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We’re in the living room at my brother in-laws house in Portland, the last night of a fabulous family reunion. It’s just before 11pm and the remaining four of us sit and play the last episode of the Daily Show with John Stewart. It’s been four days since the live broadcast – we’ve been dreading this moment. Together we are brave.
It’s funnier than I thought it would be. I was ready to bawl through the whole thing – but the opening, the parade of correspondents and meeting the staff was great fun. I loved the Wyatt Senac exchange the most.
But then – he invited us one more time to camera three. Closure. What he talked about next has been bouncing around in my head like a free play pinball.
What he said was, “Watch for bullshit”. Then he told us where and how to watch for it but what he came back to was the demand, “Watch for bullshit.”
See, that’s a call to action. That’s a demand on me. Us. It’s a demand he has been making on himself for 16 years and now he makes it of us. ‘Rise up’ he is saying. ‘Don’t cry for me, you are Buddha too. Watch for bullshit’.
I felt seen by John Stewart. We laughed (and cried) at the same things – I felt like we were in a conversation that I was contributing to. But as fantastic as that was – it’s not enough. Once we are in relationship, we must do something, create something – stop something. We need a call to action. We need someone to call a play.
Notice the chain of events here though – create great relationship first, then make a demand. Calling someone to action who doesn’t feel seen by you – will likely have negative results. Making a successful demand is only possible when your audience feels seen and heard, then it becomes a requirement.
As I get better at noticing if I feel seen by others and asking if they feel seen by me – the next step in creating productive relationships is to notice and practice the use of active verbs – calls to action. They don’t need to be perfect, but if they are conscious and in the context of a connected relationship – they work!
Earlier in the week – my visit was going swimmingly.
Dateline Addis: Nov 6th 2014
It’s 8:35 am. This is the view from the 7th floor overlooking the roundabout on Africa Ave at Deluxe Furniture. We are scheduled to start at 9. Patrick is setting up the breakout room down stairs so I’m the greeter. This group has done two in-person workshops and several weeks of online work – I am the new guy.
“Is this the right room?”
We are polite, reserved, friendly and brief. She takes a seat at the far end of the space and opens her computer. A second person. We abbreviate the same chat as she sees her friend and they sit together. Soon a dozen people have arrived, said hello and sat as far away from me as they can. Together.
Patrick returns and the group lights up. He invites everyone down to this end of the room so we can get started. We do a round of introductions and a check-in. The room is getting warmer and we roll out some questions.
“What would be great? How do I show up (under stress)? What do I want my leadership legacy to be?”
We look at each other and around the room, laugh a little – until someone raises their hand. It won’t be quiet like that ever again.
“Confidence. I’d like to be more confident when I present.”
“I’d like to be understood better. English is not my first language, so I struggle to get people to understand me sometimes”.
“Do you get feedback to that effect?”
“Yes. Well, once.”
The last question about leadership legacy is the ten minute writing exercise. We’re cruising and they dive in.
The debrief of the writing exercise is fascinating and fantastic and leads easily right back into experience.
Patrick and I split the room into two groups and he takes his bunch away. Now we are 7. We adjust, rearrange the chairs to create an audience for a small stage and huddle up.
“The purpose if this next exercise is to practice seeing people as compared to just looking at them. Remember, your audience decides if they feel seen – we don’t. Put the needs of the audience ahead of yours as the presenter. Then we’ll get real time feedback from the audience about their experience of you. Every body is going to take a turn presenting. Your content is whatever you created in the writing exercise. Questions?”
“Who’s up?” I say.
Now the parade begins. Extraordinary human beings, one after another. All so brave, people trying to get out of their head and into relationship. Literally watching folks step gently out of their own way – amazed. I can reflect on and find learning in every person I worked with that day and I do. But I will offer you two.
First up is a senior executive from the country office, a woman from Botswana. She is wise and powerful, a dancer when she presents. Her first time through was a lovely performance, but not a lot of connection. We introduce the game: connecting with one person in the audience. Be curious about them, investigate them, invite them into relationship. When that person feels seen (not just looked at) they are asked to raise their hand.
