Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Meetings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (but Mostly the Good): Ten Ways to Make Your Meetings Succeed

Any of the following sound vaguely familiar?

  • The world has developed into a place populated by those who go to meetings and the others who serve coffee and donuts to those who go to meetings.

  • The world has evolved to the point that there are two kinds of working people, those who plan and go to meetings, and the rest of us who have been told by them that we must do our jobs and fit them around meetings they have planned so they can tell us how to do our jobs.

  • Meetings are for those who cannot make a decision about how to spend other people’s time and money badly without bringing them all together to talk for too long about how they are going to spend other people’s time and money badly.

  • Meetings are like paperwork, the more there is the less actual work gets done.

  • The world is divided into two kinds of meetings, ones that tell you what you already know and do it in the longest amount of time imaginable, and ones that teach you what you don’t know in a way that assures that you will have to relearn it after you’ve left the meeting.

  • Meetings are designed to give everyone a chance to participate in making decisions that have already been made.

  • The prime purpose of meetings is for people from far-flung departments to get together to see who’s hair and waistline is different and who will act as badly as they always do at meetings. That way everyone is sure to have something to contribute at the next meeting.

Meetings are alternately disparaged and tolerated, essential and a complete waste of time.

A good meeting may hard to find, but when you are a part of one you know it. You can take something back from a well-facilitated and efficiently thought-out meeting that is helpful and can be implemented with understanding and clarity.

A successful meeting reinforces the common goals and connections that bring people together for the meeting and to the workplace in general. People leave good meetings feeling they have been heard and their expertise has been honored and/or their concerns aptly addressed.

We leave good meetings with new information clearly expressed and clearly actionable.

We leave good meetings knowing who we would contact should we have questions about the information the meeting dealt with.

Bad meetings are the stuff of corporate, agency, or workgroup legend. We all have our war stories, funny, tragic and unbelievable. That is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about having good meetings.

If meetings are a necessary evil then let us make them tolerable and productive. Let us make them as short as possible without cutting necessary corners or being required to convene another meeting to cover the information or processes that were left out or unconsidered. Let us work to make them a place where people feel value and able; places where our connections to one another in the workplace, even if contentious, are valuable and affirmative.

Here is a list of a few things that make a meeting worth attending. It doesn’t pretend to be completely comprehensive and I invite additions. It is not meant to pertain to the kind of bad news meetings in which people, in large or small numbers, or their departments, are let go. It certainly does not concern meetings in which the purpose is to “hot seat” one or a few employees by ganging up on them to attempt to motivate change, whether the need for action along that vein is necessary or not. I would propose that while some of the items on this list might work for such a meeting, meetings for those purposes are counter-intuitive and fail in almost every aspect of the basis for having a successful meeting.

1) Do your homework. Not only in terms of the information and/or process that is the purpose of the meeting, but in terms of the process of the meeting itself.

2) Do your homework whether you will lead or attend. Is your role as attendee going to be interactive or passive? What information do you need to have with you? Who has the information about this if you do not know?

3) Ask these questions:
a. Is this largely a meeting to disseminate new information or to share information and problem solve a new or faltering process?
b. How much time needs to be dedicated to interaction between attendees?
c. How much teaching time is required?
d. What do you know about the learning and process styles of those in attendance?
e. As an attendee: what do you know about your own way of participating in group process and how can it be used constructively?

4) Do you need to lead or facilitate or both? Where are your strengths? If you are a good leader but fall short as a facilitator can you ask someone else with that strength to co-lead if the meeting requires an ample amount of facilitation?

5) Decide on the format and time line for the meeting and stick to it. Designate an official time-keeper if you will be too busy or are not good at tracking time. Inform and ask all participants to observe these time lines and thank them in advance for agreeing to do so. As a participant, be willing to actively participate in time management.

6) Are there high context people who will attend who require more interaction and background time to process and share? How can you help them participate without allowing the timelines and goals of the meeting to be subverted?

7) What about quick-thinking result-oriented people to whom meetings can be seen as a waste of time, but who have great information and innovative, effective styles? How can you engage them in the process without others feeling rushed, interrupted or minimized?

8) Practice or script how you plan to move the meeting along to its next item of business or away from one that has been finalized or thoroughly discussed. (Stick to the time frame!)

9) Design your time line to incorporate ample question and answer periods during the body of the meeting and one toward the end prior to the final recap (see following). Do not take more time than needed for questions and be ready to sort and defer questions to another time or to a one-to-one interaction at a later date (“Why don’t you and I talk about that another time” “We’d have more time to discuss that in full later, let’s move on.” “Why don’t you talk to me after the meeting and we can schedule a time to talk about that”)

10) Make sure to include ample time for as many recap and summary periods as are necessary during the course of the meeting and for a comprehensive one at the close of the meeting. Make sure people share and know what the meeting has accomplished and what the expectations are after the meeting. Do not shirk or short-change the recap. This is when the meeting’s goals and objectives will be re-stated and its specific actions and processes or changes reviewed. A good recap clarifies confusion, restates resolutions and implementations. Ask participants for feedback on the process of the meeting after the final recap. A brief, sincere and good-humored, “How do you think this meeting went?” can go a long way toward engaging your coworkers, associates and clients in follow up and the success of meetings to come.

And finally, be grateful to the participants. Especially be grateful to those whose work day is full of tasks that a meeting takes them away from. Acknowledge both the necessity and the imposition of the meeting. Participants of a successful meeting might also put some effort into gratitude. And be specific in your positive feedback. People are often problem-oriented. They remember what they did wrong. What they did right is forgotten in spite of it holding the potential solution for what they did wrong. They will remember if you acknowledge it.

So, good luck to you in your efforts to make your meetings a productive and engaging part of how you accomplish what your work requires of you.

Remember: a meeting’s effectiveness is not in the idea of the meeting itself, but how it is organized and run. Meetings are our chance, really, to bring people together to communicate about the goals toward which our work groups, companies or agencies are primarily engaged. Without them we are often ineffective, even if brilliant, Lone Rangers with an incomplete toolbox of ways to communicate with those who are engaged in parts of the same task that we are.

Meetings are a place to share expertise, vision and support. We can assume that, once the issues of money, basic needs and mutual respect are dealt with, everyone wants to do the best job they can. As human beings we look for opportunities to learn how to do that.

While meetings should not be the only way to facilitate this natural human urge to improve and excel, if done well they can be great avenues and opportunities toward that end. They can simultaneously assist us to engage in and get better at interacting with others and that can make our work group learn and excel too.

Good luck and go get ‘em!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Honoring Our Gifts: Letter to My Talents

The following letter was written during a retreat weekend at The Fen. Not far from Three Rivers Michigan, on a tributary and wetland that is part of the St. Joseph River system, The Fen is a very special artists’ retreat center owned and shared with others by the great Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Ferron and her partner Mary.

Our retreat weekend was structured around keeping silence for a good portion of the day and “talking your walk” with the rest of an intimate number of participants at the end of the day.

One of the suggested assignments was to write a letter to an important some one, something, or some place, and/or to address your fear of expressing your talent: what keeps you from sharing your gifts? I chose to write a letter to my talents.

I found succor and connection in the exercise and in the product of the exercise, which I share here. I heartily recommend similar experiments to others as a way to get to one’s center of worth and worthiness, whether you identify as an artist or not. Besides, it’s fun!

Dear Talents;

First of all I’d like to thank you for a wonderful weekend. You went out of your way to make my place with you comfortable and exciting and included enough risk-taking that I felt somehow I could be new and renew.

Of course the customs in your country are somewhat strange and alien considering the restrictions in the place I find myself living. But, in spite of that, it didn’t take long for me to see that lifting that veil, that veneer of masks and meaningless prohibitions and letting them fall away, was all for the best. Your rules, if one can even call them that, to honor your heart, to speak the best parts of yourself, and to connect with the best parts of others – and then to make something lasting and worthy for the next generations – are strange at first, but soon come naturally; so naturally that I find myself humming those tunes even in the most adverse situations.

This must be how people, even in the most oppressive lands, those dim and dank mine shafts of the collective shadow, survive: they know their music, they remember and honor the songs of their loving predecessors, and they always discover what is new and can be depended upon. And they find ways and people with whom to share what they have discovered. That is what I’ve learned from you my friend.

