Is anyone listening?

It’s amazing how often we assume our requests can be heard while ignoring the capacity of others to listen to what we’re asking.

Some examples:

You made a request by email

If your recipient didn’t read it, didn’t see it, or is overwhelmed by emails and messages, as so many people are, you probably don’t have a listener, no matter how many times you insist that you’ve asked, or how sure you are that they should have read what you said.

You asked at a time when the other person couldn’t pay attention

If they’re busy, anxious, fearful, or distracted then just because you’ve spoken, again, doesn’t mean you have a listener. Even asking someone face to face who is distracted this way does not guarantee they have any capacity to hear you.

You assumed the other person should be interested in what you have to say simply because of who you are

Your seniority, fame, position of authority, sense of yourself as interesting or important are no guarantee anyone is listening. Neither is being a parent or a partner or the boss. Assuming you do is a route to many difficulties.

Can you think of times you might have asked when there’s no listener available, even if the request seems obvious to you? And if so, what might you do to make it possible for people to genuinely hear you?

You might need to think about timing, place, tone and the medium through which you make your request, as well as the mood of your request (sincerity, cynicism, frustration). All of these will have an impact on others’ capacity to listen.

If you find yourself thinking “I’ve asked them time and time again, but nothing ever seems to happen” you might well still be assuming you have a listener when you don’t.

And now you have a place where you can look to resolve your difficulty.

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Words

To be a human being is to live in a house of words.

Words that can move others into action, or sow seeds of doubt and confusion.
Words that can coordinate our efforts, or scatter us apart.
Words that can reveal hidden depths in the world, or cover them up.
Words that can build relationships, or undo them.
Words that can heal, or hurt.
Words that can bring our intentions into being, or our hide them away.
Words that are congruent with what matters, or words that twist or distort it.
Words that bring out the best in people, or words that stifle it.
Words that illuminate, or words that cast into shadow.
Words that bring life, or words that deaden.

In all of this, it helps us to remember that the human world is founded on words.

That words matter.

And that this brings huge responsibility and huge opportunity, in every moment, to address our human difficulties and possibilities through how we listen and how we talk.

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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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She should know

“My manager (or partner, child, colleague, best friend, client, customer) should know what to do. She should. And because of this, I’m not going to ask. I’m not going to tell her what I need, what I want, or what I see. I’m going to stay quiet. Why should I say anything? Because she should just know.”

Where does this get you – even if it’s true?

Can you think of any move more sure to rob you of your power, distance you, and deny you the very thing you want or need most – except, perhaps, your wish to remain frustrated, bitter, resentful and endlessly disappointed?

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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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Asking for it

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

and even your silence

may seem to you like obvious displays that you need help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in doing something that matters you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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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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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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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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Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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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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The danger of silent expectations

It’s so much more powerful to make clear requests of others than it is to hold silent expectations.

If you expect all of your team to speak up for themselves…
but don’t ask them to

or if you expect your friends to remember your birthday…
but don’t tell them how important it is to you

or if you expect your family to invite you round…
but don’t say that to them

or if you expect your partner to put the bins out…
but don’t mention it

or if you expect people to be punctual in meetings with you…
but don’t let them know

If you do any of these, if you say ‘they should just know what I want’, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, resentment, and resignation.

Because silent expectations require other people to be mind readers. They set invisible standards that are almost certain to be missed because of their invisibility. And they cause confusion when others’ good intentions (that just didn’t happen to match your hidden expectations) fail to satisfy you.

Perhaps this is what you intend. Maybe you have expectations rather than asking because it keeps proving that nobody cares as much as you do.

It may feel clunky and awkward, but if you really care about things happening, and if you care about being in relationship in a way that maintains everyone’s dignity, it’s far more skilful to ask, directly for what you want to happen:

“Please, speak up in this meeting. I want to hear what you have to say”
“Please remember my birthday. It really matters to me”
“I’d love to see you more. Would you invite me round more often?”
“Please can you put the bins out?”
“It’s important to me that we start on time. Please be there before 9.”

