Wednesday, August 30, 2006

the end of summer

It's almost that time. Tonight I went to Shakespeare in the park. It was cozy under the blanket, and just a little chilly walking back to the car. Unmistakably, summer is coming to an end. In my house, that means back to school (for three of us this year as I will be taking on some college courses as instructor this season). Even without that transition, I would know it is time for a change.

Another change came into my awareness as my son and I were driving home tonight. Something made me recall the song "Little Bunny Foo Foo". . . and after we laughed about it, my son said, "what little kids don't realize is that really just tells you to listen to your parents. It's very manipulative." Hmmm. Good catch. Or at least a good indication of where the "us/them" metre is running with him as he thinks about his final year of high school.

Stories work that way - even silly ones reinforce patterns, and the patterns they reinforce depend on the common ground that exists between the story (which might have existed for hundreds of years), the teller, and the listener. Little Bunny Foo Foo is about funny sounds and repetition - about action shared between an adult and a toddler, about the dangers of violence. It's also about listening to your parents if you want to grow into your true self. All of these meanings are simultaneously present in one simple, funny, little song.

Tomorrow, someone will tell you a story about change. You'll be sure that you know exactly what it means - you'll know who you are in the story. Take a deep breath. Just for fun, be someone else in that story. Find out what other meanings are held present, waiting to be noticed.

Monday, August 28, 2006

stories can evaluate complex change

Just read a fascinating blog on a project that used choice and stories to build an evaluation of the impact of an aid program in Bangladesh. Here's an excerpt:

Assessing hard facts alone is insufficient in helping stakeholders appreciate the impact of a program designed to change behaviours. Qualitative perspectives are essential. . . .Rick needed to engage the stakeholders, primarily the region's decision-makers and the ultimate project funders, in a process that would help them see (and maybe even feel) the change. His solution was to get groups of people at different levels of the project's hierarchy to select the stories which they thought was most significant and explain why they made that selection.

You'll find the rest of the blog at

The point is twofold. First, stories are the way we make sense of complex webs of information. Second, in thinking about the stories we hear, we make choices. Those choices complete the communication loops and allow the stories to have impact. Telling our stories is not a "soft" approach: it is absolutely "hard" - if you don't believe me, try telling the story of a significant change in your life in a way that satisfies you and communicates with someone else. How many complex evaluations and choices do you have to make to get it right?

Friday, August 25, 2006

why are you here?

To me, problems are like dust: they're everywhere and as soon as you've cleaned up one problem, you'll find more somewhere else. Problems are part of an abundance economy - they are in infinite supply and they are never far away. That's why I am a little surprised to find that Seth Godin's remarkable idea for the day is that problems are our reason for being. Here's what he says:

"Here's the good news: the fact that it's difficult and unpredictable is the best thing that's happened to you all day. Because if it were any other way, there'd be no profit in it. The reason people bother to go windsurfing is that the challenge makes it interesting. The driving force that gets people to pay a specialist is because their disease is unpredictable or hard to diagnose. The reason we're here is to solve the hard problems."

Solving the hard problems is not why I am here. As a matter of faith, I am here to love God and love others. I am comfortable with restating that for a wider audience as "I am here to serve a purpose beyond myself and to care for the people who come into my life." Traditionally, that purpose is shared by people from many faiths and cultures. Like the challenges posed by Godin, it's a purpose which involves solving problems - the easy ones and the hard ones. It also involves a vision that says life without problems would be more worth living.

There is a difference between looking at everything in your life as a problem to be solved, and keeping your eyes on a purpose greater than the solving of problems. There is a difference between seeing a baby as a problem-factory (they certainly produce endless problems!) and seeing your baby smile.

I have another way to state my own purpose: I am here to experience joy. When necessary, I solve problems.
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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

how do you say goodbye

Good bye - it's an interesting concept. We don't have as many words for it as some other languages. We say "good bye" (from God be with you) or farewell, without specifying when or whether we might meet again. In English, every separation is indeterminate.

Summer is close to its end. Young people are saying goodbyes - to home friends if they are going away to school, to camp friends if they are still in school where they live. They are saying goodbyes to people with whom they have shared a short, intense experience (summer love, perhaps) and other people whom they have known all their lives (or so it seems to them). We look at them and wonder at their courage and nonchalance.

Saying goodbye is a life skill that doesn't get easier with age. Somehow we assume that one of the perks of being an adult is saying fewer goodbyes. We find, to our shock, that people continue to move and get sick and change jobs and change aspirations and expectations. They move. Without us, sometimes.

As you look ahead to a time when you have something that you want now, you notice that some things (and people) get left by the wayside as you move forward, and others simply shift away, off on journeys of their own. Some you kick out and some just leave. Some change as they stay in place, so that you do not have the chance to say goodbye - you just look up and notice that what you knew has gone.