I know you have been with me since I was a child but your name, or names, were hidden from me even as you were born in my own house like some secret sibling I could turn to in the dark night afraid and we could cling together – and laugh or hum our little new songs back and forth, back and forth, never to forget we belong together, we are in one another, even if the circumstances of kings and queens would have us doubt our worth.

I like your country and hope I will find time in my waking hours and even more often in my dreams to be near you there. Until then, fare thee well. Let us speak often and well as we have been able to and reconfirm the inseparable nature of our bonds.

I am sitting by a river now. It is Fall and the bright tree -- orange, yellow, and amber -- is mirrored in the moving water. Strange. I could be in your country even here. Yes, there are trains and the drone of far away trucks, even gun shots, sometimes fearsomely close, close enough to remember the wars others have to dream through to remember you and the possibilities of where you live. I cannot forget them, can I?

So I hope I can bring you to my living even here – these small places where we make enough quiet to hear you in the intermittent rain of Fall leaves, the owls and kingfishers, the crickets behind me, the little green frog with duckweed on its back.

Look at all the little leaf boats! They are coming around the bending water toward me. And then, even then, I must let them go on!

Thank you for your gifts to me,

Forever yours, inestimably mine, infinitesimally ours –



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Six Questions for Initial One-to-One Workplace Problem-Solving Sessions

Please answer these questions or be prepared to discuss these questions when I meet with you for our initial one-to-one session. There are no right answers. What we talk about will be held in confidence, unless it has to do with any illegal or unethical behavior.

My approach to workplace conflict or desired change revealed through our talks will be to assist you to take charge of how to work to resolve it yourself, either through coaching you in ways to initiate and carry out direct conversations to that end, or to be present during conflict resolution sessions with those the conflict concerns. We will work on coping strategies when direct problem-solving is not the best choice or premature.

Although the word conflict has negative connotations and often creates anxiety, I believe it can be used as an opportunity for understanding and positive change.

1) What interpersonal or communication skill or attribute do you think is your most valuable asset to your work team?

2) Can you describe some interpersonal or communication skill you think you could be better at in the workplace?

3) What is the major difference between the way you communicate at home with family and friends and the way you communicate in the workplace?

4) Name one to three positive communication patterns already in place in the workplace that you think could be used more. How do you think this might be accomplished and what do you think you could commit to doing to make it more common?

5) Name one to three communication patterns that are absent from or have a negative effect in the workplace. How do you think this might be remedied? What do you think you would commit to doing to help create a remedy?

6) What is the most difficult aspect of workplace communication for you? Name one to three ways you think I could help you manage, cope or change that aspect.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We Are Wrong About Being Wrong

from op/ed columnist Johann Hari:

If we want to face up to our mistakes, then we need to change the way we think about them. Error is an essential step in the process of finding the right answer

Friday, 13 August 2010, The UK’s Independent

Here's a series of questions that should be fairly straight- forward, but are actually excruciating. When were you last wrong? What has been your most recent serious screw-up at work? What has been your biggest mistake in your personal life? We all have a weird and paradoxical relationship with our mistakes. We can see that everyone around us makes errors all the time – yet we are always astonished when it turns out we are getting things wrong too. It's because, deep down, we see being wrong as shameful proof that we've been sloppy, or stupid. This belief pervades our culture: we applaud the public figures who "stay the course", even if it's wrong, and boo the ones who admit a mistake and "U-turn" or "flip-flop". But what if – apologies for the irony landslide here – we are wrong in the whole way we think about being wrong?

A brilliant new manifesto has just been published urging us to reassess our relationship with our own mistakes: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by the American journalist Kathryn Schulz. Perhaps the best place to start her story is with an experiment first staged in the University of Berlin in 1902 by Professor Frank Von Liszt. In a classroom, two students began to have an angry argument, until one pulled out a gun. As the panicked students around them drew back, a professor tried to intervene – and a shot was fired. The professor collapsed to the ground. The witnesses, unaware that all three were actors following a script, were then taken outside and quizzed about what they had seen and heard. They were encouraged to give as much detail as possible.

Everyone got it wrong. They put long monologues into the mouths of spectators who had said nothing; they "heard" the row as being about a dozen different imagined subjects, from girlfriends to debts to exams; they saw blood everywhere, when there was none. Most people got a majority of their "facts" wrong, and even the very best witness offered a picture that was 25 per cent fiction. The more certain the witness, the more wrong they were. Every time the experiment is run, the results are the same.

The implications are pretty startling. Human beings can't even accurately describe an event of great importance that we have just witnessed with our own eyes. What does that suggest about our ability to be easily right about much more complex questions? In American Pastoral, Philip Roth calls life, "an astonishing farce of misperception". Our abilities to perceive and reason are painfully limited, while the world is unutterably complex. We are peering at an entire universe through a drinking straw.

So the meaningful question about any human being isn't: does he get things wrong? With these limitations, we will all make big mistakes. The real question is: does he take the time to understand his mistakes and learn from them? But you can only do this regularly if you know how to think about mistakes in a healthy way.

There are a few areas of human life where people have found a way to do this. Revealingly, they are the areas that make things work better than any other – the sciences. To pluck one example of millions, when Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proposed that stomach ulcers were caused by bacterial infections in the 1980s, almost all scientists disagreed. Now, after conclusive tests, everyone agrees. It's not that scientists have less ego than the rest of us, or feel less sting when they are proven wrong. It's that they have developed rigorous techniques for constantly checking their claims against the evidence, and ruthlessly hunting out their errors and figuring out what they mean.

This approach can be extended. After two planes collided at Tenerife airport in 1977, killing 600 people, the airline industry introduced radical new protocols. Crew and ground members are now actually rewarded for reporting their own errors and screw-ups. The result? Accidents fell dramatically, from 0.178 per million flight hours to 0.104.

Now compare that to the way we conduct public life. One of the most predictable applause lines for any politician is to boast that he won't back down, look back, or say sorry. Tony Blair wasn't unusual when he bragged: "I can only go one way, I've got no reverse gear." But a car without a reverse gear would be banned from the roads.

Yet we have structured our public life so this seems like a sensible statement, while anyone who ever admits a mistake is talking themselves out of a job. You can hear the carping interviewers now: "How can we ever trust you again, if you were wrong about this?" We make it easier to continue in error than to admit error and put it right.

If we want to face up to our mistakes more regularly, then we need to change the way we think about them. If we see them as proof of our own incompetence, we will continue to puff out our chests and pretend they aren't there. Is there a different way?

Error is an essential step in the process of finding the right answer. Every scientist leaves behind a trail of disproven hypotheses and papers shot to pieces by colleagues. He doesn't see them as shameful, but as part of a process that was bringing him closer to the truth through experimentation. Similarly, James Joyce, thinking about all the drafts he wrote that failed, said, "a man's errors are his portals of discovery".

But error may be even more fundamental than that. From the moment we are born, human beings are creating theories about the world, based on limited evidence. It's how we survived: if our ancestors hadn't generalised that all lions are dangerous, you wouldn't be reading this. Errors are often simply this necessary impulse reaching too far, or misfiring. So the impulse that makes us wrong is also the impulse that makes us human.
Since reading Schultz's book, I have been trying harder to train myself to think systematically about my own mistakes. Every week, I make a list of what I have got wrong, personally or professionally, and try to figure out how to get it right next time. I can't entirely drain the pain from it, but I do think there's a hunger out there for this approach: the most positive reaction I have ever had to a column was when I tried to publicly explore how I had got the Iraq war so horribly wrong. What I learned from that awful mistake – the true factors that drive US and UK foreign policy, rather than propaganda claims – have led me, I think, to positive insights since. If I had instead run from the error and insisted it wasn't there, I would be stuck in a bloody blind alley, devoid of insights.

Tim Harford of Radio 4's More or Less has suggested an annual prize for the politician who makes the most constructive admission of error. It'd be a good start – but we will best seek a healthier approach to error in public life when we achieve it in ourselves.

