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

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