My son-in-law James is multilingual. We spoke at length about the process of learning new languages and how that connects to adding the language of the positive mental map to the conventional map. In our conversation about becoming bilingual he made an important observation about posturing, authenticity and bonding.
“When I walk in to any restaurant in the Republic of Georgia (where he was living at that time), they automatically know I’m not an native. So they are gearing up to try and use English. This may make them less approachable and that will influence our interactions because we are both feeling fear. Both of us are afraid the other will judge our ability to communicate. So I try to employ humor or I ask for help, or I do something to be vulnerable. If I am speaking authentically, it helps break down the language barrier.
If I am speaking their language to show off, which I’ve done, I’m simply speaking to impress the person I’m with. Whenever I do that, it’s not authentic and it results in greater distance and no connection. I’ve learned over and over the hard way that whenever I employ my foreign language for the purpose of impressing others, it hurts communication. When I lose the front and I’m authentic and vulnerable and open to learning and trying to connect, they relax, they open up, and they usually laugh. Fear can disappear. ”
-The Positive Organization, p. 49-51
Several years ago I lived in Australia. I remember walking one day with a friend when we saw an aboriginal who was fishing with a throw net. It was beautiful to watch.
We walked up and started talking to him. He met our intervention with a very distant and guarded response. It was the response I have so often seen from aboriginals. Instead of withdrawing we asked about the fish in his bucket. He said a few words explaining that they were bait fish. He used them to catch bigger fish and he pointed to two lines in the water. He cast his net and we expressed genuine appreciation for his skill.
He seemed influenced by our appreciation. Just then one of his lines started to move, he had a bite. He ran to it but the fish was gone. Then the other line started to move he ran to that one but again the fish was gone. We expected some disappointment. Instead there was enthusiasm. He said, “Those are the first two bites I have had all day, you fellas brought me good luck.” He was lit up like a Christmas tree. He asked us where we were from and volunteered lots of information about his fishing. We felt genuinely connected to him. We told him we would check in on our walk back. He was pleased. On our walk back he waved and shouted to us of his progress.
I loved that little experience. We were people from two different worlds. Yet in a matter of moments we crossed strong boundaries and became connected. I think of all the conflict in the world and all the potential there is for connection when we live in appreciation and openness. I am grateful for moments of cross-cultural connection.
When I am teaching I am usually inviting people to move to a level of discourse that is deeper than what they conventionally experience. I do this because it opens possibility. Yesterday I spent two hours with some finance and development people. I started with a discussion of deep personal change and invited them to invest. A woman shared that she lost her husband so she had to start doing things she never thought she could do. As she did her new behavior was challenging her old assumptions about who she was. As her assumptions changed she became still more courageous. She changed her career, she went out and adopted two children and she made other big decisions. She evolved into a new version of herself.
Another woman told a similar story of evolving into a better self. She said that in her moments of deep change “magic” seems to occur. She feels a greater power. She feels more courageous, honest, caring. I pointed out that she was listing virtues. When we evolve into a better self, it is a self of elevated virtues.
A man shared that he does yoga and as he does he tries to peel off layer after layer until he gets to his essential self. He said, “When I get to my essential self, something happens, I feel transcendent, I feel that I am connected to every other person on the planet.”
I responded that when “we search for that which is most unique about us, we find that which is common to all.”
As we continued I was able to refer back to these observations and build on them and then invite more authentic expressions. As this happened we were deeply connected and we were all able to feel, think and see potential beyond convention. Afterwards many of them shared new ideas that they wanted to implement. I am grateful for the deep learning that occurred and for the new ideas that emerged. I am grateful for what happens when we speak from our most essential self.
Much is said these days about having a bucket list. That is, a list of things you want to do before you die. In many cases people list places they want to visit. I cannot seem to come up with a complete list that fits the normal expectations of a bucket list. Instead I occasionally feel an internal drive to do something unusual that feels very important. The things that come to me have nothing to do with travel and much to do with relationships and legacy.
Two years ago, for example, we held a family event with all our children and grandchildren. In that event we created the foundation for a set of rituals that increase the probability that my great grandchildren will understand some deeply held beliefs that have greatly enriched my life. Afterwards I felt as if I had checked off a huge item on my bucket list.
During the last year I began to feel that I should go and visit a mentor. Finally, last week, I did so. He is 93 and gets around with a walker. Yet he still goes to work every day and spends one day a week at the gym. His mind is impressively sharp.
For the first half hour we reminisced. I would mention something that happened and he would fill in the details as if it happened yesterday. Suddenly I interrupted the flow of the conversation. I told him how much I loved him, and how most of the things I have accomplished in my life can be traced directly back to things he taught me. I felt like I was speaking from the very center of my soul and that each word was filled with deep, spiritual meaning. I felt as if some great, eternal circle was suddenly completed. My heart filled with overwhelming gratitude and my eyes filled with tears.
When I walked out of that building, I felt as if I had just placed another huge check mark on my bucket list. I continued to think about the concept of bucket lists and what will really matter to me when I am gone. As I did it occurred to me that I should also create a legacy of positive relationships and choices more often at work. In that moment I began to think about work a little differently. I started to construct an organizational bucket list.
Yesterday I met with a man who is in charge of turning around a failing business. He was headed into 14 meetings with first level people. He had a prepared message. As he entered the first meeting he noted how absolutely miserable the people felt and he knew that delivering the message was the wrong thing to do. Instead he opened the meeting and made it possible for the people to say what they felt. There was a great outpouring of messages that were hard to hear. At the end he had an intuition. He said, “I am going to count to three. When I do I want you all to yell out the one word that describes how you feel.”
About 80% of the people yelled the same word, “frustrated.” The collective expression was like a deep religions moment. The feeling in the room changed. The conversation changed.
After 14 meetings, a woman who had accompanied the man called him. She told him she had been deeply reflecting on all she heard in those 14 authentic conversations. Then she said, “I have come to the conclusion that all the people want the exact same thing. They want to know that they matter.”
The conventional assumption in organizations is that the leader “knows.” In the positive organization, the leader holds authentic conversations and everyone is learning together.
The word community often suggests a sense of unity or kinship manifest in a group, neighborhood, town, or society. Yet the connections are not always visible.
Yesterday my colleague and I were making a presentation to business and civic leaders in the local community. In the introduction a man recalled something I did 20 years ago that helped him launch a new effort that since has grown into much more. It seemed like a small thing that I could hardly remember but for him it was a big thing that was unforgettable. The effort has since touched many people. In sharing the story he was expressing genuine gratitude and I felt loved. The audience seemed to feel something as well. Later my colleague shared a story about something I did 25 years ago that lifted her in a discouraging time and helped her launch her career. She since has touched many people. Again it was something I could hardly remember but for her it was unforgettable. Again, she was expressing genuine gratitude and I felt loved. Again the audience seemed moved. During the session there were several times when the man who did the introductions called out things that people in the audience had or were doing for someone or something else. By the end of the session, even though many people were strangers to each other, there seemed to be a sense of unity and goodness in the room.
Later in the day, a person who had been in the audience sent me a message. Part of his message was an expression of his love for living in this community. Reflecting on this event reminds me of both the the ripple effect of each action we take, and the importance of making (positive) investments in my communities.