Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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Naming

How strange and beautiful names are.

We know we are not our names. You and I are not a Justin or a Sue, a Peter or a Dan, a Zephaniah or a Helen, a Lucy or a Grace, even if that is what we have been called all our lives. Our names never capture us in our completeness, our wholeness, or our complexity.

And yet we also know that our names are powerful. With them we can be referenced, talked about, called to account, questioned, criticised, recalled, honoured, resented, planned for, dignified and loved in ways that would not have been possible before human beings had names for one another.

What we name becomes available to us. Naming brings us into relationship. Naming directly shapes who and what we’ll notice and pay attention to. And naming shapes who and what we have to take care of, just as avoiding names shapes what we’ll ignore.

And this is why it’s important we find out what we’re resisting naming – in our families, organisations and politics. And why finding accurate names for what we’re turning away from is a deep and necessary act of creativity, dignity, and responsibility for one another.

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Atrophy

It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

listen
pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

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Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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Your family, your team

Here’s a powerful method for working with, and talking about, the unconscious projection of family relationships onto other situations (your team, for example).

1 Map your own family

Start by drawing your own family system – the one in which you grew up. Include everyone who seemed a significant presence to you during your childhood, for better or for worse – parents and siblings in particular, and perhaps aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Map it out on a piece of paper. Draw a circle for each person, with the distance from you showing the amount of contact, and the thickness of line showing the quality of relationship you had (thicker = stronger). For example:

If you wish you can give more detail to your map by noting the mood of each relationship you’re mapping (supportive, caring, threatening, confusing etc).

2 Map your team

Now think about your current work team as if it were a family.

Who do you think takes up what roles? Can you see parents, siblings, cousins, outsiders? What is the age order in this system (it may not be the same as your actual age order)? Who is close in, who is further out? Include yourself in this exploration – specifically, who are other people in the team to you (older brother, younger sister, cousin, parent etc)?

Draw out your team ‘family’ in the same way you did when you mapped your own family.

Do you notice any connections? Similarities? Resonances between the family map and the team map? Can you see any way in which the relationships you take up in your team echo the relationships in your family? Does any of this suggest new actions you wish to take, new possibilities you wish to pursue, or things you’d like to stop doing?

3 Talk about it

Here is where the magic begins. Host a conversation with your team in which you share your family map, your team map, and the insights that have arisen as you compared the two.

If your colleagues are ready, invite them to do the same. Remember that what you’re sharing is each person’s experience – so be curious, gentle, generous, welcoming and as open as you can. This is an exercise in understanding one another, in knowing your shared humanity, not in convincing one another or proving a point.

If you’re willing to be kind enough, and interested enough, and truthful enough, you may just start to give yourself new language that you can all use to observe yourselves in action – and a way of catching the underground patterns that have you relating to one another as if you were people from there and then rather than the people you’re working with here and now.

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Naming it

When you’re caught up in a something that’s pulling you away from life, distracting you, narrowing your horizons, or having you act in ways that don’t seem to match your intentions, you could try to give the something a name.

Is it anger, shame, resentment? Frustration, boredom, cynicism? Fear? Resignation? Your inner critic?

Names have power.

Moods, and our own inner critic, are often transparent to us. They recede into the background of our lives – shaping the world without us knowing, but shaping the world nevertheless.

But a phenomenon, once named accurately, starts to come forward from the background. It becomes possible to point at it and to have some kind of handle on it. The somethingyou’re in takes a step from having you to being had by you, just as in the naming of daemons in the old myths – once named the daemon’s mysterious power begins to dissolve.

So, when you’re in some kind of difficulty, you could try to see what name fits best.

Anger? Fear? Frustration? Shame?

If you pay attention you’ll know when you’re on to something, particularly if you pay attention to the felt sense you’re experiencing in your body. An accurate name, something that’s true enough, will feel different, almost as if the phenomenon you’re naming turns towards you in recognition, becomes willing at last to make itself known.

And once named, first to yourself, perhaps later to others, see what new purchase you have on your situation. You may find that the invisible grip of the invisible something that has enveloped you will start to soften so that something new – a possibility or course of action – comes into view.