She practices. She breathes, gets centered and starts inviting her audience into relationship one at a time. The results are lovely, powerful but sometimes slow. Someone she has invited into relationship takes their time raising their hand. She compensates by dancing towards them. The hand still hasn’t gone up and she’s close to sitting in their lap when finally the proximity boundary gets crossed. They laugh and stop.
“You didn’t raise your hand! I was trying to secure relationship with you.”
“He decides when he feels seen, not you.”
“Is that how I come across? Am I like that?”
Some people nod a little. She becomes still and looks at me.
“That is important”
“Let me try again.”
Now there is breathing and stillness and genuine curiosity. She is so loving and kind and when she sees a person, a peer and invites them into relationship, she cannot be denied. When she gets out of self assessment and into relationship she gets bigger. Her stature, her size, her presence grows. We all feel it.
The feedback she gets after the second time is radiant. People rave about her and want to work with her even more.
“What are your takeaways from this experience?”
“Breathing and the power of connection.”
“Say thank you one more time and we’ll applaud you.”
Everyone from the morning group makes a discovery or is a critical part of somebody elses – or both. The work is fantastic.
Lunch break. It’s brought in and both groups come together. After lunch I walk around the balcony and take some pictures. Ethiopia is a country of 90 million people, 4 million of which live here in Addis.
I’ll fast forward to the last participant in the afternoon group. This woman is local she is both strong and fragile. She admits to everyone early that this is her worst nightmare. She reads through her piece with much apology and ends early. The feedback is gentle but honest. There are tears.
Now her worst fears are realized and there is shame. I ask her to connect with me. She turns to me and laughs while crying,
“Good. That’s right, the stakes are pretty low with me. Let’s breathe together. Fill your lungs from the bottom up, slowly and exhale slowly. That’s all there is. If you take one thing away from this experience I want it to be breathing.”
As she re-oxygenates, a calmness descends upon her. It takes a couple of minutes but soon all the shaking is gone, all the tears are gone.
With her shoulders square and her feet solid beneath them, she kept breathing and got curious about someone in her audience. She started asking herself, what color are their eyes, their eyebrows? What shapes do I see? She started inviting them into relationship and she too could not be denied. She got out of her head and into relationship and everything that was amazing about her became visible to all of us. Once again, we all felt it. Her feedback this time was a huge victory. She had come quite a long way from shaking and crying to connecting and co-creating. Through her, the group celebrated their extraordinary journey. What a day.
Both groups now come together for the final debrief of the day. We revisit the pages we filled up first thing earlier this morning.
“Did we address your desire to become more confident as a presenter?”
“Absolutely. I’m actually looking forward to my next meeting.”
“What about your wish to be understood better?”
“I think people understand me better when I’m connected to them. That’s what I heard them say at least”
We say our reluctant goodbyes.
“Oh – let’s get a picture!”
Patrick and I celebrate that night at dinner. His stuff went well too. Good work begets good work and there is much to leverage after today. We come up with a loose plan on how to build on what we’ve done and we eye the next workshop in Aman Jordan. Patrick is living there now and traveling back early in the morning. I’m starting my vacation.
Tomorrow is my first of four days as a tourist in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I’m looking forward to practicing what I’ve asked the participants to practice all day long – making connections with people and this new environment, inviting them to inform my content. What I don’t know is that tomorrow, a major power and communications line will be severed at a nearby construction site blacking out and blinding two square miles of downtown Addis including my hotel.
I wonder how I show up under stress?
Addis Ababa – November 6th 2014
I’m twenty hours in country when I meet with my team mates at the UNDP Regional Service Center. We’ve just received word that one of our participants has excused himself due to what he calls an, “Ebola emergency” somewhere else in Africa. I was tested for illness when I arrived at the airport: a man in a surgical mask and most of a hazmat suit holding a laser thermometer to my forehead, pulling the trigger and reading my temperature. No one on my flight from Dubai to Addis was prevented from entering the country.
I’ve worked with all kinds of people from all kinds of industries, with folks of great wealth and great poverty. I’ve worked with families who struggle with mental health issues. with people on different continents with people who cannot speak English. I’ve worked with people who would rather not ‘develop’ at all. This however, is a first. The stakes feel higher.
