Change Your Story, Better Your Experience, Level-up Your Leadership

Facts Matter Katrina Calihan.jpg

In my coaching and organizational work, I witness daily how the stories we create deeply impact our work experience, relationships, decision making and workplace culture. In every situation, there are assertions – objective facts, and there are assessments – the judgments, opinions and stories we create out of assertions.  Can you guess which one most of us live in when talking about and processing our work lives? If you’re thinking assessments – you’re spot on.  

Much of the time, assessments are helpful.  Our brains automatically scan and interpret our environment, seeking patterns and knowledge from past experiences to quickly enable us to gain understanding and take appropriate action.  Assessments can also be risky and dangerous.  Left unexamined, we are vulnerable to conflating our judgments as facts and anchoring into our stories as truth.  Great leaders learn to hold distinctions between assertions and assessments; they build self-awareness loops to question their thinking and stay open to a wider set of possibilities.  

Personal standards and values drive individual assessments. Unfortunately, conversations that communicate standards don’t often occur, and if they do, it’s not with crystal clarity. Instead, many leaders assume their standards are universal and adopted by their teammates. When behavior bumps up against those standards, rather than discussing the concerns, leaders may make false assessments, deliver unfair feedback, or worse, say nothing directly and express themselves through negative energy and passive behaviors.

Let’s look at an example: In the past 3 weeks, your direct report, John, has been 10 minutes late to your staff meeting twice, called off work on a Friday, and arrived at the office after 10am 4 times.  These are the assertions – the objective facts.  You believe that presence in the office and on-time arrivals equal commitment and hard work, and you have a personal standard to follow suit in your own actions.  As a result of this set of facts, you create a story, an assessment, that John is unreliable and not dedicated to the team.  It’s likely you did this automatically.  

Left unchecked, this story leads you to have negative feelings and opinions about John, and you may even start looking for future evidence to support your story.  Our assessments often become self-fulfilling prophecies, in which we look for data to support them.  This is known as confirmation bias.  Later, you sit down with John to share this feedback – ‘I’m concerned about your dedication.  Lately, it seems you’re not committed to the team and project.  Your work ethic has trailed off in recent weeks.’  What do you notice about this feedback? There are no assertions, just assessments.

There isn’t a person among us who hasn’t felt sidelined by feedback like this, and it lands with a damaging thud.  What comes next is erosion of trust, dismantling of engagement, fissures in relationships, and defensiveness.  A dead giveaway that you’re in the land of assessment is when you find yourself defending your position.  That is a flag to slow down, question assumptions, and evaluate possibilities.  In contrast, assertions can be validated as true or false. 2+2=4 does not require defending. 

Can you imagine instead, the powerful positive impact on performance and relationships that would result from communicating standards and exploring assertions before we concretize our stories?  What if, in the above example, you had never told your team exactly what the start time was for the day because your company had a flexible culture? When did John's lateness go from within bounds to unacceptable?  We need to be aware of our undrawn and uncommunicated lines in the sand and learn to examine them.  What if in your feedback conversation you had led instead with, ‘I noticed you’ve been late on X-Y-Z occasion.  It’s out of your norm, and I am concerned about you.  Can you tell me what’s happening?’  What might you have discovered with this approach while building your relationship?

This example is a simple one.  It is one of countless scenarios we find ourselves in daily, making micro-assessments that can stack up to major errors in judgment with critical consequences. As senior leaders, we have even more responsibility to get this right because the ripple effect travels further, the stakes are higher, and the water is muddier.  These concepts don’t only apply to assessments about others’ performance – they apply to key business decisions and how you navigate your own work experience.    

What can you do to change your stories, better your experience, and level-up your leadership?  

  • Strengthen your self-awareness and emotional intelligence by noticing the current state of your moods and emotions.  Swings in these areas affect the assessments you make and vice versa.  If you're feeling joyful, you may assess others positively.  Whereas, an irritated mood may lead you to be critical.  
  • Assume positive intent from others.  In my experience, people mean well and want positive interpersonal connection, but diversities in style, thinking and approach, coupled with reactive responses, lead to frequent miscommunications.  
  • Stay curious – question and dispute your thinking.  As an observer of yourself, notice your train of thought.  What are your patterns?  Are you naturally positive or negative?  Do you assume the best or worst of people? Do you tend to over-analyze and read into interactions?  Look at the assertions – what is really true?  Ground your assessments in the facts and allow yourself to open to a wider set of possibilities.  
  • Have open, direct and authentic conversations with colleagues.  Embrace your vulnerability in conversations and communicate honestly. Too often we come at conversations from everywhere except the center of the target.