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Where conflicts go

Whenever we bring our commitments, longing, plans and requests to others there’s the possibility of some kind of conflict. We could avoid this only if world were made up of billions of clones, designed to sweetly anticipate and accommodate our every need and wish. But because people are different from us in uncountable ways, we’re always called on to listen, to make ourselves vulnerable, to hear what we’re not expecting to hear and to feel what we’re not expecting to feel, if we’re going to navigate our difference with dignity and for the good of everyone.

Too often, perhaps because it feels safer, we try to find our way around conflict without doing any of this. We imagine we can force our way through (wishing for those clones, again) and in this way spare ourselves from encountering any real resistance, and from having to be changed by the encounter. Or we accommodate, keeping our own wishes, desires and requests quiet, silently and resentfully bending ourselves to fit in. Both of these positions diminish everyone involved. Both appear to keep us safe by keeping us out of contact with one another. And both, I know, are approaches I’ve fallen into countless times.

I’m reminded, though, that avoiding the heat of difference between us doesn’t make the conflict go away. It only changes its form – into silence, or resentment, or insincerity; or shifts its location – from the public realm to our inner lives, where our avoidance of outer conflict leaves us in ongoing conflict with ourselves.

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A conversation

What is the truth that must be spoken that you’ve holding back? From whom? For how long?

Can you tell who your withholding serves? Are you sure that you’re protecting anyone apart from yourself? And if you’re only protecting yourself, what from?

What healing would speaking bring? What new possibility?

This then is courage: the conversation you offer as a gift to another even when you’re afraid of how it might turn out for you.

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A conversation for clarification

Between the moment one person asks and the other responds comes a necessary but often neglected step – a conversation between both of you to determine what’s actually being asked for.

I know it sounds obvious when said this way but how often do you take the time to talk and listen before you say ‘yes’ (which most of us are conditioned to do) or ‘no’?

Without this conversation for clarification, it’s so easy to launch into a project that’s:

  • not wanted (those three pressured and frantic days writing a financial report when all that was needed was a single paragraph summary)
  • not yours to do (the hours you spent trying to understand the figures when there’s someone else who could do it in a half hour)
  • not something you were ever really prepared to do (and now you have to find a way to wriggle out of it, or delay, or pretend you’re busy, or make excuses)

Hierarchical relationships at work make this more difficult, of course. Perhaps you avoid the conversation because you don’t want to look like you don’t know, or like you’re unsure, or like you’re anything less than fully committed. And then there’s navigating feelings of uncertainty, or fear, or shame.

But how can a yes be a yes, or a no be a no, unless you understand what it is you’re saying yes or no to? And how much precious effort and time gets wasted on the ‘yes’ that was yes to the wrong thing or never really meant at all?

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Necessary, essential, vital

Necessary, essential, vital – three words that we use interchangeably, but which have quite distinct meanings.

The necessary in a situation is the barest form of what’s needed, what we cannot do without. When we attend to what’s necessary we make sure that what we rely upon keeps going, that it does not fall apart.

What’s essential is to do with the essence of things – what is most true and particular to the situation at hand. There are many different ways of attending to what’s necessary, but attending to what’s essential in a situation calls on us bring exquisite sensitivity and a willingness to look and feel behind surface appearances. The essential requires saying no to many things in order to respond with beauty and precision to just what’s called for now and here.

And what’s vital is to do with what has vitality, that which is life giving – not what’s merely necessary, nor even what’s only essential, but what will breathe life into ourselves, into others, and into the matter at hand.

Too often, by conflating these different meanings, we do our work (or live our lives) in a flat way – busily or dutifully doing what is necessary and no more. But how much that is artful, beautiful, dignified, life-giving and joyful we could bring about if we were to pay equal attention to the essence of things and the life of things – the essential and the vital – and to the essence and life of the people around us too.

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What a mess

What a mess.

It’s so cold in here.

It’s unfair that some of us are left out.

I have such a busy day today. It’s going to be hard to get everything done.

We’re never going to make that deadline at this rate.

It’s getting late. This has been going on far too long.

There’s something we’re not speaking about here.

How often we speak in this way – making a claim or judgement about the world – when what we really long for is somebody to do something.

In each of these examples the speaker holds back from the request they’re really wishing to make. Perhaps it feels safer this way. After all if you don’t actually ask then you don’t expose yourself quite as much. And you protect yourself from the discomfort of a potential ‘no’.