You will get something wrong today, and tomorrow, and every day of your life. So will I, and everybody you know. You don't have a choice about being wrong sometimes: mistakes will be your life-long companion. But you do have a choice about whether to approach your error in terror so you suppress, ignore and repeat it – or to make it your honest, open ally in trying to get to the truth.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Function in Dysfunction: Families in Transformation

I worked as a family counselor with a hospice organization for eleven years. During my first meetings with the person who had been admitted to our program, a program designed to deliver aggressive but not curative care to people with terminal illness, I came to expect and be prepared for the patient or a family member to take me aside and tell me that their family was “dysfunctional”. This admission was such a common feature of my early meetings with families that I learned, early on in my work, a kind of script for my response. My response was generally calibrated to fit the individual situation, but more often than not I found myself saying that I was not sure I believed the word “dysfunctional” was a very accurate way to describe how any family works or does not work.

I asked what the word “dysfunctional” meant to that person in relationship to their family. That in itself could turn into the basis of my ongoing work to help the patient and family integrate the anticipation of the devastating event of the expected death of one of its members. Generally speaking, and leaving out family systems that include repeated and multi-generationally enforced patterns of extreme and normalized torture and cruelty (and they happen often enough!), I was often able to help various members of a family reframe how they perceived the way their family worked as a system, even modifying the negative judgment in which they had initially compartmentalized their family’s functioning. In the end and often enough, if I was greeted with a quite common, healthy and functional will to comprehend how the love family members feel for one another is not often comfortably expressed, is full of normally complicated and difficult history and a wide range of feeling, many families could go about the business of caring for their dying loved one unfettered with the weight of feeling they are interminably wrong and flawed, a kind of a “double whammy” when one is attempting to carry out the extreme challenges of caring for a dying family member and all that it entails.

I think there is a common belief based in some ways on very real changes in how we think about families and the roles of men and women in families as well as attitudes about race and sexuality that have occurred over the past century that our families and how they work have become unfamiliar and undiscovered territory. We believe, perhaps rightly, that our families are made up of new combinations of expectations and untested norms and sometimes frightening and alien intentions and lack of intention… as if, in the past, there were clearer guidelines regarding what was expected from each family member and fewer deep and fracturing misunderstandings and communication gaffes than seem to be a huge part of how family estrangements and long term conflicts are born and sustained.

I cannot deny that there have been changes in how our society views the function of family as well as very real and obvious changes in what the family looks like in the United States and perhaps in the rest of the world. Deeply actualized alterations in how many people see race, and the overall move toward a willing or reticent integration of race, spirituality, sexuality and nationality groups have been seeded and taken root in the family. Mixed race families have become something of a norm and even accepted, with fervor or begrudgingly, even in individual families throughout the culture. Our own president is a good example of this shift.

The push for and the ultimate inevitability of non-heterosexual partnerships being given equal status in family and child-rearing has had a huge impact on our individual and collective ambivalence about what a family is, what it means, and what it does… how it functions as a basic foundation stone in the structure of humanity.

So yes, this change is real and, perhaps, a seminal and historically, bio-sociologically evolutionary event. We can choose to be excited and relieved by the change, or we can predict the doom and destruction of humanity based solely on the disintegration of the previous norms. Or both and everything in between.

Certainly the confusion and lack of confidence in families and in the culture in which the foundation is shifting could largely be attributed to the disintegration of previously held and maintained attitudes and norms.

That being said, there were always bi-racial people and couplings. But while we have suddenly awakened in a country in which we have, on one level, attained a long-awaited and, among the ethical and honest, hoped-for event… a non Caucasian president… we are also faced with the fact that in spite of that huge boundary being smashed, much has not changed. Much will not change.

The same can be said about non-heterosexual marriages and openly recognized long term same sex unions. They have always existed, and in some of the greatest and most long-lived human societies, they were an open and accepted feature. There was and is still war. There is still greed and human-to-human cruelty. And I would propose that there were and still will be family rifts and estrangements, heart-felt tearful apologies, and forgiveness as well as heartbreaking death-bed scenes due to the inability to come to understanding, and reasonable but painfully held differences that cannot be resolved.

Perhaps the most simultaneously celebrated and reviled change in families and societies is the role of women. Again, in spite of great strides being made, from family role-change in respect to gender, to the rise of women in all levels of occupation, vocation and influence (and in spite of the fact that there seems still to be a huge gap in gender equity in many places in the world and in subcultures, usually in theocratic societies large and small even in the U.S.) much has not changed; much conflict on all levels of society seems, more and more, to be integrated in the nature of humanity as opposed to the nature of how societies and families have organized themselves.

What does all this theorizing have to do with the confidence we have or do not have in how our families look, feel and function? How can knowing that these changes are at the same time real and illusory… even disappointing… help you plan for your interactions with your long estranged cousin’s clan as you all attempt to put on your best behavior at the funeral of a family patriarch or matriarch?

Good question.

It seems to me the question is not how to dysfunctionalize or even suppress these new forms of family dynamics and attributes. Some, out of the irrational fear that comes from superstition, lack of understanding of and apprehension about irrevocable change, would like to.

Besides, the dynamics and attributes of this change have always been present in one form or another. Perhaps the biggest challenge in our society and in our families is how to develop personal and interpersonal skills to facilitate and cope with how these attributes are no longer as suppressed, are coming out into the open, are being expressed in their rightful and transparent places in our lives.

What if our task is not learning how to cope with the dysfunction these new family attributes have released, but how to adjust and tune into the potential they hold for us? What if the goal is to finally be set free from the vagaries and deep and often disastrous pitfalls of the patriarchal, racially segregated, rigidly and unrealistically heterosexual family models of the past?

Perhaps this is a major shift for human society. Perhaps the adjustments, the suffering as well as the opportunities and potential this change holds for us is on a par with other shifts in collective consciousness and ways of surviving.

What if these new emerging family models carry with them as yet unrecognized skills and tools for successfully managing and thriving on a transforming earth and in a human culture that remains a place of the best of times and the worst of times? Where will we be, or not be, if we allow the regressive elements of our society to further repress what are basic and necessary, if sometimes chaotic and not fully understood, ways to express human social equality at the very foundation of that human collective, the family?

It is clear we need skills, invention and confidence that we can move forward, eyes wide open. We have to seek out ways we have functioned, and functioned well, during such changes in how our intimate worlds are constructed and how they work. Instead of adopting a model of dysfunction we might fully invest in the understanding that the only reason the family and society in general has gotten this far is because of how the innate forces and systems of our evolving nature are based in function, in how things work, not wallowing in how they don’t work. Systems do not survive not working. If they do not work, if they are truly dysfunctional, they fail. In the biochemical physical universe dysfunction means disappearance. It can also mean transformation. But in that case the change is rooted in a will to function, and so the dysfunction or what is called dysfunction, is actually an integral part of how a system returns to, never really leaves, functionality.

So go to the funeral. Be prepared for the drama and sadness. Be prepared to be stricken by the suffering with which such human endeavors and functions are suffused. But just as one relative approaches you to complain bitterly about another, or a sibling weeps deeply and inconsolably about the lost opportunity to make right what might never have been made right anyway, understand this in terms of how you and your family work, not how they do not work. Then see where that leads you.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Guest Article: Where Is Love Going?

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Where has all the love gone?

The burning flame of passionate mutuality is burning out as people obsessively chase ratings in the mating game

Monday, 21 June 2010, The Independent

A 25th wedding anniversary party thrown by some dear friends on Saturday was a fabulous celebration of enduring ardour and affection. The husband, a musician, got us singing old romantic songs as he played the piano. But as joy filled the marquee, I felt a whit of unease and then the cold touch of melancholia.

My brother-in-law, who died recently, was devoted to my mentally ill sister for three decades. How many marriages of the future would have such perseverance and longevity? Why did the songs sound like ghosts from an era long gone, never to return? Completely by coincidence my first wedding in 1972 was on the same date, the 19th of June. It didn't last, couldn't survive the self-gratifying Eighties which led inexorably to our age of narcissism and commodification of everything, including intimacy.

Even Martin Amis, both an embodiment and chronicler of the Thatcherite culture, is somewhat unnerved by modernity, in particular, by the way sex today is severed from feelings. About the long sex fest in his latest book, The Pregnant Widow, he says, disarmingly, "it's pornographic sex. It's easy to write because the emotion has been withdrawn. It's cynical and recreational".

