Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Embrace Authenticity: How to Break Free from the Tyranny of Positivity

mywellnessbusiness.com.au
Susan David is the author of Emotional Agility, a leading psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. She recently joined Maria Shriver—award-winning journalist, bestselling author of six books, and former First Lady of California—for a conversation on why relentless positivity doesn’t lead to happiness, and how being emotionally honest can help us connect with our values and gain resilience.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. 
Maria: You are a counter voice to so many people telling us, “Be positive, be happy, have a great mood, and everything will be fine.”
Susan: From a very young age, I became interested in this central question: what does it take internally in the way we deal with our thoughts, emotions, and stories, to help us thrive in the world? I’m a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. The broader research [shows] that this incessant focus on “just be positive” actually undermines our resilience.
Maria: Telling people, “Just be happy. What’s wrong with you? Have a good attitude.” That actually hurts.
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Susan: It does, and I had my own experience with this when I was 15 years old. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had this group of people coming to me and saying, “Just be positive. Everything will be okay.” It wasn’t okay. My father was dying, and then dead. I engaged in a relationship with this amazing teacher who instead of saying, “Just be positive,” she showed up to me. She was an English teacher, and she invited me to explore in a journal what I was going through. What I realized afterwards was that “just be positive” didn’t help me. What did help was engaging with myself in a way that was honest.
A friend of mine who recently died of stage four breast cancer described this focus on being happy all the time as the tyranny of positivity.
She said, “If it was just a case of being positive, the friends in my stage four breast cancer support group would be alive today, because they were the most positive people you met. By telling us to just be and think positive, it makes us feel culpable in our own death, that somehow we weren’t positive enough. We couldn’t think ourselves out of the situation. It stops me from being authentic with myself, with my experience, and being able to be present with the people that I love.”
Maria: How do we get unstuck? How do we be authentic with ourselves, and if we encounter someone today who says, “I’m having a really bad day?”
I would never dare to say to my mother, “I’m having a bad day. I’m struggling.” She used to always say, “I don’t want to hear a yip out of you. Get going.” I didn’t feel like I grew up in a home where I had permission to complain. I carried that on a little bit, even to my own children. I’ve tried to open a space for them to complain, but where’s the balance?
Susan: First, people who focus on being happy actually, over time, become less happy. To be clear, I’m not anti-happiness. It’s more that our happiness comes not as a goal, but as a byproduct of engaging in honesty with ourselves.
Maria: How do we do that?
Susan: One of the first things is showing up. Instead of trying to push our emotions aside or trying to put on a happy face—what I call bottling and brooding—instead, literally drop any struggle that you have within yourself by ending the battle. Not saying to yourself, “I’m unhappy, but I shouldn’t be unhappy.” Or, “I’m miserable in my job, but at least I’ve got a job.”
Really just open up to the fact that we have a full range of emotions. These emotions have helped us and evolved to enable us to position ourselves effectively in the world.
Maria: You have a couple other steps. What are they?
“Our difficult emotions point to the things that we value.”
Susan: One is stepping out of our emotions. It’s important to recognize that our emotions contain data. I’ve never met a mother who’s feeling guilty about her parenting who, at some level, isn’t wanting to be present and connected with her children. Our difficult emotions [point] to the things that we value.
Instead of struggling with whether we should or shouldn’t feel something, it’s important for us to say, “What is the function of this emotion? What is the value? What is this emotion trying to tell me?”
Within that, it’s important for us to recognize that our emotions are data, not directions. Because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you need to feel guilty. Because you feel angry doesn’t mean you need to attack the people that you’re angry with. We can create space, the “stepping out” part. (Click here to take the Emotional Agility quiz).
Maria: Your theory is that if we get to know ourselves, if we slow down enough, figure out what is really going on, give ourselves space to complain, to write—that, in turn, allows you to get unstuck and be stronger, hence happier?
Susan: Absolutely. One of the most beautiful embodiments of emotional agility comes from Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps. The idea that’s attributed to him is this: “between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is our power to choose, and it’s in that choice that comes our growth and freedom.” So often, we get hooked by our emotions and thoughts. We treat them as fact, so there’s no space between the stimulus and response.
When you say something like, “I am stressed,” you are identifying all of you with being stressed. I talk about very practical strategies. [Say,] “I’m noticing that I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m noticing that I’m feeling stressed.” Instead of being one and the same as stress, you are recognizing that you’re experiencing an emotion.
One thing which is so powerful is to hear the heartbeat of our own why. We live in a world where everyone is telling us what to think, how to look, how to feel. There’s fascinating research showing that we are subject to social contagion, where we start subtly picking up the behaviors of others. We go into an elevator, everyone’s looking at their phones, so we take out ours. If you’re on an airplane, if your seat partner buys candy, even if you don’t know that person, you are 30% more likely to buy candy.
Maria: I saw that last night. I was on the plane. The guy next to me got pretzels and peanuts, and I was like, “Maybe I should have some of those. They really smell good.” Then you’re having a whole debate with yourself. I really didn’t want them, but it’s social contagion.
Susan: Yet, if we start to hear the heartbeat of our own why—who I want to be in the situation, in this discussion, in this world—it actually protects us from social contagion.
“We often use just three or four emotions to describe what we’re feeling, and yet the research shows that when we use more differentiated language about our emotions, it actually helps us over time to become more resilient.”