At least then everyone knows what you wish for. And you give everyone the dignified possibility of saying no, or offering to do something different, both of which are denied when your request is hidden by a silent, invisible expectation.

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When we don’t listen to the response

As well as missing out ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at great cost to ourselves and others, we can fall into familiar ways of interpreting what others say when we ask for support.

Some of us habitually interpret a yes from someone else as if it were no – leading to endless checking and rechecking, micro-managing and over-supervising, or just doing it ourselves. It erodes trust and soon leads to the people who might have once said a genuine yes holding back.

Others habitually take no to mean yes – forcing or cajoling those around us into begrudgingly or resentfully doing what we’ve asked. This also undoes trust, undermining commitment and the genuine willingness to be of assistance.

We make the same mistake with counter-offers, assuming when the other person offers to do something a little different from what we’ve asked that they mean either no, or that their objections are petty and to be ignored.

This is important because when requests, and their responses, are handled with genuineness and attention it’s possible to build deep bonds of understanding, fluid, generous support – vital in any relationship, family, or team. And when we wilfully misunderstand what is being said we quickly undo all of this.

The antidote to our habitual misunderstanding? Learning to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than to the familiarity of our own inner story.

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The responses you miss out

There are four kinds of response available to you when someone makes a request, but many of us hardly see that we have only one or two of them in our repertoire.

You can:

  • accept (say ‘yes’ – a promise you’re making to do what the person asked)
  • decline (say ‘no’)
  • make a counter-offer (an offer to do something different from what you were asked, but which you think might still satisfy at least part of the requestor’s wishes)
  • promise to respond at a later time (when you don’t yet know which of the first three response you’ll choose)

So many people become habitual accepters of every request that they have to find sneaky ways out of the bonds of over-commitment they’ve created. And others habitually decline every request, binding themselves into a world with no support because they’re more afraid of losing their freedom by being bound by a promise to others.

Every response you choose shapes the identity you’re building in your relationships with others. And by habitually missing out some responses you close off many opportunities.

Who do you get to be if you only accept? And who do you get to be if you only decline? And which possibilities for relationship and meaningful action would you open up if you started to seriously practice the responses you usually miss out?

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Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

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The courage to ask

Too often we use feedback as a hidden way of making requests or getting what we want from others and, in the world of organisations in particular, it’s got us into deep water.

Feedback is when we speak with someone in a way that shows them what they can’t readily see about themselves. It’s valuable in all of our learning because we don’t become skilful at self-correcting until we get to know ourselves from multiple perspectives.

Giving feedback that is clear, coherent, grounded and which serves everybody’s learning is quite a skill. It takes the capacity to describe phenomena accurately in language and to take into account the intentions and the world of the person to whom it is said. It also requires the speaker to understand timing and mood – even the most accurate feedback can be impossible to hear if brought at the wrong moment or in an accusatory or wounding way.

Requests are different. They are a way of speaking with another person in order to bring about an outcome that we wish for by way of their participation or support.

Making powerful requests requires that we are clear about what we want to have happen, and the ability and capacity of the person we’re asking to contribute to it. It takes an existing relationship of sufficient trust and commitment in order for the request to be meaningful.

All too often we give feedback not because we want to help someone else learn but because we want something from them.  But a request disguised as feedback combines the worst of both. The feedback is difficult to hear because it’s not oriented towards the other person’s learning. And the request is difficult to respond to with sincerity because it’s not clearly a request – the listener can’t easily determine what’s being asked for nor the conditions under which the requestor will be satisfied.

Clumsy feedback when you want someone to do something easily results in confusion, hurt, and resentment. A skilful and thoughtfully made request, on the other hand, invites the other person into a conversation and gives them the dignity of a sincere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to what you’re asking.

