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Listening OUT, Listening IN

The key learning for me in coaching was centred on becoming a better listener.

“Listen to understand, not to respond” was a zinger that hit me right between the eyes. As a principal, I was often asked to provide solutions; in fact, I started that role thinking that was why I would become a good principal. As a fixer leader I thought I would have solutions where other people were stuck on problems and would only have questions.

So I had some serious learning to do around listening,; for which my wife has been grateful, I hope 🙂 That learning included the axiom that leaders build trust and gain influence when they listen actively; communicating that they not only understand the issues, but they also appreciate the values and beliefs that are embedded in the relationships enmeshed with the problem. It allows us to recognize the human cost for everyone involved, without having to activate the fixer gene to start working on solving the issue. A great by-product for the one sharing – being vulnerable and honest about what the situation means to them – was that it taught me social awareness, and I began to develop my capacity for empathy.

So that’s the quick introduction for listening out, the more easily recognized part of the title. Lately, my lesson seems to be focused on the other half of the title; listening in. I am currently grappling with making sense of emotion, particularly anger. I just finished reading a very helpful book (Healing Life’s Hurts, Graham Bretherick) that has challenged me to rethink anger. Watching as a wee lad my father repress emotions for years but then have periodic eruptions of Vesuvian proportion, I drew some very erroneous conclusions about anger. The key takeaway was that I did not want to be blowing my stack, because I thought anger as an emotion was wrong. Consequently, I locked down strong emotions, questing for  control as the goal for dealing with anger.

This book challenged me directly to recognize that anger is a designed response to danger, providing the energy to take helpful action. Anger is in fact a very positive emotion, but only if it is used under control and in a purposeful way.

As a connection to listening in, I am just starting to realize that when I encounter something that makes me angry, I need to have the awareness to have my internal voice interrogate the reality of the problem. (As a quick aside, thanks to Fierce Conversations for that very helpful concept.) Anyway, I am going to have to reprogram myself to stop suppressing anger when it arises. I need to examine what has caused it, what the threat is to me, and what a positive response might be in that situation. In other words, I have to listen in to the voice inside me that has something to say.

Daniel Goleman’s article (What is Emotional Self-Awareness?) asserts that “Emotional Self-Awareness isn’t something that you achieve once and then you’re done with it. Rather… it is a continual endeavor, a conscious choice to be self-aware.” I’m choosing to rumble with that powered by optimism… I can start a new season and begin to experience growth. This is new territory for me, so I am hoping that the skills of listening to others, developed through coaching, will allow me to develop an ear for my faintly audible inner voice.

What are some strategies that you use that support emotional awareness? How do you create your context for listening in? What advice might you have for me, a middle-aged male who is definitely late to the game, but is wanting & willing to learn?

Cancel Chaos

In the midst of the Covid chaos, am I winning the mindset war? Do I have the antidote of purpose and value to repel the dark thoughts of despair and hopelessness? Honestly, while I might be handling the current battle well, I certainly have lost several recent skirmishes.  This past Covid-dominated year has more than put a wobble in my top; I have found myself needing to resist sliding into the shadows more than once.  My hunch is you are waging the same war too.

With very little face to face contact, and the loss of routines as I worked from home or from a sepulchral office setting, I have struggled to be positive and bring focus to how I approached life.  So many prior routines had fall off the cliff endings – the gym closed, going into schools for my HR role dried up, connecting in worship was suddenly done.  Even being together as an extended family – with the first two grands on their way – disappeared for the high season celebrations. It became a real challenge to restructure my thinking so that there were things to anticipate with joy. With a focus on the half-empty glass, I struggled to not get immersed in the conversations thinking about what was lost, or how restrictions were arriving by unreasonable and unfair means.

I certainly did notice that there was more time and space in my life.  However, I lacked the energy of activation catalyzing me to use that time to take on positive goals.  Despite wanting to do basement workouts, I had minimal success hauling myself off to the dungeon and setting a new routine. I found myself gravitating to distraction more than challenge, unless you consider Alphabetty, Wordscapes, and Lumosity as significant growth indicators. I think we updated Karl’s Marxim to the 21st century reality that Netflix is the opium of the people.  

So what helped me turn the tiller before I wrecked on the rocks?  Reading; specifically targeting what to read, and then rumbling with the thoughts that destabilized me. Pursuing the challenge of ideas to foster growth. James Allen’s 100 year old pocket companion – As a Man Thinketh (a Proverbs 23:7 Biblical reference) asserts that our thoughts are the key to helping us help ourselves. I have known for a decade+ that I am a learner (according to Strengthfinder 2.0) and I even have a story of ending a former career doldrum with a cathartic decision to take on a learning goal.  However, that prior self awareness did not save me from the mindset dip when the seasons turned from outside living to indoor, Covid dominated existence. 

