Tag Archives: perspective

Open to magic

I’m sitting in the JFK airport with a 5 hour layover, waiting for a flight to Madrid. You wouldn’t find me complaining if you sat down next to me. I have been waiting expectantly for this opportunity for almost a year. I plan to meet my middle son there and trek across northern Spain for over two weeks. I feel so darn lucky to have made it to this spot.

The wait has given me time to contemplate my expectations for this very anticipated journey. I am tickled to see my son again after 8 months. I am giggly about getting to be outdoors non-stop, and yet I know that my excitement is full of attachment to specific outcomes.

We can plan, we can anticipate, but when the time comes for a big event — be it a trip, a board meeting or a company merger — being open to the outcome is the prescribed cross-cultural tenet. From Hinduism comes the advice to be focused on what you are doing, not the fruits you are trying to derive. Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology and researcher on detachment proposes that, “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.”

Example of the day — I somehow got upgraded to first class on the way here. Talk about attachment to the outcome!! I visualized great food, comfy chair and lots of space to spread out. I did get all those, but also I received the interesting surprise that the flight attendant radiated a not very pleasant odor. I think it was moldy shoes…or it reminded me of the smell that came when a gaggle of teenaged soccer players would remove their cleats in the mini van during days gone by. Regardless, it helped to breathe in and out of my mouth whenever the server would drop by.

The practice of detachment calls us to be open to whatever comes and watch for the mysterious unfolding of life just as it is, not how we might have visualized it.  This is the differentiator between joy and suffering in my life.  I like to remember Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s advice when life is coming at us unexpectedly. When what arrives is fun and interesting (that upgrade) she recommends we repeat to ourselves, “Pleasant.” And if it is uncomfortable or bothersome (overwhelming smell), we can say instead, “Unpleasant.” With this approach we remember to stay with the game and not miss the next act as we cling to the good or recoil from the bad.

And they don’t call it a “practice” for nothing…it’s something I continue to work on and forget more than I’d like! Yet, when I do remember, or are reminded by wise souls who stay calm and happy regardless of what pleasant or unpleasant surprises arrive at their door, detachment is like a reset button.

As we started our descent, the flight attendant went from seat to seat kindly thanking each customer for the opportunity to serve. When he came to my seatmate and me, both female, he took our hands and kissed them. “Very dear” I thought and wondered what other surprises await.

Do or D.I.E.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share leadership skills with nineteen international English teachers who are visiting on a State Department fellowship. Part of the program includes internships in our area schools. In my workshop we were uncovering the culture of a local high school.

Teacher after teacher shared surprises the school had held in their first visit. “The hallways are so quiet,” “Do you know that everyone chews gum, even the teachers?” and “Your students eat in during class!”

Some of this was news to this mother of past and present high school students, and it begged a brief tutorial on the D.I.E. cultural model as we all grappled with what all this information meant. Tracking the history of D.I.E., or the Describe, Interpret and Evaluate model, it appears that it was originally posited as an approach to art criticism. Briefly this is a 3 to 4-staged strategy where you notice:

  • What are you seeing (Describe),
  • What does it make you think (Interpret) and
  • What are you then concluding and do you know it to be true (Evaluate and/or Theorize)?

Recently, this model has been applied to foster intercultural sensitivity. Example,  A man is eating lunch using his fingers instead of cutlery, chewing with his mouth open and belching loudly (Describing the scene). I might think, “I wonder if he is American?” or “Does he know that this behavior is culturally off here?” or “That is definitely not attractive by American standards.” I might then start making assumptions about the individual and his cultural competencies.

Checking my work while I then evaluate my assumptions and interpretation of the situation wakes me up to where I am overlaying my own cultural frameworks and stereotypes and where I might be completely wrong.

So, returning to the international teacher cohort, after describing their visits, we then noticed assumptions were we each making on chewing gum or eating in the classrooms. Could we draw the conclusion that these unique activities created quieter hallways? Did it make better or worse students? The exercise drove home for me once more how quickly I zip from description right into interpretation and forget to evaluate too often.

Case in point. I sat down to dinner near Valentine’s day with friends and posed a timely icebreaking question, “What is something that you love?”  A reply included a description of how fortunate one of us felt to be supporting his organization through bankruptcy and negotiations with creditors. “I feel really lucky to get to engage in this level of problem solving,” he added. If I had described to you all on his plate, I wonder if your interpretation might be closer to my “wow, that sure sounds miserable.”  Meanwhile, his interpretation of the situation has a highlight of my evening. I loved seeing another modeling the possibility in seeing challenges or conflicts as gifts. I also loved how he proved my lack of “die” reasoning “dead” wrong.