Maria: One of the things I really liked that you’re talking about is to expand your emotional vocabulary. We all use “I’m mad,” “I’m stressed.” But particularly if you’re a parent, instead of saying to your kids, “I can’t talk to you now, I’m stressed,” actually lay out all of these different emotions—what stress actually means. Maybe you’re scared. Maybe you’re afraid. Maybe you failed at the office. Use other words.
Susan: This is a really critical skill. We often use just three or four emotions to describe what we’re feeling, and yet the research shows that when we use more differentiated language about our emotions, and when we help our children to do the same, it actually helps us over time to become more resilient. How do we engage, in practical ways, with ourselves in a way that is curious and compassionate? Label our emotions effectively, and come to a point where we are able to say, “This is the way that I want to be in the situation.”
Values are often thought of as these very abstract things, on walls in offices, but ultimately have little meaning. But actually every single day all of us have hundreds of opportunities to make choices that are towards or away from our values. If we can start recognizing that values are actually qualities of action rather than abstract things, it helps us to thrive.
Maria: What’s important about agility and resilience is that everybody needs resilience to get through life, because no matter who you are, stuff happens. We hear a lot about how to raise resilient children, but what about adults who weren’t raised to express their emotions, to think about their values, to write? Who may struggle with depression, with that critical voice. Can they build resilience in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s?
Susan: Absolutely, people can develop capability around these skills.
Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We’re healthy until we’re not. We’re with the people we love until we aren’t. We nag our children to clean their rooms until one day we walk in and the child is off at college. So developing this capability is really important, and absolutely we are raised [with] display rules. Display rules are the implicit or sometimes even explicit rules that families have about which emotions are okay. “Go to your room when you’re angry, and come out when you’ve got a smile on your face,” or “we don’t do sadness here.” We carry these display rules into our lives, and this can lead to situations where we no longer trust our emotions or are open to what we experiencing.
First, try to welcome your emotions. To not fight with them. They’re there for a reason, and that reason is to help us calibrate and position ourselves more effectively in the world.
Maria: Also, to know yourself better. That doesn’t mean you’re a narcissist, selfish, or self-centered. Moving humanity forward starts with yourself. It starts at your own kitchen table. How you interact with other people. Do you know your neighbors? Do you get involved in your local community? What kind of parent are you? What kind of citizen are you? You don’t have to be running for office.
In your opinion, how do you feel you’re moving humanity forward? What kind of society do you envision if everybody were to read this book? What would be the direct result?
Susan: The first thing that I envision is a society in which we are more compassionate with ourselves as well as with others.
The second thing that I would see is a society that isn’t driven by anger or sadness or any particular emotion, but rather that is driven by values. What I’m trying to do is help people to become more connected with themselves, and to recognize that so much of the change is not about making enormous changes.
[It’s] tiny tweaks: the tiny tweak of “I love this person—but every time they come home from work I hardly get up from my computer to even say hello to them,” or “I want to be a present parent and yet I’m on my phone at the dinner table.”
Make a small change. We can take a habit that we’ve already got and piggyback onto that habit in ways that are values-aligned. You put your keys into a particular drawer? Put your cell phone into the drawer, as well, so that you have a conversation with your child where you aren’t on the phone.
How do we enter into a space that allows us to be more honest, more connected, and to make actual changes on the ground? The hope is that people can engage in that space where they are more compassionate, more connected with their values, and more able to bring their values to their everyday lives.
Maria: Then that will make you happy.
Susan: As a byproduct.
Maria: You’re not shooting for happiness. You’re shooting to create a more conscious, caring, and compassionate community, country, and world; to get unstuck, embrace change, to be resilient, so that you can handle whatever life throws at you, being able to say, “This is hard. I don’t have to medicate it. I don’t have to drink it away. I can feel it. I can write it down. I can rip it up, and I can make it.”
“It’s not about doing away with your fear, but recognizing your fear, your anger, and still choosing to walk in the direction of your values.”
Susan: It’s so powerful, and that enables us to also do the same with our children, to allow them to create the space to feel jealousy or anger or whatever they feel. These same principals apply to them. By 2030 the World Health Organization predicts that depression—not cancer, not heart disease, not diabetes—will be the leading cause of disability globally. Our children are growing up in a world that is unprecedented in terms of its complexity, change, geopolitical tension, technology. Starting to cultivate these skills in ourselves as well as others is critical.
How would you see yourself as being an architect of change in your own life? It might be at your dinner table, it might be out in the world, but that’s a core question to bring to the surface at this time in our country.
Maria: Whatever you’re doing in your own life and in your own home does impact the world. What the world needs are people who are conscious, caring, compassionate, who see themselves as citizens, and believe that they’re here for some specific purpose and reason. To find that, you need to have an advanced emotional vocabulary. You need to slow down, and be aware of how susceptible you may be to this.
Susan: Many people are feeling really troubled at the moment, and when we think about being fearful or angry, people tell us to control our fear, our anger, and do away with it.
These emotions are normal, and help us to position ourselves effectively in the world. Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. It’s not about doing away with your fear, but recognizing your fear, your anger, and still choosing to walk in the direction of your values.




