Sweat your way to community

Sometimes you build community by talking, finding common interests, and slowly building trust.

Sometimes you find community by…sweating.

That’s what I did this past weekend in my Zumba (dance-fitness) instructor training. I almost didn’t make it. Life’s been a bit rough recently, and it was hard to imagine myself spending a day doing high-energy, Latin-inspired moves, while feeling burdened by some unexpected problems.

I tried to picture myself among the clientele I thought might be attending this training: nubile, super-buff, exercise-freaks in their twenties, their butts thinly coated by tight, designer stretch pants. Would there be other 67-year-old women, with aching knees, vulnerable ankles and other physical limitations? Not likely.

However, the idea of chickening out made me feel worse than the prospect of feeling out of place. And, thanks to a couple of handfuls of ibuprofen, I did survive all the high energy movement. It was fun, but what I really loved was taking a deep dive into a diverse community.

The participants didn’t fit any stereotypes. They came in every color, and even from some different parts of the world. I danced next to a woman wearing a Hijab and form-fitting pants, and boy could she wiggle!

Yes, there were some crazy designer leggings and tank tops. But it turned out that the insanely cool black and white tights I saw came from Walmart.

Moving together connects us across different experiences, backgrounds, and countries.

Great dance music is democratically distributed around the globe.

Zumba was started by a man from Colombia who started life poor. He danced in the streets before he stumbled on a formula for dance-fitness success. Two Latin business partners joined in, and soon they had created a multi-million dollar empire of instructors and participants. You can find Zumba today in two hundred countries. No longer limited to Latin rhythms, Zumba now draws inspiration from music and steps worldwide.

What stood out for me last Sunday, apart from the fun of dancing, was how fast our little rainbow classroom started feeling like a supportive community. I wished that my pale, winter-white skin could borrow some color from the beautiful Indian woman who was dancing next to me. (She, too, had the moves!) Participant ages ranged from 17 to 67 (yours truly).

Did I tell you we came in many shapes, from finely chiseled to, well, big? What we had in common was that we could all shake (or try), laugh, and enjoy letting our hearts beat with the music we were hearing.

No introductions needed.

We started the day with no introductions, no sitting around a circle discussing our goals, no check-in opportunities for me to give the instructor my list of physical limitations and tell her why I might not make it through the class, Nope. After sharing a few words at the beginning of class, the instructor got us up on our feet. Then she revved up the music and we were dancing.

The instructor was a high-octane bundle of crazy-wild energy, whose might exceeded the size of her well-sculpted 5’4″ body. With a lingering Puerto Rican accent, she shouted out encouragement for us to follow her as she demonstrated some basic variations of core Zumba moves.

The intense beat of the music seemed to bond us.

At lunch, I noticed how easy it was to share with my new Zumba buddies, who no longer felt like strangers. Where else could I ask a dancing friend how many women in her Muslim community dance in Hijabs? (Some do, some don’t.)

Movement, like storytelling and other arts, is a gateway to community.

I’ve written before about forming community through the amazing Story Bridge process. Expressive arts like storytelling, music, and dance encourage us to make connections with each other independent of our intellect or opinions.

We open up for a moment, and enter a truer part of ourselves where we are free to move with less pretense, and, in the case of Zumba, more sass!

Don’t hold your breath–I have no immediate plans to teach Zumba. Trying to do the angular hip-hop inspired Reggaeton moves was still beyond me. (My back agrees with this verdict.)

I kept thinking that dancing is such a cool way to build community quickly, and span differences in backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. On the island where I live, the Zumba community is an amazingly supportive bunch.

The core elements that bond us are so simple:

Music.
Movement.
Sharing joy together.
Engaging our minds together with our bodies (It takes brains to do those moves!)
Laughter. Smiles.
Sweat.

Especially sweat.

Maybe we don’t always need to talk through our problems.

Maybe we should just dance the heck out of them. 

 

Small talk

Red alert: The holidays are coming! Thanksgiving in the U.S. is followed by Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and a ton of holiday parties. Which means you should get ready for small talk.

This week, I did a little research for myself and discovered a secret three-step technique you might want to use.

If you’re the kind of person who thrives when placed in a big room with one hundred strangers for an undefined period of time, skip this post. (Please talk to me if you see me at such a party!) You’re a natural connector, and probably adept, without any training, at making small talk.

