Between a Rock and a Hard Place

So excited to be published in The Fountain magazine’s May-June 2017 issue.

Published bimonthly and distributed throughout the world, The Fountain covers themes on life, belief, knowledge, and universe.

In an age of overspecialization in learning and over-indulgence in day-to-day occupations, The Fountain’s discourse refers to an overarching coverage of the human life with content as diverse and rich as the human life itself, yet with a common thread and pattern that is neatly knitted all the way through our diverse departments under humanities and sciences.

The Fountain is a composition from which our inner calling echoes, a reflection of what is not always visible to the eye, or a response to the yearning deep in the heart and mind which sometimes finds its definition best expressed in a poem, and at other times in a journey into outer space or through the veins of the human body.  It is reading the universe, the major book of creation, and making sense out of it by way of the manual of Divine guidance. The Fountain is an effort to try and see the reality through the veils of apparent causes and to obtain our share from each phenomenon, each of which is a letter enclosed with a message addressing us.

Share a Cup of Wellness

Share a Cup of Wellness

Once when my youngest daughter was ill with some childhood malady, she called to my mother, asking for a cup of tea. Her grandmother was only too happy to oblige. My daughter thanked her but insisted through her tears that what she wanted was some cup-a-tea. My mother was confused. My little girl explained that she could hear all of us moving about the house while she lay in bed, feeling lonesome and neglected. “I just need some cup-a-tea,” she repeated between sobs.

It took a while before we all understood that what my three-year-old wanted…and needed…was some company.

Every time we awake, from slumber or daydreams, we have choices. We want to cling to the good feelings planted within our brains from our rest and flights of fancy. Or we need to clear the cobwebs from our thoughts or get started on that nagging list of things that must be done. We remind ourselves that it is time to get up and get things done. This is what humans do; our lives demand it. All the thoughtful platitudes scrolling across our social media pages reminding us to relax and simply be will not get dinner cooked, clean the litter box or pay our bills for us.

Human psychology states we affirm wellness when we seek balance in six areas of our being: bodies, emotions, intellect, spirituality, occupation and community. We achieve and maintain wellness when we reach our potential. We also recognize that same need exists in others—we connect to help each other find full potential in all six facets. Wellness is a wonderful state to be in and to produce in others through our actions.

We can resolve then to make more conscious choices, ones that bring us into a desired state of wellness in all six areas. Whether we call our persistent thoughts habits or unconscious patterns, we know some of them are beneficial, healthy even. Others are less so, and there is every shade of gray between the two ranges. To strive for wellness then, we need to determine which are worth keeping and which need changing or casting off? How is wellness enhanced when we connect with others?

The calendar is filled with special months, weeks, and days that raise awareness for a variety of important issues. As humans, we love advocating, supporting and working together for worthwhile causes. We share conversation, food, feelings, thoughts and ideas because we are, at heart, social creatures. Reaching out to touch others, we find connections. Our shared humanness helps us to recognize that we all must do certain things to sustain health. The twin states of being and doing make us feel alive and well. We can also find this when we seek to bring wellness to others.

No matter where we are on the calendar, wellness is always a worthwhile cause. It is both journey and destination. A cup of tea is as good a place as any to start. Shared in the company of friends, it is even better.

Submitted to April 2017


Our Personal Colony Collapse Disorder

Admittedly our families are not honeybees. They just sound that way when they gather around a holiday dinner table. That loud buzzing sound we hear is argument and debate, some civil…some not so much. Conflict is normal, but coming right on the heels of a very divisive election season, it may get deafening. The queen bee, worker bees and immature bees swarming around the turkey and dressing sound like they can’t wait to sting each other.

By definition, Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when a honeybee colony’s worker bees disappear. They leave behind the Queen Bee, plenty of food and a few bees to care for the remaining immature bees. Perhaps the major difference in our human form of this disorder is there will be no food left behind!

