Becoming “Enough” to Create Satisfaction

The annual World Happiness Report has ranked nations on an international happiness index since 2011.

Published last month, the 2023 report ranks Finland as the happiest country in the world—for the sixth consecutive year!

Many opinions exist, but if you ask Finns why they are happy, you’ll discover some pretty basic insights that begin with a sense of satisfaction.

What Is Satisfaction?

Satisfaction can be elusive. Its origin in Latin is satis (enough) and facio (to make, do, create). And to satisfy means to do enough. Thus, enough action.

Here, “enough” implies any action or situation that can achieve a state of fulfillment and completion. How can we better recognize and accept that possibility?

Kristian Wahlbeck, a psychiatrist and lead adviser with Mieli Mental Health Finland, explains this truism: Finns tend to find happiness in “the small things,” such as “family and good friendships, spending time outdoors, or enjoying a good cup of coffee; many Finns find happiness in their everyday life.”

Arto O. Salonen, a professor at the University of Eastern Finland who has researched well-being in Finnish society, explained it this way: “When you know what is enough, you are happy.”

The happiest people in the world aren’t “happy” as we may define it: they are content. Their consistent level of satisfaction is joined with the truth that accepting limits creates satisfaction.

So can we develop an awareness of “enough” to appreciate contentment when we achieve it and recognize its possibility in any activity?

Before answering this question, I’ll explore how we create and cultivate dissatisfaction.

Creating Dissatisfaction

The notion that accepting limits creates satisfaction can be confusing and oblivious. It rubs against American consumerism, striving to accumulate, possess, or achieve more.

Here, we see the nature of our suffering: the obsessive, goal-oriented behavior that drives modern life. We strive for our wants and cravings without questioning or understanding their fleeting nature.

In Buddhist psychology, attachment to desires is the root of all suffering, or dukkha. Buddhism focuses on the intention, motivations, and actions to recognize and dissolve indulgences and attachments to counter desire.

When we ignore the idea of “enough” in our lives, we often fall into a cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction. The relentless pursuit of more material possessions, achievements, or experiences can lead to a constant feeling of inadequacy or chasing a fleeting sense of happiness. This can result in stress, anxiety, and a lack of fulfillment.

One dilemma in recognizing satisfaction might come from our confusion about abundance.

We define scarcity as lacking or insufficient. Yet we define its opposite—abundance—as a state of excess, plentiful, ample, and lavish.

Ironically, when internalized, this notion of abundance as plentiful finds us lacking. Rather than proclaim “enough,” this view provokes the need to seek more.

Doesn’t it make sense to define abundant as enough to scarcity’s not enough?

Framing abundance as “enough” supports our notion of satisfaction.

Too Many Choices

Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. Yet there may be something more fundamental and confusing to examine: choices and choosing.

As humans, we have never had more choices than we do today. However, do those choices bring us more satisfaction?

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.

Although Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.


According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier. (See the previous blog.)

The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.”

The Satisfier operates from predetermined criteria for what is good enough and applies it to any option before them. When the product or service meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.

This mindset recognizes that “enough” is possible. The Satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.


Choosing often means confronting “choice shock,” claims Schwartz. He concludes that social media has created a context where “nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out” – known as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

Many of us have become Maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life. Each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.

How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?

JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO.

This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.

The Striving Cycle

Dissatisfaction lives within. The inner critic compares us with others or social standards, highlighting our deficient nature with an impulse to overcompensate for our perceived deficiency. This cycle of deficiency keeps us trapped and isolated, confirming that we are “not enough.”

A big culprit of this cycle involves “perfectionism,” which can be defined as having excessively exacting standards and being overly self-critical. Studies have found three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented. Like multitasking, many wear being a perfectionist as a badge of honor.

A column in Psychology Today details ten signs of a perfectionist mindset. The perfectionist mindset impacts our thinking (all-or-nothing) and actions (procrastination). This blog focuses on these four (numbers 1, 3, 4, and 9 ) as we explore striving and how limits can create satisfaction.

  • Self-criticism.
  • Self-worth is based on achievements.
  • Constant comparison toDOWNLOAD PDF

How the “Coming Out” Process Supports a Coaching Mindset

Coming Out of the closet as a gay man is a choice. Yet, making that choice requires considering several consequences. As a coach, the experience of coming out offers many lessons we can use to support people in living their truth.

I contributed a chapter to the book “Coaching Wisdom” – written by gay male coaches.  In this chapter, I explore how the “coming out” process supports a coaching mindset to serve clients in becoming whole.

My mentor, Devorah, a black woman living with Parkinson’s disease, shared this thought with me: “We all live in closets and struggle with coming out.”

Devorah expanded my view of coming out, showing me this all-too-common human struggle. We do all live in closets. The LGBTQ community has lived with these questions. Upon personal reflection, I can see how the experience of coming out offers unique access to aspects of our humanity to confront our freedom and cultivate becoming whole.

Beyond the many coaching practices I’ve learned and taught, this question remains critical to me: what does it mean to be human and true to oneself?  In this chapter, I invite everyone into inquiries and practices representing a professional commitment to awareness, freedom, and wholeness.

Coming Out and Being in the World

As gay coaches, we can access our shared experience of coming out to serve our clients if we use it as a model for becoming whole. The process of “coming out” involves a cycle of asking, acting, and accepting.

We ask questions from a different view. Rather than “What is wrong with me? Why am I not normal?”, which results in diagnoses and seals us in our closets, we ask, “What is happening? What am I observing or experiencing?” to open possibilities.

We act on our discoveries courageously. Action expands awareness of our role in participating in the creation and definition of our relationship with the world outside.

We accept our individual uniqueness as “different” (unique) rather than developing competence in performing “normal.” This agency invites integration and inquiry, evolving consciousness with each cycle.

Exercising this generative capacity — “coming out” as asking, acting, and accepting — cultivates possibility, aliveness, and openness. It is the antidote to our closet as gay men. Universally, this capacity also expands humanity, where fear and denial closet us by making us conceal and withhold our unique selves.

Inside-Out Structures that Support Becoming Whole

Insights from the coming out process support a coaching mindset. Rather than examining concepts in a “normative, problem-solving method” to “fix behavior,” coaching embraces an “ontological inquiry” into our emotions, bodily sensations, and language to examine “the nature and function of being.”

As gay men, we may take for granted the fundamental lessons, skills, and practices revealed by the coming out process. Since we do not have visible markers such as skin color or sexual organs that identify us as gay, we are what we say about ourselves. We affirm our dignity in the face of society’s hostility. Our unique experience of inquiry and integration supports our work as coaches to serve others in their pursuit of becoming whole.

This chapter examines four inside-out and interdependent vehicles — structures and practices that constitute being human. Each relates to coming out inside a coaching model for becoming whole.

  1. Self-awareness cultivates our observer, clarifying self-perception.
  2. Integrity strengthens our word to develop workability.
  3. Authenticity expands the possibility and freedom to be, encouraging authentic self-expression.
  4. Commitment prioritizes our care to expand dignity.

1- Self-Awareness as Observer

Human beings can be said “to be” because of our ability to see, perceive, feel, and interpret. Our self-awareness cultivates the “observers” we are as “being” human. We become attentive to the effects of the filters, maps, and blind spots in our interactions. Our observer reflects on discoveries and interprets what the world discloses.

Self-awareness reveals the nature of being as projecting views and then seeking evidence to confirm them. “What you don’t know, you don’t know” is home to many of the blind spots that limit our perceptions, listening, and perspectives.[1]

Seeing reality begins with continually stripping away our self-deceptions and dissolving any delusions. Consider the inner observer that leads to coming out. Recall when this stripping away of beliefs and delusions encouraged questioning and self-discovery to embrace your queer identity. Becoming whole begins with self-awareness.

Inquiry. To further develop our observer, cultivate our self-perception and sort out projections, we surround ourselves with different perspectives and invite feedback. Multiple perspectives and discoveries require the adoption of humility to seek questions rather than know solutions.[2]

Practices. Coaching supports practices such as pausing to clarify perceptions that precede behavior or performance. We pause between events (communications, meetings, situations, or activities) and before speaking to support mindfulness. In Sanskrit, mindfulness means “to remember.” We pause to remember what we care about and our current frame of reference, such as our roles, functions, jobs, or agreements.

  • Increased awareness invites us to strip away delusions and enable self-discovery to reveal projections and truths. (See grid below.)

2- Integrity as Workability

Integrity is accountability to our word for the purpose of creating “workability” in our life. The process of coming out is a profound example of the power of our word to create workability. Recall the intense unworkability of living inside the fear of the closet.

To constitute ourselves as our word requires “transparency about what one is giving one’s word to, to whom it is being given, and by when the promise given by the word will be executed.” [3]

Such an inquiry requires self-awareness to examine and discover when we are “in” or “out” of integrity — whether I can be counted on to act as I’ve stated. Unfortunately, socialization views integrity through morality (being virtuous), ethics (the right standards), or normative (idealDOWNLOAD PDF

Creating Space to Access Wisdom Daily

As first defined by William Davies of LRB, the term reaction economy best fits the lives we all navigate. To quote Davies, “Each of us becomes a junction box in a vast, complex network, receiving, processing, and emitting information in a semiautomatic fashion, and in real-time.”

Reactive Spaces

Davies focused on reactions such as facial expressions, gestures, or emojis, which have become an influential currency of the digital public sphere. Nonetheless, his term describes a reactiveness that has splintered our attention and fragmented our awareness.

Getting through the events that make up our day can drain us, and fending off those who fill our capacity with clutter can be overwhelming. This much we can recognize.

Managing our schedules can become so impossible that it is easier to react to events: we apologize for slights, wing it on calls, and feign preparation at meetings.

Over the past two decades, we have discovered three significant spaces and practices—1) Empty space, 2) Prep time, and 3) Fallout —that can enliven your participation in activities and expand possibilities.

This blog will first distinguish Empty space to uncollapse compressed spaces. Empty spaces develop the conditions for Prep time and Fallout that reveal our flow of life. These spaces may seem like additions to your schedule, but they reveal a deeper truth. We require space to show up as co-creators who cultivate the quality, care, and insights to navigate this reaction economy.

So Many Events

Consider the many events we experience in a day. Eating, writing, responding to emails, working out, meetings, researching, reading, meditating, calls, tasks, shopping, Yoga, and traveling to events, to name a few. Notice how these events often run together; by 3 p.m., we are FULL. We lack the space to prepare or recover.

In this process, an “Event” is defined as an “instance” or occasion in which we show up to participate. Any “happening” we choose to attend or engage or any concern we wish to fulfill is an Event.

These instances might include grocery shopping, practices, traveling to work, meetings, calls, lunch, workouts, Yoga, school/study, entertainment, games, etc.

Events take up most of our lives and reveal what we care about. Yet when stacked together, they can become compressed into a stream of stress.

For some events, such as grocery shopping or workouts, we have a set routine that prepares us. We examine cupboards and the fridge to make a list before shopping. We grab our exercise shoes, shorts, and bottled water before heading to the gym.

We arrive at some events prepared and ready to participate, yet we wing it at others.


Empty Space: for reflecting, remembering, restoring

Much like the compression of time, our information overload and hyper-interconnectivity have compressed space. Personal, professional, downtime, daydreaming, family, and reflective spaces are merged into “on time.” Bells, dings, haptics, notifications, buzzers, emojis, and so forth are akin to Pavlov’s experiments.

We no longer experience sacred spaces to process, prepare, or restore ourselves.

We must develop practices to “decompress the spaces” we’ve been conditioned into by our culture of “speed and urgency.”

1- No Space for Wholeness

Thirty years ago, phones, TVs, and games occupied different spaces. We could focus on a designated activity in a subway, car, park, beach, or bathroom. Today, the phone can access excess connections, information, and consumption to shop, entertain, chat, and work anywhere, anytime, for anything—all at once.

Blurred boundaries confuse our views, communications, structures, and agreements. We careen from one event to another, accumulating unresolved items. We feel drained, uneasy, and anxious.

The impact of compressed space fractures our attention and fragments our awareness. We lack the capacity: to be present to experience our being, to remember our priorities, or recognize our wisdom.

Consider the meaning of mindfulnesssati” (Pali) or “smrti” (Sanskrit) is “bare attention” or “to remember.” Remembering is an underappreciated condition in which life has shattered.

As a practice, dedicated, reflective spaces are necessary to cultivate the capacity for discerning insights and remembering (recenter) our wholeness.

  1. What fills up our space?
  2. How can we bring discoveries of space into our everyday lives?
  3. Which of our practices allows space to loosen our fixed views?

To ponder these questions, I explore reflective spaces and then pausing as a practice to create space.

2- Reflective Space

It is important not to conflate space with time.

Reflective space is empty and taps into our awareness of being to reveal what’s arising. For instance, just scheduling 15 minutes after a tense, mentally draining meeting may not support creativity or reflection. We also need a practice for clearing spaces. We might take a walk to dissolve concerns or restore energy.

Becoming aware of the spaces in our lives involves recognizing what fills our spaces and then understanding how to restore them.


The axiom space abhors a vacuum is truer today than ever. We fill any space on our calendar or in our lives. Our conditioning toward speed, urgency, and productivity cannot stand wasted space or time. Guilt wrenches us back to load up any space with tasks.

Even when we create intentional space, concerns from previous events fill our space with distractions, expectations, and fixations (DEF).

  1. Distractions involve the objects that draw our attention to lose our focus.
  2. Expectations involve anticipating experiences. Whether we know it or not, many of our upsets and disappointments come from unfulfilled expectations.
  3. Fixations involve any attachment, obsessive energy on, or identification with an experience or object. Here, we attempt to hold onto or control something we cannot control.

These items fill our mind with concerns that weigh us down.

Empty space clears our mind of these concerns. When we recognize expectations or attachments, pausing creates the space between our experiences.DOWNLOAD PDF

Developing Wisdom: Four Models for Unlearning Common Myths

Wisdom seems so elusive. I remember encountering the notion of wisdom three decades ago in a philosophy course. I felt a strong pull at my heart to seek this out, yet also a sinking dilemma: How do you make a living using wisdom?

Much of my dilemma was rooted in unexamined socialized beliefs such as knowledge is power. Thus, I focused on gaining knowledge. Since then, I’ve come to a discovery: knowledge fills the mind; wisdom frees the mind.

Recently, I’ve read several articles bemusing the useless nature of wisdom: “What good is any wisdom we learned thirty years ago in today’s world?” This is an excellent question about knowledge, but it has nothing to do with wisdom.

Confusion about wisdom often comes from common myths:

  • With age comes wisdom.
  • Knowledge leads to wisdom.
  • Wisdom comes from experience.

After reflecting on my studies and the experiences I’ve had with knowledgeable and wise teachers, I find it helpful to examine this topic. My view is not definitive, nor is it something I am claiming any special experience with. I find cultivating insight an ongoing practice and quite humbling to accept what’s revealed.

Still, the confusion about wisdom seems critical to examine and clarify. Moreover, the wise teachers I’ve experienced offered perspectives and space in a way that the smartest, most knowledgeable among my teachers simply could not.

Turning to Webster’s dictionary, I offer conventional definitions of wisdom:

  • “Ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight.”
  • “Good sense; judgment.”
  • “A wise attitude, belief, or course of action.”

A fuller view of wisdom might include a sense of peace and clarity from a deep understanding and knowledge of the truth. 

Different Paradigms

So then, what does wisdom mean today? Are there different contexts for wisdom? How might we cultivate it?

To sort through many of the qualities of wisdom, I’ve organized different models that I’ve observed into four paradigms/states:

Part 1 – Information Paradigm

Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm

Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm

Part 4 – Philosophical/Spiritual Paradigm

Each part of this inquiry examines different aspects of wisdom.

Part 1 – Information Paradigm

The first paradigm is concerned with observing patterns. Here, we gather and sort data, correlate, and connect it to create information that we act on and evaluate to develop knowledge. Then, we reflect on our experience of applying the knowledge and, over time, deepen our understanding and insights.

In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, signs undervalued players to create a winning team. Baseball is a game of stats. Changing how we use this abundance of data and knowledge can offer new insights into the game’s human potential.

Beane hired data geek Peter Brand as a complement to his experience of the game. Together, they upended the baseball myth of big hitters by bringing new wisdom to the recruitment and selection process. They built a team based on data, not old beliefs tied to hitting stats, celebrity, appearances, or “personality.”

It’s important to note that Brand’s methods and theories were ignored or dismissed by others. Beane, however, recognized something. He reflected on his experience as a scout and his adversity as a player to question conventional assumptions. He could see something that not only eluded others but provoked resistance.

Integrating Brand’s theories, Beane wisely used science to illuminate a new game. This entire enterprise shift occurred inside Beane’s “seeing” something.

Thus, the lowest pay-per-player baseball team had a 20-game winning streak and won the 2002 American League West championship.

Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning. This process involves sorting data to contextualize information before then applying this knowledge to discern wisdom—commonly known as DIKW.

Fig-1- Technology in Tourism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate (see reference below).

Part 2 – Systems Thinking/Scientific Paradigm 

The second paradigm concerns discerning systems by reflecting on conceptual thinking to realize deeper connections, relations, and new contexts. As an outcome, wisdom achieves elegance.

When we question past assumptions, reflect on experience and knowledge, and discover wisdom, we shift contexts, think differently, and see new relationships. We move beyond past-based constraints to seeing different systems.

Billy Beane’s and Peter Brand’s strategy didn’t just change the future of the Oakland A’s. It changed the game of baseball. Instead of paying for star power, and big hitters, baseball was now buying wins, no matter where they came from. After Beane declined a $12.5 million offer by The Boston Red Sox to be their GM (as highest paid GM in baseball), the Red Sox used Beane’s strategy to win the 2004 World Series.

Steve Jobs took a leap by conceptualizing the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind.” He shifted paradigms in seven industries: computers, music, book publishing, television, telecommunications, photography, and apps. Apple indirectly impacted industries such as news/newspapers, transportation, accommodation, radar detection, dedicated GPS industry, and others.

Job’s wisdom came from discerning qualities: his incredible focus and decisiveness, legendary attention to detail, and deep understanding of the human connection between the humanities, arts, and technology.

Within months of Job’s return to Apple in 1997, his Zen-like precision and appreciation for simplicity and elegance reduced product lines by 70%, simplified operations, and let go of a nagging lawsuit with Microsoft. These streamlined priorities focused attention and surfaced new questions for a future that wasn’t possible a year earlier at a company hemorrhaging $1 billion.

Key learning in this paradigm involves discerning patterns to add meaning that connects and develops relationships. This often entails moving from analytical, focusing on what has happened, to creative analysis to generate new openings (future possibilities).

Fig 2– Thanks to Karim Vaes for expertly detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.

Fig 3– Thanks to Karim Vaes for detailing the process of wisdom at the systems level.

Part 3 – Psychological/Pedagogical Paradigm

The third paradigm concernsDOWNLOAD PDF

Slowing Down: Letting Go, Letting Be, Letting Come

The notion of slowing down has become a common refrain over the past decade. And at the beginning of a new year, it makes sense to contemplate our pace of life.

Reflecting on the speed of change and volume of information and complexity can leave us more fragmented. Between new year’s resolutions, self-imposed goals, obligations, and daily concerns, we can feel fractured and frenetic. Finding time to pause has been a good antidote to curb anxiety.

But we need more. It’s time to appreciate the process of slowing down.

The Essence of Slowing Down

Slowing down is often conflated with waiting, slacking, or delaying.

For our inquiry, slowing down involves becoming fully present to acknowledge, allow, accept, and appreciate the fullness of what is occurring and emerging.

The irony is that slowing down, as we mean it, will lead to speeding up. Sorting through the confusion of slowing down supports the foundation for developing “presence,” a topic beyond the scope of this blog.

Slowing down requires a disciplined set of practices that involve 1) letting go of habitual holding, 2) letting be to cultivate acceptance, and 3) letting come to connect to emergence.

Letting go and letting be are often used interchangeably, which can cause unnecessary confusion.

“Letting go” involves releasing, and “letting be” involves acceptance. Both can be helpful in different contexts because they involve different levels of intention. Together, they offer complementary strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.

The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.

1- Letting go.

Letting go brings awareness to our “holding on.” The key to letting go is increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in its many forms.

“Letting go” generally refers to relinquishing control or ownership of something or releasing negative thoughts, emotions, grudges, or unhealthy habits. It can involve letting go of a person, a situation, or attachment to a certain outcome, or it could involve letting go of material possessions or relationships.

Until we increase awareness of “holding on” to objects or “holding on” as a tendency, we live in automatic ignorance, drifting and sleepwalking through life. Waking up brings awareness to the old habits and perceptions that drive our defending, coping, or reacting habits.

Letting go may be the most challenging step because it involves slowing down and increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in real-time.

Going Slow

Letting go involves reframing the notion of going slow inside a process of becoming present. The practice of pausing, connecting to the ground, and breathing supports becoming present as follows:

  • Pausing before approaching your scheduled daily events, such as meetings, calls, emails, the gym, playing with kids, and so forth. Pausing creates space to be present for these events. If any preoccupations or distractions arise, capture these for later self-reflection.
  • Pausing before speaking to notice your experiences, intentions, and expectations. Remember why you are in this conversation.

Until we slow down, we remain in a reactive state. We download what comes at us and automatically upload our practiced habitual responses. Pausing interrupts and reveals our fixed patterns and supports slowing and calming down.

Otto Scharmer of Theory U describes this downloading pattern as “projecting habits of thought” that enable our sensing and actions. The reactive state maintains our current level of ignorance, perpetuating our existing blind spots.

With awareness, we recognize much of what we download, including the 95% of human experience in our subconsciousness.

Meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh understands that perceptions are the ground of all afflictions and sees letting go as “throwing away notions and ideas that are the base of our suffering.”

It seems simplistic to point to awareness as the remedy to reveal blind spots and support dissolving fixations, distractions, and habitual patterns. However, with increased awareness—pausing, coming back to the moment, breathing, and regular reflection—we can tune into our bodily sensations, surroundings, and fixations to surface our blind spots.

With awareness, we become present to all that fills the moment and begin to notice “holding on.”

Awareness of Holding On

The practice of pausing supports slowing down, coming back to the moment, and being aware of our habitual patterns. We begin to recognize the impulse of “holding on” that highlights letting go.

There is always an undercurrent of trying to prove something. We are chasing some goal, deadline, emotional feeling, or aspiration that produces stress because it is wrapped up in our identity or some fleeting experience we want to endure.

That’s “holding on” or clinging.

We hold on to unhealthy habits or outmoded beliefs by clinging to grudges, material items, or relationships. We also hold on to pleasurable experiences, expectations, or things from an underlying attachment.

Releasing Attachments

Releasing attachments—or non-attachment—encourages a more open-minded approach to life and can help reduce stress. Nonattachment is often misunderstood. It does not suggest rejecting experiences or things; rather, we no longer “cling” to our experiences or expectations of them.

  • We set goals and achieve results but do not define our self-worth or value based on them.
  • We acknowledge achievements and learn from setbacks without identifying with either the wins or losses.
  • We recognize underlying worry, fear, or thinking that finds us possessing unhealthy relationships or outdated possessions or beliefs.
  • We notice experiences such as “I experienced sadness or anxiety” as different from identifying with experiences such as “I am sad or anxious.”

Nonattachment is distinct from detachment, which involves a disconnection from our experiences and seems to others like indifference. Instead, we fully connect with our thoughts, feelings, and situations without holding on to our experiences.

The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.

Releasing the Past


Evolving Mindfulness, Part 4: Restoring Wisdom

In this final blog, I connect a few important concepts related to restoring wisdom to mindfulness via Buddhist psychology.

Recall that, in Part 3, I introduced the Four Noble Truths. We see mindfulness in the training category of “mental discipline” in the Eightfold Path. The ethics of mindfulness is in the training category of “ethical conduct.”

Wisdom is the overlooked category in Western learning. This begins with our socialization and education. Wisdom simply gives way to practical knowledge in the American worldview. Yet without wisdom, we lack grounding, a compass, or clarity.

Wisdom Beyond Knowledge

In times of volatile change and growing complexity, “objective” knowledge cannot do the heavy lifting required of wisdom. The depth and complexity of this training informs the Eightfold Path through “view” and “intention.” Developing this training category is unlike the other training categories.

  • Mental discipline (samādhi) involves meditation practice and training to develop right mindfulness, right concentration, and right effort.
  • Ethical conduct (sīla) involves a focus on self-management and behavior, embodying the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
  • Wisdom (prajñā) involves subtle perceptions, thoughts, and understanding. Wisdom, or Prajna, develops a penetrating discernment that cuts through the fog of our lives and informs ethical conduct and mental discipline.

Indeed, the very rise in popularity (and acceptance) of mindfulness these past few decades mirrors the increasing levels of change and complexity and breakdown of our other knowledge-based learning systems in society.

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A Glimpse of Wisdom

In Buddhist thought, wisdom integrates right view with right intention.

The Eightfold Path is not a series of progressive steps but rather a part of an interdependent whole. Here, right view shapes the commitment to these other steps.

Right view focuses on discerning the correct way to look at existence. This involves a view of the self and phenomena that is interdependent, impermanent, and empty of intrinsic meaning (which is explored later in this blog). It results in seeing things as they are.

Right intention focuses on the thoughts that shape our experience. We cultivate three aspects: 1) dissolving indulgences and attachments to counter desire, 2) increasing goodwill to counter ill will, and 3) developing wholesomeness to counter harmfulness.

Unlike knowledge, which involves adding content and concepts, wisdom involves letting go (intention) and seeing (view) through concepts to create space for wisdom to emerge.

1- Awakening Wisdom

Wisdom means deeply knowing or understanding the truth to penetrate distortions. 

Wisdom is the missing link for what ails us today. Hence, we must learn to cultivate, recognize, and access the wisdom available via the core teaching of mindfulness.

How do we cultivate wisdom?

We develop wisdom through a cycle of discovery, inquiry, application, and realization that circles back to discovery.

In Buddhist psychology, the Three Prajnas (wisdoms) lay out a cycle of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. As is typical with Buddhist psychology, these terms have different implications for the Western mind.

The wisdom embedded in the three prajnas is common among traditions.

The Three Prajnas

Each subsequent stage emerges from the previous one as a cycle of discovery and awakening.

  1. Hearing. The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear,” as in hearing intellectual studies. This involves listening, observing, and studying knowledge. Hearing invites exploration to understand new terminology and concepts. At first, this may seem like a blur of thoughts, feelings, and sensations all running together.
  2. Contemplating. Here, “sampa” means “to think about” and involves our experiences as we apply and digest knowledge. We experiment and discover many flavors and feelings of learning to distinguish concepts. We reflect on our experiences and engage in activities such as journaling, discussions, developing questions, discovering enhancements, and even gaps.
  3. Meditating. The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “to familiarize” or “to habituate to.” Here, we bring knowledge into the heart and mind to metabolize insights beyond a conceptual understanding. From the intellect to the heart, knowledge gives way to flashes of insight and realization, integrating it with different experiences to habituate a way of being. Instead of using knowledge, we are now used by knowledge.

Click to Enlarge

This cycle reduces suffering by releasing one’s expectations to know and understand everything. It allows us to be where we are. There are two essential insights:

  • First, this cycle normalizes a process that involves confusion. Letting go of goals and expectations, we can appreciate the confusion that precedes clarity.
  • Second, we learn to accept that wisdom requires awareness and discovery. The initial “hearing” of teachings is the first round of learning that develops the foundation for future cycles.

This is quite different from the linear manner that Americans learn. Typically, we add more knowledge to memorize rather than metabolize – without the reflection necessary to discover or integrate experiences or to release outmoded views or beliefs.

Buddhist psychology requires a circular, embodied approach to digest and transcend its lists, frameworks, terms, and concepts in our lives. These blogs offer a tiny slice of the Dharma. No doubt, you may have already experienced some confusion. Be where you are.

2-  Buddhist Psychology

Buddhist psychology is primarily about awakening via self-knowledge, understanding our decisions, actions, thoughts, feelings, and so forth. It aims to challenge our worldview by addressing the root of our psychological functioning, our sense of who we are, and our relationships with others and with the world.

The primary concern of Buddhist psychology is alleviating human suffering, distress, and dissatisfaction. Our psychological state depends not so much on particular things or circumstances but more on how we relate to what life brings our way. It acknowledges that pain—whether physical or emotional—is an unavoidable part of life, and with that pain comes some suffering.

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However, as human beings, we tend to add additional layers of psychological suffering through how we engage with our experiences. Specifically,DOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 3: The Truth of Suffering

Once we move beyond McMindfulness, as discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, we can explore the nature of mindfulness from its core teachings.

In this part, I develop a pedagogy as a foundation for awakening. I’ve selected the most relevant core teachings, topics, and resources of mindfulness from the Dharma to represent the “ground of mindfulness.”

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

The Ground: Truth, Suffering, and Liberation

The ground of mindfulness is awareness of truth in each moment. By contemplating truth, we recognize its liberating nature. Whether scientific, historical, or personal, truth satisfies us when revealed, even if it might initially be uncomfortable.

As stated by Sōtō Zen priest Dainin Katagiri, “As human beings, we are currently present in the truth, but we are doomed not to know the truth exactly.”

Bypassing Discomfort

We focus on the truth of suffering because it also holds the remedy. Exploring suffering requires examining how our ego-clinging mind can and will sidestep that truth. With grounded practice, the Dharma teaches us to investigate the clinging nature of attachments (to objects or ego) or identification (with experiences). Both are developed below.

The danger of secular mindfulness and McMindfulness is that it obscures the causes of suffering (see Part 1). We escape, rather than confront, the true nature of our suffering.

In his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood (16) introduces the concept of spiritual bypassing as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” In an interview with Wellwood, he states the following:

When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to … rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.

When we begin mindfulness, pain, suffering, and discomfort will surface. That is the point, not the problem, as stated by Atlantic writer Arthur Brooks in “Mindfulness Hurts. That’s Why It Works.” Brooks writes, “Facing the painful parts of life head-on is the only way to feel at home with yourself.”

Still, rather than address the truth, some focus solely on the circumstances or on others as the sole source of suffering without also looking inward. Many others use Buddhist teachings such as impermanence, karma, and compassion to avoid rather than confront pain.

People may avoid issues by claiming that “it will pass,” “that’s karma,” or invoke compassion to avoid their own discomfort, hence, enabling rather than feeling pain.

Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls this form of compassion “idiot compassion”: Instead of offering a friend medicine, bitter though it may be when ingested, you feed them more poison—and you don’t take away the cause of the pain.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddhist philosophy begins with the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering: there is dukkha (Pali for un-satisfactoriness or suffering),
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering; dukkha has root causes (greed, ignorance, and hatred),
  3. The truth of the end of suffering, or freedom from dukkha, and
  4. The truth of a path leading to freedom from suffering is the Eightfold Path.

1- The Truth of Suffering

This truth acknowledges a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

The Buddhist idea of suffering (dukkha) includes the entire range of human dissatisfaction and anguish beyond the clinical disorders described by psychiatry.

Buddhism mostly refers to the emotional or mental aspects of suffering rather than physical suffering, per se. The feeling of suffering here is more like a general dissatisfaction, akin to feeling off-kilter. Ever drive a car with a wheel out of alignment? Notice the extra effort required just to keep the car in your lane? This extra exertion feels uneasy, restless, and even stressful. This is dukkha.

Meditation master Chogyam Trungpa [i] reminds us of this paradox, ”at the same time, because of the clarity of mind, the pain itself becomes more pronounced — not because the pain is more, but because the confusion is less.

Mindfulness supports remembering this state as part of our common humanity. All beings share the desire to be happy while experiencing hopes, fears, anxieties, and confusion. We all want to relieve our dissatisfaction.

These “truths” show us the way.

2- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

Dukkha also refers to that which is temporary, conditional, and (inter)dependent on other causes and conditions. Even something precious and enjoyable is dukkha because it will end.

Chögyam Trungpa (15)  reminds us that “the practice of meditation is not designed to develop pleasure, but to understand the truth of suffering…” The general cause or truth of suffering is greed or desire. From the Dharma, the word “tanha” more accurately translates as “thirst” or “craving.”

There are three types of dukkha:

  • The suffering of suffering (dukkha-dukkha) refers to the physical and emotional discomfort and pain all humans experience in their lives.
  • The suffering of change (viparinama-dukkha) refers to suffering that arises from an inability to accept change. People cling to pleasurable experiences and feel sad when these moments pass. They cannot accept the truth of impermanence.
  • The suffering of existence (sankhara-dukkha) is best described as a background of suffering caused by judgments, thoughts, and anxiety simply by things not being how we want them to be rather than how they exist.

Finally, continued dukkha is called Samsara, or a cycle of suffering.DOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 2: The Demise of Wisdom

What is the cost of discarding the ethics and wisdom from mindfulness? Is there a way to restore the wisdom for lay practitioners or non-Buddhists?

In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed the rise of McMindfulness that emerged from secular mindfulness techniques, which flourished in the wake of the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) method launched by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979.

Ironically, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s compassionate approach gave rise to McMindfulness. Much of this involves our American appetite for consuming, reducing, and, thus, simplifying wisdom. I explore this dynamic in Parts 3 and 4 of this series as I set out to recover much of what we’ve lost.

In sum, McMindfulness denatures meditation from its core, from the wisdom, ethics, and mental discipline found in the Noble Eightfold Path.

In this blog, I will examine the different critiques of McMindfulness.

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

A Menu of (Mc)Mindfulness Critiques

McMindfulness has inspired different views and critiques.

NOTE: Buddhism is quite complex, with various lineages, schools, and doctrines, so this is not a review of Buddhism. Rather, I will review different critiques of mindfulness as commonly practiced in America. When I speak of Buddhist or Eastern wisdom, I center it on specific teachings, practices, or concepts that will be highlighted in Parts 3 and 4.

Pathway to the West

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

To contextualize these critiques, I offer some thoughts from Bhikkhu Bodhi (born Jeffrey Block) [i]. An American Theravada monk ordained in Sri Lanka and appointed the second president of the Buddhist Publication Society, Bodhi has edited and authored several publications grounded in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

In his piece, “The Transformation of Mindfulness,” Bodhi (g) addresses two shifts that shaped how mindfulness developed in the West.

The first shift involved “the ‘custodianship’ of the Dharma – the teaching authority – from the monastic Sangha to Western lay teachers.”

Here, Bodhi recognizes the “stultifying” effect the monastery might have on the teachings but also notes that “despite its faults, this tradition has ensured that all modes of Buddhist practice—whether scholarly, ritualistic, or contemplative—are imbued with veneration for the Three Jewels and rooted in a worldview based on the Buddha’s discourses.”

He sees this shift in teaching authority as playing “a monumental role in the revamping of mindfulness and thus in extending it into new domains never found in the Buddhist traditions of Asia.”

The second shift happened later and resulted from the first, as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes:

Multiple factors, woven together into a complex tapestry, contributed to this development, including the American spirit of pragmatism, the declining influence of theistic religion, the triumph of the therapeutic, the human potential movement, the quest for authenticity, the reaction against technological impersonality, and crass American commercialism.

A complete presentation of these issues is beyond the scope of this blog. I will focus on a few that persist today in the form of American Mindfulness or McMindfulness.

1- Secular Critiques

First-generation Buddhist practitioners celebrated “American Buddhism” as non-hierarchical, gender-egalitarian, and free of the cultural and religious “baggage” of their Asian predecessors. Jettisoning this religious “baggage,” however, resulted in the emergence of McMindfulness.

Engaged Buddhists David Loy and Ronald Purser responded to the effects of this trend with their 2013 blog (b), Beyond McMindfulness. Most of the critiques of American mindfulness involve its complicity with socioeconomic structural injustice or dismissing traditional ethics and wisdom.

Examples include adopting mindfulness to train sharpshooters in the military to become more effective killers, or using mindfulness to enhance the focus and create “productive workers” in unjust economic systems.

Another critique involves the hyper-modern and scientific view of mindfulness by “experts,” who measure self-improvement benefits for busy professionals to keep them “busy,” focused, productive, and consuming.

Psychologist and dharma teacher Malcom Huxter pointedly states, “The difference is that the contemporary definitions of mindfulness are ethically neutral. In stark contrast, Buddhist mindfulness is ethically wholesome, and an overt effort to live an ethical lifestyle is considered as an essential foundation for the practice.”

Parts 3 and 4 will expand on the misunderstood notion of mindfulness as “non-judgmental” or “neutral.” Indeed, when properly cultivated and developed via an integrated path, we can discern wholesome/skillful and healthy states of mind from those which are unwholesome and harmful to self and others (Bodhi, 2011). [ii]

These critiques argue that teaching mindfulness in these contemporary contexts conflicts with core Buddhist teachings of non-harm, right livelihood, and interdependence.

2- Three “Emerging Turns”

In her book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (1), Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies Ann Gleig posits three emerging turns within American Buddhism: critical, contextual, and collective.

The critical turn refers to a growing acknowledgment of the limitations within Buddhist communities. Although this view acknowledges the scientific and secularization of Buddhism, it encourages a discussion about the problems and pitfalls of these processes.

Some focus on what has been lost by discarding the wider religious context of Buddhism and have called for restoring the neglected aspects of the dharma, such as ritual and community.

The contextual turn refers to understanding how Buddhist practice is “shaped and limited by the specific social and cultural contexts in which it unfolds.” [iii]

Critics have discussed issues of power and privilege in American Buddhism, in which mindfulness hasDOWNLOAD PDF

Evolving Mindfulness, Part 1: The Rise of McMindfulness

Mindfulness has become the elixir for all that ails us. Stress, performance, focus, anxiety—mindfulness is the remedy. However, recently, some have deemed mindfulness as damaging, unsettling, and even narcissistic. Yet these benefits and flaws are often taken out of context.

So, then, how should we view mindfulness? Is it religious, secular, spiritual, materialistic, Eastern, psychological, just a technique, or something else?

Our Inquiry into “American Mindfulness”

First popularized in America about five decades ago, meditation and mindfulness can evoke numerous views. As a Buddhist and experienced practitioner, teacher, and student, I will explore the evolution of “American mindfulness” in this four-part blog series. (I offer my personal journey.)

Part 1 explores the secular version of mindfulness in the US with the rise of McMindfulness.

Part 2 examines different critiques of McMindfulness and secular mindfulness.

Parts 3 and 4 explore the core Dharma teachings (see the meaning of dharma) and how we might integrate them into a more holistic view and practice of mindfulness.

NOTE: To support the learning in this blog series, we’ve created a page of terms, citations, and resources. Items in the blog followed by a number (1) or letter (a) are found on the resource page. Items with a lower roman numeral [i] are found in the endnotes below.

An American History

The history of mindfulness in America has three main sets of supporters.

In 1976, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Center. This retreat center emulated their experiences of living the dharma and practicing Buddhism in South Asia, where they studied.

The second champion of mindfulness was the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. By the mid-1970s, he was promoting mindfulness and meditation before he published the Miracle of Mindfulness. See this tribute honoring this work by Thich Nhat Hanh.

In 1979, inspired by attending Buddhist insight meditation retreats, Jon Kabat-Zinn (4) promoted mindfulness as a secular and scientific practice. Starting a stress reduction center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, he created an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) course.

These efforts honored a more traditional view of mindfulness, exemplified in the following quotes. In his book on the topic (10) of the Satipatthana Sutta (the establishment of mindfulness), Thich Nhat Hanh [i] offers the following definition of mindfulness:

To practice meditation is to look deeply in order to see into the essence of things. With insight and understanding, we can realize liberation, peace, and joy. Our anger, anxiety, and fear are the ropes that bind us to suffering. If we want to be liberated from them, we need to observe their nature …

Observing “the essence of things” is a process of studying and practicing mindfulness during and after meditation. Author and dharma teacher Joseph Goldstein (2), whose book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening is based on the Satipatthana Sutta, describes that process of observation slightly differently, with an emphasis on present moment awareness:

The most common understanding of mindfulness is a present-moment awareness, presence of mind, and wakefulness. … Whenever we’re lost or confused about what to do, we can simply come back to the present moment experience.

This blog series explores how the Buddhist wisdom traditions, so often omitted in contemporary mindfulness, can bring these two definitions together.

Compassionate Mindfulness Becomes a Brand

To accommodate the health profession and mainstream society, Kabat-Zinn downplayed and separated mindfulness from its Buddhist cultural or scriptural context while attempting to honor its wisdom, as noted in his definition.

Kabat-Zinn (4) defines Mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, [a]nd then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

Kabat-Zinn’s nuanced blend focused on the attentional aspects of mindfulness to cultivate compassion. He began with a body scan to tune into bodily sensations, note one’s thoughts, and label feelings for better emotional regulation. His attempt to bridge these two worlds, however, got lost in translation as teachers routinely simplified the wisdom to a technique to “reduce stress.”

Science, Secularism, and Commercialism

Studies on mindfulness have repeatedly shown a reduction in stress, a slowing of our reactive self, better emotional regulation, and improved overall presence.

This research shows mindfulness training can alleviate stress on the job, empowering employees with the right tools to succeed better at tackling responsibilities and communicating effectively to boost productivity.

Ironically, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s compassionate approach gave rise to mindfulness as a performance drug, showing that managers who meditate daily are more likely to make smarter financial decisions. Other benefits include the following:

  • Decrease anxiety or stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve positive emotions
  • Lessen intense pain
  • Enhance immune function
  • Improve heart function
  • Heighten intelligence
  • Reduce loss of brain cells due to aging
  • Ability to find peace and happiness
  • Increase focus and performance
  • Help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Improve digestion
  • Ease chronic pain
  • Improve learning and memory
  • And even raise GRE scores

Two large benefits—reducing stress and increasing attention for greater focus—have been used to brand mindfulness.

American (Mc)Mindfulness

Regrettably, the scientifically secularized mindfulness method arising out of American capitalism strips out the core wisdom of the practice, a point emphasized in a 2019 Guardian article (c), How capitalism captured the mindfulness industry:

Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on privateDOWNLOAD PDF

Bearing Witness, a Coaching Practice for this Moment

Lately, the act of bearing witness has occurred to me as sacred and momentous. In my work with coaches, bearing witness can be an important coaching practice.

Kristi Pikiewicz, in Psychology Today, shares that bearing witness can “obtain empathy and support, lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and obtain catharsis.”

Conventionally, bearing witness is the process of observing, establishing, and honoring the experiences, stories, and histories of memories or events.

The graph below reveals that usage of the term bearing witness has waned since the rise of mass media and multiple, fragmented media.

Dick Blackwell (1997), in his paper Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness, explores the therapist’s role in supporting their clients’ wants and needs during therapy.

Blackwell explains that “bearing witness is a personal and political activity. It is to constitute ourselves as some sort of testimony to the history with which we are engaged.”

His last point may reveal an impetus to bear witness to events such as the George Floyd murder and other police brutality incidents, as well as the continual flood of mass shootings we’ve endured in the U.S.

Observing, Establishing, and Honoring

Pikiewicz reminds us that “most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events.” We also witness events that can shape our consciousness.

Experience of Bearing Witness

As a gay man, I witnessed the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Seared in my psyche, I recall our government’s denial, federal agencies slow-walking life-saving research and drugs, attending the funerals of young men my age, and the threat of quarantine spurring new forms of bigotry.

Over the last two years, we’ve all witnessed the cost and damage of the pandemic. Whether we’ve shared our own story or witnessed another’s, excavating the truth can be a painful yet necessary step toward healing.

Observing and Establishing Our Witnessing

Earlier this month, Americans were invited to witness the trial of Alex Jones. Jones has claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. Two parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, who lost their children to this shooting, invited us to bear witness to their pain about their devastating loss.

This summer in the U.S., the Congressional January 6th Select Committee invited Americans to bear witness to the testimony of the historical events on January 6, 2021—the insurrection that occurred against our constitutional government. Bearing witness to these types of events impacts how the truth lives in the future.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Honoring Our Witnessing

Kristi Pikiewicz suggests honoring this process as “we bear witness to one another through our writing, … art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.”

Examples of the art she mentions include:

  • At 54 tons, the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt weaves more than 48,000 individual memorial panels into a large quilted tapestry. It demonstrates the lives ravaged by AIDS.
  • The Witness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects, commemorates the survivors of Indian residential schools. It includes braids from First Nations people, bearing witness to indignation. One of the first actions of school administrators was to cut the children’s long hair, symbolizing how they were cut from their cultures and families.
  • The National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the black victims of lynching in the U.S. It consists of 805 hanging steel rectangles representing each of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching occurred.

As a New Yorker, witnessing 9/11 overwhelmed my senses for months. I recall the leaflets plastered throughout the city displaying photos and stories of missing people. Much like the AIDS quilt, the city became a living memorial.