Syndicated from Heleo.com. Heleo seeks to elevate ideas and deepen the cultural conversation. From science to business, healthy living to the arts, Heleo features insightful writing and in-depth conversations with the world's top writers and thinkers.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Hastings Pier Has Proved That Local People Can Take Control of the Regeneration Agenda – and Win

File 20171103 1041 15mc8xc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1


MrFizzy/Flickr, CC BY-SA


by Emma Curtin, University of Liverpool, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/hastings-pier-has-proved-that-local-people-can-take-control-of-the-regeneration-agenda-and-win-86862

I was blown away when I learned that Hastings Pier – once an abandoned and derelict Victorian relic – had won this year’s Stirling Prize. A community-led development has been officially declared the UK’s best new building. This victory demonstrates that excellent architecture and meaningful regeneration can be achieved through projects that are led by local citizens, and rooted in their communities.



London Road Fire Station: inspiring. Andrew Turner/Flickr, CC BY

I came to know about Hastings Pier through my involvement in the campaign to save London Road Fire Station in Manchester. These two very different structures have a few important things in common.

Both buildings are held in deep affection by their local communities; both recognised as having important heritage value by official bodies such as Historic England – and both were left to decay.
Sadly, it is not unusual for significant buildings to be left to ruin for decades, when owners can’t or won’t act to sell or save them. Situations like these can be described as “difficult” or even “delinquent” ownership.

In such cases, the ownership of the site becomes a long-term stumbling block preventing regeneration – often with a knock-on effect to the wider area. Even where there is the investment and the political will to bring a building back into use, a project can be stalled permanently by a landowner who refuses to cooperate.

Local consultant Jericho Road Solutions, which was involved with the campaign to save Hastings Pier, established the Community Assets in Difficult Ownership (CADO) programme to work with ten such projects, including Hastings Pier and the London Road Fire Station. Between them, these ten buildings have been empty for a total of 224 years, representing a loss to the economy of more than £1bn.

Local community groups associated with each project received grants, advice and mutual support to help them progress.

People power

Hastings Pier was eventually freed from its private owner, Ravenclaw, through the use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). CPOs are legal powers available to local authorities, which can force land owners to sell land or buildings under certain circumstances.

A balance has to be struck between a person’s right to own property and the wider public interest. One example of when a CPO might be used would be to acquire land for major infrastructure projects, such as HS2. For this reason, CPOs can be viewed as a threat by local communities looking to protect their homes and land. But CPOs can also be used to buy a site needed to support urban regeneration, or to save a historic listed building which is in urgent need of repair. This latter mechanism was the one used to save Hastings Pier.



In desperate need of some TLC. jtweed/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In Hastings, the pressure for the CPO actually came from the local community. Councils are often risk averse and prefer to avoid confrontational action such as CPOs – which can result in significant legal costs if things don’t go according to plan.

By 2011, the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (HPWRT) had been established, and was raising funds with the long term ambition of taking over the pier to run it as a community asset. But the project remained in limbo due to its “difficult owners”.

With expert advice on both sides and a series of productive meetings, the HPWRT and the local council came to an agreement. The necessary building repairs were identified and Ravenclaw were given an opportunity to carry them out. When this didn’t happen, the council was in a position to acquire the pier using a CPO.

The pier was then immediately transferred to the HPWRT, in what is known as a “back-to-back” agreement. The success of this strategy is a credit to the willingness of both parties to work hard at developing a constructive relationship and to try a new approach.

Inspiring change

The CADO programme has recommended new laws to support the regeneration of buildings that are languishing under a “difficult owner”.

But until those changes can be made, I hope that local authorities and government can take confidence from the success in Hastings and view community groups as partners, working carefully to use enforcement powers that are already available to them. These strategies can secure the highest standards in architecture and – unlike much private investment in development and regeneration – the buildings belong to the community.

The ConversationThere are also lessons here for community activists. Those working to influence their local area often find themselves reacting to proposals by developers. Precious time and resources are consumed with this essential scrutiny work to fight inappropriate developments. But the story of Hastings Pier should inspire citizens everywhere, reminding them to sometimes take a proactive approach to pursuing the kind of built environment they yearn for.