But speaking in this roundabout this way robs each of us of much of our power to have what’s important to us happen. And it casts others in the role of mind-readers. How much pain we cause ourselves and those around us in endless waiting and hoping that someone else will see we’re in need and know what action to take.

Making clear, explicit requests of others – and being open the response – is, for many of us, a huge step into a much bigger and much kinder world.

And the only way to really begin to enlist the support of others in what we really need and what we most care about.

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Cell walls

Human beings are not infinitely extensible.

We cannot keep on taking on more, saying yes to more, stretching our efforts into the late hours, getting up early, piling it on, squeezing it in, pushing ourselves harder and harder, without soon hitting limits.

First, perhaps, we reach the outer limits of what our relationships can take. But we say to ourselves that it’s not too bad, that it’s just the way life is, and we push on.

Later we encounter the limits that our bodies and minds can take, and we return home first ragged and exhausted, then increasingly unwell. We’re adaptable though. It doesn’t take us long to get used to be stretched as thin as we can go. And before long we carry with us lasting damage from the stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

And even though this kind of yes-to-everything is endemic in our culture and in many organisations, it’s largely there because we have not yet learned how powerful ‘no’ can be.

‘No’ is a boundary-making move. It’s a declaration that separates this-from-that. It’s through ‘no’ that we distinguish the important from the unimportant, what matters from what does not, and what we care about from what’s trivial.

We can learn much about this from living systems. In cells, for example, it’s the boundary-making properties of the membrane, that which distinguishes inner from outer, that makes the self-producing and life-generating processes of the cell possible.

A cell without a cell wall is just a splurge of protoplasm and organelles.

And just as there is no outside without inside, there is no proper, genuine, sincere ‘yes’ upon which we can act without the necessary, powerful boundary-making of ‘no’.

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Hard, and essential

Relationships that fall apart because we won’t talk about what’s happening in them.

Business difficulties that intensify – at great personal and financial cost – because we’re afraid to look directly at them and have a conversation with the other people involved.

Learning, and teaching, undermined because we’re more committed to avoiding feeling uncomfortable.

Possibilities missed and progress denied because we insisted on speed at the expense of good conversation.

Patients subjected to unpleasant and hopeless treatments because we’re terrified of talking about dying.

Connection with others missed because we’re too afraid to be open with them.

How hard it can be, and yet how essential it is, to find out that almost everything in the human world is solved by, brought about by, and made more alive by talking and listening.

It’s hard, because we all have layers of defence against encountering our own vulnerability – our capacity to be wounded by our openness to others, and to be touched by it. And it’s essential because no process, procedure, technique or tool – no turning away from one another – can ever hope to make up for this most simple, most powerful, and most life giving of human acts.

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Truth Telling

The more I look, the more it seems to me that among the most personally damaging acts each of us can take is that of turning away from truth.

I’m not talking grand universal truths here – the kind that people claim apply across time and space and across people. It’s quite easy to see that establishing truth in this way is fraught with difficulty.

No, I’m talking about something more basic and immediate: what’s true about this moment, this experience, from the place in which you stand.

If you pay attention, it’s not so difficult to tell when you’re turning away from truth in this way. The truth that you are sad, or joyful, or angry, or despondent, touched or numb, feeling whole or split apart. The truth that this is difficult or painful for you. Or the truth that this is bringing you to life.

The truth that these thoughts you are thinking, whatever they are, are what you are thinking. The truth that what you’re feeling in your body is what you’re feeling. The truth that this place is where you are, and that what you are doing is what you are doing.

When we deny these simple, basic truths to ourselves and others – when we speak of ourselves inwardly or publicly with deliberate inaccuracy – we assault our own integrity. And we cause ourselves tangible harm, in our minds and in our bodies, by putting ourselves at odds with ourselves, fuelling the inner battles that pull us apart.

And then being whole again requires a kind of return, a turning back to the part of ourselves that understands how things really are. A turning back to something simple, and straightforward, the heart of which we’ve known all along.

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From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

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An invitation…

An invitation is not an invitation unless the person invited is able to say no.

And, in addition, in the face of the no, everyone remains whole.