A practice session for breaking down my thought processes into 3 distinct stages came in the form of taking my daughter on some eastern college visits over Presidents’ Day weekend. We’d arrive at a school and how quickly I noticed that I wanted to decide if it would be good/bad for her! Maybe it was because I was woefully underdressed for the humid cold, but I was a hindrance to my daughter’s experience anytime I started to jump to conclusions. So instead, I tried to use the hour-long tours around campus to notice details instead. What was fascinating is, when I was paying attention, how much description would be devoted not to faculty capabilities or dorm room dimensions, but to my own emotional landscape as I practiced visualizing our youngest daughter off at university.

So, I pass along this as a leadership exercise for us all to practice this week. Pick an attention grabbing situation and:

  • Describe the scene
  • What assumptions are making, what thoughts are arising?
  • Evaluate — what can you guarantee from your assessment might be true? Could I assess this completely differently?

Just as we couldn’t determine the influence of gum chewing or I couldn’t suss out if a college was truly right for my daughter, we have some room to also choose our interpretations.  Watching the inspirational effects of my friend choosing to see turmoil at work as a fascinating opportunity, perhaps since we don’t know, shall we add the brave assumption of “this is great,” while breaking down our experience? As I interpret all of this, it seems worth a try!

Devil trees and leadership

Over the holiday break, a contingent of our family stood on a hill overlooking Panama City. As we took in the view, our son Cameron remarked, “It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I might suffer a terrible death. From a personal perspective that would be catastrophic. In this city, that might make news. Yet, from a historical perspective, that is nothing. How many millions have suffered the same? It becomes nothing.”

We listened to the sounds of the city and watched women hanging laundry out of windows below. We surveyed the skyline, a building fashioned to look like a corkscrew, and the ocean etching a border.

Senya, Cameron’s sister, then encouraged us to contemplate that cities, or systems, like this were rocking and rolling, moving and shaking across this country, across Central America and beyond. She brought up the struggle of actually comprehending how interdependent actions were madly occurring all around us and that we were somehow affecting the melee, even as observers from above. How many people were hanging their laundry at that exact moment? How many were laughing, crying or walking to work? How many were watching like we were? How did each of those actions mess with another?

I appreciated this conversation and how it shifted my perspective in those moments. I was remembered a Jewish proverb that reminds us to place a piece of paper in each of our front pockets. On one we are counseled to write, “I am unique in all the universe,” and on the other, “I am nothing but dust.” The art is to know which piece of paper to fish out when.

I was brought back to Cameron’s initial statement four days later floating down a creek in a small fishing boat, or panga, near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our captain and guide hailed from the local Nôbe-Buglé tribe.  After pointing out caimans and sloths, he added, “and that tree over there is called a devil tree. Some people will go make offerings in front of trees like those to call out the devil to get things that they want — jobs, a girl or money.  On Good Friday they wait to make their request and spirits will appear sometimes in the form of a monkey to answer them.”

He had my attention. I have been long fascinated by how trees play a role in cultural practices. In Thailand, you can pray to a tree to save your child from illness or to get a job. If rewarded, you return to the tree and give it gifts. Apparently, tree spirits are feminine as when traveling in the country, I witnessed a number of trees awarded very fancy dresses.

In Crow culture, trees might be adorned with prayer bundles or gifts if prayers are answered as  you can see in the included photo.  

And, Deidre, how are you going to  connect this to leadership?

Harkening back to Cameron’s statement, leadership is all about perspective. For example, how often does your average Westerner walk past a tree without notice? How many of you reading this knew about the potential importance of trees and tree spirits within these cultures? More importantly, how often do I remember that what is standard to some is sacred to others?

Leadership calls for humility. I know well that my personal perspective is not the only one on each situation, yet I need constant reminders. Too often I want to barrel ahead ignoring this fundamental fact.

Like the death example above, what might be a catastrophe for me could be interesting news to another, or have no significance at all. As simple examples, take the cutting down a tree or filling in a wetland. Therefore, as leaders some of our most critical tasks must become sharing, gathering and shifting perspectives.

And so, I am walking into this work week with the mantra, “It’s all about perspective.”

Night Trekking in Dayton

I experienced an urban “food desert” first hand last week.  As I wrote in my earlier post, this term describes locations where it is difficult to find healthy sustenance. In rural America, “food deserts” arise where it is not financially viable to have a grocery store. In inner cities, these locations appear where it doesn’t seem safe to set up shop.

Instead of wandering out into the sands of the Sahara, I walked out the front door of the Dayton, Ohio Crowne Plaza around 9:30 pm in search of toothpaste. The young woman at the front desk said it would be easy to find, just walk down a block or two to the BP gas station.  Relying on the encouragement of the smiling receptionist, I went out into a harsh ecosystem for this Montana dweller.

My upbringing in downtown Minneapolis should have alerted me quicker, but I was out of my native environment. All concrete and stoplights, there were no evening diners passing by – within a block I realized I was in a tough part of town.  I was kicking myself for a momentarily lack of street smarts when a young heavy set woman in a blue scrub shirt and black pants walked up to me and asked if I needed help. I explained my toothpaste dilemma and she said she was going that way and would walk with me.