Think about your goodbyes. They are not failures - just signs that the world is in motion and so are you. The Bible says "to everything there is a season," and it means that the changing of seasons is a time for melancholy. Be melancholy if necessary. Sadness is also not failure.

And make sure your goodbyes are also farewells, wishes that life continues to go well for the people you will not see, at least for a time. Intention counts.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

so what's your story?

We all have stories, and fall is the time we tell many of them. In the days when people depended on harvest, this was a time for work and winter was the time for stories. Now, we come back from summer hiatus and everyone asks where we have been and what we have done.

It's a lot of pressure. What if we haven't done anything except lie on a lawn chair in the sun (possible with a nice cold bottle of beer)? How does that compare with road trips and cottages and flights to Europe? That depends on your story.

There are many folktales about 'the man who had no story.' In each of them, supernatural forces intervene so that the man in question will never again be left without a story to tell. Generally, the experiences are funny - for the people who hear them. They are less funny for the man who has to survive them in order to tell about them.

So start to work. What's your story? If you make the beer sound cool enough, the sun warm enough, and the lawnchair utterly comforting, your listeners will soon believe that backyard holidays are the very best kind. If you've been away on vacation, you can tell about your heroic quest for the best lobster supper or your epic battle against mosquitos the size of humming birds. Or perhaps you got caught up in an hysterically funny home-made sitcome about crazy relatives, appliances with minds of their own, and children who seem to have escaped from The Jungle Book.

Listen to yourself - the story is starting. Let your focus land where it may, and start seeing the full, living colour in what you have done and what has been done with you and to you. Make it big; make it bold; make it live.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

talk to a friend today

What would happen if we all admitted that we care - often deeply - about the work we do?

Make time today to talk to a friend. When you do, tell your friend about your work in a way that reveals why the work is important to you and how it makes a connection to your friend.

It doesn't matter if you are having a good day, a bad day, a routine day, a day of meetings. As you think about how to explain what you do to your friend (in more detail if s/he already knows or works with you, in less detail if you've never talked about what you do at work before) discover that element in the day that represents value. Consider the way you hold this value, and then think about what this value will represent to your friend.

Then talk to a friend. When you have his/her attention, share what you have done today that has value. Then allow him/her to respond, and focus your attention on noticing the response (not judging it!). Whether or not what you said seems to connect, notice what happens next. Allow your friend to direct the conversation, or sit in comfortable silence for a moment. Mirror expressions, posture or gestures. Take some time to allow what you have said to find its way into your friend's systems.

Later, remember to think back to the conversation and notice what changed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

productive thinking

What is the difference between the thinking that drives your productivity and the time you spend "just thinking?"

There is no right answer: people think differently and they use thinking differently. Some people learn by doing (you take action and then think about it) and others think and then act (look before you leap). Since thinking is a co-production of our conscious attention and unconscious (or automatic or instinctual) processes, we can make decisions with or without "thinking."

Thinking first is not always better - although it does make it easier to communicate (or justify!) your actions to other people.

If you want to make better use of your thinking, you need to consider times when you have been successful, and notice not just what you were thinking, but when and how you were thinking. Did you notice something that was working and then think about it? Did you notice a problem and think about a solution, and then take action? Did you engage people in what you were doing and then explain it, or explain it as a way of engaging them?

Thinking is necessary to learning and to replicating success. It's not always the first step in creating, innovating, or being successful once in a row. Find out what is working for you, so that you can think productively more often.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

think about presuppositions

Presuppositions - assumptions - underlying beliefs. Any of these terms will do if it describes for you the wealth of decision making that goes on before you become conscious of making a decision. Sometimes we use terms like instinct, experience or knowledge to cover much the same ground. They all amount to saying something like "I didn't have to think about it. I just knew" or "I don't have to think about that because everyone knows that."

It won't take you long to notice that these underlying decisions are based on context: it's remarkably hard to generate a statement that is true across all contexts (even that one can be challenged, for instance by people who will argue that 2 + 2 is always equal to 4). Try it now. Make a completely obvious general statement and then notice the contexts where it does not apply.

When everything is going well, we do not need to think about presuppositions - that's more or less the point. When we hit a snag, it's time to notice that a part of what is applying differently is our presuppositions. Begin by uncovering and thinking about your own. When you can consciously replicate those decisions you made before thinking, then you will be in a much stronger position for working with the presuppositions other people are bringing to the party.

Monday, August 14, 2006

story for the day

Once upon a time there was boy. He was adventurous and full of energy and curiosity. Every day, his mother looked at him and wondered how she would survive his adventures. He was always climbing too high and riding too far and, what was worse, inventing new uses for previously safe pieces of household equipment.

For a long time, it seemed that the boy had not heard his mother's voice. He grew up, and he grew away from convention. He learned to take other people on adventures. He learned to talk about risk. He learned to listen to the voice inside his head.