We are assessment and meaning making machines.  Slowing down to examine our internal assessments takes courage, practice, a willingness to let go of righteousness, and an openness to expanding the complexity with which we experience the world.  Leaders who master these skills will be rewarded with deeper connections, engaged teams, innovative results, and a thriving culture that welcomes diversity of people, thought and experience.
May your world and possibilities always be expanding, and may your stories represent the best version of yourself and others, Katrina

Up Your Game on Gratitude

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Happy Thanksgiving!  In the spirit of this week's holiday, I want to share some thoughts with you on gratitude - why it matters, and how you can easily up your gratitude game.  

Our brains are hardwired to repeat habitual patterns of thinking, and for many of us, that means a negativity bias.  Left unchecked, this becomes a detrimental mindset through which we experience the world. The data suggest it’s worth the effort to become more positive.  Research by positive emotions expert, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, demonstrates the benefits of a mind brimming with positive thoughts and emotions.  Her studies show that people with a higher ratio of positive to negative thoughts and emotions experience elevated levels of well-being, increased creativity, and better connections with others.  

One of the simplest ways to access more positive thinking and emotion is by developing a gratitude practice.  It's a practice because gratitude is created through thoughts, emotions and actions.  It starts with getting in the habit of frequently directing your thoughts and attention toward what you are grateful for in your world.  Doing so triggers cultivation of the emotion of gratitude.  For me, it shows up as a warm, softening sensation in my chest.  When I stay with that sensation, it makes me feel more open and receptive to the world.  Gratitude becomes an action when we share it with others.  This gives both the receiver and the sharer a boost in well-being.  
Here are 2 challenges to up your gratitude game:

Challenge 1: In the spirit of Thanksgiving, share 1 gratitude with someone each day for the next week.  With whom do you want to share your appreciation and thanks?  Who has supported and cared for you? Been kind or generous to you?  Gone out of their way for you?  Sincerely tell them how grateful you are and why.

Challenge 2: Start a Simple Gratitude Practice. What I'm about to share is perhaps the most researched activity in positive psychology that has repeatedly proven to increase human flourishing - The Gratitude Journal.  
If the word 'journal' makes you sweat, let me break it down for you.  For the rest of 2017, identify a place to capture your thoughts.  This can be a notebook, spreadsheet, phone app - whatever you prefer.  A few times a week or daily, take 5 minutes to reflect on and write down what you're grateful for or what went well that day.  Aim to do this at the same time each session to build the habit.  What you're grateful for can be big or small.  Maybe it was a fun lunch with a friend, a success you had at work, a relaxing yoga class, or a good night's sleep.  Maybe your focus is on relationships and loved ones.  When you play a role in making good things happen - note it.  For example, when you were having a stressful week, you prioritized attending a yoga class because you knew it would help you de-stress and focus better at work the next day.  

The upside of a Gratitude Journal goes beyond the few minutes when you're engaged in the activity.  By looking back, focusing on, and remembering the good stuff, we shift our thinking patterns toward recognizing and anchoring on positive thoughts.  We may actually become more optimistic and resilient, create more positive memories, and develop an orientation toward hunting the good stuff every day.  

Challenge accepted? 

Let me close by saying thank you to you, the friends of Point of Arrival. The past 2 years have been an amazing journey, and I'm so glad you've been along for the ride.  Thank you for your continued interest, curiosity and support.  I'm grateful to this community!

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, Katrina

A Recipe for Cultivating Passion

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I had the privilege recently of attending a performance of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste. Individually, the musicians had an immeasurable amount of prodigious talent, but collectively, the music was soulful and magical.  It was clear there was something ethereal happening; an energetic wave was born on that stage and washed over us all.  It got me wondering – what are the ingredients that generate this kind of passion and energy in our own lives?  And, what is the ripple effect into our communities when we tap it?
These questions were the basis of my graduate school dissertation and are ongoing for me.  Here’s what you need to know about how to cultivate more passion in work and life:

