I stop talking for five days. You won’t believe what happens next.

vallecitosI do something I’ve never done before
In August, I stopped talking for five days.

I flew to New Mexico and drove four hours to Vallecitos, a remote ranch in the heart of the Carson National Forest.

For five days, forty of us lived in silence, meditating in the Vipassana tradition. No talking, no reading, no writing, no phone, no internet.

Before this experience, I had never been silent for even one day of my life.

What happened next?
A totally unexpected outcome was that I fundamentally changed how I eat. Mindfully eating in silence for five days allowed me to learn how much my body really wants to eat. It turned out to be a lot less than I’ve been eating most of my life.

When I was younger, I could eat anything and not put on weight. At thirty, something changed, and I gradually became overweight. Over the years I tried various approaches to eating less. Most of my efforts had a temporary effect, but they were essentially efforts of will—always a struggle—and I remained at least ten pounds overweight.

Now, three months later, I am at my lowest weight in thirty-five years. My Smart Body Mass Index is now in the normal range. And, to my surprise, this practice remains easy for me to continue.

What can we learn from my experience?
Experiential learning is the most powerful kind of learning! Five days of mindful eating reprogrammed my lifetime pattern of applying external strictures — eating certain foods, avoiding others, disciplining myself to wait until a set time to eat, etc. — to one where I eat from what Jan Chozen Bays, MD calls a sense of cellular hunger rather than other kinds of hungers such as eye, nose, mouth, stomach, mind, and heart.

Five days experiencing what I mindfully wanted to eat trumped years attempting to teach myself what and how to eat.

What else did I learn?
Prolonged sitting mediation — focusing on my breath for forty-five minutes many times each day — was a new experience for me. I became aware over and over again of the games my mind continually plays. Sometimes I found my thoughts drifting to scenes from the past or imagined situations in the future; sometime I found myself in a blurred dreamlike state. Each time I noticed my mind straying, I brought my awareness back to my breath.

As you might imagine, it’s hard to do this, but the practice has fascinating benefits. Besides the mindful eating outcome, I feel more connected to my experience of the world, more able to flow with what happens, more in touch with the suffering and impermanence in my life. The latter may seem an unlikely benefit, but seeing more clearly what exists (we all suffer, we all die) is transformative.

A lot of people think that meditation is about attaining a blissful state. That’s not the whole picture for me, though there were wonderful moments during my five days, especially while experiencing the beauty around me. Rather, being closer to what life is actually about — both the joy and the suffering — is what the retreat gave to me.

In addition, the retreat reinforced my experience that we are the stories we tell ourselves — further deepened by the observation that we’re telling these stories to ourselves in our own minds all the time!

My retreat experience was fascinating, hard and wonderful, and I now plan to participate in one or two retreats a year. I recommend the experience, even though yours will surely be different from mine.

Asking for help

Asking_for_help_9401173747_98abe42405_k

Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ask for help.

I had been fretting for several months on how to move ahead on convening and facilitating more of the participation technique workshops that are dear to my heart. What would the interest be? How would I market them? Which countries and venues should I consider?

The exploratory work involved was daunting. I started some market and venue research in my spare time, but progress was slow. There was so much to do before I could even begin to announce anything.

Finally, I realized I was acting like the person (stereotypically a man, right?) who’s lost and can’t bring himself to ask for directions.

I needed to ask for help.

It was hard for me to get to the point of asking for help. Despite knowing and preaching about the power of networks to create change, I was trained to figure stuff out by myself, and I still often revert to that old mindset. My ingrained instinct is to investigate a situation by looking at possibilities, only finally moving to action once I’ve got a solid plan. Sometimes that’s a good strategy. But sometimes, I need to practice transformational tourism.

Merely looking at [or listening to] something almost never causes change. Tourism is fun, but rarely transformative.

If it was easy, you would have already achieved the change you seek.

Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming.
Transformation tourism, Seth Godin

I became someone who asks for help. In 30 minutes I wrote a request for assistance on this blog and promoted it through my usual channels on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and some Facebook event professional groups.

The results were swift and gratifying.

Within a week I had been contacted by numerous friends and colleagues, and had found several partners who were a wonderful logical fit.