Upper- AIDS Quilt (right), Witness Blanket (left) Lower- Ray’s Pizza, AP Photo by Beth Keiser, Mailbox, and (R) NYU Medical Center Wall by B. Jones

Commitment and Process of Bearing Witness

The Buddha said, “[I]nner freedom is not guided by our efforts; it comes from seeing what is true.” Truth is an underappreciated part of the healing process. Avoiding, denying, or concealing the truth further oppresses us.

Spirit of Truth and Healing

I will examine a view of bearing witness that centers on a commitment to a “spirit of truth” as truth-seeing, truth-hearing, and truth-telling.

This is more akin to the biblical version of bearing witness as the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) or as expressed in the Ten Commandments against bearing false witness.

This spirit of truth, as bearing witness, appears in several domains of life and creates an important condition for healing.

Psychologically, bearing witness allows us to connect with spaces willing to hold truths. Such spaces can support our release of emotional reactions, such as pity, shame, or fear.

Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interdependence, oneness, and a direct realization of the wholeness of life. Realizing the experience of interdependence dissolves disconnection, isolation, and the feeling of separateness.

Politically and socially, bearing witness enables us to see more clearly the web of causes and conditions that create suffering—to seek mutual understanding and/or take wise action.

Coach as Witness

Blackwell (1997) continues to expand on the therapist as being “a companion on the client’s journey of ‘truth.’”

Coaches are uniquely situated to offer space for witnessing. Free of normative ideals, rational-only methods, or medialized diagnoses, coaches can offer a space for clients to freely sort themselves out.

In this space, coaches cultivate a commitment to truth that invites clients to hear their truth with clear and empty listening. Anyone with training in hospice care or contemplative care will recognize a similar approach.

Contemporary spiritualDOWNLOAD PDF

Intentional Speaking: Five Impediments to Co-creation

Language is the bridge between our intentions and our worlds. Our relationship to language determines how we wield words to bridge our worlds.

We cultivate a generative relationship with words by embracing Wholeness, Truthfulness, and Freedom. A poor acronym (WTF), we develop these qualities with intentional speaking, yet our habitual patterns conceal them.

Five Impediments

Intentional speaking begins with recognizing and dissolving five common impediments or habitual patterns. Recognizing any of these impediments and enacting practices can be like treating poison with an antidote.

  1. Reactive speech
  2. Gossip
  3. Useless speech: idle speaking/story
  4. Harmful speech
  5. False speech

With practice, we dissolve these five impediments and restore WTF to enable intentional speaking.

1. Reactive speech

Reactive speech involves speaking that exists beyond our awareness: erratic or impulsive communication from confusing thoughts, ungrounded emotions, or distorted perceptions that cause us to react or even overreact.

This speech is so ingrained in us that we often confuse it for who we are. Examples of reactive speech include saying yes to promises or agreements that we do not fulfill, making insincere requests, reacting to statements, and going along with something.

The reflexive nature of this speech supports gossip (#2 below), false speech (#3), or harmful speech (#4).

The practice of dissolving reactive speech involves becoming grounded. Begin with pausing by stopping, connecting to your breath, and feeling the ground beneath your feet before speaking. Then, connect with your words and the matter at hand.

2. Gossip

We gossip when we express concerns to someone other than the person who can actually do – or support doing – something about those concerns.

Gossiping can give us an emotional charge or immediate satisfaction. This cultivates a way of being or attitude that invites more gossip. We become that person interested in gossip and soon become surrounded by it.

Gossip has several harmful effects: it hurts others, drains us, and wastes our energy and time without producing results or genuine satisfaction.

Speaking about an absent person can be compassionate when it supports them, works out an issue, or brings people together.

The antidote to gossip is direct a request to someone who can do something about the issue at hand. If that’s not possible, invite a trusted listener to offer feedback on your perspective. Be truthful about your issue and willing to hear the truth.

3. Useless speech

Useless speech includes idle chatter or “story.”

Idle chatter fills a space or silence with platitudes, small talk, justification, rationalization, or chit-chat.

The Pali word for useless or pointless speech is Sampappalapa: the act of talking just to talk. We insert ourselves into a conversation with something unrelated or unnecessary, often to draw attention or assert our presence.

More complex is the idea of “story.” Here, we fill a space with explanations or rationalizations to avoid uncomfortable facts, conceal challenging evidence, or prevent action.

A person who evades accountability may resort to “story” to conceal their impact. “Story” leads to gaslighting.

The practice of becoming grounded in intentions, needs, or motivations helps us recognize how we fill space with useless speech. Shift your focus to what’s happening right now. Get “out here” (out of your head) to where the action is. Remember, your words reveal your credibility.

4. Harmful speech

Whether intentional or not, the impact of harmful speech devastates others and remains with us for some time.

Society today seems to thrive on harmful speech. Social media incentivizes it to optimize clicks and profit. The latest offense provokes outrage, sometimes in bad faith, to drive more outrage. We can hurl insults on multiple platforms.

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh warns against speaking cruelly:

We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even those who have a good heart and don’t want to hurt others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from their lips. … When we say something poisonous, it is usually because of our habit energies. Our words are very powerful. They can give someone a complex, take away their purpose in life, or even drive them to suicide. We must not forget this.

The antidote to harmful speech involves bringing compassion to speaking. With compassion, we tune into the truth of suffering (both our own and that of others) to relieve it. Limit your consumption of toxic thoughts or emotions via any medium or conversation. When feeling the impulse to speak or act out of anger, pause and continue the conversation later when you can speak with more clarity and respect.

Also, discern between being right and being effective. Being effective often requires skillfully sharing your concerns privately rather than in a group.

5. False speech

False speech can take the form of outright lying, misrepresenting another’s views, mischaracterizing a person or situation, exaggerating one’s efforts, etc.

We honor truthfulness. We avoid dishonesty, which includes being dishonest with ourselves. We seek out the most accurate version of the truth of any situation. When something is green, we say it is green and not purple.

We avoid exaggerating or embellishing. We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that they are furious. We endeavor to describe situations completely and accurately, even if they do not favor us.

We avoid speaking with a forked tongue. We don’t say one thing to one person and something else to another. We may frame the truth differently to help different listeners understand our meaning, but we must be clear about and loyal to the truth.

The antidote to false speech begins with honoring our word as whole and complete – as our integrity. We practice becoming aware of inaccuracies, unresolved items, and broken agreements, and are willing to clean up any impact to restore our word.

Think Before You Speak

Without intentional speaking,DOWNLOAD PDF

A Grounding Practice in a Fragmented World

About six years ago, I noticed a shift in my coaching practice. People were coming to their sessions more fragmented and with heavier loads. I also noticed that it took a little longer to get into each session.

Since then, two comments I often hear at the end of sessions have stuck with me:

  • I feel more grounded.
  • I feel lighter.

As a researcher, such trends and patterns have given me pause.

Being a Coach Today

Over the last two years, three events have rocked so many Americans: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd murder and protests, and the insurrection against the U.S. government.

Today, being a coach means understanding how such events impact us and our clients. Whether culturally, socially, productively, or personally, incidents such as these shake foundations, rattle emotions, disrupt lives, overwhelm the senses, and fragment attention.

Combined, these dynamics compete with accelerating technological and cultural change and complex modes of communication. Our general frazzled state involves exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and mental drain. This is what arrives at a coaching session.

Unlike in previous years, when I might have checked in on clients in pursuing their goals and getting into action, supporting clients in becoming grounded is now vital both during and beyond coaching sessions.

What is “Ground?”

Ground questions our view. What situation are you encountering? Who is arriving?

Who are you in your situation? Are you projecting, or are you reacting to or observing circumstances? Can you access your awareness in the moment, or later upon reflection?

We’ve developed an effective grounding practice that involves three phases:

  1. What’s so: Observe what’s happening in this situation.
  2. Intention: Create aspirations for direction.
  3. Motivation. Investigate what moves you.

I’ve developed each leg below with an inquiry for reflection.

1. What’s So: Observe What’s Happening in this Situation

The power of what’s so acknowledges situations and conditions as we find them. We distinguish facts (who, what, where, when, and why) from any interpretation.

Like the ladder of inference by learning theorist Chris Argyris, what’s so reveals our beliefs and assumptions. When distracted or “hooked” on an interpretation or assumption, we notice our thinking and bring ourselves back to discern what’s happening.

Developing What’s So

In more than 20 years of research and practice, I’ve discovered a version of what’s so in every wisdom tradition I’ve pored over.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung taught us that whatever we resist persists.

EST guru Werner Erhard developed a document that begins as follows:

“What’s so is always just what’s so. What’s so doesn’t care what you think, feel, intend or wish; it will not bend.”

Buddhist author and black and gay activist Lama Rod Owen offers the following insights:

“… if we want to change something, we must first begin to love it; what I am actually communicating is that we must accept the reality of something before we can begin to change it. …

This teaching can be hard to hear when we are being asked to accept forms of violence or harm happening to us or others. I tell activists often that if we want to change systems of violence and inequity, we must accept the reality of those systems. Again, accepting doesn’t mean celebrating or condoning; it only means that we allow the reality to be present so we can see it … We cannot walk unless our feet are on the ground.”

What’s so trains our observer in objective examination. There are two points here:

  1. “Objective” means external or empirical circumstances or facts (not to be confused with a neutral or rational view).
  2. Developing skillful practice with empirical situations tests our ability to observe evidence. These skills then support the perception of subjective experiences that involve levels of interpretation to analyze emotions adequately.

Our ability to reproduce empirical situations accurately increases our awareness and discerning judgment, which develops our capacity to examine our experiential life.

Applying What’s So

As a coach, applying what’s so is fundamental to support grounding.

Consider the following scenario:

A client arrives at a session upset.

I ask, “What happened?”

“They just don’t respect me.”

“who doesn’t respect you?”

“My colleague and his boss.”

“How do you know this?” 

“I got an email that has messed up my entire weekend. I am so frustrated.”

“What did it say?”

“It was so disrespectful.”

“I see. Can we review the email together?”

“Sure, I’ll pull it out.”

“Okay, let’s review it.”

I’ve seen different versions of this scenario all too often. We read the email together, and with each sentence, the client begins to calm down.

“Oh, I didn’t see that. I stopped reading after a couple of sentences about working this weekend.”

“What do you see now?”

“Well, I see I have some wiggle room here. I can negotiate some of this and not have it spill into my weekend.”

Sometimes it involves rereading an email or getting the client to lay out the details of an incident. Other times, it involves the client reproducing both sides of a conversation.

At the end of the exercise – even if the situation hasn’t changed – grounding in “what happened” produces calm and can even allow for a different perspective.

As the Dalai Lama said, “The suffering and happiness each of us experiences [reflects] the distortion or clarity with which we view ourselves and the world.”

The point of “what’s so” is to refine our observer. We see things as they are — what is happening now as a matter of observed reality.

What’s so is fundamental to being grounded. The ability to see and say what happened penetrates our fog to achieve clarity. Stay with this practice to embody it asDOWNLOAD PDF

Generative Communication: A Model for Generating Commitment, part 2

Developing a generative mindset involves a shift in being. We expand our awareness and open up possibilities for creating new contexts. We transform our relationship to language from being describers of some objective-knowable world to being designers of reality. Beyond new content and style, we realize the power of perception to alter contexts.

In my last blog post, I examined this mindset, the source of generativity with a set of principles, and the language of action.

This blog begins with language – specifically, speech acts. I then offer a model for generative communication to cultivate generative conversations.

The Power of Intention

A leader generates a credible interpretation of the present, declares the possibility of a different future, and is able to generate trust in others.
Without language, these actions could not be performed.
– Fernando Flores

Here, Flores illustrates the power of intentional speaking and the role it plays in humans becoming co-creators.

In linguistics, a speech act is an utterance defined in terms of a speaker’s intention and the effect it has on the listener. The resulting speech act theory (language-action paradigm or the pragmatics of language) reveals practical ways to improve coordination and effective action via tools such as speech acts (see the GRID in the previous blog).

Flores’ work details “conversations for action” that increase performance, enhance trust, and deepen relatedness. With increased awareness, we become present to qualities of actions, which, when spoken with intention, transform our listening into action.

Speech Acts in Daily Life

In his 2013 book, Conversations For Action and Collected Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, Flores develops six commonly used speech acts that we listen for and work with:

  1. Assertions acknowledge what’s true or false. We provide evidence for a shared, reliable, and observable basis for our interpretation to take action.
  2. Assessments acknowledge what’s valid or invalid. Preparation for action involves discerning evidence that frames interpretations of and attitudes toward action.
  3. Declarations create a context for coordinating action. A new context for action fulfills the concerns of a community that listens to the declaration and registers it effectively.
  4. Requests bring forth a future. With a commitment to action on the part of the listener, the speaker expects that a concern will be addressed.
  5. Promises fulfill future actions. With a commitment to action on the part of the speaker, the listener expects that a concern will be addressed.
  6. Offers involve explicit or implicit requests to fulfill promises, with a commitment to a new future action on the part of both parties.

Consider how speech acts show up in our personal and professional lives, and the ecosystem of language (map below).

EXAMPLE 1: A client requests a product. We assert that we have it in stock and promise to deliver it at a specific time to the client’s office. When the client receives it, she declares dissatisfaction with the product and assesses that it does not meet her expectations.

EXAMPLE 2: Your daughter requests permission to borrow the car to attend a party. She asserts that the party is at a specific place, promises to return at a specific time, and offers to fill up the gas tank. We grant her request, and she declares her gratitude.

Click to Enlarge

Generative Communications: A Pathway to Commitment

Generative communication reveals a paradigm shift. The power of our word creates a world that doesn’t yet exist. This involves embracing our humanity:

  • With the quality of our intention (grounded commitment) and attention (spacious listening) from a depth of responsibility (authentic disclosure).
  • We relate to our word (speaking) with integrity (the whole) to create future action (coordination) and the willingness to be accountable (complete) for conditions of satisfaction (possibility).

In generative conversations, we become more, as detailed here by Theory U scholars at the Presencing Institute:

Generative conversations … generate shared meaning and lead to action. They involve an authentic exchange of sharing and inquiry, leading to the emergence of new knowledge or understanding that could not have been created individually.

To recap, generativity means giving birth to something that emerges from a conversation. You feel more connected, understood, seen, heard, and experienced. You’ve been recreated beyond any label or concept – acknowledged as a legitimate being. That is generative communication.

If you feel disconnected, isolated, or stuck after a conversation, then you’re not in the realm of generativity.

Five Pathways for Generative Communications

In a generative communication model, our capacity for reflective awareness, humility, and openness enables us to rest in the undivided flow of life. Beyond communication as transactional, informative, or performative, language becomes a medium of creation through which to evoke possibility and cultivate emergence in a transformative realization.

The following five pathways develop the underlying commitment necessary for generative communications:

1 – Cultivating Reflective Awareness

More than self-reflection, a reflective mindset arises from relaxed awareness to be intentional rather than reactive. Being reflective involves:

  1. Developing spaciousness for relaxed awareness to navigate the tension between confusion and clarity.
  2. Discerning distractions that enable habitual reflexivity to constrain a deeper understanding.
  3. Appreciating the unlearning/letting go dynamic to develop grounding.

2 – Acknowledging Responsibility

We embrace a level of responsibility for our intentions and reactions, and for the power of our word to co-create our world. Acknowledging responsibility involves:

  1. Embracing your intentions, speaking and listening, and claiming your past, present, and future, thus shaping your thoughts, feelings, responses, and results.
  2. Recognizing and dissolving defensive, avoidance, and survival strategies that constrain action.
  3. Strengthening integrity to produce authentic agreements.

3 – Embracing Complexity


Generative Communication: The Power to Connect and Create, part 1

Language is the house of being. This phrase by philosopher Martin Heidegger reveals a dimension of being human that connects, coordinates, and creates.

Mastering language involves more than words and terms. Language is our primary system.

  • With awareness, we weave thought and meaning to bridge the mind and existence.
  • With practice, we discern our reactivity and develop the capacity for reflectivity.
  • With language, we wield the power of interpretation to generate meaning-making.

This manifests the possibility of generative communication.

This blog post examines layers of generative communication: the paradigm or mindset, the source of generativity, a set of principles, and the language of action. In the next post, I’ll examine language – specifically, a model of generative conversations.

The Mindset: Attitude for Action

Generative communication unlocks the context of being human in language. This intentional and interactive process generates a mutual commitment and shared meaning to co-create. We become more, as detailed here by Theory U scholars at the Presencing Institute:

Generative conversations … generate shared meaning and lead to action. They involve an authentic exchange of sharing and inquiry, leading to the emergence of new knowledge or understanding that could not have been created individually.

This shift in mindset – our awareness and attitude – is not of style; rather, it alters context. We transform our relationship to language from being describers of some objective-knowable world to being designers and authors of reality.

Language becomes generative when:

  • Communication opens minds to bring something new into existence or prompts action that changes a situation.
  • We accept responsibility for our intentions, speaking and listening, and claim our past, present, and possibility to shape our thoughts, feelings, responses, and results.

Emerging from fields of study such as cognitive studies, linguistics, the philosophy of language, and neural linguistic programming, generative communications reveal properties in language that access human faculties to unlock creation (being) and action (being-doing).

The Source: Spaciousness of Creativity

Generativity unlocks a paradigm to access the “‘poetic power of language’ to bring forth distinctions from the undivided flow of life,” as stated by scholar Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline.

Consider the word “generativity.” Notice its similarities to genesis, gene, genome, genetic, generation, and generous. All these words come from the root gen (“to beget, birth, produce”), the source of things, a context of origination from spaciousness without any frame of reference.

Generativity taps into our boundless humanity – an unlimited supply of truth (wholeness) and freedom (spaciousness) that shapes our authentic being (possibility) for consensual coordination (intention-action).

In his paper Biology of Love, systems theorist and biologist Humberto Maturana credits linguistic coordination as essential to our self-generating and self-maintaining structures:

Language is a manner of living together in recursive consensual coordinations of … behaviors and must have arisen in the spontaneous coordinations of behavior that takes place when living together; sharing space and food in intimacy occurs.

We humans are not only languaging animals, but we exist in languaging, and we disappear as humans if language disappears. … our psychic existence includes the relational dimensions of our languaging being.

I am still moved by a note sent to me by my mentor more than 20 years ago, as I struggled to discover my grounding with this generative view of language. The note said:

“Technically, ‘context’ is the generative mindset. Here generate includes but means more than ‘create.’ It is mistakenly referenced as creative, like the ‘to do’ part of create. But it is the ‘to be’ aspect of creation, as in ‘to be’ the source of that which is created. You could say that it is the source of the meaning of what is created, but that, too, is limiting. It is more like the source of the DNA or the source of the space for creation, or the ‘to be’ of the creation. It is where the Bodhi’s power dwells.”

Each of us finds our own way to truth and freedom to access “to be” as the source of that which is created. This is possible by unlocking the generative power of language.

The Power: Seeing and Being

When distinguished and spoken intentionally, generativity offers clarity, captures attention, and opens up possibilities that generate meaningful conversations.

Through distinctions in language, we discover a radically different way of seeing and being.

The ingenious map below (and here) developed by Nathan Shedroff reveals how distinctions in language generate a network of agreements and commitments.

For instance, what if we viewed organizations as networks of agreements? The power of our agreements determines our capacity to coordinate action, which is required to successfully serve clients, create new products, and initiate change.

With awareness and practice, we discover creative human faculties that transform our perceptions and understanding. We shift from using language as a tool used to mechanically transfer knowledge and information that describes a world that already exists (a representative view), to a way of being that generates meaning-making as action that creates a world that would not otherwise exist (a generative view).

Click Image to view High-Quality Image.

Beyond performative branding or motto-making, the power of generativity involves the authentic source of our being. From that space, we architect reality, design worlds, and author existence – not as forced objects or a contrived will, but as flowing from being a deep commitment.

Generativity means giving birth to something, and that something emerges from this conversation. You feel connected, more understood, seen, heard, and experienced. You’ve been recreated beyond any label or concept – acknowledged as a legitimate being. That is generative communication.

If, after a conversation, you feel disconnected, isolated, or stuck, then you’re not in the realm of generativity.

The Principles: Foundation for Practice

Researchers at Theory U revealed, “we’ve only scratched the surface of this area. Supporting theDOWNLOAD PDF

The Community Nature of the Self

Adapted from Peter Senge, “Communities of Commitment”

Nothing happens without personal transformation; and the only safe space to allow for this “transformation of the self” is in a learning community.

                                          — J. Edwards Deming

When somebody asks us to talk about ourselves, we talk about family, work, school, sports– all about our affiliations.  In all this talk where is the ‘self’?  The answer is ‘nowhere.’ Consider this: the self is not a ‘thing’, but a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into coherency.

In our culture, the self is a “myself” isolated from other selves.  You turn the self into a thing when you allow personality traits and behaviors to become identified as your ego and reified as yourself.  In this process a primary value is assigned to the ego and a secondary value to community.

When we reify the self, we set ourselves up as objects for use.  We then treat encounters with others as transactions that can add or subtract to the possessions of the ego.  In this process we treat community as nothing more than a network of contractual commitments for symbolic and economic exchanges.  Community is much more than that.  Community supports certain ways of being and constrains others.  Community as context ultimately determines what it is to be a person.

Constitution of the self can only happen in community.  As we remember together that the self is never a thing, and is always being transformed, we create an opening in which others appear as legitimate beings.  Only then can we engage with one another in particular interactions that can open new possibilities for our being.  Said another way by a Native American Elder:

Community.  Somewhere there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats.  Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.  Community means strength to join, strength to do the work that needs to be done.—Starhawk

Link back to the blog: Becoming the Heart of a Learning Culture, part 1

Transparent Cultures require Commitment

Over the last few months, several of our clients have shared their ideas about transparency. As the term evolves to become a strategic imperative, it’s important to identify the practices, benefits, and limitations involved in transparency.

Transparency, which involves openness, communication, and accountability, is practiced in companies, organizations, administrations, and communities.

Practicing transparency can enrich or disrupt organizational life.

  1. As a value, transparency typically involves increased accountability leading to enhanced visibility.
  2. As a mindset, transparency implies openness via communication and accountability from the willingness to share the necessary information to collaborate.
  3. As a culture, transparency begins with a commitment to cultivating trust from a lack of hidden agendas or conditions. It involves greater visibility from a willingness to disclose complete information, thus encouraging collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision-making.

Commitment to Transparency

Transparency in business involves being open, truthful, and straightforward about various company operations. Often missed in transparency literature is the commitment needed to develop this culture.

Commitment relies on practices and agreements instead of secrets, power, and manipulation.

Transparent leaders and organizations embody agreements and practices to become more open with their customers, clients, and employees. These cultures share information related to performance, business and unit budgets, revenue, internal processes, sourcing, pricing, and business values.

A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics tested the consumer/corporation relationship between transparency, social responsibility, trust, general attitude, and purchase intent.

According to the researchers, a company’s transparency and social responsibility affects consumers’ general attitude toward and trust in the corporation. Competence, reliability, and integrity are identified as vital components of this trust (detailed in a previous blog).

A study on operational transparency supports these results. Customers are more satisfied and less impatient about wait times if they understand the process behind fulfilling their request.

Practices to Embody Transparency

Full transparency about every part of a business isn’t necessary. However, we can embody practices that focus on what matters most to consumers, clients, and employees.

1- Open and honest communication cultivates trust.

Pride and secrecy may be two of the main impediments that undermine commitment to a culture of transparency.

Openness cultivates a culture of trust and integrity that encourages free-flowing information (#2 and #3 below) and feedback (#5 below).

Honesty means acknowledging mistakes and demonstrating accountability. When something goes wrong, or a mistake is made, transparent companies do not default to hiding it. Instead, they surface issues and own up to mistakes.

2- Disclosing information leads to loyal customers.

According to GE Capital Retail Bank, 81% of retail shoppers conduct online research before making a purchase. Disclosing complete information and updating accurate information ensures consistency in pricing, policies, and practices, and it also avoids surprises.

If a customer incurs hidden fees or discovers discrepancies in return policies either on the company’s website or in another agreement, trust suffers.

3- Open-book financials boost employee morale.

Most secrecy and distrust seem connected to financials. Commitment to sharing financial management and information with employees helps employees to not only do their jobs effectively but also understand how they contribute to the company’s goals.

John Case (1989) and John Stack (1983) advocated for the concept of open-book management, concluding that companies perform better when people see themselves as partners in the business rather than hired hands.

An extension of this “open-book” concept involves sharing wage and salary information for colleagues, as was recently implemented by the city of New York. Such policies ensure equity, assure competitive salary ranges, and can save companies from possible bias or discrimination, even if unwittingly.

4- Communicating changes fosters trust and inclusion.

Uncertainty about an unclear process, vague direction, or rapid change can make customers and employees feel powerless.

To reduce uncertainty, show or tell customers what’s happening during wait times. Inform and update callers during calls, use codes to track packages, and send confirmation messages to provide updates can reduce customer confusion. Online businesses can create a status page or use social media accounts to inform customers of technical issues, scheduled updates, website downtimes, etc.

Transparent leaders and managers ensure that employees understand changes and clarify direction. They discuss and explore changes to minimize impact. They clarify the level of responsibility and authority in the organization. They include people who are affected by decisions in the decision-making.

5- Encouraging feedback drives performance.

Feedback, both positive and negative, drives innovation and growth. Still, some companies have issues accepting negative feedback and even fight it.

If customers or employees speak up about issues or offer compliments, the transparent approach is to listen, respond, and capture details and patterns.

Feedback is free R&D. How much might you pay consultants for the same data? Feedback can prevent missteps, offer course corrections, reveal necessary processes or structures, or identify blind spots.

Too Much Transparency?

Practicing transparency brings facts to the surface. Out of context, however, facts do not reveal why something happened. Instead of figuring out why a mistake was made, we only know what the mistake was — and who made it.

Too much transparency may also be counterproductive in several significant ways. Without context, we can focus too much on the “what” and not enough on the “why.”

Stifling Creativity

WHAT: Increased transparency begets increased visibility. Employees who feel like they are in the spotlight may become overly cautious and hesitant to innovate for fear of messing up. This stifles creativity.

WHY: Resolving the fear of messing up involves communicating that learning — not creating the perfect idea — is the goal.

Slow Decision-Making

WHAT: Having too many people with tooDOWNLOAD PDF

Contemplative Learning to Access Innate Wisdom

Developing leaders, integrating cultural change, and adopting new views and understanding require “contemplative learning.” This kind of learning ventures beyond accumulating knowledge to confirm beliefs. Contemplative learning deepens vertical growth by increasing awareness and surfacing assumptions and blind spots, which allows us to unlearn outmoded beliefs.

“Unlearning” can be disorienting. It involves a blend of openness, compassion, and discipline to relax our identity and question our belief system.

Here, I borrow three Tibetan concepts and practices —1) the Three Defects of the Pot, 2) the Three Prajnas, and 3) the Four Reliances—to open our minds to the cycle of learning and access our innate wisdom.

The Three Defects of the Pot: Develop Listening

The Three Defects of the Pot explores who we are as listeners. Listening is fundamental to contemplative learning.

Nineteenth-century scholar and monk Patrul Rinpoche democratized the sacred text The Way of the Bodhisattva—previously studied by only monks—by bringing it to his countrymen. A masterful teacher, Rinpoche used the analogy of a pot to describe three defects that can impede our understanding when we receive teachings.

An Upside-Down Pot

An upside-down pot identifies listening that is not present or easily distracted. The listener may be a multitasker or have a wandering mind. Water poured onto an upside-down pot runs over.

If this is your pot, learn to ground yourself and focus your attention. Create a goal to extend your focused time from 10 or 15 minutes to longer. Turn off your social media notifications and put your smartphone away altogether while doing this. Log your efforts to grow this muscle over time.

A Hole in the Pot

This listener is like a pot with a leak. No matter how much liquid is poured into it, nothing stays. We become inattentive to meaning with a lack of recollection or memory. Here, our ability to retain knowledge is compromised by a lack of practice to internalize what has been taught.

To repair a leaky pot, create practices and structures (notes, recorders, and reminders) that capture information in a reliable way and study them. Reflect often on your learning and ways to bring new knowledge into your life. Discussing such material with someone can engage different parts of your brain (hearing, speaking, writing, etc.).

Poisons in the Pot

If you listen to teachings with the wrong attitude, biases, an agenda such as becoming famous, or an attachment to knowledge or beliefs, those lessons will be like nectar poured into a pot that contains poison.

Adopt an attitude of humility or possibility that acknowledges a beginner’s mind, and establish an intention that includes being surprised. Meditate with self-compassion on any attitudes, motivations, or preconceptions that may impede your learning.

The Three Defects of the Pot reveal the vital relationship between listening and learning—a relationship that is underexamined and misunderstood. When appreciated, listening becomes our access to cultivate wisdom.

The Three Prajnas: Deepen Knowledge

Wisdom means deeply knowing or understanding the truth. Cultivating wisdom involves increasing awareness to use our intellect and experience to absorb knowledge. Prajna, or wisdom, is the product of increased awareness.

  • “Stabilizing awareness” through hearing.
  • “Reflective awareness” through contemplating.
  • “Realizing awareness” through meditation.

This continuous learning cycle, focusing on any one area, supports the entire cycle. And it all begins with listening.

The Prajna of Hearing

The Tibetan word “thöpa” means “to hear”—as in, to hear intellectual studies. Hearing means using all your senses, not just your ears. This first “stage of listening or studying” engages the conceptual mind to develop a slice of understanding as recognition.

Access to this wisdom: hearing activates our intellect to grasp knowledge. 

Hearing invites exploring new terminology and concepts by reading, studying, discussing, observing, and listening. At first, this may seem like a blur of thoughts, feelings, and sensations all running together.

“Hearing” is akin to recognizing a specific food’s appearance, sound, smell, touch, and taste; our metabolic system ignites, and we learn to recognize it.

In this stage, our awareness never loses track of itself. We experience a stabilized awareness to recognize knowledge.

The Prajna of Contemplating

The second wisdom principle is contemplating. In Tibetan, “sampa” means “to think about” or “having thought of.” You reflect on what you’ve heard, studied, and what you’ve been taught to churn your recognition into understanding.

Access to this wisdom: contemplating our experience deepens our knowledge. 

Contemplating involves questioning teachings and knowledge via discussions, journaling, and application to stimulate the intellect and bridge the worlds of lived experience. As philosopher and scholar John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Through shopping and cooking, we experience the world of food. We appreciate the impact of nutritional value, calories, seasonality, variety, texture, spiciness, and energy on our bodies.

Internalizing knowledge expands our intellectual understanding to become part of our being rather than reduced to our brain or books. We experience reflective awareness to apply knowledge.

The Prajna of Meditation

The third wisdom principle, “gompa,” means “meditating” or taking something into your heart completely as a thorough involvement that goes beyond conceptual understanding or knowledge.

Access to this wisdom: meditating on our experience of knowledge opens us to realization and clarity. 

With increased awareness, we embody our experiences beyond our maps or preconceived notions. From the intellect to the heart, knowledge gives way to flashes of insight and realization, integrating it with different experiences to habituate a way of being.

We metabolize our food, digesting it to connect and embody taste and energy as we navigate the world.

The third stage of awareness develops a spaciousness that we bring to life. We experience a resting awareness to embody knowledge.

The Cycle of Learning and Wisdom 

This learning cycle reduces suffering by releasing one’s expectations to know and understand everything. It allows us to be where we are. ThereDOWNLOAD PDF

Completing Your Year: Remember, Forget, Recover

As we enter the new year, we’ve likely made a resolution that we may have already broken or forgotten. At some point, we’ve all celebrated this annual resolution ritual.

A 2007 study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol with 3,000 people showed that 88% of those who set New Year resolutions failed, even though 52% of the participants were initially confident of succeeding.

What if this well-worn resolution ritual itself is incomplete?

As I see it, we start each year clean, distinct from the previous year. We reduce the previous year’s experiences to objects of improvement to best, such as losing weight, gaining income, or going through a positive life change.

Instead of continuing the resolution ritual, this blog proposes engaging another practice: completing your year.

Why This Practice?

The practice of completing your year is based on the practice we use with our clients called Completing Your Day.” This practice succeeds because it surfaces experiences that we might otherwise forget, and it allows us to be complete.

The distinction of being complete is significant.

Consider the proposition that we spend a large portion of our lives doing what we are incomplete about. In other words, until we are complete, we do the same things over and over again in an attempt to get somewhere—to be satisfied, whole, and at peace.

Endings and Beginnings

The value in “completing our day,” allows us to honor the endings that create the space for beginnings.

Honoring endings involves reviewing our day for accomplishmentsdisappointments, and unresolved items. Rather than dragging these items into our next day as part of our subconscious—which can wear us down—we surface them.

Making items conscious helps us to acknowledge our accomplishments, choose how to complete disappointments, and take action on unresolved items.

What most impedes being complete are the concerns we carry in our minds, the way we hold these concerns in our bodies, and the way we ruminate on them.

To be complete is possible at any moment. We can release any concern from our mind by either 1) declaring it complete and letting it go, 2) scheduling it to be handled later, or 3) scheduling a conversation to discuss it with those who matter.

If this practice supports us from day to day, how might it support us from year to year?

Remembering and Forgetting Well

This is worth stating explicitly. The practice of being complete and the state of mind it cultivates support us in “remembering” who we are.

Remembering well—presencing, witnessing, honoring, and acknowledging—has become a lost art. The speed of our existence has numbed us to our life. The dead don’t tend to remember.

Yet, our capacity to remember depends on our ability to forget.

When we remember well, we can forget well.

  • Remembering well lives beyond our memory. It cultivates presence and perspective. We become present to our life—who we’ve been, and who we are becoming.
  • Forgetting well lives beyond our inattentive idleness. We create practices to consciously release items, resolve items, and honor change.

The ability to forget well allows the spaciousness to remember well.

This possibility and practice exist beyond our “memory” (remembering) and “idleness” (forgetting). They involve being grounded in “presencing and experiencing” our humanity.

The possibility of remembering our journey—both its hills and its valleys—can make us pause as we reflect on how we’ve evolved over a year. When we forget about such changes, we discount and diminish our efforts and dismiss our growth.

We carelessly forget who we’ve been and how far we’ve come, and we do not allow for the possibility of “satisfaction.”

Satisfaction Stops Our “Wanting” Cycle

In Latin, “satisfaction” means “enough action” (satis + action). When we witness our journey, we can presence and experience satisfaction. We can be complete.

Living life fully as human beings requires remembering and forgetting well to register satisfaction. Absent this cycle, we fall into a wanting cycle, where we desire more without realizing what we already have or have accomplished.

Expanding our capacity to remember and forget well engenders satisfaction. Satisfaction finds us full and abundant and allows us to move on.

Satisfaction is our natural human boundary. It is our way of stopping, noticing, and being full. We satiate ourselves, experience fulfillment, and presence existence. Gratitude emerges.

Reviewing the year and leaving it behind allows us to presence our experience and experience our presence.

Let’s Practice.

The practice of Completing Your Year involves three phases: rememberingforgetting, and recovering.

Set aside 15–20 minutes a day for six or seven days to establish a ritual. Remember, this is to complete your entire year.

Spreading out this practice over a few days is important. We are not cramming for an exam; we are opening an inquiry.

Walking with our inquiry will evoke awareness and experiences. Accomplishments, changes, progress, disappointments, and unresolved items will begin to appear. When this happens, you will open your mind and heart.

Remembering Well

Remembering well involves contemplating and investigating. We gain perspective, deepen our awareness, recognize discoveries, and become present to who we’ve been and who we’ve become.

Begin contemplating your past year with a short meditation session in which you reflect on your accomplishments, disappointments, and unresolved items.

After meditating, journal any items that came to you. Organize these into accomplishments, disappointments, and unresolved items.

To deepen your remembering, investigate your year.

Begin by reviewing your calendar, schedule, or other markers of the year, such as bank accounts (spending patterns), photo albums, or social media posts.

As you scan these markers, examine where you spent time, energy, or finances. Remember who you were, your thoughts, attitude, even your inner critic. Notice what mattered to you then, and what matters now.

Visiting the gym; taking a class in cooking, yoga, improv acting, a foreign language, or a favorite subject; presenting a topic at a conference or at work; visiting family and friends; ignoring a friend who supported you; being self-critical about a situation; getting regular exams (physical, eye, dental, etc.); or opening and funding a savings account.

When adding items to these lists, remember who you were—your thoughts, feelings, energy, and experience.

Forgetting Well

Forgetting well involves intentionally clearing our mind. This is different from “forgetting”DOWNLOAD PDF

The Possibility of Being Ordinary

I am ordinary, average. Or maybe I should say that I fear I am average—not unique, not extraordinary. Just ordinary.

In Western society, the pressure to be more than ordinary is pervasive and constant. Everyone wants to be recognized as special.

Honoring the Ordinary

Yet, this past week in the U.S., we honored 20 years since 9/11 and marked 18 months of living with the pandemic. We honored the ordinary: people showing up to work, saving lives, caring for others, and even giving their own lives.

Honoring the ordinary requires a “special” appreciation.

Twenty years ago, in New York City, firefighters and police officers rushed into burning buildings to rescue others. The Red Cross coordinated life-saving efforts. Volunteers worked for six months to clean up Ground Zero.

More recently, nurses, physicians, technicians, grocery clerks, packers, and drivers worked to ensure our nation’s health. Ordinary people from ordinary towns, and in ordinary ways, served and worked, adding extra hours to shifts to ensure that food, supplies, medicines, and masks were delivered.

This inexhaustible human compassion, while ordinary, is often overlooked and underappreciated.

The “Extraordinary” Trap

What if the obsession with striving for extraordinary produces its own trap?

When being extraordinary overrides being human, we find “self-help” gurus and programs for “transformation,” books that emphasize “the self,” and commercials and professions that push extraordinary results. Even the coaching field leans into this puffed-up, performative perception that celebrates “extraordinary.”

We strive to best other humans in some extraordinary way rather than being fully human in a most ordinary way.

The media doesn’t help; it celebrates this extreme version of extraordinary. Manmade spaceships prompting “space tourism” are hyped as remarkable, exceptional, amazing, astonishing, astounding, sensational, stunning, incredible, unbelievable, and phenomenal.

Who wouldn’t crave these qualities? We seek this elusive feeling while our planet burns, floods ravage our communities, and more species become extinct.

This trap leads to a dead end.

We strive to best other humans in some extraordinary way rather than being fully human in a most ordinary way.

This pursuit of being “extraordinary” leaves us exhausted and empty, feeling inferior and insufficient, striving for abundance that encourages scarcity.

Abundance: More or Enough?

We accept scarcity as the state of being in short supply, as lacking, or insufficient. We define its opposite—abundance—as existing in large quantities or plentiful, ample, lavish, and generous.

These concepts define our problem. Ironically, this plentiful notion of abundance, when internalized, finds us lacking. Rather than proclaim sufficiency, this view provokes wants—the need to seek more, to be extraordinary. Being sufficient or ordinary just won’t do.

What if we reframe abundant as enough to scarcity’s not enough? Framing abundance as “enough” aligns with our notion of satisfaction. In Latin, satisfaction means “enough” action.

“Enough” may be the critical discovery for being fully human.

Such a framework appreciates a paradox: being boundless depends on dissatisfaction, yet setting limits leads to satisfaction. We acknowledge the value of enough action rather than celebrate endless action.

Think about this: Have you ever heard a CEO declare enough profit, enough work, enough stress, enough productivity, or enough resources? Sacrilege!

In all facets of life, boundaries exist to satisfy. With enough sleep, I feel rested. With enough exercise, I gain energy. With enough food, I feel satiated. To satiate, the root of satisfy, is to gratify—to be grateful for enough. Overdoing these activities makes me feel drained, bloated, exhausted, or depleted.

“Enough” may be the critical discovery for being fully human.

10% More Self-Aware

What if Americans became just 10% more self-aware, more grateful? We’d consume far less. We’d be less susceptible to ads, fear, and FOMO. We’d find out that contentment is much closer to us than the check-out line. We’d become immune to the market’s messaging of want and greed.

Increasing our self-awareness by just 10% would undermine a consumption-based economy that relies on our dissatisfaction for 70% of its growth.

Being extraordinary is not only big business; it also fuels big business. It is the ideal “identity” for spurring dissatisfaction: becoming special by consuming more and bigger. No one wants to seem irrelevant, small, or trivial.

In his bi-weekly Atlantic column on meaning and happinessArthur Brooks stresses, “[A]s society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.” He questions, “Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?”

Brooks quotes Swedish business professor Carl Cederström, who argues in his book The Happiness Fantasy, that:

… corporations and advertisers have promised satisfaction, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. Though the material comforts of life in the U.S. have increased for many of its citizens, those things don’t give life meaning.

A recent survey by Credit Karma found that the pandemic may have interrupted and thus affected Americans’ compulsive consumerism.

FOMO-related spending is now viewed as less essential. Almost half (44%) of the respondents felt “less pressure to spend money to keep up with appearances.” The top five reexamined areas were dining out (47%), going to a movie theater (37%), live music or entertainment (28%), gym memberships (27%), and clothing (26%).

The “Extraordinary” Identity

So then, being extraordinary becomes the overachieving identity.

We lead highly credentialed lives that find us overwhelmed, develop bodies that require chemicals to sustain, increase working hours that create resentment, engage multiple media platforms to fragment attention and increase FOMO, and acquire large McMansions that exploit the planet’s resources.

Our fixation on extraordinary success schedules our children’s lives from age 2 to 24 with pre-pre-school, playdates, extracurricular activities, prep-testing, and testing so that they can seize select colleges, accumulate college debt, and lock in high-pressure jobs to continue the cycle.

The elegy of the Mexican Fisherman and the Harvard MBA offers an apt, even humorous, view of striving to seek out what we already possess.

This identity, while useful for consumption, has proven to be a trap in achieving satisfaction.

In my more than 20 years of working with an array of professionals, two trends have persisted. With all our advancements, people have become 1) more frenzied, frazzled and feeing behind while 2) being less available, satisfied, and content.

Something is brokenDOWNLOAD PDF

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA

This parable, by an unknown author, reveals our view and expectations of life, living, success, and satisfaction. The story has influenced countless people to the “be more with less” movement. Let this story be an inspiration to slow down, reassess, and get real about how you really want to live life.

Mexican Fisherman Meets Harvard MBA 

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.

The businessman complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied only a little while.

The businessman then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The businessman then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time? The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos; I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The businessman scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and I could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor and eventually open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?” To which the businessman replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, señor?” The businessman laughed and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?” The businessman said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”

Link back to the blog: The Possibility of Being Ordinary

The Paradox of Conscious Leadership

Now emerging as a term, conscious leadership is distinct from other leadership models, mindsets, and trends. Thus far, the literature has focused on some competencies and skills that can be valuable.

And yet, conscious leadership is different. In short, a conscious leader is someone who leads from an interdependent awareness.

Emerging Trend or Expanded Consciousness?

Conscious leadership recognizes the nature of being as interdependent. Consider the human body, for example, as mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.

We largely remain unconscious of this interdependent experience of being. Yet, through our interactions in the world via our embodied interpretations, we give meaning to our existence, identity, and purpose.

More than additional competencies, greater effectiveness of skill, and a deeper understanding of emotional, spiritual, and systemic intelligence, conscious leadership involves a different consciousness of being.

Otto Scharmer of Theory U speaks of this as a transition from ego-systems to eco-systems.

A few thinkers—Fred Kofman, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, Otto Scharmer, Ken Wilber, Barrett Brown, Robert Kegan, and Susanne Cook-Greuter, as well as the authors of 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp)—offer new paradigms and learning to distinguish consciousness in leadership and business context.

This image was created for the paper “The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism” by Barrett C. Brown. Click on the grid to download the paper.

Vertical Learning to Expand “Seeing” and “Being

In Conscious Business, Fred Kofman defines the term as “fostering peace and happiness in the individual, respect, and solidarity in the community, and mission accomplishment in the organization.” Through greater consciousness, defined as “aware, awake, and mindful,” we recognize who we are, what we do, how we do it, and the effects of our [inter]actions.

Expanding consciousness may be the most important distinction in conscious leadership. Unlike previous leadership models and mindsets:

conscious leaders embrace change with a capacity to evolve. They seek out blind spots to cultivate an interdependent awareness, integrate diverse perspectives, and employ varied competencies to serve multiple commitments.

Learning to expand consciousness reveals its inherent paradoxes: learning and unlearning to create spaciousness, and surfacing unconscious blind spots to make us more conscious.

The outcome is a shift beyond conventional learning designed to understand new knowledge or develop new competencies (lateral/horizontal learning) to vertical learning, which transforms awareness, perception, and the way we discern and interpret reality.

In sum, conscious leaders embrace vertical learning to cultivate “seeing” and “being,” which precede knowing and performing.

CLICK to ENLARGE. Previous leadership models produced results, created change, and developed cultures. Leadership is now an emerging concern to expand consciousness. This new evolution includes the previous models and mindsets and expands to include a new level of interdependent awareness into the experience of being. (© 2021 Bhavana Learning Group.)

