Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.
Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.
What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?
Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.
According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:
Last month, I had another opportunity to join The Nomadic School of Wonder to visit the amazing herd of mustangs at Windhorse Relations in southern Utah. My first visit yielded some powerful lessons on leadership and being human. This time I figured I knew what to expect and would be able to relax instead of feverishly taking notes in an attempt to capture the fleeting wisdom of the horses and their human helpers, Marcia and Mary Lee.
I figured wrong.
At one point, someone (it wasn’t me!) left a gate open and the herd, 30 horses strong, decided to have an adventure. They galloped out of the compound leaving a trail of red dust in their wake.
We were concerned. So were a couple of the volunteers.
Marcia and Mary Lee weren’t. Leave the gate open, they said with wry smiles, they’ll come back.
Sure enough, within 20 minutes, the horses had tired of their adventure and, with the gentle urging of a few volunteers who waved their arms vigorously at the horses, decided to come back through the gate. They looked, to my human eyes, very proud of themselves.
The escapade had not come without a cost: Barrel, a beautiful chestnut horse, had caught himself on some barbed wire and managed to gallop through a few cholla. He had shallow scratches on his neck and dozens of cactus quills in his skin.
Several of the volunteers leapt into action, immediately going to help the horse.
Mary Lee’s voice cracked out: ‘Wait.’
*This article is an excerpt from the recently published book 'Story Maps: Wayfinding Tools for the Modern Seeker.' Enjoy!
I first came across the ‘iceberg’ as a metaphor during a session with my therapist over ten years ago. I had been grappling with the idea that the way I experienced myself was not at all how the world experienced me.
She nodded and drew a simple image on her pad:
Icebergs, she told me, are much larger than they appear. Only 10 to 20 percent of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest lurks below, under the surface. The same is true of people. We only see what’s on the surface, people’s behavior and their actions in the world. There’s so much more beneath the surface, a whole world of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. What you’re describing, she told me, is a disconnect between the top and bottom of the iceberg.
The metaphor blew my mind and stuck with me.
A few months ago, I found myself meditating on the power of ritual and prayer. The iceberg came floating into my mind, but instead of focusing on the iceberg itself, my attention focused on the water around it. An expanded version of the metaphor emerged that resonated so strongly that I popped out of my meditation and scrawled it on a scrap of paper. Here’s what I drew:
Earlier today, I attended an awards ceremony for social impact entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. Every single speaker and awardee alluded to their purpose. A few even urged us to find our ‘why’ and share it with the world.
In my coaching and consulting work with nonprofits and change-makers, clients will often share that they need me to help them find a ‘why’ that will help people get what they do.
It’s proliferating all around me, this Cult of Why.
I don’t have epidemiological data to support this, but I’m guessing that this all started with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
In case you’re not familiar, the talk introduces a simple concept that Sinek calls the Golden Circle. It looks like this:
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Utah with The Nomadic School of Wonder to learn from a herd of wild horses. They live at Windhorse Relations, an organization dedicated to providing care and stewardship of the horses, learning from them, and giving others the chance to experience the power of connecting with the herd.
On the first morning of the experience, the organization’s founder, Mary Lee Brighton, strode into the center of a round pen with a jittery horse named First Star. Mary Lee held a frame drum encased in a deerskin pouch. As she entered the pen, First Star’s eyes widened and his nostrils dilated.
Mary Lee explained that horses are prey animals. Anything unfamiliar represents a potential threat. Since the drum case, with its dangling tassles and odd jangly sounds, was new to First Star, he was understandably anxious.
She moved around the pen and First Star did everything he could to put maximum distance between himself and the drum case.
Over the next hour, Mary Lee worked with First Star, helping him conquer his fear of the threatening drum. In the process, she offered a master class not just in working with horses, but also in leadership.
Here are five lessons gleaned from the heart of the horse:
When folks in business circles extol the virtues of ‘storytelling,’ they generally refer to the impact that a well-told story can have on an audience. The praise of story generally goes something like this:
‘Storytelling is the single best tool we have to transfer our ideas to another person. Stories inform, illuminate, and inspire.’ (Carmine Gallo on Inc.)
I certainly won’t argue with that because, frankly, it’s true. It also misses about 90 percent of the power storytelling has to connect, build community, and bring greater alignment to teams, companies, and families.
The key lies in distinguishing between ‘story’ as a product and ‘storytelling’ as a process.
Recently, I had the chance to take a class with the wonderful Doug Lipman. If you’ve ever searched for books about the art of performance storytelling, you’ve probably seen some of his work. He gets at the distinction through a simple metaphor:
Imagine a rubber duck race at a county fair. There are only three rules:
**I recently had the chance to spend a week at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was a beautiful experience filled with challenge, learning, and expansion. This is one Thing that Happened.**
I start to freak out the moment that the door of the sweat lodge closes.
