Setting the Internal Stage

When I plan an event, I go to considerable effort to make sure I set the proper tone in terms of flow of events, the agenda, the menu, my dress, my energy level, what I will say, etc. The more important the event, the more time and effort that will go into planning that event.

In contrast, when I plan an important conversation with a loved one or colleague, I tend to plan the content but typically allow the rest to emerge spontaneously.   To the degree that the conversation is likely to be viewed positively by both parties, going-with-the-flow may be sufficient though not ideal. To the degree the conversation may be difficult or become confrontational, then this strategy is likely to be a disaster. Since the repercussions of a failed relationship are pretty high, it makes sense to put as much effort into planning a critical conversation as a dinner party, right?

In the past, I would spend all my planning time honing my argument so that I have a counter for every possible complaint or accusation.   That approach assumes the outcome of the conversation has a winner and a loser, and I worked hard to prepare because I never want to be the loser. However, in the end, the win/lose mindset creates only losers because I’m putting ego ahead of the relationship.

Instead, I want to create a win/win by making the relationship the priority.   Despite my best intentions to do so, it’s not an easy task and should not be left to chance. I wouldn’t leave the outcome of an important reception to chance, why should an important conversation be any different?

Here’s my checklist for preparing for a difficult conversation:

  • Identify the larger goal – Instead of proving someone wrong, my larger goal may be to repair the relationship, build the relationship, and/or find a solution to a sensitive issue.
  • Identify my message – Pick one or two points that I want to get across. For example, I may want her to understand that I care about her and her needs but also to communicate the limitations of the situation.
  • Identify my goal for that person – If a conversation is difficult for me then it’s likely to be difficult for my partner as well. If I can help her feel heard and understood, we are much more likely to be able to move forward constructively than if my main goal is to win or ‘be right.’
  • Enter the conversation with positive, not negative emotions – If I enter the conversation feeling fearful or defensive, I won’t be a good listener. Instead, I try to clear my emotional stage to be loving, affirming, and compassionate. I imagine that other person’s needs, wants and desires. They want to be heard, understood and appreciated. Just like me.
  • Dealing with my hot buttons – I know that I have a tendency to get defensive or shut down if I feel someone is being critical. Others may get smug, superior, or demanding. Therefore, staying in compassionate listener-mode means staying totally present with the speaker’s reality, especially when I have a tendency to get defensive. Being a reflective listener (“So when I said X, you felt I was judging you and that really hurt your feelings…”) does wonders for allowing that person to feel heard without jumping to my usual defensive or aggressive mode (“Well when you did Y, it really shows that you don’t care about me at all!”).

In other words, the success of the conversation depends on whether I take emotional leadership of the conversation to help solve the problem, or just become the lowest common emotional denominator and contribute to the problem. I may not always be successful but at least I have the best chance for success when I do my homework and set the right stage for this critical event.

Never Say ‘Never’

It’s happening at what feels like an alarming rate: a Personal Certainty gets uncertain or even wrong. You know a Personal Certainty. They begin with ‘I will never…’, ‘I will always…’, ‘I don’t ever….’, and so forth.

Perhaps you know the saying, “Man plans. God laughs.” God laughs at me a lot.

I guess I deserve it. I have spent so much of my life trying to plan and control my life. It’s no wonder that little of it works out as planned. Thank goodness, actually.

This has been a great lesson for me: lean into that uncertainty about life. Yes, I suppose it could turn out so much worse than I expect. But I feel like the more open I am to the unexpected, the more likely that things will actually turn out better than expected.

However, old habits die hard. Really hard. So I still often catch myself saying, ‘I’ll never…’ or trying to control the future. Now I try to stop myself mid-way and reflect on my usual assumptions. Where did that belief come from? Is it still relevant? Why do I believe it to be true? Is it really absolutely necessary? How can a ‘bad’ outcome actually be a ‘good’ outcome? That very exercise is an interesting dive into my iceberg beliefs and can yield some revealing things about my inner psyche. Even trying to imagine the circumstances in which I will be doing the very thing that I can’t imagine doing is an entertaining exercise in and of itself.

So I tried some of my usual ‘I will never’ statements on for size:

  • I will never go back to practice Pharmacy. Maybe I will. What kind of practice model might entice me back?
  • I will never go back to school. I already violated that once. Why not again? What might it be next time?
  • I will never live in the country. At least I hope not. But if I did, what sort of landscape or circumstance would be compelling enough to take me there?
  • I will always care about the environment and recycling. Maybe someday the environment won’t need me to worry about it.
  • I don’t ever want to go skydiving. Well, maybe it were free and it was important to a loved one that I try their beloved hobby at least once….
  • I will never love olives or pickles. Well, unless the olive is in a tapenade. OK.

