During a recent meditation session, teacher Narayan Helen Liebenson shared that it was Parinirvana Day, the day when the Buddha is said to have achieved complete Nirvana, upon the death of his physical body. She explained that you don’t need to believe in the concept of reincarnation to be a Buddhist. And she talked about the fact that many of us have experienced, often more than once, reincarnation in this life.
I don’t believe that I possess a non-physical essence that will, after my death, begin a new life in a new body. When we die, the atoms of our bodies remain. They continue to be incorporated into other forms of matter, including bodies of people yet to be born. And I don’t believe that anything else remains except perhaps in the hearts and minds of friends and family who are still alive, their descendants, and occasionally an ongoing influence on our culture.
While I don’t believe in traditional reincarnation, I have experienced reincarnation in this life more than once. You probably have too.
After two years of only designing and facilitating online meetings, I’m suddenly immersed in preparing for in-person meetings again. And that strange emotion nervous excitement is coming back!
Two multi-day events, 2,000 miles apart, in the space of a week.
Even an in-person pre-con, just like the old days.
I find it tough preparing for meetings. Creating designs, turning them into implementations, trying hard to not miss any important details, making sure everyone involved knows what they need to know and do, negotiating compromises, contingency planning, etc. Frankly, I feel just plain nervous before the event. It’s stressful. Preparation seems to have no limits — except I know it must end as soon as the meeting starts.
At that moment, nervous excitement takes over.
Many meeting professionals, speakers, and performers will know what I mean by nervous excitement. If you don’t, here’s how I described it at the start of my book The Power of Participation:
“When I got on my feet to dance in public for the first time in 32 years I felt a strange mixture of emotions, best described as nervous excitement. I had given up the idea that I had control over what might happen and was all too aware of the scary possibility that I might feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Simultaneously, there was a part of me that was tremendously curious and excited about what I was about to do.” —Adrian Segar, The Power of Participation, Chapter 1
I feel nervous excitement when I:
have the responsibility for making something happen for many people;
am aware that what I do matters in the moment;
am giving up the illusion of control;
feel excited by and open to the possibilities of what might happen.
And then a funny thing happens…
…Usually, these days, I don’t feel nervous excitement that long!
It disappears. To be precise, the “nervous” piece goes away, and I’m left with excitement.
Which is pretty nice.
It wasn’t always like this. When I started standing up in front of meetings, I felt scared of making mistakes, losing control, or failing somehow.
And decades of practice showed me that I survive (so far) whatever happens. This emotional learning somehow changed how I felt once I got going. I’ve become brave. And I quickly move into what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called flow, “characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.”
I’ve noticed however that if I feel rushed — like at a workshop I gave recently — the nervous component persists. And that’s OK. As a lifelong learner, I continue to accept opportunities to improve my work. Nervous excitement is a vast improvement over the fear I felt when I dared to present and facilitate long ago. Oh, I gotta go, time to step up to the front of the room…
“There are worlds built on rainbows and worlds built on rain. There are worlds of pure mathematics, where every number chimes like crystal as it rolls into reality. Worlds of light and worlds of darkness, worlds of rhyme and worlds of reason, and worlds where the only thing that matters is the goodness in a hero’s heart. The Moors are none of those things. The Moors exist in eternal twilight, in the pause between the lightning strike and the resurrection. They are a place of endless scientific experimentation, of monstrous beauty, and of terrible consequences.“—Seanan McGuire, Down amongst the sticks and bones
Once in a while, a seemingly small event in our life leads to terrible consequences. The tires start to slip as you steer around an icy curve. An idle remark explodes into a screaming argument. The “minor procedure” triggers months of pain and immobility.
Such terrible consequences can happen at any time. What makes them especially difficult is that they are not preimagined — Heidegger’s dreadful that has already happened. They are a revelation, unexpected, painful in ways that are totally new.
I belong to a couple of small groups that have been meeting regularly for decades. The men’s group meets biweekly, while the consultants’ group meets monthly. I have been exploring and writing about facilitating change since the earliest days of this blog. So in 2021, I developed and facilitated for each group a process for working together to explore what we want to change, and then change our lives.
Each group spent several meetings working through this exercise.
What happened was valuable, so I’m sharing the process for you to use if it fits.
The process design outline
It’s important for the group’s members to receive instructions for the entire exercise well in advance of the first meeting, so they have time to think about their answers before we get together.
Exploring our past experiences of working on change in our lives
We begin with a short, three-question review of our past experiences working on change in our lives.
These questions give everyone the opportunity to review:
the life changes they made or attempted to make in the past;
the strategies they used; and
what they learned in the process.
This supplies baseline information to the individuals and the group for what follows.
The questions cover what:
we worked on.
was tried that did and didn’t work.
we learned from these experiences.
