The breakfast offerings in the company cafeteria included oily home fries and eggs any way you want them, if you were prepared to wait. Dan relished the ample supply of free Starbuck’s coffee, and he could always find an isolated corner there for a 7:30 AM meeting.
Michele, in her black pant suit, dark plum silk shirt, and jade pendant suspended on a fine gold chain, looked somewhat out of place. Yet, the longer he sat in her presence the more she seemed to carry her own sense of place, her own comfort. Across from one another on two plastic chairs at a Formica table, her straight posture, smile, and clear eyes drew his attention to just how weary he was.
Last night, before going to bed, he had glanced at Michele’s interview report in preparation for this meeting. He expected a mixture of appreciative comments and some of the normal griping. But each successive section – peers, direct reports, and superiors – hit him like a one, two, three punch. It was 2:00 AM before he attempted sleep.
By 3:00 AM, his imagined conversations in which he set people straight had run all possible permutations of phrasing, and then began to repeat on their own, in shuffle mode. They had no idea, none of them did, what it took to keep this project together. He thought of his networks outside the company and wondered how long it would take to line up another job. Then he thought, No, I need to finish this project well and professionally.
Eyes open in the darkness, and tired of his own thoughts, he recalled what Michele had taught him. He imagined the rhythm of her voice instructing him how to breathe. Gradually, he slowed his breath down, moved his entire torso with each inhale, and let go on each exhale. Then, it was morning.
Now, over breakfast in the cafeteria, Michele asked him, “How did the report strike you?”
The laugh that emerged from Dan surprised him. “How did it strike me?” he said. Why, he thought, why is this so funny? As the laugh continued, recruiting more of his body, it carried on with a life of its own and the fact that he was laughing seemed funny all by itself.
Looking down through a blur of tears at the twenty page report, his emphatic scribbles, highlighted sections and exclamation points, he closed his eyes and laughed all the more. Still laughing, he felt he was crying, too. He realized that Michele had asked him a question.
“Fine,” he managed to answer, and that brought a new wave which rolled on until his laugh gradually, gently set him down in front of Michele in the cafeteria. “Fine. It struck me just fine, thank you.”
They sat in silence amid the distant voices and clatter of plates and trays.
“Apparently, I needed that,” said Dan.
“Yes,” said Michele, who had quietly laughed along with him, “We all need a good belly laugh now and again.”
Dan looked around and was glad to see they were alone in their corner of the cafeteria. He pointed to the report. “What do you think of this? And don’t tell me it’s more important what I think of it.”
“It’s important what each of us thinks, because together we can understand what it’s telling us about how to make you a more effective leader. And the short answer to your question is: I’ve seen worse.”
“And you’ve seen better,” he said.
“Dan, you’re talking to someone who believes in the compost theory of leadership development. This is the stuff that makes you grow. If the report were too awful I would tell you. But it’s not. I took you on because I trust your intelligence and your capacity to learn. There’s nothing in here that isn’t 100% workable. It’s actually perfect.”
“Remember,” she said, “these interviews are a snapshot in time. Because of the way we’ll work, people’s perceptions could change dramatically in six months. May I tell you how I read this?”
“By all means,” he said.
“Here’s what I see. You are a highly intelligent and capable man. No one disputes this, not even your detractors. No one questions your dedication; nor does anyone think this project is a piece of cake. People enjoy your humor, except when it’s leveled at them, and they want you to succeed. There are also some hard feelings and mistrust. Do you agree with me so far?”
“Yes, I do,” he said picking up the report. “But what do I do with this information?”
“What’s your instinct? What do you want to do?”
He dropped the report back on the table.
“Besides putting plastic explosives underneath certain people’s houses?”
“Yes, besides that.”
“I don’t know. Talk to them, maybe,” he said.
“Yes, you need to talk to them. They’ve taken the time to be interviewed, express their opinions, and share their observations. What do you think they want in return?”
“Well, they don’t want business as usual. They want to see that I’ve listened to them.”
“Exactly, they want to see a change. And it’s up to you to decide what changes you want to make. I’ll teach you how to have productive conversations with the people who were interviewed. I’d also like to add the third ALIVE skill. It’s easy to learn and it will dramatically improve how the conversations go with your stakeholders. Are you interested in learning it now?”
“Barely,” said Dan.
“Out of 100 percent, how much of you is interested?”
“About 3%,” said Dan.
“If only 3% of you is interested, what’s the remaining 97% interested in?”
“Not much. Actually, that’s not true. But I have these moments when I feel like the project, the people, the politics – it’s overwhelming.”
“Would you like to try an experiment with how you’re feeling right now?”
“Yeah, sure,” replied Dan in a flat voice.
“All right, from the work we’ve done, you know what your body feels like when it’s breathing freely. Use your breath now to sense where your body feels tense or deadened.”
Dan shifted in his seat and noticed the small movement of his chest in response to his inhale.