Twelve Tensions That Evoke Awareness

What does it mean to expand consciousness? How can we evolve from ego-systems to eco-systems? The paradoxical nature of conscious leadership demands awareness of unlearning.

Instead of new knowledge or skills, I offer twelve tensions—paradoxes, polarities, and contradictions—that evoke awareness.

Navigating these tensions cultivates an interdependent awareness with specific qualities, competencies, or practices (bolded in each section). Combined, we can experience the emergence of a new vocabulary and pedagogical framework for being conscious leaders.

Tension 1: Resolve/Openness

This first tension navigates the heart (sensitivity), mind (curiosity), body (resilience), and will (courage).

Conscious leaders possess a steadfast curiosity to cultivate openness, particularly within their organizations—surfacing blind spots, encouraging power-sharing, embracing transparency, presencing compassion, and experimenting with ideas in a rigorous and resolute manner.

With moral fiber and the courage of their convictions, conscious leaders are resolute and can switch views and modes as required by the situation or context. They possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will—a blend identified by Jim Collins in 2001 (Good to Great) with his concept of “Level 5 Leaders.

In his Theory U framework, Otto Scharmer explores a process to support this tension by suspending our reactive mind to experience sensing for presencing our heart, mind, and will.

Tension 2: Knowing/Learning

Confronted by changing norms, knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds, conscious leaders venture into the unknown, which can be most disorienting. This uncertainty reveals a tension between “learning and knowing.”

Our fixation on “knowing” offers the refuge of “certainty” in the face of the unknown.

With the “openness” from Paradox 1, the shift from knowing (being right) to learning (being open) requires cultivating what Fred Kofman calls ontological humility. This means:

acknowledging that you do not have a special claim on reality or truth, and that others have equally valid perspectives deserving respect and consideration.

Developing mindfulness to remain in the present moment—allowing our mind-consciousness to relax and to stop worrying about the past or anticipating the future—to cultivate ontological humility.

Mindfulness dissolves fixations on “knowing” and “certainty” to question beliefs, surface projections, and examine pitfalls.

Tension 3: Exertion/Renewal

Conscious leaders tap into and exercise energy aligned with a higher purpose.

Greater awareness expands sensitivity, demanding greater balance. Creating space to calm and clear the mind, remove the noises and distractions that can drain us, discern nourishing consumption, and slow reactiveness via conscious breathing releases energy that supports our presence of mind and body.

Unlike other leadership models, conscious leadership honors somatic, neural, and mental energy and develops breathing and grounding practices to rejuvenate the sensing (intuitive), sensitive (heart), and rational (cognitive) self.

To regulate energy, conscious leaders practice compassion, which begins with self-compassion. More than a feeling or sentiment, compassion is an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.”

Power Dynamics, Part 2: Worldviews and Practices

What do all men with power want? More power. — Oracle, Matrix Reloaded

Is power bad, or is the need for power problematic?

Power is a matter of perspective, whether sourced in responsibility, purpose, or choice, or force, control, and results. Our perspective depends on our conditioning within society’s views of power and, culturally, how we internalize those views.

Before we unpack these layers of power, recall that Part 1 of this blog defined the following six dimensions of power: Legitimate, Expert/information, Reward, Coercive, Referent, and Influencer.

We also developed four types of power: at the personal level, power to and power within; at the interpersonal level, power over and power with.

This blog examines power as “power over” or power hoarding. I approach this work inside of mutual learning: to better understand power and cultivate its best form. These three sections of this blog, examine power at the systemic level.

  • Section one explores powerlessness and power hoarding.
  • Section two distinguishes four worldviews that preserve power hoarding.
  • Section three develops four practice areas that cultivate power-sharing.

Each section supports a vertical pathway, developing a personal foundation to interact at the interpersonal level that cultivates power-sharing in organizational life.

SECTION 1: Understanding Powerlessness

I do not believe we can expand our notion of power authentically without understanding and examining powerlessness. This begins with unpacking the nature of fear, threat, and insecurity when we experience powerlessness in the face of change or ignorance. In doing so, we feel the need to exert control or abuse power to protect, defend, or achieve.

Defensive Fear: Losing Self

Fear typically comes from a perceived loss of control or loss of self. The most common fear we hold is a fear of the unknown, which may include unpredictability, uncertainty, or ambiguity.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on defensive reasoning reveal how experts and rational individuals find comfort in the control afforded by their knowledge and thus resist growing, changing, and learning.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity. Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

Such a shift requires increased awareness of the underlying fear—complex attitudes that often present disorienting dilemmas and existential struggles.

Adult learning theorist Chris Argyris considers two dynamics that protect our self-image: defensive reasoning and the doom loop. Put simply, Argyris claims:

[P]eople consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act. What is more, most theories-in-use rest on the same set of governing values.

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

“Rational” Fear of Change

Argyris describes the defensive reasoning that enables a doom loop as follows:

“There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control.

2. To maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing.’

3. To suppress negative feelings; and

4. To be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether they have achieved them.

The purpose of these values is to avoid embarrassment from the threat of feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive and can be overly rational.

Argyris suggests that the desire for high performance and aspirations for success cultivate a professional identity that avoids mistakes and fears failure. The professional identity preserves a “right to comfort” (to save face).

Without tolerance or resilience for “the feelings of failure or the skills to deal with those feelings,” professionals begin a doom loop of despair rather than experiencing or releasing theDOWNLOAD PDF

Power Dynamics, Part 1: Dimensions and Forms

Power may be one of the universal dimensions of the human experience. Analogous to energy in physics, power in humans can take several forms, such as wealth, armaments, influence, or knowledge.

To do just about anything — collaborate, lead, manage, co-create change, parent, learn, and even teach and coach (yes, teaching and coaching) — requires that we discern our relationship to power, then cultivate how to we wish to use it.

I begin this two-part blog on power by employing two broad definitions:

Power is the capacity to produce intended effects” by Bertrand Russell (1938); and

Power is “the probability that one actor … is in a position to carry out their will despite resistance” by sociologist Max Weber.

To expand on our understanding, Part 1 of this blog will explore the dimensions and forms of power, and Part 2 will explore the dynamics, cultural values, and practices that shift collective power.

Axioms of Power

Much has been written in Western philosophy and the social sciences on the use of power. These common axioms give power its negative connotations and often view power as “dominating” to win in a zero-sum game.

  1. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, stated by 19th-century British observer Lord Acton, reveals the corrupt nature of unchecked power.
  2. Dividing people into “us” and “them” forms an opposing faction to solidify one’s support.
  3. Divide and conquer picks off smaller factions of a larger group, leading to quicker defeat.
  4. Provide the followers with bread and circuses. The masses are less likely to challenge power if they are convinced that everyday life is most compelling.
  5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This notion leads to the observation that “politics make for strange bedfellows.”

Dimensions of Power

Since 1959, when social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven developed a framework for the study of power, scholars have explored up to eight dimensions of power. Here, I’ve condensed power to six distinct dimensions:

  1. Legitimate power: Position of authority; traditional roles that inhabit status.
  2. Expert/information power: Acquiring expertise, knowledge, and information that others need or want.
  3. Reward power: Offering incentives or reinforcement (praise or recognition).
  4. Coercive power: Exerting force, control, or punitive measures (opposite of reward power).
  5. Referent power: Gaining approval through loyalty, who you know, or critical networks.
  6. Influencer power: This can be of a few types, such as moral authority based on beliefs or values to emulate, or charismatic power based on attitudes or personal abilities to admire or inspire.

Most leaders and managers use more than one dimension to effect change. (See details in the grid of “Terms” below.)

Forms of Power

Power is often defined only in negative terms, as presented in the axioms above. This conflates power with force to dominate, but it can also be a positive force for individual and collective capacity to act for change.

We can view the application of power in four ways: two collective forms and two individual forms.

  • The two collective expressions are power over and power with.
  • The two individual forms are power to and power within.

Collective Context

Power in the collective context involves models and relationships that influence patterns and structures in groups, communities, and institutions.

1- Power Over

In its most common form, power over has many negative associations that involve repression, oppression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. This form of power is seen as a zero-sum proposition—a win-lose kind of relationship.

This involves hoarding power—taking it from someone else, and then using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it.

We experience this version of power over in politics; those who control resources and decision-making have power over those who don’t. When people are denied access to important resources like land, healthcare, and jobs, power over perpetuates inequality, injustice, and poverty.

Power over enjoys immediacy in producing effects. The biggest challenge with it is the need for “surveillance” to sustain the conditions of power. Whether those conditions include coercion, violence, wealth, or reward, this use of power dwindles as its conditions diminish.

2- Power With

An alternative to power over in the collective context is power with. This expression of power seeks common ground among different interests to create a shared understanding and shared commitment. Through communication and collaboration, much of this work develops collective strength and mutual support to build solidarity and collaboration, which leads to equity.

Power with requires cultivating collective capabilities—a notion that is often not fully understood in a developmental context. Here, new practices, such as attention to slow habitual reactions and cultivate patience, listening to develop an understanding of multiple perspectives, and intention to bridge, transform or reduce conflict to discover and promote equitable relations.

Individual Context

In the individual context, power cultivates and affirms people’s capacity to act creatively. It provides some basic principles for constructing empowering strategies that can also manifest in the collective context.

1- Power To.

Power to refers to “realizing” the unique potential and capacity of each person to shape his or her life and world. More a view than a skill, power to open the possibilities of joint action, mutual support, and creativity that can cultivate power with.

Optimally, power to cultivates a generative capacity to co-create, as expressed here by Charles Reich:

“Power means to me pretty much the same thing as freedom – skiing is power, sex appeal is power, the ability to make yourself heard byDOWNLOAD PDF

Three-fold Unlearning to Rethink Leadership Development

Over the years, I’ve experienced two emerging dynamics regarding leadership and employee development: the concern over measuring success and the efficacy of development work. The focus on measuring often prevents the very kind of unlearning required for effective employee development today.

The best development model reveals a three-fold view of new knowledge, new perceptions, and new practices. This view is most effective because it naturally includes unlearning.

The dilemma, however, remains satisfying our preoccupation with return on investment (ROI), which finds it hard to measure unlearning.

The Dilemma of Measuring ROI

The obsessive focus on ROI finds coaches and leadership development specialists scrambling to prove that their efforts 1) can be measured in quantifiable ways and 2) are effective based on those quantifiable measures.

With billions of dollars poured into leadership development and learning each year, most organizations still do a poor job of measuring the effectiveness of their initiatives, and only 18 percent have even tried, according to the 2018 DDI Global Leadership Forecast.

An ROI calculates the monetary value of the changes in business impact. Subtracts the costs, both direct and indirect. The net benefits divided by the costs will give you the ROI. Simple, right? But what about intangibles?

While intangibles can be converted to money and included in the ROI calculation, the cost of doing so typically outweighs the benefits. If improvements can be shown in teamwork, inclusion, greater trust, and communication, which are directly linked to learning and leadership development, the value is clear enough.

These intangibles rate highly among employee satisfaction and often redound to customer satisfaction.

No matter what we measure, however, we will still miss something.

The New Definition of Development

The impasse with measuring ROI stems from a narrow—antiquated—view of “development” that focuses on observable evidence from empirical knowledge.

In our age of fungible knowledge with information overload, the volatile pace of change, and increasing complexity, any notion of development today must include unlearning. How do we measure that?

Resolving the efficacy issues with leadership development will first require setting aside our (in)ability to measure adequately. We can observe change and adaptation sufficient to identify markers for success if we link development programs to longer-term strategic goals.

The real issue involves the blend that can meet today’s organizational demands for evolutionary change, which includes the need to learn and unlearn. This requires a three-dimensional approach involving 1) new knowledge, 2) new perceptions, and 3) new practices.

This approach upends more than measurement and ROI; it reimagines the notion of development beyond the incremental progression of acquiring knowledge. Three-dimensional learning will result in letting go of our outmoded self-conceptions to evolve new self-perceptions and shape new assumptions, attitudes, and actions.

This essential kind of learning will ask a more potent question than what the cost of this development is: What is the cost of not engaging in development?

The Three Dimensions of Development

The notion of development is NOT analogous to machine models as in “fixing” or computer models as in “multi-tasking.” It is about being human.

To expand humanity, leadership and employee development includes a blend of new knowledge to question the rational and cognitive self, new perceptions to cultivate the intuitive self, and new practices to sustain the following aspects of learning:

1 – Knowledge. Here we develop aptitude via research and the study of concepts. We apply concepts to develop competencies, which involve a blend of abilities, skills, and knowledge.

  • Knowledge develops aptitude. We develop content, skills, concepts, and methods. Examining our rational self, we discern any impediments to acquiring knowledge.
  • An important result involves a new level of competency to optimize effort.

2 – Perception. Here we develop attitude via distinctions that refine our powers of observation. Distinctions access new perceptions to alter how we 1) use our senses to perceive our world and 2) interpret that information to represent reality.

  • Perception develops attitude. We develop context to cultivate views, mindsets, and attitudes. Accessing our intuitive self, we reveal any impediments to increasing awareness.
  • An important result involves a new level of awareness to expand views.

3 – Practice. Here we train techniques that range from contemplative and reflective rituals to processes and repetitive routines. We access our affective self to apply knowledge and sustain perceptions that build new perspectives and habits,

  • Practices develop accuracy. We employ techniques and rituals to align our attitude and aptitude and clarify our experiences.
  • An important result involves a new level of grounding to concentrate our focus.

When combined, this model encourages ongoing questioning, continual reflection, and important disclosures, as detailed in the image below.

Unlearning and Development

I’ve dedicated much research and energy to the notion of unlearning here, here, and here to detail some of the complexities involved in this dynamic.

Recall that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

This is where measuring betrays our best efforts. Unlearning is terribly hard to predict. It often involves letting go of knowledge, assumptions, or beliefs. This can impact identity to reveal what sociologist and educator Jack Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma.”

Mezirow argues that transformations often follow some variation of the following ten phases of clarifying meaning:

  1. A disorienting dilemma;
  2. A self-examination involving feelings;
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions;
  4. Recognition that discontents and processes of transformation arise together;
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;
  6. Planning a course of action;
  7. Acquiring the knowledge and skills to implement one’s plan;
  8. Provisional experiments with new roles;

COVID Lessons: A Return to Rugged Individualism or Not?

Last month marked a year since the arrival of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Reflection on this time surfaces mixed emotions.

There’s a collective restlessness and readiness to move on from this pandemic. Last week, I received emails and texts heralding “Back to Normal” sales, specials, and celebrations. Understandably, many want to get on with life: kids in school, dining at restaurants, theatergoing, shopping, traveling. Just like before.

But something happened this last year—at least for me—and I remain uncertain of the meaning of 2020.

A Hum of Expectations

Living in New York City is like residing with a low-level hum. The city doesn’t sleep; expectations persist to be “on,” out, and engaged in the numerous museums, malls, musicals, and meals galore. FOMO didn’t start in our city, but it flourishes here.

I never saw the Broadway hit Hamilton. I wanted to. I couldn’t get decent seats at a reasonable price. The rush to see it became a sort of in-out group status symbol.

I felt I missed out. However, that feeling didn’t last long. The wonders of my life made the FOMO fade. There are many “Hamilton” moments in this city of mine. No doubt such moments exist in all our lives.

To avoid FOMO, we organize busy schedules just to connect with others, and we optimize multi-tasking routines that prevent us from relating once we connect. We recognize street protestors when they interrupt the din of life; however, we are often too busy to understand the issues and implications—and whether they even affect us.

Work obligations. Family concerns. Travel desires. The din of life conceals the hum of expectations. Reconciling finances, planning for retirement, keeping ourselves informed, and curating our image, whether online, in person, or branded. This is living.

On March 13, 2020, that life all came crashing down. A government lockdown declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

Distance, Space, and Closeness

With the emergency declaration, something happened. The hum subsided, and space emerged. This was a privilege, to be sure, since I was not an essential worker and was able to work from home. And yet, having time and space felt awkward and revealed a loss of expectations.

Uncertainty fed anxiety to fill the space, so my regular breathing, reflection, and grounding practices served me well.

But what should be done with space and time when expectations of busyness slip away?

Humanity emerged. There was time for long emails, Zoom chats, and unscheduled phone calls. Conferences were rescheduled online. Attendance doubled in size and included people from all over the world.

Buddhist Sanghas created online spaces, coaching spaces appeared, and interest groups connected. Each space invited people from different parts of the world. Shopping outside included time for conversation. Workers were inviting, and customers were calm.

People spoke not of work, status, accomplishments, or travel plans, but of shared experiences of living with their children, homeschooling, being vulnerable, having aging parents, experiencing recent losses, and how the nation’s unrest was impacting their lives.

People extended themselves.

Our Nation’s Shadow

Social distancing brought us closer. I learned more, felt greater connections, and realized more community than I had when life was “normal.”

Still, with more space and attention, another shared experience emerged: a focus on racial unrest and ongoing police brutality, anti-democratic strife, militia movements, and national revolt against the pandemic.

America shocked some. Others expected this America. Many were tuning into the fullness of our nation’s shadow.

COVID-19 revealed America’s preexisting conditions.

  1. In the wake of overflowing hospitals and mobile morgue trucks, many state governors and officials shunned safety measures, advocating for letting people die to “preserve our way of life.”
  2. Companies forced workers into unhealthy facilities without testing to guarantee their safety.
  3. Militias stormed state capitals to rage against wearing masks.
  4. Simple measures like wearing masks, social distancing, and following stay-at-home orders became a matter of liberty, not life.
  5. The FBI reported an increase in hate bias and crimes since the start of the pandemic, focused specifically on Asian-Americans.
  6. A historical insurrection against our nation’s democratic elections materialized in the middle of the pandemic on January 6, 2021.

“We” Became “Me”

Eighty years ago, we collectively sacrificed to serve the cause of liberty in World War Two. Yet, in 2020, we could not sacrifice the slight inconvenience of wearing a mask to save humanity.

Click to Enlarge

Instead, large swaths of our nation weaponized individual liberty against a sick nation. The most vulnerable were tossed aside in favor of economic gains and the desire to shop, dine, work out, and travel. People rushed to

Art of Unlearning, Part 3: Practice Changing Our View

It is the truth that liberates, not your efforts to be free. — J. Krishnamurti

Unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

In the first part of this three-part series, we examined four ways of seeing: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts; the small view, with concrete ideas; the large view governed by systems; and the whole view, which embodies an interdependent awareness.

Each of these views optimizes complexity and change by cultivating more space for unlearning.

Our second blog focused on cultivating the whole view by exploring some of the impediments and mindsets that can undermine unlearning.

This part focuses on practices of “changing our view” that cultivate an openness to unlearning.

The Issue Is (Resistance to) Change.

We begin by tackling the heart of the matter. For humans, especially Westerners and Americans, that is change. We create, manage, control, and predict change, but we have not been conditioned to accept impermanence as the ground of being and the natural order of things.

The implications of continual change rub up against deep-seated values around our view of safety, security, and certainty (addressed in the blogs on uncertainty and COVID and certainty and clarity).

In his paper What it Really Means to Consciously Evolve, Craig Hamilton speaks to the next level of pioneering development: “the evolution of consciousness and culture… the evolution of human nature.”

There’s a kind of fundamental attachment to security, safety, and certainty that drives so much of human behavior. In a sense, when we’re talking about the ego … a need to know what’s going to happen next and have a sense of certainty in the face of all the overwhelming complexity and challenges of life.

[Beyond] some idealized final state of perfection, I’m talking about getting over our resistance to being part of an unfolding evolutionary process. This means getting over our need for stasis, security, and certainty. This includes waking up out of our rigid sense of self, which defends itself from any information that would challenge it.

Ultimately, Hamilton invites us to become “part of an unfolding evolutionary process,” which involves embracing the art of unlearning.

Change as Unlearning

Facing an increasingly interconnected world of multiple perspectives and cultures carried through vast amounts of information requires an evolved consciousness. This necessitates an expanded understanding of the attachment that feeds our view of safety, security, and certainty, which shapes our unsustainable world.

Learning in the 21st century must center on the primacy of unlearning. Author and educator, Neil Postman, points out the following dilemma: “If a student goes through four years of school and comes out ‘seeing’ things in the way he did when he started … he learned nothing.”

Learning at the first-person level is not possible without unlearning. We replace concerns about understanding more content with learning to alter context. Changing our mind is about adopting something new.

“Being” different begins with “seeing” differently. Vertical and interior development here are supported by the cultivation of a beginner’s mind and a deeper understanding of humility as a source of development.

The Beginner’s Mind

The notion of the beginner’s mind comes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind published by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in 1970. Suzuki cultivates the beginner’s mind to access a fresh perspective in each moment as if it were new.

Used often, the term “beginner’s mind” usually lacks developmental definition or discernment. We have identified the following three fundamental aspects of “thinking and learning” in cultivating a beginner’s mind:

  1. Tolerate Discomfort: Be mindful of the process as you move through fear or confusion of the unknown. Learn to become comfortable with uncertainty, willing to look in the mirror to discover and name habits, defenses, and mindsets that reveal your blind spots (see previous blog).
  2. Not Knowing: Be willing to let go of needing to know as you move beyond “rational-only thinking” to embrace “not knowing” as a possibility. Be gentle and allow yourself to live with confusion rather than fixing, hiding, or protecting yourself.
  3. As-Lived Participation: Be willing to live with practice, by slowing down, creating space to becomeDOWNLOAD PDF

Art of Unlearning, part 2: Mindsets that Impede Unlearning

In our last blog, we explored four ways of seeing: the default view, the small view, the large view, and the whole view. Each of these views expands beyond the self to include more variables, optimize greater complexity and change, and cultivate more space for unlearning, which is critical for learning today.

In this part, I focus on impediments to unlearning that cultivate the final “whole view,” and in Part 3, I will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.

Recall from the last blog that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases. We recall the following views: the default view, with our reflexive thoughts, the small view, with its concrete ideas, and the large view, governed by systems.

The Challenges of Dualism

We are now ready to leap from the large view of separate systems and structures to the whole view based on interdependent awareness.

Our first challenge is to venture beyond the external view of systems and structures to consider and integrate mental structures such as attention, thoughts, and language.

Attention supports focus, discipline, and direction. Thoughts support forms, concepts, and sense-making. Linguistic structures, such as signs, symbols, and words, create distinctions that bridge our inner and outer worlds.

Mental structures are often seen only as content. Yet, they govern what we conceive of as a structure or system.

For instance, evaluating systemic bias in policing includes external structures like qualified immunity agreements, unions, and use of force doctrines. It also involves mental structures such as patriarchy or unconscious (implicit) bias, which determine how we perceive threats.

Here, the mental structure of patriarchy (macro) and unconscious bias (micro) conceives the external structures to remedy a “perceived” threat, which are also conceived of by these mental structures.

Consequently, when we observe structures and systems, we are unaware of our own mental structures.

This puzzle brings us to our second challenge: recognizing the power of dualism. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that dualism is hardwired into us and that, from a very early age, infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things.”

The artificial separation of process and content in knowledge becomes especially problematic in systems of thought that seek to encompass the totality of existence (e.g., grand, unified theories in physics). According to physicist David Bohm (1980), it becomes easy to slip into “the trap of tacitly treating such a view as originating independently of thought, thus implying that its content actually is the whole of reality.”

Our final challenge requires integrating consciousness as fundamental into our view of reality. This interdependent awareness, arising from interconnecting causes and conditions, dissolves the “separateness” and “dualism” that objectify structures and systems as things “out there” to observe and measure.

The consciousness of any system involves unexamined thoughts informed by history, lineage, shadows, mental models, ideology, and culture. Dualism dissolves when we integrate consciousness as an essential part of a structure or system.

Defeating Mindsets and Views

Paradoxically, embracing a whole view recognizes the partial and incomplete nature of our conceptions; at any moment, the only part of an iceberg we can view is the tip. Thus, when more of the iceberg surfaces, we are not threatened, resistant, in denial, or attached.

Accepting this paradox requires moving beyond three common views that preserve dualism to undermine our unlearning: fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness.

1. Fragmentation supports a view of reality as binary.

We’ve discussed much of this “separation” as dualism, which, when optimized, perpetuates multitasking, silos, otherizing, either/or thinking, and fragmenting attention.

Regarding separation, Bohm emphasized: “a major source of fragmentation is the presupposition that the process of thought is sufficiently separate from and independent of its content, to allow us generally to carry out clear, orderly, rational thinking, which can properly judge this content as correct or incorrect, rational or irrational, fragmentary or whole, etc.” (Bohm 1980, 18).

2. Reactiveness attached to a permanent or fixed view of reality.

For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced daily in school. We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, and wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became second nature. Fitting in—being accepted—became more important than questioning, learning, and growing.

Author and thinker Peter Senge calls “reactiveness [the] bane of continuous learning. The attitude, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ prevents the steady improvement of products and processes.”

Reactiveness also cultivates two pervasive identities: the problem-solver and the expert.

The Problem-Solving Mindset. We cannot unlearn something if we don’t question our current view. Senge has noted, that many of the problems we want to fix arise from previous solutions, and many of today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.

Problem-solving as a method can work with inanimate objects, but as a mentality, problem-solving trains us to become fixers. We wait for answers and stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we habitually perceive and diagnose observed problems.

We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s

Art of Unlearning, part 1: Discovering our View

In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists. — Eric Hoffer

On this occasion of a new American government, broken systems and conflicting cultural norms and priorities reveal the importance of Hoffer’s words. Yet, learning today requires focusing on unlearning outmoded knowledge.

In this first of a three-part blog, I explore the art of unlearning through four ways of seeing. Part 2 will examine impediments to unlearning and part 3 will explore practices to cultivate unlearning.

The Four Ways of Seeing

Each of these views offers our world – the water we swim in, shaping our actions, beliefs, and possibilities.

As we move through these worlds, unlearning increases in importance until it becomes foundational in the final view. We navigate each view’s characteristics, focus, and learning and unlearning.

1. The Default View

First, we learn to see our default view. A feature of this view is habitual energies and actions that lead to downloading beliefs and uploading responses to situations and experiences.

Core Focus: The Ego System

This view identifies our reactive impulses and becomes attentive to the effects of our filters, maps, and blind spots on our interactions.

We project these blind spots and assumptions onto the world and seek evidence to confirm them. The default view reflexively sees “time” as related to instant satisfaction.

Learning and Unlearning

Ironically, unlearning our default view involves learning to recognize it. It begins with learning about what the self is as we acknowledge and examine our own default view. We ask ourselves: Where do these beliefs come from? Are these aligned with the life I want or the person I want to become? Do I believe this to be true to myself?

Learning to recognize our default view in our choices, feelings, and actions begins to surface constraints to listening and blind spots in the face of threats, concerns, insecurities, fears, and misperceptions. By setting aside impulses and habits, we perceive the more accurate view of a small view.

2. The Small View

Second, we see the small view. This less reactive view considers content, and one of its features is its focus on objective details and subjective experiences that impact the world closest to us.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz recognized the knotty nature of culture, made up of many layers of intertwined symbols and signs. He introduced the concept of thick description into the discipline to detail the many layers of context in culture.

Geertz writes that the “Grand Realities” of “Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Passion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, and Prestige” in the give-and-take detail of everyday life to “take the capital letters off of them.”

Core Focus: Infrastructure

This small view reduces the larger “Grand Realities” or cultural context to discrete content that we interact with daily —“kitchen table” issues such as finances, occupation, social media, religion, business, policing, healthcare, government bureaucracy or services, entertainment, and schooling.

We experience this infrastructure with individual beliefs and knowledge via as-lived experiences, facts, details, concepts, rules, policies, and laws that shape our worldview.

A man might become aware of women’s issues because he has three sisters and two daughters, become aware of health issues because a lack of healthcare affected someone close to him, or view the concept of police brutality from personal experiences with the law.

This view processes information in a binary manner. For instance, inadequate healthcare is due to a lack of a consistent job; thus, the remedy requires finding a good job. And people ought to follow police orders to avoid trouble.

Learning and unlearning

The small view pays close attention to what happens and what is said and who said it, how they said it, to whom they said it, and when, where, and eventually can discern why they said it. Discerning patterns in details, facts, and information reveal emerging systems. The view of time here is more deliberate within the immediate scope of events.

Moving beyond this view begins with discovering patterns to question beliefs. Unlearning supports breaking down the origins (beliefs and assumptions) of thought, attitude and behavior patterns, and feelings that reveal our biases and blind spots.

3. The Large View

Third, we see the large view. This view accepts the nature of discerning patterns and complexity to recognize systems and structures.

Greater complexity evaluates the patterns of information, behavior, and structures that constitute the society, economics, media, technology, and political forces that shape our everyday lives. We can now see how these larger structures and institutions socialized our previous two views.

Core Focus: Separate Systems

Like the previous views, this view seeks discrete causes to explain experiences, specifically by predicting problems and solving them. Here, time includes a strategic view: We ask ourselves how history might view this situation. We seek greater productivity and strategic planning, resulting in greater control and more predictable outcomes.

So, diagnosing an inadequate healthcare system is owed to inefficiencies, improper management, and lack of “access.” With an enterprise view of the system, we diagnose problems, optimize inefficiencies, and create subsidies to offer access. This solution maintainsDOWNLOAD PDF

The Cost of Being Vague

A hidden element in improving the quality of our attention and effectiveness may be tied to vague thinking. The connection between thinking and action, while often overlooked, can reveal important blind spots.

In working with professionals, I’ve come to experience the effects of our digital age: Fragmented attention causes us to skim and scan instead of reading, multitasking causes us to speed through tasks rather than experience them, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) produces reflexive thoughts and actions.

Our Tranquilized Obviousness

This digital mentality has come to cloud our mind and cultivate a tranquilized obviousness, a complacent, autopilot state of being. We tolerate confusion, avoid details, and often do not experience the simple pleasure of completing a task. Accepting vagueness from ourselves or others can confuse us and undermine our actions.

We can learn to recognize the source of complacency, which typically takes three forms.

The first is the primacy of problem-solving: We reduce thinking to transactions that seek answers to solve problems. We endeavor to find solutions before conducting a true inquiry into or experiencing the situation. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.

The second source of complacency is reflexive thinking, which lacks questioning completely. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts, we are stymied because no scrutiny has taken place.

This final issue involves assumptions. We are simply unaware of how much we assume, and we neither pause to consider that we are relying on any assumptions nor do we question them.

Learning theorist and author Chris Argyris has created a tool called the “Ladder of Inference” that clarifies this dynamic and the related reflexive loop, thus revealing how our beliefs screen the data we both select and avoid.

Three Kinds of Vagueness and Related Costs

The etymology of “vague” comes from the Latin “wandering.” It shows up in our language and thinking as cloudy and imprecise, enabling a tranquilized obviousness. We enable “wandering.” I’ve discovered that vagueness surfaces as tranquilized obviousness in three common forms: surface or lazy thinking, lacking specifics and lacking accuracy.

1 – Surface or Lazy Thinking Costs Competency.

Here, thinking is limited. At our very best, we understand something at the surface thinking level. For instance, we might say that COVID-19 is just like the common flu. This is not untrue, but it is also not wholly true. COVID-19 is a virus like the flu, but it is much more efficient in its transmission; therefore, it is more dangerous. Moreover, it is a new virus, so a lot about it remains unknown.

We may also employ lazy thinking, which amounts to whatever comes to mind, our reflexive ideas, or our thoughts. We might believe arguments supported by people we admire without further examination. The impulsive or impatient among us simply repeat plausible answers that readily come to mind.

Surface or lazy thinking lacks the rigor of scrutiny and analysis. This enables glibness, platitudes, and hyperbole bolstered by stock phrases or general, ambiguous statements.

  • Lazy thinking costs us competency: when we are questioned, we often lack the facts or information to test assumptions and expand our knowledge. We become ignorant.

2 – Lacking Specifics Costs Effectiveness.

The key to strong persuasion and effective communication relies on a relationship to and use of language that honors specific and vivid details. For instance, each of the following pairs includes a general and specific item:

many = 500 to 1,000;
early = 5 a.m.;
hot = 90 degrees Fahrenheit;
most = 79.5%;
very rich = a millionaire;
soon = 7 p.m., Tuesday; and
color = navy blue.

Consider this statement: Officials are monitoring this situation very closely, and I can promise that we shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the situation is resolved in a way that is fair to all the parties involved.

Listening to this statement ought to raise alarm bells. Despite the impression of taking action to do something specific, this speaker here has not promised to do anything at all.

Which “officials” are monitoring? What are the appropriate measures? What do we mean by “very closely” or “fair” and for which “parties” are we speaking? Here the specific details matter as much as the context for them. Without this level of clarity, we can escape being held accountable.

Being specific is powerful because it allows us to picture details in specific situations. It also invites accountability for what we see and say. Others can now verify our claims, which develops credibility that leads to trust.

When we are vague, our communication is weak. We allow for multiple interpretations, confusion, and misunderstanding, which sow doubt. We perpetuate inaction and avoid being held accountable by claiming any interpretation that allows us to escape scrutiny.

Altogether, being specific develops the credibility that engenders the trust required to coordinate action effectively.

  • Lacking specifics costs us effectiveness: without specific details, we gloss over items, miss important signs, and signals, and make unnecessary missteps that take time to clean up. We become unreliable.

3 – Lacking Accuracy Costs Direction.

Being accurate demands a level of presence, focus, and discipline that gets to the bottom of any matter. Saying that we are overweight is different from stepping onto a scale with a specific number.

Think about your relationship with math or your CPA. Both relationships require rigor—math requires a level of precision, and accountants usually require detail. Such situations that demand accuracy can become annoying, and even reveal painful truths.

Being vague can soothe our pain and comfort us. It’s easy to say “I am overweight” but not by how much, to avoid math and take a guess, or to let the CPA handle the details. But the cost is a disciplined ability to obtain an accurate view that develops foundation and direction.


Why Participation Matters

We want to make a difference. We want our lives to matter.

The connection between those wants and our lives actually mattering points to our participation. Participation may be key to our aliveness. Unfortunately, it is so misunderstood.

The advent of participation trophies, mocked by many, has added to this misunderstanding. Still, participation brings meaning to our existence. It is worth exploring and connecting to as a practice.

Beyond the Surface

When I taught college, I discovered a challenge early on: How do I get students to participate in their learning? We know that student involvement leads to greater engagement, more discoveries, and better comprehension. But how can we accomplish this virtuous cycle?

Many in our profession create team exercises and discussions. Some of these can work. During my first year of teaching, I found myself designing such activities. Then, I discovered something. Beyond any contrived teams or tasks, if the material mattered to students, they would find ways to involve themselves.

But how can we make the material matter?

  • Reframe Attendance. Immediately, I noticed that we conflated attendance in class with participation. Physical attendance gives the appearance of involvement. Actual participation includes an authentic interest, connection, and willingness to become involved. I see this is a precondition to co-creating.
  • Make It Matter. I discovered that, as a teacher, I also have to be involved in the material to make it matter to the lives of learners. Content that matters encourages participation.

Participation Evokes Possibility and Fear

Participation matters. But many do not believe that it makes a difference.

Unfortunately, much of our participation seems guided by whether we can achieve some goal or agenda. Organizing life’s activities around winning or succeeding misses a deeper understanding of being human.

Our full participation in any effort offers the possibility of discovery and connection. We discover gaps in our awareness, uncover blind spots, and bump up against hidden alternatives. We also open up new possibilities and connect to a more profound understanding of ourselves and others.

— Full participation always yields better results and surprises.

— Greater participation in elections yields greater legitimacy and trust because it includes more voices and ideas.

— Civic participation produces better citizens and meaningful societies.

— Full participation in any change effort can alter any perception, situation, or issue.

So why don’t we participate fully? I’ve discovered two reasons: fear of failure and fear of looking foolish.

These fears often manifest as an attachment to winning, success, achieving status, and creating impressions, as well as avoiding failure, by looking silly or incompetent. These fears also constrain when and how we participate.

The Importance of Involvement

Letting go of our fears and diving into life offers immense rewards.

At its fullest, our participation involves us wholeheartedly and unreservedly throwing ourselves into something. This definition differs from merely “going through the motions” of doing something, as it requires involvement.

Our involvement requires taking risks and letting go of fear, which can be challenging.

Pose this question to your students: Would you rather know how to get an A, or give up the A to discover how to learn, risk, and fail? Our system rewards the former, but a meaningful life rewards the latter.

Involvement is the secret sauce that motivates our participation. It invests our attention, intention, and energy into the worlds that make up our life.

Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.

And yet, our participation is often stifled by whether we will win or lose, succeed or fail. This saddens me, as so many of life’s realizations are revealed through our involvement in efforts—especially when we lose.

Every time I play chess or Scrabble, I enjoy participating. Even when I lose, I always learn something that adds to my enthusiasm.

Winning is temporal, but involvement is fundamental to being human. Moreover, experiencing loss focuses our attention and direction even more. And how we deal with loss reveals our character.

Our full involvement in any activity may be the ultimate hidden reward. Indeed, our involvement may result in what finds us “in the zone.” Whether we’re writing, sailing, parenting, playing music, cooking, or serving customers, our full involvement unlocks the love, joy, concentration, and aliveness that makes life sing.

Levels of Involvement

Becoming more involved motivates our participation in co-creating worlds and becoming more, which begins with our level of involvement.

LEVEL 1: Involvement with Self. I explore topics through personal learning, investigation, and research. I gain more knowledge about issues that interest me.

LEVEL 2: Involvement with Others. I explore my knowledge and experiences with others, which leads to questions and discoveries. Through dialogue and questions, I clarify assumptions to apply knowledge. With greater “experience,” I increase my expertise and become competent.

LEVEL 3: Involvement in Worlds. I immerse myself in a world. What I learn, how I learn, and what I do with what I learn are guided by theDOWNLOAD PDF

Becoming Antiracist requires Moral Imagination & Practice

Between COVID-19 and the ongoing racial unrest in the US, the business community has been pressed into moral leadership. This is worthy of examination.

A Social Pandemic

The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers now finds businesses signing on wholesale to social justice. But what does that mean?

Will businesses put health-related needs before economics? Or profits over hateful material on social media platforms? Will leaders create policies and practices to support racial equity?

— It’s more than a little cringeworthy to hear the NFL declare that Black Lives Matter yet continue to ostracize Colin Kaepernick.

— Or financial firms standing with protesters while continuing practices that push out billions of government-issued, pandemic dollars that favor those with “access.” 

— Or witness tech platforms with algorithms that drive hate speech at marginalized groups yet issue edicts supporting equal justice.

— Or note the Washington, DC football team changing its racist name only because of boycotts from Amazon, FedEx, and Nike.

We have several contagions.

COVID-19 has devastated our nation with a biological disease. It has exposed a deeper moral epidemic of racial and criminal injustices, as well as depravity in our business, healthcare, and economic systems. These dilapidated priorities and beliefs have for too long maintained the very inequities that could tear our nation apart.

How will businesses lead at this time? Can business leaders imagine a world beyond opportunistic “scaling strategies” and impulsive, short-term fixations? Can we think beyond the next quarter, slogan, or branding scheme?

What does it mean to receive throngs of messages, posts, and viral videos supporting Black Lives Matter? Is this a branding, political, or strategic statement? Or is it a moral cause?

The current environment is fixated on performative allyship and activism, designed more for viral messaging and virtue signaling than facing historic injustices and securing true equity.

A Moral Moment

Regrettably, I wonder if many who occupy today’s C-suites can summon the moral courage and venture beyond branding, politics, or strategic considerations.

Our moment today seems different from other times, precisely because it ventures beyond civil rights (for full citizenship) to question the fundamental existence of our humanity. To meet this moment requires moral consciousness.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the Vietnam War, a reporter quizzed him, asking, “Since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy…?”

King answered, “I’m sorry, sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll.”

King properly questioned what it means to stand for something.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’

Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’

Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’

But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”

Sifting through the safe, opportunistic, and popular, what is right requires digging deep beyond branding, strategy, and politics. It requires moral imagination.

What Is Moral Imagination?

Moral imagination asks us to look beyond dogmatic views of right and wrong, good and bad, or the ethics of strategic calculations and pragmatic solutions.

Moral imagination involves:

  • the capacity to conceive of and generate beneficial ideas,
  • the ability to form ideas about what is worthy and just, and
  • the willingness to put the best ideas into action for the service of others.

We can conceive of a better, fuller world by including different perspectives, views, and concerns from the self and groups, society and culture, and humanity and the planet.

As leaders, we expand our focus beyond scaling and strategy to focus on cultures that enact principles of service and inclusion with humility.

As businesses, we expand our view beyond profit to include equitable practices for colleagues and customers, and sustainable systems for society and the planet.

As citizens, we bring an interdependent awareness to our place in society and on this planet. We demand policies and practices that honor the dignity of all humanity.

Success is measured by the development of one’s integrity and character, not the fleeting emotions of status or the accumulation of pleasures.

This is a time of consciousness. We are interconnected. To be whole today—in the face of distraction, disruption, divergent ideas, and diverse experiences—requires us to embrace an expanded view of humanity with deep commitment and practices beyond individualism, competition, and personal advantage.

In the face of social unrest, complexity, and disruptive change, cultivating moral imagination requires a larger view of justice that views humans as dignified beings and persons with complex experiences, not objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.

To those in business with power, as the late Congressman John Lewis said, a moral vision requires “good trouble.”

As an emerging body of knowledge, study, and practices, antiracism marries moral imagination with social justice, calling us to take on such commitment and practice.

Evolving Toward Antiracism

For our firm, cultivating moral imagination is fundamental for this moment. Over these last few weeks, we’ve not made any proclamations. We’ve used this time to continue exploring who we are at this moment. What do we care about? How we will contribute?

I’ve outlined our years-long exploration into diversity, equity, and inclusion in a white paper titled A Pedagogical Inquiry: Challenges in Unlearning Systemic Bias, which has led us to antiracist work as defined by historian and author Ibram X. Kendi.

Kendi’s work develops a paradigm for thinking about racism and antiracism. He shuns the “not racist” cul-de-sac between racists and antiracists.

RACIST: One who supports a racist policy through their actions or inaction or who expresses a racist idea.


COVID-19 Reveals the Nature of Uncertainty

Uncertainty causes panic.

This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. Without it, panic arises.

A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect, or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty. And, the unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.

Individualism Heightens Anxiety

The practice of “accepting uncertainty,” must include evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship with freedom as sourced in our interdependence.

Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.

When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.

Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythic self-reliance and tendency to equate “independence” with doing whatever we want encouraged some people to flock to bars and beaches – pastors even sued for “religious liberty” exemptions – rather than stay indoors or wear masks to save lives.

This independent view of “liberty” prizes individual competition, defiance, and resistance over an interdependent view sourced in cooperation, connection, and collaboration.

The coaching professional reinforces some of these views and myths, most of which rest on a view of human potential as hyper-individualistic: self-reliance, self-sufficient, and self-responsibility. We empower responsibility for the individual self instead of ennobling the primacy of the collective whole.

“Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging our views, noting and naming our fears, slowly dissolving our underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.

The nature of COVID-19 amplifies our fears as “I” in the face of the unknown. Demands to quarantine can isolate us and heighten our anxiety. Protecting our individual “I” can provoke an “us against them” mentality.

COVID-19 also reveals the limitations of our individualism. Approaching this situation has reminded us that “we” are all interconnected; doing our part reduces the risk to society, which supports each of us as individuals.

Let Go of Our Story of Separation

Our expectations of certainty are shaped by our belief in the primacy of knowledge and control in supporting individualism. This begins with the story of separation we tell ourselves. That you and I are separate. That I am separate from my circumstances and my environment. That different functions are separate.

The walls we place in the physical world represent our mental walls—our thinking and our worldviews.

Separation is our most fundamental misperception. It shapes all our beliefs about humanity, life, and living. It seeks out knowledge to protect the self and control circumstances or others.

Accepting uncertainty requires embracing the dual commitments of allowing for the unknown and accepting responsibility for complex wholes. By allowing for the unknown, we develop the ability to live in the question. By accepting responsibility for complex wholes, we evolve to appreciate our connection to the community, collective good, and larger systems.

Such a leap requires clarity—to act on what’s next without having to know or control the outcome. Clarity begins with a willingness to accept the truth of uncertainty.

Test and Trust Our Experiences

How can you unlearn your reliance on knowledge, and relearn your clarity of experience?  Testing and trusting what you experience, is the first step toward reaching this level of clarity.