You remain whole.
They remain whole.
The relationship between you remains whole.

Without those conditions being met, it’s not an invitation at all. It’s a demand. A condition. A bribe. A form of coercion dressed up as a gift. And, like many forms of looking-good we can get into, it’s a way of being in control while pretending, perhaps to ourselves more than to anyone else, that it’s nothing of the sort.

[With thanks to Karen, who told me about this today]

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The parts of ourselves we see in others

There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.

But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.

So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.

The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.

Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.

And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.

Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.

 

 

The unseen chances of life

I didn’t know what to do. I was tired, and deflated, and miserable in my work. But I didn’t know how to choose anything else.

It was Davina who first showed me that it might be possible to open to something new.

I thought for a while about studying law. But my friend Jonny, who I first met on a summer camp when we were sixteen, had been grappling with his own choices and suggested I speak to his friend Jane, who worked as an organisation development consultant – a field I’d been interested in for years.

Jane told me about a personal development course that she thought would help but I couldn’t make the dates. I remember how disappointed I felt, but I asked around about alternatives and Zahavit, who I knew from another part of my life, introduced me to Cheryl, who pointed me in the direction of Sue‘s wonderful programme on the same topic.

And at Sue’s programme I met Susan, who I happened to tell me over lunch that she thought I’d really enjoy the programmes at Roffey Park. And so within a couple of months I was there, beginning a Master’s Degree in Organisation Development, and where I met Paul, who ended up in the same programme design group as me. Paul invited a colleague of his, Deborah, to speak to us, and Deborah introduced me to a book that would change so much – James Flaherty’s “Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others“.

Two years later, I was a student on James’ programme in integral coaching, half-way across the world, hardly even really knowing how I’d ended up there. And James, seeing a possibility in me that I was only just starting to see in myself, invited me to become a leader-in-training for the extraordinary programmes that I now teach in London and which are among my greatest joys.

Had any link in the Davina-Jonny-Jane-Zahavit-Cheryl-Sue-Susan-Paul-Deborah-James chain not happened – and so many of them came from purely chance conversations – who knows what I would be doing now, and with whom?

And these are merely the chances that I know about. How many must be the other, unseen, coincidences that made what I have described here possible – the chances that brought people together, into the path of each others’ lives, so that any of what I’ve described here could come about.

This is the way life always is, even though so much of it is invisible to us.

It occurs to me on remembering this how illusory is any idea that I’m really in control of what happens in my life. And I’m humbled, and grateful, that life so often seems to have a way of bringing what needs to be brought, even when I can’t see it, fail to appreciate it, or fight it away.

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On being a disclosive space

Have you noticed that there are people around whom things get said that matter?

It’s as if their way of being in the world is a huge invitation to speak, to say what’s true. People like this offer us safe ground on which to stand, and space into which to articulate what’s important, without fear of judgement or rejection.

They make it possible for us to say what we didn’t know even needed saying, and in the process to discover much about who we are and what we’re up to.

You could say that people like this are a disclosive space for others.

It is possible to cultivate this way of being over time, if you wish. It takes attending to the discipline of listening, of course. And beyond that it takes working on:

presence – the capacity to be here, in this moment, and nowhere else, even in the midst of strong emotions

compassion – the commitment to understand and respond to others’ worlds, even if radically different from your own

attunement – the ability to discern what other people are feeling, and how they’re orienting to the world, which may be very different to what they’re saying

Of course, there are also people who, simply by their way of being with others, close down the possibility of speaking. Their defendedness, their judgement, or their distraction speaks volumes to us about what’s possible in their presence. Around such people the truth of what’s happening gets covered over, hidden away.

So being a disclosive space for others is foundational for leadership. It makes it possible for people to make their most important, most creative and truest contribution. And it’s foundational for being in relationship, for parenting, for teaching, for coaching.

Are you even working on this yet?

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The antidote to resentment

Resentment is a mood that has, at its heart, the judgment that you have been wronged and there’s nothing you can do about it. It casts you in the role of the righteous injured party – the one who must get even in order to have any self-esteem, but is denied any route to do so – and the other person in the role of villain. 