So let’s stop saying ‘You’re not pulling your weight’ when we really mean ‘Please can you give more attention to the project that’s most important to me?’. And let’s stop trying to get what we want without the courage to directly ask for it.

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Solo or duet?

When your relationship with someone is proving difficult, when you’re sure that they are acting against you or judging you, and just when you’re sure that nothing can be done, the most helpful and most powerful move is to start making requests.

Your certainty that nothing can happen from talking makes your powerlessness self-perpetuating. You’re silent, because you think nothing can happen. You’re silent, so nothing can happen. And you remain silent, because nothing is happening.

It may well be that the other person is trapped in the same cycle, holding back from making the requests that would connect the two of you again. Your silence turns you into solo players.

In the space between you – and in the stories that fill the quiet – difficulties multiply.

So start asking for what you want. Encourage them to do the same.

You may well discover that what is happening is quite different to what you imagined. That the other person has a quite different motive to what you thought. And that a conversation in which you raise your requests and concerns, listening deeply to the response – and in which they do the same – shifts things profoundly for both of you.

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Waste

It’s easy to think of waste in material terms – waste of money, or waste of resources.

But our busyness – which keeps us feeling involved and engaged even when we’re not doing what matters to us – covers up many other kinds of waste, equally significant.

Here are five that are addressable by shifting your requests and your responses to requests:

  1. Not asking: The waste that comes from expecting that other people will know what you want and all the waiting, resentment, and frustration that comes when it turns out that they don’t.
  2. Imagining you’ve been asked, when you haven’t: The endless waste of projects and tasks duplicated and not needed, in your eagerness to be seen to deliver and be productive.
  3. Not checking that what you asked is possible: Skipping the necessary to-and-fro of conversation which checks that the person that you asked understood and had the time, capacity and skilfulness to respond. Without all of these, your requests are, often, as good as nothing.
  4. Not saying no: moving into action without checking your own capacity. This one leads to the endless waste of time and commitment that comes from being overstretched, or being unable to fulfil the promises you’ve made.
  5. Not paying attention to your own changing circumstance: Saying, and meaning, a genuine yes to a request but later finding yourself unable to deliver, and pretending nothing changed… leading to both damaged trust and delays.

If you worked on becoming more skilful at these five, you’d make huge strides in your capacity to do what matters without so readily wasting your own, and others’, time, resources, commitment and good will.

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Turning away

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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Relationship is action in the making

If you want to get up to something meaningful and productive with other people, the first conversation you’re going to need is a conversation for relationship.

In this conversation we’re discovering the basis for our collaboration.

What we’re trying to establish, at minimum, is some sense of shared interest from which action can arise. A deeper, more powerful basis for relationship is shared concern about some issue or topic. And discovering shared commitment is more powerful still.

Finding that we are all interested in technology might give a loose basis for some future collaboration. Finding that we are concerned in particularly about energy efficiency would provide a more focused set of possibilities. But it’s only when we discover a shared commitment, such as a desire to produce a high-performance electric car to go to market next January, that we immediately open clear possibilities for focused coordinated action.

And all of that can only be accomplished by taking the time to talk.

Conversations for relationship require us to slow down, to do our best to understand one another, to suspend judgement, to get curious, and to listen – deeply. We allow our own world to be touched, opened, by the world of other people. Done well, we give our aspirations wings – the trust of others, the shared sense of being up to something that matters.

Perhaps you can immediately see the difficulties that arise if we dive into action without having this conversation. Yet it happens all the time. We declare ourselves ‘a team’ and think that will do the trick, when we haven’t even figured out whether we care about anything in common. And then we wonder why our experience of working together feels so listless and confusing. Or, because we can’t tolerate or talk about our feelings of anxiety and urgency we start to do things before we even know why we’re doing them, with all too predictable consequences.

In the world of organisations at the moment the pressure to move quickly away from conversations for relationship seems to be growing, as far as I can tell. It’s like leaving out the foundations because you’re in a hurry to get the house up.