Emma Curtin, Architect and lecturer, University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Our Bodies are Made for Walking: Huge Health Benefits Heighten the Need to Make Sure All Americans Live in Walkable Communities

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud
Few things in life relieve stress, instill creativity and boost health and more than taking a stroll.
“Walking is a man’s best medicine,” Hippocrates declared in the 4th Century BCE.  “To solve a problem, walk around,” St. Jerome advised during Roman times.“When we walk, we come home to ourselves,” observes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
This ancient wisdom is now backed up by modern science. A flurry of recent medical studies document the physical and mental health effects of walking as little as 30 minutes a day.
“The human body is designed to walk. Humans walk better than any other species on earth,” explained George Halvorson — former CEO of the  healthcare network Kaiser Permanente — at the 2017 National Walking Summit in St. Paul.The three-day events was organized by America Walks — a non-profit group encompassing more than 800 state and local organizations.
“We get less disease when we walk.We recover from disease sooner when we walk,” he said, noting half of all US healthcare costs stem from chronic diseases, which walking helps prevent and treat.“We can save Medicare when we walk.”
The Summit held September 13th-15th — which attracted more than 600 community leaders, health professionals, planners and public officials from 45 states — celebrated the growing public awareness of walking’s many benefits. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Americans to walk more in a Call to Action in 2015, and the National Association of Realtors reports that “places to take walks” are the number one quality home buyers look for in a neighborhood. Recent research also links walkable places to economic opportunities, social equity, stronger communities and a cleaner environment.

Is Everybody Welcome to Walk?

But Summit goers were reminded there’s a long way to go before walking is safe and convenient for all Americans — a point highlighted at the opening reception by St. Paul deputy mayor Kristin Beckmann, who announced that a 7-year-old girl and a 91-year-old man had been struck down by hit-and-run drivers in the previous 24 hours. The girl suffered a broken leg and the man a concussion in a city ranked relatively high for walkability, according to Walkscore.  
Pedestrian death and injuries are rising across the country at an alarming rate, as part of an overall spike in traffic crashes, noted many speakers at the conference.  Speeding and drunk driving (which frequently involves speeding) are the chief culprits. The influential National Transportation Safety Board recently targeted speeding as an overlooked and deadly problem in America.
Younger and older Americans are not the only ones at risk.The summit focused particular attention on challenges people on foot face in racially and economically disadvantaged communities, as well as rural areas.
“African-Americans are more likely to not live near good places to walk and bike, and more likely to be hit by a car or stopped by police while walking,” noted Rutgers University transportation researcher Charles Brown.
Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, pointed out that people of color often are left out of walkability plans.“We’ve been walking for a long time — to school, to work. But one no seems to think about making our places more walkable until other kinds of people start moving in.”
Unwelcoming streets that deter walkers can become impassable roadblocks to the 54 million Americans who live with disabilities. “I walk when I drive my wheelchair,” said Maryland activist Juliette Rizzio. “So I proudly stand with you to promote inclusion. Walkability. Rollability. Possibility!”
Tyler Norris, CEO of the Well Being Trust, remembered civil rights activist Shavon Arline-Bradley asking a pointed question at the first Walking Summit in 2013: “Is everybody welcome to walk?”
Charles Brown offered an answer at the closing session of this year’s Summit’s.“I see the support, the commitment here to equity,” which he described as an understanding that communities suffering historic disinvestment need help to catch up.“This is the beginning of a movement.”

The Path Forward

The first-ever report card on walking and walkable communities was announced at the Summit, underscoring the importance of the emerging walking movement.The United States as a whole gets a failing grade in the following subjects: 1) pedestrian safety; 2) pedestrian infrastructure; 3) walking opportunities for children; 4) business and non-profit sector policies; and 5) public transportation, which is a key factor in walkable communities. We earned a D for public policies promoting walking, and a C in walking opportunities for adults.
A collective gasp swept the audience as the grades appeared on a screen. Russell Pate — one of America’s leading experts on physical activity — provided some context. “We know these are better than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Millions of people met the standards and so did some communities.”Pate and colleagues at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health oversaw a committee of scholars from numerous fields to assess the state of walking today as part of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.
Rather than deflating Summit participants, this poor performance review fired them up to learn as much as possible from one another about how to improve walking in their hometowns. Here’s what’s happening across the country.

Fresno, California

At a packed workshop, Esther Postiglione of Cultiva La Salud shared tips about what worked to boost walking in Latinx communities around Fresno: Walk to School Days; walking clubs (Pasos a la Salud);  Open Streets events; and community workshops (providing childcare and food) so people can express what they want for their communities. 
“When some city officials told us that people in Southeast Fresno don’t want to walk. Our answer was: That’s not what we hear,” Postiglione recounted. “This shows why it’s important to meet people where they live, play and work.Not expect them to come to City Hall.”

South Dakota

The state’s most remote counties are particularly afflicted by conditions linked to inactivity such as diabetes and obesity. Ann Schwader of South Dakota State University Extension identified and trained “walk coaches” in four rural  communities, who organized local walking campaigns.Schwader will offer another “Everybody Walks! SD” training next February to bring additional communities on board. 

Boston

The city is designating “slow zones” where speeds are capped at 20 mph as part of its Vision Zero commitment to sharply reduce traffic deaths among walkers, bikers and drivers. Forty-seven neighborhoods across town applied to be part of the program, notes Wendy Landman, director of Walk Boston.“The surge of interest by the public to make their neighborhoods safer stunned the city.”