It’s no wonder then, where resentment leads – either to a cold, aloof distance or to silently but subversively trying to get even. And when resentment shows up in relationships that matter (can it ever meaningfully show up anywhere else?) it quickly has a powerfully corrosive effect by perpetually casting you as the victim to the other’s persecution.

The antidote? Learning how to make requests. Because requests bring us in close, back into relationship, into contact – even if the other person says no to what’s being asked of them. Making requests of another accords the other person dignity, elevating them from mere object of your scorn into a full human being.

And sincere requests accord you the dignity of once again being human too – being one who has the power to make your needs and wishes heard. So learning to ask when you’re resentful, rather than distancing yourself, might be the most counter-intuitive and the most healing move you can make.

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The humanity of the other

The enabling step, David Broza said, in bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in such a tense, fraught, risky situation was to eat together. The evening feasts organised around the recording involved up to a hundred people talking, eating, and singing with one another – catered for by Israeli and Palestinian chefs – a series of encounters that laid the possibility for everything else, an extended conversation for relationship. This, he said, is how things really happen in middle eastern cultures. But it’s also the way of humanity.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas makes a similar point. Discovering the human world of others, he says, is a primary moral obligation. And once you see that another person is a human being, as you are, once you enter into an I-You relationship with them, other moral obligations necessarily follow. In the face of the other you are obliged to listen, to enter into dialogue, to say what is true, to extend yourself as far as you can to understand the other’s world, and to respond with both compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps it’s this very fact that leads us to avoid the intimacy of genuine human to human contact in so many situations between communities and in our organisations (where it’s quickly dismissed as ‘touchy feely’, as if that itself seals the matter). Because when we encounter the other as human, we discover that we have responsibility towards them.

Without attending to this, anyone – lover, friend, colleague, child, neighbour, visitor, customer, a whole people – easily becomes an object; an ‘it’, a means to an end, a supply for our own need to be loved, to be right, to rage, to hate, to earn, to judge, to feel superior. When you have eaten with someone and, more significantly, when you have allowed yourself to feel what it is really like to be with them it is much harder to see them this way. When you have heard them talk about the longing of their heart, when you have shared a meal, when you have understood the feel and detail of their ordinary domestic life with its concerns and struggles, when you have looked into their eyes, when you have been in contact with their humanity it’s more difficult to see them as an object: the enemy, the boss, the subordinate, the supplier of my needs, the one to mistrust, the one placed on a pedestal, the Palestinian, the Jew.

We see others as we are, not as they are

Even before we’ve really studied ourselves and developed some kind of understanding of the vast contours of our inner worlds, we’re presented with a difficulty in relating to other people, because in so many ways the personhood of others is mostly invisible to us.

We see our own commitments, cares, and intentions – and interpret our actions in the light of that knowledge. But when it comes to others we can only see their actions, which we most readily interpret in the light of our way of knowing the world.

Or, said another way, we see others not as they are, but as we are.

And how much difficulty, trouble, and suffering can come from that simple, basic, misunderstanding. Until, in due course, we find out how to soften the certainty of our own interpretations and open, with curiosity, to the very otherness of even the closest of others.

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Talking to ghosts

First, we had talking.

Given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking and listening to one another. It’s a capacity we’ve built by doing it for hundreds of thousands of years.

If we settle and quieten ourselves, if we tone down our inner chatter and impulsivity, we can  speak powerfully with one another in ways that foster deep understanding and the exploration of wide-open possibility. And we can take action together, directly and effectively, by making and responding to each others’ promises and commitments.

But our technology, to which we are so addicted, does not always help us with this.

We invented the telephone, a revolution in connectivity, opening up wide new possibilities to talk and listen with those not physically present with us.

This, at least, is synchronous. We must speak to a person who is actually there, when they are there. We have to be in conversation. We have no choice but to witness to their reactions to what we’re saying, and they to ours. Though stripped of the bodily presence of another, a conversation by phone brings us in contact with them.

But then we invented voicemail (first, the answer machine), allowing us to speak when the other person is absent.

And we invented email and text messaging, forums and Facebook and social media of many kinds, which enabled us to exchange messages more quickly and fluidly than recorded voices would allow.

And we found that we loved them.

