Tag Archives: playing well with others

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?

Working together

To explain not posting for the last ten days, I noticed that I was reluctant to admit that we just returned from a California vacation. That reaction seems strange considering in our small town it is an annual communal practice to head south or to the mountains when Montana State University closes its doors for spring break. Go to Moab, Costa Rica and Whistler the third week of March and you will be sure to cross paths with a Bozemanite. Vacation plans have always been standard small talk here where nine months of the year yield snow.

Yet, standing in the grocery check out line earlier this month an acquaintance shared how she was driving two hours away to ski this year to “be good.”  I receive a weekly email that broadcasts queries from reporters and I’d say a good dozen of these requests have been on the theme of “Are you still going on vacation, or should you, during an economic downturn?” After watching the attached TED video, I’m wondering if my vacation sharing reticence comes from trying to fly with the flock!



I have been long fascinated with how groups move in unison without apparent choreography. What makes a team rally behind a particular leader? How do organizations suddenly coalesce around a creative solution? What creates a new industry trend? Mathematician Steven Strogatz explains that the synchronized movements of flocks of birds or schools of fish are easily modeled using three basic principles:

  • A member watches those next to him
  • Group members tend to line up
  • Group members are attracted to one another

When a predator attacks, a fourth principle is added:

  • In danger, get out of the way!

Birds scatter and then flock once more as they respond to external attacks; are we attempting to do the same as we adjust to global or regional surprises?  I must be applying the first principle as it pertains to discretionary spending, yet recognize, as Strogatz explains, that too much synchronized movement can be detrimental to the whole.  Following the presented theory, it might be interesting to consider how we can  “fly right” in these times. I welcome your thoughts!

Playing Well in Ecuador

I am always looking for leaders who resourcefully overcome huge challenges and create societal transformation in their wake. Some of our more famous 20th century conflict transformation stars would be Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and of course, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, there are many lesser-known courageous souls around the world who are continuing to play well and changing our landscape.

 Thus, I wanted to pass along a Christian Science Monitor article on Nelsa Curbelo. A former Uruguayan nun and school teacher, Curbelo is successfully tackling widespread poverty and violence in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Either click on the hyperlink above, or go to http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0122/p01s03-woam.html 


Curbelo demonstrates the mastery of four critical cross-cultural conflict resolution strategies: 

  1. Gather information – At the beginning of any battle we are best served by paying attention and taking stock of the battlefield upon which we stand. For example, to tackle the problem of Indian independence, Gandhi spent over a year traveling on third-class trains and on foot, asking everyone he could — Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Brahmins, Untouchables and so on — about India and its needs. Similarly, Curbelo spent two years simply walking the crime-ridden streets of Guayaquil, asking and listening to gang members, families and other community members.
  2. Be Flexible – Focus on a goal, but keep the final product open to revision. Notice how Curbelo’s goal of mitigating poverty and suffering allows certain protections of the youth she serves to remain in place. She isn’t there to stamp out gangs or rid the streets of guns, just to effectively help.
  3.  Engage our creativity — The best solutions are both surprising and elegant.  As I wrote in a previous post on employing art, creative ways to express our truth packs extra power. By honoring that gangs are a source of community and identity, Curbelo was able to foster the forming of a united nations of past warring groups, complete with an inaugural celebration!
  4. Act Courageously – It’s one thing to know what is right, but another to do it. A conflict transformation star holds that everyone deserves a chance and basic support. I remember Maria Montessori, who in the early 20th century spent years working with Italian children who had been written off as handicapped or damaged. Montessori’s work went on to transform early childhood education worldwide. Curbelo’s community is now filled with those who now many in society fear or deplore. May her work will have the same wings that Montessori’s enjoyed.

 I hope you find the article of interest and inspiring!

I can’t hear you…

A monk asked Shigui, “What is the first principle?”

Shigui said, “What you just asked is the second principle.”

 — from Zen’s Chinese Heritage

A few weeks ago, I was trying to pass along some information to a friend that I hoped would help resolve a conflict with which she was struggling. She was angry and, no matter what data I provided, I could tell it wasn’t getting through. Every point I tried to make, my friend got more defensive. She wanted out of the conversation and I was ready to give up.