Why did I go with her? To prepare for a conference on dialogue and neuroscience I was attending in Dayton, I had been avidly reading about how the brain parses information. Reviewing what I learned, I suspect I followed her was because she appeared unthreatening and felt like an appropriate ally; she appeared authentically kind, she was Caucasian and carried no bag. She, I found out quickly, knew the streets of Dayton. She was big and thus her heft and height somehow made me feel safer.  I could have read the auditory and visual signals wrong — “Don’t try this at home,” should be subtitle to this word painting —  thankfully, I didn’t.

We were on a busy street, yet, throughout our walk, we were clearly the only white folks in the area. Did that make it more dangerous? Debatable. Yet, brain research describes how our senses heighten whenever we encounter difference from our usual setting. Thus, my fight/flight reflex with in full swing by the time I made it to the BP as, “Toto, we surely weren’t in homogeneous Bozeman, Montana anymore.”

Again, the gas station was a busy place with a young woman and her four friends trying to put air in a tire and a few drivers getting gas. The station’s front doors were locked and everyone had to request items through a glass teller window from an elderly Asian man. What would have been buck-fifty tube of toothpaste at Target was $2.99.

If you were hungry, this is looked to be your only option in this neighborhood. Without a car, there were chips and pop for dinner shoved through a teller window.  Walking back with my volunteer bodyguard I learned that she was homeless and that she often slept in a tiny room at a friend’s house. She had lost her fiancé a few blocks before she met me — he and a friend had taken off when she was in the bathroom.  My twenty-something friend was also pregnant and had earlier been raped and robbed on these same streets.  I struggled to take in all that news not only because of its potential personal safety implications, but also, because here she still was walking up and down those corridors.

As my tour guide, she pointed out what looked to be a quick drug deal in the middle of the street, some heavily pierced once-friends (“We don’t hang out with them anymore. They are so immature”) and, eventually, her fiancé and his buddy. Before leaving her to duck back into indoor safety, I slipped $10 for something to eat. Recounting her history, she explained that she was hungry and had missed the meal at the local church.  True or not, she had provided safe passage and I wanted to give her something in return. I told her fiancé to make sure she ate soon, but now wonder, where that might have been possible in that strange, dark world outside my hotel window.

Where are we?

Last weekend I added another way to describe the importance of seeking another’s perspective when you find disagreement. Being a soccer parent in Montana has its challenges. When your children “travel,” you don’t head across town as do my friends in Minneapolis or Washington, DC, instead you hit the road at 5 am to drive across the state. The older the kid, the farther you must venture and the earlier in the year they start playing. Thus, the season began in earnest on Saturday for our teenaged daughter with games scheduled in Billings, about 2 ½ hours east.

April 4, 2009

April 4, 2009

Yet between Friday and Saturday morning we received about 18 inches of snow in our neighborhood outside of Bozeman. It drifted across the roads and without a snowplow, I wasn’t going to make it out of my driveway.  There was also a winter storm alert for our destination. Games had been cancelled all over the state. So, the three fellow soccer team families in our neighborhood decided at midnight to forgo 4 AM snow blowing and possible dangerous driving conditions since it seemed impossible that the games wouldn’t be cancelled. There are limits.

We awoke the next morning to even more snow and emails that the games were scheduled as planned! Weather.com continued to report winter storm alerts and the transportation department tough road conditions, yet all the other team members were on their way to Billings. How could that be?

This situation then began to remind me of watching a mediation. There’s usually a time during a dispute where one party insinuates that the other must be a little crazy or irresponsible. But for a mediator, this moment should be a sign that everyone might be missing critical information.

Thankfully, after shaking my head in disbelief, I recognized I must be missing something. After making some calls, I learned that downtown Bozeman had received a few inches not feet of snow and the farther east you drove the less white stuff you’d see. Ringing a friend already cheering on the sidelines, I learned that the fields were completely dry. “Winter storm alert” in Billings meant only cloudy skies, not dumping two feet as it did south of Bozeman. The same term was used for both cities with very different results. From our winter wonderland it had seemed impossible that there would be relatively warm and dry weather 60 miles away until I spoke with someone who had just made the journey.

After my faithful spouse dug us out, the girls and I headed east to make a second game. Arriving at the fields, it was my turn to explain to the other soccer parents why our late arrival had not been…well, lazy or irresponsible! With a dusting of snow on their vehicles before leaving, they were as confused that we hadn’t made the trip as I had been that they had. From Billings we had seemed a bit crazy…just as they seemed from home!

I now hope to mumble, “they must be in Billings” when I reach that tough spot in a mediation when perspectives diverge, or in my own disputes, so I will ask more clarifying questions. I’m guessing those who know Billings, Bozeman, or Butte for that matter, are smiling as they read this since these towns sport not only unique ecosystems, but also very distinctive, and sometimes opposing, personalities…yet, don’t we all?