These are asynchronous technologies. They afford us the possibility of speaking and listening without the other’s simultaneous presence. And we like this because leaving messages feels much less risky, much less exposing, much safer than the delicate work of speaking with another live human being with emotions and reactions, thoughts and judgements, cares and commitments.

We get to speak without having to be vulnerable.

And, because we like this feeling of safety more than we will admit, today we drown under a deluge of messages. We spend our time interacting with ghosts – distant others who are not there to feel or hear what we have to say. We do not even have to speak. And, most importantly, we are spared feeling or experiencing others’ reactions to us.

We say this drowning is ‘just how it is’, but fail to see that we’re making a choice. A choice to stay secure behind our machines. A choice to accept a flood of disembodied words at the expense of the shakiness and power of speaking directly to other people.

We’ve made the world this way, and it’s killing us.

But we can do something about it because, first, we had talking.

And we still have it, if we would choose to turn towards one another.

Because given half a chance, we human beings can be very good at talking, and listening. It’s a capacity we’ve built already by doing it, very well, for hundreds of thousands of years.

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It has been decided…

Facilitating a workshop I’ve designed for a group of colleagues – people I know well and love – I find myself saying “In a moment I’ll tell you the groups that have been decided”. One of the participants points out to me that the groups weren’t just ‘decided’ as if by some abstract, dispassionate hand. They were decided by me.

I have to catch myself. I’m surprised to find myself making this move.

“It has been decided…” and “The groups that have been decided…” are so easy to say. But the move to leave out ‘I’ is a move to hide, or to duck away from responsibility.

And, though it may seem like a subtle point to make, each time you leave out ‘I’ and other people play along, you diminish the opportunity for others to respond, to dissent, to say no to you. You, ever so subtly, move not only to diminish your own responsibility for what happens, but others’ capacity to step in to the conversation.

Leaving out ‘I’ looks like an act of humility or self-diminishment, when really it’s a move to cement your power, and to ever so quietly have things go your way.

We need more communication…

We just need more communication round here…

… as if communication were a thing, not a living activity

… as if communication were something that you wait for

… as if communication is an object that can be given to you by others

… as if communication were not something you participate in

We partly treat communication as if it were a thing because we’re in thrall to the idea of work as machine more than work as a living process. But we do it also because we know that really communicating with one another exposes us to risk – the risk that comes from connection with others, the risk that comes from revealing ourselves, the risk that comes from people disagreeing or saying ‘no’ to our ideas and hopes, the risk of disappointment, the risk of not feeling things are moving quickly enough, the risk of feeling ashamed.

Yes, invent processes, restructure meetings, install technology, reorganise your organisation. All of them can help. But don’t for a minute imagine that any of that will resolve your wish for better communication unless you’re also prepared to take the simple but radical step of listening and talking more, and learning to do so more and more skilfully.

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Declare it

When the Queen declares the UK parliament open, it’s open.

When your boss tells you you’re fired, or you’re hired, the declaration makes it so.

Although the power of a particular declaration depends upon who is speaking (just try declaring parliament open and see if anything happens…), we all have the capacity to declare. And while your declarations don’t have unlimited power they do have power.

I love you – a declaration of feeling, and of relationship.

This year I will… – a declaration of commitment.

I don’t want to do this any more… – a declaration of the end of a commitment.

I want… and I don’t want… – a declaration of preference.

I’m so sad – a declaration that reveals your inner state

Every declaration you make discloses your inner world to others, makes intentions and commitments known, and opens up or closes down possibilities. And, made sincerely, declarations have enormous potential to shape your engagement with the world.

And yet many people do not declare. We’d rather say ‘It’s important everyone is at the meeting on Tuesday’ (an assessment) than ‘I want you all to come to the meeting on Tuesday’ (which clearly declares our own part in what we’re saying). Or we’d rather hold back from saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m scared of what’s going to happen’ because we don’t know how others will react.

We hold back, because declaring puts us at risk.  And then we wonder why we seem to have so little sense of purchase on our lives.

By declaring you have to account for yourself, make yourself known. But if you want to participate, in any way, in authoring what happens in your life and in your work, starting to declare – clearly, often, with sincerity – is a vital step.

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Amends

You’re furious at her.

The update was late, twice as long as you’d wanted, and not written for the audience you had in mind. And the meeting where you have to present it is first thing in the morning.