Valley Hi — Sacramento

This mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood suffered a 50 percent higher rate of emergency room visits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and asthma attacks than the Sacramento region as a whole, and 36 percent of its residents were obese. One reason was that walking was stymied by unsafe traffic conditions and crime at the local park. Neighbors, churches and institutions — organized by the Health Education Council — worked to reclaim the park by adding a crosswalk, stepping up law enforcement, increasing recreation activities and launching a weekly walking group, Walk With Friends.Use of the park rose by 274 percent — and the Walk With Friends idea has been picked up in three other parks around Sacramento. 

Decorah, Iowa

Pedestrians are plentiful on sidewalks and trails in this town of 8000 near the Minnesota border until the snow flies and the Upper Iowa River freezes.To keep folks moving December to February, local groups sponsor the Beat the Blues Winter Marathonencouraging everyone to walk, cross-country ski, snowshoe or bike 26.2 miles.“You can take two weeks or two months. You can do two, three or more marathons over the winter,” explained April Bril, one of the organizers.  

Rondo — St. Paul

A freeway tore through the heart of St. Paul’s African-American community in the 1960s, destroying 687 homes and more than 100 businesses even though an alternative route one mile away would have followed a largely vacant rail corridor.“All my friends just went away,” remembers Marvin Scroggins, who grew up in the once bustling Rondo neighborhood.
Many Rondo residents now propose to heal some of the lingering wounds by constructing a half-mile long land bridge over the freeway, creating new space for parks, housing and businesses which can reconnect the community.Local foundations and the state department of transportation are showing interest in the project.“It’s more than a bridge,” explains Darius Gray of the Friendly Streets Initiative, noting that land bridges have been built in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Dallas, Seattle and Columbus. 
Jay Walljasper — author of  The Great Neighborhood Book — speaks and consults about creating strong, sustainable, equitable, enjoyable communities. JayWalljasper.com

Next Steps for the Walking Movement

Both daunted by the challenge and roused by possibility of making walking as way of life for millions more Americans, many Summit participants pitched in to help America Walks identify 10 priority actions for the walking movement, which was circulated after the event:
• Vision Zero Policies, including speed reduction trategic communications to increase demand for walkable places
• Focus resources on underserved populations
• Elevate pedestrian rights in emerging technologies (e.g. automated vehicles)
• Develop metrics to advance walkability
• Document and broadcast best practices and success stories
• Identify and bridge policies from local to federal
• Build state and local capacity and advocacy networks
• Create and strengthen influential partnerships (e.g. insurers, housing)
• Secure public and private investment in walkable environments

Monday, October 23, 2017

Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment

The following is an excerpt from Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth an Commitment, Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2008
We were consulting with a large East Coast newspaper grappling with a multimillion-dollar shortfall and the plagues of the industry in general: declining circulation, shrinking advertising revenue, and increasing newsprint prices. The problems of this newspaper were compounded by changes in the region’s demographics, which raised questions about whether the paper’s content was relevant to the readers in their market. Layoffs seemed inevitable. Hundreds were likely to lose their jobs.
In preparation for a large group meeting about the crisis, we followed the publisher for an entire day as he met with small groups of employees from advertising, circulation, production, and the newsroom. Everyone asked similar questions: “What are you going to do about this crisis, Joe? How are you going to fix it?” They complained about being unable to be productive because they were so stressed about the possibility of losing their jobs. They angrily told Joe they blamed him and other senior managers for “getting us into this mess” and demanded to know what he was going to do about it.
Joe encouraged the employees to focus on the long term. “We will get reestablished,” he assured them. “We will develop new strategies to build circulation and advertising. We will find ways to make our stories more relevant to readers. We are negotiating with corporate for leniency regarding the profit demands.” All day long, we heard him give one reassuring message after another: “Don’t worry, I’m going to make you safe. Don’t worry, senior leaders will take care of it.”
Joe was a bright, capable, and caring man. He was passionate about his job and committed to his employees. He wanted to do the right things. But in our estimation, he was saying all the wrong things. His conversations were making the situation worse. By making promises he couldn’t possibly keep and sending a message to employees that they were off the hook for resolving a difficult situation, he was exacerbating the problems the company faced.
We gave him our frank assessment of the damage he had been doing. Joe, obviously taken aback, was thoughtful and silent as he contemplated our feedback.
We’ll get back to Joe’s story, but first let’s look at why we paid such close attention to the conversations he was having with the newspaper’s employees.

