Hear their plight, hurry to visit and murmur in hushed tones

It’s time we climbed up a few rungs on our empathetic ladder and learned how to give people the benefit of the doubt. How to concede that, maybe, somebody might be justified in their action.

Napoleon famously said that we should never to ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

But why stop there? People are motivated for a thousand reasons that aren’t malicious. Everything from busyness to confusion to hunger to stress to not enough sleep last night to a pigeon shitting on their sunroof.

Here are a few ways to think about it.

We most likely lack full context on people, and so, we may as well assume the best of them.

Everyone is fighting some battle that we know nothing about, and so, we may as well let them carry the flag of motivational innocence.

There is a bewildering diversity of apparent motivates that drive human beings, and so, we may as well assume that people are just doing their best trying to pursue their wellbeing.

Besides, what’s the alternative to empathy? Resenting people for being who they are? Trying to change them into being more like us? Angrily assuming negative intent like they’re out to get us?

All of those paths lead to nowhere. Goethe also had a theory about this:

Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness, and at all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.

My guest service training manager shared that very quotation with me during orientation, and it always stuck in my mind. Because even at luxury hotel, she told us, any given guest might be having the worst day of their lives. And while our concessions cost the organization next to nothing, the kindness and generously to that flustered guest could change everything.

If someone’s behavior is baffling you, give them some emotional oxygen by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Do you treat people as complex animals dealing with their own issues, or side characters in your story?

What it means to put your heart in the marketplace

We’re all doing whatever we can to make sure that we’re not leaving any love on the table.

Linklater poses an apt question in his most memorable film:

Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?

The short answer is, yes.

But in this endless romantic pursuit, we leave ourselves open. Love, this delicious madness, this raging fire, this heavenly frenzy, it is also the fatal vulnerability against which none of us are adequately protected.

That’s why, in the back of our minds, fear lurks like a hungry wolf. Prodding us with questions like.

Are you sure you want to allow this other person to be part of you?

Do you really want to give yourself over?

What if they reject you?

What if they don’t like what they see if you let them see your heart?

Worse yet, what if they do accept you, but then decide to leave you, and you’re left cleaning up the mess?

Better hold tight. Because the moment you love somebody, all of you will flow out like water out of a river, and there’ll be nothing left.

No wonder people can’t love fearlessly without the paranoia of being betrayed. Who can blame them?

But the irony of this whole bloody process is, we’re reaching for something that’s already inside ourselves.

Welshons, the great spiritual teacher, writes about this extensively in his work:

When we say we have fallen in love with another human being, what we are really saying is that they are a stimulus that turns us on to the place inside ourselves where we are love. Because love is an inner experience. It is a state of being within us. It is not given to us by someone else.

What if that were the real question? What if the journey was not about how we could be loved a little more by others, but how we could find new ways to access that place inside ourselves?

It’s a tremendous act of selfish imagination. And it takes everything we’ve got.

Courage, faith, resilience, patience, compassion.

But ask anyone who’s been to that place before. They come back a changed person.

What if your heart remembers nothing but the love it has for you?

You can’t stand on ground that isn’t there yet

Do you over analyze your life, looking to extract nuance and meaning where there is none?

You’re not alone. Many of us are constantly on the lookout for these aha moments, as if they’re going to solve all of our problems.

That’s the tendency of thinkers who love to ruminate, dream and reflect. We are epiphany junkies. We demand that everything be a grand revelation. We want reassurance that each second of our lives will be imbued with deeper meaning.

But in reality, most of life is quiet, imperceptible little spurts of growth that build on each other.

And as much as we want to go back and infuse every choice we make with some kind of heavy consciousness, most of the time, there are no fireworks and banners and trombones. This event is not the best or worst thing that ever happened to us, it’s just another part of our journey.

That’s why the movies where nothing really happens feel so realistic. The filmmakers don’t over rely on traditional narrative tools like plot and climax and resolution.

The movie is just themes and characters and moods and events. We might not even remember individual scenes, but the feeling the movie gives is simply so strong that it sticks with us.

A common term to describe this style of film is slice of life, or naturalism, where the depiction of the mundane experiences becomes the art itself. Critics and audiences alike often give these movies low ratings, bemoaning their lack of dramatic closure.

Because they forget that life is not like a movie. The world isn’t interested in our addiction to narrative, nor does it care how deeply we demand that each of our moments be award winning.

Turns out, going with the flow is a much more prevalent force than being divinely inspired.

Both are possible, but most things are more likely to feel like oh, rather than aha.