  • Nurture your talents and actively use your strengths – What are the talents, skills and abilities that come naturally to you, that are energizing and you cannot help but express in the world?How will you nurture them so they continue to grow? We often discover our passions by pursuing our strengths. When we connect with and use our strengths in service of our passions, we are more likely to engage in those activities, be resilient when we're challenged and generate better results.  
  • Focus, hard work and practice – Focus on what lights you up!  Work tirelessly and energetically toward improvement and mastery, knowing that a growth mindset, continued learning and practice will only make you better at what you love. 
  • Follow the path for its own sake – In terms of generating meaning and purpose in life, intrinsic rewards far outweigh the extrinsic ones.   Do what you’re passionate about because of the sheer joy it brings you, because time fades into the background, and because you cannot keep from doing it!  The activity is the reward. 
  • Architect a community of support – Who are the people who encourage and inspire you?  Who has complementary gifts, that when joined together, spark magic?  The whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Other people matter, and we need community for exponential impact and engagement.
  • It doesn’t need to pay the bills – While some of us will connect with passion through our paid work in the world, many of us will not, and that is perfectly okay!  What’s of the utmost importance is that we are cultivating our interests and passions in at least one domain of our lives.  Passion energy is a wellspring of positive emotions and meaning.  Do something ongoing that is energizing and brings you enjoyment and happiness. 

Watching the stage that evening, I witnessed passion coming alive in the foot tapping, bodies swaying, ear-to-ear smiling and harmonious sound.  A lifetime of nurturing talents, discipline and practice enabled that symphonic moment.  Those individual musicians, in ensemble, reverberated musical grandeur that touched the souls of everyone in that theater.  Thank goodness they showed up and shared it!  Here’s the bottom line: participate in and share your gifts with the world, for your own sake and the collective, we need them more than ever. 

In service and gratitude, Katrina 

Why the Pursuit of Perfection is Riddled with Flaws

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It doesn’t take much investigation to reveal why so many of us have been hooked by perfectionism.  Through bombardment of mainstream and social media – where so much of what is celebrated is airbrushed and what is showcased is a selective editorial of only our fabulous moments – the message is clear: being perfect, whether it’s having career success, physical beauty, or having the perfect family, is the path to happiness and worthiness.  Many of us received messages from the time we were small that perfect performance and behavior bought us love and attention.  Pressure to pursue perfection is pervasive, but the path is riddled with flaws.  It’s time we wake up and create a new aspiration to live authentically instead of perfectly.

I know you’re probably thinking that your boss wants you to be perfect at work, but I would guess you’re wrong.  Perfectionism has a dark side, and it’s distinctly different from being hard working, having appreciation of excellence, holding high standards, and being committed to results.  Everyday in my coaching practice with clients, I see the damage derived from perfectionism.  A few of its hallmarks are:

  • Holding yourself to an unattainable bar that sets you up for disappointment and the feeling of ‘never [fill in the blank] enough’
  • Overworking in an unsustainable way that leads to burnout
  • Not producing timely results because you’re over-iterating
  • Micromanaging your teammates in an attempt to control every detail
  • Adopting a self-critical and judgmental inner voice that is harsh on yourself
  • Playing it safe and not taking risks for fear of failure
  • Hiding mistakes and pretending you’re ok, even when you’re crumbling inside
  • Never asking for help for fear you’ll be found out as an imposter

For most people, all this striving for perfection strips us of true satisfaction, happiness and actually enjoying our work and lives.  Perfection is a dangerous path where people are especially prone to the error of thinking that self-worth is equivalent to the ability to be perfect.  In the end, perfectionism is an anxiety inducing, often obsessive, and disconnected way of living your life.

The good news and bright side is that with courage, self-awareness, openness, and willingness to experiment and dispute your thinking, you can unravel and eventually undo perfectionism.  Here are some tips and actions to help you along your path to authenticity:

  • Become aware of your inner voice – notice how you talk to yourself and begin talking to yourself like you would a sweet friend, with compassion
  • Embrace that what you do, how you look, what others think of you, how successful you are, etc., does not equal who you are – you get to create your identity and self-worth
  • Ask for help when you need it – and pay attention to what happens
  • Take a risk or try something that feels out of your comfort zone – we learn so much through new experiences and mistakes
  • Admit your mistakes – especially at work, your team wants to know you are human.  It gives them permission to be honest about their mistakes with you
  • Know when good enough is enough – challenge yourself to prioritize what needs more attention and what does not
  • Don’t boil the ocean – focus on the 80/20 rule – what 20% of activities will give you 80% of the results
  • When someone else comes up less than perfect, be compassionate - none of us are perfect
  • Reach out and get support to build resilience – share what you’re working on with a friend, trusted colleague, mentor or coach – ask for accountability 

When we hang up perfection for authenticity, we make way for courageous connection, richer learning experiences, cultivation of a growth mindset, honest living, and perhaps the best gift of all – an improved, more loving relationship with ourselves. Let's let the ivory tower of perfection fall!