Conversations Create Culture

James A. Autry, businessman, author, and poet, says, “We do make things true by what we say.… Things and people are what we call them, because in the simplest terms, we are what we say, and others are what we say about them.”
Simply put, a conversation is an exchange between two or more individuals, but that simple definition obscures a conversation’s complexity. Words and language are powerful tools, and conversations are so commonplace in our daily lives that we don’t pause to contemplate their inherent power.
First, conversations reveal what we see in the world and what meaning we attach to what we see. Second, as Autry says, we name things and create reality. Third, we invite others to see what we see, the way we see it. And fourth, through conversations we either sustain or change the meaning of what we see. All these things play a commanding role in creating and defining an organization’s culture.
The term “culture” refers to the universal capacity that human beings have to classify, codify, and communicate their experiences symbolically. In other words, culture dictates our beliefs, behavior, language, and social interaction. Nonverbal communication and unwritten rules play a large role here.
Edgar Schein, a professor at the MIT Sloan School for management and the man credited with coining the term “corporate culture,” talks about culture as being a pattern of shared basic assumptions. Schein defined organizational culture as “the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.” He wrote that these norms “prescribe appropriate behavior by employees and control the behavior of organizational members towards one another.”
Culture tells us what is acceptable and unacceptable. It alerts us to whether it is okay to show up a little late for a meeting, how we should be dressed when we arrive, and whether bringing up difficult issues in the room will be viewed favorably. It influences how we treat each other, talk to each other, and is a factor in the way we view and interact with our coworkers and customers.
Culture shows up as a similarity in the way people behave at work, regardless of their rank, title, or serial number. As Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science, “I am often struck by eerily similar behaviors exhibited by people in an organization, whether I’m meeting with a factory floor employee or a senior executive. I might detect a recurring penchant for secrecy or for openness, for name-calling or for thoughtfulness. These recurring patterns of behavior are what many call the culture of an organization.”

Changing the Culture Requires New Conversations

The overarching creators and carriers of an organization’s culture are the conversations in which the members of that organization engage. The ways people see and talk about things such as cynicism, hope, helplessness, and resourcefulness, their customers, and the work itself reflect organizational culture. Statements about the culture are seen in what we say as well as through our behavior. Culture influences decisions such as whether to share or withhold information, whether it’s more important to defer to a person’s position instead of authentically stating a point of view, and whether we see our coworkers as collaborators or competitors.
In an organization where power is concentrated at the top, compliance is highly valued, and parent–child roles are established, the cultural norm looks like this: “When my boss tells me to do something, even if it doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t push back. Dissent marks me as uncooperative and threatens my future.” Or “When my morale is low, it is management’s job to figure out what’s wrong, find the solution, and implement changes. People’s unhappiness is a statement of faulty leadership.”
In an organization where business literacy, choice, and accountability are distributed widely and deeply, where flexibility and innovation are highly valued and the dominant roles are adult–adult, the culture norm is “When I see something is wrong, I want to attend to it. I am expected to attend to it and I am accountable for doing so. My boss and coworkers expect me to push back and challenge their thinking. Dissent and accountability are the lubricants of this organization.”
Conversation is the primary way of learning and sharing cultural norms, especially those ways that are informal and implicit. Messages are transmitted both in the words we use and in the relationship dynamics that drive how we talk to each other.
For this reason, common workplace conversations can sabotage any attempt at significant organizational change. How we talk to each other in business settings and the way we deliberate decisions are revealing. In addition, some of the most powerful conversations take place outside the boardrooms, the auditoriums, and the meeting rooms. They happen in restrooms, coffee rooms, during smoke breaks, in people’s offices, on the assembly line, and during chance encounters in the hall. They continue in bars and caf├ęs after work. Those ordinary conversations that people have thousands of times a day ultimately define the culture.
Establishing new conversations is the most effective way—and the most underutilized—to create ongoing, long-lasting change in our lives, our organizations, and society. New conversations require us to see each other in a different way, and create an awareness of our role in perpetuating habits and behaviors that don’t serve us well.
To illustrate, let’s return to our story about Joe and the conversations he had been having with employees. This is the feedback we gave him before his big meeting with employees: “In all the meetings you had with people today, you were reassuring them that things would turn around and that you were going to make it okay. Joe, how are you going to do that?” In the type of culture we advocate, it is likely that one or more people would have already asked this question directly in the small group meetings. But the existing culture did not support asking this difficult question of senior management. Nor did the culture encourage introspection about individual accountability.
Joe was silent for a while, and then he finally said, “Well, I want to make it okay. Everyone is expecting me to make it okay. If I tell people the truth, that I don’t know what the solution is yet, this paper might fall apart today, right now. It is my responsibility to figure things out and to reassure people.”
We asked, “Who are these people you’re talking about? Are they children or are they adults?” From our perspective, he was stuck in a traditional way of looking at things and choosing the same old conversations to talk about a difficult situation. He was reinforcing the parent–child relationship embedded in the culture. By choosing words of reassurance, by promising to define and solve the problems and telling employees they shouldn’t worry about the company’s future, he was treating employees as children who needed caretaking and protecting. However, what he needed in these circumstances were capable adults who would participate in creating a successful organization and own their accountability for finding solutions. We suggested he try a new conversation by changing his view of the people who show up to work every day and the words he chose when he talked to them.
First, we advised him to stop sugarcoating the situation and tell employees the truth about the difficult circumstances the newspaper faced.
Second, we asked him to stop promising them a safe and secure future that he knew was impossible to deliver.
And finally, we advised that he help employees realize that their issues of safety and security were something they were going to have to manage for themselves. In fact, they were the only ones who could.
Joe found our suggestions daunting. He wrestled with the ramifications. But at the end of the day, he stood up in front of a large group of disappointed, scared, and angry employees who were looking for reassurance, and he had a new conversation with them.
He began, “I have been doing a lot of thinking since our departmental meetings today, and I have some tough things to say to you that I didn’t say when we met earlier.” He then explained clearly and directly the full gravity of the situation they all faced in making the newspaper profitable in the current market. He admitted that he had made the situation worse by implying he had answers to those difficult issues when he didn’t and by reassuring employees that things would be all right when he couldn’t be sure. He was clear with them about the costs of failure and said he needed them to begin taking responsibility for finding the answers. Joe was emphatic about the necessity of everyone working together to turn the situation around.
He finished by saying this: “The final thing I have to say is the most difficult. I can do nothing about your happiness. I can do nothing to make you feel safe, and I can do nothing to make you feel secure. Those things are in your hands. You will have to choose what you are going to do to account for your own future here and the future of this newspaper. I will do everything I can, and I hope you will too, but stop tap-dancing on my head about your happiness as if I were accountable for it. I am not.”
There was a moment of tense and bewildered silence. Then the employees spontaneously stood up and applauded—for a long time. It was a crazy moment of relief. They had been told the truth for the first time in years. Joe had acknowledged that they were adults, and he had talked to them as adults. He made it clear that he could not resolve the paper’s problems by himself. In effect, he was saying, “I am going to stop the empty, reassuring message. Nobody believes it anyway. Let’s start getting straight about what is going on here.”
It was a wonderful moment for the organization. Joe stopped the old conversation and created a new, authentic way of talking to the employees. He changed the culture in the room.