Before long, says David Levy, people will be able to get a robot to satisfy their sex needs and programme in the required doses of affection too. Levy, a successful computer chess programmer, wrote a book on the metallic objects of desire that will end unhappiness because "everyone can have someone" in their empty lives. He isn't crazy. You can already buy the Japanese made Honeydoll, a pleaser which (who?) emits orgasmic sounds when stroked. Perhaps next, boy dolls proving their manhood upon being touched by keen hands.

In 2005, brain researchers from New York University at Stony Brook reported in the Journal of Neurophysiology that sex and love produce different body responses and that romantic love is a more powerful force than mere sex drive. It is what makes us human. That precious, fragile, universal bond between partners may not survive long in the West. Men and women can copulate more imaginatively and freely than ever before; they just can't talk as well with lovers, care for them, and make love.

The burning flame of passionate mutuality is burning out as people obsessively chase ratings in the mating game. Loveless sex, aided by Viagra and other chemicals, is an anesthetised experience, unmemorable and futile. The internet is full of sex advice, addicts, positions, tricks, fantasies, costumes and porn. There is hardly anything on the emotional truths and gifts of love.

In the east and south, love is endangered by other brute forces. These countries have their tragic fables of impossible love. Films, books, songs and poems lament unfortunate and impulsive paramours who can't resist each other. Once people understood that wasn't real life. Now, as individualism and the idea of personal choice spreads across the globalised world, sensual love is awakened in these societies, threatening the old order under which marriages reinforce social and familial ties, maintain patriarchal control and involve clever economic calculations.

That is why there is a sharp increase in forced marriages, more murders of young lovers (as happened in Delhi this month when a couple were tortured and killed by the girl's family), veiling, ruthless state interventions too. Loving sex is banned. Meanwhile the use of porn and prostitution rises fast.

We can imagine what will happen if we neglect the environment, overpopulate the planet, fail to tackle inequality. More perilous still would be a future throbbing with heartless, instant, blanked out sex and no abiding love. We may find a way of coping with dried rivers, but dried hearts?

That Stygian future is fast approaching. Those of us filled with foreboding fear it may already be too late.
(reprinted by direct permission of the author)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Looking For Doctors, Psychiatrists and other Highly Paid, Highly Educated Helping Professionals: Questions and Concerns

I make a habit of interviewing highly paid medical people, just one or two questions, before I make a first appointment with them. If they will not answer these questions and insist that I make an appointment first, or answer in a way that makes me doubt their ability to treat me as a partner in my care as opposed to a subject of their care, then I go on shopping for someone else

The last time I switched doctors my first question was to the receptionist/intake person: Can Dr. Smith (not the real name) talk to me briefly on the phone prior to making an appointment so I can ask him/her a few questions to see if I think it would work out? If the receptionist said I had to make an appointment first, I went on to the next choice of “candidates”. If they said “yes” and the doctor actually called, then I asked my follow-up questions about my own particular circumstance: the thing/s that are most important to me related to the ways I prefer I be engaged in a relationship with a professional helper or health care provider.

One of my questions that time had to do with sharing confidential information.

I am in a thirty-year-old unmarried relationship with my life-partner and want to be assured that, when necessary, my written power-of-attorney (DPOA) wishes, that my partner be kept informed and an important part of decision making, be honored without fail and without question. This is more important to me because of a potentially catastrophic situation that arose with a doctor who was my partner’s and my primary physician. My well-documented and routinely reinforced power of attorney status was summarily revoked while my partner suffered a rather terrifying reaction to a medication the doctor prescribed. During a number of phone calls to their office during this crisis (Susan’s skin had turned bright scarlet, she was projectile vomiting and I found her semi-delirious after one dose of a powerful antibiotic), because I asked too many questions and expressed fear and was upset, I was told the office staff would no longer speak to me about the situation! Of course, when we went looking for a new doctor, questions about the integrity of how our DPOA status would be honored within the prospective office were paramount.

Each person will, of course, tailor their own questions to fit their own situations and concerns. This is a brief initial “employment” interview. Your prospective “helper” will be able to bill you or your insurance company for substantial amounts and make their living (often at a much greater rate of income than you or anyone else they serve) through the services they deliver to you. They are being hired by you. It is important to keep that in mind, in spite of the powerful position these people can occupy in our lives..

As an aside on this subject, and as a kind of unabashed advertising for Professional Coaching I want to say that one thing that attracted me to practicing as a Life, Family and Business Systems Coach is that the coaching process usually includes a free initial session to help determine if the “fit” will be good, from both the client's and the professional’s standpoint.

Other questions that might reflect your own concerns are as follows:

1. What is the average amount of time I will have to wait in your office before I am seen for an appointment?

2. How much time do you usually allot in your schedule for each appointment?

3. What is you experience treating people of my racial [gender, sex preference, cultural, occupation etc.] background.

4. Tell me your philosophy of your relationship to your patients.

5. Can I expect that you will routinely let me know what a procedure/medicine/assessment/service will cost, and if my insurance will cover it (or how much of it my insurance will cover) prior to ordering it?

6. What is your philosophy about non-traditional or non-western approaches to your area and scope of practice?

There could be many others.

There are good people out there, but also too many who think that book smarts and the number of letters after their name equals excellent clinical acumen.

I would be especially careful of any clinician if you get any inkling from them, through this interview process, that they have not been able to master the skills of non-judgment. Do they strike you as being so blind to their own value paradigms and prejudices that they will not be able to put them aside in the treatment of those they serve? Questions to get a quick picture of this dynamic might be important to you.

Knowledge, insight and applicable skill related to race, socio-economic, cultural and gender/sexuality related differences are especially common unlearned skill areas in highly paid, highly educated, people who generally have little-to-no intimate, equality based, experience with people outside their own cultural sub-categories. This is aided and abetted by the nature of segregation, especially in higher education in the US.
To close, here is another bit of input especially about psychiatry:

Remember that psychiatry has changed a lot from its early days of being the founding profession of "The Talking Cure". Now the profession is largely about medication prescription and administration and any talking is to those ends, especially if you are dealing with publicly-funded psychiatric services.

Once more, psychiatrists may be excellent at what they do but are not very good at supportive and insight developing/non-medication related behavior change via talking/listening strategies and techniques. If you are looking for someone adept in those skills you might look elsewhere.

It is, however, often productive to have a counselor and psychiatrist working together with you... especially if there is some inevitability about medications being a part of what you will require in their care. If that is the case, make sure your helpers talk to each other and do not have too much inter-professional hubris about who is best at what part of the work that is being done. If you hear one blame the other for perceived misapplication of practice or judgment, it might be wise to go elsewhere… or at least to be quite direct about the inappropriate nature of sharing such professional dissonance with you perched in the middle.

It is also important to decide, when choosing a helper, whether you think confrontation will be a useful tool in helping you with your plan to move forward in your life.

Regardless of the proof that confrontation is at best a last resort technique and generally ineffective in producing change, it remains a technique used widely by ineffective clinicians who bring too many of their own unexamined value judgments into the therapeutic relationship, whether it concerns a medical issue or a “talking cure”.

Confrontation, over-used, is akin to emotional and verbal abuse, and though it may be a normal and even preferable direct communication device used between family members, it is out-of-place in professional relations and really only serves the needs and wants of the practitioner. Often a clinician resorts to such techniques when they have been unable to come to terms with the needs of their clients related to rates of change and autonomy of choice. They want something different, and in a different way, than their client wants.

Confrontation feels good to them, but rarely is productive to the goals of the professional relationship. It can actually be damaging and serve only to produce or repel dependency and transference. Take care if you find yourself feeling like a child or too much like a bad student in your relationship with those you hire to help you.

Here are some other questions for you as you go forward in developing your own pre-hiring interview.:

1. How much control can you exercise and how much do you want as your "treatment" goes forward?

2. How and when will you know when the professional you hire to partner with you in your care has stepped over any lines you do not want stepped over (i.e.: are they assuming too much control? Are they dictatorial as opposed to supportive?)