When the world ruins your perfect little narrative of fulfillment with the truth, how do you react?

The collective involuntary nervous system of your team

When we sing together, regardless of the song or the venue, it means that despite our differences, our bodies are unifying.

We are sharing space and breath and time, doing the exact same thing together.

That’s why things like chanting, karaoke, church choirs, alma mater fight songs and seventh inning stretches are spiritually powerful experiences.

Music creates a firm footing for something bigger to take hold. Our physical world language is merely inventory for deeper connection.

Mcluhan coined a term for this decades ago in his book on the global village. It’s called the resonating interval, aka, the invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space:

It’s the interfacial gap between vibrational orders or frequency domains where new creation is called into being, where myriad recombinations in creative interplay reconfigure creation in new forms. The true action in the event was not on earth or on the moon, but rather in the airless void between. 

No wonder it feels so exhilarating once the song is done. When we sing, we do more than share words. We cross a metaphorical border where different things are amalgamating their routines. It’s a moment of truth, revelation, freedom and release. 

At first I was afraid, I was petrifiedKept thinking I could never live without you by my side. 

There’s even one study that suggests singing has evolved to facilitate social cohesion among our species. The researchers argue that singing may have evolved to quickly bond large human groups of relative strangers, through their encouraging willingness to coordinate by enhancing positive affect.

Thanks to the resonating interval, modern humans have been able to create and maintain much larger social networks than their evolutionary relatives.

Perhaps the corporate would could sing a few pages of this hymnal. Instead of dragging their employees into lame and convoluted team building activities, maybe companies should get primitive, crank up the volume and let their people belt out a few bars.

We don’t have to be good at it, we just have to be together.

Whatever muscle keeps you from going all out in our singing, whatever muscle keeps your song down, find a way to reactivate it.  

How might music move you from stagnation and isolation into expansion and cohesion?

Elevate your team, expand your value

Wait a minute, you’re telling me that the best way to elevate my value at this company is to elevate my team first?

Absolutely. This approach is what separates the employees who satisfy the most basic expectation, from the company leaders who exemplify the best the team can realistically hope for.

And naturally, it feels easier to operate selfishly within our little silo, in the hopes of beating out the others by inflating our value above theirs. We have to protect our turf, right?

But the problem is, this approach only works to create short term security. The more sustainable approach is to invert the process by elevating our team first. That way it’s a win for everybody.

Where are you on this continuum? To what degree are you focused solely on your own prestige, versus that of your team?

Nobody is perfect, of course. But all of us could all benefit from sliding up the scale.

Here’s an exercise. Pretend you have a performance review coming up next month. Imagine one of your company executives is asking the following questions about you:

*Does this person execute ideas, but also help put others into better position to execute?

*Have they grown their skills, but also helped contribute to a platform that exposes other people’s potential?

*Are they solving problems, but also raising the team’s collective ability to deal with problems?

*Have they originated a tool or process that accelerates everyone’s mutual success?

*What about inventing an entirely new ritual or artifact that expands the team’s ability to do their work?

Look, nobody does this one hundred percent of the time. They can’t. The selfish gene runs too deep.

But the funny thing about helping others in the workplace is, it not only makes us look good, it also makes us feel good. Elevating others boosts our own happiness, not just our value.

Several professors researched this very issue in a peer reviewed journal. Their study posed the following question:

Employees with a desire to help others provide benefits to their organization, clients, and fellow workers, but what do they get in return?

The professors argued that the prosocial desire to help others is a basic human goal that matters to an individual’s happiness. And if you ask anyone who’s ever worked at a startup before, this stuff really does work.

Focus on building enterprise value. Create chains of events that carry positive meaning for team members triggers an upward spiral. 

How are you expanding your value by elevating your team?

The bouncy ball of my mind rattled to a stop

When people are intensely anxious, overly neurotic, aggressively opinionated or highly impatient, my default response is to double down on calmness.

And not to chill others out and set an example of unflappable stoic peace and pass judgment on other people’s behavior.

The calmness is more of a boundary allows me to tend to my own wellbeing. And to acknowledge and sit with whatever feelings people are having, but without getting overwhelmed by their drama.

This seems to me like a healthy choice, since we now live in a culture of cortisol. Everything is a manufactured emergency. On a daily basis, a great many crises are routinely elevated above what they really deserve to be.

Our modern way of living promotes constant stress, social anxiety and increased unease over life. Which is not a surprise, considering the average smartphone user receives more than forty push notifications per day.

