Thursday, April 28, 2016

What to do when frustration has you stuck


You'll notice right away that this is not a picture of frustration. It's a picture of the opposite of frustration: people are experiencing connection and growth with other people and with the garden that surrounds them. And yet, it's also a picture of how close we always are to frustration.

Our topic at ThinkSpot was Dealing with Anxious People. When someone we love is anxious, we feel blocked at every turn. It's easy to feel that nothing will change and there's no way to move around the facts of anxiety. Everyone that came that afternoon knows that anxiety is a breeding ground for frustration.

It was our third spring day at ThinkSpot and the forecast early in the week predicted clouds and rain. I laughed. "Our usual," I thought. But the sun came out and the afternoon was a gift. Things do change.

The answer when you are frustrated is some form of what is happening in the picture above. Breathe. Move. Connect with kindness. And when you are feeling very safe and very brave, allow yourself to become aware of that need that is calling to you through your frustration. 

Because frustration is a sign that growth is happening and you're ready to move. And the thing that's got you stopped, the thing that feels like it will never change - that's the thing inside you that won't move until you give it kind, high-quality attention.

And then, maybe the sun will come out and the buds will uncurl and you'll notice that change was happening all along.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dealing with Anxious People: Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Photo credit: Mikka H

I have often sat in an airplane before take-off, listening to the safety presentation. When they show parents putting on their own oxygen masks before helping a child, my first reaction is always "not likely." It goes against all my fiercely protective instincts to take care of myself before making sure a child (anyone's child, really) is safe. But the safety presentations make a good point.

This weekend, I am running a workshop on Dealing with Anxious People. Of course this means that I have been surrounded by anxious people for several weeks (it's not just confirmation bias: it's end of term at college). And here's the thing I absolutely, down to the toes, know is true about handing other people's anxiety: how well I do it depends on my own state. If I don't have my oxygen mask firmly in place, I catch anxiety faster than I catch colds from the toddlers I love.

If someone else's anxiety is driving you nuts, the first place to check in is with yourself. What is it about your state that makes this so hard to handle? For me, impatience with other people's anxiety is a sign that I am carrying too much stress on too little sleep. The answer is not to solve other people's problems: it's to get enough rest.

Occasionally, there may be something in the situation that makes other people's anxiety hard to handle. If you work for a start up, there are not many layers between you and the person who both runs the show and is accountable for making payroll. That person's anxiety is likely to get under your skin quickly. In other situations, someone you love is anxious because they are failing. That's hard.

But most of the time, if we are anxious, it's because nothing really bad has happened yet. Some people seem to believe that if they worry hard enough, they can prevent bad things from happening to them or people they love. But you don't believe that when you read it here. You can see that's delusional thinking. So when you encounter it, you can put on your oxygen mask and ride out the bumps.

When you are calm, resourceful, and able to see the big picture, you'll manage anxiety just fine (whether it is yours or someone else's). Oxygen is wonderful: it helps you find clarity and comfort. And when you have those, you can share them.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Are you anxious to get started?

This herd of deer was very aware of us as we stopped to watch them graze. Deer are interesting because we think of them as symbols of both calm and caution. There's a fine line between mindful and anxious.

Language, at least the English language, defines anxiety as worry or nervousness. We are all familiar with people who get stuck in this kind of worry and face it everywhere they go. Like deer, they regard all change with caution: all movement could lead to disaster. And yet, if they are anxious to do something or anxious for something to happen, it means that same feeling is also a mark of desire for change. Anxiety doesn't tell us whether the world is good or bad: it tells us that change creates stress (either because we want it or because we fear it).

If you are feeling anxious, imagine being a deer. Imagine that your heightened sensory awareness allows you to scan for danger and for the presence of your herd. Imagine that scanning allows you to put your head down and graze peacefully. Like a deer, you can be mindful of dangers that might be present and let that keep you in the present. Deer are not anxious about things that might happen in days or weeks. They are anxious to be safe and well-fed now.

If you are close to someone who is perpetually anxious, you will want them to settle down, to turn down the sensory acuity and heightened awareness and chill out. The better way is to help them function the way the deer function. Help them use their heightened sensitivity to scan for what is true in the present. Help them to be mindful. When all of their perceptions and thoughts and feelings are engaged in the present moment, they will be more like the deer. And like the deer, they will find the calm to take what they need in this moment.

Imagine what would happen if one of the deer above was worried about another of the deer. Instead of grazing (and sending the message that they are both safe), the worried deer would startle and move and the whole herd would soon leave the fresh green grass for cover.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Vision: Leadership begins with seeing what is there

When you think of the word "vision," two quite opposite things come to mind. One is physical sight: the ability to see what is in front of you. The other is a more grand and sweeping concept of how the world could be different than it is. Understanding the link between these two apparent opposites is the key to improving the way you walk into your future.

It's always a good idea to begin with what we can test. You can play different games to find out how good you are at recognizing what you can see with your physical eyes. We all have been guilty of searching for something that is right in front of us and of walking through a room (or a textbook) and instantly forgetting what we have seen there. Our visual awareness is a bit sketchy.

Perhaps we need another word. We distinguish between hearing (which is a physical capacity) and listening (which is something we do with our attention). We don't have the same distinction with our eyes: we see something with our physical eyes and we "really" see it with our attention. We can "watch" a game with rapt engagement or we can "watch" without processing. Sometimes we say, "I was looking right at it and I couldn't see it."

Imagine how much harder this makes it when we try to see what is not there, to imagine the future or to compare possibilities. We say a leader has "vision" when they seem to be able to see the details of the future in the same way they can see what is in the room with them. To do that, they have to be able to see what is in the room mindfully, to listen with their eyes. It's not enough to have visual information pass in and out of their brains.

If you want to improve your vision of the future, it's a good idea to start with being more aware of the information that is available to your physical eyes. Practice looking with attention and the intention to remember and make sense of what you have seen. Instead of scanning for the most important piece of information (and so instantly turning everything else into 'background' that you hardly see), look at the scene around you the way a musician hears music: every note played by every instrument is part of the whole. Instead of deleting the background, you can see it as a part of the picture you need to process.

You'll never accomplish this perfectly. There are many reasons why we see one thing at a time but can listen to different sounds as they blend and come together. But as you become better at seeing what is around you, you will also find that you become better at populating your vision of the future with the details you need to make it more useful. A useful "vision" is one that allows you to make a more accurate prediction about the future.

Leaders of "vision" are able to create the future because they can see the present. You can learn to lead by paying increased attention to what is right in front of your nose.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

It's hard to speak well if you don't expect to make a difference

People often talk about communication as a skill set. That makes it sound like a good communicator can communicate well at any time in any situation. The truth is more complicated.

A good communicator's primary skill is identifying a result they want and believing they will find the words and presentation to make it happen. They are not just good with words or blessed with presence. They are good at seeing a possibility and pursuing it through communication.

If you want to dramatically improve the impression you make, begin by getting very clear about the result you want. Then nurture your expectation that this is a realistic goal. You have to believe you will achieve the result to make other people believe they should cooperate.

You probably have a routine meeting to attend soon. You probably have a strong expectation that much of that meeting will have nothing to do with you. You probably expect a small percentage of people to hear what you have to say and take action because you have spoken.

Those expectations will speak much louder than the words you choose. Instead of writing scripts you don't believe, spend the time nurturing a goal for what you say and a strong, realistic expectation that you can connect in a way that makes it happen.