3. How much control do you want/need to give to your care professionals?

4. How will you communicate these kinds of needs in the relationship and when will that conversation start?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Outlaw Catalog of Cagey Optimism

Culled from Rob Brezsny's Astrology Newsletter
May 26, 2010


(The complete text is here:

Psychiatry and psychotherapy obsess on what's wrong with people and give short shrift to what's right. The manual of these professions is a 943-page textbook called the *DSM-IV.* It identifies scores of pathological states but no healthy ones.
Some time back, I began to complain about this fact, and asked readers to help me compile material for a proposed antidote, the Anti-DSM -- a compendium of healthy, exalted, positive states of being. As their entries came in, we at the Beauty and Truth Laboratory were inspired to dream up some of our own. Below is part one of our initial attempt at creating an *Anti-DSM-IV,* or as we also like to call it, "The Outlaw Catalog of Cagey Optimism."*

ACUTE FLUENCY. Happily immersed in artistic creation or scientific exploration; lost in a trance-like state of inventiveness that's both blissful and taxing; surrendered to a state of grace in which you're fully engaged in a productive, compelling, and delightful activity. The joy of this demanding, rewarding state is intensified by a sense that time has been suspended, and is rounder and deeper than usual. (Suggested by H. H. Holiday, who reports that extensive studies in this state have been done by Mihaly Cziscenmihaliy in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.)

AESTHETIC BLISS. Vividly experiencing the colors, textures, tones, scents, and rhythms of the world around you, creating a symbiotic intimacy that dissolves the psychological barriers between you and what you observe. (Suggested by Jeanne Grossetti.)
AGGRESSIVE SENSITIVITY. Animated by a strong determination to be receptive and empathetic.
ALIGNMENT WITH THE INFINITY OF THE MOMENT. Reveling in the liberating realization that we are all exactly where we need to be at all times, even if some of us are temporarily in the midst of trial or tribulation, and that human evolution is proceeding exactly as it should, even if we can't see the big picture of the puzzle that would clarify how all the pieces fit together perfectly. (Suggested by Meredith Jones.)

AUTONOMOUS NURTURING. Not waiting for someone to give you what you can give yourself. (Suggested by Shannen Davis.)

BASKING IN ELDER WISDOM. A state of expansive ripeness achieved through listening to the stories of elders. (Suggested by Annabelle Aavard.)
BIBLIOBLISS. Transported into states of transcendent pleasure while immersed in reading a favorite book. (Suggested by Catherine Kaikowska.)
BLASPHEMOUS REVERENCE. Acting on the knowledge that the most efficacious form of devotion to the Divine Wow is tinctured with playful or mischievous behavior that prevents the buildup of fanaticism.
BOO-DUH NATURE. Dwelling in the blithe understanding of the fact that worry is useless because most of what we worry about never happens. (Suggested by Timothy S. Wallace.)

COMIC INTROSPECTION. Being fully aware of your own foibles while still loving yourself tenderly and maintaining confidence in your ability to give your specific genius to the world. To paraphrase Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral: following the Byzantine ploys of your ego with compassion and humor as it tries to make itself the center of everything, even of its own suffering and struggle.

COMPASSIONATE DISCRIMINATION. Having astute judgment without being scornfully judgmental; seeing difficult truths about a situation or person without closing your heart or feeling superior. In the words of Alan Jones: having the ability "to smell a rat without allowing your ability to discern deception sour your vision of the glory and joy that is everyone's birthright."

CRAZED KINDNESS. Having frequent, overpowering urges to bestow gifts, disseminate inspiration, and perpetrate random acts of benevolence.
ECSTATIC GRATITUDE. Feeling genuine thankfulness with such resplendent intensity that you generate a surge of endorphins in your body and slip into a full-scale outbreak of euphoria.
EMANCIPATED SURRENDER. Letting go of an attachment without harboring resentment toward the stimuli that led to the necessity of letting go. (Suggested by Timothy S. Wallace.)
FRIENDLY SHOCK. Welcoming a surprise that will ultimately have benevolent effects.
HIGHWAY EQUANIMITY. Feeling serene, polite, and benevolent while driving in heavy traffic. (Suggested by Shannen Davis.)
HOLY LISTENING. Hearing the words of another human being as if they were a direct communication from the Divine Wow to you.

IMAGINATIVE TRUTH-TELLING. Conveying the truth of any specific situation from multiple angles, thereby mitigating the distortions that result from assuming the truth can be told from a single viewpoint.

IMPULSIVE LOVE SPREADING. Characterized by a fierce determination to never withhold well-deserved praise, inspirational encouragement, positive feedback, or loving thoughts; often includes a tendency to write love letters on the spur of the moment and on any medium, including napkins, grocery bags, and skin. (Suggested by Laurie Burton.)
INADVERTENT NATURE WORSHIP. Experiencing the rapture that comes from being outside for extended periods of time. (Suggested by Sue Carol Robinson.)
INGENIOUS INTIMACY. Having an ability to consistently create deep connections with other human beings, and to use the lush, reverential excitement stimulated by such exchanges to further deepen the connections. A well-crafted talent for dissolving your sense of separateness and enjoying the innocent exultation that erupts in the wake of the dissolution. (Suggested by Sue Carol Robinson.)
JOYFUL POIGNANCE. Feeling buoyantly joyful about the beauty and mystery of life while remaining aware of the sadness, injustices, wounds, and future fears that form the challenges in an examined life. (Suggested by Alka Bhargava.)
LATE LATE-BLOOMING. Having a capacity for growth spurts well into old age, long past the time that conventional wisdom says they're possible.

LEARNING DELIGHT. Experiencing the brain-reeling pleasure that comes from learning something new. (Suggested by Sue Carol Robinson.)

LUCID DREAM PATRIOTISM. A love of country rooted in the fact that it provides the ideal conditions for learning lucid dreaming. (Suggested by Kenneth Kelzer, author of *The Sun and the Shadow: My Experiment With Lucid Dreaming.*)

LYRICAL CONSONANCE. Experiencing the visceral yet also cerebral excitement that comes from listening to live music played impeccably by skilled musicians. (Suggested by Susan E. Nace.)


Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the True Nature of Forgiving

Forgiveness is a process not an event. An action not a pronouncement.

If you expect the words themselves to usher in a guilt free future for the perpetrator and a freedom from real and metaphoric nightmares for the victim, then you are expecting a four star meal at the MacDonald's window.

Letting go is something a victim can do without the cooperation of the perpetrator. While forgiveness is a cooperative venture and demands that the perpetrator asks for it.

Forgiveness for victims is icing on the cake of healing... but they can heal without it or, in some cases, they can learn to function in spite of the pain of what has been inflicted. Some wounds are permanent, physical, emotional and spiritual: to deny that is to offer too rosy a picture of what is possible in the real world.

For some victims letting go is a natural event that signals how the brain itself heals from trauma. Healing will happen without forgiveness, but may be sped along with it. To rely on it exclusively or to have greater expectations from it than it can deliver is the game of politicians and perpetrator denial.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Grief: A Normal and Natural Response to Loss

Most people who suffer a loss experience one or more of the following:

* Feel tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest
* Feel thumping, erratic beats in the heart and are very aware of
heart actions
* Have an empty feeling in their stomach and loss (or gain) of
* Have pain and/or nausea in stomach
* Feel restless and look for activity, but have difficulty
* Feel in a trance, want to just sit and stare
* Feel as though the loss isn't real, that it didn't actually
happen; (this may include trying to find the loved one)
* Feel light headed and dizzy often
* Sense the loved one's presence ( this may include expecting the
person to walk in the door at the usual time, or hearing his/her
voice, or seeing his/her face)
* Have headaches frequently
* Wander aimlessly, forget and don't finish things they've started
to do around the house
* Have difficulty sleeping, and have dreams or visions of their
loved one frequently
* Assume mannerisms or traits of the loved one
* Feel guilty or angry over things that happened or didn't happen in
the relationship

These are all normal grief responses.

