An Eight Hour Conversation in Silence

I spent the last eight hours sharing more than 1 million words. The words came and went. Some in an emotional onslaught. Others dripped slow like molasses. The words reverberated, some boomeranging back again and again and again. Some I wanted more of, and others I wished to escape.

For eight hours in silence, I shared more than 1 million words to myself during a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction retreat. The experience left me calm in some ways and spent in others. Eight hours with only your own words to listen to is daunting, even for me – an introvert – who’s comfortable spending time alone.

Each new practice of the day reinforced just how many “mind habits” I have … those loops that play on repeat in my head or rear their ugly head at the most in opportune time. While some habits are good:  I carry with me a strong sense of love and community. Other mind habits are distracting and sometimes detrimental:  The little nag that whispers not enough, not yet, not you.

This retreat, part of an eight-week training, emersed me in a variety of mindful practices all geared to help me recognize, be curious about, and move around my mind habits. During the day I:

  • Did seated breathing meditation
  • Conducted a body scan lying down
  • Held various yoga poses
  • Walked mindfully outside
  • Sat and ate in silence centered on my food

As our class practiced together via Zoom, our instructor stated that throughout the day we’d have “visitors,” and when they arrived simply name them, breathe, and let them move on. He shared that each visitor was an opportunity for something to work better rather than be an obstacle. Visitors could feel like a challenge but when embraced with a state of curiosity (Why are you popping up? What can I learn from you? Why are you back?), could be help us grow, reframe our thinking, and forge a new mind habit. I appreciated the metaphor of a challenge being a visitor – a neutral, if not positive word. I also liked that once we learn from our visitor it leaves. It’s not a permanent relationship. We have power over the visitor, and can help them leave.

Additionally, I participated in a few guided meditations. My favorite being “unconditional friendliness.” We were instructed to mentally focus on four specific phrases first thinking about myself, then a friend, then a “neutral” person (someone in the world less connected to you like a neighbor, co-worker, teacher, bus driver, or bartender at your favorite hangout). The four phrases:

  • May you be safe.
  • May you be happy and peaceful.
  • May you be healthy and strong.
  • May you live with ease and joy.

For about twenty minutes I focused on these four phrases. I thought of people in my life mentally stating: May you be safe. May you be happy and peaceful. May you be healthy and strong. May you live with ease and joy. Then I repeated the phrases to myself:  May I be safe. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with ease and joy.

While I don’t have many negative messages in my head, I can’t say have a lot of “pro-love” ones either. I do not typically take time out to mentally love or reassure myself. I don’t regularly hear a soundtrack of compassion play in my head, yet I try to give that to others. It was a meaningful experience to give myself such concentrated positive energy. These well wishes for myself remined me of a meme I saw few weeks ago stating we should talk to ourselves with the same way we do to our pets.

Throughout my day of silent mindful meditation, the words in my head came and went. What began like crashing phrases eased into a gentle ebb and flow with longer breathing spaces of silence between them… followed by a lightened mental load.

Smudge and Fig Preserves, the Cultural Connection at Work

As a consultant with a strong undercurrent of Type A, I find great satisfaction in “the do.” Checklists checked, calls completed, emails sent/deleted, deliverables submitted. Done is a delightful feeling.

However, over the 1.5 years of COVID-crazy I felt like my focus on done became all consuming. As if the more I did would make me feel better; but it didn’t. The satisfaction of complete became the burden of more. More, more, more. I lost sight of the why and missed the joy of the being – especially from the energy of team collaboration. The remote environment seemed to have restricted the connectional side of work in many ways.

Upon this realization, I became deliberate in how I began my latest project which included a partnership with a Native American small business. I wanted to focus on the why, be smart about how we used our time together, and be culturally sensitive. I wanted to put connection front and center of the work.

You see our team’s diversity was significant – DC “beltway bandits,” some PhDs, and Tribal members all working to improve health care for American Indians/Alaska Natives. To support this, we received historical training, word sensitivity workshops, and candid first-hand accounts of cultural nuances. The emersion was great and terrifying. The more I knew, the more I realized there was so much I didn’t know or understand. My lens to life was different. And while that difference is OK – my life is my life – I began to realize how many blind spots I had that could impact the effectiveness of my work. More than anything I didn’t want to produce anything that would offend or do harm to the initiative. For a while I pulled back into listen mode, a bit afraid. Then I found some courage to take steps to move forward and learn. I did this to get more comfortable so that I could really apply my expertise in an appropriate and impactful way. My sitting on the sidelines did not help the cause.