The lodge itself is a small, wooden structure covered in blankets. There’s a depression in the center to hold heated rocks. At the moment, it’s filled with fifteen or so stones of various sizes that have been sitting next to a large fire for a couple of hours. Even with the door open, it has gotten hot.
Door, by the way, is overstating the case a bit. It’s actually a flap of blankets and a weighted tarp.
With the door open, the lodge is dim and warm. Comfortable even.
When the flaps come down, darkness descends. The space becomes stuffy and oppressive.
I’ve never thought of myself as claustrophobic. I’ve explored caves, crawled through underground tunnels, and snorkeled through tight caverns filled with rushing water with only slight anxiety. But there’s something about this that feels different.
The problems of poverty, disease, and environmental decay cannot be solved merely by the use of more and more scientific technology. Technological fixes usually turn out to be a jumble of procedures that have unpredictable consequences and are often in conflict with natural forces. Indeed, technological magic is not much better than primitive magic in dealing with the fundamental issues of human existence, and in addition, it is much more destructive.
–Rene Dubos, 1967
At a recent conference billed as an exploration of the intersection of Social Impact and Exponential Technologies, a prominent tech luminary spoke on the increasing incidence of depression and how technology will be essential to dealing with it.
She walked us through data showing that depression is projected to increase several-fold in the next decade. Other data laid out the developed world’s current capacity to treat depression. There was a clear and growing gap. We simply will not have the resources to handle the epidemic.
We must, the speaker said, find a way to increase our capacity to serve those grappling with depression. It’s not possible to train enough therapists in time to offer support. Fortunately, exponential technology, specifically adaptive intelligence, can help.
Currently, those working with depression have limited options for getting support. Almost all of them involve having to find and vet a therapist, go to therapy consistently, and/or get a prescription medication. With adaptive intelligence, help could be as close as an app on your phone.
The speaker walked us through a use case. Someone feels unmotivated, disconnected, and depressed. They log on to a secure (much emphasis was placed on ‘secure’) app and are greeted by an adaptive Artificial Intelligence that approximates warmth and curiosity. With a few questions customized to inspire reflection and sharing, the AI triages users.
Some people may only need a bit of space for reflection. For them, the AI provides the necessary level of support.
Others may require more intensive support. The AI detects this and links them to a trained therapist for a consultation.
This technology driven solution solves for the problem of capacity. Exponential technology saves the day.
I listened to the talk with a growing sense of dread and frustration in my gut.
The world, and people’s awareness of themselves in it, is changing at a rapid clip, yet many organizations still adhere to an outdated model of culture based on traditional economic logic. This logic assumes that employees act purely out of self interest and incentivises performance based largely on salary and bonuses.
More and more, this no longer works. Especially with younger team members.
The mismatch between employee values and organizational culture results in disengagement. Employees may get stuck in a rut, show decreased motivation, develop tense relationships, and stop performing at their potential.
Conventional responses such as, on the one hand, team building retreats, happy hours, and perks become less effective. As do, on the other hand, tighter oversight and control.
So What Do We Do?
By connecting people with a higher sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging, and cultivating strong interpersonal connection, organizations can inspire their people to bring greater energy, creativity, and dedication to their work. The type of ‘higher purpose’ necessary is separate from economic exchanges or financial bottom lines. Rather, it is aspirational, helping each person working within the organization see how their work contributes to a broader goal, mission, or movement.
According to Psychology Today, Americans just broke a new record for anxiety and stress. If you’re into breaking records, that’s very exciting. For the rest of us, it may just be a confirmation that we’re not alone in dealing with that near constant tightness in the chest and knot in the stomach.
When the world goes topsy turvy and a swirling atmosphere of division, outrage and chaos becomes more pervasive, it deepens our stress and can affect us at at every level of our lives.
It can disturb our sleep, eating habits, and behaviors. We can start to define ourselves by our relationship to unfolding events. We’re protesters! We’re victims of a rigged system! We’re builders of a new, more just society!
It’s exhausting, numbing, and overwhelming. And, frankly, it’s dehumanizing.
While it’s true that adopting a daily meditation or yoga practice and exercising several times a week and watching your diet and drinking 10 glasses of water per day and cutting down on coffee and starting a garden will all help reduce stress. . .sometimes there’s just not space in the day for all of that.
Here are five efficient tools I’ve found useful in destressing, remembering who I am beyond the news of the day, opening up a bit of space, and even reclaiming my humanity. They don’t take much time and can be done pretty much anywhere. Hope you find them useful:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.