May you embrace your imperfections today, and may you still be perfectly enough, Katrina

How to Start a Meditation Practice in a Few Minutes a Day

If you’re like most busy professionals I know, you probably spend most of your week moving between meetings, with a mile long to-do list, and a pile of personal commitments.  This means you are not only physically busy, but you’re mentally busy and may be overloaded.  One of the most in-demand topics from my coaching clients and groups is how to build mindfulness practices into their daily lives to counter life’s hectic pace.  So today, I’m bringing this topic to all of you – the friends of Point of Arrival.
The brain is hard-wired for continuous thinking and has 2 preferred time zones – it spends most of its time churning on past events or planning and worrying about future ones.  The body, on the other hand, only lives in the present.  Mindfulness joins the body and mind together in the only space and time we actually have - the present. Researchers have long studied the benefits of meditation – increased creativity and problem solving skills, improved concentration, self-control, memory and emotional intelligence, and reduced stress and reactivity – just to name a few.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned mindfulness researcher, defines mindfulness as “the act of paying attention on purpose and being aware in the present moment without judgment or attachment.”  While we can do this anytime of day and wherever we are, one of the most beneficial ways to practice mindfulness is through mindfulness meditation. 
I have good news!  Mindfulness meditation is simple!  And yes, even if you’re one of those people who are terrified to be alone with your thoughts, even you can do it!  So, here we go…

  • Take a comfortable seat – either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor.  If possible, do not lean your back on anything.  Sit upright with good posture so you feel a lift through your spine but aren’t straining
  • Set a timer – I use the free version of the Insight Timer in the Apple App Store – it has lovely sounds to ease you in and out of the practice
  • Close your eyes or take a soft gaze a few feet in front of you on the floor
  • Focus on your breath and body – what it feels like to breathe in and out through your nose, how your chest rises and falls with each breath, scan your body and release any tension, feel your heart beat in your chest, with every breath soften and tune in

That’s it!  It really is that simple.  I know what you’re thinking…. ‘What about my monkey mind? I’ll be terrible at this!’  First, it’s important to remember that this kind of meditation is a non-evaluative experience.  You cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at it – you are just where you are, and it’s perfect for today.  It’s normal, especially for beginners, to have streaming thoughts during meditation.  Each time you have a thought, notice it, label it as 'thinking', and come back to focusing on your breath.  Through this method, you are not giving your thinking any credence, attachment or judgment. 
When you catch your mind making a grocery list, thinking ‘I hate this right now’, or stressing about work tomorrow – recognize and label it. Say to yourself, ‘that’s just thinking’, and come back to your breath.  You might do this every few seconds.  Remember, meditation is a practice, and its benefits are cumulative.  Like any new practice, I promise it gets easier with time.  In short order, you will notice you’re training your brain to quiet its noise.  You’ll feel clearer, calmer and more focused both on and off your meditation cushion.
What are you waiting for?  Give mindfulness meditation a try, and commit to sticking with it for a few weeks.  How much time is ideal? Whatever you can do consistently that feels accessible!  Start with 3 to 5 minutes and gradually increase your time.  Daily is best, but a few times a week is better than none!  Try it for yourself, and send me a note to share your experience.
My favorite spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron (check out her incredible audio collection on Audible), reminds us through her teachings that meditation is not about feeling good.  In fact, it can feel darn right hard and uncomfortable.  Instead, meditation is about showing up for yourself on a regular basis, and learning to hold space and sit with the full range of human experience – the good and bad, the joy and sorrow, the pleasure and pain – without grasping or aversion.  Through this practice, we begin to know ourselves more deeply and become self-aware of our triggers and patterns, of what serves us and what does not.  From that place, we begin to adjust, grow, and more capably respond to whatever comes our way in life.
Here’s to your inner peace and wisdom, Katrina