Then one day, he realized that the voice inside his head was his own, and it told him wonderful stories. But the pictures inside his head came from a different part of him, the part that had heard his mother's voice telling him to be careful. And so when his words filled him with excitement about infinite possibilities, his pictures reminded him to be home before dark and shut the door. And when his words led him into intricate schemes, his pictures showed him a clear way in and a clear way out.

For a time, this worked brilliantly. He had big dreams and he limited his capacity for danger. It was just like being a kid. He carried a watchful parent in the pictures he made. One day, he made a picture of himself. He realized that he was far younger in the picture than he was in the mirror.

He looked closer at the face in the picture. He added a line here and a shadow there. He made the jaw a little firmer, and let the little lines around the eyes draw attention to their sparkle. He raised one eyebrow, just a touch. He set the mouth with more determination. What he saw was not the face in the mirror. He saw the face he wanted, a face that was capable of resilience, a face that could take the risk of being in it for the long haul.

He looks at that face now, when the words in his head begin to drive him to something new, something edgy, something adventurous. If the face winks back at him, he lets the words have their way. If it doesn't, he slows the words, lengthens them, mingles their excitement with determination.

When he sees his mother now, hope flows between them like a current.

what's up?

You looked at the title of this post, and immediately understood the question. You didn't have to look up to find out what's up - because you knew the question was not really about space.

Most of the time, most of the people reply something like "not much." They think the question means something like "what's going on?" or "what's new?"

If they looked up, they would see that there is lots going on above them. If they were lucky, they would see someone climbing above them who would offer a model of how to get up. Or maybe they would see that the rocky patch they are climbing leads to some wide, carved stairs and a glorious view.

What's up? Are you?

Friday, August 11, 2006

begin with the end in mind

You've heard this before. The best way to start something is to know how you want it to finish. It's good advice, but not sufficient. Let's think about a fairly common situation. Someone comes to your office so that you can provide help or advice. You want them to leave with advice they will use.

The obvious path is to begin with the problem. Find out what is wrong. When the problem is solved, you will have reached the end. Beginning with the problem is one way to begin with the end in mind.

Except that version creates so many problems. How much do you like confessing your flaws, inadequacy and incomprehension? Me, neither. Once I've gone through everything that's wrong, I barely have the energy to lift my head and walk from the room. And the person to whom I've confessed? No longer my favourite person. No matter how wonderful his/her solution is, the next time I think of him/her, I'll droop. He/she might be wonderful, but I cannot be wonderful in his/her company. I like to be wonderful.

What if beginning with the end in mind meant that the pattern of the whole would be apparent in a condensed form in the particular conversation or even in the introduction. That would mean that I would look at someone who came to me for help, notice what s/he wants to feel at the end of the process, and draw that state out in the first few minutes. If it's a logical puzzle, I would ask about puzzles solved in the past. If it's a matter of style, I'd find something to notice that would make him/her feel stylish. If it's a matter of diplomacy, I would exercise tact as I drew examples of tact from the person in my office.

Once the pattern was established - the movement from problem to resource to application - it would be easier for us both to take the resouceful pattern and apply it to the matter at hand. Neither of us would have to feel like a problem in order for us to arrive at a solution.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

what does integration mean?

To integrate two things is to put them together to form something new. What this definition leaves out is that integration normally means that each of the two things retains integrity: in integration the parts remain themselves and become part of a whole.

When we integrate sensory information with intuition and reason, we do blur the lines between thinking and sensing, or between real and imagined. What we do is to take what we know through our senses, what we know through our reasoning, what we know without knowing why we know it, and the information itself and put them all together. Each kind of knowing remains intact, and something is also formed that becomes our response to the information.

Each of us is the product of integration: we are made up of numerous 'selves' that exist in time and through time. This is not wildly metaphysical: we have eyes that see in particular ways and we add to them the ability to use language in particular ways, and certain kinds of skills and capabilities, and the memory we have of ourselves at different times and places. All of these work together to give us a sense of who we are. The whole is more than the sum of its parts - we become a unified self - and each of the parts functions within the whole system only because it retains its integrity (so we know the difference between a memory and current experience, for example).

Integration works when diverse parts come together and form something bigger without losing their integrity. How does that sentence change your response to being part of a couple or a group or a team?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

in the moment

if you listened to one conversation today as though it were interesting and important and the only thing on your mind. . .

if you tasted one bite of food as though taste were a gift you had just opened. . .

if you looked at one person until you became aware of just one quality you really admire - beauty or strength or intelligence or humour - and saw the traces of that quality in his/her face. . .

there is just one

in the moment

Saturday, August 05, 2006

news for friends of NLP Canada Training Inc.