We each share short answers to these questions before continuing to the next stage of the process.
For the rest of the exercise, each group member gets as much time as they need.
Sharing what we would currently like to change in our lives
Next, we ask each person to share anything they would currentlylike to change in their life. This includes issues they may or may not be working on. Group members can ask for help to clarify what they want to change.
Exploring and discussing what we are currently working on to change our lives
Next, each person shares in detail which of the above issues they are currently working on, or want to work on, to change in their life. This can include describing their struggles and what they are learning, and also asking the group for advice and support.
Exploring long-term learning is important. So, after some time has elapsed, perhaps a few months, we run a post-exercise review of the outcomes for each person. This helps to uncover successes as well as difficulties that surfaced, and can also lead to additional appropriate group support and encouragement.
Here’s an example — what I shared and did
Things I’ve tried in the past to make changes in my life that didn’t work
Trying to think my way into making changes w/o taking my feelings/body state into account e.g. trying to lose weight by going on a diet.
Denial—doing nothing and hoping the change will happen.
What I’ve learned about successful ways to change my life
Anything that improves my awareness of feeling or body state can be a precursor to change: e.g. mindful eating or emotional eating.
Creating habits: e.g. brushing my teeth first thing in the morning; setting triggers (calendar reminders, timers for meditation or breaks).
The habit of daily exercise, regular yoga, which improves awareness of my body state.
Three issues I worked on
Tidying up and documenting my complicated life before I die.
Living more in gratitude; developing a daily practice.
My post-exercise three-month review
I’m happy with the way I continue to work on the long-term project of tidying up my office, getting caught up on reading, and documenting my household and estate tasks. To help ensure that I work on it every day, I created a simple spreadsheet with columns for various short tasks that advanced my goals. Checking off time spent on one of these tasks each day shows me I’m making progress, and this feels good.
I created a buddy system with another group member who wanted to meditate more. We send each other an email when we’ve meditated. This has greatly improved the likelihood I’ll meditate every day.
After trying a simple daily gratitude practice, I decided to let it go for the time being until my daily meditation became a fully reliable habit. Sometimes, small steps are the best strategy!
Interested? OK! Here’s how to run this exercise.
First, explain the process and see if you get buy-in from the group about doing this work. It’s helpful to explain that each person can choose what personal change they want to work on. There are no “right” or “wrong”, or “small” or “large” personal change issues. Any issue that someone wants to work on is valuable to that person, and that’s all that counts.
I think it’s helpful for everyone present to participate, rather than some people being observers, but ultimately, that’s up to the group to decide.
Well before the first meeting, share the following, adapted to your needs, with group members.
Working together to change our lives – the first meeting
“We’ve decided to work together on what we are currently trying to change in our lives. As we will have about an hour for this work at each session, we’ll need two or more meetings for everyone to have their turn.
For the exercise to be fruitful, we will all need to do some preparatory work before the meetings.
Our eventual focus will be on what we are currently trying to change in our lives, and how we are going about it.
We’ll start with questions 1) and 2) below, which are about the past. Please come with short (maximum 2½ minutes total per person) answers to them. Please answer question 3) in 90 seconds or less. At subsequent meetings, we will spend much more time on questions 4) & 5).
Please come to the first meeting prepared to answer the following three questions:
==> 1) What have you tried to make changes in your life that didn’t work? What have you learned over the last 20 years?
==> 2) What have you learned about successful ways to change your life over the last 20 years?
Don’t include childhood/teen lessons learned, unless you really think they’re still relevant to today’s work.
Remember: a maximum of 2½ minutes for questions 1) and 2) combined!
==> 3) What would you currently like to change about how you live your life? (You might not be working on it. You can ask for advice if you want.)
Be as specific as possible in your answer to question 3). Your answer should take 90 seconds or less! (But we’ll provide more time if you want or need help clarifying your goals.)
Working together to change our lives – subsequent meetings
At subsequent meetings, we’ll each take turns to answer questions 4) and 5) below. You’ll have as much time as you need to answer these questions and partake in the subsequent discussion.
==> 4) What are you currently working on to change in your life?
==> 5) How are you going about making the changes you shared in your answer to question 4)? What are the struggles and what are you learning? What advice would you like?”
Running the meetings
At the first meeting, you’ll typically have time for everyone to share their answers to the first three questions. Keep track of the time, be flexible, but don’t let participants ramble. It’s very helpful for the facilitator to take brief notes on what people share. If there’s still time available, I suggest you/the facilitator models the process by sharing their answers to questions 4) and 5) and holding an appropriate discussion. Use subsequent meetings as needed for every group member in turn to answer and discuss these two final questions, and write notes on these discussions too.