Two weeks later, we began planning workshops in the United States, Canada, and Europe!

I hope I’ve learned something. I hope that next time I’ll be ready to ask for help a little sooner.

How about you? Don’t be like this guy.

Try a new habit.

Ask for help.

You may be amazed at what happens when you do.

Photo attribution: Flickr user marinadelcastell

Does your org chart guarantee stagnation?

Pharma org chart

Sometimes, an organization’s culture guarantees that productive change will never occur. Organizational culture unfailingly generates organizational structure that mirrors and maintains the culture.

Want to learn a lot about an organization’s potential for change? Check out the org chart.

Photo attribution: cartoon by the always wonderful Tom Fishburne, but it’s not apparently available on his website. HT to John Nosta who may have shared it at a pharma conference.


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Lessons from Anguilla: Learning from what doesn’t change

Daddy’s First Son’s dogs made me do it.

Every day of my annual visits to Anguilla, right after waking up, I’ve taken a 25-minute walk (red line below).
searocks walk 2

I’ve written about the importance of my morning route.

It’s a feast of the senses. Warm air on my skin. The sweet smell of almond croissants—alarming numbers of calories beckoning, reluctantly resisted—waft from the French bakery. Bass notes thud from several houses, random patterns until I am close enough to hear the melody. I pass trailers cradling gleaming powerboats: Pure Pleasure, Wet Dreamz, Drippin’ Wet, and Royal Seaduction (notice a theme here?) The gentle return uphill gradient calls for a quick dip in our pool. As I cool down I hear the clamor of bananaquits on the veranda railing gobbling up the raw sugar we’ve set out for them.
Connection: A morning walk in Anguilla

But one day last year, with no advance warning, several of Daddy’s First Son’s dogs leaped over the low wall around Son’s house, snarling loudly, and one of them bit my leg (nothing too serious). For the remainder of the stay, I carried a rolled-up newspaper, which I was forced to use, luckily successfully, on a second occasion.

On returning this year, I didn’t want to carry a dog-repelling device, or worry each time passing Son’s house whether today would be the occasion of Attack Number Three.

I reluctantly changed my route.

With no alternative loop available, I chose a destination itinerary: to the tip of Island Harbour’s wharf and back.

Anguilla new walk

No more returning home via a pleasant loop, no more glimpses of Royal Seaduction—and, thankfully, no more fierce, territorial, unrestricted dogs.

The new route is longer, 40 minutes. It includes more main road, where occasionally one faces reckless Anguillian drivers speeding a little faster than pedestrians on the narrow verges like.

But there are compensating vistas: for example, the poignant Eduarlin Barber Shop:

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The Anguilla Sea Salt Company/Miniature Golf/Ice Cream Parlor Anchor Complex (how’s that for synergy?!):

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Sunny Time Grocery:

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And, of course, the beauty of Island Harbour itself.

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Island Harbour

After a week of these changed morning excursions, I am still discovering new aspects of my path—and this is sure to continue.

But what’s most important is my experience and realization of what has not changed.

The Anguillians I meet each day, whether walking past or whizzing by in their cars are still the warm, connecting people they’ve always been.

Almost everyone I see on my walk responds in some way. On foot, the standard greeting is mornin’. The people who drive past me raise a hand in greeting, and sometimes hoot the horn. These are not, usually, people I know or have ever met before, and I may never meet them again. And yet, there’s invariably a moment of connection.

Every day, unexpected responses. The speedy truck driver who takes both hands off the wheel, palms facing me to say hi as I walk towards him, the hedge on my right leaving me no place to go if his steering is not true. The beautiful woman who shoots me a dazzling smile as she leaves her driveway for work. Two locals walking in the same direction who, as I pass with a mornin’, say fast walkin’ admiringly to my back. Nuanced respectful nods from respectable Anguillan lady drivers. The grandmother who pivots from conversation to pipe a melodious good morning. Her granddaughter in cream blouse and green skirt uniform, waiting for her ride to school, murmurs hello as I pass. A businesswoman gripping the top of her steering wheel, fingers flying up like rabbit ears when I wave. The minister, waiting for a ride to preach to his church who lifts his hand and our eyes connect. Then I’m past, turning the corner, moving towards the next meeting.