You’re not just furious. You’re frustrated, and not a little bit scared about what’s going to happen as a result of all this.

And in your fury you’ve said some things you regret. Some things that fail to see her dedication, the hours she put in, the way she set aside her own concerns in order to help you. By not seeing her good intentions, and by being so sure of your rightness, you’ve left her feeling hurt and wounded and confused, and wondering if her commitment to your project was well placed.

And, when you’re brave enough slow down a little and start to look more closely… which is difficult, because looking honestly hurts you, too… you start to see what you’ve known from the moment you asked her to take this on. You weren’t clear. You were in too much of a rush. You assumed she’d know what to do without checking it out with her (“that’s what she’s paid for after all”). You were afraid to show her that you didn’t, really, quite know what to do yourself.

When you look closely, you start to see that your anger – real as it is – is not so much anger at her, as it is anger with yourself.

And this is the crucial revelation.

Because you see that you projected your own shame and your own self-criticism towards her. And you see that this primarily played a self-protective role. By being angry at her, you did not have to feel your anger with yourself. Covering up your own vulnerability and uncertainty allowed you to shift the burden – and the blame – her way instead of yours.

And it is this revelation – seeing what you were really up to – that allows you to take responsibility, and to make amends.

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When promises break

We’ll never talk behind one another’s backs
We’ll take our concerns directly to the people who concern us
We’ll always give feedback with care

When you have made agreements about behaviour in your team, in your organisation, in your family, it’s unhelpful – and unrealistic – to expect them to always be upheld. Such expectations, in the face of the many breaches and breakdowns that will occur, can quickly lead you and others to assume your agreements were meaningless and insincere. And from such a position comes despair and cynicism – nothing can ever change around here. In such a light, our promises soon come to mean nothing.

Far more powerful is to treat the original agreements as sincere and genuine, but inevitably in conflict with other equally sincere competing commitments which we all hold, for example our commitment

to not feel ashamed
to look and feel supportive to others in their difficulty
to be liked and respected
to be helpful to the person who’s with us right now

In the light of this, you can use your own and others’ inevitable breaches not as an source of resignation but as an opportunity to understand and respond more skilfully to inner contradictions. And as an opportunity to look together, with curiosity, at the very real difficulties and challenges of being in relationship with others.

When we discover and talk about our inner complexity, and correct our actions from there, we create the possibility of responding to difficulty not with recrimination (towards self or others) but with learning. And in the light of this our promises, shaky and incomplete as they are, can come to take on a new authority shaped less by our expectation that they’ll be perfect, and more by our understanding of what to do – together – when they break.

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A genuine treasure

Every complaint has at its heart a genuine treasure: a something that the complainer values and cares about.

It’s so easy to miss this when we dismiss people as moaners, whiners, or nuisances.

When our complaints are disregarded the hurt and resentment comes not so much from you not doing what we asked of you, but that you didn’t see us first and foremost as human beings with cares and concerns that matter.

Instead of seeing complaining colleagues, customers, family as irritants, can you allow yourself to see the committed person behind the complaint? It’s a far more powerful, relationship-building, trust-developing place from which to respond.

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Easy to say, difficult to do

Of course sincerity is often difficult, because we’re afraid of its consequences. We’re frightened that if we speak truthfully we’ll fall short of other people’s standards,

or we’re afraid they won’t love us any more.

We’re afraid it’ll get in the way of our looking good,

or we’re afraid people won’t understand us.

We’re afraid it will open a can of worms,

or we’re afraid our words, once spoken, will box us in to a future we do not want.

We’re afraid that owning up to what we really mean will make us look weak,

or that it will cause conflict we’d much rather avoid.

And because of all these fears we twist ourselves, distort ourselves, so that what comes out of our mouths no longer chimes with the wishes, longing, and intention of our hearts and conscience. Perhaps, as I know I do, you struggle with this daily, finding yourself looking sincere but knowing all the ways you’ve fallen short, again. Perhaps you know this is only human. Perhaps you’re starting to see the cost to yourself, and to others. Because there’s only so much twisting a human heart can take, I think. At some point we each have to start teaching ourselves that the price of our insincerity is far greater than we had imagined, and the consequences of our fears, far less.

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