Can we deal with conflict in our relationships in a manner that is mutually beneficial?  Believe it or not, the honeybees may hold the clue to help that happen in our human hives. Inside each teeming hive are members who must work together in order to succeed. Our families, communities and workplaces must do the same if we are to achieve our shared goals. Conflict is inevitable and not always a negative thing. Even in a group comprised of friendly individuals with common goals and interests, conflict can be useful IF it can be resolved in a solution-oriented manner.

If conflict is about anything, it is about perception.  We fail to see or seek mutually satisfying answers when we are deep in an argument with someone. Instead, we perceive (1) they think differently, and (2) they’re just plain wrong. Here is the reality about conflict with friends and family: It is impossible to avoid. Conflict is inevitable and its resolution, good or bad, is all in how we manage it.

No matter how angry we get with one another, remember that we are in this thing called life together. The interdependence of those we are closest to, family and friends, is undeniable; our survival depends upon it. If we engage in division and opposition, rather than recognizing our mutual needs, we miss opportunities to find common ground, build goodwill and maintain healthy relationships.

Dr. Thomas Seeley, a Biology professor who researches honeybee behavior at Cornell University, notes: “Conflict can be a useful element… it often pays a group to argue things carefully through to find the best solution to a tough problem.”

Seeley’s research focuses on how bees in a hive must resolve their conflicts to ensure survival, which is mutually advantageous. Honeybees instinctively understand that victory obtained through force and intimidation is shortsighted. As humans, we need to recognize that getting our way or causing more dissension are not mutually beneficial behaviors.  So why do we persist in it? How would it change around the holiday table if we stepped back, examined how we behave during heated arguments and agreed that we do not all think the same? Some of the issues are not even significant. Victory may be sweet, but unlike honey, it won’t last forever. Our long-term goal should be maintaining healthy relationships, not on always being right.

When we insist on the false perception that winning is everything, we fail to look for mutually beneficial solutions.  People on either side of an argument often get so hung up on getting their point across they fail to see their actions will eventually lead to anger and alienation. Refusing to budge or engaging in personal attacks are fine during a friendly video game, so save those strategies for after the table is cleared.

Experts say it is oversimplification to think there is a single “best” way to resolve conflicts. Many factors like time or the relative importance of the issues matter.  Communication researchers have studied four primary styles:

  • Lose-Lose—Avoidance. This is a temporary Band-Aid and for insignificant issues, it works well. However, the downside is avoidance never eliminates conflict. Changing the subject, using humor or denying that a problem exists may help us cool down, but it can also leave us feeling unsatisfied. On major issues, avoidance reflects pessimism, negativity and a willingness to put up with the status quo. When it matters, be honest enough to voice your concerns and to listen to the concerns of others, even if you disagree.
  • Win-Lose—Competition. If every conflict is a contest, you may find yourself controlling the situation…alone. Others do not view a winner-takes-all option charitably. If the matter is life-threatening, it may be necessary to be right. However, competition often breeds aggression through bullying, character assassination and creating defensiveness. Both direct and passive aggression can leave lasting scars on relationships, leaving recipients humiliated. Do you honestly want to leave a table filled with guests who feel inadequate, hopeless, even depressed?
  • Lose-Win—Accommodation. Sometimes it is obvious the issue matters more to someone else than it does to you. Accommodation has its benefits. But, when we consistently choose to accommodate others, always allowing them to have their way, we show lack of concern for ourselves. If you never value your own opinions or assert yourself, you become bitter and frustrated. Choosing your battles wisely is good advice, as is taking the high road occasionally. However, if this is your default choice, you may feel like you always get the short end of the wishbone.
  • Win-Win—Collaboration. This can be the most desirable conflict style when an issue is too important to allow compromise. Collaboration seeks to find solutions that satisfy the needs of everyone involved. When we show concern for ourselves and others through mutual respect, everyone walks away from the table feeling valued and validated. Those feelings go much better with dessert and coffee, wouldn’t you agree?