See? This exercise allows me to open my mind to what was previously unimaginable. Thinking about something does not commit me in any way to it. Like contemplating a pickle tapenade (eww) does not mean I have to actually eat it. Rather, I’m just exercising an open mind by saying ‘maybe’ more frequently and giving myself permission to imagine the improbable.

Take your strongest Personal Certainty and imagine what scenarios might actually change that reality for you. Does it seem slightly more plausible now?   Which Certainties have been standing in your way?  Keep imagining options until the impossible seems likely.    Deep fried pickles?  Yum!

The New Mythology

If you’ve ever felt lost or directionless, you’re not alone. According to Joseph Campbell, author of the Power of Myth, modern man has lost his mythology or guide to life, and it’s no surprise that we sometimes feel like we’re missing something. Campbell is a comparative mythologist who has studied stories from across time and culture. He says that man’s stories are remarkably similar across different religions, fables, and myths, and have served as man’s guide to life for millennia.

But today, according to Campbell, modern man has lost its mythology and so has lost his way. Religion seems less relevant in our modern age (“eye for an eye” seems archaic), and we’ve not found a suitable replacement that will help us find the path to the good life.

Or have we?

As a society, it seems to me that we’ve turned to science as our new religion. The scientific method allows us to ask questions and find answers to them instead of attempting to interpret God’s will from a book or our clergy. But does the scientific method teach us about the good life and finding meaning and purpose?

A decade ago, I would’ve said No. But today we have positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific discipline that studies well-being.   It’s not just the ‘happy science’, but studies the utility of all emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and creating satisfaction in all domains of life.

Many theories exist about what constitutes well-being, but as a graduate of the Penn MAPP program, I tend to go with the father of the discipline, Martin Seligman, and author of Flourish. According to Seligman, well-being is comprised of PERMA, positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement. In other words, we can create personal well-being by developing each of these aspects in the various domains of our life. Tom Rath, author of Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, states that the 5 domains of our life include career, social, community, financial, and physical well-being.   Five components, 5 domains. Roughly 25 areas to improve one’s life. You can almost make a grid and start filling in the squares for things to do to improve your life.

Don’t mind if I do:

 

  Career Social Community Financial Physical
P Plan a get-together
E Blog
R Walk with friends
M Donate to charities
A Use my strengths

So just going down the Financial column, I can ask myself, “how can I create meaning through the financial domain?” Donate to charities that I feel can create the impact that I’m looking to support. “How can I create positive emotion and engagement with or through my community?” Write my blog!

You may not be able to figure out how to put something in every square. Or maybe you can. If you can’t figure it out, ask a friend or family member, and you can improve your relationships just by starting with the exercise itself.

Science. Data. Tables. Method. Experiment with your life! You might like the results.

Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F) – Part II

The rider and the elephant

The rider and the elephant

We’re completely rationale and objective beings. Right?

I know that you can detect the fallacy of that statement. We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, ruled by our feelings, whether we acknowledge it or not. You probably know someone who believes himself to be completely rationale and objective, but whom is instead ruled by emotions and biases just like everyone else.  You may think, as I have for many years, that though that person can’t see their biases, you are completely free of bias and are completely rational and objective.

In our defense, we can’t help it. We’re hard-wired to behave this way, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Haidt contends that we’re ruled by our inner emotional ‘elephant’ instead of, as we believe, the rational elephant rider. We make emotional decisions (via the elephant) but the rider then rationalizes the decision after the fact. This dynamic pretty much makes us all hypocrites according to Haidt since we are constantly defending the irrational.

Since Haidt pretty much blew my mind with this concept, I have attempted to be more observant about the thoughts and assertions of mine and others. Am I being a hypocrite again? How do I feel versus what do I believe? When I take a step away from my defensiveness, I have to admit that the thoughts and feelings don’t always jibe. In other words, sometimes when I really stop and question the rationality of my own assertions, especially when someone is looking at me in that “are you serious?” manner, I find that my own justifications just don’t hold water.

As a result, I’ve begun to modify my stance on the ol’ Myers-Briggs T vs. F dynamic. I used to think it was far superior to be a T, i.e. making decisions based on thoughts instead of on feelings (F). However, since we all make decisions according to our feelings, I’m starting to think/feel that a T is really just more likely to rationalize those feeling-based decisions compared to an F.