Organizational Culture and the Business

When we begin working with a client organization, we assess the culture and other things by interviewing people throughout the company. One of the first questions we ask is “What is it like to work here?”
When enough people say, “This is a difficult place to work. The pace is hectic and demanding, they don’t really care what I think. Nothing ever changes and I feel like all they want me to do is show up and do what they say,” we can draw some solid conclusions about the culture. We can deduce that the work is fast-paced and people work long hours, but they don’t understand why and they don’t like it. We hear that they are afraid to speak out or feel unheard if they do. They feel their ability to contribute is limited and attempts to overcome dissatisfaction have failed. They feel like victims and justify those feelings. We can conclude that the culture is riddled with parent–child conversations.
The ways in which people view change are also signals of organizational culture. People say things like this: “When someone suggests a change, someone else says, ‘We tried that before, and it didn’t work.’ Pretty soon everyone is talking about what happened in the past and how change never works rather than the proposal on the table.”
Statements such as these tell us a lot. They tell us that people in the organization have been disappointed by change efforts, and the culture is marked by a lack of hope and optimism. People see themselves as victims of an inept organization, and the culture accepts and supports their helplessness. And because their conversations are centered on disappointment, injustice, and not being taken seriously, rather than the demands of the business, we can conclude that serious issues that affect success aren’t being addressed in the way they should be.
In one large health care company where we consulted, for example, employees who worked in billing were being hammered by a series of difficult business problems that threatened to shut the department down. Outsourcing was a possibility. During our interviews with employees, most of their comments centered on issues such as how unfriendly some of the supervisors were, whose turn it was to clean the coffee station, and whether the window blinds should be open or closed. They said very little that led us to believe they were concerned about, much less actively trying to solve, serious business problems that threatened their employment.
The first, most critical step to creating a healthier, more productive culture is to change the conversations. Changing a conversation in the moment can change the culture in the room, the way Joe did when he told the truth about a difficult situation. Changing the culture in the room in any given moment is the best any of us can do. If new conversations change the culture in the room enough times and in enough rooms—the organization’s culture will change.
We can learn to talk about cynicism, for example, as the choice that it is rather than as a predetermined outcome of disappointment. By having that conversation, we can reveal what we see and what we make of the choice for cynicism. We can invite others to see it in the same way, and by doing so, we seize an opportunity to confront cynicism and change the point of view in the room.
Changing the culture with new conversations can create a more mature, resilient organization with a capacity for creativity, innovation, and transformation in the face of unyielding marketplace demands. Through new conversations, we can establish organizations that people believe in, where they take accountability for the success of the whole, where people find meaning in the work they do and achieve the necessary results to succeed.

A New Conversation

Joe’s new conversation with the newspaper employees had four powerful elements that are not typically heard at traditional organizations:
First, he honestly acknowledged the problems and named the difficult issues. The newspaper was in deep trouble; he didn’t have all the answers and did not expect the answers to come fast or easily.
Second, he owned his contribution to the difficulty. He admitted he had clouded issues by understating the crisis and offering empty reassurances to those who should have been engaged in finding solutions. He acknowledged he had wanted to make people feel safe and secure, even when he knew he couldn’t.
Third, he stated the risks and acknowledged the possibility of things not working out. He was telling it to them straight when he said, “I don’t know how we are going to solve these problems.”
Fourth, he presented them with a choice. He confronted the fact that everyone had a choice to make about what they were going to do and how they were going to face the future.