Flexibility in human behavior is the sign of a competent communicator. Choosing healthy relationships, like choosing healthy food, is the best way to set our tables for the upcoming holidays. Less conflict and chaos equal no relationship collapse.

Everybody’s talking…

What are the benefits of effective communication in the workplace?

If you’re an employer or organizational leader reading this, you have to be asking yourself how is spending money on more training going to translate into a real return on your investment?

That is a valid concern, so let’s talk specifics. Research confirms that there is more than one type of communication network that exists in any workplace. Among those most commonly identified, we find:

  • Downward communication or Management to Staff 
  • Upward communication of Staff to Management 
  • Horizontal communication or Employee to Employee 
  • External Communication or Customer to Employee 
  • Informal Communication Network, a pattern of networks based on friendships, shared personal or career interests and proximity

While each of these networks benefit from more effective communication, let’s examine that last one in particular, the Informal Communication Network.  Any organization can show you its organizational chart; developing that and keeping it updated demonstrates the authoritative communication ideal to your management and staff. However, does that chart tell you how things really get done in your workplace?  The question invariably comes up when you hand the chart to new employees. They’re thinking: “Sure, this chart helps me to know who runs the show in each department, but how do I get to really know the ropes?

For that, you have to visualize a map depicting the network of a corresponding informal structure. Sure, it is invisible, but it is always at work nonetheless. Think about what occurs when a formal meeting ends at your workplace.  The men often retreat to the “porcelain office,” where they talk among themselves.  You might overhear things like “the boss is serious this time about curtailing travel expenses. Jim heard her on the phone discussing it with the corporate suits yesterday.”

The women may head out to lunch, breaking into cliques. Over salads, they may discuss whether “informal dress” for the company party really means informal. “Should I show up with sandals or is this dressy casual?”  Or they’re talking about whether that accounting department’s memo concerning the budget deadline is really firm or not. “I play tennis with Mark in accounting. He said that deadline was set just to get everyone back on task.”

Everyone mills in and out of the break room throughout the workday, discussing whether those vacancies in the other divisions are a sign of belt-tightening. “Was it fair that the boss’s son was able to get a summer internship when so many other worthy students had applied and were overlooked?”

Many smart managers recognize that this is a very real network and put it to work for them.  For example, Hewlett-Packard adopted an approach to problem-solving called MBWA, Management by Walking Around. Some observers of workplace communication even consider this the most important type of communication network, the primary means of communication. Think about two of its outstanding benefits – it is faster and more dependable. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to do everything possible to promote constructive interactions among employees?

Suggestion boxes or empty pads of paper on which to record anonymous ideas are possibilities. Putting workers from various divisions or offices together to mingle and share ideas is another way to foster this informal network.  Don’t just limit your thinking to ways to make it happen though.  Talking comes naturally – it happens organically without management having to do a thing.  When it does, do YOU know how are your employees communicating?   That’s a more critical question. 

  • Are they sensitive to cultural and personal differences among themselves and your clients?
  • Are they seeking mentors in the office for the tasks to which they’ve been assigned?
  • Are they willing to help another co-worker with advice?
  • Are they treating each other with respect, articulating ideas, soliciting and giving quality feedback?
  • Do they avoid sharing ideas in formal meetings because they feel their knowledge is inadequate or they are unable to articulate well?
  • Can they interact with your clients or customers with composure and confidence?

Listen Hear offers customized training that helps employees go beyond sociability to communicating in a dimension that is much more strategic. Think about it. How significantly would it affect your bottom line if your employees were communicating to solicit advice, ideas or leads? What if training helped your employees to understand that everyone’s insight can be useful?

Your facilities and maintenance people get around the building and gather interesting information from observation and conversations.  Your “gatekeepers” speak to gatekeepers in other companies.  Imagine the referrals you get already from secondary sources. Do they have the potential to increase your business?  You bet they do! Think “six degrees of separation” or the small-world phenomenon.  The average number of links is really about a half-dozen according to research.  Furthermore, if training in effective communication skills includes conversations about being respectful of others, as well as being ethical communicators, isn’t that the smart way to conduct your business?