I don’t have the slightest bit of evidence for this theory, but to the degree this seems to be true, I feel absolutely embarrassed on behalf of all the other T’s in the world!

In the end, I believe the Aristotelean philosophy that finding the right balance is the what we call wisdom and the T/F spectrum seems to be no exception. I’m not ready to eschew my T side, but perhaps find more balance for what was probably an over reliance on T on my part.

That feels right to me. How about you?

 

I’ll Be Happy When…

What came to mind when you read this sentence stem? Did a couple of goals pop into mind?

On my list during my lifetime included: when I pass this test, when I finish school, when I get that job, when I go on vacation, when I get married, when I have a family, when the kids are independent, when I get promoted, when I retire.

Sometimes those goals were not quite as lofty or distant: when I get home, when I finish that project, when/if I get that grant.

I’m old enough to have actually achieved most of those milestones. And yes, I am actually happy when I reach one of those milestones.

For about a nanosecond.

Given this bad habit of living in the future, writing my annual report has become one of the best days of my year. That exercise requires me to acknowledge all that I got accomplished during the past year instead of my usual MO of just breezing by those milestones without even so much as a mental pat on the back.

Sick, right?

Have I just gotten into some weird habit of perpetual delayed gratification? Or have I developed some masochistic Puritanical guilt for enjoying life? Regardless, my underlying dysfunctional belief system includes the lie that I have control over the future and that my external world determines my happiness.

Living in the past is just as bad. Living in the past may mean ruminating on ‘what if’ regret statements or harboring resentment from past transgressions. Sometimes these misdeeds happened decades ago; I sometimes hear (adult) people complaining about resentments that have occurred during childhood.

Alarming, right?

The dysfunctional belief system around living in the past includes the lie that someone else or something else from my past is in control of my current happiness.

You can see the fallacy of both future/past foci: that external events control my happiness. No.   Rather, how I choose to arrange my inner world determines my happiness.

Furthermore, that choice is pretty much the only thing I have any control over at all. I have absolutely no control over the past except for how I choose to view the past. I have little or no control, really, over the future. I can influence the future, yes, but control? No.   9/11 taught me that lesson.

So it seems to me that the best option is living in the present. Living in the now means to be totally engaged with my present reality. The task at hand. My immediate environment. The person I am with. Whether I choose to judge my current circumstances as fantastic, pretty good, or awful, or to just acknowledge it without judgment. That choice will determine how I feel in this moment.

Consciously make that choice in this moment to create love, awe, and inspiration and refuse the choice that create anxiety and resentment. It’s in your control.

Sweet, right?

We Are Inconstant

Despite the many problems we have in this country, we are still among the most fortunate people in the world. While we must continue to strive to improve our country and our world, we also should not forget that we have probably the highest quality of life in the history of mankind.

That privilege, however, will not likely last forever. Our individual fates are also fragile: it only takes an accident, a major illness, job loss or natural disaster to turn our fortunes around. Here by the grace of God…

I know that everyone knows this on some level.   But it’s all too easy to forget and behave as if this privilege is our right and ours to enjoy forever.   In fact, everything is impermanent and subject to change or loss.

Strangely, I’m grateful for when we have a hurricane and we lose power for several days. Such a loss provides a vivid reminder for how dependent we are on the things we take most for granted. When the power goes out, we disconnect from the TVs and computers and spend time walking and visiting with our friends, family and neighbors. We spend more time attending to our food and physical environment. We never take a balmy evening or a cool breeze for granted when the heat pump is on vacation.  And when the lights come back on, we have a precious few minutes before we start to take the electricity for granted again.

Spend a minute thinking feeling gratitude for the following items that we tend to take for granted. Which of these are you most likely to take for granted as being constant in your life? Going forward, see if you can remember to be grateful every day for some of the things you’ve been taking for granted:

  • Clean air
  • Water – clean, accessible and plentiful
  • Sewage services – down the tubes without smell or contamination
  • Electricity – lights, refrigeration, washer/dryer, HVAC
  • Shelter – warm/cool and dry
  • Clothing – sufficient in quality, quantity and even style
  • Ready transportation and good roads
  • Food – plentiful, safe and varied, and even prepared for you sometimes
  • Friends, family and neighbors
  • Technology, like Star Trek
  • Entertainment – 24/7 of all kinds
  • Safe community
  • Community and government infrastructure – stable and largely functional
  • Health care – accessible and comprehensive (for the most part)
  • Good health – body and mind
  • Jobs and economic opportunity
  • Education – at all levels for all people

Let us savor our good fortune.  Let’s hope it lasts.