Starting with re-reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I was challenged to be aware I could choose my attitude. As soon as I raised my eyes off the Covid confinements, I realized again that although the Now feels randomly chaotic, my map is scribed already; I could let it unfold as the Creator has drawn it. I just need to decide what I would choose as my framework these days. That provided the confidence that there was purpose even in Covid. 

So the mindset I want to immerse in has three perspectives – yesterday, today and tomorrow. I want to recognize the valuable aspects of yesterday – even the painful parts – for helping me to grow. Viktor Frankl challenges me to look at today with gratitude and as an opportunity to learn and help – to define purpose. Tomorrow needs me to hold it with open hands, not to labor to construct it with my limited narrator perspective. The confidence to navigate today and not be paralyzed or anxious about what is around the corner tomorrow is not dependent on my capacity; that confidence is based on the quality of the mapmaker.

There is always amazing and beautiful LIFE happening around us.  The eye-prickling humility of getting to hold your newborn grandchildren (twice in the last 5 months!) can cancel any newscast or Covid restriction announcement. The chance to listen to others, to care and offer empathy is a better choice for me to make than to join the woe chorus. I can’t fix my co-worker’s frustration with leadership who won’t collaborate but only demand accountability, but I can walk alongside him.

How about for you? What are choices you are making that are helping you find perspective and purpose today?

PS – Cancel Chaos is an amalgam of two ideas: cancel culture and Chaos Theory.  In choosing this as a title, I wanted to co-opt cancel to a positive intention – shut down the insidious darkness that Covid has cast over our perceptions. Isn’t that where our current chaos begins? Words create worlds. Where we choose to focus, the words we use to define our realities, are these not the tools that construct our lives? Chaos theory simply suggests that what appears to most people as chaos is not really chaotic, but a series of different types of orders with which the human mind has not yet become familiar. (Frederick Lenz). That seems to me to be a great indicator of the Infinite Mind that spoke all existence into being – an order with which my mind is not familiar. So I will lean into that hope of unseen order by choosing my attitudes and words, thinking and actions, clinging to those assurances that life is always purposeful.

Why Write?

What I couldn’t manage to do, the Covid-19 pandemic got me started doing …

I know I should, I even want to, but I never seem to sustain the drive long enough to actually get it done.  That’s the headliner for me and writing.

The pandemic just passed the one year mark (it’s March 26, 2021 today) and I’m finally making the commitment to follow through to achieve my WIG – Wildly Important Goal – according to the authors of the 4 Disciplines of Execution.  More like what will it take for you to quit talking about it and just do it?  It may have also helped that at the last family ‘boys’ birthday celebration I put it out there that I would write 1 blog a month for the balance of 2021, and I would be accountable to the 7 other family members in our clan to do so.

I’ve always enjoyed reading. My parents used to do the post-midnight bed checks every once in a while & I was invariably nailed and in trouble for reading under the covers with a flashlight.  You would think I would have heard them coming up the stairs, but no –  I blame the current hearing aids which foreshadowed the issue. I would get some inconsequential penalty and simply be back at it later…. So, the pandemic freed up time to read more, and I took advantage of it to start focusing on what next, what am I going to be when I grow up?

After 3+ decades in school, 21 years of that as a vice or principal, I realized I was becoming more excited about helping others grow than I was about being the leader.  I still remember the frisson that danced between my shoulder blades when a colleague dropped the gratitude bomb on me in her classroom after school one day… she told me I was compassionate.  Didn’t sound very masculine, and I sort of thought that would be a good quality that Jesus would have, but not someone as egocentric as me.  But it did nudge my self-awareness ship to start to change course.

8 or 9 years later I get to work with some routine things in HR, but I also get to help school leaders and staff work through the problems that they have taken 1 or 2 swings at but are not yet resolved.  When I got this role my superintendent chuckled at me and said “Now you get to work on the problems that the principals couldn’t get solved.”  That sounded a bit daunting; but what he didn’t tell me was that I would get a chance to accelerate my own learning, and be helpful in some really unique ways.

My thinking moved some more as I realized the best conversations I would get in a week were either listening to my wife, helping a principal, or chatting with a younger person after church or in a school.  My 6 kids are millennials, and they are a pretty gracious litmus test for knowing if I’m relevant (requires more listening than speaking) or just providing the glazed eyes that precede sleep.  They may regret encouraging me to do this, but eventually I started to consider “What might it be like to write down some of these ideas?”

So here it is – a first attempt to deepen my own understanding and learning in life while hopefully being helpful to someone along the way.  If ‘words create worlds’ then actually finding ways to express ideas might help me to see myself, others, and our common purpose & humanity more clearly.  So that’s the crux of it – say something helpful, Lloyd.