am hearing the view from that person’s lookout. Holding that image, I am more able to stay in, remembering that I getting a picture that is informed by the speaker’s experience, the landscape upon which they were raised with the panes colored by their culture.

 Second, I repeat, “I’m going to learn something.” When I realize that I can gain something from the conversation, I find I am more engaged, and as I have mentioned in earlier posts, in a more rational mental state. My view gets bigger and better if I can come to understand yours.

 So, I hope to watch this film and want to let you know that organization for which I searched is called, “The Compassionate Listening Project.” This group can be found at www.compassionatelistening.org. From that site, I drew the opening quote and renewed inspiration from their consistent willingness to keep listening.