The post-exercise review
When this exercise has been completed for everyone, I suggest the group schedule a follow-up review in a few months time. If your group starts with check-ins, it can be useful to regularly remind everyone about the review and ask if anything’s come up that someone would like to discuss before the review meeting.
Before the post-exercise review, let group members know that the facilitator will share their notes for each person in turn, and ask them to comment on what’s happened since.
At the start of the post-exercise review, explain that this is an opportunity to share information — discoveries, roadblocks, successes, etc. — without judgment. It’s also a time when group members can ask for ideas, advice, and support from each other.
Finally, you may decide to return to this exercise at a later date. After all, there’s mucho be said for working on change throughout our lives. The above process may be the same, but the answers the next time may be quite different!
Have you tried this exercise? How did it work for you? Did you change/improve it in some way? I’d love to hear your experience with it — please share in the comments below!
“It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”
Listening to Taylor Swift’s lament in her beautiful and evocative “All Too Well: The Short Film” I feel my own grief well up. My last in-person engagement was a wonderful two-day workshop with several hundred cardiologists in Texas. January 28 and 29, 2020. As I’m writing this, that was twenty-two months ago.
Since then, I’ve worked with many groups online. But it’s not the same.
I’m sure you can relate. Yes, it’s wonderful to be instantly connected, with video and sound, to likeminded folks, friends, and family scattered around the country or globe. So much better than the only option in my youth — the telephone. Long-distance phone calls then cost so much that speaking to someone far away or, heaven help us, internationally was a rare treat.
But it’s not the same.
I miss doing what I love to do. Facilitating connection between people around what matters to them. Creating meetings that become what the participants want and need. The magic of the unexpected that appears when you least expect it, and, sometimes, changes peoples’ lives.
Online, we meet using group-focused platforms that don’t have the power, nuance, and flexibility of in-person meetings.
We can’t touch, hug, or connect physically.
Even if an individual’s camera is on, the resolution still isn’t good enough to read their micro expressions of emotion and body language that inform our experience of and connection with them.
We can’t move to different environments online like we can in person: from sharing in a circle to learning about other participants via human spectrograms, from sharing with a neighbor to talking while walking.
The platforms themselves impose additional restrictions. In Zoom, for example:
Spontaneous side conversations are restricted to private chat — if it’s enabled.
A facilitator can’t “feel the room” during small group work, because there’s no way to simultaneously monitor breakout rooms. This important task is far easier to do in person, by simply walking around and noticing what’s going on.
Attendee attention is hard to sense. Are they listening intently, ignoring what’s going on, or browsing TikTok? Even when their camera is on, it’s difficult to tell. And if their camera is off…
Online social platforms can provide an experience much closer to that of an in-person social. Participants can see who’s “in the room” and decide whom to talk with, either one-to-one or small group, in public or private. In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed holiday parties with folks who could never have practically got together in person, and these platforms are well worth exploring if you haven’t already.
But it’s not the same as hanging out with and making new friends in person.
And we’re back to the grief. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” I see a photo of a meeting I attended with so many friends, and I miss them, and wonder if/when I’ll see them again in-person rather than on a screen.
I feel it. It’s good to remember the past, to feel the pain of its absence now, to be in touch with it, to acknowledge its presence. And then I return to working on being in the present, with my grief a part of me.
Growing up, just about every child experiences name-calling. I certainly did. Sometimes I’d tell my mum, and she’d repeat the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Oh, if only that was true!
In his memoir, English actor and writer, Stephen Fry, expresses an extreme version of what many have experienced:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.” —Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot
When the words of others hurt us, it’s because we take them personally.
Taking things personally
Twenty years ago I read Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic book “The Four Agreements“. The Four Agreements are:
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.
I like these agreements, and have found them to be useful in my life.
I have always worked to be impeccable with my word and do my best. And I try mightily not to make assumptions.
An aside. In 2002 I attended the Problem Solving Leadership Workshop led by Jerry Weinberg and Naomi Karten. Jerry asked what we had learned from an assignment. I mentioned the Third agreement: Don’t make assumptions. Quick as a flash, Jerry replied, “I’d prefer Assume you make assumptions“. I love this reformulation.
But, I still have trouble with the second of The Four Agreements: Don’t take anything personally.
—The guy who swears at me when we bump into each other in a crowd.
—Angry words said by a loved one in the heat of an argument.
—A dismissive reply to something I’ve posted on Twitter.
In the moment, I take these words personally.
And, like a whack with a stick, they hurt.
An angry guy and me
So Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Don’t take anything personally“.
Yeah, right. In the moment, I think: “easy to say, hard to do, Ruiz“.
Except when — sometimes — it’s possible to do.
I was once running a small seated-group discussion, and a man got furious with me about something I said.