You may also experience:

* Disbelief:
You expect to wake up any minute from this nightmare. It can't be
true. You can't cry, because you don't believe it.
* Shock:
Nature softens the blow, temporarily. You are numb and dazed. Your
emotions are frozen. You go through the motions, like a robot.
* Crying:
Deep emotions suddenly well up, seeking release as loud sobbing
and crying. Give yourself time for tears. They can help.
* Physical Symptoms:
You may sleep or eat too little or too much. You may have physical
aches, pains, numbness, or weakness. Check with a doctor to rule
out other causes. Usually the symptoms fade gradually.
* Denial:
You know the fact of death but you forget. You expect your loved
one to telephone or walk in the door. You search for him/her.
* Why:
"Why did he/she have to die?" You dont expect an answer, but you
need to ask repeatedly. The question itself is a cry of pain.
* Repeating:
Over and over again, you tell the same story, think the same
thoughts. Repeating helps you to absorb the painful reality.
* Self-Control:
You control your emotions to fulfill your responsibilities or to
rest from the pain. Self-control can shape and give rhythm to your
grieving, but constant rigid self-control can block healing.
* Reality:
"It really happened." You feel you're getting worse. Actually,
reality has just hit, and support from friends and family may be
* Confusion:
You can't think. You forget in mid-sentence. You are disorganized
and impatient.
* Idealizing:
You remember only good traits, as if your loved one was perfect.
You find it hard to accept the not-so-perfect living. Your loved
one's idiosyncracies or imperfect traits become endearing
reminders of their realness, humanness.
* Identifying:
Wanting to stay close, you copy your loved one's style of dress,
hobbies, interests, or habits. You may carry a special object of
his or hers.
* Envy:
You envy others. Their pleasure in their loved ones makes you feel
keenly what you have lost. They don't deserve their good fortune.
* Frustration:
Your past fulfillment's are gone. You haven't found new ones yet.
You feel you're not coping with grief "right."
* Bitterness:
Temporary feelings of resentment and hatred, especially toward
those in some way responsible for your loss, are natural. But,
habitual bitterness can drain energy and block healing.
* Waiting:
The struggle is over, but your zest has not returned. You are in
limbo, exhausted, uncertain. Life seems flat.
* Hope:
You believe you will get better. The good days out balance the
bad. Sometimes you can work effectively, enjoy activities, and
really care for others.
* Missing:
You never stop missing your loved one. Particular days, places,
and activities can bring back the pain as intensely as ever.
* Commitment:
You know you have a choice. Life won't be the same, but you decide
to actively begin building a new life for yourself.
* Seeking:
You take initiative, renewing your involvement with former friends
and activities, and exploring new involvements.
* Hanging On:
Some days you hang on to the grief, which is familiar. Letting go
is more a final good-bye to your loved one. You let go gradually.
* Peace:
You can reminisce about your loved one with a sense of peace. You
feel able to accept the death and face your own future.
* Life Opens Up:
Life has value and meaning again. You can enjoy, appreciate, and
anticipate events. You are willing to let the rest of your life be
all it can be.

This list is a gift to you from Survivors from both Orange and San Diego
County. It has been compiled for you by Connie Saindon, MA, MFT,CTS

Connie Saindon, MA, MFC14266 Self-Help & Psychology Magazine,
Trauma Department Editor

Copyright (c) 1994-1997 by Pioneer Development Resources, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alice Miller, Author of "Drama of the Gifted Child" 1923-2010

I have recommended Miller's book "Drama of the Gifted Child" countless times in my work in grief and loss and other areas of my professional coaching, counseling and social work. I remember when I read it literally feeling a calm cool breeze come over me during some of the most deeply applicable sections. Many people have reported similarly moving and transformative emotions... some a bit difficult to traverse (a friend reports getting sick while he read it), but worthy of the voyage. The most moving and useful aspect lies in how she charges her readers to balance the righteous anger and rage they may feel toward those who hurt them as a child, with compassion and understanding: the adults who hurt you also had their own childhood traumas to bear and function in spite of.

April 26, 2010

Alice Miller, Psychoanalyst, Dies at 87; Laid Human Problems to Parental Acts

By WILLIAM GRIMES , The New York Times

Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst who repositioned the family as a locus of dysfunction with her theory that parental power and punishment lay at the root of nearly all human problems, died at her home in Provence on April 14. She was 87.

Her death was announced Friday by her German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag.

Dr. Miller caused a sensation with the English publication in 1981 of her first book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” Originally titled “Prisoners of Childhood,” it set forth, in three essays, a simple but harrowing proposition. All children, she wrote, suffer trauma and permanent psychic scarring at the hands of parents, who enforce codes of conduct through psychological pressure or corporal punishment: slaps, spankings or, in extreme cases, sustained physical abuse and even torture.

Unable to admit the rage they feel toward their tormenters, Dr. Miller contended, these damaged children limp along through life, weighed down by depression and insecurity, and pass the abuse along to the next generation, in an unending cycle. Some, in a pathetic effort to please their parents and serve their needs, distinguish themselves in the arts or professions. The Stalins and the Hitlers, Dr. Miller later wrote, inflict their childhood traumas on millions.

“The Drama of the Gifted Child” struck a chord with mental health professionals. “Clinically, she is almost as influential as R.D. Laing,” the British psychologist Oliver James told The Observer of London in 2005. “Alice Miller changed the way people thought.”

The book also stirred the general public, selling more than a million copies. Its central argument was easy to grasp and, for many readers, offered a tempting explanation for their sorrows and failures.

Dr. Miller is often credited with turning the attention of therapists to child abuse, both physical and sexual, but also with encouraging millions of adults to regard themselves as victims.
Daphne Merkin, assessing Dr. Miller’s book “The Truth Shall Set You Free” in The New York Times Book Review in 2002, wrote that Dr. Miller “could be said to be the missing link between Freud and Oprah, bringing news of the inner life, and especially the subtle hazards of emotional development, out of the cloistered offices of therapists and into a wider, user-friendly context.”

Dr. Miller further developed her ideas in two books published immediately after “The Drama of the Gifted Child’: “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence” (1983) and “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child” (1984). She applied her theory of childhood development to explain the passivity of the German people in the face of Nazi tyranny and took aim at Freud, whose theories, she believed, cast parents as innocents and children as depraved.

Often she used prominent artists as her case studies. In “The Untouched Key” (1990), she held up Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz and Buster Keaton as illustrations of her theories. In “The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting” (2005), she put Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce under the microscope.

Alice Miller was famously reclusive, and deliberately kept details of her early life sketchy. She was born in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), on Jan. 12, 1923. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Warsaw, which operated underground during the war.

After the war, a Swiss charity arranged for her to continue her studies at the University of Basel, where she wrote her dissertation on the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert and received a doctorate in 1953.

After undergoing Freudian psychiatric training in Zurich, she went into practice as an analyst. In the 1960s a wave of revisionism swept over the profession, as psychoanalysts adapted the ideas of Freud and Jung to social criticism.

Strongly influenced by the education writer Katharina Rutschky’s notion of “black pedagogy,” a term for the authoritarian style of German parenting, Dr. Miller came to view all forms of parental coercion, and even mild physical discipline or emotional coldness, as fatal to healthy psychic development. In her English books, the term is rendered as “poisonous pedagogy.”

“Humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, etc. are all forms of mistreatment, because they injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away,” she writes in an explanatory essay on childhood mistreatment and abuse on her Web site, “Beaten children very early on assimilate the violence they endured, which they may glorify and apply later as parents, in believing that they deserved the punishment and were beaten out of love.”

By the time she wrote her first book, published in German in 1979, Dr. Miller had stopped practicing psychiatry. The relationship of analyst to patient, she came to believe, replicated the insidious power relationship of parent to child. Her initial critique of Freud led to a full-scale break described in “Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries” (1990), a semi-autobiographical work that revealed her own abuse as a child, which she discovered through paintings she created spontaneously.

“Not once did she apologize to me or express any kind of regret,” she later wrote of her mother in “The Body Never Lies.” “She was always ‘in the right.’ It was this attitude that made my childhood feel like a totalitarian regime.”

Having broken with Freud, Dr. Miller resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1988 and embraced a number of alternative therapies. She became a disciple of J. Konrad Stettbacher, an advocate of regression therapy, and expressed enthusiasm for Arthur Janov’s primal-scream approach, but soon rejected both. Over the years she became increasingly reclusive.

She is survived by a son and a daughter.

Uncompromising and often strident, Dr. Miller preached her message with an often messianic fervor and a polemical style of argument that cost her support from early admirers. The underlying precepts remained unchanged in later works like “Breaking Down the Wall of Silence” (1991) and “Free From Lies: Discovering Your True Needs” (2009).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Business Coaching Services

The following is a range of services I can offer your company. This list can be considered to be a menu of options. Options can be added as process continues and applications are determined. Prices are reached on a case by case basis determined by number of people involved in each session, service provided, and ability to invest. Flexibility and a creative approach to the combination of these services is a key to their successful implementation. Adding others is always an option.