I’m never sure what to expect when I walk into a space and I do my best to let go of expectations. I give myself permission to fail around that.
I follow my friend and peer Patrick McNamara into the UN building. We have designed a really good day for our people. Several exercises in direct service of the things they’ve identified as places they would like to improve – and of course Connection Lab. The plan is to split the group into two, Patrick and I each taking half the group in the morning and swapping in the afternoon. The purpose of the split is to maximize the time each participant gets to spend on stage presenting.
We are early, so as to set up the room(s) – and we do. We strike most of the desks in our main space and create an open seating area. Flip charts, pens, blank note pads, refreshments – check. Patrick starts setting up all the associated reading material so people can see how we reference the work.
Okay, we are good to go. People slowly start to trickle in –
I had the honor to attend a Patch Adams workshop this last weekend. Yes, Robin Williams’ Patch Adams. He showed a picture of himself and Robin on the set, they were both smiling down at a dog, unseen in the picture, defecating just in front of them. Robin asked to take the next one with the dog so they could call it three assholes.
Patch was doing a few workshops at the Performing The World Festival at the All Stars in NYC last weekend. He was one of over 100 workshops and performances in three days – all quite the demonstration of great play and ‘becoming’. Patch Adams is a clown. He’s a total clown. He’s also a medical doctor of some kind but mostly he’s a buffoon. He wore a bee costume. He threw on a bunch of rockabilly and made us dance. He told stories and read poetry. He’s held 2000 people as they died of starvation. He showed us pictures of that. He suggested that for those who lacked purpose, purpose was available.
It’s 5 days later now and I’m noticing how many takeaways I have left – and I have quite a few as it turns out.
I’ve never been a clown fan. Even as a youngster I thought it was a strange way to get attention. But Patch Adams shocked me as he reintroduced the value of clowning to all of us.
He took a band of clowns to Easter Island where they encountered first hand the sober majesty of one of the ancient stone sculptures – and promptly put a big red nose on it. They posed for a picture – half a dozen morons and one big one in the back. It was hilarious.
I’ve long believed that the path to successful development in business, community and life is to consciously demystify and re-conceptualize our processes and our environment. That’s what Patch was doing right in front of us. He was demystifying our culture and re-conceptualizing it – so we could become what we chose, in real time.
The next pictures were of him posing with world leaders – all sharing enormous four-legged underwear with him. Political leaders from Central and South America from Asia – all laughing, standing with him in bright white underwear built for two. It will likely be in moments like those where we will find ourselves and become what we truly wish rather than resign ourselves to whatever we’ve inherited.
Patch reflected on the pursuit to build his hospital. He began the movement to build his teaching center in 1971, certain that it wouldn’t take more than four years. It’s taken ten times that long and the only thing he is, is deeply grateful for the journey. Ground broke on his complex in 2011 and should be finished soon. A crazy, free hospital in West Virginia, I wondered if it might be a tourist destination too.
The next pictures were of him and some religious leaders. He has some party snot he asks them to wear – a long skinny rope of fake snot that one can stick to the inside of the nostril. He promises them that it’s clean – and they hang it from their nose. Imagine some of the holiest people in the world, bent over from laughter with a great long snot dangling from their face. It’s vulgar, inappropriate and hysterical. In a brief moment, these great holy leaders are demystified and their very purpose is turned upside down. Snot.
Demystification and re-conceptualization are competencies that we can practice – like riding a bike or playing the piano. If my business is suffering, if my practice is stale – if the feedback I’m getting is that my industry is broken, the last thing I want to do is resign myself to whatever I’ve inherited. I want to demystify it and re conceptualizing it. If I don’t have an answer for what we will become, I need a practice that will help me find it. Clowning – is just such a practice.
Clowning also requires some considerable courage – as does demystifying something we care deeply for, even if it’s to help it become something better. Wearing a clown costume in a war zone takes some courage
So – a big thank you to the All Stars and Patch Adams – I’m going to put on my bear suit and go for a coffee.