  1. Consumption. Bring awareness to your consumption by observing how you numb your mind and emotions with news, social media, distractions, junk food, alcohol, and other impulses or cravings. Prevent racing thoughts and restlessness by avoiding stimulants and caffeine.
  2. Silence. Observe the level of noise in your life. Experience more silence by creating pauses in conversations and between events and appointments. Mute the TV during commercials to reflect on your viewing experience. This blog post reveals how we’ve normalized noise.
  3. Space. Notice the effect that space has on you. As you self-quarantine, and space opens up in your calendar and in your life, what emotions or sensations arise? Do you feel you should be more productive? Do you feel guilt, grief (from loss), or vulnerability?
  4. Expectations. What expectations do you have of yourself, others, and the current situation? Should you know more, control more, or do more? Observe how you react, what impulses guide you, and when you are swept up or pulled away from this moment.
  5. Fear. Notice when you feel helpless, fearful, or a loss of control. Perhaps you are experiencing the unknown. Feel the fear, name it if you can, allow it to be and pass, and then note the next feeling. Notice if any individualism creeps in. This could show up as us versus them thoughts or a tribal impulse to protect yourself from others.

These practices develop your ability to live in the question. You learn to explore situations with humility, curiosity, and interest in the face of the unknown and unpredictable; instead of reflexively seeking out quick-fixes to make your discomfort go away.

Just Do This Moment

Accepting uncertainty is a practice. It involves acknowledging your views, noting and naming your fears, slowly dissolving your underlying beliefs, and daring to be vulnerable.

Once you’ve accounted for yourself, acknowledged your situation, and acquired accurate information, ask yourself: How can I just do this moment? 

Pause, breathe, feel the ground beneath your feet, and contemplate:

I am here.
I am now.
All I need is within me.
All I need comes to me.

Acting from clarity requires letting go of (un)predictable outcomes later or the (un)known consequences of that outcome. It’s focusing on the here and now.

All you can ever possibly know comes from a sense of who you are, from the presence of the current moment, and from your ability to envision what’s next. That’s clarity.

Then, ask yourself: How am IDOWNLOAD PDF

COVID-19 Reveals the Nature of Uncertainty

Uncertainty causes panic.

This seems to be the mantra right now. It makes sense and also reveals a hidden truth: that we expect certainty. That without it, panic arises.

A challenging truth to absorb is that the very certainty we expect or need may also be a source of our suffering. The issue here is not certainty itself, but the need for certainty.

Our attachment to needs—growing to expect them—can find us lost in their absence.

Rather than continuing to fill these needs, how might we dissolve them? What would evolving beyond them make possible?

Certainty, Uncertainty, and Information

In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs defined “information” as the “resolution of uncertainty.” This was a useful definition, as information was becoming more essential to communications and adaptive systems for predicting a stable world.

This definition inextricably links information and certainty in ways that socialize us to measure for the predictable. In the absence of certainty, we expect information.

Imagine a world in which such a definition was useful: a stable, industrial age of predictable change. As we’ve experienced with COVID-19, change today is disruptive, relentless, and complex.

“Consider this paradox: Life is naturally uncertain–

we only go about life as if it should be certain.

Most importantly, the context for change today involves an age when information is ubiquitous and fleeting, and knowledge is fungible. Certainty is no longer the norm and never actually reflected reality. Consider this paradox: life is naturally uncertain — we only go about life as if it should be certain.

The prospect for certainty as a source of comfort no longer serves us in a world where knowledge has a half-life of a news cycle and uncertainty is the new norm. A dearth of information causes our internal compass to go awry.

That was life last week.

So much has happened over the last seven days. Each day seems like a year of change, and each week a lifetime. I live in an unrecognizable and grieving New York City.

As soon as we receive each new norm, the goalposts are moved. There is no time to adjust, settle in, or predict any certainties.

The Need for Certainty

Yes, uncertainty can cause panic when we expect, cling to and construct a world that depends on a sense of certainty.

Certainty has come to mean control, comfort, and security. Our need for certainty is a result of our relationship with knowledge. Consider the following three conditions that cultivate this need:

  1. Knowledge of Processes: predicting how something will unfold or how effective measures will be. This offers an expectation of control. Regarding our current situation, we want experts to confidently predict how long this crisis will last and how bad it’s going to get.
  2. Knowledge of Content: predicting what we’re dealing with. This offers an expectation of comfort. If we do not know how the situation will unfold, at least we know what it is and can rule out worst-case scenarios.
  3. Knowledge of Outcomes: predicting what the end will look like. This offers an expectation of security. Even if we don’t know how this crisis will unfold, at least we know the worst-case scenario and can begin to plan around that.

Any loss of control, comfort, or security can increase anxiety.

Two items prevent us from accepting uncertainty: unpacking certainty from clarity and examining our socialized beliefs about individualism. Distinguishing both can support us in shifting from controlling certainty to cultivating clarity.

Certainty and Clarity

I explored the distinction between certainty and clarity in a previous blog, concluding that:

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear, which offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome in order to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all the information possible, at the expense of time, energy and, sometimes, resources and market advantage.
  • Certainty requires us to know the outcome and to figure out how any choice will impact that outcome before any action is taken.
  • A lack of certainty makes us feel fearful, insecure, and unsafe. We cannot make a choice until we know what will happen as a result of it.

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of practices that clear the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when we have enough information to make an informed decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of who we are, accepting that nothing’s certain.
  • Clarity taps into our self-discovery. We make choices based on our principles (who we are), our view of reality, now, and our grounded intentions.

The unexamined need for certainty can produce anxiety, which results in an obsessive pull to make the right choice rather than the next choice.

Letting go of this need for certainty in favor of clarity begins with tackling something most powerful and often unseen: the sense of control rooted in our individualism.

American Individualism

The practice of accepting uncertainty involves evolving our relationship to independence as rooted in individualism into a relationship to freedom as sourced in our interdependence.

Socialized to believe that knowledge is power, we believe that knowledge offers us a sense of control, invulnerability, and even invincibility. These beliefs, from an orderly, industrial era, are now being dismantled in favor of an interconnected world of unmediated ideas and information.

When such impermanence and disruption drives insecurity, we are left to examine our relationship to individualism.

Many of our values have rubbed up against our American identity during this pandemic. Our individualism, exceptionalism, mythicDOWNLOAD PDF

The Experience of Being in 12 Practices, part 2

What is the experience of being? I explored this inquiry in a two-part blog. In part one, I explored an interdependent understanding of being. In this blog, part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.

This new dimension of being views humans as co-creators of our world. However, most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. Therefore, learning professionals, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.

To live between learning and unlearning entails a primary focus on intention, inquiry, imagination, and contemplation. We must clear our minds to sort out identities, penetrate distractions, prioritize concerns, disclose concealed impediments, and tune in to an intersubjective experience to co-create our existence.

If we can become open to this possibility, the question then becomes how to clear ourselves to reveal and tune into the vessel that we are?

Getting Closer to the Experience of Being

This journey requires much more than mere knowledge of theories and concepts.

We are not proposing practice in what we know or how we do things. We are proposing practice for differentiating being to clarify who we are.

This kind of practice requires becoming present to our humanness as a fluid, interdependent, interconnected being – to become aware of the felt experience of being. The practice of being opens up a dimension of our humanity that can increase performance without increasing the compulsion and wants that also increase anxiety.

Practice precedes performance. We become intentional to test our understanding of knowledge, to question our assumptions and to reveal the causes and conditions that intersect to create experiences.

These practices discovered through research and contemplative learning will expand our presence to reveal our interdependent being: our temporal nature, internal state, and our possibility as co-creators (as distinguished in part one).

Our 12 Practices

As we have grown to become Bhavana Learning Group, we have also codified our multi-year inquiry into the practices for developing an interdependent awareness.

Part of our shift involved exploring and examining rigorous practices that access our being to expand our presence: To weave together our past and future, reveal impediments, integrate lessons and realize possibility.

I have organized these 12 Practices in three vessels, each preparing learners to integrate wisdom into an interdependent awareness.

  • Grounding Vessel– Practices 1 through 4 – develops a foundation for our view, speech, and actions.
  • Fruition Vessel– Practices 5 through 8 – expands grounding to cultivate commitment and possibility.
  • Fertile Vessel– Practices 9 through 12 – extends and deepens the previous learning to co-create.

The key for each practice below denotes how we exist with or without each practice. I have also linked some resources after each practice to support an inquiry.

= With PRACTICE              = Without PRACTICE


This practice cultivates my attention so that I observe my experience – the perceptions, emotions, thoughts and other causes, conditions, and contexts that influence me.

 I react to events and circumstances, and I allow deadlines and tasks to determine my actions.

View this link to begin a practice of increasing awareness.


This practice honors my word as whole and complete, and it affects my speaking, action, livelihood and agreements to cultivate trust.

My fragmented attention and casual speaking create incongruences between my words and deeds, causing confusion, uncertainty, and distrust.

View this link to begin a practice for shifting our understanding of integrity and to build trust.


The practice of bringing conscious thought to the present moment. Being deliberate and responsible in my motivation, attitude, and direction, manifesting as mindful choosing, speaking, and action.

 My reactions rest on sentimental wishes, wishful thinking, and my casual aims and heartfelt desires.

View this link to begin a practice for deepening intention and intention in speaking (speech-acts).


 With this practice, I take custody of my unified being – who I’ve been, who I am and who I will become. My interactions reveal the possibility of being fully human.

My preoccupation with fitting in, adapting to norms and my self-image guides my priorities, concerns, and actions.

View this link to develop an awareness of authenticity.


This practice focuses awareness on weaving thought and meaning, bridging my intentions with reality. With this practice, I become a co-creator responsible for language that shapes meaning, action, and outcomes.

I react with habitual patterns such as gossip, idle speaking, hyperbole, or magical thinking to make myself feel better or impress others.

View this link to deepen the practice of intentional speaking


 I practice reflecting on things as they are. I recreate others, acknowledge situations, and receive concerns from a foundation of wholeness and background of possibilities.

My split attention leads to stepping over items, ignoring details, and taking shortcuts. I learn to tolerate unnecessary missteps, which requires more timeDOWNLOAD PDF

The Experience of Being in 12 Practices – Part 1

Have you ever attended a seminar that offered prescriptive behaviors to adopt, processes to implement and content to remember? I recently had this experience.

What’s missing from this scenario depends somewhat on our expectations of learning and, more importantly, our view of being human. Do we react to, manage, or adopt change? Or are we co-creators of change?

To accept the former view implies an understanding of being human as fixed, separate selves, independent of our circumstances that respond to change.

If we accept the latter view, as co-creators, we shift:

  • From doling out prescriptive behaviors, adopting “norms” to conform
  • To discovering descriptive practices, accessing “being” to co-create

To make this shift from behaviors to practices  a distinction unappreciated by many learning designs – first requires a fundamental paradigm shift in our understanding of being.

I will explore these questions in a two-part blog. In this blog, part one, I will first flesh out a new interdependent understanding of being. In part two, I will introduce the 12 practices that support this new understanding of being.

What Is Being?

Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, separate, and independent entity. However, ontological models relate to the self (being) or all phenomena not as a discrete stand-alone entity but as mutually dependent on numerous causes and conditions.

Consider the human body (part of our being), for example, as mutually dependent on the wind, sun, oceans, plants, and animals. Each offers us the vitamins and energy to breathe in and out of our cycle of life.

Being is not merely an internal state of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, nor is it some set of identities or discrete or separate self, independent of its world and experiences. Indeed, our thoughts and experience – an arising-together phenomenon – result from causes and conditions that interact with our world to give meaning to our existence.

This is a departure from our rational mindset and normative view, which seeks to find discrete causes to explain our experiences rather than appreciate the interdependent nature of our role in reality.

An Interdependent Awareness

The implications of being with our world are profound!

 We are related to the world in ways that are inextricably linked to our thoughts, experiences, multiple identities, and history, which is continually revealed in our mind, body, and language as we interact.

Our presence in the world discloses our potential, which is not yet realized or confined in the present and is always projected toward the future, and emerging in the present. The future we look forward to reveals a unique context: a possibility that brings aliveness as we co-create our moment-to-moment existence.

  Our consciousness precedes being in two unique ways. First, we are aware of the notion of past and future in the present. Second, we are aware of the inevitable certainty of our own death. This awareness gives life meaning. Our experiences reveal this unified temporal nature, as three dimensions of future, past, and present.

Key to accessing this expansive view of being centers on adopting an awareness as co-creators of our world – a mindset of continual inquiry that discovers and discloses ourselves with each interaction.

A Different Experience of Learning

As co-creators of our world, our experience can both reveal dimensions of our being and realize our potential with each interaction.

The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (even without discrete boundaries) means that they are “empty” of a fixed essence or solid self. This nature of “non-self” is both “empty” of an inherently existing self and yet “full” of all things.

Zen Master and author Thich Nhat Hanh describes such an experience as “Interbeing,” dispelling any notion of “solitary beings.” He views us and the planet as one giant, “living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”

“Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more.”

Learning professionals, however, seldom appreciate this interdependent nature of being nor the generative capacity it reveals. They both impact learning and require unlearning.

  • Learning occurs between a fear and a need. The growth imperative is met by fear of the unknown, which reveals many causes and conditions that defy rational-only analysis; too many variables to codify in “behaviors” or to reduce to empirical measures.
  • Unlearning occurs between certainty and possibility. The willingness to let go of outmoded assumptions and beliefs often challenges our self-perception with latent doubt, guilt, and old insecurities. The remedy here requires greater wisdom and imagination rather than more knowledge and concepts.

To live between learning and unlearning entails a primary focus on intention, inquiry, imagination, and contemplation.

We must clear our minds to sort out identities, penetrate distractions, prioritize concerns, disclose concealed impediments, and tune in to experience for co-creating our existence. Indeed, the experience of our presence matters. To listen, relate, witness, and to be seen – all support connecting deeply with phenomena internally and externally.

Ultimately, the purpose of learning, here, evolves from knowing and doing more to being more. Tapping into our interdependent nature, we access new dimensions of humanity to expand intentional meaning-making as co-creators.

If we can become open to this possibility, the question then becomes how to clear ourselves to reveal and tune into the vessel that we are?

Why Practice?

Such profound questions and claims about our existence require a view of “self” beyond a rational, epistemological knowing self to also include an ontological felt sense of being.

Most pedagogical designs dismiss the tensions between concepts of knowledge and experience of being. We still view content and process as distinct, instead of inseparable phenomena. We separate language, time, energy, and action, managing each independently. And we’ve now begun to view intention and impact as distinct dynamics, preferencing the latter.

As we interact with our world – not via knowledge of concepts or singular events but as the connective tissue of our existence – we do not merely understand content, achieve goals, or experience impact. We also clarify our views and discern our intentions to discover the obstaclesDOWNLOAD PDF

2020 Marks 20 Years of Learning and Change

It happened 20 years ago this month. I was teaching graduate students full-time in organizational leadership, and one of my students made me an offer. He wanted to use some of our course work to expand leadership in his vast public healthcare network.

Leaping from academics to consulting revealed a steep learning curve. First off, I had no company. The following journey offers an overall report of our discoveries and some emerging and enduring questions.

Phase One: Leap and Learn

On January 15, 2000, I created Leadership Innovations, Inc. In doing so, my goal was to create innovative leadership programs.

Most of our clients included executives and managers looking to expand their leadership profiles. I focused my efforts on developing a model or methodology that I could call my own.

Between 2000 and 2006, leadership was finally becoming distinct from management. Leaders coped with change between paradigms, and managers coped with complexity to optimize the current paradigm.

  • Fundamental concern. The company’s focus involved three macro-conditions of change regarding 1) access to information, 2) compression of time, and 3) globalization (beyond economics). Most clients and thinkers were concerned with adapting to this new world of change.

Phase Two: Cocooning

By the end of 2006, I decided that some cocooning was in order and changed the name to Zampella Group. This change denoted enough space to explore the emerging field of leadership development without committing to a direction.

The period from 2006 to 2018 incubated a direction that established leadership as a possibility for everyone in organizational life. We also shifted our client base to include learning professionals and eventually began working with experienced coaches.

I discovered the importance of vertical development and cultivating mindsets beyond skillsets. Leadership development also emerged as a field of study, practice, and coaching beyond executive and performance coaching.

  • Fundamental concerns. During this period, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) emerged, evolved and constituted a universal acronym as both a description and impact of non-linear change, and as the context for learning and development.

Phase Three: Emerging

By 2018, now as a team, we had spent three years developing our commitment. Last year, we rebranded as Bhavana Learning Group. The name signified our commitment to integrating Western learning models with Eastern wisdom practices to support the human side of change.

After conducting extensive research in coaching, leadership, and learning, it was clear that learning involves much more than acquiring knowledge. Our focus on learning to unlearn expands into the unknown. This involves the practice of letting go of outmoded beliefs.

Some of these beliefs, such as speed and multitasking, have been disproven by science. Others, such as balancing (or replacing) material needs with psychological needs, have been revealed by our hyper-connected reality.

We clarified our client base by adding educators to our community of experienced coaches and learning professionals.

  • Fundamental concerns. We enter this period cultivating an emerging interdependent mindset—mutually dependent awareness—that focuses on individual contemplation, which encourages unlearning with deeper connections to each other, to society, and our planet.

An Organic Process

I confess that this three-phased journey was not as neat or strategic as it seems. Nonetheless, it was organic. Not haphazardly informed (as organic often implies), but actually organic—as in intentionally present to what’s growing: being with mistakes and gaps, new questions and research, dancing with emerging client needs, and discovering new services and practices.

Questions emerged. Some were resolved, but most led to deeper inquiries and insights. This dynamic deepened our interest and fortified an emerging direction.

Our focus on research—to open enduring inquiries—was important early on. Our commitment to research and questioning the nature of change and related learning methods offered the necessary grounding to challenge our assumptions and evolve our efforts.

Surprisingly, we discovered the limitations of Western learning models to serve this level of human change. We ventured East to consume, study and synthesize wisdom, and develop practices and techniques.

The Nature of Change

The nature of change fluctuates between two vectors: the byproducts of change in a commercialized framework and the context of being human in the face of disruptive change. The latter can be unsettling, isolating, and anxiety-ridden. It led us to explore our capacity for learning and unlearning and to cope with what it means to unlearn.

The nature of change also discloses the decay of our current rationalistic, paradigm based on data, “independent” analysis, and “individualistic” approaches. This view of being human insists on learning methods that meet some arbitrary measurement standards. Such methods bias learning toward objective knowledge and material needs, as superior to experiences and psychological needs.

Lamentably, greater technological “advancements” have perpetuated increased separateness and isolation.

  • We are linked (isolated) but not connected (lack belonging).
  • Our need for instant gratification shapes our expectations and notions of progress, success, and (un)happiness.
  • We’ve substituted care for speed and quality for productivity.
  • Those “moving fast and breaking things” produce instant results and gain immediate rewards regardless of the impact or consequence on society, the planet, our democracy, or the human condition.

This nature of change requires embracing an interdependent mindset that

  • Reframes our current notions of progress, success, and growth to include greater introspection and appreciation of pluralistic views and experiences.
  • Develops a new moral imagination to reframe commercial interests with social good and economic justice.
  • Cultivates shared commitments and communities of practice where isolation is replaced with belonging and mutual growth.

The tension between the independent-individual mindset and the interdependent-collaborative mindset will likely define the 2020s as Millennials, and Generation ZDOWNLOAD PDF

The Dignity of Being Human

We all possess dignity. Does that sound odd or even doubtful?

The inherent dignity of being human is often overlooked, as we reduce dignity to feelings of respect, admiration, or adoration.

While such traits may be useful and even necessary in some situations, dignity is more than a trait. It is a fundamental characteristic of being a human being.

With our current preoccupation with internet connections, social media postings, “likes,” and emojis, society tends to reward image and impressions. This finds us focusing on our appearance and the impression that we leave.

Such concerns work to strip away our own dignity. In doing so, we diminish our humanity—dismissing ourselves and each other as dignified beings.

What’s important now is less about the honor and wisdom of being human. We’ve been reduced—in a Pavlovian manner—that involves seeking instant gratification and succumbing to peer pressure, the effect of which has us feeling fragmented and isolated, having lost all sense of higher self.

Definitions and Distinctions

To reclaim our dignity, we must examine some distinctions for clarifying terms we may conflate with dignity.

Dignity comes from the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”

The View: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated justly. Dignity is a given. Dignity identifies a worthy, high, and honorable condition as part of being human. You have dignity just as you breathe and experience things. No one can take your dignity away from you without your participation, and you cannot diminish it in another.

Respect comes from the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”

The View: Respect implies a review of what a person has seen or experienced; this individual is held in esteem because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you achieve and experience and how you handle yourself as you achieve accomplishments.

Admiration comes from the Latin word mir, meaning “to wonder.”

The View: Unlike respect, in which you hold a person in high esteem for their behaviors/abilities/actions with your own, to admire is to hold one in wonder, to marvel, and to place those behaviors/abilities/actions above your own.

Polite(ness) comes from the Latin word politus, meaning “polished, or made smooth.”

The View: Our concern here leans into courtesy and etiquette toward others. This is the essence of politeness, or focusing on how you present yourself in front of others.

Much of our confusion today seems to center around dignity and respect, which I will explore further to offer a deeper understanding of dignity.

Confusing Notions of Respect

In today’s culture, respect seems to be a catchall of standards and behaviors. We assess someone as respectable or respectful in an admiring way. This implies the viewpoint or ideal of the observer, elevating that view as deserving of respect.

  • Put another way, dignity is akin to honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated.
  • Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.
  • Self-respect, or being good to, taking care of, being truthful with, and not denigrating yourself, can be seen as dignified.

People have dignity regardless of whether they are respected by others. It can be difficult to respect a person of little dignity.

Respect acknowledges behaviors, attributes, and experiences, while dignity teaches the importance of honor and humanity.

Dignity and respect may seem like the same thing; however, important distinctions must be made—if for no other reason than to cultivate our capacity for dignity in granting humanity.

Granting Humanity

So, if dignity is inherent to honoring our humanity, why do we fail to recognize this in people we don’t respect?

Dignity grants the existence of humanity. What it means to be human is experienced in our being with one another. Being with all of humanity allows for humanness in each of us and invites us to expand our perspectives of being human.

From an ontological standpoint, dignity is as necessary to being a human as the body. If we ignore our body for too long (even in terms of basic hygiene), it will no longer work for us. Yet, we disregard our dignity regularly.

From a Buddhist perspective, people merit decent treatment because they possess human dignity, a feeling of inherent worth that is theirs due to the simple fact that they’re human. We need no notion of a fixed self to honor a common humanity; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears, which all people have, are part of our presence in this life.

Tapping into this common humanity, often via self-compassion, invites access to dignity.

Loss of Dignity: Being Indignant

Upholding our dignity is as challenging as caring for our body. Much like fasting may cleanse us to a state of wellness, the willingness to be indignant helps to restore our dignity. We lose ourselves without the willingness to express moral outrage.

In recent news, Ukraine has been discussed frequently. In 2014, the Ukrainian people led a demonstration called the Revolution of Dignity, which found them reaffirming their national honor and inherent worth.

The Ukrainians named this demonstration as such for that very reason: to tell the world broadly and remind Russia specifically of their inherent worth. With this action, Ukraine had little concern about whether Russia respected them; that is a different question entirely and perhaps not worth taking to the streets over.

To many, these actions may not have been considered respectable. Still, the Ukrainian people were willing to be indignant to reclaim their dignity.

Icons such as Colin Kaepernick today, and Muhammad Ali decades ago, have become despised by some. Yet, these individuals’ actions only revealed indignance toward undignified policies and practices. They reclaimed dignity, reaching beyond their own desires; they were willing to risk their respect for an idea, or a nation.

Loss and Restoration of Dignity

As humans, dignity is asDOWNLOAD PDF

Brave Spaces or Safe Spaces to Support (un)Learning?

Safe Spaces. Seems people support or deride them. But what purpose do they serve, and for whom?

Generally, safe spaces offer sanctuary from risk, injury, and adversity—often resulting in polite spaces that avoid controversy and contradiction.

In some academic settings, safe spaces provide important refuge for isolated groups during significant learning years.

In business, however—where the notion of power must be mitigated and navigated—we require brave spaces, and for a very different reason.

The Perfect Team

Google spent two years investigating what makes a team successful.

Google’s initial hypothesis suggested that building the best possible team means simply compiling the best people—the best experts, engineers, MBAs, and Ph.D.’s.

After studying 180 Google teams, conducting 200+ interviews, and analyzing over 250 different team attributes, to their surprise, Google was unable to reduce the “dream team” gene to any one formula or algorithm.

According to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”

Rozovsky and her colleagues continually came across psychology and sociology research that had focused on “group norms”— the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function together.

Google discovered five qualities that matter. The first four are: 

  1. Dependability. Team members accomplish things on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals and well-defined roles.
  3. Meaning. The work is personally significant to each member.
  4. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.

The Fifth Quality: Psychological Safety.

Google also discovered that full participation depends on a fifth quality, termed psychological safety, in which everyone can take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture in which managers create safe zones so employees can let their guard down. That’s psychological safety.

The irony is that group norms informed by expertise, knowledge, and high education levels can actually undermine psychological safety. People feel controlled, micromanaged, judged, and not safe to question, learn, and grow.

Ask yourself, regarding group norms marked by power, fear, micromanagement, and control:

  • Can people take risks? Challenge managers and supervisors? Offer input that isn’t solicited?
  • Can people question leadership without being shut down? Are some questions allowed and not others?
  • Are these group norms meant for a single culture, color, or sex? Can they be questioned, and if so, by whom?

Google posited psychological safety as necessary to “engineering” successful teams.

Safety for Whom?

Now, we come back to safety.

What if all of this focus on safety is misplaced? What about teams that are informed by diverse experiences, thinking, and views?

What if safety is simply another way to comfort the comfortable and preserve the status quo? Or what if it conceals real issues and suppresses differences?

Most importantly, this kind of “safety” begins to feel like groupthink. It keeps those in power from being questioned, encouraging different views, receiving feedback, or risk-taking.

So then, what do we mean by “safe” in a business context?

  • One definition involves entitlement to comfort without conflict.
  • Another involves being secure in one’s position to speak their mind.

Safety as comfort preserves the status quo and encourages groupthink.

  • Safety protects those in power and the dominant group to prevent raising “uncomfortable” issues.
  • Safety offers comfort for those in power. We cannot speak truth to power or question the status quo. We can only share views that are comfortable for those in leadership.
  • Safety undermines true innovation, which begins at the margins. What seems odd or awkward today becomes tomorrow’s new products and services.

Safety as secure in our position to speak our mind involves brave spaces.

Secure in our well-being, we are encouraged to speak our mind. With practice, we learn to:

  • listen to different experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking;
  • handle questions, feedback, and opposing views;
  • consider new ideas; and
  • become agile and nimble, able to surface and question outmoded assumptions and beliefs.

Power and Fear

Unlike safe spaces, brave spaces dissolve and address the power and fear that can cripple team participation.

Power typically involves five dimensions:

  • Legitimate power: position of authority
  • Expert power: acquiring expertise and knowledge,
  • Coercive power: exerting force and control,
  • Reward power: offering incentives or reinforcement, and
  • Referent power: gaining approval through loyalty and admiration.

Power in teams is often used to control agendas, hoard resources, predict situations, prevent discomfort, or protect self-interests. This can lead to hostile work environments.

Fear typically comes from some perceived threat, such as loss of power and loss of self.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on Defensive Reasoning reveal how experts and smart people refuse to grow, change and learn.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity.

Argyris defines a “universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values: 1) To remain in unilateral control; 2) to maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing’; 3) to suppress negative feelings; and, 4) to be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.”

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

This brings us back to the group norms we internalize that often define how we operate in teams. Are these norms based on being challenged to grow and embrace change or preserving status, power, and identity?

Principles for Brave Spaces

In times of volatile change, complexity, and integrating diverseDOWNLOAD PDF

True Diversity and Inclusion Requires Equity

Pathway to ‘Mutual Understanding’

I’ve recently come to see the impact that deep understanding has on strategy, culture, performance, and connection. Thus, here, I will introduce the term mutual understanding for exploration.

In my research, I have found it challenging to grok the concept of mutual understanding. It is usually described in cognitive or conceptual ways or through philosophical or deep communication models.

How might we expand this human possibility to give meaning to our lives?

A Developmental Pathway

Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and a radical openness that honors what arises. It cultivates new levels of awareness, resulting in dissolving boundaries and creating intentional meaning between self and others.

Mutual understanding exists as part of our human experience beyond our cognitive or conceptual notions of individual understanding. Given the nature of connectivity, which involves experiences, perspectives, and meaning, cultivating mutual understanding will soon be in demand.

To begin, I will outline a pathway that involves three stages of progressive development, viewed here as three mindsets: cognitive self (X), affective self (X+Y), and Intentional and embodied self (X+Y+Z).

  • X = Our cognitive self clarifies our thoughts and perceptions with logical reasoning and objective evidence and knowledge. We discern circumstances and concepts to develop a grounded understanding.
  • X+Y = With our cognitive self (X), we add context, emotions, and experiences to develop our affective self (Y) and thus create a shared understanding.
  • X+Y+Z = We become intentional (X) and cultivate radical openness (Y) to receive and internalize perspectives and meaning. We develop our intentional/ embodied self (Z) to cultivate mutual understanding.

A Fuller View

We identify this developmental pathway from grounded understanding to shared understanding to mutual understanding.

Grounded understanding (X)

This stage of understanding begins with our cognitive self. Here, we achieve a norm-content view to become effective at discerning circumstances.

  • We develop an understanding grounded in our cognition to observe facts, knowledge, and evidence to gain an objective view of reality.
  • With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing circumstances accurately to conceptualize and manage events and conditions.
  • Grounded understanding defines boundaries and situations to become fully present for managing events and ourselves.

The work at this level is fundamental to developing a disciplined focus to observe facts and question evidence. This level of grounding shapes what’s possible at the next stage. We arrive at a grounded understanding to manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.

Shared understanding (X+Y)

At this second stage, we increase our awareness of our affective self. Here, we achieve a reflective-action view to create context.

  • We include our experiences and values to express our voice and relate to others.
  • We add context by reflecting on shared norms, values, and interests.
  • Shared understanding emerges from shared experiences that support us in being related.

X+Y relies on the previous stage (X) to enhance how we relate to circumstances. We tune into a shared vision or larger context and communicate with others. We arrive at a shared understanding to anticipate and coordinate actions effectively with others, often from shared values and deeper relatedness.

Mutual understanding (X+Y+Z)

This third stage emerges by being with others from an embodied self or awareness. Here, we achieve a meaning-context view, as we experience multiple perspectives within an intersubjective field.

  • This stage develops a shared language (thoughts/meanings) discovering our worldviews (perspectives, ideologies, attitudes, etc.) for learning together.
  • We cultivate a radical openness that cultivates an intentional presence and interconnectedness, “in-betweenness,” or communion with others.
  • This stage requires dancing with elements from a grounded understanding to be fully present (X) and a shared understanding to be fully related (X+Y). We can be with the possibility that arises and create intentional meaning (X+Y+Z).

Mutual understanding creates a shared meaning for discovering together. We arrive at mutual understanding to tune into a deeper meaning (cultural, ideological, or perspectival) to discern contexts or open possibilities.

Definition + Experience + Meaning

Each stage of understanding is constituted by specific components:

1. grounded understanding: cognition through definition and agreements.
2. shared understanding: affective life through experience and
3. mutual understanding: intentional self through meaningfulness and possibility.

So, where are we in this three-dimensional model?

Grounded understanding

Here, I am concerned with shared agreements based on facts and rules that I can observe, discern, and communicate.

For example, if I am in a car accident, can I seek evidence to make my case and support my findings to move forward? This requires focus to assess the situation, analyze the data and information, connect the dots (who to call first, second, and third, and what information to secure), and act on the information promptly.

This level of understanding is used daily to manage content and deliver on promises to plan events and complete tasks.

With practice, this level will support me in becoming grounded and expand my capacity to predict, which I can hone to reach the next level: shared understanding.

Shared understanding

Here, I can access a shared experience within a context.

Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I visit to develop ideas and edit, and I nearly panicked. Those notes are priceless to me; in them, I write ideas for future blogs, curricula, and half-baked thoughts, which I reflect on often. The next morning, I called Starbucks. The person listened to me, left for fewer than 60 seconds, and returned with, “Yeah, we have them here.”

Relieved, I appreciated our shared understanding.

Any other restaurant may have thrown those notes away. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why, beyond its lattes and lunches, customers consume their brand.

Consider that this worker knew exactly where to look and what to expect. They likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices onDOWNLOAD PDF

Possibility Beyond Problem-Solving

Recently, I presented work on the topic of “unlearning,” which addressed many issues, including our fixation with “problem-solving.”

After my presentation, an educator defended problem-solving as an important skill for students. The discussion was similar to others I’ve had with educators who regard problem-solving as critical preparation for students.

I commented that expanding our perceptions beyond current assumptions requires letting go of our dependence on problem-solving.

I’ve come to see the pervasiveness of the problem-solving mentality and its implications on us as learners, thinkers, and creators.

Addressing the implications of this mindset is a primary focus with students who attend our courses in leadership development. Students (as well as clients) have been so programmed to seek out and solve problems. They fixate on “correct” answers, seek out immediate solutions, and avoid any risk-taking with questions they deem as silly.

Extensive training has students expecting answers to their questions. When we suggest that they “discover for themselves” in their lives, they become both unsettled and intrigued.

Limits of Problem-Solving

The concept of problem-solving has been idealized to mean just about anything. I see it as both a process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues and a method for continuing to examine many possible root causes for any identified problem.

Strengths: Problem-solving has a singular focus on creating a solution from known or predictable pathways. There’s some creativity to this process, as it can also involve seeking out different root causes.

Great examples include a business process that produces inefficiencies, a financial system that fails to predict outcomes, or any malfunctioning object or product, from a broken toilet to a faulty network server.

Limits: Problem-solving works well within external situations from fixed views and rational perspectives. When issues involve deep thinking or a change in context or perspective, problem-solving constrains us to our current knowledge and assumptions. This forces premature or predictable diagnoses and resolutions.

From a systems-thinking perspective, the maxim goes, “The quickest way out of a problem leads you right back in.” And yet we react, with quick fixes, often to some external stimuli or some internal fear. So pervasive, problem-solving is now our default thought process. 

Method or Mentality

As a method, problem-solving can focus on creating positive solutions. But when embodied as a mentality, we become fixated problem-seekers: discovering solutions to make something unwanted go away.

This normative and rational mentality prescribes a reality without any “unwanted” problems.

This same view informs our medicalized (and psychological) model, which often pathologizes variances and informs our educational pedagogy by rewarding immediate answers over unsolvable questions.

Once trained in this mentality, we become fixers, we wait for answers, and we stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we seek out solutions to our perceived problems.

We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, about what wins or loses, or succeeds or fails—all to render quick fixes for instant satisfaction.

Moving beyond the problem-solving mindset requires distinguishing between its power as a method (how we act on issues) and dissolving its hold as a mentality (how we view issues).

It also requires appreciating these differences:

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity reveals new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Education and Learning

Unfortunately, the evolution of education has slowly beaten down the imagination required to combat a problem-solving mentality. Consider the legacy of this last half-century:

— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.

— We have defunded educational art and music programs, which cultivate the imagination that transports us to other lands.

— We have diminished the very humanities Steve Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

— We’ve so derided literature and history that connects us to the human condition that we lack the moral imagination to envision the concerns of others so different from ourselves.

— We are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking, whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania.

Our education system is now steeped in a problem-solving mentality, as crystallized in STEM. I once asked another educator about the lack of creativity in STEM and was told that engineering provides sufficient space for creativity and imagination.

Sufficient for what? For whom? Problem-solving is the grammar of engineering.

Learning scholar, researcher, and engineer Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline, Presence) from MIT states it well:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. Many managers think that management is problem-solving. But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

The impetus for change in problem-solving lies outside—in some undesired external condition we seek to eliminate. The impetus for change in the creating mode comes from within.

Reactive Thinking

The outcome of our fixation on problem-solving—as trained in school, reinforced via technology, and rewarded through business—is a reactiveness that is subtle yet narrow in imagination.

With Pavlovian fervor, we solve problems identified by others, read what is assigned, and write what is required to cultivate a sense of “rightness.” Being accepted (or right) becomes more important than being ourselves.

Problem-solving trains us in formulaic assumptions with expectations to resolve, fix, avoid, or dismiss any perceived problems. We automatically view mistakes and failures—the very essence of learning and discovery—as problems.

  • We deem anything that doesn’t meet our expectations a problem.
  • Any issue deemed a problemDOWNLOAD PDF

My Journey To Mindfulness

This is a sidebar to the following blog: Evolving Mindfulness, Part 1: The Rise of McMindfulness

Tony Zampella and Devorah Gilbert in 2002.

My journey began in 2000 when, working with my mentor Devorah Gilbert, I recognized the wisdom she had developed from her time in an Ashram. As a faculty member, coach, consultant, and researcher in adult and leadership development, I would frequently come upon work from Eastern wisdom and Buddhist psychology. What did they know or experience?

After some investigation, I began an informal study into Buddhism and Eastern wisdom with Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and The Tao of Physics (to name a few).

I began to find that Buddhist studies bridged several Western paradigms (Integral Theory, developmental psychology, and adult learning) used in my academic research. My practice, however, was sporadic, mostly involving reflective techniques of pausing and taking several breaths before acting.

Eastward Bound

I knew that practice was important, so in 2005, I took a 30-day residency at a Zen Monastery led by John Daido Loori, Roshi. There, I discovered the writings by Thích Nhất Hạnh, which connected me with “mindfulness.” Practicing in the monastery meant daily silent time, meditating for 90-minute Zazen sessions 2–3 times a day, and a rigorous, precise work-study schedule.

During this residency, I connected with work by Thích Nhất Hạnh that invited a new relationship with anger through Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames and Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. See this tribute to his teachings on Mindfulness.

In Buddhism, anger (aversion, hatred, aggression, and self-loathing), greed/gasping, and ignorance encompass the three root Kleshas (poisons). In that monastery, I discovered the central role anger played in my life.

Rage led me to visit therapists since the age of 8, a result of the violent nature of my family. In the wake of my childhood, I lived with several caretakers, dropped out of high school (1982), confronted my sexual orientation, and came out (1984).

With therapy, I learned to cope with my past. However, my aggression, impatience, and sadness remained untouched and informed by an ego designed to protect me through its use of anger. In 2005, I connected mindfulness to Buddhist wisdom as a way to meet my anger, understand its flavor, and tame its desire.

In time, I began to see anger as the tension between hurt and hate. Throughout my life, whenever hurt or frustrated, anger filled me with racing thoughts and rushing sensations that bypassed the hurt and fueled my aggression. I found myself drawn to angry people, angry causes, and angry approaches. I was both a consumer and purveyor of anger.

Mindfulness Practice

Buddhist author, scholar, and monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.

In the face of dozens of false starts in practicing meditation, I developed a commitment,  mostly because of how I discovered mindfulness.

Studying mindfulness through the work of Thích Nhất Hạnh—rather than from a workshop to reduce stress—connected me to an ethos. I saw how he used it to work with anger, sadness, and joy and appreciated the practice of compassion and wisdom drawn from these teachings. I also valued Buddhist ethics and wisdom, even if beyond me, and appreciated meditating in Sangha.

Still, it took me 15 years since my journey began in 2000 to develop a regular, consistent sitting practice that befriended my monkey mind to offer some presence.

In November 2014, I attended two days of teachings (16 hours) by the Dalai Lama in NYC. I understood perhaps 5% of what he said yet felt an urgency to deepen my study and practice.

Shortly thereafter, I entered more formal studies, deepened my mindfulness practice as part of Buddhist ethics, and brought these practices to our clients. It helped to have a team of colleagues willing to join me in this commitment.

The Ethics and Wisdom of Mindfulness

Even before taking my vows, I found refuge in Buddhist psychology grounded in the Four Noble Truths. When confused, its wisdom guided me in unlearning beliefs. Developing a relationship with my anger, I experienced greater discipline and patience—something quite unthinkable a few years ago. Sometimes, a mundane event can illuminate much.

Over a decade ago, I recalled spilling a glass of water on a coffee table and soaking the papers I was reading. In the past, I would have reacted aggressively, yelled at the table (yes!), and become judgmental, slamming the glass down.

But on this day, I looked at the puddle and began to chuckle—no aggression, judgment, or force. More surprisingly, there was no impulse or habitual energy to lash out or react.

Light and free, I grabbed paper towels to clean the mess. Similar incidents have occurred. In each instance, there’s been more space, a lighter self, and, often, humor.

Please understand that I am not suggesting my anger is gone. I simply no longer avoid or deny it and rarely judge it.

These are the moments that remind me of my mindfulness practice.

This is a sidebar to the following blog: Evolving Mindfulness, Part 1: The Rise of McMindfulness

Coming Out Again…

This is a sidebar to the following blog: “Time for Coaching to Come Out and Embrace Diversity”

As a presenter at ACTO’s conference, I offered research on unlearning to cultivate openness for cultural issues. I also realized three unique attributes of our LGBTQ community, which I’d like to share as a step toward better understanding some of these issues.

First, we must come out. And we must do it repeatedly, with each interaction, to constitute ourselves. Telling our truth is an act of dignity.

  1. In 1988, the LGBTQ community launched the annual Coming Out Day on October 11. This important activism put a human face to our issues, as notables started coming out each year.
  2. The 1980s also revealed the cost of not coming out, of embracing the fear of the closet. Hence, the ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) slogan “Silence = Death.”
  3. Recently, the story “Gay Suicides Are On The Rise” highlighted the struggle of gay and bisexual men in Canada to come out within society’s newfound opposition.

Second, we have no family from which to learn. LGBTQ children do not learn how to cope with being gay (LGBTQ). Unlike families in other minority groups, ours cannot offer a shared experience, historic reference, or common heritage.

  1. When we are young, we are not exposed to a shared experience from our family. We do not hear: “This is how it was when I was young. This how you manage the hatred.” We must fill that missing void on our own, which can be horribly isolating. Isolation is a hidden “queer-tax” on our esteem. In addition to public discrimination, we miss the initial experience of solidarity.
  2. According to The Trevor Project, “40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide, 92% before the age of 25. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.”

Third, we’re a community of communities. Every community—whether Black, Latino, Asian, first peoples, differently-abled, male or female—have LGBTQ members. When we come out, we have a second journey to become part of a diverse community of communities.

Consider, The Human Experience in Infinite — an unscientific survey of more than 5000 by the New York Times on sexual and gender identity.

Often, such diversity results in a backlash from the dominant culture. Just this last week, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) presented a second two-year survey. Tolerance for LGBTQ among 18- to 34-year-olds has decreased in America:

36% of young people said they were uncomfortable learning a family member was LGBTQ, compared with 29% in 2017.

— 34% were uncomfortable learning their doctor was LGBTQ vs. 27% in 2017.

— 39% were uncomfortable learning their child had a school lesson on LGBTQ history vs. 30% in 2017.

This is a sidebar to the following blog: “Time for Coaching to Come Out and Embrace Diversity”

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practices.

Time for Coaching to Come Out and Embrace Diversity

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced, “Police! We’re taking the place!”

That declaration sparked the Stonewall Uprising.

During the events of June 28 to July 1, 1969, outside a little West Village bar, the modern-day LGBTQ movement was born. While a vital community existed before—mostly underground—this moment energized many to mobilize, come out and to venture into the 21st century.

This past weekend, five million people descended on my home city of New York, which was selected to host World Pride Day to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

I came out as gay in 1984, during the emergence of the AIDS crises. For 35 years, I’ve learned new ways to confront my own internalized homophobia as well as integrating my gay identity into life as an activist, researcher, publisher, writer, consultant, and educator. In each of these spaces, coming out offered me and those I interacted with a richer experience of differences and diversity.

Coaching is the one profession where I work more intimately with people, and yet I must intentionally navigate an identity that isn’t (explicitly) expressed in the competencies or practices of the field.

Coaching and Identity

As a coach and researcher, I see how my internal struggle—integrating more of my identity and distinguishing society’s oppression—has given me access to a deeper awareness of humanity.

I have spent the last year on a task force formed by the Association of Coach Training Organization (ACTO) to explore how we might become more aware of and include identities as part of our professional service.

ACTO’s membership includes coach-training schools and organizations. Our task force explored deep conversations, research, and topics that encompassed implicit bias and discrimination at the individual level and group identity and systemic bias at the collective level.

The work culminated with ACTO’s annual conference, keynoted by educator and author, Robin DiAngelo whose 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, has shifted the conversation on race and racism.

The conference highlighted many gaps in the coaching profession. It also revealed some of the gaps in our “global community” that still lean into white privilege from North American views. I’ll save these discoveries and suggested resources for another blog.

Ironically, I just completed the global survey proffered every four years by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), this one for release in 2020. Yet, outside of gender, only region and country identify who you are as a coach. No questions are asked about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical ability. This mirrors ICF’s 2012 and 2016 surveys.

This survey will guide the “global” International Coaching Federation (ICF), for the next five years. Identity may be one of the most critical issues associated with inclusion and belonging to understand and coach in organizational life. (For example, see this survey on sexual and gender identity by the New York Times.) How can we address what we are unaware of?