There were clear signs that I needed change my approach. A “fight” (anger/attack) – “flight” (let me out of this conversation) reaction was a blaring indication that she was scared. Fear sits right underneath anger and avoidance.

When we are afraid, we are focused more on surviving than gathering new information. When the adrenaline kicks in, our brain screams, “Get yourself out” and is not much interested in sticking around to learn. So in this state, we don’t hear so well.

Trying to convince another is highly ineffective when she is worried about losing something dear to her. I know this, yet had forgotten as I laid out my well-developed argument…ah yes, teaching what I continue to integrate! After a few tries, I remembered an important cross-cultural rule of thumb, “Ask Questions.”

Asking open-ended questions calms and opens thinking. From a brain perspective, when I need to consider and answer a question, I move from my survival-focused brain stem up into more contemplative neocortex. In that portion of our heads, we can consider past, present and future, be creative, and are more willing to learn.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” The better the question, the more it slows the listener to consider it. That might be confusing, but our best inquiries stop others in their tracks.

Favorite questions include:

  • What would you have liked to have been different?
  • What could I do differently?
  • When you have been in your opponent’s situation, what would you have appreciated or needed?
  • Best of all possible worlds, what would you like to happen in the future?
  • What should our next steps?
  • How could I best support you? 

Our conversation shifted when I remembered to ask a question, in my case, the third above. Instead of striving to present positions, I became privy to my friend’s wisdom on practical ways to support another through tough times. We both listened better while she considered her next steps and I provided the information I thought might help. Our conversation, and later her conflict, were transformed.

Ask questions…A remembered mantra in my litany.


Christmas is coming and…

I’ve been wondering if the goose’s weight fluctuation was a result of stress eating. Normally, this is the “Oh-when-will-I-wrap-ship-buy-cook-decorate-call-address-stamp-clean-and-even-celebrate” time of year. It’s about now I start cursing cultural traditions and hope my friends can wait another year to see a photo of our children.

To make the season extra interesting, let’s add a recession. I’ve noticed that not only are folks struggling with budgeting the financial outlays, but also with determining the appropriateness of their actions. Traditions can be comforting in that we do the same thing every year. But this year, do you hang lights outside and spend that extra cash on electricity? Do you make cookies for all your friends or will that put them in an uncomfortable situation? My family is now laughing since I have never pulled off either of the above in good times…but you get the drift of the internal questioning. We’ve added the stress of asking “what’s right?” to “how do I get this all done?” 

About ten years ago, Angeles Arrien shared an analogy upon which I rely. She said, when we are under stress, tired or otherwise preoccupied we should see ourselves as standing on one foot. Precariously balanced we can easily be pushed over and so, in these instances, we must pay careful attention.

Given the season and the current climate, I propose that many people will be standing on one foot during holiday meals. They may be dressed up and putting on the best face possible, but may also be wishing they could be hiding at home. So, how do we enjoy the holidays and the people with whom we are gathered?

First, I’d assume that everyone is emulating a flamingo. Don’t expect others to be ready for anything. I’d treat everyone, including you, gently. These are not ordinary times, so if someone loses it, we might want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next, look for telltale signs of stress and don’t take others personally. In  The Way of Conflict I describe four default conflict styles. Each displays unique and often unsavory characteristics when afraid. So, if someone:

  1. Gets really quiet or stubborn
  2. Becomes passive/aggressive or negative
  3. Impatiently barks at you, or
  4. Regales you with “the real facts,” and your stupidity,

 …recognize that person is struggling. Your dinner party partner is teetering on her one standing leg. As the person falls you might want to give her some room, or get out of the way!

Last, create the right frame of mind.  When we are stressed or terrified we gravitate to the fight/flight portion of our brains. There in our reptilian brain, we lash out as described in the previous paragraph. However, we can trick ourselves into using the calmer and more rational neo-cortex by focusing on learning, gratitude or play.  See my “Tips for Turkey Day” for applying mind shifting to a holiday meal.

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah is here. I hope the holiday season brings you all its best along with some time to regroup and recover.