Communication occupies more of our working day than any other activity. Without effective communication, there is no success. What would you do to confirm, expand, enhance, expedite, contradict, circumvent or supplement the information received from the formal networks in your workplace? I think you know the answer: you want to ensure that effective communication is taking place, cultivating the informal networks.




How to LISTEN matters…

Consider this: Why do the emerging managers and leaders in any group need to develop their communication skills, especially their listening skills, to be more effective? Why is this critical in today’s global economies and communities?

Kenneth Hey and Peter Moore argue in their book The Caterpillar Doesn’t Know, noted that change only come when we recognize we need to be transformed. Citing shifts in organizational structures, they observed that our society emphasized becoming “communities of wealth” in the post World War II economic prosperity. Over the past few decades however, we have shifted that focus to emerge as “communities of meaning.” What does this shift mean for you and your business or organization? What happens if you fail to recognize change is necessary?
Remember when the bottom-line was all that was considered in corporate decision-making? Do you recall when companies were structured traditionally, with employer-employee relations being controlled from the top-down?  Or how about when personal growth was something that only happened outside of the office?
Today, we see increasing independence and a trend toward self-development within the workplace and community organizations.  Now, more than ever before in our history, workers seek out jobs and opportunities that add meaning to our lives.  How much of me do I have to give up when I am on the job?  That question is asked frequently by today’s emerging leaders, managers and workers.  With technology allowing us to work from within, as well as outside the office, they are so much more aware that their communication skills are a very valuable commodity.
As human beings, we all share the desire to find meaning in our lives and work, as well as ways to discover meaning together. This is accomplished through three distinctly human methods: Conversation, dialogue and sharing narratives. All of these types of communication require LISTENING!

Cultivating Awareness

Listening well requires discipline and thought.  Our thoughts are things we own – they emerge from our personal schemas, as defined in a previous blog. Simply stated, our thoughts are the instruments we use to arrange and outline our unique maps of the world.  Furthermore, our thoughts are direct descendants of our perceptions, which have been born out of our personal experiences.

Because of how they are created, thoughts can be fickle.  For example, think about attending a movie with a group of friends.  Afterwards, you excitedly discuss your favorite characters, scenes and lines. It soon becomes apparent that everyone has different favorites!   Who or what did you focus on compared to the others?  You begin to wonder if they even viewed the same movie!   Even more compelling is the realization that you will also watch this same film in a week or even years later only to find that your own viewpoint has changed.  What have you experienced since viewing it the first time?  Thoughts evolve.  They can be tricky; reality is not always certain.

In our efforts to hear not only what we want to hear, but also to pay attention to the rest of what is being said, we have to cultivate our awareness in order to become better listeners.  Awareness asks us to expand our thinking by calling our perceptions into question, possibly even prompting us to change them. Communication research bears out that perception creation is a process.  First, we select what we pay attention to because we cannot attend to everything that bombards us daily. Next, we arrange our selections in ways that make them meaningful to us.  Researchers tell us that we also classify our perceptions in a number of ways before we interpret them through our own prisms.  Finally, when our interpretation differs from another’s, we exchange ideas and narratives that allow us to negotiate their meanings.  Interestingly, this is but one example of how we influence one another through listening.

If, as you read these blogs, you have interpreted their contents as helpful, allowing you to evaluate your own listening style, let’s close with this: Change does not happen when we separate ourselves from that which we want to change. Change is challenging because it involves recognition, learning and action – we have to put some skin in the game.  Action involves an honest examination of our current listening skills, as well as a commitment to cultivate more awareness so we can, recognize the challenges that keep us ineffective as listeners.  We need to study and assimilate various listening responses that let others know we are tuned in to what others are saying. When we take the steps to more effectively control how we listen, we can become more adept listeners.