Business Implications of Telling the Truth

For Joe, the business implications of telling the truth were enormous. Everyone in the room that day was looking for leadership from the boss—and he had a choice to make. On the one hand, he could continue caretaking and encourage employees to look to him and senior management for answers and reassurance. But if he did that, people in the organization would remain stuck, unable to act for themselves. They would get the message that they were off the hook for finding solutions. In the end, he was likely to have a room full of people who were deeply disappointed, raging against the injustice of having to bear the outcome of inadequate leadership.
On the other hand, he could tell them the truth and acknowledge their betrayal. He could communicate the expectation that they work as adults who could, and should, contribute to the success of the organization. This speaks to the adult nature of everyone’s existence and the fact that we alone choose what we make of our future.
At least in the moment of Joe’s speech, employees at this newspaper heard the message that the survival of the paper was as much in their hands as it was in senior management’s. They recognized that their contributions to resolving the difficult marketplace issues in circulation, advertising, editorial, and production while managing costs would have a bearing on their futures. Rather than demanding, like children, that Joe solve the problems for them, they could choose to grow up, have hope and optimism for the future, and put their energies toward making a difference.

Learning to Grow Up

Organizations have been built on the notion that people must be held accountable and that someone else is in charge of doing that. This kind of thinking, more than anything else, creates and maintains parent–child conversations in the workplace that foster cultures relying on compliance rather than commitment.
The idea that we are all responsible for our own commitment is radical. It requires people to acknowledge each other as adults who are ultimately responsible for the choices they make. We must abandon the thought that others can be the source of our motivation and morale. Then new conversations must begin to engage and support that new worldview. This shift is profoundly difficult, and it is absolutely essential.
If you don’t believe it, ask yourself this basic question: “What is best for this enterprise—people who are treated and behave like children, or adults who are resilient and capable of responding to difficult circumstances?” The answer is so obvious that it makes the question seem ridiculous. Yet organizations are still deeply entrenched in workplace philosophies, policies, and procedures that reinforce parent–child conversations and cultures without realizing the cost to the business.
Anyone who has worked in an organization has stories to tell about changes that were introduced in the workplace and how they failed. Even when everyone seems to be aligned and committed to a change, it only takes a few months before people start realizing, and maybe even complaining, that everything is back to “normal.” The desired organizational transformation has failed to take root.
People ask what went wrong. They diagnose the situation and scratch their heads, puzzled by what caused the failure. Some blame upper management, others blame the rank and file. People point a blaming finger at the training staff or consultants. Others assert that the thinking, methods, processes, or technology were flawed or that the proper resources weren’t brought to bear.
What almost always gets overlooked, however, is one of the most powerful forces in the organization. It is a force so common and so taken for granted that it is almost too obvious to see. No one thought to change the ways people see each other and the ways they talk to each other.
Change will not survive or thrive if we continue having the same conversations. Parent–child conversations and cultures are undermining our organizations’ best chances for success in the marketplace. In this book, we explore the myths and traditions that have created and maintained parent–child cultures. We provide information and tools to help transform the harmful parent–child dynamic into authentic adult–adult conversations. We take a look at the importance of intentions, language, and confronting difficult issues while maintaining goodwill.
Changing the conversations has many personal and organizational ramifications. It’s critical because it acknowledges the essence of individual human experience—choice. Authentic conversations honor this, and people truly become instrumental in creating a place where their work has meaning. It is also good for business. Disaffected, disengaged employees who are treated like children are not likely to be committed to customer satisfaction, use company resources wisely, or work with other departments in partnership to further business goals.
Three distinct parent–child relationship dynamics are supported and perpetuated by conversations, and we’ll examine the outcomes they generate, their effect on people and culture, and the price the organization pays for their continuance.
How is language used for manipulation and effect? By focusing on our intentions and choosing different language, we explore how to create conversations that center on disclosure and engagement. We will show you ways to identify harmful conversations and the subtleties of manipulative intent, and provide outlines for generating honest, productive conversations.
While the new conversations themselves are relatively simple and straightforward, they are not for the fainthearted. Continued use of these conversations creates a world where there is no place to hide. It creates a world where we each see our responsibility and are required to take accountability for ourselves, our organizations, and the world in which we live.
Leadership implications for using conversations to change the culture are enormous and have nothing to do with the size of your office or the importance of your title. Leadership is no longer viewed as the responsibility of those with the largest offices and the best parking spots. It becomes an act of living and interacting in a way that personifies the culture you want to create while engaging others in this creation—and doing it now, in this moment. It no longer serves you to find better ways of manipulating so that you can get “them” to do something.
True leadership also means building knowledge and literacy instead of managing people, and anyone can do this by being as generous and distributive as possible. Today’s business environment is marked by an abundance of data. We are rich in information, yet information is often hoarded in organizations as if holding it close will keep people from starving when the business fails to thrive.
Choosing authentic conversations to create an adult culture focused on personal accountability is a challenge for every single person in an organization. Were it not for risk, there would be no need for courage. The absence of courage is sleep. It is time to wake up.
The secret for sustaining successful change in organizations lies in consciously changing the nature of workplace conversations.



Excerpted from Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth an Commitment, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008Maren Showkeir and James Showkeir are the principals of Henning-Showkeir and Associates, a consulting firm whose work centers on harmonizing the demand for business results with creating a culture where individuals can find meaning and purpose at work.