Taking a Stand

One way to combat the perception of #coaching-so-white might be to survey ICF members with a focus on expanding and including more diversity.

Another way is to demand change. What would you do if you were another white speaker at a conference of all white speakers? Might you risk your status and take a stand? That is what fellow ACTO member Molly Gordon did by pulling out as a speaker at a conference for Master Certified Coaches (ICF’s highest credential).

Finally, we can take a stand for the future of coaching. That is what ACTO did last year to guide its future:

What would it mean to have all coaching schools and training organizations accept such a stand?

Impact of Ignoring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is becoming the silver bullet for all that ails organizational culture. Companies have created new DEI roles to brandish their cultural street cred.

Still, do coaches truly understand these issues beyond attending a workshop or reviewing a text, as lived?

Do we understand who is impacted when these issues are left unaddressed?

These recent headlines reveal the influence cultural and social issues now have on business and institutions in society:

“Hershey, Nestle, Mars won’t promise chocolate is free of child labor”

“Airlines to DHS: Don’t use us to transport kids separated from their families”

“A YouTuber hurled racist, homophobic taunts at a gay reporter. Company did nothing”

“LGBTQ Google employees ask SF Pride to remove the company from celebrations”

“’A cage is not a home’: Hundreds of Wayfair employees walk out to protest sales to migrant detention center

Now consider these situations that might impact your organization or efforts:

  • White, male executives still comprise

Clear Thinking Cultivates Wisdom

Wisdom is the missing condition during these times of volatile change, information overload, and dynamic knowledge. Yet our inability to discern clearly has so clouded our thinking such that we lack clear judgment, rendering wisdom inaccessible. In this blog, I focus on clear thinking, perhaps the most misunderstood of our abilities.

From journalists to lawmakers to educators, we no longer possess a penetrating lens to peer through cloudiness with any credibility. We can no longer advocate for the truth, nor can we call an act what it is. With our perception and judgment clouded by euphemisms and reflexive beliefs, we’ve lost our ability to think.

The Challenge

Our primary culprit of lazy thought is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning.”

This complacency commonly takes two forms:

The first is the primacy of problem-solving: we frame thinking as seeking out answers to solve problems. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.

The second issue is more reflexive thinking; it lacks any questioning at all. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts we are stymied, because no questioning has taken place.

Both views delude us into thinking that we are thinking, when in fact we are comforted by initial evidence or by the fruits of wishful thinking. At best what we claim as thinking is the activity of managing our old thoughts or beliefs, or analyzing the agreeable evidence.

Both of these views lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts.

Thinking about Thinking: A Habit of Questioning

Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.

Thinking involves questioning our beliefs, our assumptions, and the evidence in a way that opens space for new thoughts. Philosopher Hannah Arendt points us to the issue: “Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity.”

Thinking dwells, lets itself be; and as Arendt suggests involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”

In this way thinking is less about cleverness, calculation, and consumption of data and more about mindfully being with situations in a free and open manner that invites each moment to present itself fully.

Thinking is related more to freedom than to facts, and aligns more with presence than reasoning.

The question then becomes: do we meet the moment freely with openness, or do we rely on old thoughts and project unexamined assumptions?

Activist and education philosopher Paulo Freire offers insight: “Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”

Clear thinking, then, first requires surfacing projections that mask as thinking, and two of the most pervasive are magical thinking and positive thinking.

Magical Thinking

To practice clear thinking, we begin by confronting our magical (“fantasy” or “wishful”) thinking, which can distort what is seen and acted on.

Magical thinking denotes the causal relationship between perception, actions, and events. It is the belief that one’s wishes or desires can influence the external world.

Magical thinking is marked by vague claims, generalizations, platitudes, or hyperbole. It wants (wishes for) something based on beliefs or hopes that have no possible reality or are not based on concrete evidence or specific details.

We’ve all had moments of magical thinking. Fifteen years ago I started a non-profit Center to deliver leadership programs without a market, funding strategy, program development or plan for training. After all, I had secured a 501(c)3, and had the knowledge, right? And with funds, I signed an office lease, designed a website, and hooked up phones.

Such events reveal our casual relationship with reality. I not only didn’t question my expectations; it didn’t even occur to me that such questioning was necessary.

You don’t need to know how to get where you are going, but where you are going must be in the realm of what’s possible or credible when looked at from the perspective of where you actually are. Magical thinking causes others to question that credibility.

OUTCOME: I employ platitudes to move others to a goal, sell an idea, or agree to terms without any details.

Positive Thinking

A common form of magical thinking, “positive thinking” attempts to frame the facts or conditions that confront you in life with a more positive interpretation. “Pollyanna,” “do-gooder,” “goody-two-shoes”—these are some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who avoid evidence in an effort to be positive. (Note: One can be supportive and deliver the facts without having to make it positive in this unseeing or unobserving sense.)

We say, “It’s a great idea, so it will all work out,” or “don’t be so negative, think positive.” We do not seek out counterfactual evidence, question the available (or lack of) details, or recognize how we distort conditions to spin our positive claims.

This kind of distorted thinking places a layer of positive sentiments or delusion between us and what we are dealing with, like a layer of fog. Instead of dealing with the conditions in front of us, we are left to navigate the fog, so we become better at describing the fog.

OUTCOME: I employ a positive spin on circumstances to make myself and others feel good.

Clear Thinking

Clear thinking is the ability to question assumptions critically with the ability to engage in independent and reflective thought. It involves questioning concrete evidence and specific details that point to causes and conditions with evidence, concepts, logic, and/or context.

  1. Concrete details are tangible. For instance, the house at the end of the block is on fire. This claim is understood by three concrete items: house, fire, block. These are clear byDOWNLOAD PDF

The Confusion between Certainty and Clarity

This blog begins a series to distinguish specific items that can support cultivating wisdom. Each item inquires into a specific “tension” or idea. In this case, the tension between Certainty and Clarity. The confusion and tension between certainty and clarity can cause a great of suffering and with practice can cultivate wisdom.

Meet the “U” in VUCA

Most of us in the learning and development profession have become familiar with the acronym VUCA—Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—during the last two decades.

Each of these terms represents a phenomenon that affects the human condition and influences our view of reality.

Volatility and complexity tend to measure externalities that experience the pace or scope of change. Uncertainty and ambiguity often describe internal conditions or experiences that define our observations and perceptions of change.

We will discover that our relationship to clarity is bound up in our understanding of certainty and uncertainty.

Certainty v. Clarity

Let’s begin by distinguishing these two terms.

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear that offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all possible information, at the expense of time and possibly market advantage.
  • Certainty rests on how and what. It requires that we know the outcome and that we’ve figured out how any choice will impact the outcome before taking any action.
  • By its name, certainty is designed to avoid “uncertainty.” 

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of an inquiry that clears the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when you have enough information to make an informed, optimal decision. Then you make that decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of why. It gets you out of bed with a sense of deep commitment before you know whether customers are lining up to purchase your services. Here, purpose is key.
  • Clarity is design to be with “uncertainty.”

The term, “attached,” above is from an Eastern wisdom context for “attachment” to mean “fixated on” or “obsessed with.” This is different from a Western context that tends to mean “bonding with.”

Knowing v. Discovering

Clarity says, “This problem deserves your attention,” while certainty tells you, “Wait until you know the answer.”

Here’s the rub: the essence of VUCA and the nature of change reveal that we can never know all the factors of any endeavor. In fact, we discover some of the most important variables after we’ve moved forward with our effort.

If we become attached to certainty, we will miss critical signs, patterns, and possible opportunities to alter, question, or clarify our direction.

Sure, we may produce our “expected” outcome, but we may be headed for a cliff. Or, we may miss critical opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow in ways that produce a different or more sustainable result.

The wise person realizes this: nothing is fixed or permanent. The best-laid plans or thoughts are subject to influence. Only a clear mind—unattached to an outcome—can be with the uncertainty that opens us to discovery.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki points to this level of openness: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

So, how do we move forward in uncertainty?

Unclear v. Uncertain

There’s a big difference between being unclear and being uncertain.

Being unclear is not knowing which step to take.

Being uncertain is not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be.

It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.

Unlike certainty, clarity isn’t reached via a tortuous route that can involve our identity or ego. When we personalize outcomes, our ego conflates being certain with being right. We then filter out ideas that question our desired outcome, ignore feedback we do not wish to hear, or deny data that “gets in our way” that we do not wish to see.

According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., “To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”

And here’s an important paradox: the more self-assured one is of an outcome, the greater the chance of being caught off guard or paralyzed by fear.

Because clarity is not an emotional state, it is unclouded and unhindered, with the humility to choose the best next step.

  • Those who are clear expect to be wrong or surprised and can choose in the face of change.
  • Those that must be certain before acting find themselves trapped—unable to act until they are certain.

A time-tested truism states that the only way to predict the future is to create it. Develop yourself to embrace uncertainty: use the result of each step to pave the direction to that future, now.

What You Can Do to Embrace Uncertainty

The good news is that you possess the clarity required for any effort. We simply need to let go of any attachments to goals and outcomes and to trust our choices. These practices offer support:

  1. Find a mindful practice that creates space in your life for reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
  2. Notice any disappointment. When it occurs, first, discover any expectations. Then practice tolerating uncertainty by letting go of any attachment to expectations or to the outcome.
  3. Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).
  4. Practice differentiating outcomes as a fixed eventDOWNLOAD PDF

Imagination is Key to Rethinking Stale Business Formulas

Would you rather be stuck in an elevator or listen to an elevator pitch? This is a tough call for me: both evoke stressful situations.

My niece—a young, brilliant artist—recently graduated from a design school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She graduated armed with two formulas to sell her services in the “real world”: mastering the elevator pitch and finding your customer’s “pain points.”

Did I mention she graduated from an art school?

Some of our business concepts can offer real solutions, but others can be reductive and can pollute education, learning, and the human spirit.

Two such ideas include the elevator pitch and the popular pain-point primer for pitching products.

1 – Ditch the Pitch

Much of what we call an elevator pitch demands a formula for reducing services to a 15- 30-second script. Elevator or not, I often feel trapped when delivering or receiving such a script.

For those who have a well-defined need, no pitch is necessary—but if it works, great. For most of us meeting you, and getting to know you as an offer, the pitch is a turn-off in at least three ways:

— People do not buy products based on the words you use. Most purchases are based on how you make the consumer feel or because they see a possibility for themselves. Before you fill a need for others, they connect either with you or the possibility you create.

— A pitch relies on a canned script, something you’ve thought through before connecting with the person in front of you.

— A pitch is another word for “sell.” It reeks of an icky agenda, informing what comes out of your mouth as obvious and often cringeworthy.

Instead of a pitch, consider three or four scenarios that you might find yourself in. Practice speaking to yourself in each scenario, imagining the person in front of you.

  1. Ask questions and listen to the person—not your agenda. Pause, and reflect on what was said to seed a conversation (perhaps with more questions).
  2. Remember your why. Speak from the purpose or commitment that animates you to make a difference. What is that difference you wish to make? How do you see your offers leading to that?
  3. Share examples or stories about client benefits. People often find themselves in stories they can relate to.
  4. Take the next steps: Create a possibility to set up a meeting or follow up with an email. 

The goal is to transform “making the sale” into “making a connection.” An authentic connection will either lead to work or to a champion of your work.

2 – No Pain, Big Gain

A pain point is a specific problem that prospective customers of your business are experiencing. Some common examples include pain points in finances, productivity, process, or support. This is where you step in to relieve your client’s “pain” with your service or product.

The pain-point formula drives much of today’s marketing, branding, website design, and business value statements.

My quarrel isn’t with the idea; it can work, and it can produce critical insights. My problem is that we stop thinking and start relying on the formula. This leads to narrowing our mind.

1 – We adopt a problem-solving mindset that reduces our focus and all ideas to problems. We seek out problems and quick fixes without truly understanding issues.

2 – We come to rely on problem-solving with binary thinking that destroys imagination in ways that quash our ability to create possibilities.

Is this difference between problems and possibilities just semantics? Only in the way that achieving success is qualitatively different from not failing. In the latter, we focus on the problem: not failing.

Such a focus frames our assumptions about human potential and capacity regarding creativity and imagination.

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity discovers new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Imagination is the ability to envision something that does not yet exist, the ability to form a mental image of something not yet perceived by the five senses. According to Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Instead of reciting pitches or relying on pain points, become curious. Imagine a future your clients wish to create or think of aspirations they wish to cultivate. Position yourself as the paintbrush on your client’s wide-open canvas.

What is the future your clients imagine? How can their offers or products create or impact that future? What kind of leadership will that future require?

When Companies Imagine Beyond Pain

What great companies like Apple do is invent twice. First, they imagine a new world as an aspiration, and then they return from that world with inconceivable ideas to invent products that both create and then serve that world.

They do not invent products first. They create a new world for those products. That requires imagination.

If we explore the iPod, what pain points did it set out to resolve?

The iPod solved the yet unknown pain points of finding, buying, storing, managing, and transferring music. Had Apple focused there and fixed those issues, we’d have some peripheral products to resolve these concerns.

Apple likely realized these pain points. But if it had offered a product to resolve those alone, I would have passed.

Instead, Apple imagined a world in which its product resolved issues we didn’t know about to connect us to music. When marketed, the iPod promised to “place 1,000 songs in your shirt pocket,” just like the Mac originally promised “a computer on every desk.”

Apple imagined an unimaginable world that offered us possibilities yet to be discovered.

To imagine its world, Apple built a whole ecosystem around iTunes and apps. Without it, the iPod would have just been an expensive niche MP3 player or perhaps the Zune.


The Practice of Choosing Wisely

You get one marshmallow now or two in an hour. I remember this test, which proved a valuable point about emotional intelligence: that our temperament can forecast future success. Delaying immediate gratification paid more dividends—even more than IQ—to one’s success.

This seems a quaint notion now, a quarter-century later, as we experience an abundance of information and daily inundation of content with a profusion of choices.

Perhaps the most important capacity today is the capacity to choose wisely.

Choosing requires the judgment to sort priorities. Without it, everything appears the same and becomes an emergency to do now (lacking priority).

Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time, boundaries (or balance), and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. But at the heart of this issue is something more fundamental and confusing: choices.

What, how, and why we choose are often unclear to us unless and until we reflect on our relationship to “choice” with a clear mind.

The Paradox of Choice

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.

While Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he also argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.

Schwartz points to how the act of choosing intersects with our notions of free will, power, and responsibility. The sense of control we often get from choosing can be overwhelmed by the number of choices we cannot absorb, evaluate, or fully understand. We also often focus on the freedom of choice while dismissing the responsibility that we must take for our choices.

If we are unclear about what matters to us, beyond others’ expectations of us, we are more likely to choose from scarcity, from not (being) enough. Choosing from scarcity can cause greater regret, guilt, anxiety, and insecurity, without ever realizing satisfaction and the possibility of freedom.

If this sounds abstract, consider the frustration expressed in the tweet below.

How is this possible? What can we do about it?

Paralyzing or Liberating?

Capitalistic logic might indicate that more choices mean more competition, which increases quality. We have more news media outlets today than ever before, with more choices for consumption: broadcast, print, blogs, apps, streaming services, etc. With the abundance of time and cyberspace, what have we produced?

Economics suggests that a rarity of space, time, and intellectual resources—once governed by square inches, barrels of ink, and broadcast minutes, providing fewer choices with greater deliberation—yields a more thoughtful product.

Today, the abundance of space and time has offered more choices and greater access, without any threshold. The result is a system that churns out information and misinformation that has drained our intellectual resources to absorb, evaluate, and be informed. Sure, we have some better products, but we also have many more inferior products. Most do not have the literacy, time, or energy to discern the difference. Instead of more choices liberating us, we become paralyzed by choices or numb to weighing the differences.

Maximizer or Satisfier?

According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier.

The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.” They engage in exhaustive research to seek out the best, becoming drained. When they decide, they are left wondering if another, better option might exist and are unsatisfied.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with a fear of missing out (FOMO) and the possibility of never having enough. Applied to news, without standards, we consume endlessly for fear that we will miss out on the latest. We become confused and drained.

The Satisfier operates from a predetermined standard for what is good enough. They apply that standard to any option before them. When the product or service (or toothbrush) meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with the recognition that “enough” is possible. Applied to news, we might read and view from a diet that informs us. Then we stop.

The satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.


Choosing often means being confronted with “choice shock,” claims Schwartz, who told Pacific Standard Magazine, “My suspicion is that [social media], and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”

Many of us have become maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life; each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.

How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?

JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires, and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO. This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.

Practice Choosing Well

In addition to these ideas, I have found four frames that support intentional choosing.

1 – Choosing Principle: Important or Urgent

I offer you this temporal grid, originated by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey, to observe your choices.

Q1- PRESENT – We manage deadline-driven projects, pressing issues, and tasks.

Q2- FUTURE – We manage important items that are not urgent but reflect our values. We live by our principles, not by others’ deadlines.

Q3- PAST – We use distractions to cope: to feel good and ignore items that are urgent or important.

Q4- PAST – We use distractions to neglect items, often becoming obsessed and fixated by disruptions.


Community: The Missing ‘Gem’ in Learning

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened Peter Senge and Fred Kofman’s seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations. They persist concerning adult learning in organizational life today.

Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a learning—let’s call it deep learning—that cultivates our capacity to learn, unlearn, and evolve as human beings. Deep learning encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions to unlearn outmoded thinking and experiment with self-discovery.

Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and information overload. With our abundance of (and access to) content, our learning challenges involve context—our perspective, worldviews, and discernment.

Our challenge is to bridge the gap between our cognitive and affective lives to integrate new knowledge and emotions or experiences in ways that alter our self-perceptions.

Learning vs. Knowing

As a society, instead of delving deeper into the important questions posed by Senge and Kofman, we’ve begun focusing on the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.

We develop assessments to measure knowledge and technology and thus access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery. We create new processes to repurpose ideas for faster consumption.

A quick review of the literature on learning and development reveals that data and analytics have focused on data-driven learning. Marketing has guided and scaled learning to focus on immediate benefits. ROI has focused on why and what we measure.

With our focus on technology, scaling, ROI, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating the cognitive (knowledge and knowing) from the affective (experience and discovery) aspects of being human.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that “one in five Americans have a mental health condition. Tens of millions suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders.”

What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters to ourselves and others?

Much of this involves a reduced view of learning that eliminates our experiences. We accumulate information without discovery, acquire knowledge without wisdom, and analyze thinking without a deeper connection or emotional satisfaction.

Learning today is so focused on achieving cognitive results that we fear not knowing and the possibility of discovery.

Learning, Emotions, and Fear

With all our knowledge, we’ve failed to realize that adult learning involves an emotional—not cognitive—challenge.

Learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience, where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Whether guilt, shame, despair, or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us. For instance:

Being a beginner and the fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. While the three words “I don’t know” are the most difficult to utter, “I’m a beginner” is a close second.

Being confused or stuck in confusion can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can isolate and prevent us from seeking support.

Critical self-talk judges one’s intelligence, abilities, and/or competence, increasing anxiety and/or stress.

Concerns about looking foolish, or being perceived as stupid or dumb can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.

Taking feedback personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.

Concerns about unlearning outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming, dreaded, or ego-crushing.

The fear we experience as part of any deep and personal learning process can become disorienting and even lead to a loss of identity.

Deep Learning Includes Emotions

Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the role emotions play in guiding and informing our learning. According to Alan Sieler, author of Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:

Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.

This is the paradox of learning: The very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.

Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions—we talk about them rather than experience or learn from them. We explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or felt experience as it moves through our body.

Intellectualizing our emotions aligns more with cognitive than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about understanding teachings than experiencing learning. While a wise teacher can bring teachings to life, ultimately, the learner learns what they care about.

Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than what is available individually or experientially.

This journey requires venturing East.

The Three Gems

Deep learning that expands our view of the self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our awareness of self.

Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community can we grow individually.

Alternatively, when it comes to individual growth, we must look beyond the self. Buddhist thought offers the three gems (or three jewels), which represent an interdependent whole that includes:

  • The Buddha (the teacher),
  • The Dharma (the teachings), and
  • The Sangha (the community).

The most important part of this triad, however, is not any single item. The treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature.

Western learners may view this triad as three separate items to combine.DOWNLOAD PDF

Listening as Context and Practice

Listening is an underdeveloped asset in our leadership, culture, and organizational life. Deep listening expands our capacity to remain open, receive concerns, perceive experiences, and discover situations newly. And yet, as change becomes exponential and information assaults our senses, listening suffers.

For coaches, therapists, and educators, a failure to listen deeply can create professional negligence. For leaders, team members, and business professionals, it often produces unnecessary setbacks, misunderstandings, missed connections, or conflicts. My research emerges from the deep learning that informs deep listening. My work on listening involves several past blogs, as well as a white paper.

Our prior writings examine listening in a developmental model. This blog offers a previously unexplored aspect of listening: specific learnings and practices to expand and deepen one’s listening.

Listening as Context

What is listening? Let me begin with this: Speaking is insufficient to say what listening is. As soon as we breathe a word about listening, we’ve reduced its fullness. We’ve defined and limited a human phenomenon that is misunderstood, underappreciated, and highly involved.

We tend to observe listening as the opposite of speaking—in other words, if you are not speaking, then you must be listening. These observations engage a fatal error.

Listening as context is first a field of being, manifesting as a commitment; then as content as a competency, and then a skill. If this is news to you, please consider whether at some point you’ve reduced listening to something much less than what is possible.

Beyond levels of awareness or mindsets, listening as context allows for a field within which life emerges. I propose that such a field is governed by our openness to change. It expands our identity to include three interdependent states: intention, openness, and wholeness, each involving specific learnings and practices.

With each state, we awaken, deepen, and embody listening as a field or context to transcend the reactive self, competitive self, and fragmented self. Each of these identities results from our socialization and impedes deep listening.

I will briefly develop each state and review five learnings and four practices that I’ve discovered to sustain deep listening: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” 4) practicing resistance training, 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, 7) learning radical openness, 8) learning to “be with” possibility, and 9) practicing granting being.

Intention: Awaken the Field to Interrupt the Reactive Self

With intention, we increase consciousness to disclose and discover automatic, habitual energy that drives listening and choices. Ultimately, we become aware of our reactive self and interrupt its impact on us and others.

We create and cultivate space between opinions and actions. Some outcomes include:

  • The ability to distinguish between intentions, expectations, and impact.
  • Accurately reproducing communications, requests, and conditions of satisfaction.

Two practices and two learnings support this state: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” and 4) practicing resistance training.

1. Learning to Observe

Here, we begin with listening to your observer. We are always observing, but for most, it is casual and can be distracting. These four levels of observation reveal how layers of reality often happen in tandem. We can discern these levels upon reflection.

Level 1- Observe events around us—the rain falling, the dog barking, and the garbage truck driving by.

Level 2- Observe our direct experience of events. It’s raining, and I am wet. The dog’s barking is loud. The unpleasant smell of the garbage truck.

Level 3- Observe our internal state. I notice disappointment that it’s raining. I am delighted to see the dog. The garbage truck reminds me that I forgot to take out my trash, and I feel anger rising.

Level 4- Observe our listening. A stranger asks for directions. I pause and ask her to repeat the question. In a split second, I notice my listening. I set aside rising anger, disappointment, and delight. I now pay attention to the question.

2. Practicing “Coming Back”

The practice of coming back involves distinguishing between focus and concentration.

  • Focus is the span of attention or staying present.
  • Concentration is the depth of attention or staying grounded.

The practice of coming back supports both being present and staying grounded by focusing the mind on a single object, to the exclusion of other objects, to foster concentration on a single task. To practice, we notice distracting thoughts or sensations that arise, then gently return awareness to the primary object of experience (the breath, a word or conversation, etc.).

3. Learning To “Not Know”

The three hardest words to utter may be “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty on the other side of our opinions and judgments. Paradoxically, freedom and openness emerge from that uncertainty.

To expand beyond what we already know, we practice letting go of the need to know, to prove, or to explain. We allow for unexpected discoveries.

— Listening for knowledge seeks certainty: the fixed and predictable. We are located in our head and thinking about, or intellectualizing, events.

— Listening from wisdom involves questioning knowledge. With humility and uncertainty, we experience events, using all our senses by tuning into our breath and body.

More importantly, avoid turning something new into something known. This reduces “differences” to similarities. Embrace each moment with a fresh perspective.

This learning is a fulcrum we revisit for cultivating deep listening. Using practices one and two, we become open to “learning to not know” to develop conditions for the next practice (4) and learning (5).

4. Practicing Resistance Training

The word resistance conjures thoughts and emotions that can be unsettling: confront, conflict, challenge, battle, defiance, oppose, or endure. Given our thoughts and feelings about resistance—either as resisting others or as experiencing resistance fromDOWNLOAD PDF

Commitment: A Context and Practice

Commitment is a universal element in life. While just speaking the word commitment can elicit confusion and angst, there’s no question about its importance in our lives. Everything from monthly bills to education, marriage, work, and goals depends on some level of commitment.

The challenge becomes distinguishing, cultivating, and deepening commitment, especially in times of volatile change and uncertainty.

With this post, I will examine a fuller understanding of commitment: first, to offer different views of commitment, then to explore it as a context with fundamental conditions, and finally, to address some of the challenges in cultivating a life-giving commitment.

Different Views

The research on commitment includes at least three broader views: psychological, philosophical, and Buddhist.

Psychological View

John Meyer and Natalie Allen published a three-component model of commitment in Human Resource Management Review (1991). The model distinguishes commitment as a psychological perspective toward an organization, with three components that affect how employees feel about the organization:

— Affection for job (affective commitment). Here, you feel a strong emotional attachment to your organization and to the work that you do. You may identify with the organization’s goals and values and want to be there.

— Fear of loss (continuance commitment). This type of commitment is achieved through a cost-benefit analysis; you weigh the pros and cons of leaving your organization. You may feel the need to stay at your job because the loss you’d experience by leaving it would be greater than the benefit you might gain in a new role.

— Sense of obligation (normative commitment). Here, commitment feels like an obligation: you are duty-bound to your organization, even if you’re unhappy in your role. You feel that you should stay with your organization because it’s the right thing to do.

Each option in this model offers a normative view, depending on some evaluative and external assessment as good, or better. Even so, each case seems insufficient to generate a commitment from within yourself to bring to work.

Philosophical View

A philosophical inquiry questions the relationship between freedom and commitment. Business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum highlights the importance of this inquiry:

“One of the gravest problems in life is self-limitation: We create defense mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom. We refuse to fulfill our potential. We live only marginally.”

We become less because we are unwilling to commit to our fullest potential. In his classic, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge dissects different views of commitment that reveal who we are regarding our potential.

  • Compliant. Here, we conform to others’ expectations. The attitude is “we do this because it’s our job.” As long as we finish the task, we are satisfied, even though more opportunity exists. We see no incentive to go the extra mile, which often entails creating more work.

Signs of compliance:

        1. Objectives are only completed at minimum standards.

        2. Meetings are attended but with limited participation.

        3. Input is acknowledged but nothing happens.

  • Enrolled. Here, we express ourselves, aligned with an organization’s purpose and the “spirit” of a vision or future. We see value in our participation and recognize our valuable contributions based on our experience, insight, and intuition.

Signs of enrollment:

1. People approach you instead of you looking for them. They proactively sign up for positions or tasks, and ask: “How can I help?”

2. They actively contribute in meetings, ask questions, and interject opinions.

  • Committed. Here, we do whatever it takes, becoming willing to make personal trade-offs and taking responsibility for co-creating reality. We put ourselves on the line in order to reach key objectives and goals to bring about a vision or future.

Signs of commitment:

1. Show up to meetings and events fully and prepared to contribute or seek out contributions from others.

2. Challenging assumptions and opinions based on expertise and skill sets.

3. Willing to break the rules after they have been learned.

Buddhist View

When we venture East, deep commitment becomes akin to a vow or a willingness to surrender to something larger than yourself. Commitment emerges from a compelling future that binds and guides us:

  • It can ground us and provide a sense of purpose.
  • It can provide direction in life.
  • It can give us something to serve.
  • It can help us evolve emotionally and in wisdom.
  • It can provide a context for making decisions.
  • It can prevent us from acting on unhealthy impulses.
  • It can unify the mind.

From this view, making a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that you will reap the desired result. The outcome of any commitment can involve conditions beyond your control. Therefore, you aren’t committing to a certain result—you are committing to a way of life, to showing up as your best effort. The reward comes from acting on your commitment.

Elements of Commitment as Context

We can begin to see commitment as more than a goal I achieve or a value I embrace to achieve goals: it is a context for viewing life that enlivens and animates me. Commitment as a context involves three fundamental conditions: choice, word, and stand. Each of these exists at three levels of awareness: life either happens to me, by me, or through me.

  • Choice: Intention from a level of consciousness. My relationship to “choice” is based on my level of consciousness.

1. Life happens to me. I am at the effect of life. Choosing occurs as reacting, mostly unconsciously (Senge’s “compliant” view).

2. Life happens by me. I make things happen. Choosing occurs asDOWNLOAD PDF

A New Direction and Challenge Awaits the New Year

A new year often heralds announcements. True to form, I wish to use this space to announce our new direction, which will begin to unfold this week.

About three years ago, our team realized through our teaching, research, and client services that conventional notions of leadership—even the more innovative versions—were failing to manage the effects of our pace of change and information overload.

We recognized that the disruptive nature of change—especially as it relates to coaches, educators, and executives (our client base)—and its unintended consequences demanded greater attention and inquiry.

Leadership development today requires more than strategies for dealing with product life cycles, supply chains, and scaling or mission statements that encourage employee retention and optimization of teams and systems.

The onslaught of information and frequency of change revealed another critical dimension to our work: the well-being of the colleagues and the wellness of the culture to transform a business into a community.

Through much research and inquiry, we explored becoming more.

New Direction: The Human Side of Change

We began with a shift in direction, guided by our clients. Most come to us for leadership development—yet, we have noticed a stronger focus on cultivating learning than on developing leadership. This includes the learning, unlearning, and openness required to navigate the effects of our information-laden world of volatile change.

Today, the nature of change demands that we pay attention to learning to learn and to coping with unlearning.

This learning-and-unlearning dynamic is necessary to cultivate the very openness required to develop leadership mindsets today—to release outmoded views and deepen the commitment for an inclusive and sustainable culture.

We view this as the human side of change, which involves a three-phase methodology:

  1. AWAKEN. An inquiry into your being as body, mind, and language.
  2. INTEGRATE. A transition that expands mindsets to include your whole self.
  3. SUSTAIN. A life of contemplative practice to sustain awareness and action.

This focus on the human side of change through deep learning will now become our “north star.”

This realization began with the task of changing our name, expanding our brand, and birthing an evolving story.

Our Brand

Our new brand involves three interrelated elements: our name, our symbol, and our tagline, which come together to tell our story.

Our new name, Bhavana Learning Group, speaks to several elements of our new direction.

Our new brand affirms our shift to include Eastern wisdom and practice as a fundamental part of who we are becoming.

Our Name

Bhāvanā is an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “to seed” or “to cultivate.” It’s derived from bhava, which means “being, a state of body or mind.” The Buddha himself chose the word bhāvanā to describe a process of cultivation: the development of mental qualities, such as imagination and awareness, directed toward intentional change.

Typically, the topic preceding bhāvanā is the focus of cultivation. Metta bhāvanā in Sanskrit means to cultivate kindness. At Bhavana Learning Group, we view our work as grounded in a commitment of becoming.

We support learners in cultivating the soil of awareness and seeding intentional change as they develop the leadership to serve their colleagues and organizations within our field of learning.

Our Symbol

The symbol that accompanies the name embodies two messages.

The first message is represented by an image of the contemplative labyrinth.

The labyrinth was originally created by the Greek king Minos to keep the Minotaur (the part-man, part-bull beast) confused and therefore contained.

Today, the walking or meditation labyrinth is widely used in parks and public spaces of sacred reflection or practice. It is no longer used to confuse but to help one navigate a path through contemplation. By meandering, we find ourselves at the center for clarity and enlightenment.

The Bhavana labyrinth exemplifies the deep reflective process and confusion-and-clarity journey that leads to transformation and expansion.

The second message is illustrated by an image of an emerging sprout.

The emerging sprout represents becoming, which is central to our work at Bhavana. It reveals the journey of wisdom and practice that leads to growth and expansion from being grounded in contemplative practice.

Through our services, study, resources, and practices, we trust that this symbol will come to represent the unique and focused personal commitment involved when working with the professionals at Bhavana Learning Group. 

Our Tagline

The story of our tagline may now be more apparent.

It clearly acts as a prescription of wisdom and practice for becoming, which represents a deep part of our commitment as demonstrated in our programs and services.

However, there’s another dimension that is often overlooked.

The work of distinguishing being extends beyond inspirational or sentimental moments that often lean toward the aspirational. When we considered these three words, we wanted to convey a both/and approach that cultivates an interdependent view—the notion that becoming rests both on wisdom and practice.

Wisdom involves what is most significant. Bringing wisdom into everyday living requires deep reflection and an openness to inquiry—of our experiences, their immediate impact, and unfolding connections and consequences.

Practice includes what is most fundamental. These are the basics we tend to forget—the pausing, breathing, or clear-minded observing that form disciplines we dismiss or avoid as we reach for the aspirational. Yet these disciplined practices ground our being and open us to the moment, to each choice. With practice, we cultivate consistency that conveys credibility. In fields of human mastery, such as art, music, and sports, practice shapes our competence and credibility and deepens our capacity to generate.

We endeavor to live our commitment to integrate Eastern wisdom and practices with Western learning and business models. Thriving in a world of volatile change requires continual learning and unlearning from both the significant (wisdom) and the fundamental (practice).

Our Work

Working with coaches, educators, and executives requires a clear-eyed focus on human potential and the human side of change.

Expanding leadership capacity today requires a cultural awareness from an interdependent mindset. With contemplative practice, we can embody learning and unlearning to expand views, question knowledge, andDOWNLOAD PDF

Silent Night, Wholly Life

As we end another year, it seems natural to reflect on it. We take inventory, question assumptions, and pause. The notion of reflection requires a relationship with silence, a willingness to cultivate and appreciate moments of silence.

Silence can be a confusing topic—it may also be our best teacher.

In working with clients — coaching, and facilitating practice and meditation sessions — the idea of sitting in silence has surfaced, with appreciation for some and anxiety for many.

Some professionals become anxious in silence. They may not know themselves without the many distractions that invade our minds. Technology and related chatter are becoming systematically woven into our identity to alter our expectations.

For others, silence may reveal much: perhaps experiences they’ve identified with and would rather leave aside or perhaps doubts, insecurities, or fears from now or long ago. In silence, some may be confronted by waves of sadness.

Even with these reservations, I’ve found that most professionals wish to experience and increase moments of silence during mindfulness practice. That silence is key to increasing awareness and recovering our memory of the whole self. 

 Mental and Emotional Demands

Learning to engage silence may be the hidden gem of our modern day. Our lives involve interacting with mental and emotional demands, larger in quantity and frequency than ever in human history.

Mental Demands involve the degree to which you must exert mental effort to complete tasks at home and work. The fast pace and overload of our distracting lives require us to sustain the effort to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment. This takes energy that can drain us.

Consider how language shapes our affective life as well. New terms, acronyms, symbols, and concepts impact systems, processes, tasks, and applications with more updates and upgrades—all of which have become essential just to “prepare to work.”

Emotional Demands involve our affective lives. These include absorbing an exacting saturation of information: an avalanche of opinions, ideas, and attitudes from different perspectives and viewpoints that cascade without the time to decompress or recover to reflect.

Increasing amounts of content trigger anxiety and emotions that require a release. The everydayness of life—meetings, reports, traffic, packed subways, email/text messages, and reacting to comments, notifications, and emojis—activates emotions that shape our affective lives.

Silence offers the possibility of venturing beyond our preoccupations. Only quieting the mind can access the depth beyond the surface rhythm of life that shapes our views: our imagination, creativity, spiritual connection, and deep learning arising from insights tucked below.

Normalizing Noise

In his book Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, author and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explores the types of noise we consume. With awareness of noise, we can focus on something bigger than ourselves. (This brief video offers an instructive summary.)

Creating silence requires that we investigate the question, what is noise? Examining this question ventures beyond the auditory. Noise exists in both tangible and mental forms:

— Continual bells, dings, and pings of notifications pull us from any intended task.

— Pop-ups on websites, emojis, signs, symbols, snap-chats, and texts assault us, demanding a response.

— Commercials seed our minds through pop-up screens, billboards, grocery bags, park benches, and even receipts.

— Acronyms now crawl across our screens to convey and confuse us with vast details and information.

— Newsy-entertainment now monetizes attention, baits for clicks, and addicts us emotionally.

— Programmers engineer phone apps and social media to hook our attention (see 60 Minutes clip “Brain Hacking or, if international, this link).

— Small print agreements and warnings gild gadgets and services to convey risks and rights.

— TV narrators warn of the side effects and conditions of prescription drugs.

— Lights glow—bright, flickering, or subtle—in rooms creating “moods” that cloud perceptions.

— Multiple TV screens and channels line the walls in bars, restaurants, airports, and coffee shops, “entertaining us” while we eat, drink, or rest.

— Shelves full of clutter and trinkets fill space and grab our attention.

— Ruminations churn inside us as we fixate on assumptions, judgments, beliefs, or conditions.

Navigating the labels, signs, and signals often prevent us from enjoying the direct experience of life’s little pleasures. As you notice the noise, reflect on where you might reduce its tangible and mental forms.

Rescuing Our Attention

Noise pollutes our mind, mesmerizes us, and steals pieces of our attention. Like the low hum of an air conditioner, it becomes normal. Over time it fragments the self, increasing anxiety. Then one day, the AC is off, and we experience clean silence: our eyes rest, attention dwells, and listening expands.

In the silence, something new emerges.

In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford offers silence as “a luxury good”:

In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls and no TVs. This silence . . . is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax and after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts.

Crawford rightly notes that “because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back, you’re going to have to pay for it.”

From silence, we experience what is often ignored, unspoken, or not yet sorted out.

Adding silence in a conversation often leaves others sorting through deeper thoughts beyond reflexive or automatic responses. Managing the silence can be a struggle, as it invites the ultimate surrender: to give up control and accept the unpredictable.

Most of us avoid silence in a conversation, either to avoid the discomfort of another’s struggle or to satisfy our impatience for a quick answer.DOWNLOAD PDF

Move Fast and Break Things: Had Enough, Yet!?

“Move Fast and Break Things,” coined by innovation guru and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, has become the ideology for disruptive innovation.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and PayPal and a venture capitalist, endorses it in his new book Blitzscaling. For Hoffman, “blitzscaling” (or moving fast and breaking things) involves releasing beta versions of products, then fixing and financing them as you grow—with an emphasis on scaling fast and first—to achieve first-mover advantage.

Go Big or Go Home

First-mover advantage confers many benefits on innovators who win rights to new territory and define the rules, roles, and routes. Gaining this edge creates markets beyond market share, and it does so in the image of those arriving first.

Those who have arrived are BIG: Facebook has defined social media; Google, the search engine; Amazon, online shopping; and Airbnb and Uber, room- and ride-sharing. Together, they’ve defined a “gig economy,” the realization of the Break Things ideology.

From Hoffman’s perspective, speed trumps accuracy, and whatever breaks can be the next avenue to innovation—until it’s not!

Breaking Fast, Breaking Bad

Recent effects of the Break Things ideology were addressed in a 2017 book by Jonathan Taplin: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Taplin’s basic thesis is that Silicon Valley increasingly resembles “some kind of nightmarish children’s playground, populated by overgrown babies with no idea of the consequences of their actions.”

We’re going to be living with the aftermath of this ideology for years to come.

  1. Take Google-owned YouTube. Numerous times last year, it was found to be distributing and promoting disturbing videos to children. YouTube repeatedly vowed to address the problem, and it repeatedly failed.
  2. Then there’s Google’s recently acknowledged security hole in its Google+ social network and its admission that it had fired 48 people for sexual harassment over the last two years. 
  3. Facebook chucked any notion that it had privacy and security standards. Lapses include the Russia-linked 2016 election manipulation and the recent hacking that exposed the personal information of 30 million users, part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s worse, this rolling disaster has begun unraveling our social cohesion, undermining the company’s mission to strengthen social bonds. Breaking things means demolishing democratic and civic norms. Facebook’s response: they cannot police their own platform because they’ve grown too big, too fast.
  4. Twitter grew fast as a news feed, without the editors or regulation to ensure quality. Because it is so widely dispersed among nations, societies, and cultures, it cannot monitor posts, regulate bots, or manage its platform. Twitter lagged behind Apple, YouTube, and Facebook in banning Alex Jones of Infowars. It responded only after criticism from users mounted and journalists presented evidence of its failure to enforce its own terms of use. Twitter’s response was akin to Facebook’s: We’ve grown too big to monitor our platform.
  5. In addition to Uber’s numerous scandals, both Uber and Lyft have been sanctioned for flouting local laws and local sensibilities in their rush to seize local markets. This also spawned mini-violators such as scooter rental companies Lime and Bird (scooters have ended up blocking sidewalks and entryways, causing an uproar among non-scooter-using citizens.) Uber and Lyft not only broke ordinances that arguably protected the entrenched taxi industry, but they also contributed to increased traffic and massively depressed the wages of taxi drivers.
  6. Airbnb began breaking rental markets. A recent report by David Wachsmuth, a professor of urban planning at McGill University, examines what home-sharing is doing to New York City, presaging what other cities might expect. Airbnb raised rents that removed housing from the rental market and supercharged gentrification while discriminating against guests and hosts of color. Commercial operators transformed Airbnb from a way to help homeowners occasionally rent out an extra room into a purveyor of creepy, makeshift hotels.

A Broken Ideology

The Break Things ideology finds us scaling incompetence and only becoming competent when necessary, on the customer’s dime. This narrow strategy may work in Silicon Valley, where upgrading code is commonplace or where start-ups need to secure venture capital to go public in 24 months, but this impulsive mindset has real costs that we’ll be paying for a long time to come.

Facebook’s motto is no longer “Move Fast and Break Things,” but the results of that mentality are baked in. What Facebook didn’t realize is that moving fast can break things other than software code—it can undermine society and democratic norms.

View this 60 minutes clip — Brain Hacking (or, if international, this article) on how Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, as examined by a former Google product manager.

As we’ve seen repeatedly, when you’re moving fast, you don’t have any time for reflection or to listen, learn, and gain perspective. You don’t have time to think about what exactly you might be breaking or the larger social consequences of what you’re doing.

Additionally, there’s even less time for public officials or the rest of society to catch up and monitor these occurrences.

The danger and consequences of the Break Things ideology reach well beyond Facebook, because the mentality was adopted everywhere and is still being promoted. The assumptions woven into our imagination have reinvented how we view business, success, public good, and leadership.

View of Business

The downside of scaling has spiraled into a focus on short-term thinking and win-at-all-costs tactics. This mindset conflates opportunism with opportunities. The former reacts impulsively to marketDOWNLOAD PDF

Distinguishing Compassion from Sympathy and Empathy

Being of service often requires a deep connection to human experiences. Ever notice how we live with the words that describe such experiences? Of late, I’ve observed words such as sympathy, empathy, or compassion employed to describe political leaders in certain situations. Usually, terms are bandied about by commentators or casual observers, so I let them pass.

But as professionals in the human experience, I find it critical for coaches, counselors, educators, and even consultants to more critically observe what each situation requires. Do we see a need to show sorrow, to relate to another’s experience, or to reduce suffering?

To explore this territory, I will begin with sympathy, then explore empathy, and finally distinguish compassion from both. Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek word pathos, which means “suffering, feeling.”

Pity and Sympathy

To develop sympathy, first, let’s explore pity, which can often be confused for sympathy.

Pity is a feeling of sadness or commiseration for someone who is either worse off than you or is worse off than some normative standard, which is why you can pity yourself.

Very few people want to be pitied, yet at times we do just that—or we pity ourselves. When you listen to someone’s suffering and respond with “poor you,” you have just pitied them.

Sympathy entered the English language in the mid-1500s and became used to convey feelings of regret or sorrow for someone else who is experiencing hardship. We often see this in messages of support and sorrow for others in a time of need (e.g., “my sympathies”). You feel bad for them and express sorrow, but you can’t personally relate.

The World of Empathy

Introduced in the late 1800s, the word empathy has come to refer to the capacity to imagine oneself in a situation with another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. This reflects either an emotional or cognitive empathy, described as follows.

Emotional empathy consists of three separate components. To quote Sara D. Hodges and Michael D. Myers from the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology:

  • “The first [component] is feeling the same emotion as another person . . .
  • The second component, personal distress, refers to feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight . . .
  • The third emotional component, feeling with another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology.”