I started by privately connecting with a woman on the project to better understand something done during our weekly team meeting – smudging. At the end of our meetings, her husband would bless us while fanning a giant bird feather over burning, smoking dried plants. He always began with “Grandfather spirit.” The blessing was less prayer and more a setting of intention. A request that the spirit help us be true to our word and compassionate in our actions as we served the community in our work. To be vividly aware of the world and space in which we work. The centering practice provided a calming way to anchor us to our work and take a moment to breathe together as a team before we scattered our separate ways onto another Teams call. My teammate Anna answered my questions and in doing so created a safe space for me to ask and learn more.

The website Indigenous Corporate Training states, “Smudging is traditionally a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place. There are four elements involved in a smudge:

  • The container, traditionally a shell representing water, is the first element.
  • The four sacred plants (cedarsagesweetgrasstobacco), gifts from mother earth, represent the second element.
  • The fire produced from lighting the sacred plants represents the third element.
  • The smoke produced from the fire represents air, the fourth element.”

Fast forward a few months, and Anna learned my mother had open heart surgery. She mailed me four types of smudge to support her recovery:  sweet grass braid, golden sage, traditional sage, and pine picked from her yard. In turn, I sent back a jar of homemade fig preserves that I made with my mother, from figs picked from her yard. Homemade food, a southern tradition, to show love and provide comfort.

This is the real “do” that matters in work. The forging of relationships, the learning, the collaboration, the connection – all of which makes the work better and the journey richer.

Emily in OTF Hell Week Shirt

Be Brave, Leadership Communications Depends on It

The Junior League of Northern Virginia recently asked me to conduct a training on leadership communications during change. No small ask, as “The League” is a global organization that generates community change through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers who promote voluntarism and develop the potential of women. Members are constantly on their A-game, to say the least – leading careers, leading families, leading boards, leading programs.

As I worked on my presentation, I thought about my communications work that helped leaders implement national changes. Reached 100 million Americans to help increase patient awareness of UFE, a non-surgical treatment for uterine fibroids. Increased access to care for rural Veterans by 240% in five years. Facilitated the employment of 60,000 military spouse hires – meeting the White House goal two years ahead of schedule. Increased combat wounded soldiers’ knowledge of an Army program’s services by 35.1% in one year.

I glanced at some of the books on my shelf: Lead from Outside, The Art of Possibility, Missing Conversations, The Leadership Challenge, You Are Your Best Thing, The Third Door, Resonate Leadership, The Five Levels of Attraction, Change Management, Switch, and Change Better. The books on change are endless… and it seems like you barely finish one book before the approach to change itself has changed.

I realized the success of leadership communications to drive a change comes down to a few simple things:

  • A vivid, simple, clearly articulated vision of how the change makes a difference for people in and out of the organization.
  • A consistent, frequent, repeatable approach to sharing information on the change that is centered on the people in the change (not the organization).
    • A litmus test for this is to ask yourself how does your communications help people:  understand the change, believe in the change, internalize the change, prepare for the change, see success, try the change, advocate for the change, elevate issues, see the work change, and be the change?
  • Active listening to those who must walk into the change—as a builder (employee), as a partner, and a customer—and tangibly show them how you applied their feedback to address their perspective and needs.
  • Publicly using data to show what is working in terms of people walking into the change (behaviors and outcomes) and what isn’t, in order to modify the approach.
  • An engaged leader who devotes time, resources, energy, and emotion to the cause, over and over and over and over and over again to bring people into new possibilities, new thinking, new solutions, new actions, and new outcomes. They bring people with them, find new people to join them, and celebrates people along the journey.

But leadership communications in a change is not just about the CEO, SES federal leader, military Commander, or division manager. Leadership communications is at every level. It’s as much about a mindset as the words shared. Successful leadership communications is about bravery.

Bravery to bring voice to the unseen.

Bravery to acknowledge mistakes publicly and regroup.

Bravery to dig into and share the data with others in order to build better solutions.

Bravery to invite adversaries to the table and find common ground.

Bravery to call upon your peers when you’re beyond your expertise.

Bravery to seek diversity and move beyond the established “leadership team.”

Bravery to let others step in so that you can recharge.

Bravery to stay the course when it gets hard, and it will.

Bravery to be silly to lighten the mood.

Bravery to move beyond the board room and be a public cheerleader.

Bravery to reveal your own challenge with change. 

Bravery to show change in action.

Why be brave? Because bravery is where great service to others occurs. As Dr. Rebecca Ray states, “She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave.”