“Life won’t always be awesome, you’re your response can be.” – Anonymous
I find these days that leadership is a joyful experience, but it wasn’t always that way. Take a moment right now to go back in time to situations in your leadership when you wished you responded differently. As if you were watching a movie of those times, notice what was happening, how they made you feel and how your response impacted others and yourself.
Here’s what my movie looked like for 40 years! I can go all the way back to elementary school to notice the first time I was bossy and made a decision by myself that made my friends so angry that one of them pulled out of the play we were staging. Then there was that time in high school that I stood in judgment of others’ leadership and withdrew instead of figuring out a way to be helpful and supportive, and when I figured it out it was too late because we were graduating. When I was in college my anger over my dad’s illness and not being able to go on a semester abroad closed off my ability to see other options. In my first nonprofit sector job I thought leadership meant dictatorship and if you didn’t listen to me you were wrong. Then in the early years of consulting I made a few personnel choices too quickly based on limited information. Of course my anger and frustration was mostly in my head, yet the stress it created for me in my life was, at times, overwhelming. On many occaisions it directly impacted others, and it was never pretty.
And then there was a transformational moment in coaching school when I became aware with a clarity I never had before that I could change the the camera lens I was looking through, and I could re-write the scenes in my movie with impactful positive results. When the lens changed from standing in judgment – especially of others and myself as well – to looking for the opportunities – no matter the situation – my stress lessened and leadership became a completely new and energizing experience that has fueled a completely different and enriching experience for the past 15 years. Oh, its been a journey and continues to be a work in progress. The difference is that now it’s a joy-filled process.
The transformational moment came when I became conscious about this through Bruce Schneider’s work and book Energy Leadership: Transforming your Life and Your Work from the Core. There are many ways to look at every situation, if only I could take the time to notice the options. So, first there was my understanding that I had lots of choices in the lenses I could look through. Then there was my awareness about the choices I was making and the impact those choices were having on others. With these new awarenesses, I could proactively shift my responses. Here is what I mean. Let’s say you have a meeting planned with a colleague at coffee shop to talk about a new collaborative project. Your colleague is late and hasn’t been in touch with you. One lens might be, “wow, maybe they are standing me up because this meeting isn’t important to them, or maybe I got the time and place wrong, stupid me.” Another lens might be “how dare this person be so late and waste my time.” Still another lens could be, “maybe they just got held up in traffic or something else came up; I’m sure he/she will be here soon and explain.” Still another response could be “I hope everything is okay. I can use this few mintues to review my notes and be even more prepared when they get here.” And then there is the lens, “if they don’t make the meeting I’m grateful to have this unexpected gift of time in this lovely setting and I’ll take advantage of it to get some other work done.” And still another lens could be, “this is exactly what’s supposed to happen in this moment. Let me just be in this space and see where the day takes me.”
What do you notice about these alternative lenses? With each one there is a lessoning of assumption and blame on oneself or the colleague and there is an increasing awareness about a reasonable explanation and, regardless of the explanation, there are different options for moving forward in a positive and productive way. Judith E. Glaser, in her book Conversational Intelligence, How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, explains that this consciousness is about becoming aware of what triggers a sense of foe or friend in our thoughts. When we experience the foe, it’s as if “a switch turned on in our brain and we feel betrayed.” Judith continues, “we tune out and ruminate about what’s been done to us instead of being able to stay present in the conversation. Our attention is now turned inside to our own silent conversation with ourself about being dismissed, stupid and failing. And in that moment our whole mind-set shifts from trust to distrust.” “When our neurochemistry shifts in this way it can change our persona and how others perceive us. In one nanosecond, we can move from being a trusted friend and advisor to someone others loathe and distrust.” In otherwords, we become a foe.
Another illustration of this idea is what Judith calls the Ladder of Conclusions™. Let’s apply it to the coffee shop meeting example, starting from the bottom of the ladder. The first lens you look through starts a bio-chemical reaction in .07 seconds. So if the lens is ‘worry that you’re being stood up’ or ‘anger over a colleague being late,’ your sense of foe kicks in and the neurotransmitter cortisol is released. Your initial bio-chemical reaction sets the tone for what happens next. As you move up the ladder in a foe space, you feel bad, make stuff up to justify the way you are feeling, look for other thoughts to further rationalize and reinforce the judgment and ultimately “reach conclusions” about the lack of commitment, dependability, reliability, and trustworthiness of the person you are meeting. By the time they finally do arrive you aren’t in the best head-space to have a great conversation. In fact, your depleted and worse, cranky.
Alternatively, if the first lens you look through is empathy and a hope your colleague is okay or to enjoy the gift of time you have while you are waiting, your sense of friend kicks in and the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released. And again, your initial bio-chemical reaction sets the tone for what happens next. This time as you move up the ladder in a friend space, you feel good, you think about how to connect with your colleague when they arrive, to understand what made them late and see if you can offer support, and instead of “reaching conclusions” that may be erroneous, you are open to the opportunities that can come from the conversation.
What the Neuroscience of Conversations Means to Us
In my experience, when we are conscious about the lens we are looking through and see the possibility of other explanations for an experience, we can stay in a trusting place. For nonprofit organization leaders, this can be the difference between motivating and inspiring others to positive action or wasting valuable time and resources that impose barriers to advancing an important mission. The work of nonprofit organizations and the resources to do the work are too precious to lose because fear and distrust took over.
With a consciousness about alternative explanations you can proactively chose your response and change the quality of your leadership experience. Here’s some advice from Judith about how to approach this. She says, “When you see that you are starting to make up stories to help you interpret anothers actions and are creating movies with an “us against them” theme, or when you are feeling diminished in status or left out, have a co-creating conversation with someone you trust.” Judith explains that when you can talk with someone you trust, “connect with them openly about the challenge you are facing. Ask them to explore with you your needs and aspirations for the future, the role you want to play and the contribution you want to make. Then ask them to reflect back to you what they heard without judgment. This action calms you’re your amygdala – your primitive brain – and activates your prefrontal cortex, which is where your creativity and focus on the future resides.”
And If you are are sitting alone in a coffee shop you can still shift the conversation in your own head. Here’s what I’ve learned to do with success everytime. Ask yourself outloud, “what else could explain my colleagues absence or any other behavior?.” Then, connect with your sense of compassion that says something is going on, and I don’t yet have all the information to fully understand. Remind yourself to wait to learn from your colleague their explanation before you jump to conclusions. From this place, your friend’s thinking is activated. The friend space is the “we” space Judith is creating with Conversational Intelligence and the positive mindset Bruce Schneider introduced in Energy Leadership. In this space “we” have access to the widest range of opportunities that are possible, and that’s the space where great leadership happens.
Managance Consulting & Coaching is on a mission to ignite passion and energize opportunity in nonprofit work places. Denice Hinden, PhD, PCC, President and her team inspire leaders and teams to their next level of leadership and develop more trusting “we-centered” organizational cultures with transformational leadership development and engaging strategic thinking. Denice is Certified in Conversational Intelligence®. Judith E. Glaser is the founder and CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the Chairman of The Creating We Institute. We are honored to partner with Judith to bring you our 2017-2018 Leveling Up Leadership Blog.
Copyright © 2017 by Managance Consulting & Coaching and Judith E. Glaser