Cognitive empathy is also known as “empathic accuracy.” Hodges and Myers discuss it as “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels.”

Cognitive empathy is more like a skill that is developed to better understand another’s perspective, such as their attitudes, worldview, or ideas. We have found a strong correlation between listening skills and the ability to access this form of empathy.

Unlike sympathy, empathy isn’t just used for unpleasant feelings. You can empathize with someone’s happiness, too.

This leads us to compassion.


When researching this blog, I found compassion often used to describe pity, sympathy, and even both types of empathy. This reveals our confusion about compassion, which can be traced to an unclear definition.

Fundamentally, compassion is composed of com (together with) and passion (to suffer).

Tapping into 2,600 years of Buddhist wisdom, we can deepen our understanding of the practice of compassion —“to suffer with”— from a more common psychological view that tends to sound much like empathy and sympathy.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh views compassion as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.” According to Hanh, “we [must] practice mindfulness, deep listening, and deep looking” to develop compassion.

Thus, we associate compassion with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object, in the self or in others.

With sympathy, I feel for your hardship; with empathy, I share your emotions. With compassion, I can share your suffering and elevate it into a universal “common humanity” and transcending experience.

The relationship to suffering begins with understanding the truth—or true nature—of one’s own suffering or the suffering of another. This requires three elements: self-compassion, common humanity, and mindfulness.

1 – Self-compassion

If we are unable to be with our own suffering, we cannot be with another’s. This requires an awareness that discerns between being judgmental and being kind. Self-compassion invites us to be gracious, warm, and caring toward ourselves when we fail, suffer, or become disappointed.

The practice begins with becoming aware of our own suffering, expectations, and imperfections without judging them as negative thoughts about ourselves.

Author and researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D. Neff suggests that “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”

Neff has also distinguished Self-Compassion from Self-pity, Self-indulgent and Self-esteem, and she offers a special piece on Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion.

2 – Common Humanity

Kristen Neff beautifully describes this notion of common humanity, distinguishing it from self-pity.

“While self-pity says ‘poor me,’ self-compassion recognizes suffering is part of the shared human experience. The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain that you feel in difficult times. The triggers are different, the circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience is the same.”

3 – Mindfulness

Understanding common humanity and practicing self-compassion requires our willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity with mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is a non-reactive awareness that cultivates a receptive mind to observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. This openness also loosens the grip that thoughts have on us and our ability to reify those thoughts. See our blog on Mental Hygiene.

Idiot Compassion.

Often, the compassionate thing to do may notDOWNLOAD PDF

The Growth of Coaching Spawns Critical Differences

When working with coaches and executives, I am often asked about differences in types of coaching, such as life coaching, executive coaching, and leadership development. Are these just branding gimmicks to charge higher fees? Do these require different training? How do I know which one I need?

Until recently, the field of coaching didn’t vary too much. What was clear was that coaching operated outside the conventional medical model, which views the client as an ill patient with a diagnosis in need of treatment or symptom relief.

While coaching acknowledged some serious mental illnesses that benefit from clinical psychology or skillful psychotherapy, it offered relief for others. It worked with many people that were lumped together, labeled, and treated for what were really “problems in living”—situations or circumstances that did not need a diagnosis or assume a pathology.

This was a healthy turn that informed the revolution of coaching, and so, life coaching emerged.

The history and evolution of coaching in the last two decades—as a method, product, and service—has mirrored the evolution of change and has produced different roles and expectations.

A Brief History…

According to coaching historian Vikki Brock, “in the 1990s when coaching gained popularity and media attention, we [saw] the rise of training programs and professional associations serving the coaching community.”

Much of Brock’s research speaks to three waves of coaching: prior to 1995, from 1995 to 2010, and after 2010. As she says:

coach training schools grew from 2 in 1990 to 8 in 1995, to 164 in 2004. Professional coach associations grew from 0 in 1990 to 12 in 2004, with annual coaching conferences growing from 0 to 16 by 2003. The whole concept of coaching culture came into being about that time and by 2004 was a term commonly used in business.

Brock’s view of this evolution is based on the consolidation of the market, increased competition, dissemination by the mainstream media, and the emergence of schools, associations, and standards.

I find her three waves to coincide with shifts in how the coaching field focused its efforts and impact. Each focus seemed to trail Brock’s waves by about five years.

  1. Life coaching, in the late 1980s and 1990s, peaking at about 2000 (following Brock’s first wave). It focused primarily on the methodology for increasing results in several domains of human life.
  2. Performance coaching emerged around 2000, marking Brock’s second wave. It focused primarily on productivity; much of this framed as business or executive coaching.
  3. Leadership development (or leadership coaching) emerged in 2015 to deal with disruptive change. At this point, the primary reason that organizations or businesses hired a coach was to cultivate the mindset of a leader to distribute leadership and develop a leadership culture throughout an organization.

As we close 2018, this shift will continue. Research from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) has revealed this trend (see graph below and “Specialty” table later in the blog).

Life Coaching

  • Focus: Implement a healthy design for various domains of life.
  • Training: Coaching model and method.
  • Expectation: Increase competency in a specific domain of life.

Life Coaching applied the powerful model and methodology to a domain of life, such as career, wellness, relationship, small business, etc. Instead of learning a body of concepts via formal education, coaches train in and practice a body of distinctions, delivered to expand perceptions and open possibilities for new action.

According to Fernando Flores, distinctions are not names of objects or definitions of terms. “They distinguish something or make it stand out from everything else and to bring it to our attention.” These subtleties of language, when internalized, cause a shift in a belief, behavior, value or attitude.

In this view, a coach adopts the model and learns the methodology to hold clients accountable to realizing different views and results for that domain of life.

Unlike the medical model or other problem-solving interventions, life coaching began with the premise that people have the answers and that the coach’s role is to help them overcome internal resistances and interferences. Life coaching sought to place inquiries about personal growth into a context of healthy life design, rather than a problem-solving context that diagnosed pathologies. It offered an option for those who had nowhere to turn but therapists, seminars, or self-help books.

As a craft or profession, coaching also required that coaches become coachable—that they operate from this model, not just issue concepts, knowledge, or advice. This required adopting a view that focused on the future and implementing practices and personal mastery that deepened listening, and surfaced critical questions to develop a high level of commitment, action, and accountability.

In short, coaches are trained to embody the coaching model and methodology.

Executive Coaching

  • Focus: Goal-oriented, skills-based approach to enhance performance.
  • Training: Coaching model and method, plus business knowledge, skillsets, and competencies as well as training in assessment tools.
  • Expectation: Integrate skills or expand competencies to increase performance.

After the turn of the century, coaching intersected with the central professional demands: to enhance performance in the face of change. The model and methodology supported more than strategies for life design—they supported peak performance. Performance coaching emerged to help coaches identify and develop clients’ strengths.

Through deep listening, challenging questions, critical feedback, and guidance, performance coaches revealed hidden potential and then worked with clients on practices to sustain it.

Also called business or performance coaching, the term executive coaching soon emerged to help senior managers, leaders, and directors learn to expand skills and competencies that improved their performance.

Developed in 1979, the GROW Model (Goal, Reality, Options, Will,DOWNLOAD PDF

Becoming the Leader of a Learning Culture, part 2

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today, as addressed in my last blog. I explored ideas by the authors and developed a framework that identified and examined some of the thinking and areas of focus for developing a learning organization.

In that blog, we discussed five disciplines for creating a learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Additionally, we explored ways to dissolve three frozen thinking patterns: reactiveness, competitiveness, and fragmentation.

In sum, we noted the dimensions of a learning culture that require a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.

Commitment is Key

Before cultivating leadership can occur, a learning community or culture must begin with commitment. Recall the name of the authors’ paper. Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. It is more than the time or finances invested, and it transcends goals, achievements, or sentimental compliments.

We often view commitment as something external or outside of us—something we do or accomplish. Our view of commitment requires nothing less than a new paradigm.

Buddhism’s view of commitment is a vow to embrace, as a way of life, who we are, how we live, how we show up. Commitment empowers us to act in the face of our fears and justifications to face whatever we are experiencing, now, in the moment.

In the Buddhist view, a commitment to something larger than satisfying our desires can provide us with a sense of purpose that can be very comforting and calming and can guide us.

Why Commitment?

The inquiry into learning initiates a profound and messy inquiry into the nature of being human in an organizational context. Learning is fraught with issues of fear and need, wrapped up with our identity. Much of this involves the way learning confronts knowing: what we know, who we know ourselves to be, and the openness required to be a beginner and to say, “I don’t know.”

The three hardest words for leaders to utter are “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty that marks this time in our organizational lives.

Until leaders become more comfortable with not knowing, learning will occur as a threat. This is where cultivating commitment is a fundamental first step to establish a context bigger than our personality, or identity.

Commitment grounds the journey of becoming a learning community. It supports the leadership to 1) generate a shared commitment within the organization and 2) to tap the individual commitment of all participants.

Commitment provides a larger context to create the possibility of learning, offering a way to dissolve the fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness (see last blog) that tend to impede learning.

Developing Commitment

I offer a three-dimensional view of commitment that supports what’s possible in a learning culture, community, or organization.

  1. A personal commitment can supplant any fear of learning or change or personal needs and desires, which can involve how we look or our need to impress, perform well, or do the right thing. In this sense, commitment taps into our character, which is more timeless and value-based than timely and style-based.
  2. A shared commitment offers participants membership in an organization or culture that provides a larger perspective to guide our individual concerns. In this sense, commitment is a matter of direction, linked to a purpose and a compelling future that we are co-creating together.
  3. A commitment to change is described by the authors as a commitment “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” In this sense, commitment forms a crucible for change, stemming from a shared understanding that reflects a willingness to communicate, be accountable, and take the action that results from growth and development.

Given the depth of a shared commitment, when things get rough or when we experience setbacks, a grounded commitment that we can practice and generate offers us this inquiry to live by: “What does my commitment want from me right now?

Three Dimensions of Leadership

To hold commitment in this way requires leadership. The authors of Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations offer a three-dimensional view of leadership to cultivate learning communities. These three dimensions include leaders as Designers, Teachers, and Stewards.

Leaders as Designers

This first dimension of leadership for a learning community involves “leader as designer.” This speaks to becoming a context-creator. Conventional learning involves content, but members in a learning community learn to appreciate context as follows:

  1. Designers build a foundation of purpose and core values (governing ideas) to create future. This future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening leaders design with others from a possibility.
  2. Designers develop policies, strategies, and structures that translate governing ideas into action. Designers co-create a shared commitment through enrolling others into a future in each activity, goal, and process they engage.
  3. Designers develop learning methods and practices that involve coordinating action and collaborating on high-performing teams to achieve goals or to serve others. This practice translates both to working together optimally and belonging to a shared commitment.
  4. Designers shamelessly integrate learning into the organization, not seen merely as the latest fad, tactic, technique, or fix. Today, the idea of learning is analogous to how we viewed IT two decades ago. Back then, the MISDOWNLOAD PDF

Becoming the Heart of a Learning Culture, part 1

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self-esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?” 

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.

These questions persist today.

I will devote two blog posts to the authors’ vision of a learning organization. This first blog details some of the elements and challenges. In my next blog, I will focus on the kind of leadership required to cultivate and sustain such an environment.

Commitment to Learning and Change

In their groundbreaking paper, Senge and Kofman envision a “Galilean shift” of mind that details challenges and changes in individual values and organizational culture.

The paper resulted from theories, models, and practices outlined in their 1990 management text, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, which presaged the 1994 release of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as “one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years.”

The inquiry into learning initiates a deep and messy journey into being human in an organizational context. The authors identify five disciplines for cultivating learning cultures and reveal three frozen thinking patterns we must dissolve rather than solve.

A genuine commitment to change questions the difference between changing a symptom and revealing a root cause. We open new inquiries, confront our ignorance, and question our assumptions. This view of learning ventures beyond problem-solving. Two of Senge’s 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline alert us to the limits of reactive problem-solving.

  • Law #1: “today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions.’”
  • Law #4: “the easy way out usually leads back in.”

From this inquiry, we discover that learning isn’t a mystery, strategy or problem-solving technique. It begins with a commitment – a commitment to rediscovering what it means to be a learner.

Five Disciplines

These five disciplines serve to cultivate capabilities for creating a “learning organization,” as quoted briefly from the book:

1 – “Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision: focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.”

For Senge, personal mastery is fundamental: it points to our capacity for self-awareness, to observe and listen well to express our needs and expectations. Generally, people with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. Personal mastery is not something you possess—it is a practice, a lifelong discipline.

2 – “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”

Senge speaks to the effect that mental models have on our behavior. With this discipline, we start turning the mirror inward, learning to reveal our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface, and hold them rigorously for scrutiny.

For Senge, mental models are essential to “focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings” in perceptions.

3 – “Building shared vision practices unearth shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.”

Senge’s word choices are significant: future, commitment, and enrollment.

  • The future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an openness that reveals possibilities that we cultivate with others in a field of alignment.
  • We enroll others into a future by encouraging and inviting them to share this possibility as their own, in their lives, in their desire for a future.
  • Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. The authors discuss commitments “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” Ultimately, we generate a commitment to something bigger than ourselves.

A “shared vision” ventures beyond leaders telling or decreeing their vision to others. It is the capacity to hold a shared picture with others of the future we seek to create together. When cultivated through others, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation.

4 – “Team learning starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine ‘thinking together.'”

Senge posits how a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63. The discipline of team learning confronts this paradox. He points to “dialogue” as the context for genuine “thinking together.” To the Greeks, dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.

Senge’s thinking is informed by David Bohm, who has written beautifully about the “need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds onto or otherwise defends his own ideas.”

5 – “Systems thinking is the Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.”

Senge now suggests a new view: systems thinking discloses that there is no outside object – that the causes of your problems are part of a single system.

We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near one another. Thus, when faced with a problem, we focus on the “solutions” that are close by. When we fail to grasp the systemic source of problems, we are left to “push on” symptoms rather than dissolve the frozen thinking of the underlying cause.

Three Frozen Patterns

While Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations predicts a future that has largely unfolded, it also alerts us to three “frozen thinking patterns.”

Our immersion in technological change and focus on economicDOWNLOAD PDF

These 3 Conditions Will Cultivate Our Attention

Space. Silence. Stillness. Three conditions that seem most valuable yet fleeting today.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, coping in a fast-paced and complex world of change requires doses of the inverse to recover our attention and sustain any equilibrium:

  • Space to counter an abundance of complexity and saturation of information.
  • Silence to counter the uncertainty (exterior) and ambiguity (interior) that result from changing realities that challenge our self-perception.
  • Stillness to cultivate openness and expand perceptions to be with the unpredictable.

Demands of Our Affective Life

Simply maintaining any sense of equilibrium first requires acknowledging our current pace of change and unease. The demands on our minds’ “affective life” today is akin to demands on our physical lives in the Agrarian or Industrial Ages.

Our current level of mental complexity begets a fragility that requires more than tweaking skills, adding apps, or coping better by adding vacations.

We are not seeking to become more efficient or effective with the quantity of output. Ours is an inquiry into the quality of input, of the contemplative practices that enhance inner ecology for living-in-the-world as we do.

The quality of our attention is the quality of our life.

Opening ourselves to be with demands—quantitative, emotional, and mental—without increasing anxiety requires an internal view that cultivates conditions such as space, silence, and stillness.

Space for Recovery

Quantitative Demands – We find ourselves doing more tasks in less time. The saturation of a 24/7 world—media, newsfeeds, and changing work functions—create a rolling overload. The added pressure result in a hurried and frazzled state at home and work. The issue involves seeing through time to space.

Leveraging every moment of time will give way to creating space by authentically reviewing your calendar. Begin by not booking back-to-back meetings, calls, or events. Ironically, the notion that time is money may be costing you.

The Stuff of Space

Grasping the importance of space requires exploring all the ways we fill space. Thus, we can begin to let go of items to cultivate our attention with new practices. Consider the following points, revised from a blog on freeing up mental space.

  1. Declutter Your Physical Environment. Stuff in our physical space pulls our minds to things undone, or things to do, which can overwhelm us. Items alert our minds to an endless list of things to do, causing exhaustion. Decluttering extends to your home, desk, office, car, backpack, briefcase, etc.
  2. Write It Down. Capture items with a tool (app, notepad, etc.), and use your calendar to place things “reliably in existence.” Using memory to hold items costs us critical bandwidth, creates frustrations and fixates our brains on remembering rather than relaxing or dwelling.
  3. Keep a Journal. Like #2, a journal helps us reflect on life, relieve concerns, and sort out thoughts and perspectives on daily activities, setbacks, accomplishments, or disappointments. A special kind of learning happens from reflecting on experiences and events to gain a fresh perspective on issues, capture new thoughts, and allow for insights.
  4. Let Go of the Past. Dealing with unexamined items from our pasts may cause provisional pain, but left unexamined, they can cause splinters of suffering through the day that slow us down and leave us diminished. Completing items (see this blog) can support us in letting go.
  5. Stop Multi-Tasking. Much has been studied about the fallacy that multi-tasking increases productivity or leverages time. At best, we remain at surface thinking, unable to focus deeply on anything, and at worst, we lose as much as 40% of our productivity. Multi-tasking normalizes a frenetic or frazzled state that leaves us needing to multi-task.
  6. Reduce Consumption of Information. This requires determining if your consumption adds to your quality of life. Spam junk email and trash anything not worthwhile. Unsubscribe from any blogs, newsletters, magazines or social media distracting you from your deepest commitments. Create a hard limit on news consumption.
  7. Be Decisive. Often, we have a simple choice in life: being right or being decisive. The need for the former often impedes the latter. Being decisive allows us to choose, move, and create. Even if we are wrong from time to time, we are nonetheless decisive and powerful. Practice choosing in the face of worry, considerations, or confusion.
  8. Put Routine Decisions on Auto-Pilot. Determine which routines can be made automatic. Small, routine tasks that occupy your brain space include deciding what to eat for breakfast or lunch or deciding what you’re going to wear. Create templates and lists for routine tasks such as grocery shopping. Use EFT/auto-pay to manage funds, payments, and bills, and use smart cards to fund or auto-refill cards or accounts.
  9. Prioritize. Often when confronted by choosing, we make the worst choice possible: avoid choosing. To support choosing, we learn to let go of to-do lists and schedule tasks on our calendar. We view tasks (all lists) inside larger goals (to prioritize tasks) and link those goals to a purpose that clarifies direction. Purpose and direction help us let go of unnecessary tasks and ungrounded to-do lists.
  10. Create Space. Place 15 minutes between long calls and meetings. Become a warrior for this space to regroup or reflect. It can help you to pace yourself and manage your needs before entering the next event. When we add space, we begin to appreciate the impact of clutter or compression on our attention.

Silence for Renewal

Mental Demands – This is the degree to which you must exert mental effort to complete tasks at home and work. The fast pace and overload of our distracting lives require us to sustain the effort to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment. This takes energy that can drain us.

Consider how language shapes our affective life as well. New terms, acronyms,DOWNLOAD PDF

Collaboration: A World Beyond Transacting Business

Collaboration is the buzzword in our business culture.

Leaders, team members, managers, and coaches all want us to collaborate. Interestingly, the term seems to engender immediate agreement. But what does it mean to collaborate? Even more importantly, what does it mean to be collaborative?

If we dig into its synonyms a bit, we find words such as mutual, cooperative, cooperate, joint, collective, shared, united, and common.

Yet, in practice I find people claiming to be collaborative from a more sentimental or technological approach:

  • Sentimental: having conversations, getting together, connecting, and discussing.
  • Technological: setting up an app to capture data and information to “transact business.”

Both approaches seem casual and woefully incomplete, having less to do with cooperating than with transacting or discussing items.

To Collaborate (As A Skill)?

The word collaboration comes from the Latin collaborare, meaning “work together” (mid-19th century).

This origin satisfies the question of what it is to collaborate: to work together.

As a coach and researcher, I find that our 21st-century demands require an expanded definition when working with leaders and executives: to co-create a shared or mutual understanding that allows for coordinating action together.

Today, we must include shared or mutual understanding as the background for true collaboration. Why? Simply because we are cooperating within the context of an Information Age, where interpretation is key to co-creating.

Without a shared understanding, we will rely on our individual interpretations, and perhaps outdated assumptions  that create missteps and make it difficult, often impossible, to “work together.”

Additionally, working together today involves coordinating action. Think about this. What is it you do with others that you do not do alone? Anytime we involve others, we do so with the intention of coordinating action; at minimum this means scoping out time, making agreements, and organizing and sharing information.

We do not just talk about stuff—we work together. We schedule meetings to discuss thoughts, we share documents to clarify priorities, we connect to develop plans or strategies, and we deliberate together to cultivate ideas that we could not have alone.

And, these activities happen within timeframes and deadlines, with information, and by involving others.

To make collaborating even more challenging and ripe for misinterpretation, we often perform these activities across communication platforms and cultures.

So, “to collaborate” today requires, at minimum, the ability to cultivate a shared meaning or understanding and to coordinate action, and that requires the ability to scope your time and manage yourself.

Collaboration is, therefore, a responsibility to yourself and to another.

To Be Collaborative (As A Mindset)?

Being collaborative takes this notion of collaboration to the next level, from a skill to a mindset. Mindsets involve who we are being, such as levels of awareness from a distinct capacity, worldview, assumptions, and beliefs. Different mindsets view skills and situations differently.

There’s been a leap in understanding mindsets, with fresh thinking and insights from theorists such as Ken Wilber, Nick Petrie, Susan Cook-Grueter, and Robert Kegan. Each has added research that distinguishes a collaborative mindset from the skill of collaboration.

The graphic below by Nick Petrie of the Center for Creative Leadership distinguishes being collaborative as a mindset from two previous mindsets: conformer and achiever. It also connects being collaborative to an interdependent worldview, as different from the two previous worldviews of dependent and independent.

Here, Petrie implies a larger claim: that a collaborative thinker or mindset involves more than merely working together. This mindset embraces an openness from an interdependent worldview that involves engaging multiple perspectives and holding contradictions, with an appreciation of systems, patterns and connections, and long-term thinking.

Developing the Collaborative Mindset

When examining the mindsets, an often-overlooked aspect involves how each of the previous mindsets contributes to the evolution of the next mindset. This points to a critical implication: we develop necessary assets in each mindset that pave the way for us to grow into the emerging mindset, even catalyzing the expansion.

Achieving collaboration requires successfully navigating the previous two mindsets: dependent–conformer and independent–achiever. Whether collaborating as a skill or becoming collaborative as a mindset, we require specific competency from each of these previous two mindsets—that is, to expand (our perception) and include (previous assets).

Dependent–Conformer: We gain many skills from this mindset. The three that help us as a collaborator include 1) becoming disciplined to focus and follow through, 2) developing your word as dependable to become a reliable team player, and 3) aligning with others. When properly developed, these competencies seed the possibility of collaboration. The outcome at this level is becoming reliable.

Independent–Achiever: Leveraging the skills from the previous mindset is critical for expanding the capacity to collaborate. From this mindset we gain two competencies: 1) evolving a reliable word to become accountable to our word and be able to hold others accountable and 2) shifting from aligning with others (previous mindset) to coordinating action. This allows us to “work together.” We develop these assets from this mindset to become intentional.

Grid illustrates assets from each mindset to develop collaboration as a skill and mindset.

What It Means To Be Collaborative

So, from these previous mindsets we can develop skills to collaborate and evolve into a collaborative mindset.

Before exploring that collaborative mindset, however, let’s consider what has been gained from the previous two mindsets. We’ve developed the ability to:

  • become disciplined, with focus on follow-through,
  • become a reliable team-player with our word,
  • hold self and others accountable with a new level of intention, and
  • coordinate action effectively with others, which involves scoping time.

These aspects contribute to the skill of collaboration.

What we develop in the interdependent–collaborator mindset are additional skills of cultivating shared meaning. This makes sense from an interdependent worldview where we hold contradictions and multiple perspectives, discern patterns and appreciate differences.

In the collaborative mindset, leaders and managers not only work together but co-create conditions and context for working together.DOWNLOAD PDF

Integral Theory: Learning and Leadership, Part 2

In our last blog, I introduced Integral Theory, a meta-theory by Ken Wilber. His AQAL model and acronym include five elements: (four) quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types. As detailed in that last blog, each quadrant focuses our attention to observe and influence modes of inquiry.

This blog further distinguishes the Quadrants of Integral Theory and applies it to Learning and Leadership: two areas of development that impact organizational life today that might benefit from an integral perceptive.

Integral Theory

Briefly, Wilber’s AQAL model integrates five elements into an Integral Theory:

1- Quadrants: The four quadrants includes four perspectives (interior and exterior, individual and collective) that all phenomena possess.

2- Levels involve stage development, which offers the “structures of awareness,” or vertical development such as mindsets or attitudes. Each level embraces the previous level to expand structures to include more variables and complexity.

3– Lines of development are corollary to stages, offering a horizontal perspective of development. Each level consists of multiple lines of aptitude, akin to Gardner’s multiple intelligences, such as emotions (EQ), spirituality (SQ), intuition, interpersonal, self-identity, creativity, cognitive, kinesthetics, moral, etc.

4– States (of consciousness) involves an unfolding “space of awareness” that is fluid—as in a dream, wake, or altered states of consciousness —and moves through levels of awareness, from gross, subtle, and causal to non-dual awareness.

  • NOTE: States and Stages sound the same but stages involve structures of focus (more stable) and states involve space of awareness (more fluid).

5- Types involve typologies such as Meyer-Briggs, Keirsey, Enneagrams, the Big Five Personality test etc.

For Wilber, reality — all phenomenon — is not composed of things or processes, but of holons, which are wholes that are simultaneously parts of other wholes (whole/parts). This is true in the way a word is both, whole, onto itself, and part of a sentence; and that, a sentence is also whole, and part of a paragraph, and so on. The four quadrants reveal four dimensions of a holon (whole/part) when observing phenomenon and solutions. 

  • Upper Left: CONSCIOUSNESS: intention, phenomenology, ontology, psychotherapy, meditation, emotional intelligence, personal transformation
  • Upper Right: BEHAVIOR: epistemology, empiricism, scientific analysis, quality control, behavioral modification
  • Lower Left: CULTURE: multiculturalism, postmodernism, worldviews, corporate culture, collective values
  • Lower Right: SOCIETY: systems theory, social systems analysis, techno-economic modes, communication networks, systems analysis

Left-Right Tensions

Specifically, in our last blog, we explored how, businesses and leaders today, confuse the parts with the whole. For instance, how many conflate cultural awareness or lower left issues with lower right societal concerns or solutions. As a public policy example, police departments across the nation opted to deal with left-side concerns about police brutality by:

… putting cameras on police officers (lower right solution)

… to record and change behavior (upper right)

… rather than dealing with the racial fears (upper left)

… that form the culture (lower left) and drive actions (upper right).

Indeed, businesses are also being called to respond to issues emerging from the lower left cultural quadrant:

  1. Disney canceled the popular show Rosanne within hours of a racist tweet by its star, Roseanne Barr—not for low performance, ratings, or revenues (right side), but for racist remarks (left side) made in another venue.
  2. In recent weeks, five airlines sacrificed profit to stand against the U.S. government’s family separation policy. Each refused to transport separated, undocumented minors across our nation.
  3. Last year, the former CEO and co-founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was summarily dismissed and replaced by his board for fostering a culture that revealed sexist policies.

Each of these situations resulted not from poor revenue, bad ratings, low profit or lack of productivity. These right-side issues were trumped by left-side values and concerns, catching boardrooms and executives off-guard.

Integral Learning

This blog further distinguishes the Quadrants of Integral Theory and applies it to Learning and Leadership.

Learning can be most pernicious, as most educational institutions have designed learning from the right-side perspective of studying, teaching, and investigating. That perspective limits us to facts and evidence from empirical observations, which in business translates to researching, acquiring and managing knowledge.

But knowledge is more fungible and accessible now than ever before. We require a framework that expands beyond knowing to increase capacity in learning.

Researcher Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, a leading scholar in integral education, shares thoughts in his paper Integral Teacher, Integral Students, Integral Classroom: Applying Integral Theory to Education, which explores the strength each quadrant contributes to an integral learning experience.

With regard to learning, I offer this AQAL view that integrates our research in these areas:


This quadrant increases capacity. I embody learning and self-discovery through inquiry. Through increased awareness, I engage in contemplative inquiry, critical reflection, and somatic discovery.

The focus is on whether I am grounded: open to possibility, now, and present to my intention? Or, am I reacting to the past or anticipating the future?


This quadrant studies content. I study concepts and research knowledge to produce results. Through study, I engage in skillful action, practical application, and active observation.

The focus is on whether I am focused on distractions or study.


This quadrant discovers practices. We experience learning via deepening and uplifting engagements. Through discovery, we understand through connected encounters, perspectival embrace, and ethical participation.

We experience learning by cultivating shared experiences to clarify values and deepen shared commitment.


This quadrant processes knowledge. Technology and systems can improve how we learn together via efforts such as STEM, gamification, systems, and scenarios.

We share knowledge through connections enabled by processes, systems, and technology.

AQAL Model to distinguish Integral Learning.

Learning Tensions

Learning challenges that emerge often do so from confusion between left- and right-side observations and solutions. We tendDOWNLOAD PDF

Integral Theory: From Behaving to Belonging, Part 1

What do these issues — family-separation immigration policies, sexual harassment in business, and police brutality in our streets — have in common?

Consider that our evolving perceptions of these longstanding issues have created much uncertainty today.

We are experiencing a shift that expands societal systems to include cultural attitudes — a new lens through which to view everyday life. Ironically, the technology that connected us to real-time stories to expand our awareness also reveals a social-cultural awareness gap. We will dissect this gap in awareness later, specifically regarding police brutality.

To appreciate this shift, I recall a time when the term culture referred to more affluent interests such as a city’s symphony, museums, or literary scene. These structures promoted social cohesion without revealing the underlying community attitudes alive in the makeup of society.

Today, culture holds a rich significance in our complex social, political and work life.

Much of our shift in awareness involves old systems rubbing up against evolving attitudes. New perceptions confront our knowledge and historical contexts. Faster change with more variables requires larger contexts, or meta-theories, to make sense of our perceptions.

The next decade may become known as a time of meta-theories. Embracing integral (meta) theories will support us as we learn to learn again. As educators and learning specialists, we must become adept at thinking both as specialists and as generalists. Any integral theory bridges societal systems and cultural attitudes.  This dynamic of connecting process and paradigms rubs against our silo methods of doling out fragmented knowledge.

We’ll discuss this notion of meta-context in turn below.


One of the most powerful, potent and predictive meta-theories is Integral Theory by Ken Wilber. Not the only meta-theory, Wilber’s Integral Theory has, over four decades, assembled a consortium of academics, intellectuals, activists and community hubs.

As of 2014, the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, the major peer-reviewed journal in this field, included more than 50 disciplines using the integral model to reinterpret disciplines. Each employs this robust meta-framework to integrate all phenomena and find some truth in all views.

As Ken declares, “I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody…has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished and included in a more gracious, spacious and compassionate embrace.”

There are many aspects to Wilber’s Integral Theory, most fundamental is its AQAL model, which stands for All Quadrants, All Levels (lines, states and types). As a philosopher, Wilber is expansive; as a theorist, he is exacting. He entered the field of evolutionary theory in the ‘70s via the emerging field of transpersonal psychology, which integrates the transcendental (existential) aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology.

I discovered his work in 2004 when I was seeking more integral approaches to viewing paradigm shifts in evolution. An academic at the time, I found his work refreshing and sufficiently complex as a worthwhile critique for deep inquiry.

Of his dozens of books, Wilber’s thinking comes alive in Spectrum of Consciousness, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, and recent addition, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions.

Integral Theory, Briefly

It is impossible to delve into this entire framework in a blog. My intention here is to quickly review the theory and focus on an emerging and critical awareness gap between culture and society. In my next blog (part 2), I will explore how Integral Theory can affect learning and leadership.

Briefly, Wilber’s Integral Theory integrates these elements:

1- Quadrants: The four quadrants includes four perspectives (interior and exterior, individual and collective) that all phenomena possess.

2- Levels involve stage development, which offers the “structures of awareness,” or vertical development such as mindsets or attitudes. Each level embraces the previous level to expand structures to include more variables and complexity.

3Lines of development are corollary to stages, offering a horizontal perspective of development. Each level consists of multiple lines of aptitude, akin to Gardner’s multiple intelligences, such as emotions (EQ), spirituality (SQ), intuition, interpersonal, self-identity, creativity, cognitive, kinesthetics, moral, etc. 

4States (of consciousness) involves an unfolding “space of awareness” that is fluid—as in a dream, wake, or altered states of consciousness —and moves through levels of awareness, from gross, subtle, and causal to non-dual awareness.

  • NOTE: States and Stages sound the same but stages involve structures of focus (more stable) and states involve space of awareness (more fluid).  

5- Types involve typologies such as Meyer-Briggs, Keirsey, Enneagrams, the Big Five Personality test, etc.

Keys to Integral Theory

The brilliance of Wilber’s model is not its content but its context. He combines historical and contemporary Western theories and models from psychology, economics, and science with Eastern thought, from Buddhist precepts to Hinduism, Taoism and other mystic lineages. His work provides a new context for viewing and leveraging vast knowledge and wisdom, focusing on where each is most potent.

  1. Nothing is 100% right or wrong; Each theory or thinking model merely vary in their degree of incompleteness or potency. No one or nothing is 100% good or evil; they just vary in their degree of ignorance and disconnection. All knowledge is a work in progress.
  2. Leaps in evolution usually occur in a manner of “transcending and including,” not by wiping out what came before. For instance, the evolution of a single-cell organism did not wipe out molecules but included them in a greater order of complexity. Wilber asserts that this pattern of evolution occurs with all phenomena.
  3. Perception contains interior and exterior modalities, or Wilber’s solution to the mind-body problem in philosophy. You can cut open someone’s brain and track the neurons firing when they think about a cat, but which is real, the neurons firing or the thought about the cat? It depends on whom you ask.
  4. The problem arises when one conflates thoughtsDOWNLOAD PDF

The Time is Right for Servant Leadership

I am reposting a revised blog from February 2017, which seems even more relevant today.

A brief examination of headlines in business, government, and education reveals a focus on leadership that seems to intensify with each passing year. Over the last two decades, I’ve reviewed leadership theories, models, and styles, such as situational, functional, adaptive, generative, authentic, collective, collaborative, transformational, and authoritarian, to name a few.

Many of these offer valuable insights for our current Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) times. And it is possible to combine some of these models to develop an effective leadership profile to produce results and manage change. But the more I study, teach, and practice, the more I return to Servant Leadership as a natural model for inspiring humans to achieve together.

Inquiry into Servant Leadership

Servant leadership may be the most potent, personal, and public of all the models, as it has a deep history and embraces the full range of the human condition. There are passages related to servant leadership in the fifth-century Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-Tzu, who wrote,

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!'”

In modern history, servant-leaders such as GandhiMartin Luther KingNelson MandelaMother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama have led some of our most lasting movements without any formal role or authority.

The Meaning of Servant-Leadership

Our contemporary-day use of the term servant leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf, who worked 38 years at AT&T as Director of Management Development. He developed the world’s first corporate assessment center and was the first to promote women and Blacks to non-menial positions. He even brought in famous theologians and psychologists to speak about the wider implications of corporate decisions.

Greenleaf longed to move beyond the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in the US, and in 1964 he took an early retirement to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (first called the “Center for Applied Ethics”).

In his 1970 essay (and published book) titled “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf asserted the need for a new kind of leadership model—one that puts serving others, including employees, customers, and community, as the number-one priority. His central definition of servant leadership involves a “calling,” as follows:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” 

The test for this leadership is whether “those served, grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least, not be further deprived?”

Ten Key Precepts of Servant-Leadership

After carefully considering Greenleaf’s original writings, Larry Spears, former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, expanded the original ten precepts, which I’ve also revised.

  1. Listening. Traditionally, leaders have been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. Servant-leaders develop a deep commitment to listening intently and openly to others. They seek to identify and clarify the will or commitment of a group. Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s inner voice by tuning into one’s body/senses, mental states, and intuition/will.
  2. Empathy. Servant-leaders strive to understand and empathize with others. One must assume the good intentions of co-workers and not reject them as people, even when forced to reject their behavior or performance.
  3. Healing: Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing oneself—becoming comfortable and whole with oneself. From compassion and humility, these leaders cultivate an environment that promotes the well-being of others.
  4. Awareness. General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthen the servant-leader. Making a commitment to foster awareness can be scary—you never know what you may discover! As Greenleaf observed, “Awareness is not a giver of solace — it’s just the opposite. It disturbs. Servant-leaders are not seekers of solace. They have their own inner security.” These leaders embrace the very blind spots that become the source of new learning to lead and serve.
  5. Persuasion/Encouragement. Servant-leaders rely on persuading others, rather than positional authority when making decisions. They seek to enroll or encourage others in a commitment, rather than coerce compliance. This difference between commitment and compliance offers a clear distinction between traditional leadership models and that of a servant-leader.
  6. Conceptualization/Imagination. Servant-leaders seek to nurture their ability to “dream great dreams.” They have the ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective, requiring them to think beyond day-to-day realities and problems to view possibilities. This requires a delicate balance between a future to conceptualize and the urgency of the day-to-day focus.
  7. Foresight/Perspective. Foresight enables servant-leaders to understand lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequences of a decision in the future. These leaders place current items in the proper perspective to gauge priorities. 
  8. Stewardship/Commitment. Robert Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEOs, staff, managers, and directors serve as trustees, taking custody of their institutions for the greater good of society. Servant-leaders are committed to something bigger than themselves. They enroll others into that commitment, as highlighted in Peter Block’s (1993) book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self Interest.
  9. Commitment to Personal Mastery. Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, they are deeply committed to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the organization.
  10. Developing Community. Servant-leaders are aware that the shift from local communities to large organizations as the primary shaper of human lives has changed our perceptions and caused a sense of loss. They seek to identifyDOWNLOAD PDF

Apps to Support Your Mindfulness Practice

By Neil Ruiz, Content Curator and IT Manager at Bhavana Learning Group

Apps, Apps, Apps. So many apps for email, for productivity, and even for meditation and mindfulness. At times, these apps can be overwhelming to navigate. We can become overwhelmed with all the new apps’ dings and bells. Over the past year, I’ve tested these apps that claim to support meditation/mindfulness: Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace, 10% Happier, and Mindbell.

I offer the following reviews of apps that might support your current meditation/mindfulness practice. I do not offer these as a substitute or replacement to the simple practice of sitting silently and following your breath.

Headspace: My Go-To App for Guided Meditations

DESCRIPTION: I’ve used Headspace, on and off, for about 3 years. My favorite thing about headspace is its friendly and inviting user interface. You can see below how colorful and simple their user design is which creates an inviting experience:

I started with their free 10-day Basics pack and later with their subscription starting at $7.99/month. Subscriptions offer different session categories: mini, single, and packs. Users have the option of changing the length of these sessions.

PLUSES: Mini and Single sessions range from body scan to at-work presentations, to eating. Packs include health, anxiety, stress, sleep, and much more. A recent update to the app has added an “Animations” tab, offering a library of video animations (here’s an example of one animated video). They animate everything from essential meditation techniques to frequently asked questions like Am I Doing It Right?

Headspace is my go-to app for guided meditations, which I’d recommend for beginning meditators. With its inviting and simple user design experience, I don’t have to fuss around for what I need.

Another plus is that you can invite people to become your “buddies.” You can view your buddy’s stats (total time meditated, sessions completed, etc.) and you can even support each other by sending them a “nudge”, a quick email or text reminding them to meditate today.

MINUSES: The longer duration sessions are the same guided instructions as the shorter ones just with more silence between speaking. There’s also a lot of redundancy between many of the sessions, a session on stress can sound similar to a session on health. This may make some sense since those are related topics but it offers less variety for practice.

Finally, you are exposed to one teacher, Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace. One may get “bored” by his voice, and lack of variety.

RATING: 4/5. My go-to for guided meditations, recommended for beginners.

Insight Timer: Go-To App for Unguided Meditations & Specific Topics

DESCRIPTION: Insight Timer is a free meditation app that offers hundreds of meditations and meditation teachers (claiming 1,500 teachers). Exploring meditation sessions requires navigating the bottom of the screen and tapping on the headphones icon. Once there, you can choose to explore categories such as Popular, Guided Meditations, Music, 365 Playlist (new meditation every day), Talks, and Teachers.

PLUSES: Insight distinguishes itself from the other meditation apps by offering hundreds of free guided meditation and teachers. The app also provides a timer with the option to set a duration, interval bells, ambient sounds, and an ending bell to your unguided meditation. I use this app when I engage unguided meditations.

Another useful feature is the ability to join a community forum. When you tap the “four-circle” icon on the bottom of the app, it displays a list of groups to join, ranging from discussions on “Loving Kindness” to “Beginner’s Mind” to one on “Thich Nhat Hanh”. This feature honors the wisdom behind mindfulness and the meditation practice by offering an expression of Sangha, or community. You can post questions or simply share your recent meditation experiences here.

MINUSES: The user interface was not as friendly as the Headspace App. The opening home menu displays “meditations today,” the number of people currently meditating, along with a global map for their location. This menu setup supports their intention of creating community rather than a focus on the practice.

RATING: 4/5. For a particular guided meditation like Loving-Kindness, or a simple 10-min unguided meditation, Insight Timer is my go-to app. And, it’s all free!



10% Happier – 110% Customer Experience

DESCRIPTION: 10% Happier, was developed by Dan Harris alongside the well-known teacher, Joseph Goldstein. Unique to this app is a library of video courses. A subscription is required to access the full library. Subscriptions are $11.99/mo on a monthly basis or $ 6.67/mo for the year. I was able to try it free for 30 days and then canceled, which highlighted a great customer experience detailed in the next section.

PLUSES: One of my favorite features is the option to “Just Meditate,” between 3 and 25+ minutes. These guided meditations include topics such as “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Great for Beginners, Morning Meditations, Commuting,” to name a few. All the topics can be easily found in the “discover” tab on the bottom.

Another feature is the ability to reach out to a coach. My experience here was remarkable and noteworthy. Here’s an example of a question I submitted and received a response within a day. It was very rich and thoughtful:

Question: Do I scratch an itch during meditation or try to ignore it

Answer: Hi Neil, thanks for reaching out and for your question. That’s really a key question isn’t it?

Of course, there really isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this question. … (My rep, Yong, then went on for another 200 words — see full response here to detailing and pointing to future sessions and ended with…) So in our meditation, it may be an itch, but in our daily life maybe it’s a harsh word spoken to us or a car that cuts us off in traffic.

They took particular care and concern for feedback, specifically, whenDOWNLOAD PDF

Feedback Matters in Shaping Your Future

Last week I noticed something odd that had not occurred to me before. Inside of a 48-hour period, I received several emails requesting feedback from the following places:

  • PayPal; (with a follow up)
  • Audible (Books); 
  • Barnes & Noble;
  • Bank of America (twice);
  • Chase Bank; 
  • Starbucks. 

I had just engaged each of these companies either on a call, online or an in-person service. Each company connected for survey/feedback (promising it would take 3-5 minutes).

I found Bank of America curious. During my initial call to them I was transferred to a second representative; therefore, I received two survey requests. Two representatives and two surveys!

As a researcher, unlikely incidents like this do not go unnoticed, so I began observing several things:

  • I noticed that I had not before experienced this volume of email communication requesting feedback from vendors/suppliers. This was new, not an occasional request but now a regular occasion.
  • Feedback is no longer an ad-hoc transaction that occurs yearly; some type of survey now occurs after each transaction. In addition to email surveys, most vendors inform me of the option to complete a brief telephone survey after each call.
  • This struck me as an important message: businesses cannot afford to take anything for granted today. 
  • It also occurred to me how valuable feedback is becoming, how much organizations and companies rely on it, and how much they must invest to seek it out today. 

Upon reflection, I realized the importance of feedback; what it takes to give it, and how much it takes to receive it. This blog post offers some great advice for receiving feedback.

A Feedback Loop of Expectations

Beyond a simple transaction, feedback is also becoming the lifeblood of our work life, our consumer consciousness, and our expectations around business. We’ve turned a corner in the Information Age where exchanging ideas, rants, raves, comments, posts, or suggestions is simply expected, shifting consumer expectations.

Even conventional performance reviews have been chucked by several larger companies in favor of more regular, and frequent feedback sessions (see here) to support individual performance and development (see here) in an authentic, rather than contrived, manner.

So, feedback is an expectation that is coursing through our lives.

Consider if you visited a shopping website two months ago and experienced a clunky checkout process, and then visited it again to find the same awkwardness. Even if there isn’t a feedback mechanism in place, we’d likely assume that one existed. We’d further assume that they ignored feedback and might conclude that this company either doesn’t listen, doesn’t care or just isn’t able to manage these issues. Either conclusion might prevent us from returning.