Such simple moments of connection. So little to give, so much received. Growing warmth. A wonderful way to start any morning.

Sometimes, the lessons we learn from what doesn’t change are the most important lessons of all.

The simple consensus process that saved international climate change conferences

Indaba logjam breaking process
Negotiators twice used a powerful yet little-known South African consensus process—indaba—to rescue foundering talks at international climate change conferences.

Introduced at the 2011 Durban talks, the recently-concluded 2015 Paris talks also invoked indaba (pronounced “in-dar-bah”) to reduce “900 bracketed points of contention in the draft text to about 300 before the last session“—making it possible for the first time for all 195 countries present to agree to reduce carbon emissions.

Indaba has been used at Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi tribal gatherings for two centuries or more.

“A message was therefore conveyed..to the King, inviting Umtassa to come in to an indaba at Umtali.”
The Pall Mall Gazette, London, December 26, 1894 (earliest documented written use)

What is indaba?

Indaba is not a clearly defined format. The term has been appropriated and adapted (example) and I’ve been unable to find detailed descriptions of the original South African process. I suspect the form used at the Paris Talks does not define indaba, and may distort or omit significant features. Here are the key ingredients from the Paris talks:

  • Negotiators used Indaba as a logjam-breaking technique after traditional negotiating process ground to a halt.
  • Participants with decision-making authority worked in small groups that included members from countries with seemingly incompatible goals.
  • Small group members shared verbally and face-to-face their “red lines”. These were specific “hard limits” issues they were not willing to compromise on.
  • Participants who shared hard limits were concomitantly responsible for proposing solutions to other group members. This prevented the meeting from being merely a presentation of position statements.

The Durban climate change conference implemented a more open process where diplomats representing the main countries formed a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and talked directly to each other. John Vidal reported: “By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.”

The third and fourth covenants listed above distinguish indaba from other forms of group consensus and negotiation process: explicit sharing of what is not acceptable, coupled with commitment to propose and explore solutions for supposedly intractable differences.

Similar consensus processes

A couple of more recent formats are reinventions of Indaba principles.

One is concordance, developed by Will Schutz (here’s an introduction). Robert McNeil summarizes as follows: “Everyone who has a stake is in. Anyone can veto. If you veto you have to explain why (openly and honestly). We explore the vetoes openly and do the work necessary for all to agree.”

Another is the “two circles” couples work technique for finding common ground popularized by John M. Gottman & Nan Silver in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, in which you draw two circles, one inside the other, using the inner circle to list aspects you can’t give in on and the outer circle for aspects you can compromise over.

[Know any others? Add them in the comments below!]

The overlooked importance of good group process

It’s remarkable that such an elementary consensus process proved to be key to creating a meeting agreement that will likely profoundly shape the future of our planet.

In addition, it’s incredible that such a powerful process is virtually unknown to most meeting designers, negotiators, and facilitators!

In conclusion, the outcome-changing application of indaba at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change demonstrates, there is an urgent need for all of us to become familiar with and use good group process when we meet to learn, connect, engage, and decide. The world will be a better place when we do.


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Image “COP21 participants – 30 Nov 2015 (23430273715)” courtesy of Presidencia de la República Mexicana

Don’t believe those who tell you personal change is easy

change machine 3685880130_0f339f0c9d_oWe all have moments when we wish our lives were easier.

We struggle at times with change we would like to see in our lives but can’t seem to make happen.

And we are continually exposed to marketing that promises quick and easy solutions to the problems we are experiencing.

If we want to lose weight, find the right person for that special relationship, be at peace with ourselves, become rich, give up addictive behavior, or make a hundred other common changes, there are tens of thousands of speakers, books, and programs that offer a revolutionary, simple method to cure what ails you.

Just have Jim speak at your event, buy Sarah’s best-selling book, or sign-up for Esmeralda’s online course—and your problems will be over!

Over and over again we delude ourselves that the next miracle diet we try will be the one that “just works”, a new management fad will whip our recalcitrant employees into shape, or the latest event technology will make our attendees happy, wealthy, and wise.

In reality, I’ve found that only a tiny fraction of speakers, books, and programs offer real value. I’ve mentioned a few on this blog over the years, including David Allen’s Getting Things Done, PomodoroEric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver’s Into The Heart of Meetings, and a high percentage of Seth Godin’s thoughts and books.