He was so angry that he stood up and moved towards me with his fists raised. He clearly felt like slugging me, and looked like he was about to. If someone had told me in advance this was going to happen, I would have felt scared.
Yet, somehow, I knew that his fury was about him, not about me. I didn’t take his anger personally.
I was able to talk calmly with him, and help him see what he was really angry about. Not me. Rather, his feelings of helplessness in the face of a very upsetting situation.
The whole experience was liberating for me. It was, I think, the first time in my life I’d been able to face another person’s intense anger and not be scared by it.
Words and feelings
A core aspect of being human is that words we hear (or read) often evoke feelings in us. We might feel happy, sad, angry, excited, scared, disgusted, etc. These are common and normal responses.
“Taking something personally” generally means you feel hurt by something someone has said about you or a situation that involves you.
Unlike many other feelings, feeling hurt by someone’s words involves you granting, either consciously or unconsciously, the speaker some kind of authority over you. You are accepting, to some extent, the speaker’s reality as your own.
What Don Miguel Ruiz says is that when you really know that another’s reality is not necessarily your reality, you can be immune to the hurt you might otherwise feel.
Words will sometimes hurt me
I don’t know Don Miguel Ruiz. I wonder if he, or anyone, are truly able to live in such a way that words never hurt. Whether that’s the case or not, I strive to listen to what people say to me without taking it personally. When I don’t succeed at this, drama of one kind or another often ensues! As someone who tries to avoid unnecessary turmoil in my life, I will continue to try to not take anything personally.
Image attribution: Conflict between little siblings for a toy while sitting on stairs at home by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com
Why do people overlook the importance of integration and practice? Well, the hero’s journey is a common way we picture how change occurs. A hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.
At the end of the hero’s journey, everyone involved, just like in fairy tales, “live happily ever after”.
Integration and practice is absent from this monomyth version of change.
Integration and practice is a vital component of change
In reality, integration and practice are vital components of change. You’ve probably experienced moments in your life when you realized that something was or was about to be different: the fourth stage transforming idea/event of Satir’s model of change. I certainly have.
Typically, however, such moments of insight or awareness do not lead to instantaneous change. Think about the times you’ve realized you can/have to/want to make a change in your life.
Some stories about working on change
Here are three stories about working on change in my life:
Each story includes the awakening moment(s), followed by integration and practice.
Even when we incorporate integration and practice, successful change isn’t guaranteed. Though eating mindfully has maintained my weight loss for 7 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.
That same day, it took me just thirty minutes to get a gut feeling that this man could not be trusted. I’ve worked in and with non-profits—in board member, volunteer, and consultant roles—for decades. When I asked Seth about Democracy Builders’ missing 990’s, the reports that every federally tax-exempt organization has to file with the IRS every year, he was clearly evasive and kept trying to change the subject. (In retrospect, now knowing that Seth is alleged to have stolen government funds the year before and transferred them to the exact non-profit I was asking about supplies a new perspective to his reactions.)
I considered adding this illustrative tale into my presentation. But, with ten minutes until showtime and a promise that the talk would take fewer than 21 minutes, I reluctantly omitted this remarkable story about trusting my gut response to Seth Andrew.
Regardless, my presentation includes other personal stories about how trusting my gut has worked out for me.
2 • How to trust your gut
How did I come to be giving this presentation in the first place? Well, a couple of months ago, my friend, the warm and oh-so talented association maven Kiki L’Italien, invited her Association Chat community members to share anything they wanted to talk about — in just 21 minutes. While reading her invite, “How to trust your gut” somehow popped into my head. I’ve never spoken on this topic before. Nevertheless, trusting my gut, I immediately signed up for a presentation.
3 • When your gut leads you astray — the story of vaccine hesitancy
As I share in the presentation, sometimes it’s not a good idea to trust your gut. A good example of this is the current issue of vaccine hesitancy: folks delaying acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services.
Such gut feelings can be very strong, and it’s hard to override them using facts and scientific findings.
Unfortunately, relying on such gut feelings and passing up opportunities to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can have deadly consequences. There are countless stories of COVID-19 deniers dying of COVID-19. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but test their veracity!
My presentation includes suggestions on what to do to check the accuracy of your gut feelings.
How to trust your gut—the presentation
Last week, I went on Kiki’s show. In 20 minutes, I shared everything I’ve learned (so far) about how to trust your gut, how trusting your gut can change your life, how to get better at doing it…and when you shouldn’t. The presentation includes illustrative personal stories, the four qualities you need in order to trust your gut, how to learn when you shouldn’t trust your gut and two things you can do about it, plus a section on avoiding getting “stuck”.
I hope you enjoy it!
Additional presentation resources
Finally, here are two resources I mention during the presentation for learning about the importance of our gut responses. These excellent books explain in detail why our feelings, rather than our cognition generally drive us to act.