Our instant connectivity has normalized feedback: we expect that companies will secure feedback and improve. This may be one of the new organizing principles for future organizations. Everyone will need to be adept at how to view input. How to listen as a coach, a therapist or user-interface designer.

Receiving Feedback

To train ourselves on receiving input, first, notice how you perceive feedback. Is it a threat we discourage and push away? Or is it a contribution, we encourage and seek out? Here are some ways to receive feedback:

Reject it. Simple enough, right? Rejecting feedback has its own system of thought. We never ask and just assume all is well. We avoid opportunities to hear feedback or deny it when it’s delivered.

Receive it, Conditionally. These people fixate on how we deliver feedback. A belligerent customer is wrong, and a polite prospect is perfect. What’s wrong with this picture? A customer has invested in your product and a prospect has no skin in the game. Both, however, can offer important information to support your service and your future. Regardless of how it’s delivered, packaged, or wrapped, get beyond the “How” and to the “WHAT.” We need the content (WHAT) delivered. So unload it from the package, get it all and thank the person.

Receive to Rationalize. These people are most diplomatic. Some receive your input, “yes-you”, nod-nicely, and never do anything. Others might address items they find acceptable or agreeable. They rationalize the rest away, remarking: “They do not understand,” or “we’ve already reviewed/tried it,” or “if we had the time or money we could do something.” In any case, it’s hard to argue with this politeness or rationale. The problem is that all feedback contains some truth, and we soon realize that discrediting every complaint prevented us from being interested enough to investigate.

Receive it Fully. These people begin with interest, the kind of interest that sees the world as a puzzle. They accept that they do not have all the pieces and that each bit of feedback or input offers another piece to complete the puzzle. Without assuming much — even if something has been tried before — these people are interested in discovering anything they may have missed or that might have changed. If they cannot act now, they capture notes, and return once they secure more information.

Feedback as R&D

Seeking out feedback benefits us, even if we cannot use it. Input from others helps us to see different points of view, while clarifying our view; provokes us to consider new ideas, while refining old ideas; and presents new questions while expanding our commitment to listen and learn.

Giving feedback requires a commitment. People offering it, want to help you improve. Many companies now provide lottery drawings for gift cards to secure your feedback. The reason is simple: Feedback is the new R&D.

It is much less expensive and more accurate to get real live feedback than to hire consulting firms to poll users or engage focus groups in creating “messages” that may or may not reflect real-life experiences. Further, the pace of change makes obsolete analysis and reports with recommendations. Real-time feedback is critical, and capturing it allows us to recognize any blind spots, to discover any missed opportunities, and to find newDOWNLOAD PDF

Completing Your Day: Taking Measure of Your Life

Perhaps the most important learning practice I use with clients is one I term “Completing Your Day.” This practice takes about 30 minutes daily. Completing my day supports me as a learner, coach, teacher, and human being in ways large and small.

The primary responsibility is to “take measure” of ourselves, to become aware of our deepest concerns, and to fulfill those concerns in a way that adds meaning to our existence.

Meaning-making, making our lives meaningful, is a critical goal of being human. Individuals must take their lives into account by observing their choices. Accomplishing this requires a reliable practice. “Completing Your Day” is that practice, and it requires these basic items:

  • A capture tool where you can place items during the day: promises, requests, agreements, and commitments. This can be a notepad, an online app, or other recording devices.
  • A digital calendar that allows for scheduling recurring items and for attaching the items needed for any event.
  • A reflection document/journal to document insights and discoveries.
  • A dedicated daily time slot of between 20 and 30 minutes.

With this practice, time then becomes the ultimate mirror of one’s life: the measure of what we care about, and how we make choices and approach life.

How we spend time discloses the way we choose, predict, and plan, as well as how we learn from our choices. Using time in this way, we become aware of our attention and our alignment to reveal what we really care about.

Begin with Being Complete

“Completing Your Day” begins with a commitment to Being Complete as a state of mind to offer freedom, space, and possibility.

What most impedes being complete are all the concerns we carry in our minds, the way we hold these concerns in our body, and how we ruminate on them even as we go to (or fail to) sleep.

To be complete is to release any concern from our mind by either: 1) declaring it complete and letting it go, 2) scheduling it to be handled at a later time, or 3) scheduling conversation to discuss it with those that matter.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This practice is designed to complete concerns so that letting go and rest is now possible, enabling you to awake fresh the next morning. The practice brings awareness to the choices and events in your life. However, the practice does not replace any mindfulness or contemplative ritual. This practice can offer the mental space to engage such rituals as part of your nightly winding down if you so choose.

Awareness: To Focus My Attention

In this part of our practice, we become aware of the attention we give to our choices, what we care about, and what we focus on.

First, begin by setting a 30-minute recurring event (in your calendar) to complete your day.

Determine the preferred quiet-time of day, given your patterns, routines, and what you know about yourself. For some, the end of the workday, around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., works best. For others, after dinner, about 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. works well. And for others, just before bedtime, between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., suffices.

Second, now schedule and frame this recurring daily event (to complete your day) so that it is worth accomplishing.

A calendar event is more than a transaction; it is a meaningful intention for your time, an occasion to attend. This specific event might be framed as: “I have peace of mind because today is complete” or “I’m setting up for a powerful day tomorrow.” Keep working with framing it until it calls to you. Make this time sacred, a ritual that serves you.

Alignment: To Predict and Plan

Completing the day supports your ability to plan, predict, and coordinate action with others. Here, we pay attention to 1) how we frame our participation with items and 2) how accurate we scope out promises to deliver agreements, projects, or commitments. By reviewing our calendar, we notice how well we engage events and predict our time.

These routines will support this part of your practice:

  1. Empty your capture tool (notepad) into your calendar by placing each item as an event in time. Every item takes time; make sure these are located on your calendar.
  2. Notice any conflicts and either email requests or schedule time tomorrow to manage these. Placing items on your calendar will empty concerns from your mind.
  3. Review your calendar for tomorrow, next week, and beyond the next week, when possible. Does the calendar still work, given the frequency of change in life? If not, what changes can you make?
  4. Review this larger question: are the items on your calendar worth your time? Are my events for tomorrow compelling? Do they call me to participate fully? If not, reframe them on your calendar. These events are on your calendar; make them yours, rather than something you are doing for someone else. For instance, reframe “attend a meeting with boss about project X,” as “meet with boss to create project X.”
  5. Synchronize your calendar with other platforms or apps.
  6. Review the calendar for space. Input “space in-between” larger events to center and restore yourself. This is important (see our blog) for creating space in life. Author and productivity guru, Tim Ferriss calls this “slack time.”
  7. Ensure you have sufficient slack time. This makes space for new things to emerge, and for restoring yourself after meetings, long conversations, or back-to-back events.

Reflections: To Reveal My Authentic Self

As we complete the day, we become present and can reflect on the day’s experiences and choices. With stillness and silence, we can discover dimensions of our self, and what we care about by identifying where we spent our time. Place any insights in a reflection journal (emptyingDOWNLOAD PDF

Your Future is a Declaration Away

By Brendalyn King, M.Ed, PCC, Leadership Coach and Community Engagement at Bhavana Learning Group

#timesUp, #meToo

#neverAgain, #enough

These are more than hashtags or supportive movements. These powerful declarations have altered the future for the world. The act of a declaration has the power to shape new stories, evoke our collective imagination, and engage thousands in action.

The power of our words shapes minds, opens hearts, and moves masses.

Consider the recent voices of young people like Emma Gonzalez, Naomi Wadler, or of our mentor, Oprah, or innovator Steve Jobs to move emotions. Their voice has changed minds and urged people to action.

What does their language reveal? How can we move people with our words? Consider that those speeches all begin with a Declaration.

We’ve paid attention to these voices because they declare futures, and they enroll us in a possibility. Oprah expanded minds and empowered our spirituality to highlight a new movement for women in Hollywood. Emma penetrated our slumber to confront gun violence. Naomi pointedly reminded us of the disparate media attention given to African-American girls killed by gun violence. And Steve Jobs provoked imagination that unleashed individual creativity.

All of this began with a declaration.

Speech Acts

For some background, American philosopher and UC, Berkeley Professor, John Searle, (who began teaching in 1959) developed a theory of Speech Acts. According to Searle, “Speech acts are the minimal units of linguistic communication, occurring in sentences and conversations.” Declarations are among these speech acts. In his book Expression and Meaning, Searle suggested five general categories of speech acts that are common to all cultures, regardless of the mother tongue:

  1. We tell people how things are
  2. We try to get people to do things
  3. We commit ourselves to doing things
  4. We express our feelings and attitudes
  5. We bring about changes in the world through our utterances

As a speech act, Declarations bring forth four other speech acts just in its speaking: an Offer, Request, Promise, and an Assertion.

In his book, Coaching to the human Soul, Alan Sieler presents Declarations as “statements with the force of some authority behind them, which immediately bring about a change in circumstances and the generation of a different reality.”

Your Word Declares Your World

To speak a declaration requires that we are willing to take the authority and be responsible for our speaking.

In our ebook, An Introduction to Generative Language, Tony Zampella puts it this way:

“Unlike descriptive language, which offers evidence for its claims, generative language offers no evidence, only authority—creating from nothing, from no evidence—spoken from the depths of responsibility and integrity.”

We forget that we can speak our life into existence. Language is our technology, it’s how we co-create reality. The responsibility for being an author is not found in some result or evidence, but in the willingness to take authority for achieving it – regardless of any result or evidence. And for most, this means acting in the face of fear.

Before entering college, I recall declaring “I will not be a broke college student.” I continually shared it with my freshman friends, and they supported me in finding financial opportunities. Ways to earn money as a college student, always available, only occurred to me after I declared, “it shall be.” Then, my perspective shifted and I saw the abundance of opportunity.

None of our current crop of leaders called for #neveragain. That was Emma Gonzalez who declared, “we are going to be the last mass shooting!” And she further declared: “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks.”

There’s no evidence for this, only her willingness to take the stage and speak, and speak, and continue to act in alignment with her speaking.

During her speech at the Golden Globe Awards, Oprah declared, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up!”

Unlike the speaking we encounter daily, these declarations create future when spoken, as detailed in this grid:

Declaring Futures without Evidence

Simply put, Declarations create context and possibility from the future, offering direction for that future. Human beings spend a lot of time describing reality and are often oblivious to their power to create it.

Chalmers Brothers, leadership development coach and author of, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness says in his TED Talk,

“We speak ourselves into the world. How was the United States of America created? What is there, in the Archives, right next to the Constitution in Washington D.C.? The Declaration. Ours was the first nation constituted in language, declared into being. That declaration created the context and direction for the work to follow.”

Consider these famous declarations:

Martin Luther King’s declared future:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

John F. Kennedy’s declared future of putting a Man on the Moon that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

In his speaking, JFK created that possibility in the hearts and minds of all Americans. In his speaking, he opened our imagination, focused attention and intentions, aligned resources,DOWNLOAD PDF

World Report: Happiness from Wealth or Wellness?

In a month of momentous events, March also marked the release of the Seventh Annual World Happiness report. With each passing year, this report has highlighted a world increasingly driven by cultural concerns as well as economic needs.

In the first report (2012), the U.S. entered at number 11 – its highest ranking ever. In the Seventh Annual Report (2018) the U.S. joins 155 countries whose governments, organizations and civil societies are increasingly using happiness indicators to inform their policy-making decisions.

The Report’s winners have consistently included the Nordic nations. This year Finland took the top spot from those nations (Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) and found the U.S. dropping back five spots from 13 in 2017, to 18 in 2018.

Different Mindsets

The top ten nations on this list – Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia – share a different set of priorities.

  • Each nation prioritizes cultural concerns such as social cohesion, a strong safety net, and universal healthcare as important (or more important) as GDP or economic measures.
  • Each nation has learned to transform limited economic wealth into maximum individual wellness and is willing to use government to achieve these ends.

These lessons accept that government has a role in the well-being of society – discarding old tropes about individual ruggedness or the bootstrap myths that leave “every man for himself.”

Policy plays a key role in establishing conditions for wellness, well-being, or happiness. This view of life in Denmark (short video clip) reveals the roots of happiness in the culture and public space.

In America, we emphasize economic drivers. We focus on GDP, tax breaks, trade policy, and financial deregulation – to define “success” — at the expense of social cohesion.

The Happiness Report, however, includes a fuller view of life and satisfaction. It embraces 1) income, 2) life expectancy, 3) having someone to count on in times of trouble, 4) generosity, 5) freedom and trust, as measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

By this measure, America ranks 18!

The Easterlin Paradox

In a way, America suffers both from incredible economic success, and its single-minded focus on economics as the only definition of success. As such, we are blind to any possibilities and policies beyond economic goals.

In the mid-70s, the economist Richard Easterlin showed that despite a steadily growing American economy over the previous decades, the average happiness had remained almost unaltered. The ‘Easterlin Paradox’ suggests that there is no link between the level of economic development of a society and the overall happiness of the citizens. Life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. Beyond that, the gain in happiness goes down.

Another attribute of this effect is the relative versus absolute economic growth in wealth. People whose income has steadily increased can still become unhappy if such increases are relatively anemic compared to those at the top.

In other words, if I continue to make more but have fewer healthcare options or opportunity, then I experience the diminishing returns of any increase in income.

Economic inequality drives much of America’s slippage: a select few do well, as others suffer from lacking social cohesion.

Happiness lives beyond Materialism

The Happiness Report reveals an important truth, as stated by the University of British Columbia economist, John Helliwell: “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have a frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, what is it worth?” Helliwell shares a now-familiar refrain: “the material can stand in the way of the human.”

From an article in the Guardian: Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, seemed amazed that Finland is the top scorer:

“GDP per capita in Finland is lower than its neighboring Nordic countries and is much lower than that of the US. The Finns are good at converting wealth into wellbeing.

“In the Nordic countries in general, we pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but there is wide public support for that because people see them as investments in quality of life for all. Free healthcare and university education goes a long way when it comes to happiness.”

The top ten nations all scored highest in these cultural, non-economic, categories. Indeed, the report adopts a definition of subjective well-being that encompasses three elements:

  • Life evaluation: a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it.
  • Affect: a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured concerning a particular point in time.
  • Eudaimonia: a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

Additionally, these nations all leverage economic benefit to better their people. For instance, consider that Norway (#2) maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but despite it. Oil prices remain weak in Norway, but by choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.

America’s Unhappy Trifecta 

For the second year, the Happiness Report has a chapter (7) focusing on America’s decline. It identifies three interrelated issues that lack sufficient public policy: Obesity, Opioid Crises (and drug overdose in general) and Depression.

These issues not only emerge in the face of anemic public policy and feckless government responses, they also are met with healthcare philosophy at odds with the top ten nations: In America, healthcare remains a privilege, not a right.

Take these nuggets from the Report:

— Between 1938 and 2007 studies show a cultural drift in psychopathology toward extrinsic goals such as materialism and status, away from intrinsic goals such as community, meaning in life and affiliation.


Mindfulness Minus Wisdom: Moving to Materialism

A “mindfulness” colleague of mine was recently offered a position to lead meditations on a mobile meditation bus in New York City. She brought her concerns to a group call. My first instinct was to plant that van right on Wall Street! Anything that gets these people to pause and de-stress can only benefit society.

As this article details, Tricked out meditation studios on wheels are all the rage in relaxing on the go, offer time-starved and stressed Americans a few minutes of calm and meditation instruction. Similar to food trucks, these mobile studios go directly to the consumer.

Who can argue with that? In our fast-paced society, we are starved for stress-reduction tools and spaces to center ourselves and restore our humanity.

And for that reason alone, take a break, find a mobile unit, if necessary, and breathe. Or, take a walk, sit on a bench, or find a quiet space in the office to sit. Whatever it takes to pause and be still in silence.

For me, a mobile meditation van presents an interesting inquiry. How is “meditation” and mindfulness, as a secular process and product, different from the wisdom practice steeped in a philosophy of compassion?

A Secular, Scientific Process

As a process, breathing and secular mindfulness have its roots in deeply-rooted scientific methods laid out for decades by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This process supports a complete body scan to practice tuning into the sensations of our body. With practice, we become more mindful in our as-lived experiences.

The science behind this work has repeatedly shown a reduction in stress, a slowing of our reactive self, and better regulation of emotions, which often influences our work and relationships.

Science has validated this process with greater knowledge about our nervous system, emotions, and even neuroscience. The benefits include reduced rumination, stress reduction, boosts to working memory, focus, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, and relationship satisfaction.

This is how many of us have come to know mindfulness. Ironically, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s scientific results have given rise to mindfulness-as-panacea for anything that ails us. And regrettably, the scientific method strips out the very core that can move us beyond the roots of our stress: to penetrate the self-delusion that impedes us from accepting the impermanence of change and suffering.

Fleeting and Feeling Products

Unfortunately, in America, any process can be reduced to a product at breakneck speed. This is where our mobile meditation van surfaces. In a movement termed McMindfulness, many purveyors have begun to capitalize on ways to de-stress our fast-paced lives.

Just as McDonald’s pioneered fast food that lacked the nutrients of a well-balanced meal, McMindfulness offers nutrient-deficient products masking as culturally-rich, practices.

If consumers consume products without ever moving beyond the need for consumption, they have merely found a materialistic practice – and justification – for not changing. This is the very antithesis of the ethos that grounds these practices.

Marketing execs have hijacked Mindfulness as the silver bullet to rebrand almost every human dilemma.

Mindful leadership, mindful parenting, mindful performance, mindful listening, mindful learning create a menu of “trendy” products. Some branding pros even peddle mindfulness as the technology to disrupt our addiction to technology.

So what’s the harm?

In general, if consumers consume products without ever moving beyond the need for consumption, they have merely found a materialistic practice – and justification – for not changing. This is the very antithesis of the ethos that grounds these practices.

Many of our habits and compulsions are reactions to change, or loss of control, which is pervasive during these times of constant disruption. Until we get to the root of change – and our relationship to it – mere coping to survive may make us feel good at the moment but will likely impede us from reaching a new level of awareness.

When viewing meditation, mindfulness, and breathing, it is best to attain deeper awareness before consuming it as a product; otherwise, your expectations or desire to achieve some result, goal or “bliss” state will produce heightened anxiety, stress, or suffering.

Products can be beneficial for informed consumers. This is a good rule for most consumption: news, art, entertainment, conversations, food, exercises, etc. For meditation and mindfulness, however, being an informed consumer involves a bit more exploration beyond materialistic products or secular processes.

A Philosophy of Compassion

Making mindfulness and meditation more secular need not exploit or expel the cultural wisdom that informs its principles and practices. And, including these cultural and ethical foundations need not require signing onto a religion, or belief in a deity. We can simply appreciate a philosophy of life.

The Buddhist Pāli Canon at the heart of mindfulness honors sentient beings with compassion. Through direct experience and mindful breathing, we bring our thoughts, words, actions, intentions, effort, and focus on body and mind into harmony with nature.

Sitting, breathing, and pausing, which interrupt our fleeting projections onto realityserve as important moments of “emptiness.” These moments allow the passing of thoughts and emotions such as anger, fear or excitement (as changing forms) with non-reactive awareness. We begin to experience the space between observation and action as moments of freedom.

The philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist texts train us to understand, appreciate and accept the nature of suffering, change and attachment. Chögyam Trungpa simplifies our practice to that of compassion, stating that “knowledge is transformed into wisdom by means of compassion.”

  • With grounded practice, we become aware of the fear and greater suffering within and around us.
  • We open ourselves to more compassion for ourselves and our common humanity.
  • We view and confront our three poisons of anger, greed, and ignorance with compassion and humility to loosen their grip on us.
  • We practice the eightfold path not to achieve status or wealth, or for greater control, but to see through our fragmented views and learn toDOWNLOAD PDF

#MeToo, #TimesUp, Star Wars: Women Lead Forth

2017 began with a Women’s March, which poured half a million citizens into our nation’s capital, with 408 simultaneous marches nationwide and another 168 in 81 countries. It’s clear that these scenes empowered and awakened many. And to celebrate its first year anniversary this week, we witnessed more than 2 million women and supporters marching again in 700 cities worldwide.

#MeToo: Moment to Movement

Shortly after last year’s march, I wrote a blog post titled “Uber Crashes into the Third Wave,” which detailed our cultural shifts in organizational life. Among the dirt facing their bad boy CEO was the fact that Uber’s executives had white-washed sexual assault accusations by former engineer Susan Fowler because the accused perpetrator “was a high performer.”

Then in April, Google fired engineer, James Damore, who wrote this memo questioning the presence of women in tech.

This all seems so quaint today in the wake of the resignations of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the resignation of dozens of men from the fields of entertainment, business, news, and politics.

The #MeToo moment became a movement. Women were now, finally, being heard and speaking up.

Business, Leadership, and Men

Since 1999, I’ve taught college leadership courses in business schools. Such graduate and undergraduate courses as Leadership, Communications, Ethics, Organizational Behavior, and Strategic Planning all have hidden in their design deceptively masculine assumptions, many of which can be found in Damore’s memo.

Some of these assumptions rest on the frail female theory (yes, I created that), espoused in Damore’s memo, “that women are less interested in high-stress jobs because they are more anxious” and that they are less outwardly ambitious.

Geez, I wonder what women have to be anxious about with bosses like James Damore or Harvey Weinstein relegating them to servile status.

I know many men that might embrace some of these values if they could, but our business ethos is drawn from assumptions predicated on our concepts of leadership, which are all derived from patriarchy. Strong leaders are loud, proud, tough, bold, and strong; they always have the answer, always know the questions, and always come to the rescue.

We honor those who celebrate themselves—the Jack Welches and Lee Iacoccas who loudly boast their assets and rarely credit others. Or we adore the bad boys, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, or Travis Kalanick, who mythically channel sheer masculine genius to make our lives go faster, harder, smarter.  

Zebras and Unicorns

Indeed, Silicon Valley has had two decades to mold our notions of success and leadership. Its versions of these idolize a brand that sounds more like sex than leadership: we start firm, pound hard, flip fast, and cash out.

For a sense of our testosterone-laden business models, read “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break,” by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams.

As a researcher and educator, what I find most frustrating, as we move to expand leadership beyond the heroic or Alpha male model, has been how stuck we are. Even when we include more women in classes, training programs, and boardrooms, the message is clear: buck up, walk tall, and assert yourself; that is, be tough like a man.

This is the recipe for getting ahead. We may tame it, but it still exists as our primary frame of reference. It is baked into our American ideals about who and what we are.

Business, Leadership, and the Masculine Worldview

Sociologist Geert Hofstede, whose cultural dimensions theory, formulated in 1965, surveyed national views worldwide on a spectrum of four dimensions, two of which were individualism and collectivism, and masculinity-femininity. This theory informs much of our society, education, and models of leadership and success. See our blog on this dynamic.

In this masculine-feminine dimension (see table 4 above), masculinity is defined as “a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success.” Masculine societies are driven by competition and achievement, with success defined by the “winner” or “best in the field”— an “everyone-out-for-himself mentality.” Feminine societies are marked by caring for others, quality of life, and the definition of success as liking our work.

For instance, take our national priorities: We stress military strength and economics (masculine) in government and business and relegate soft skills and soft power in business and government (feminine) to second-tier status.

Business is tough stuff; we prefer coding to coddling. But, our new connected, pluralistic world favors soft skills (feminine)—those marked by self-expression, self-awareness, and intuition.

Star Wars: Fantasy or Future?

Hofstede’s theory reveals America’s individualistic-masculine society, which has shaped our expectations and assumptions about leaders and leadership. Then comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Candidly, The Last Jedi isn’t my favorite of the franchise, but something brought me back for a second viewing—the women.

Star Wars manages to do what we in business, education, and leadership development have rarely accomplished: it shows women leading with women as women. The women in this flick take on a new center of gravity with different priorities.

Success is less about heroic feats of brute force and more about the force of “women who occupy student/learner positions,” says Annalise Ophelian, documentary film-maker, and psychologist. Ophelian notes that The Last Jedi also contains the “first truly Bechdel Test passing scene” in the history of the franchise. The Bechdel–Wallace test, which indicates female agency and independence, first appeared in 1985 and sets out three criteria that a film should meet: it has to 1) have at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other 3) about something besides a man.

Ophelian contends that “female heroes are traditionally presented in cinematic isolation. This film gives us women working side by side, women in technical positions, and of course women learning the ways of theDOWNLOAD PDF

Commitment: Leadership Intelligence, pt. 4

In this, the fourth installment in our series on the four leadership intelligences—Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment—I conclude our inquiry into supporting the development of the being of being a leader. The last three blogs explored Awareness, Trust/Integrity, and Authenticity.


Commitment calls us to stand for something bigger than ourselves.

To discuss commitment requires a shift in perception from a third-person phenomenon that I accomplish commitments, to a first-person phenomenon that I generate commitment. As a leader, I am responsible for generating both my own commitment and, eventually, a shared commitment that frames situations, relationships, and work.

Without any organizing commitment or North Star, each event will occur as a series of random tasks or unconnected choices without any compass guiding us.

In an ordinary context, commitment often implies an obligation to someone or something outside us.

Commitment to something larger than ourselves, rather than satisfying personal desires, provides us with a sense of purpose that can be very consoling and calming.

We often conflate and confuse commitment with instrumental ideas, such as compliance, attachment, obsession, passion, obligation, sacrifice, goal, motivation, or inspiration. In contrast, the Buddhist perspective views commitment is a vow to embrace, as a way of life, who we are, how we live, how we show up. This Buddhist approach to commitment comes not from obligation to another but from a vow to oneself.

Commitment empowers us to act in the face of our fears and justifications to face whatever we are experiencing, now, in the moment as more fundamental and all-encompassing to give greater meaning to life. In this context, commitment generates rather than defines action and direction.

Commitment to something larger than ourselves, rather than satisfying personal desires, provides us with a sense of purpose that can be very consoling and calming. Commitment emerges from a compelling future that binds and guides us:

  • It can ground us and provide a sense of purpose.
  • It can provide direction in life.
  • It can give us something to serve.
  • It can help us evolve emotionally and in wisdom.
  • It can provide a context for making decisions.
  • It can prevent us from acting on unhealthy impulses.
  • It can unify the mind.

Moving beyond our fears to fully engage in something—whether it’s teaching, a career, fitness, relationships, or learning—requires first evaluating what is worthy of our whole being. Is it worthy of our time or what matters most: for the sake of what am I now engaged?

Commitment requires that we stand for something bigger than ourselves. We can be more than our individual desires or narrow concerns about survival. We can stand for a compelling future that finds us in action, we can stand for changes that we know make a difference with the resolve to constitute our whole being.

For instance, a commitment to learning finds us becoming a learner, open and available to discovery in any situation. We are also then ready to generate a shared commitment to learning with others.

As a commitment is given by something bigger than ourselves, we choose to stand for a future beyond our trivial concerns that can include and transcend our sensations, thoughts, emotions, and circumstances. Once embodied, commitment animates and transforms our being.

  • THE SHIFT: Over the last 15 years we have evolved from the previous command and control model of leadership, which demands compliance. Today, our pace of change demands that leaders encourage a great deal of agency and purpose that cultivates commitment beyond oneself.
  • OUR PRACTICE: Using generative language, we cultivate our commitment and generate a shared commitment. Through reframing tasks and events, we (re)discover and generate our commitment in surprising ways. Even a setback can remind us why we are involved in any project or situation. With mindfulness, we can pause and either recommit or opt out and fortify our direction.
  • YOUR FUTURE: Our commitment from a compelling future, cutting through the noise that is human life today, is key to sustaining a culture of leadership and learning.

WHY we create it.

The inquiry into leading and learning initiates a profound and messy inquiry into the nature of being human in an organizational context. Learning, especially, is fraught with issues of fear and need, wrapped up with our identity. Much of this involves the way learning confronts knowing: what we know, who we know ourselves to be, and the openness required to be a beginner and to say, “I don’t know.”

The three hardest words for leaders to utter are “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty that marks this time in our organizational lives.

This is where cultivating commitment is a fundamental first step to establish a context bigger than our personality, or identity.

Commitment grounds the journey of becoming a leader and learner. It supports leadership to 1) generate a shared commitment within the organization and 2) to tap the individual commitment of all participants.

HOW We generate it.

We invite you to use your entire life as a vessel to cultivate and generate commitment. Use these questions to guide you in creating your own commitment statements. Then inquire into that statement to inquire further such as a stand I take or contribution I stand for.

  1. What is something I am willing to stand for?
  2. What matters most to me?
  3. What moves me to create change?
  4. What do I care about?

From these questions above, complete a personal statement that identifies who you are as a commitment (what you are committed to). This need not be more than a sentence.

Once you create that commitmentDOWNLOAD PDF

Authenticity: Leadership Intelligence, part 3

As I continue this series on leadership intelligence, I offer this, the third in our series. Recall the introduction of four leadership intelligences—Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment—that support the development of the being of being a leader. The first post explored Awareness, and the most recent explored Trust/Integrity; in this blog, we will present Authenticity.

Authenticity has been hijacked by popular culture to mean anything from being real to channeling one’s id. This has led people to view being authentic as sputtering impulsive thoughts that had never previously crossed their minds as ostensibly being “more real” or “genuine.”

Authenticity as a buzzword has emerged without rigorous assessment as to what it is we are observing when we view or comment on one’s authenticity.

Leadership Intelligence #3: AUTHENTICITY

Authenticity is the possibility of being fully human.

The term authenticity exists philosophically between one’s actuality and one’s possibility. Through expanding responsibility, we cultivate individual freedom as a possibility. Unfortunately, one of the most challenging of our intelligences, authenticity, has been reduced to glib notions of “real” or “fake,” as if humans were fixed, one-dimensional objects like art or gems to evaluate.

When we view humans as externalized entities—the way we act or how we “express our selves”—we assess what we do, without considering our subjective self, who we are being. This includes our perceptions, interpretations, and insights, which are dynamic: constantly developing, expanding, and integrating beliefs, knowledge, and experiences.

To be “real” or to be “true” to oneself begs the question, to which self? If it is my own self—a self that is mine and that belongs to me—then how do I know it is mine and not simply a collection of masks: what I’ve been socialized to be or what others expect of me? How can I be sufficiently clear to see and to know that this self is mine to be true to?

Beyond a philosophical paradox, practically speaking, this is a fool’s errand. It will consign one to preoccupation with being real, akin to being perfect (another normative ideal), rather than freeing one to the experience of being human that reveals oneself to connect authentically.

The only thing that can be said to be mine is my choice, the freedom to choose and be accountable for my own choosing as a free being. Reducing authenticity to another “type,” “style,” “attribute,” or, worse yet, a “premium ideal forecloses the possibility of aliveness or that freedom to be.

A recent example from Fast Company, headlined “These Four Speaking Habits Are Ruining Your Authenticity,” offers this reductive view: “Don’t flash too many smiles—it’s unnerving and makes you seem insincere.”

Being Authentic

Authenticity cannot be reduced to an empirical style or condition or a psychological ideal. It originates in philosophy from a first-person, multidimensional, whole perspective of human existence that accounts for our freedom to be.

An authentic self is usually felt upon reflection, whereas an inauthentic self is usually derived from one’s focus. And that’s the paradox: if I am focusing on authenticity as a concern, I am likely acting from an inauthentic self.

Indeed, the path to becoming authentic begins with reflecting on the times when we are inauthentic and revealing any deceptive masks or facades to ourselves and, if appropriate, to others.

We begin with the choice to let life reveal or show us those masks or deceptions that conceal our true self. This begins with the willingness to reveal pretenses that point to hidden or concealed deceptions, not seen before.

Learning Theorist Chris Argyris, after 40 years of studying us human beings, shares this perspective on the subject of our inauthenticity:

“Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting, and the way they really act.”

Consider that we maintain this gap between our espoused theory and our theory-in-use by focusing on how we want to be seen, rather than who we are as a possibility to which we are held to account.

Authentic Leaders

If we are unwilling to recognize and confront our moments of inauthenticity, it is virtually impossible to develop this capacity or intelligence.

The authentic being takes custody of its narrative, authors its existence, owns its experiences, and is willing to be held to account for experiencing freedom in three areas:

1) Spontaneity: to be held accountable for choosing, as an autonomous being – (as self-governed) distinct from independent being (as not depending on others) – freely acting out of nothing but naturalness. We reveal ourselves as vulnerable, as unmasked, connecting to and relating with others in a natural way. Presence, aliveness, and connection manifest in this dimension of authenticity.

2) Self-Determination: to be held accountable for our possibility or potential as we seek out our particular uniqueness. We engage life intentionally, owning — not hiding or denying — our purpose. The courage and engagement people seek out are manifest in this dimension of authenticity.

3) Unified Self: to be held accountable for our whole self by owning and integrating –not masking or avoiding — its origins (culture, identities, heritage, past histories, etc.) as disclosed in everyday life. We expand our responsibility and willingness to own our whole self as unconcealed and discovered in each situation or encounter. 

authenticity grid Click to Enlarge

The Practice of Authenticity

Being authentic is a practice—a willingness or disposition—to disclose our true being to ourselves. We discover and realize self-deceptions that keep us from owning and 1) accepting our choices, 2) honoring our uniqueness to live our purpose, and 3) appreciating and integrating our whole self.

  1. THE TRAP: In a world with increasing complexity and disruptive change, it is becoming more untenable to lead and connect with others if we are unable to choose between our authentic being and our expected self (as expected by others).

Trust: Leadership Intelligence, part 2

In the last blog post, I introduced the notion of four leadership Intelligences – Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment – that support the development of the being of being a leader. I explored Awareness in that blog.

In this post, I will examine leadership intelligence #2, Trust/Integrity. Typically, trust is misunderstood and can be the source of much confusion in organizational life. I will focus on the complexity of Trust as applied to leadership development.

Leadership Intelligence #2: TRUST/INTEGRITY

Trust based on integrity strengthens our word, offering the reliability and care for developing relationships. 

Consider that trust is the foundation of human development. How we generate trust determines how we relate, live, and coordinate action with others. Without trust, inaction prevails, relationships falter, and we become a victim of circumstances.

Most of our work to understand trust is confusing and causes a great deal of suffering. Partly, we are unsure what to observe or how to measure trust, as detail in this video: What we don’t understand about trust.

Often, we measure trust by how we feel, not what we see. Shifting our relationships to trust will transform every facet of our lives, a worthy project, given how fundamental trust is to our very existence.

We often mediate trust based on incomplete assessments such as:

  • a style: how we experience or assess niceness, politeness, or courteousness.
  • a belief: how we assess devotion for/faith in/loyalty to a concept or process.
  • a safe space: how we experience an open environment or consensus to take risks.

What might be possible if we viewed the phenomenon of trust as a social practice that we generate, rather than just a feeling or belief or space?

We also hold misperceptions about trust, such as those noted by author and philosopher, Fernando Flores, in his book Building Trust. First, we explore our view of trust.

  • Static: Either trust exists, or it doesn’t exist. From this view, trust occurs as a belief, or “safe space,” which is either present or not. When trust is broken, we deem violators unworthy of trust. We can no longer trust in the same way.
  • Dynamic: Trust is fluid, occurring between full self-expression and breaches. From this view, we expect breaches to occur. Addressing breaches reveals what’s missing in order to strengthen trust. Through continual practice, we see the dynamic of trust includes breaches and betrayals.

Once we accept a dynamic view, we can examine our approach to trust among Simple Trust, akin to an infant’s trust or magical thinking; Blind Trust, holding beliefs in the face of contrary evidence or denial of evidence; and Authentic Trust, which Flores details.

With authentic trust, we engage and address breaches, as the very access to building trust. We cultivate the deep connections necessary to generate workability and coordinate action. Being trustworthy empowers our whole self and fosters mutual interdependence.

The Promises of Trust

To be effective, build relationships, and lead change in uncertain times, leaders require trust; that is, to become trustworthy and to cultivate authentic trust in others.

Cultivating trust is foundational to generating agreements and commitments. With enhanced commitments, we generate more intentional action, develop motivated and inspired colleagues, and create greater levels of trust to act, even in the face of uncertainty.

Many change management programs neglect this simple fact: Organizational change is about human interaction. Individuals only venture into the unknown when they feel confident. Often confidence is the result of trusting one’s capacity to act on promises. Without this “confidence to act,” people wait for hard evidence, for others to act, and for people to prove their integrity.

Waiting becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, giving permission for others to wait. Inaction takes a heavy toll on organizations: missed opportunities squander time and financial resources; expectation of inaction lowers morale, discouraging initiative; and the consequence of inaction fosters resignation and encourages cynicism.

Authentic trust is not a state we achieve; it results from promises we assess in others and cultivate in ourselves. Trustworthy leaders hold themselves accountable by satisfying four implied promises: 1) Integrity, 2) Competency, 3) Reliability, and 4) Involvement.

Assessing the Promises of Trust

Moving beyond sentimentality to a social practice of becoming trustworthy involves four assessments as follows.

Integrity: I am who I say I am. My private conversations match my public conversations.

  • I am held to account for my word as whole and complete and hold others accountable to their word, creating workability, which cultivates dignity.
  • With integrity, we assess that a person’s agreements reveal their intentions, words, and actions to create workability.

CompetencyI can do what I say I can do. I am knowledgeable in the areas that I say I am, which cultivates my credibility.

  • My perceptions about what I know and can accomplish match what I express, enhancing my credibility.
  • With competency, we assess the accuracy of a person’s perception of their experience, knowledge, and skills to accomplish the required task.

ReliabilityI will do what I say I will do. I can predict my time and my ability to deliver on what I’ve said, creating consistency in the way I show up.

  • When I cannot deliver, I am willing to communicate to all parties in a way that mitigates any impact.
  • We reliability, we assess a person’s perception of time to completion along with stated conditions for delivering on their word.

Involvement: I am attuned to your concerns. Involvement works at a deeper intuitive and observational level, constituting my level of care.

  • Our concerns matter to us, that is what constitutes them as concerns for us and not for others. Mattering is the connective tissue to our world. What matters to us gives meaning to our existence.
  • On the intuitive level, my emotional participation (empathy, mood, or attitude) reveals that I am attuned to yourDOWNLOAD PDF

Awareness: Leadership Intelligence, part 1

This blog is the first of a four-part blog series to explore the idea of leadership intelligences, or the areas of focus specific to developing leaders. While many items have been said to cultivate leadership, most of those cultivate management.

Shift to Leadership Development

Before proceeding, I will outline a specific definition of leadership. I will use formulations by John Kotter, which remain relevant even in our current VUCA context.

  • Management theory develops learners to optimize the current paradigm to “cope with complexity” (Kotter, 1994) by reducing demand—tactical implementation—and becoming more effective and efficient (Conner, 1998). In sum, managers must be adept at allocating resources.
  • Leadership theory develops learners to operate between paradigms to “cope with change” (Kotter, 1994) and uncertainty at a level of discontinuity, as well as to increase capacity—enterprise preparation—in an unpredictable future (Conner, 1998). In short, leaders must be adept at aligning meaning.

I realize that many adopt a broader definition of leadership, but for this writing, I’ve chosen this narrow definition to prevent placing expectations onto leadership that properly belong elsewhere. Some treat leadership as a black box in which to place any personality idiosyncrasies. This tends to diminish it as a legitimate human phenomenon worthy of specific intelligence. I also realize that our current volatile and non-linear change requires that leaders also cope with complexity, but I assert that leaders must engage complexity as it pertains to change (not isolated from change).

Essentially, the nature of change today—its pace and complexity—has focused development efforts and resources on leadership.

Consider the evolution of coaching from life coaching (in its earliest days) to productivity or performance coaching around the turn of this century. Then, around 2014, the primary reason for hiring a coach began trending to leadership development.

As we enter 2018, this shift will continue. Research from ICF (International Coaching Federation) has revealed this trend (see grids to right and below).

The Being of Being a Leader

In truth, most of us adopt a blend of leadership and management competencies to satisfy expectations and produce results. Still, employing the “leadership” part of this blend requires knowing what to develop or expand. And this challenge, today, has become the interest and focus of learning and development professionals. Developing leaders and increasing leadership capacity is quite distinct from enhancing management performance or expanding productivity.

What is it, then, that finds leaders being a leader? What is the being of being a leader—the mindset— required for leadership? This essence must be present for all else to manifest. Without this foundation, leadership falters.

At its core, this function and nature of being is available for all humans to access directionally toward greater integration, wholeness, and freedom in any situation. It is what has leaders open to change, to cope with change, and to evolve with change in ways that develop others for the next paradigm.

These questions speak to meaning-making, language, thoughts and perceptions: the mindset of a leader. This mindset requires many inner strengths often overlooked or, worse yet, dismissed in organizational life. These inner qualities require the cultivation of a fundamental intelligence that is a priori to all other skills, abilities, or practices.

It is this being of a leader I wish to explore as well as posit four intelligences regarding being. I will begin with the four intelligences: Awareness, Trust/Integrity, Authenticity, and Commitment.

Four Intelligences of Being a Leader

Much of this work comes by way of researching and observing this phenomenon through philosophy, art, and science. Much of it also came from teaching leadership both to graduate and undergraduate students, not as a field of study “about leaders” but as a way to explore for oneself. This provided a practice field for learners to develop that mindset in a given semester or program.

These four intelligences, when cultivated and developed, will focus efforts on the specific charge of increasing leadership capacity.

In the next three blog posts, I will present this work to share these insights. This blog will examine Awareness. The next will explore Trust/Integrity. The final (4th) post in this series will bring these four intelligences together with abilities and skills that predict proficiency in each.

Leadership Intelligence 1: AWARENESS

This most elemental capacity opens us to our experiences.

The term “awareness” is often used as a vague and general proxy for paying attention to external realities and focusing on tasks and results. It is thus often assumed that when we speak of awareness, we all know what we are referring to.

Our Western worldview, however, encourages becoming present without delving into the fullness of an awareness distinct from intelligence, knowledge, or understanding. We are often aware of occurrences without being mindful of them, that is, aware of music without hearing lyrics or melodies, aware of art without being moved by its beauty or truth, or aware of food without tasting it, experiencing its flavors or sensations in our body or enjoying the culture that a bite can offer.

Given that most of our work, our social interactions, and our information-based lives involves saturation and overload, with increasing complexity that draws on our mental states, cultivating true awareness becomes critical just to unload and survive.

Awareness includes external and internal awareness through observation, reflection, and introspection. Any leadership program designed to develop (not study) leaders must begin with awareness as the basis of the journey. Awareness requires several layers. The grid below details the evolution of awareness within our work and practice.

Aware Leaders

First is the leader’s requirement to offer a credible interpretation of reality or the present moment. Without a credible view of the current situation, people are unlikely to take the necessary leap of faith to create change or engage an uncertain future.

Getting the facts down, discerning assertions (facts) from assessments (beliefs and interpretations), grounding assessments in reliable evidence, andDOWNLOAD PDF

Lessons from my first Stand-up Routine

NOTE: The following post, from my colleague Neil Ruiz, reveals what it’s like to marshal the courage to act in the face of fear — to his own surprise. —TZ



For a couple years now, I’ve wanted to do a stand-up comedy routine. Not sure why, but I had this desire. Then, during our team retreat last June, as we went over our 12-month goals, I declared to my colleagues: “I will do a stand-up routine in the next year.” Just spitting it out made it real, made me hear it, and made me quite fearful.

As I discussed it with close friends and my fiancée, Lydia, I saw that standing on a stage in front of strangers could support me in future work as a leader, to calm my nerves, practice presence, and engage strangers.

I recalled a favorite quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing that scares you every day.

This Was Now Real


I started off by researching local stand-up comedy classes. I wanted to take a class first, so that I would be ready, prepared, and know what I’m doing. But every time a class opened up, I would say “oh, that’s too much money right now” or “oh, I have a scheduling conflict.These were excuses that probably arise often for others. At some point, I realized so many months had passed.

So, I just declared I would end up doing it without a class: boy was this now intimidating! It required lots of time, I thought. Time to write jokes, time to re-write them, time to practice.

With that declaration, and without the excuse and comfort of a class, jokes started coming to me during life moments. Someone pointed out a birthmark I have under my left eye, and I found a joke. Another came to me waiting for the subway train on a hot, humid, summer day, thinking, I don’t need to go the gym for a sauna, I got one right here!

I capture these everyday moments in my small notebook I carry with me everywhere. Eventually, I realized I had enough material to step onto the stage.

But then, here came those thoughts. Mulling, pondering and playing with it in my head, I wondered: Am I prepared enough, am I ready? How will I do this? More time passed. Months dissolved as I discovered my familiar pattern: Mulling/Pondering → talking about it → Mulling/Pondering → talking about it… repeat.

Countdown …


It was getting close to our annual progress report with colleagues. My list included many items but there was that one incomplete public declaration: to do a stand-up routine. I had almost forgotten about it. What to do?