We are in the process of a major overhaul of our product offerings and schedule. Check out the first signs of this redesign on our website - notice the new course descriptions, and the download of a calendar for 2006/2007 courses. Much more to come throughout the next month or so!

have you heard the back to school ads yet?

We wait so long for summer, and then start looking to the fall as soon as we pass the halfway point. Hang on for awhile. One of the things we know about making change is that it is important to gather all the necessary resources without continually pulling back into problem mode. If you do not need to be thinking abou fall right now, don't. Stay with summer and enjoy the light, the warmth, and the shared excitement of outdoor events.

If you do need to look ahead to the fall, you can still be aware of separating the state in which you plan for the fall from the state in which you enjoy the summer. Think, for instance, of a choice you need to make in order to move your career forward. When you have thoroughly focused your attention on that choice, shake it off.

Now play hard. Play with all your attention. Play as if you had nothing else on your mind. Have nothing else on your mind but enjoying the long weekend. Allow yourself to connect with the people around you and give those connections your full attention.

When you get back to thinking about the coming months, you will find that things 'fall' into place.

Maybe that's how autumn got it's other name!

Friday, August 04, 2006

anchors, submodalities and formulas

Do you like to know what you should wear each day or do you hate having limits put on your choice of clothes? Have you ever complimented someone on a strength only to get a reaction that suggests you have said something vaguely insulting? Did you ever wonder why people often defy conventional wisdom about the right thing to do?

All of these situations are examples of two, related functions of the human mind. The first is called anchoring in NLP: it's the fact that the brain "wires" together all the stimuli it experiences at a given moment, and in some circumstances, any one of those stimuli can come to represent the whole experience. In combination with the way language creates generalizations, it means that we can associate one particular stimulus with something that has no logical connection to it. A word like "analytical" for instance, might mean "intelligent and effective" when applied to one person. To another, it might mean "blunt and unlikely to have a date for the prom" or "My parents made me feel like a specimen on a microscope slide." The difference is in the experiences that person associates with that quality.

The second function is related to anchoring: everything we perceive is stored as patterns, and we can begin to notice similarities across the patterns. We might notice bright colours when we are anxious and more pastel colours when we are calm, or we might notice the reverse: bright colours tell us to be relaxed and happy and pastel colours remind us to keep our feelings under wraps. We might "see red" when we are angry or we might see red as a symbol of good fortune. Some of this is cultural; more of it is individual, a function of how our particular sensory equipment has interacted with our experience.

The world is full of advice about how we should recognize our strengths or failings and make choices consistent with that recognition. The world is full of advice because so few people get lasting value from it. Sometimes formulas work for them, and sometimes the newest rules immediately make people feel worse about themselves instead of better. When the advice matches their experience, people are enthusiastic but not really changed. When the advice is different than their experience, people either disregard it immediately or (for a variety of reasons) pretend to follow it and go back to "normal" as quickly as is practical.

There are ways to allow people to recognize what makes them strong: those ways all have their roots in recognizing individual experience and working with it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

strategic thinking for parents

I have enjoyed reading Strategy Bites Back (Henry Mintzberg et. al.) largely because it recognizes that strategy is not something one does but a way that one thinks. Strategy means developing a mental pattern of what you want and what will contribute to getting there, and then continually revising the pattern as new information becomes available. Notice this is quite different than continually changing what you want and also quite different than making a plan.

Imagine making a strategic plan for parenting your first child. The first stretch is that the plan will have to extend far beyond five years: you will be working on this same strategy for at least 25 years, and then revise it for the next 50 or so. You would have to be able to make the plan knowing that the resources, personnel, allies, partners and markets crucial to your success will change from one year to the next in thoroughly unpredictable ways. You would also have to have a process for making a new plan when it turned out your original plan was based on faulty assumptions about both the world and what you are trying to do.

Consider instead, what kind of strategy would be useful to new parents. It is not so hard, really, for parents to look at their newborn and imagine a whole lifetime of memories forming, a whole lifetime of a developing relationship. While a parent might not put words to this imagining, it contains sensory information about milestones and the relationship between parent and child as each of those milestones is reached. Strategic thinking for parents means consistently revisiting this imagining so that it is strong and familiar; flexible and consistent.

And it means doing the reverse: living so attentively in the moment that the parent notices when the present reality represents a really great moment, a really great kind of relationship. Karl Weick talks about "Talking the Walk" in strategy. He means that sometimes we do the right thing and then find ways of articulating and planning it. Every parent knows that sometimes knowing what we do is less urgent than being present and doing what is there to do.

Strategy for parents means having a strong sense of the relationship you want to have with your child over a lifetime, and making daily choices that will support that sense. That sense comes from imagining and from noticing. It supports choice by providing a touchstone against which daily decisions can be tested: does this decision support this kind of relationship or not? At any given moment, it might not mean having the desired relationship, it might mean building a characteristic (like independence or compassion) that will take years to ripen and mature.