* Visions and Goals: Initial planning session to determine direction of coaching, set goals and time tables for attaining those goals. For executives, managers and staff as determined and deemed necessary by managers. At least two hours. Can happen in several increments over the first month of coaching.

* Individual Executive and Manager Coaching: Individual session with executives or managers. Generally three-quarters to one hour long. Can be held at place of business, over the phone or in other community setting as requested by client.

* Individual staff coaching: Individual session with one staff per request by staff or in agreement with/request by manager. Can be held in place of business, over phone or in other community setting. Thirty minutes to an hour.

* Seminar: Didactic and/or skills training seminar for a work unit or large percentage of an entire staff. At least an hour; not usually more than three hours. In setting provided by company.

* Observation and Assessment: Information and process observation in the workplace. This is my opportunity to visit workplace during a normal day and observe. No less than one hour for observation. Includes report to managers and/ or staff as requested and needed at a later date; at least another hour.

* Facilitation and Mediation: Coaching for small sub groups of people involved in specific workplace problem-solving processes. Total number of hourly sessions to be determined on a case by case, issues by issue, as needed basis

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fear Shoves Us On; Hope Lights the Way

There’s not much we can do about fear. Not really. It is uncomfortable; that is true. Too much of it is certainly not a good thing, but not enough of it in situations where it is warranted can be deadly and dangerous to our well-being.

In fear we have evolved a remarkable adaptive mechanism. It’s not been that long since we crouched in the damp or arid confines of wherever we found shelter, with our little sputtering fires and our nearly tamed pack of dogs not far out of the ring of shadows and light. We lived in a constant state of hyper vigilance; or at least, most of our forebears who were small and had to contend with much larger carnivores did. Our adrenalized danger signals and systems of retreat or attack were finely tuned to the dangers of our surroundings.

When we needed to, when the huge teeth and claws of the larger meat-eaters glinted too close to us in our little packs, our bodies were well-equipped for the split-second decision to escape or fight for our lives and for the lives of our children. Immediately our adrenal system dumped a kind of speed into our electrical and cardio systems and our pulses raced to prepare us for battle or to run, our breathing became shallow and our blood supply was altered: more to the huge muscle masses that would help us run or fight, less to the rest of us. Often this resulted in instant elimination, the lighter the better. Our higher brain functions took second place to muscle and more primitive memory parts of the brain. We could kill if we had to. We could save ourselves even when our pack-members were being eaten. Perhaps their shrieks spurred on our body’s powerfully self preserving mechanism. Sometimes in the end, we got away. Sometimes in the end, we had more food for the cold months.

It’s been a blink of an evolutionary eye since we lived in that world. Some of us still do, although now it is more often others of our own species that we fight or flee from, often it is the machines of war and massacre. The adrenalized mechanism of survival is put to good use even now. We hear the stories of mothers or fathers lifting cars off the crushed bodies of their children. We see films and reports of people who respond heroically in crises: the 12 year old girl I read about who lived on a small island about to be inundated by a tsunami who ran to ring the community bell to warn the community and in doing so saved the entire small population of her hometown.

Fear is a good thing. It isn’t often considered to be. But it has its drawbacks as well. The powerful system that it uses to let us know of its presence, of the presence of what has been interpreted as danger, is as well-developed and speedily put into action in an executive whose most dangerous act all day is to cross the street before and after he goes to work, as in a tribal family in Kashmir that has to contend with the sudden incursions and withdrawals of a number of armies that use them as fodder for their deadly acts of war.

Even in peaceful communities with low level conflict and social pressures instead of life and death events that happen on a regular basis, fear is ever present… in fact, how it makes itself known in those situations may even become more recognizable, for the nature of the fear is less tangible and easily minimized when compared with what we remember collectively and deeply.

In recent years we have seen the rise of the somewhat misleading term “anxiety attack” although the “attack” part of the term may, in fact, be a very accurate descriptor of how the event of a sudden panic or anxiety event feels to its victim. Someone walks through the aisle of a grocery store and suddenly feels a need to move more quickly and breaks into a sweat. The lips are numb. Balance feels off and fear of collapsing occurs along with a heart beat that feels like it might pound through the rib cage. Nausea sets in as well as blurred vision. The more that person becomes aware of the terror being felt, the feeling that something is WRONG, the worse it gets. The shopping cart gets left in the aisle, after an urgent trip to the rest room. When he or she then manages to get to the local emergency room, the doctor says everything is normal; “your vitals are heightened, but there is nothing wrong”... and then that question comes: “Have you been under any stress lately?”

While this may sound like an extreme example, it is not an unusual one. Many people live with the debilitating effects of these kinds of “attacks” for many years, and much of the literature about the treatment of such events is not very optimistic about treatment, at least from a pharmacological angle; in fact, medicating such events is often seen as a reinforcement to the “attacks” over the long term as opposed to a good way to ameliorate them.

And perhaps these are extreme examples of how fear can become a stumbling block in our lives as opposed to something we can keep in an appropriate perspective and use instead of being used by. In my work with grieving people and those who have terminal or life-threatening, life-changing illness the occurrence of anxiety and panic events was so common that I made discussions of it routine as opposed to waiting until it presented itself. For one thing, some people who had such events were reticent to report them.

In grief, especially, the mourners often experienced such things as a medical event entirely and were mystified when nothing besides an elevated blood pressure or pulse could be found. They might have been afraid they too were about to succumb to the terminal illness from which their loved one died. So I came prepared with education and normalization, as well as breathing exercises and a number of other informal, self-initiated, bio-feedback interventions to pull out of my bag of tricks… and they were invariably welcomed and used.

Still, when we talk about how fear motivates us, how we move because of it in our lives, we are generally not talking about dramatic examples. For those of us whose most dangerous act might be more in the realm of crossing a busy street, flying cross country in a jumbo jet, giving a presentation at our place of business, sitting down with a supervisor to review topics of conflict, or making and presenting a holiday dinner for a group of extended family fear does not seem to amount to what our forbears experienced in their little groups on the savannah.

But I would like to suggest that the level of fear in our lives may, in fact, be completely relative. It may, even in our comparatively safe world, occupy as much of our functioning, our complex systems of motivation and search for meaning and satisfaction, as it did in our more dangerous pasts. To minimize its role may be a potentially serious misjudgment. This is a frightening world. The things that threaten us may seem distant and less graspable than the way being confronted by a grizzly bear outside the door of our stone shelter did, but they can often symbolize life and death in as frightening a way. Financial and business troubles, the prospects and lives of our children as the economy continues to fail to grant them the kinds of opportunities we had, threats from various parts of a society that is full of inner, if not outer, unrest and lack of sureness about health and wellness and security in our housing can feel as threatening to us as that bear felt to our ancestors… if less obviously a direct and immediate threat to our body’s ability to go on.

We live in a world where fear is less an event-to-event possibility of extremes. It is stretched and smeared out over time as a collective constant that we keep informed about through news mediums and various community information systems. It is layered over the more personal fears we carry from experiences that inform our lives and are remnants of the wounds and traumas all of us carry. These are the wounds and traumas that exist as parts of the building blocks of our individuation and how we educate and transform and build the communication that occurs between our genetic codes and our nervous system. We can manage this more nebulous fear as a good teacher of what to avoid that delivered us into similarly threatening situations in our pasts. It can push us through patterns of social functioning and disappointment successfully by reminding us, consciously and not, what we did that delivered us from fear in the past and how we can avoid traveling the same “pathway” or “river”.

But fear is an uncomfortable teacher. And relied upon exclusively does not often instruct us in joy or even love but more in suspicion and dependence. Fear can be used by others who really do not have our best interests in mind to manipulate us; others who know the buttons that can be pushed to activate it. It is an automatic response and can be turned on purposely to gain control and move individuals and the collective. Much of advertising, propaganda and campaigning is adept at this use of fear buttons: the science of the concrete replications of the cues that demand a fear response in humans is largely ensconced in the public relations and political campaigning fields.

But people want something other than fear as a teacher. The discomfort of fear and its modern sibling anxiety may in fact be a major motivator, but it is resisted and in itself feared. In fear and anxiety we walk away from what makes us fearful and anxious. We “double-whammy” ourselves by feeling fearful and anxious about fear and anxiety. We want to shed it. It hurts. We want less of it. We want to be pulled forward by something that is attractive, by attraction itself, by what lies before us… rather than feeling we are always walking, or running, away from what we are afraid of, what we hope we are leaving behind.