We all know how that turns out.

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Silent

We keep on talking, talking.

When we can’t face silence in the midst of conversations with our colleagues, with our teams, with our clients we’ve equated words with work. Or perhaps we’re afraid that silence might expose that we really have nothing to say.

And so we keep on speaking, filling the air with word after word, long after our words have become shallow, jargon, nothing-speak, space-killer, idle-talk.

In the endless talking, we’ve forgotten how to listen to ourselvesand to others.

And we’ve forgotten that in the quiet spaces, where there is room to breathe, that most of the important, difficult work is often, silently, being done.

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On Words

To be a human being is to live in a house of words.

Words that can move others into action, or sow seeds of doubt and confusion.
Words that can coordinate our efforts, or scatter us apart.
Words that can reveal hidden depths in the world, or cover them up.
Words that can build relationships, or undo them.
Words that can heal, or hurt.
Words that can bring our intentions into being, or our hide them away.
Words that are congruent with what matters, or words that twist or distort it.
Words that bring out the best in people, or words that stifle it.
Words that illuminate, or words that cast into shadow.
Words that bring life, or words that deaden.

In all of this, it helps us to remember that the human world is founded on words.

That words matter.

And that this brings huge responsibility and huge opportunity, in every moment, to address our human difficulties and possibilities through how we listen and how we talk.

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Please stay

You asked everyone to join you for a meeting at 4.30pm.

“It will only last half an hour”, you said.

But it’s now 5pm, and it’s quite clear that the report you wanted everyone to read and comment on needs more time than you’d anticipated.

Perhaps, somewhere, you knew half an hour was way too optimistic. And you were worried that if you were honest about the time it would take, nobody would come.

But now the meeting has gone on way beyond the time you’d promised.

What do you do to address this? Many people, it would seem, do nothing. The meeting’s not finished, nobody seems to have left, and in any case, you all chose to be there, didn’t you?

It’s embarrassing to own up to your miscalculation (or your deliberate manipulation). And so you save yourself from this by carrying on, as if nothing significant has happened.

But you can be sure of something: the unremarked passing of your deadline is significant. You have broken a promise. And many of your participants, as embarrassed as you are to bring up that this is not what they agreed to, have checked out, mentally and emotionally, already.

By continuing a meeting beyond its agreed time, and by keeping silent about it, you’re making an unspoken request of your co-participants. “Please stay” (a request without a speaker, which you can read more about here).

And because your request is unspoken, you’re making it much harder, perhaps deliberately, for them to say no. After all, if you don’t ask, you save yourself the possibility of finding out they had better things to do than stay around.

It’s a small benefit (you feel momentarily better) with a huge cost because you’re creating the ideal conditions for resentment and resignation to grow. And a roomful of people who can hardly be expected to be engaged now, or in the future, in what you said was urgent, important work.

 

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Actually asking

This week, to mark the first anniversary of this project, I am republishing favourite posts from each month of the first year of On Living and Working.
This is from February 2014.

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

may sound to you like clear requests for help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in supporting you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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Declaring yourself

Declaration: a part of speech where things change simply because something has been said.

You’re hired.

You’re fired.

You are now married.

Here’s our strategic plan.

Parliament is open.

are all declarations.

You’ll see already that who declares is a fundamental part of what gives a declaration its power. These days, only the Queen can declare the UK parliament open (try it out for yourself… not much will happen). And only people with sufficient authority in an organisation can declare you hired or fired.

But there are many declarations that require you to hold no position of power other than being you, because you are already the authority (the author) of your own experience and your own intentions:

I love you.

I never want to see you again.

I want to be happy.

I need to rest.

I’m done with this relationship.

I intend to work this problem out.

I want this to change. Now.

I’m interested / bored / angry / sad / grateful.

I don’t want to be part of this any more.

I’m sorry.