Facing that realization got me into action in a new way. I wanted to break through any hesitation and complete this item. Ironically, I listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast about how to get into stand-up comedy, and a comedian suggested that the best way to get better at stand up, is to go up there and just do it.

I then remembered Q.E.D., a local “Place to Show & Tell” that I visited often. I immediately shared with Lydia, that I was considering finally doing it. She replied excitedly: “do it!

Again, like before, I became overwhelmed with fear. Nervousness kicked in, as it started to become real again. Doubts rushed in. But now I recognized that familiar pattern so I pushed through and began to type up all of the jokes and connect them in a story. I rehearsed at home, timed it, at around 3 min, the required time.

Then came the day.

Even More Real


As I entered Q.E.D., I noticed several comedians I’d seen perform, ready to go. I panicked. My mind reminded me: my stuff’s not good enoughWho am I to share a stage with these seasoned comics. Then I started censoring my work: I won’t tell these two jokes, they’re dumb.

With at least 20 other comedians signed up, I found myself backing away from performing for that night. I thought to myself, I’m not ready!! I need more time to practice.

Then the bartender asked Lydia if she was signing up to perform. She said “No, but he may do it”, pointing right at me. I looked over and said, “oh no, this is my first time; it’s a bit intimidating tonight...” Right then, the bartender cut me off and calmly said, “just start off by saying it’s your first time, and they’ll be supportive.” That immediately calmed me down. I chose to do it.

I was fourth on stage. I walked up to the mic and noticed the brightness of the lights. Then I started my set… I noticed a rush of nerves that had me going a bit fast. I just wanted to vomit my whole set and walk off stage. Get it done as soon as possible, I thought. Now, I used to be in the U.S. Army, and while I served, I parachuted out of airplanes and even that wasn’t as scary! They say that public speaking is scarier for most than heights or even death. I now understand this. But then, I relied on what I practiced, how I wanted to deliver each story and punchline. I set aside my thoughts about the audience and whether they were laughing. And just told each joke.

As I walked off stage I realized I had done it! I didn’t melt and was still standing. Thinking back, the crowd was supportive. They laughed here and there and offered some applause.

Life’s a Stage …

I also understand some things I wouldn’t have learned without those 3 minutes onDOWNLOAD PDF

Trump’s Leadership Mindset: Is It “Presidential”?

October 20 marked nine months since our new president took office. The news, popular culture, and political observers have either labeled him fascist and authoritarian, destructive and impulsive, or strong and bold. These responses typically speak to a political style or personality, rather than a leadership mindset. Exploring mindsets provides a comprehensive view of the assumptions, attitudes, and perspectives that shape leadership capacity, and focus management decisions, which account for multiple styles.

To engage this assessment into Donald Trump’s leadership mindset, I have considered his business history, behavior, actions, several biographies, and public statements.

Stages of Development

Mindsets grow out of each stage of developmentCarol Dweck’s research distinguished growth and fixed mindsets, addressing what keeps us in fixed mindsets, as detailed in a previous blog. When expanding, each mindset evolves directionally toward greater inclusion, complexity, and freedom.

Theoretically, stage development combines several learning and cognitive theories such as Erik Erikson’s (psychosocial), Jean Piaget’s (cognitive), Lawrence Kohlberg’s (moral), and Carol Gilligan’s (ethics-relationship). I also consulted Bill Torbert’s (action-logics) and Jane Loevinger’s/Susanne Cook-Greuter’s (ego-identity integration), along with Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s leadership development (adult development) theory of Harvard. Finally, Ken Wilber’s integral model combines these theories and work by Don Beck and Clare Graves in a comprehensive framework.

Generally, there are three large (macro) stages of development based on ego integration: 1) Pre-Rational/Conventional, 2) Rational/Conventional, and 3) Post-Rational/Conventional. The following grid outlines the stages by theorist Ken Wilber, integrating research by Susanne Cook-Greuter and models by Bill Torbert.

Below, I describe these three macro stages (and mindsets). Exploring these macro stages with mindsets in parenthesis, we can see what is apparent: Trump is located in the Pre-Conventional Stage — or earliest stage of development.

Pre-Conventional/Rational – Cares about winning and power

This stage is defined by the pre-rational self, erratic and juvenile behavior that defies rules or norms. At 5% of the population, this earliest stage is akin to the desires of a toddler or adolescent and typically includes two leadership/management mindsets: the Impulsive Self (level 2) and Opportunist Self (level 2/3). In this stage, the center of focus is “self-centric.”

Demanding loyalty, these leaders are most inefficient, hampered by impulsive needs and self-inflicted crises. Their effectiveness relies on using force, making deals, or issuing threats to accomplish goals.

Communication usually involves simplistic notions, black-and-white (all or nothing/us-against-them) thinking, debating or defending positions to seek compliance. These leaders tend to favor absolutes, resulting in ultimatums or brinkmanship.

Trump has remained at this stage; his “transactional” language was highlighted in a previous blog.

This recent piece, “McMaster Wants to Save the Iran Deal by Hiding It From Trump,” illustrates how others must manage those at this stage more like toddlers than colleagues: According to a congressional Democratic aide, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster conveyed, “

[Trump] wants this out of sight and out of mind.”

Conventional/Rational – Cares about achieving results and knowledge”

Defined by the rational self, this stage employs rule-focused, data-driven, evidence-based decision-making, leading to a strategic focus from a larger purpose. This stage includes roughly three mindsets evolving from the ConformistDiplomatic Self (level 3), to the Expert Self (level 3/4), and then the Achiever Self (level 4).

These leaders shift loyalty from personality to competency of rules, skills, and knowledge, operating at a level of independence sufficient to produce consistent results. They demonstrate efficiency as reliable taskmasters through various competencies and are effective by marshaling facts to persuade others and prioritizing goals in a strategic manner.

Communication is marked by active listening with primacy on the accuracy of facts and knowledge to achieve desired outcomes.

Post-Conventional/RationalCares about relating and mutual understanding”

At 15% of the population, this stage is defined by the relative self, highlighted by empathy, appreciating pluralism, and driven by continuous learning and self-actualizing to serve a larger good. Three mindsets in this stage include the Individualist Self (level 4/5), Autonomous-Strategist Self (level 5), and the Alchemist Self (5/6) marked by expanded levels of interdependence.

These leaders reach beyond effective and efficient, collaborating to fulfill higher ideals and purpose to scale efforts. They grow from mistakes, seeking out feedback to expand. This level of leadership is most complex, integrating many perspectives, ideas, and assumptions — usually operating from a systems thinking view.

Communication is marked by empathy and appreciation for differing points of view. These leaders seek out multiple perspectives to develop greater understanding and a larger view of an issue. Marked by nuanced and subtle communications, they avoid black-and-white assertions or binary thinking.

Not ideal for elective office — where power and strength are often conflated with brute force or cleverness — these mindsets are sought out in professional or expert fields, governmental services, or large-scale enterprises.

What is Presidential?

Exploring presidential begins with acknowledging that most higher elective offices typically require a balance of capacities, skills, and experiences that begin evolving in the Conventional/Rational stage.

A search on the term “presidential” retrieved a consensus on the definition of “befitting the dignity and character of the presidency.” As far back as George Washington, “presidential” was being used in reference to character rather than power, as detailed in this letter to George Washington, from the Mickve Israel congregation (published in the Providence Gazette, July 3, 1790):

“We have long been anxious to congratulate you on your appointment, by unanimous approbation, to the Presidential dignity of this country, and of testifying our unbounded confidence in your integrity and unblemished virtue.”

“Presidential” attributes can be found beginning in Conventional Stage mindsets. At 80% of the population, the mindsets at this stage encompass most public servants, politicians, and government professionals.

Much of the concern about Trump’s disposition or temperament pointed to his failure to meet these minimum characteristics — to defer to reason in a coherent manner — as emphasized by mindsets in the Conventional Stage. Recent presidents and candidates Bill Clinton,DOWNLOAD PDF

Discover Self Through Practice

I recall the time when I relived the experience of practice. It was 2005, and I had registered to live in a Zen monastery for a month. Having studied for five years I presumed an understanding of Zen. I spoke with a monk, sharing my perception of a Zen concept. He smiled and simply asked, how often do you sit?

In that moment I got clear that whatever I thought I knew, it wasn’t Zen; the knowing of which comes from direct experience through practice.

Practice and Performance

That Zen moment transported me back to my adolescence as a musician, playing guitar or bass in our school’s jazz ensemble, or percussion in our marching band. My practice involved daily rituals with scales, beats, tone, form, melodies, syncopation, reading, etc.

In class, we focused on selected pieces and measures to prepare for a few performances each semester. That level of attention, focus, and rigor sustains me today when I write, listen, or enjoy the details of life. If not for music, I might not have heard that Zen monk, and shifted to practice for the sake of practice.

In any performance-based endeavor, practice is the important element that allows for continual growth, discovery, and expansion as well as honing skills and acuity. Artists, writers, photographers, athletes, and actors practice 90% to realize 10% performance.

Businesses, however, favor performance over practice, where as little as 10% practice must sustain 90% performance. So then how in this day of vast change can we expand capacity, continually adapt to new situations, sustain performance, and enhance quality and creativity?

George Leonard, author of Mastery, asks “How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. If you’re planning to embark on a master’s journey, you might find yourself bucking current trends in American life. Our hyped-up consumerist society is engaged, in fact, in an all-out war on mastery.”

Those words describing American life in 1992 are even truer today.

Practice and Knowing

In the desire to perform more, better, and faster, we’ve replaced practice with concepts, and reduced experiences to knowledge. Through technology, tasks, and transactions, we think that we know the map of life without ever experiencing its territory. Worse yet, we mistake our construct for direct experience, keeping us from the power of education that arises out of discovery.

Sadly, our American business culture has over time, lost the appreciation of practicing, training, apprenticeship, imagination, and the cultivation of quality from sustained ritual.

We should follow the example of luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, who while struggling to find technicians to repair its expensive wristwatches, offered a practice rather than a job. In 2018, they opened a school at its New York office to train a new generation of watchmakers, in the practice of watchmaking where students spend “the first quarter of coursework around exercises centered in patience, designed to train focus”.

Japanese managers term this type of sustained practice, Kaizenor continuous improvement. Rooted in their culture, it seeks out long-term practice-based processes to facilitate small, incremental changes for improving efficiency and quality.

The Discipline in Quality

Though seemingly lost in organizational life, discipline in practice is a tenet appreciated by artists, writers, photographers, athletes, musicians, and performers. People often marvel at processes employed by writers, or routines practiced by athletes. These processes begin with discipline.

Writer’s write. They string ideas together every day. They pound out words to knead them into stories, read other writer’s tales, observe the details of life, and hone skills to capture reality, much like a photographer captures a moment. A magazine photographer may take 3000 to 4000 shots to capture the right moment. And yet they practice a lifetime to recognize that moment.

In his book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates ruminates on practice: “I wanted a certain voice for the piece, a certain beat—again, I could hear it, but I could not capture it. Now I know that this was part of the process, that this was part of the practice, and with every effort I drew closer to manifesting the music in my head.”

The Value of Technique

In times of disruption and distraction, our firm embraces these 12 Zen guides for timeless reflections, which we use as the basis of our firm’s contemplative practice. Like Zen monks who honor practice as the context for living each day, we believe a life of practice begins with technique to hone form.

1. Do one thing at a time.
2. Do it slowly and deliberately.
3. Do it completely.
4. Do less.
5. Put space between things.
6. Develop rituals.
7. Designate time for certain things.
8. Devote time to sitting.
9. Smile and serve others.
10. Make cleaning and cooking become meditation.
11. Think about what is necessary.
12. Live simply.

Practicing Life

What if we took everyday life and engaged it as practice? What if we used seemingly ordinary and repetitive chores to improved human qualities? How does raking leaves or slicing potatoes prepare us for our way in life? Consider this:

  • Washing dishes can be meditative.
  • Caring for plants hones cultivation and elegance.
  • The practice of balancing my checkbook fosters accuracy.

Repetitive tasks focus our attention on the nature of an object which in turn serves to reveal its qualities. Engaging in ritual reveals the way we perceive, and the clarity of our focus. In all these instances, we practice life. Practice becomes a way to discover the quality of life.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to elites in any field as finding love with what they do, and at some point, it no longer feels like work.

“The elite don’t just work harder than everyone else. At some point, they fall in love with practice to the point where they want to do little else. Elites,DOWNLOAD PDF

What’s Growing in Your Conversational Garden?

Years ago, a mentor with vexing regularity would remind me to look at what’s growing in my Bodhi garden. The gentle reminder irritated me because it brought home a stinging reality, that – if I choose to accept it – I am a co-creator of what shows up in my life.

After some resistance, I begrudgingly peered over to see that in fact, I had a Bodhi garden, where life showed up. The term Bodhi means “awakened”– an undeserving attribute for my garden, as my resistance revealed a low-level woke-ness.

Still, the idea that we travel life as gardeners stuck with me.

Our Garden is a Conversational Network

A garden was a metaphor to illustrate life as a conversational network. Let me begin with some terms.

First, consider that life exists in a conversational domain – a lens through which to view reality, in this case as conversations. Facts, actions, feelings, experiences, friends, systems, identities, and products all interlink as an interwoven web of conversations. We also consume or employ interpretations to connect and sustain conversations to experience reality.

Through the lens of a conversational domain, everything says something about our lives: the car I drive, books I read, coffee I drink, my friends, family and job, where I socialize, food I eat, how I tip servers … everything. Each is connected to – or is a result of – our speaking and listening. Poet David Whyte considers this question in his poem on the Conversational Nature of Reality.

Second, consider that we ARE a conversation representing or messaging our contribution or effort. Whether managed or not, we show up as conversations: our identity, persona, reputation, character, accomplishments, or failures speak for us whether or not we are present. Who we are, what we do, and what we have speaks for and about us.

Third, we also HAVE conversations. Each of us travels in a conversational network. Consider this our conversational diet. Conversations we consume create the conditions that expand or shape our conversational network. In other words, if we are what we eat, then our lives are marked by the conversations we consume.

Conversations Create us

So then when reality disappoints us, let’s not ask: Why did that happen? as if “that” is out there, in-the-world independent of us. Rather we might ask: Why do I say that?

This is not mystical or magical, it is intentional – a design that lives in our speaking and listening.

In their book The Four Conversations,” Jeffrey Ford, Ph.D., and Laurie Ford Ph.D. discuss four fundamental, yet underused, conversations in business. When employed in the workplace, these conversations can engage or initiate action, enroll support, increase performance, assess situations, clarify understanding, create closure, and open new possibilities.

These conversations are not mere tools to produce change; they embody the air we breathe to access and influence human endeavors. When we view businesses, systems, and organizations as networks of conversations we observe that they speak and say something. Conversations, then, are both content (to inform) and context (to form): We embody and convey meaning, which generates the conversations that then construct reality, as a network of conversations.

Moreover, when we pay attention to our garden, as our conversational network, we notice what we are saying and have access to making a difference. Are you aware of your conversational network? Do you know which conversations create conditions that connect you with some and not others; that have you engage certain activities and not others; that have you consider certain possibilities and not others?

Cultivating Your Conditions

Before we begin growing our garden, let’s cultivate some conditions.

Space: Is there space to grow the bounty you wish? Can new things emerge or is every space cluttered, is your spare time full of tasks, and every silent moment filled with idle chatter? Anything different requires space to grow newly. Consider that after leaving a relationship, or a job, we often require time to change course. If not, we reflexively leap back into a familiar pattern. That space affords us a clearing, a new perspective to surface questions and challenge assumptions.

Openness: What are you open to receiving? What changes or learning do you require to alter the conversations in your network? Are you open to new ideas or conversations, or do you resist them? Are your conversations tired, or superficial? If so, are you willing to upgrade them? Can you receive input on current items that require change?

Intention: Whether aware of them or not, our intentions shape our speaking and listening. What is your conversational diet, and is it a match for your intentions in life? Do you merely prattle on about being a writer with those at a local pub on weekends or in a monologue with yourself? Becoming a writer will require consuming conversations by those involved in writing (either through literature or in dialogue). A clear intention will find you engaging those conversations.

These three conditions cultivate a growing conversational network. They are akin to the soil, sunlight, temperature, and climate required for a robust garden. Each is taken for granted unless they are lacking.

Growing Your Conversational Network

With our conditions established we begin gardening, to practice.

Plowing = Loosen the ground (your mind) to plant new conversations in your garden. Much of this involves creating practices to honor the three conditions above to remain open, intentional and with space. Exercising, eating clean, getting enough sleep, and meditating are good practices to upgrade conversations about “self,” to plow new ground.

Seeding = Plant new conversations with invitations, resources, learning, and practices to cultivate the best crops (ideas) that support your intentions. Invest time in growing a new conversation by accepting an invitation to a seminar, or reaching outside of your network. Be patient withDOWNLOAD PDF

Skillful Coping: A Test for Servant Leaders

In 1990, John Kotter published his classic paper “What Leaders Really Do” in the Harvard Business Review. Central to the piece he distinguished between managers and leaders, somewhat controversial at the time. Such distinctions were met with skepticism; thought of as useless. Today, we rely on Kotter’s work as an important building block when navigating the leadership terrain:

  • Managers optimize the current paradigm and cope with complexity.
  • Leaders create new paradigms and cope with change.

I recall in 2001 when redesigning the graduate program in Organizational Leadership at Mercy College, some faculty bristled at the use of Kotter’s word “cope.” Our program was rooted in the business school and “coping” didn’t seem very business-like. Ultimately, I relented and used another term. But Kotter’s chosen word is most revealing and relevant.

To cope is to employ emotional, functional or problem-solving strategies that can adapt to or reduce stress. As a term, skillful coping involves facing responsibilities or difficulties, especially successfully, in a calm manner. Today, we all struggle with coping, just to get through the day.

Leaders and Change

While leaders and managers must cope with complexity, a leader’s primary function is to cope with change. And today that includes the trendy term, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) to explain the nature of change. Leaders are tasked with envisioning the scope of change, scaling in the face of change, enrolling support and communicating the urgency for change.

Clearly, the literature on leading and leadership emphasizes the dynamics of change. But the fallout and impact of change on humans, which can be unsettling and unpredictable, remains an afterthought.

We are confronted by a range of volatile change: absorbing new technology, using smarter devices, upgrading systems, engaging multiple communication platforms, collaborating across cultures, and communicating through conflict. The pace and volatility of change have increased stress and anxiety.

Beyond securing results, increasing performance, and executing on strategy, leaders must also become a source of relief and cultivate support. The onslaught of VUCA requires greater facility with a kind of skillful coping to leverage change. Fundamentally, leaders must first develop a capacity to cope with their own setbacks, confusion, and disorientation. Through mindful practices that focus attention and cultivate wisdom they can then become a trusted source of skillful coping for their colleagues.

Loss of Identity and Leadership

Two aspects of change persist, however: the impact of uncertainty and ambiguity on our identity. Our inability to predict certainty leads to internal ambiguity, doubt, and insecurity. The notion of an identity crisis — a once-in-a-lifetime event around mid-life — can now confront us several times, beginning much earlier in life.

We become disoriented.

Four common areas of identity – politics, religion, gender, and career – often moor our sense of self, and can evolve or shift in the face of constant change. A quick glance at our popular culture and media, and we find these notions in flux. Politics is fragmented, marked by extremes; spirituality expands our notion of religion; gender is more fluid; and, careers have a shorter shelf-life.

Such ambiguity extends beyond the workplace into personal, cultural and societal domains. And yet, for many these shifts all converge in the professional space. Many of us find ourselves questioning our purpose, losing agency, outgrowing relationships, and without direction. What is our role? What do we believe? How do we act or relate? How do we communicate?

Ambiguity can be disconcerting. We can find the ground dissolving beneath us. Once certain routines become counterproductive, solid beliefs are questioned, stable communication platforms are disrupted, reliable plans crumble, and roles which were clear become incoherent.

The world appears disjointed and confusing. We experience conflicting emotions, insecurities, and heightened anxiety. And in the midst of such ambiguity we are expected to remain calm, clear, consistent and of course productive.

So then what is a leader to do?

The Primacy of Skillful Coping

The focus on change – envisioning, creating, scaling or responding to it – must now include the notion of skillful coping with change. In the face of drastic change, leaders are now called to be healers, stewards, and teachers – judged by their level of openness rather than cleverness. These are not the roles for which most have been trained or developed. Speaking gives way to listening; telling gives way to showing; fixing gives way to developing.

In the face of drastic change leaders are now called to be healers, stewards, and teachers – judged by their level of openness rather than cleverness.

Today meaning-making is as important as is facts and forecasts. The way a person absorbs change and interprets facts impacts desired outcomes. Purpose, values, vision, the pace of change and enrolling support have become as important as resource allocation and economic calculations.

The grid below offers three evolving mindsets. Each expands to include the previous mindset of skillful coping. As change has evolved, skillful coping has grown from strategies and practices to cultivating wisdom and meaning-making that deepens listening as reliable and consistent support for others.

skillful coping grid Click to Enlarge

Disruptive Change Rewrites Leadership

But the dynamics of change often dominate its impact. We focus on change as a market-driven tactic or leadership technique, while belying its fallout, or the level of coping required to absorb change. Our Zeitgeist today, unfortunately, fetishizes and misconstrues “disruption,” reducing it to a tactic, or competitive advantage — rather than a significant context. Disruption is descriptive as a state of change NOT predictive as a leadership technique, or a competitive advantage.

Entrepreneurs and owners do not need to become disruptive to get ahead; instead, they must learn to cope with disruptive environments. Indeed, becoming mindful in the face of disruption offers consistency, not chaos; calm rather than become part of the calamity. “On a boat in the middle of one great storm, one wise calm person canDOWNLOAD PDF

“Safety” is Risky for Learning

In his book Leap First: Creating Work that Matters, branding guru, and author, Seth Godin invites us to consider two choices that guide our lives: Safer or Better.

Safer leads to security and comfort from the planned and predictable.

Better involves taking risks in unpredictable situations to make a difference.

In this world of disruptive change, Seth warns of the costs of playing it safe. His framework distinguishes between comfort zone and safety zone. Today, playing it safe is actually riskier and taking risks may be the safest path — at work, in our career, and especially in learning.

Educating for Predictable, Learning for Unpredictable 

Our methods of learning, however, have this backward. Education is all in the “safer” bucket. It involves training and planning for the predictable. It requires skills that optimize comfort and security. The result is to avoid risk and reinforce our knowledge.

The “better” barrel, however, involves making a difference. It requires taking risks to learn and unlearn the skills necessary to create in unpredictable situations. The result is to seek out risks that question and challenge our knowledge.

Education today lacks unpredictable challenges. Instead, it has become a “tool” for avoiding or controlling fear, not a possibility for transcending its grip. Philosopher, Eric Hoffer captures this dynamic in these volatile times:

“In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.” 

Actual learning that makes us better, requires growth, not just training. And growth is uncomfortable. We struggle to move from what we know to what lies in the unknown. We stretch our boundaries and become more, become better.

Learning today makes us better precisely because it isn’t safe, comfortable or predictable. Through challenging topics and experiences that encourage struggle, confusion, and discomfort, we grow by taking risks and losing ourselves. Growth makes us better, but first, it requires unlearning and self-discovery, which can be most unsettling.

An uncomfortable question or topic followed by a silent pause provides the struggle to shake up settled minds. Seeking questions rather than rewarding answers will confuse learners that expect teachers to spoon feed them “knowledge.” Requiring learners to risk themselves and fail, or try something new will shed those old playbooks that place getting a grade over taking a risk and self-discovery.

Any gleam of self-discovery opens us to let go of outmoded views, beliefs, and assumptions, many closely tied to our identity. Continual learning will find us not recognizing ourselves!

Safety vs. Sacred

Most well-meaning professionals believe that only in safe environments can we take risks. But safe environments are designed to protect us from risk and loss. For whom are these “safe” environments designed, teachers or learners?

The preoccupation with safety actually avoids any risk or suffering in favor of protection and comfort, avoids growth for the predictable, and avoids the unknown for security.

Instead of focusing on safety that ensures comfort and security, we need a space that unifies a shared commitment. Not to protect from, but to encourage, struggle: to foster self-discovery, and engage the irritation essential for growth. Sacred spaces are intentionally designed to embrace self-discovery — to guide us inward to see ourselves newly. A short exploration of Safety and Sacred reveals this shift.

Safety: the condition of being protected from, or unlikely to cause, danger, risk, injury, or loss.

  • The condition or feeling of being safe, certain or secure.
  • Secure from the threat of danger, harm, or loss.
  • Unlikely to produce controversy or contradiction.

Sacred: devoted exclusively to a single use, purpose or intention; worthy of respect, or dedication.

  • Unlike Holiness or sanctity, which refers to a divinity or deity, “sacredness” refers to objects, places, or happenings.
  • In Emile Durkheim’s theory, sacred represented the interests of the group, a solidarity, and unity, embodied in group symbols.
  • In Theravada Buddhism sacred designates a ‘noble person’ depending on their level of purity, which for Buddhists reveals the level of attained dharma (teachings) practice.

Learning as Sacred

What we are seeking here instead is a sacred space. Sacred as a commitment demands rigor and purpose. It is designed to challenge, discover and grow. Its nature requires introspection and vulnerability with rigorous practice and mutual respect. Such a commitment establishes ground rules and sets conditions and expectations that encourage risk. Exposed and vulnerable, we accept challenges and become accustomed to discomfort.

Absent this commitment, however, Sacred, too, can be reduced to just another “educational” goal or outcome to be marked and measured. Sacred as an observed output looks very different than when supported as an intentional input.

OUTPUT: As an outcome, sacred is reduced to a result under the mistaken goal that achieving it will then lead to learning. This mistake causes missed opportunities to confront views or challenge assumptions. As a “result,” our focus is on caution and harmony, and avoids the very risk and struggle that generate growth.

To prevent sacred from becoming just another result, we must hold it as an intention.

INPUT: As an intention, sacred is an input to guide the conditions that impact growth. Guided by that intention we let go of the result and focus instead on impacting learners through conditions, guidelines, and ground rules that encourage struggle, challenges, and unpredictable growth.

Sacred Spaces 

Sacred and safe seem similar. Still, what motivates each is subtle yet can encourage or diminish growth. Consider that concerns of safe-comfortable stem from “caution” while concerns of sacred-challenging stem from “care.” One avoids; the other embraces. The nuance here shapes what’s possible, and fosters what can emerge.

In sacred spaces, we support each other from a commitment to discover and grow. We notice and confront any triggers, confusion, or reactions caused by new content.DOWNLOAD PDF

Upgrading Conversations Beyond Idle Talk

A recent post from Harvard Business Review on superficial chit-chat discussed the challenges of becoming friendly with co-workers. It begins: How often have you had the following conversation at work?

How are you?
Good. You?

This is a script “we stick to even if we are dying inside.” Such a script does little to develop friendships, and yet the article reveals some surprising stats: People who have a “best friend” at work are happier and healthier, and are seven times as likely to be engaged in their job. Those with friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction.

Art of Conversation

I see something more fundamental at stake than friendship. What if we viewed conversations as the source of our lives and living? We consume food to enhance our physical wellness. What if conversational diets shaped our attitude, wellness, and mental and spiritual experience?

Try this. Notice when you are with someone who is whining or complaining about work or life. Are you left up or down, enlivened or drained?

If there is a conversational diet what are its nutrients?

To begin, let’s acknowledge that not all conversations are the same. Beyond their content is the meaning they convey. Whenever we chat, talk, or discuss with someone we are entering a minefield of meaning that can engage, enrich, inform, drain, or depress us. Let that sink in. Are you aware of your conversational diet and types?

Conversational Diet & Types

I offer four kinds of conversations found in our lives. I suggest we can shift the conversational diet we consume to share our experiences, enhance relationships, and even strengthen friendships.

Idle Talk. This level of conversation is marked by reflexive or habitual small talk and responses. It is automatic prattle, much like the script at the beginning of this article. It includes gossip, weather, simple feelings (likes, dislikes), sports teams, TV shows, or casual items from the internet or news.

Descriptive. This level of conversation includes sharing information or knowledge with details and specifics. It usually involves a desire to persuade or inform someone or to explore a topic together. Descriptive conversations are concerned with representing the facts of a situation and the world accurately. In most cases, these conversations clarify, engage, or understand transactions.

Expressive. This level of conversation moves inward to reveal our self. It can be vulnerable, emotional, or affective. We share personal experiences, invoking an immediate experience in others: a closeness, bonding, or relatedness that can invite others to open up. These might include sharing a recent setback, a marital struggle, how a pregnancy impacts your sense of self, or how a new role challenges your self-perception.

Generative. This level of conversation involves intention and action, facts and interpretation, conveyed in a way that creates action or insight. It moves the human spirit or evokes a commitment. A poet opens minds with generative language, as do leaders to engage action. Consider the moon shot speech from JFK:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade … not because

[it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….”

People who engage in generative conversations speak with intention. They issue calls, propose direction, or declare situations—all to engage others. They create change and generate action. These conversations are future-oriented: rather than complain about past events or speculate on current events, they act to engage the future.

Consuming Meaning

Take inventory of your daily conversations, as this will reveal your conversational diet. Most will be idle or descriptive as we respond to emails, make phone calls, and clarify information. When coordinating action, we may leap into generative language.

Now, consider your time with colleagues.

  • Do you remain habitually in idle talk or in descriptive conversations? These hollow calories lack nutritional value for meaningful nourishment.
  • Do you risk expressive conversations that can let others in? And engage in action together to extend yourselves?
  • Why do so many idle conversations show up for us to consume, and why is it you consume so many of them?
  • What stops you from engaging with others beyond idle talk or descriptive conversations?

Idle talk can serve as a form of social lubricant, much like an alcoholic beverage gets the conversation flowing. So then why don’t we ever get the conversation flowing? How long are you willing to grin and bear it?

Create Meaningful Moments

Avoid Idle Conversations: If you are consuming too many hollow conversations, cut these out or severely curb them. Notice who enlivens you, and cultivate those conversations.

Upgrading conversations from idle or descriptive is a matter of intention. Whether in email, on the phone, or in person, ask yourself: What connections can I create, or why am I involved with this person?

The following grids offer a framework to upgrade to expressive or generative conversations.

Allow yourself to venture beyond scripts, be curious, ask questions, listen intently, and respond freely. See what happens.

As stated above, the benefits of workplace connections are profound. We can create meaningful daily moments by being available for others, or having others listen to us—making it possible to release stress, relieve anxiety, and rejuvenate ourselves.

Moving beyond our screens, “likes,” tweets, emojis, and idle talk to extend ourselves provides a human connection that offers vitality and creates important and lasting shared experiences. Moreover, it offers a nutritional mix to our conversation diet that expands our awareness and enlivens our humanity.

Reading Time: 4 min. Digest

Summer Reads; Venturing East

In 1999, research and enduring questions pulled me East in study and practice. The turn of the century was for me the turn of a leaf. I kept coming across terms and concepts from the East that better described my experiences. Authors, thinkers, and mentors introduced concepts such as suffering (beyond a diagnosis), unlearningintention, awareness, nonduality, internal states, emptiness, impermanence, attachment, letting go, commitment, compassion, wisdom, being present, being versus doing — all ideas that motivated my journey East to Buddhism.

Opening to the East

Venturing East — in study and practice — opened me to a fuller understanding of the whole being that is the human condition. With each passing year, I’d read more, discover new practices, engage different parts of my humanity, and explore new sanghas and programs. Each exploration and encounter upended my Western worldview and expanded my mind.

Since the century mark, I’ve discovered how Eastern practices and philosophy can be most beneficial in business, leadership, education, and especially learning — given the fast pace of change, and increased anxiety and disruption.  I addressed this dynamic as a need for Mental Hygiene.

I offer these six books, which have made a difference for me: four classics, and a couple of newly released titles that offer some fresh insights. I’ve organized these into three sections 1) three Zen books on practices and mindfulness; 2) two selections on Tibetan Wisdom and techniques, and 3) one selection that returns to Zen in today’s world.

As a note, I’ve included video links to most of these authors to extend your learning.

Three Books on Zen Buddhism

These first three sections offer a journey on Zen, a basic, elegant and practice-orientated aspect of Buddhism that includes mindfulness. Zen is not about knowing concepts or possessing knowledge; it’s about bringing forth a direct experience through practicing. I recall my time in the monastery when I mentioned to a teacher that I “was familiar” with Buddhism. He smiled and quietly asked, how often do you sit? Direct experience through practice is the journey to Zen mind and awareness.

1 – Buddhism Plain & SimpleThe Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every DayWritten by Zen teacher Steve Hagen. This aptly titled book delivers on its promise to deliver Buddhism in plain and straightforward terms. Whenever anyone asks me about a clear and accessible way to enter an inquiry into Buddhism, I suggest this book and have since 2000 when I stumbled onto it.

Hagen’s mission is to wake us up to Buddhism as a philosophy of awareness, giving us the basics without ritual, ceremony or metaphysics. He succeeds brilliantly.

This is the book to offer your clients, students or colleagues who wish to begin without requiring study, Eastern theory or beliefs. Take it from Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “This is the clearest and most precise exposition of Buddhism I have ever read. If you’re looking for enlightenment rather than just scholarly knowledge, you’d better read this.”

2 – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practicethis classic published by Shunryu Suzuki in 1970 is more valuable and relevant today as it has ever been. What is it to be a beginner? To approach life as if each situation was presented for the first time. At one level, each situation is newly encountered.

Sure, we know what shaving is, and we know how to shave, but at this moment, we have never experienced this encounter with shaving. And with a beginner’s mind, if we are mindful, we can see and experience something new.

We live as if we know life’s moments — as if we’ve been here before, and as if what is happening now is not original. Hardest for humans is to be a beginner; more specifically, to say “I don’t know,” and to proceed in life from “not knowing.”

Interestingly,  I scare others most when I speak of “unlearning.” I mentioned this to a faculty colleague at Rutgers University; he froze and then stated, “don’t say that around here.” This is the challenge of Higher Ed. We train students to know but not to learn.

Learning requires unlearning. 

Suzuki cultivates Zen mind to access a fresh perspective in each moment as if it was new. Beginner’s Mind presents the basics—from the details of posture and breathing in zazen to the perception of nonduality—in a way that is not only remarkably clear, but that also resonates with the joy of insight found in our natural childlike wonder.

This is the perfect gift for students, clients, and colleagues who wish to begin Buddhist practices or mindfulness, or anyone who believes it’s time become a beginner in life. I review this text yearly and discover new gems (see blog).

3 – The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now (2017) by Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (video with Oprah) is the latest of his many volumes on mindfulness.

Before mindfulness became Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh distinguished the practices in everyday life such as mindful eating and how to love, how to walk, how to sit, and how to relax. These are among the more than 100 books he has authored.

I was first introduced to the writings of this Buddhist monk and peace activist, who fled his native Việt Nam to bring peace to the world, during a month-long sojourn living in a Zen monastery in 2005. His book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames spoke to my own darker issues with anger in ways that psychology and Western language fell miserably short.

Further, I was amazed that we shared this issue given how I experienced Hahn’s peacefulness and freedom so very far from the anger I once knew. With his work, I have grown to realize ways to befriend anger rather than control, suppress or avoidDOWNLOAD PDF

Mind-Opening Summer Reads

As Summer progresses, I’ve seen many lists of must-reads. Some to escape, others devoted to more serious issues. I’d like to offer two lists of books as important for your library, and for a provocative summer read. In this blog, I’ll offer the first list, six books that have opened my mind to impact my trajectory; and in my next blog, I will share a few titles that helped me venture East, specifically in Buddhism.

I’ve chosen these first six books as unique in impacting my thinking and opening my mind. Each has helped to support my journey to embrace change.

The Tipping Point is the first in a series of thought-provoking books by author and New Yorker contributor, Malcolm Gladwell, who has created a cottage industry as a thought leader’s, thought leader. He focuses on small ideas that can have a profound impact. Tipping Point, a term which is now part of our vernacular, points to those moments when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.

Originally published in 2002, this read is even more important in today’s complex environment as small things come to us with greater speed and are often overlooked. Gladwell offers situations and epidemics to illustrate Tipping Point’s three rules: The Law of Few; the Stickiness Factor; and, the Power of Context.

I’ve also enjoyed two other titles from Gladwell: Blink (2005) and Outliers (2008). For equally thought-provoking ideas, Gladwell’s Podcast Revisionist History impacts large questions through small details.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance represents a tender and notable peek into a declining demographic and worldview that is the Appalachian lifestyle and culture from someone whose family and ancestry lives, works and plays in this part of our nation. He delves into cultural mores while weaving in research, economic data and stats to back up some pretty powerful assertions on the loss of the American Dream for this cohort of Americans.

Vance is also refreshingly direct about his ancestry and culture: how they resist change and avoid certain truths. He also evokes compassion inviting us to venture beyond our bubble to reach out and build bridges to this slice of America.

Between The World and Me (2015) is award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer big questions about our nation’s ideals and its deep history of racism in a letter to his adolescent son. Written with the penetrating wisdom of James Baldwin and deep compassion of Maya Angelou, I carefully pondered each page of this read. Candidly, it took me months to fully absorb it.

Each chapter, dripping with truths that confronted my sensibilities, revealed how America has erected its “exceptional status” on the idea of “race,” a delusion that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men. Coates details how black bodies have borne the brunt of exploitation through slavery and segregation, while threatened, locked up, murdered, and often beaten down by police, today — out of all proportion to the rest of society.

Combined with Hillbilly Elegy this book-set fills an important cultural diet to unsettle open minds, confront settled beliefs, and increase our cultural IQ – perfect for a quantum leap in learning.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) peers back 100,000 years ago when at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Today there is one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us? This is the premise of the compelling read by Yuval Noah Harari whose approach to history combines biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology to take us on an unconventional journey inquiring into “how does power get translated to happiness or human suffering.” Sapiens weaves the story of humankind with items big and small such as how wheat and “counting” transformed our beliefs and ordered societies. He speaks of history by asking us to confront profound questions such as happiness:

The last 500 years have witnessed the breathtaking series of revolutions. The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairytales. Science and the industrial revolution had given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as head politics, daily life, and human psychology. 

But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into newfound contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have 70 or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gather 30,000 years ago left her handprint on the wall and Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agricultural cities, writing, coinage, empires, science, and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions. (376)

Join Yuval Harari’s Podcast as he unpacks our past and penetrates our future.

Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies (2013) by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaeufer expand on thinking from Theory U (second edition, 2016), Scharmer’s comprehensive theory explains current situations inside new contexts for leading. Briefly, our VUCA world defines our challenge this century: beyond political systems (1800s) or economic systems (1900s), we face a deficit of “Thinking” systems (2000s). We must update our economic logic and operating system from an obsolete “ego-system” focused entirelyDOWNLOAD PDF

What Can Brown M&Ms Say About Us?

You’ve probably heard the story about Van Halen and the Brown M&M’s. Before every concert, the legendary rock group required a bowl of M&Ms backstage, explicitly demanding “NO BROWN M&M’s.” These requirements were listed in the middle of lengthy Rider to their performance contract.

The requirements in the Rider, attached to the contract, were quite explicit: As lead singer David Lee Roth explained in a 2012 interview, the bowl of M&Ms indicated to him whether concert promoters had actually read the band’s complicated contract.

“Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights — huge lights — around the country,” Roth said. “At the time, it was the biggest production ever.” In many cases, outdated venues were inadequately prepared to set up the band’s sophisticated stage.

“If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I didn’t see brown M&Ms on the catering table, then it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check” of the entire stage setup, Roth said.

The rock band was one of the first to employ large-scale lighting equipment that required extra attention, essential to their performance — and perhaps their safety on stage. The Brown M&Ms provided a necessary quality control shortcut to gauge whether promoters had spent the extra time doing a “serious line check.”

A System of Brown M&Ms.

The idea deployed by Roth is akin to Trim Tab Theory. Trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of the larger rudder on a boat or aircraft, to counteract hydro- or aerodynamic forces and stabilize the boat or aircraft in a desired altitude or direction without the need to constantly apply a control force. A small effort, adjusting the angle of the tab relative to the larger surface, shifts the larger direction.

20th-century inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller, who worked as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ to solve global problems used the Trim Tab Metaphor as key to transformation and growth: “What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”

To be clear, if we view ourselves as co-creators of our lives rather than at the effect of circumstances, then the way we observe and prioritize small details positions us to leverage the seemingly trivial with minimal effort to impact significant changes.

We live in a Trim Tab world — a time of Chaos Theory or The Butterfly Effect — a system of brown M&Ms. Small fulcrums, leverage points, or trim tabs – details that cut through the noise and distractions — can offer incredible clues. Paying attention to these signs often effects significant change or provides clarity to engage what matters most.

When is a Project More Than a Project?

Years ago, I read a case about a new CEO taking over a company that had become complacent. His first priority: to bring in fresh blood. But how would he determine who to keep and who to dismiss? He needed to act in his first weeks to right the direction of the company.

The CEO emailed all his VPs, detailing a task he requested due in two weeks. In truth, the project took about half-a-day to complete. The VPs fell into four groups: Some VPs completed the task in a couple of days (group 1), some completed before the due date (group 2) others completed it on the due date (group 3), and the rest were late with some explanation (group 4).

The new CEO fired those in groups 3 and 4 and kept anyone who was early (groups 1 and 2). He reckoned that the complacency at the company had come from a lack of urgency that had set into his senior team. He opted not to manage this issue, but rather honor those VPs who could pull themselves together and create urgency for this request.

Brown M&Ms in The Details of Life.

What do you pay attention to? Will you miss that request or detail, causing you a future promotion, business opportunity, or important invitation? How we leverage details can come to define us: about what we notice, what we miss, and how we prioritize choices.

Online Presence. Begin with your online presence. Snarky comments, crude tweets or obscene photos posted on Monday can get you fired by Friday. Inspect your online presence with this rule in mind: how would that look on the front page of the New York Times. 

Writing Material. HR managers and supervisors seldom tolerate spelling mistakes or typos on a resume or cover letter. A simple professional proofread is all it takes to fix them. Use the four-eye rule: Do not let any written material represent you until it’s been read by four eyes (your two, and one other pair).

Reading Material. When reviewing email or other written documents look for numbers and time-metrics (days, months, noon, etc.) to prioritize items. These “metrics” represent a higher level of intention – details that reveal accountabilities and are often urgent and closer to action. Which of these requests would stand out among several paragraphs in an email or document? Which of them would be acted on?

  1. I am behind in my work and really could use some support soon.
  2. I am behind in my work and need 2 staff members by Friday, July 1.

A detailed person often expects detailed attention. Scanning communications for numbers and days will help you highlight what’s important, reprioritize your time, and act on, manage, or negotiate requests before it is too late.

Pause before choosing. Possibly the most critical life trim tab today, an infinitesimal small item that has a profound impact, is a simple pause before choosing to speak or act.DOWNLOAD PDF

The Power of (which) WHY

In a previous Blog, Are You a Jet Skier or Scuba Driver? I detailed the difference in human terms between our focus on WHAT and WHY. That is, the focus on attention (WHAT) and intention (WHY).

The questions of WHAT vs WHY seem to dog us as we deal with an abundance of distractions, as stated by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains.

Carr laments that “what we created with computers and the Internet was a system of distraction. We got the great rewards of having basically unlimited information at our fingertips, but the cost of that was we created a system that kept us in a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption.”

The focus on What by itself trains us to think at the surface level of life (breadth of attention) and ignores or overlooks WHY (depth of attention) which delves deeper to intention, purpose, and meaning. Before exploring these questions, consider these insights:

WHAT = Focus on Content: products and results to increase assets.

HOW = Focus on Process: activity to optimize performance.

WHY = Focus from Context: purpose to enhance meaning.

Apples & Oranges: WHY & WHAT

In his book, “Start With Why” Simon Sinek makes a compelling argument as to WHY must be the starting point for any organization. He develops this point in a TED talk on leadership, where he says, “WHY: Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.

“When I say WHY I don’t mean to make money – that’s a result.” This line of thinking mirrors Jim Collins‘ work (Built to Last), which introduced purpose: “Profit is not a purpose, it’s a goal.” In this video, Sinek gets to the heart of WHY.

“By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”

As with Apple, when communicating from the inside out, the WHY is offered as the reason to buy and the WHATs serve as the tangible proof of that belief.

Apple’s development of the iPod (like the original Macintosh and iMac) … and each product since … was driven by their desire to challenge the status quo. To think differently.

They happen to make products that are beautiful and user-friendly…but that is the WHAT. WHAT organizations do are external factors, but WHY they do it is something deeper.

The shift to intention (WHY) binds purpose and meaning to shape our attention (WHAT). This short clip of Michael Jr. reveals the difference WHY makes in everyday life.

Getting to WHY

As we see above, Apple has insane products but these come from the spark between Jobs and