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.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Guest Contribution: How Much Giving Is Enough?

The following is a contribution from Vision Powered Coaching at

I think it beautifully addresses the feelings of being overwhelmed by feelings of not being able to do enough, and/or survivor's guilt, in the face of global tragedies. I thank Vision Powered Coaching's creator, Iris Arenson-Fuller

Should You Always Do More, Or Is Less Sometimes Enough?

I just read a good blog post by Alex Lickerman on the blog, Happiness In This World-Reflections of a Buddhist Physician . The title of the post is “You Can Always Do More”. I want to thank him for this article . I, too, thought about going to Haiti to help in some way and had significant feelings of guilt about not going. I am in contact with a few of my friends and colleagues in the world of adoption who have relationships with Haitian orphanages. They sent representatives there to check and to make sure that children who had already been referred to their clients and were in process of adoption were all right, as well as to determine what else they could do to assist. I have not worked in Haiti, personally, but have had some contact with Haitians over the years. At one point, years ago, a Haitian family, sponsored and brought here by a dear friend of mine, lived with me and my family for a period of time while in transition and looking for an apartment. I remember well the commonalities the mother of the family and I shared, in spite of being able to communicate only with some French and lots of sign language. We spoke the language of women and mothers and we developed a real bond. Of course, one would not have to have experienced such a connection to be overwhelmed and moved by the plight of Haitians now, as though life in Haiti were not already enough of a struggle for most.

When it came down to brass tacks, I realized that I do not have the stamina at this stage of my life to face the arduous and dangerous conditions in such a time of devastation in Haiti. It was hard for me to admit this, as I prefer to think of myself as still young, strong and energetic, but the reality is that I am in my sixties and though relatively healthy and thankful for it, I do have some health issues that might impede my stamina and ability to help.

Yes there is always something in this world that we can do help others and to have an impact on lives less fortunate than our own. I certainly related to the feelings of guilt mentioned in Dr. Lickerman’s blog, and to wanting to do all that we can in the face of human need. I love the perspective he gives that if we are helping in one place, we are, thererfore not helping somewhere else, with something else. I know that for many years I spread myself too thinly and often, as a result, could not always do my best job. There are a multitude of ways to help and it begins with one to one, compassionate contact and reaching out. Some of us are able to take that further and do magnificent, selfless things, but that doesn’t diminish the small meaningful interactions or the other ways in which we can make a positive impact on others.

While I have been involved over the years in a variety of charitable works in different countries and in the US, one encounter touched me enormously, though it was only a small intersection of lives and emotions that occurred once, a long time ago in India. I had participated in setting up a feeding program for needy children and a program to teach poor young women a trade, and had visited numerous orphanages too, distributing clothes and supplies. This was moving and rewarding, but nothing like what I felt one particular day when visiting a maternity home. I was escorted to the bedside of a young Muslim woman who had just had a stillborn baby a day before. The translator shared her story with me and told her who I was and why I was there. It was explained that I ran an adoption agency and helped homeless children find loving families, and that I had adopted children myself. I told her how much I loved my children and how I thought of the birth mothers of my children every day, and of what it must feel like to lose a child, no matter in what way. I said that as a mother, my heart was very heavy for her and for what she was having to endure. She began to cry and reached for my hand. I sat with her, mostly in silence, and held her hand for a long time.

Sometimes I sit in my comfortable office and wonder if my furture destiny will still include the privilege of traveling as I was able to do in the past and giving of myself to people who struggle for the basics of survival. I don’t know if this path will be one that presents itself to me, or if I will be physically and financially able to take it if it does. As my days of running an adoption agency draw to a close, and I continue to build my coaching practice, I have many examples of the ways in which I have already touched others and will continue to make a difference in people’s lives. Still the thoughts creep in sometimes that I am needed elsewhere and perhaps am not doing enough to better the world.

Dr. Alex Lickerman, physician and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and a practicing Buddhist, says:

“ But I am arguing that if we already focus on helping others as best we can (and obviously many of us don’t) then we need to realize our cups will never be entirely full—that we really always can do more—but that giving too much will at some point compromise our ability to give at all. I’m saying that as you challenge yourself to do more to help others, be gentle with and forgiving of yourself. The cup may never be full, but for those who take action to help others when they can, it’s always filled with something.”

I remind myself of what I am always telling coaching clients and others in my life. I don’t remember where I got this but I have liked it for a long time.

“If your own bucket has holes, then the sand will run out and you won’t have any left for anybody else.” Not all of us are in positions to be able to travel to Haiti or to put ourselves on the front lines where other humans are suffering and in dire need. We must indeed be as gentle and forgiving with ourselves as we are with others and must take care of ourselves and of others close to us first. As warm-hearted and altruistic as we may be, if we neglect ourselves and the significant people in our lives, then we are not living and loving to our greatest capacity. Each of us is presented with a multitude of opportunities to reach out and touch another human life.

Each of us has unique talents and ways of being able to do that. There are times when the universe presents itself to us and enables us to do really important and large things and other times when a small gesture that we make is appreciated and perhaps can even be life changing. Who is to say that what you do is “not enough”? Your objective is to keep on being a giving, loving person for as long as possible, or at least mine is.