How can we do this? If fear is such an integrated part of who we are as people, as one person, if it so informs our way through and into our futures, and what we avoid and try to escape from, how can we see, create and/or recognize the thing that is before us that might have the power to mitigate that discomfort… might even resolve and dissolve it or balance it out?

If fear must push us forward, can something else more attractive, something like authentic hope or invention, be there equally to pull us forward? To balance the yin and the yang of our process into being who we really are and want to be and become?

In a questionnaire I routinely give to my clients that asks questions about their fears and the role they have in their lives and the reasons they have sought out a coach, I ask them to imagine what their life would be like without their fears… how would their life and their strivings look if fear was not involved? Can they imagine their goals as a part of something other than a fear or anxiety about where they are? Can fear be transformed into more of a clear and transcendent reaching into the uninvented future? And if they can do this, how will their life look, what will they feel like as they move toward their goals?

Often enough, people reach an awareness, sometimes for the first time when they answer this question that their fears are instructive and constructive. They would not lose them entirely but modify how they are felt and the effects they have on their feelings about their goals. Even through this modest exercise, authentic inner-driven hope already demonstrates the power of its ability to balance the scale between fearing and embracing the future, the plan for the future.

Just as often, people also say without the discomfort of fear they would feel lighter. More light. I like that: the idea that without fear, or with fear accepted and held but not in itself feared, we can become lighter, more like the light. How fine is that? To be able to go forward on our journey with our new invented future but with less weight, more illumination.

I challenge you to do the same. In a truly frightening world in which the changes portend an even more disturbing future, what would it be like for you to see it without fear or without the fear of feeling fearful?

If you are successful at envisioning this, what do you imagine would be the primary benefit of seeing your future in this way? What fears do you imagine you will still need? How will they serve you and how will you balance the discomfort they cause so that they do not stop your forward motion or keep you looking backward as you move into your potential for a more illuminated future?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Family Systems Approach to Managing Workplace Dynamics

by Bob Vance BPh LBSW CPC

Business owners and employees in almost any size of company can be heard saying that their workplace is “like a family”. I’d like to take a closer look at what that means.

As a coach who has worked primarily in life, couples and family coaching I understand that being “like a family” can have any number of meanings and associations for any number of people. So when I hear someone say their workplace is like a family, I am unlikely to assume that it means that the company runs like a well-tuned conflict free clock in which every employee always acts as highly functioning, trusting and trusted gear in the machine of the company’s main purpose, productivity.

The fact is I have never met two families that are the same. Families, like people, are highly individuated. Each is its own organism. Each invents and generates its own culture. This is the family’s strength and also its weakness. The same can be said of work groups, whether those in a workplace recognize the workings of its inter relationships and communication dynamics as “like a family” or not.

The fact is that all people are informed, indoctrinated really, from the earliest ages, about how to function in a group by the position they took and the nature of their experience in their own family. These lessons are often unconsciously employed in every group setting the person finds themselves in. For good or ill.

Perhaps we can step outside of this premise for a bit for a look at how this plays out in your life. To do this, I would like to ask several questions to illustrate it.

1. When was the first time you understood your family was different from others’? Can you describe a situation in which that difference was made very clear to you?

2. How would you describe how your family is different from others you have observed?

3. Does that difference impact how you behave in groups? At work?

4. If you said yes, how specifically does it impact your behavior at work?

5. If you said no, how have you managed to keep your family out of the way you function in groups and at work?

6. Do you work hard to stay “professional” in spite of your feelings at work? Are you always successful? When you are less than successful what usually has occurred? Do you think your family has anything to do with this?

Whatever your answers to these questions are, I think I can fairly anticipate that most people, even with a modest amount of self reflection, can make the connections between how they function in their workplace and how they function in their family. And it doesn’t really matter if you define your family experience as “good” or “dysfunctional”.

For one thing I’d like to toss out the word “dysfunctional” when referring to families and even to work groups. The fact is, in most cases, individuals and family-sized groups are never so much dysfunctional as they are functioning according to the situations they face and the resources they have to succeed, or merely survive, in those situations.

Even seriously maladaptive individual or group behavior often is adopted in order to get through a difficult situation or one in which the only tools are the wrong tools. But those seriously maladaptive systems of behavior are rare, and in a work place are generally self-limiting. The nature of larger economics and productivity standards do not generally allow for serious dysfunction to persist for long, at least in modern companies that are progressive in how they see and relate to their employees as opposed to older business models that employed a more despotic system of oversight and remuneration.

Still, this family dynamic in workplace communication and relationships can be troubling, even for, or perhaps most especially for, progressive managers and small business owner/managers who wish to promote and sustain an overall positive workplace atmosphere where employees can be productive, feel meaningfully useful, and be as autonomous as possible. How can these family-of-origin issues be managed in the workplace when even people who come from the same family “culture” often have difficulties communicating effectively and putting aside assumptions and grudges based in a family history that has become ingrained and seemingly impossible to set aside.

As a well-meaning and empathic, effective, manager, how does one facilitate effective, open and positive problem-solving at a meeting where not only one family system is present, but the number of families present equals the number of people who are sitting around the table?

If, as a manager or owner of a small business you have ever felt like you’ve found yourself in charge of a United Nations meeting in which you’ve forgotten to hire translators, this is the reason why: each family DOES represent a different culture, even a different language of sorts.

So take deep breath. No one wants to make you a family coach or therapist in order to effectively manage the group dynamics in your company. No one is perfect, not even you or your company. You can’t expect to be able to solve and or mitigate all the communication-based ills in your work group or company. You lead, you don’t father or mother…. in spite of the fact that leading often borrows from fathering and mothering.

In fact, being the leader, and all that the role involves and how it is a part of the nature of the group your are leading, automatically takes you out of the running as the person most likely to succeed in facilitating a process of self-awareness and change in the way the systems of your workplace communication work and don’t work.

Just as a husband or wife, or a mother or father, would not likely be the best choice to observe, interpret, and facilitate a process of change in a family… would not ultimately be successful as a coach, counselor or therapist for their own family… it is unlikely that without some outside assistance changes in workplace communications and relationship dynamics are not likely to be successful with the boss in the role of facilitator, for reasons that I think are obvious.

Besides, if we take as truth the idea that being aware of the systemic nature of the problem is halfway to its solution, we must also place the lion’s share of the responsibility for any change that is needed on every cog and gear in the machine of the workplace. Every employee must become familiar with how bringing their family to the table effects their contribution before any change can be attempted. Ultimately this familiarity with the manner that one communicates and how it interfaces with the communications systems of others is the responsibility of each employee.

A leader, supervisor or owner can only require that those in his or her employ do that work and give each employee the resources to use to pursue that goal. So while you, as the leader, are embarking on the task of self-reflection and revising how you function in your role, so can your employees be involved in the same pursuit, facilitated by a hired coach or consultant you trust.

There is generally, and for good reasons, some trepidation about entering into this kind of process in a company that may have problematic communication and relationship dynamics but functions in the “good enough” category in these areas. Sure, excellent employees might inexplicably leave or have a “blow up” quite regularly, or potentially serious mistakes due to poor communication might routinely, and thankfully, be circumvented at the last minute, but your efforts up to now have not yielded much change, often seem to make small incremental motion forward only to fall back into old patterns, so you have settled into accepting what seems to be inevitable.

But is it?

Some might ask “Are we to be in the business of family therapy in the workplace?” and to them I might offer reassurance by saying that therapy is the last thing that should happen, and if it starts to look like that after a coach or consultant has been hired to help improve communication and relationship dynamics, it might be best to bow out as quickly as possible.

The idea we are pursuing here is to put each person in your, including you as the leader, in charge of their own self reflection and change, to share personal information only when it is relevant and helps the process and not outside of the parameters of appropriate personal revelation set early and restated often during the process. This is not about making everyone happy with their family, but about helping you and your employees identify and manage how their family dynamics prevent and/or help them travel toward excellence in the workplace. This is about making the road to excellence in quality and productivity as free of communication and professional relationship potholes and detours, or unexpected washouts and traffic jams, as possible.