Another barrier to implementing change is that we overlook the months or years of preparatory work we usually need to do before those aha! change moments we remember the rest of our lives. As Theosophists say: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear” — i.e. the best advice in the world is useless if we are not prepared to receive it.

In addition, even when we successfully pan the valuable flecks of gold from mountains of hype, permanently integrating useful desired change invariably requires significant effort.

For example, even after many years of use, my Getting Things Done implementation is imperfect. I flip haphazardly between several trusted systems, depending on the messiness of my desk, my mood, and—for all I know—the phases of the moon. And though, 99% of the time, my email inbox contains well below 100 items, Inbox Zero remains a fantasy, permanently out of reach.

Which leads us to a final trap: the belief that if we don’t implement a personal change perfectly, we haven’t really changed. This is dangerous if we conclude that minor slips mean that we’ve failed to change, and might as well go back to the old way of doing things. Instead, give yourself full credit for the change you’ve fundamentally made, notice when you revert to old patterns, and don’t beat yourself up when it happens (because it nearly always will once in a while.)

Given all these obstacles, it’s a miracle when personal change occurs. And yet, with hard work, it can happen!

Notice when it does. Acknowledge what you’ve done—it was hard!

And celebrate!

Photo attribution: Flickr user tracyshaun

Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible 8477081649_e951df1931_oIf you know your mission — you do have a mission, right? — then your long-term strategy becomes much clearer. You know where you want to go; now, all that remains is how to get there.

Of course, life is rarely that simple.

There’s always that must-do-now stuff that gets in the way. As Seth Godin puts it:

“This interim strategy, the notion that ideals and principles are for later, but right now, all the focus and resources have to be put into the emergency of getting successful—it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because it’s always the interim. It never seems like the right time to stop doing what worked and start doing what we said was important.”
—Seth Godin, The interim strategy

How can we stay focused on our mission when there’s always something demanding our attention right now? There are four core steps:

  1. Notice what’s going on. (“A week has gone by, and I’ve spent fifteen minutes, tops, working on my mission.”) Sometimes this is the hardest step. We can’t change when we are unaware or avoiding the changes we really need/want to make.
  2. Make a plan. End/delegate/deprioritize the short term stuff that’s getting in the way. Set goals for your mission-related work.
  3. Carry out your plan. Sometimes this is the hardest step.
  4. Steps 1-3 aren’t a one-time process. Loop ’em. Keep noticing, making new plans, and acting on them. That’s how you’ll grow and, potentially, succeed in your mission.

As Seth concludes his aforementioned post: “The interim is forever, so perhaps it makes sense to make act in the interim as we expect to act in the long haul.”

And remember this.

If you remain continually immersed in interim work, executing your Mission becomes Impossible.

Photo attribution: Flickr user taylor-mcbride

Boredom is just a state of mind

bored 14154838845_eccf26546c_h1969: I am a nineteen year old college student, talking with friends in my 500 year old room above the entrance to Merton College, Oxford. The world up to this point has been a fascinating place, full of interesting things to learn, and new experiences to have. But today, something feels different.

“I’m bored,” I announce.

Cathy, a first-year history student from St. Hilda’s, looks at me.

“I think boredom is just a state of mind,” she says.

And, immediately, I know she’s right.

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Trapped in a giant trash compactor? You always have a choice.

You always have a choice star-wars-garbage-chute-1024x684So we’ve just broken Princess Leia out of the holding cell but we’re trapped in the detention corridor under heavy fire. The Princess (gosh, she’s beautiful) gets it into her head to escape through a garbage chute, and we end up in a large room full of—what else?—garbage. The smell is terrible. There’s a sudden ghastly moan, and a huge tentacle grabs my leg and drags me under the muck! I’m just about to drown when a loud grinding sound scares the monster away. That’s the good news. The bad news is: There’s no way out, and the room just got a whole lot smaller!

Most people would be panicking at this point. Let me put it this way; I’m only spared embarrassing myself in front of The Princess because the room already stinks to high heaven. And that’s when Han demonstrates that you always have a choice in how you look at life’s problems.

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