In fact, being around a stressed person has the power to negatively affect us in a physically quantifiable way. Harvard ran a cool study showing how stress unfolding around us has the potential to contaminate and compromise us.

Participants were paired with a loved one or a stranger who was anxious, and over a quarter of them displayed physiologically significant increases in cortisol.

Suffice it to say, the stress hormone truly is public health enemy number one. All the more reason to introduce some calm into our interactions. People are anxious, their energy is contagious, and calmness is a potent vaccine against it.

But here’s the rub. People will often misinterpret our calmness as indifference, passivity or emptiness. By not being swept away in the tide of drama, people may grow frustrated and confused with our quietude.

Why aren’t you more upset about this? Don’t you have an opinion on what’s going on? Aren’t you going to change your mind every three seconds based on new information?

Indeed, calm is not the most popular of virtues. Not that there isn’t a time and place to join people in their pain. People’s emotional experience is very real and very important to them, and we need them to know that we appreciate that.

Being smug in our calmness, being addicted to our emotional righteousness, serves nobody.

But on the whole, if any of us want a reach shot at calmness, we have to learn to move on. And so, if someone you’re taking to allows the smallest irritation to turn into their obsessive crusade, love them for who they are, and protect yourself from taking on their pain.

If someone wants to debate something forever, love them for who they are, and try not to fall down the anxiety rabbit hole with them.

Setting boundaries, after all, is an act of love, for self and other.

What percent of your mind’s processing power is preoccupied elsewhere?

Let there be no moon that does not know you

There are an endless number of defenses mechanisms we can hide behind to keep our true selves at bay.

We can hide behind our sense of humor, our mask of indifference, our façade of nonchalance, our precious way of thinking, our false front of humility, our proven history of right beliefs, our constitutional incapability of not shutting the hell up, they all get the job done.

Each of these defense mechanisms, these unconscious psychological tools, these adaptive survival techniques, allow us to exclude the unacceptable thoughts and feelings from our awareness.

Which, like most human behavior, is evolutionarily advantageous for warning our organism of danger or threat to its equilibrium.

The challenge of operating from our hiding places, we invest all our energy preserving the self, rather than expanding it.

But the most rewarding growth occurs when we open some cracks in the walls we put up to protect ourselves and grapple with the complicated reality of being a human.

It’s like the comedian who starts her career as an eccentric, absurdist, noise making clown, pulling every trick out of the bag to make audiences love her. And she sees moderate success, but it feels like you can never get to the real person underneath the show.

But over time, when she finally grows tired of hiding behind the volume knob and vulnerably shares the more bluntly realistic portrayals of her imperfect life, her career skyrockets.

This transition is not perfect, but we can all make a similar shift, even if we’re not comedians.

The scriptures remind us that whatever we try to hide, somebody will discover, and our sins will find us out eventually.

Why not assume that’s true? If it’s only going to get harder to hide from ourselves, why not step the true self out into the light? Why not let enough people into our closet and so that there’s no more room for skeletons? Why not commit ourselves to something beyond our constant campaign for glossiness?

Imagine how healing it will be to stop defending ourselves all the time.

Even if we are afraid of losing the story because then we’d have nothing to hide behind and be forced to stand on our own two feet, it tends to be worth the risk.

What is your flawed defense mechanism against the perceived perils of vulnerability?

Feel the feelings without reaching for an escape

All of our emotions are part of the beautiful, ever changing sensation of being alive.

And each of us should be proud of having our own feelings about the world. It’s one of gifts we bring to the table.

But we should also remember that while our feelings are perfectly legitimate, they’re also completely transitory.

Feelings, no matter how strong, do not prove that something is factual or valid. In many cases they’re straight up propaganda, selling us the story of struggle.

The campaign has announced itself, posters are plastered on every wall in our minds, and the party is coming to town before we know it.

And what are they saying? Here are a few choice cuts from the greatest hits album of our feelings catalog.

Fear tells us that our safe future comes from us being exceptional.

Pride tells us that people will think we’re weak and don’t have it all together.

Anxiety tells us that the worst case scenario is a foregone conclusion and we won’t even be able to handle it.

Ego tells us that we have explored all the options even when we have not.

Shame tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.

But all of these feeling are okay. Because we are okay. Those feelings are not who we are, they’re just what we are experiencing at this particular moment. They are visitors that have inevitably entered our lives. Our identity that is not at the mercy of them.

They’re just energy, not personality traits.

Our skill, then, is getting in touch with their nature. Noticing and naming which feelings are at work, what they might want from us, what we’re supposed to be learning along the way, and so on.