Analytical Listeners

Analytical listeners can be the best at suspending judgment, because to suspend, one has to avoid the temptation of always being certain. It takes a special kind of discipline to corral the thought that one can “fix” everything.  Analytical listeners have the discipline to listen, and similar to the critical listener they break down what needs to be done systematically.  The difference is they want to get things started right away.  Get the problems solved, the mission accomplished or the issues cleared, all in a timely manner!  Because they are often time-oriented, this type of listener uses strategies to “rein in” those who wander away into free-ranging conversations and discussions. Their non-verbal cues signal their impatience with wordiness; they glance at the clock, sigh or let the other speaker “see” the impatience written all over their facial expressions.

Analytical listeners have to struggle to resist their impulses to control not only time, but other time-killing factors, therefore creativity can be limited because they put pressure on those who indulge too much in it. Creativity, free-thinking and those that want to “leave the reservation” metaphorically speaking simply exhaust the analytical listeners among us. These time-consuming factors affect their ability to focus. This is very helpful when other speakers tend to drone on and on, oblivious to the time they waste or the frustration they produce in those who have to listen to them.  A slow delivery or a lengthy explanation exasperates the analytical listener, but consider this: what might get sacrificed when feelings get ignored or people are rushed?

Worrying about time and other time-consuming details too much while another is speaking, can cause us to lose sight of what David Bohm refers to as the “order between” two extremes.  What richness might be found between the “this and that” in a conversation?  Our western culture thrills to a good debate, and we preach punctuality as a virtue. However, when we are anxious to keep things moving, are we really hearing everything?  We might be ignoring the opportunity to search for the middle ground.  We may miss the subtle nuances that allow us to see themes, patterns and links that are beneath the surface of what is being said.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is

  • They are efficient managers of time, setting the pace for meetings and conversations
  • They can suspend judgment as they analyze a conversation
  • They resist the impulse to think out the box too much because they are more prone to efficiency
  • They will get to the bottom line quickly

Task-Oriented Listeners

Task- or content-oriented listeners, whether in personal or workplace contexts, are the efficiency experts of interpersonal conversations.  They get quite excited about the technical content in conversations; they possess a knack for considering all sides of any given issue. Like the critical listener, this listening type also engages in multi-tasking, but rather than merely evaluate message content, they spend time drilling down deeply for details.  If they perceive the speaker does not have expertise in his or her topic, they can lose interest quickly. Even more intimidating to the other speaker is their habit of posing challenging questions in an attempt to elicit more information.

This type of listener is greatly appreciated in businesses and organizations because they have a propensity for clarifying content, accomplishing many things proficiently and engendering support for ideas, not just their own.  This listening style is also the best at playing the devil’s advocate.  They are hard to argue with because they enter conversations armed with the facts and they are not afraid to be challenged.  This is the charts-and-graphs listener, the ones who quote credible experts to prove their points and challenges others to bring similar data into the discussion.

Given all of this, this style may become counter-productive when more careful deliberation is called for or concern for feelings needs to be acknowledged.  As their frustration rises, they risk alienating the other speaker with both verbal and non-verbal signals that minimizes non-essential details. This can result in their taking a long time to make decisions. This listening style can also be very tricky, culturally speaking.  If the other speaker comes from a culture where being brusque or blunt is considered impolite, they may be left with an impression that the listener did not intend to give. In individualistic cultures, like that of in the U.S., more leeway is given to those who are task-driven.  However, collectivistic cultures place a higher premium on emotions and feelings. When their importance is minimized in an effort to get things done quickly it may cause more problems than it solves.  Further, if the listener implies that there is only one right answer, theirs, they risk losing respect. Ignoring another’s perspectives, insights and their need to feel included will not make for a very cooperative relationship.

The takeaway on this type of listening style is

  • They are efficient and encourage others to be more organized
  • They tend to be attentive to the details or technical points in a conversation, not its emotional content
  • They can assist others in focusing and considering all sides of an issue
  • They ask questions for clarity and understanding