The declarations you are prepared to make play a significant role in establishing your identity. They lay out what you stand for, what matters to you. They make what you’re experiencing known. Other people are audience to them and, in a very real way, you are audience to them too.

Declaring changes you and how other people know you.

You might hold back from declaring because it always carries a measure of risk. Things will be different if you speak up, with who knows what outcome?

So the declarations you don’t make establish your identity too.

Declarations are powerful, potent, important.

And for this reason, some people – perhaps you? – hardly declare themselves at all.

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This room is a mess

This room is really in a mess.

I’m hungry.

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 do you speak in this way – making a claim or judgement about the world – when what you really want is somebody to do something?

In each of these examples the speaker disguises the request they’re 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 you of much of your power to have what’s important to you happen. It casts others in the role of mind-readers.

Can you see how your ongoing sense of frustration is being fuelled by this? And your identity – the way in which you and others get to see you as powerful or powerless?

The making of clear, explicit requests of others – and being able to tolerate the response – is, for many of us, a huge step into a much bigger world.

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

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When ‘yes’ doesn’t build a relationship

Saying ‘yes’ to a request, where you mean ‘no’, might sometimes look like a way to build a relationship with the person who’s asking.

Yes, I’ll make that call for you
Yes, I’ll come to that meeting
Yes, I’ll join your committee
Yes, I’ll take on a heap of extra responsibility

But a yes that means no isn’t really a yes, and so its power to build genuine relationship is much weaker than it seems. Before long your resentment and reluctance will show, as will all the times you subtly or overtly dodge the commitment you’ve made in order to attend to the things you really care about.

A ‘yes’ that means ‘no’ doesn’t build relationship because you can participate with at best a half-heart. And relationships founded on insincerity have little strength with which to sustain themselves over time.

So practice yes’s that mean ‘yes’, and clear, straightforward, honest and sincere no’s that mean ‘no’. Your whole-heartedness and sincerity will serve you both far better over the long-term than any attempt to manipulate the other person into liking you or respecting you.

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Yes and no and…

When someone makes a request of you, there are at least four possible helpful responses.

Many of us have only one of these in our repertoire, and a lifetime of habit that makes the others invisible to us:

1 Yes (which means, I promise to do what you ask)

2 No (I promise I will not do what you ask)

3 Here’s a counter-offer (I don’t intend to do what you asked me, but can imagine this alternative that might be acceptable to you)

4 I promise to commit later (I don’t know yet how I’m going to respond to your request, but I can promise you a specific time by which I’ll let you know).

You can build your capacity to respond genuinely to others’ requests by practicing the responses that are less familiar to you.

And if you’re a serial ‘yes-er’ (as so many of us are) who then gets overstretched and resentful, practicing response 4 can open up much needed space in which you can settle on an answer that’s true, heartfelt, and takes all your existing commitments into due account.

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Confusing Action and Relationship

At work we often confuse getting things done with doing good work. 

They are not the same thing.

Sometimes the very best work comes precisely from not rushing into anything at all. And when we forget this we sacrifice quality for the sake of production, rushing to do things even when the doing will be manifestly unhelpful.

Similarly we confuse conversations for action with conversations for relationship. We mistakenly think that to solve our difficulties with one another we need to produce things – policies, procedures, processes – rather than turning towards each other in new kinds of conversation.

And so when we are having difficulty trusting our colleagues we make lists of ‘behaviours’ we imagine will help us. We say ‘we’ll be able to trust one another when we have better communication’ and head off into producing plans to have this happen, rather than simply speaking directly and honestly to one another.

We’re scared, of course, because turning towards one another and extending trust and openness requires us to be vulnerable, to take the risk of being seen.

And so we tell ourselves the story that talking is a distraction, and relationship-building soft, when there’s the hard work of ‘work’ to do.

But we forget that all work done with others only happens because of relationship. And that if we’re not attending seriously to relationship as the foundation for all action, we’re not attending seriously to our action at all.

I’ve written more about this here and here.

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