Ecko, the fashion designer and entrepreneur, talks about feelings in terms of managing your inner artist:

Young creative people often get trapped by their emotions. And as you age, you learn how to nurse that feeling, but also when to turn it off in your brain. It’s a mechanism that you have to exercise. Performing an honest inspection and determining when the emotion is driving good work, and when it might lead to unintended consequences.

Getting to this point takes significant work. To be capable of feeling all our feelings without them blowing us off our course, that requires practice. To release feelings without having them destroy us, that takes practice.

Personally, it’s helpful for me to write about my feelings as a prelude to airing them with someone. It functions as the emotional onramp to merge me into the speed of traffic.

The more words are written, the more feelings are felt, the more understanding is generated.

Exercise works the same way. Doing yoga or running helps me deal with my ever changing feelings and moods. The more my body moves, the more feelings are felt, the more understanding is generated.

This is how we fight the propaganda of our minds.

By proving to ourselves that we are no longer afraid to sit still with our feelings, we take back control.

How are you keeping fleeting feelings from becoming permanent realities?

Elevating the feedback to a full bodied perspective

The problem with a lot of employee engagement surveys is, they’re too narrow.

They fail to make a certain empathetic leap and consider the whole person.

If want to create an atmosphere worth coming to and a culture worth passing on, then the onus is on each team member to think in three dimensions and consider the holistic impact on their work on the entire organization.

Here’s a compilation of survey questions from a variety of different employee engagement assessments, along with follow up question to help elevate the feedback to a full bodied and global perspective.

Do you enjoy your company’s culture? Hopefully you do, but the real question is, how are you contributing to your company’s culture so that other people enjoy it as well?

Do you find your work meaningful? That’s important, but it’s also smart to ask, how are you actively creating your own meaning when the work is boring and uninspiring?

Do you feel valued for your contributions? You absolutely should, but don’t forget to ask, are you also valuing your team members for their contributions?

Does your company give you the tools and technologies you need to do your job well? That’s par for the course, so the next level is asking, what tools have you created to expand yours and the team’s ability to engage with your ideas and achieve goals?

Do you feel as though your job responsibilities are clearly defined? Wonderful, but serious contributors also ask, what is the work that nobody is asking you to do that might create disproportionate value?

Do you receive high quality recognition for your efforts? That’s great, but mature team players have to wonder, how can you accumulate enough internal fulfillment through your work, regardless of whether or not credit and kudos are given?

Are you proud to be a part of this company? That certainly helps, but the bigger question is, does your employer feel it’s impressive to be partnering with you?

Wherever you work, there will never be a perfect survey to uncover how everyone is feeling about everything.

What matters is that we think holistically and humanly about the work we do.

What nuance are you not measuring?

Do your nervous system a favor

Taoists believe that because nature lacks any goals, it can never fail to succeed. And because nature is never in a hurry, it accomplishes everything.

This is extremely difficult for humans to comprehend. Because we have been conditioned to believe that there is some enchanted destination to be reached where we will find happily ever after.

Not to mention, that we need to find all the express lanes and shortcuts along the way and can get there faster than others.

But the joke is on us. Because any success we have is going to be accomplished en route to the goal. Life is a journey of becoming where we never fully arrive. Even if we do arrive, just when we get there, there disappears.

Yale famously conducted a goals study in the fifties about two populations of people. One group made clear, specific goals for after graduation, while the other group did not.

Ten years later, the researchers ran a follow up study. They discovered that the students in the first group who set goals made significantly more money than the second.

Therefore, does this frequently quoted study prove importance of setting goals?

It certainly would if the study actually took place. But it didn’t.

The university has absolutely no record of it. Yale librarians explain it clearly on their website:

Over the years, we have received requests for information on that reported study. But the secretary of that class did not know of the study, nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. A number of administrators were consulted, and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study, but there is no relevant record, nor did anyone recall it. The only record of the reported study was an article published in a popular personal development magazine. A corporate executive recalls hearing about that study on an audiotape of motivational techniques, but with no concrete source for the information.

It’s literally a story. We have been conditioned to believe that setting goals is the royal road to success.

But that’s the thing about destinations. They are forever unknown until we find ourselves there. At which point we realize that it’s not actually the end, it’s just another stopover where we learn what we need to learn and set out to continue on our path.

Do your nervous system a favor. Instead of obsessing over destinations like precious objects you acquire and put on a shelf somewhere, embrace the journey in living with each day’s march as the goal in itself. 

What if living without goals allowed you to live in harmony with nature?

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