“What do you notice?” asked Michele. “And where in your body do you feel it?””
“My chest feels tight. I’m hardly breathing.”
“It’s good that you’re aware of that. Now, I’m to give you some instructions. Don’t worry about making logical sense of them. Take the tightness in your chest and link it to your face, so that your face expresses any emotion that may be associated with the sensations in your chest. Just relax, and let your face respond. And feel how your body wants to move.”
Dan’s head moved slightly downward. He closed his eyes and his lips tightened.
“Are you OK with this?” asked Michele.
Dan nodded, eyes still closed.
“Now,” said Michele, “reading your face from the inside, tell me, what is that emotion?”
“It’s as though I’m saying, ‘Too bad. I wish it wasn’t this way.’ It feels like regret.”
“OK, stay with it for a few moments while I tell you about emotions. Emotions come and go. They have their onset, their fullest expression, and then they dissolve. When they fully dissolve, the tension in the body that’s associated with them goes, too. To completely let them go, this next instruction is important: Never mind what these sensations are about. For the moment, just focus on the sensations themselves. Can you do that?”
“Simply get to know them, just as they are, without having to change them. Observe precisely how your body holds this constellation of sensations.”
“Yeah, I can feel it,” said Dan, his eyes still closed.
“Perfect,” said Michele, “Can you comfortably experience the sensations just as they are?”
Dan paused for awhile and then nodded.
“Now, can you also let them soften? Let them complete themselves and dissolve, so that you’re at rest. And while that’s happening, simply observe how your body returns to relaxation and ease, moment by moment. Take all the time you need to resolve these sensations.”
After awhile, Dan’s posture straightened and his face relaxed.
“What’s it like now, Dan, to take a breath?”
“Easier, more free in my upper chest, but now the tightness has moved lower down.”
They worked with this new sensation in a similar way. Reading his face from the inside, he felt the tightness was an expression of anger. Through observing and breathing, he dissolved these sensations, as well.
“Dan,” said Michele. “Rather than explain to you how and why this works, I’d like to show you one more skill. Reading your own expression offers you insight. It’s the “I” in ALIVE, and there’s more to learn about it, but let’s move on to how you can use your facial expression to change your mood and give you more energy. We’re getting to the fourth skill, the “L” in ALIVE, which stands for ‘Love.’”
“This is easy. Think of something or someone that brings a smile to your face. It could be a pet, a place in nature, a person – just call to mind that experience and let your enjoyment show up on your face as a smile. Allow the joy to be so deep that you feel it in your eyes. It doesn’t have to be a big expression but it needs to involve your eyes. An authentic smile radiates from the outer corners of the eyes. It can’t be faked. Got something in mind?”
An image of Maggie, giggling, with her face buried in a pile of stuffed animals on her bed, burst into his mind.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Yes, I can see that you do. Now, take that feeling of the smile in the eyes and let it deepen.”
Dan’s expression broadened.
“Nicely done. Feel how the smile fills your whole face. Now feel its qualities. Is it buoyant? Peaceful? Fun-loving? Wise? Joyous? There are many facets to happiness…yes? Let it deepen into kindness…wisdom…love…appreciation. Relax your facial expression and you will still feel the energy of the smile at the outer corner of your eyes.”
“Now, let’s get the rest of your body involved. Take that feeling, the energy of the smile, and move it to your belly. Smile into your belly as though it is a vast storehouse that holds immense happiness. And just as before, yield to the breath on the inhale. On the exhale, relax into being still and alive.
“Breathe and smile, so that you yield happily to the breath. Now let the breath expand to include more of the torso. Fill the entire torso with the energy of a smile on the inhale. On the exhale, settle your attention peacefully into your belly…Good, keep going.”
After a few minutes Michele asked, “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” said Dan, very still as he exhaled.
“Linking the smile with the breath allows you to feel joy and love with your whole body-mind. Take a breath now, and feel joy for the full duration of an inhale…and an exhale… If you want to feel even more vitality, let your joints subtly open on the inhale, and relax on the exhale.”
After a few more minutes she told him, “Let your attention rest in the belly, and let your eyes open of their own accord.”
Dan opened his eyes.
“How do you feel?” asked Michele.
“Yeah, you look happy and relaxed. Do you remember how you felt when we started this process?” she asked.
“I was in a bad mood.”
“Right. You worked with anger and regret. Connecting with those feelings and letting them go made it much easier for you to feel joyful. Notice how dramatically different you feel? Do you feel more resourceful, now?”
“I do,” he said.
“Like you could look those reports in the face?”
“At this moment they don’t seem like much of a problem.”
“They aren’t a problem. They simply require your resourceful attention. Can you meet tomorrow, so we can dig into them?”
“How’s 8:00 AM in the Thoreau Room?” Dan said.
“8:00 AM it is,” said Michele.
Do you have a reliable way of shifting your mood? How have you applied it? Please tell us your story in the comment section.
Dragons at Work
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