For those of us who are introverted, meaning-seeking, thrive-on-deep-conversations types, parties with more than ten people (better make that eight) make us want to retreat.

Given the need for small talk on the horizon, I decided to use the Internet to hone my skills.

Just to be clear, I’m not using small-talk as a mating ritual. or trying to snare the man of my dreams (done that). I’m just trying to 1) survive a couple of hours, 2) maybe have a good time, and 3) learn a little. Not a big agenda, but worthy of some preparation.

Preparing before the party

Don’t disparage small talk.
Note to self: not every conversation has to be weighty and meaningful. Small talk is not intrinsically less valuable than a deeper conversation, it’s just different. At the movies, a short subject isn’t considered bad because it’s not a two-hour documentary. I need to have a good attitude about small talk or I’m doomed from the start.

Be curious.
I am naturally interested in people, although the idea of being locked in a room with a lot of them gives me the willies. (I don’t like boat cruises with no available exit strategy.) When I’m in a mood to be a total party turtle, I try telling myself to pull my head out of my shell and find something new about at least one person.

Look happy, or at least don’t look dour.
I’m sure there are statistics to prove that most people prefer to start conversations with happy people. My ruminations about grief are best saved for other venues or perhaps a blog post. (Thanks to everyone who responded to my post about losing Riley last week.)

At the party

Questions are your friend.
Think open-ended, open-spirited questions. If you want ideas, peruse this list of questions. Rather than doing a cold start by asking “If you could invite one remarkable person to dinner, who would it be?” pick an opening question carefully. It’s a great question, but it risks making you seem like a Martian who just dropped in. You might ask a C.P.A., “What do you like most about being an accountant?” but only if you suspect that people might like being accountants. However, in the unlikely event that you are Johnny Depp, you can ask me anything.

Don’t bait people.
I offer this special caveat for these politically apocalyptic times. Throwing in a reference to the drama of the day, i.e., “Did you see his most recent tweet?” is a flame starter, much like throwing a match on gasoline-soaked tinder. The problem is once the flame has died down, there’s nothing left to the fire and you don’t really know anything about the person you are talking with. Be like the Boy Scouts. Build a conversational fire slowly. Save politics, if you can’t resist, for when the fire of conversation has caught on.

Use ideas from Improv.
 In improvisational theatre, three guiding principles are:

  • Make your partner look great.
  • Think “Yes, and” to build on what’s been said.
  • Keep the conversational volleys going by feeding in little bits of information.

The art of improv is to keep a conversation going between partners in a scene. Each partner says “yes, and” to what her/his partner has said, and then adds a bit of information that extends the conversation:

  1. “I’m going to Mexico next week.”
  2. “Yes, and Baja, Mexico is where I drank my best-ever Margarita.”
  3. “Yes, and I found a great recipe for Margaritas that uses lemon gumdrops,” etc.

These improv conversations may sound ridiculous but they can teach us about feeding a dialogue, bit by bit. Bottom line: keep saying “Yes,” to what your partner says. (People at parties also like it when you make them feel great.)

Don’t play secret agent.
Contrast the above improv approach with a method I sometimes use called “Secret Agent.”  As a secret agent, I spend the whole party asking questions of others, without revealing a thing about myself. This is effective for spies but often leaves me feeling cheated because I haven’t shared anything about me and no one has even noticed! No wonder people don’t know about the book I’m writing. They’re not telepathic.

Try this Secret Three-Step Technique

I adapted this A-R-E approach based on a great, non-gender-specific post about small talk on The Art of Manliness. They attribute the method to Dr. Carol Fleming. (So it’s not really so secret.)

Step one: ANCHOR your conversation.

Find something in common with the person you are talking with to help you start the conversation.  A mutual interest? A connection? A reason for being at the gathering? Or, a fascination with the hors-d’oeuvre tray? Anchoring your conversation in something your share will keep you from sounding like a Martian. The references can be mundane.

For example, at a recent gathering of the Yale School of Management Alums:
I’ve heard that there are over one-hundred alums now in the Seattle area.

Step two: REVEAL something about yourself.

Build on the conversational anchor to reveal something about yourself. This builds safety and keeps you from playing Secret Agent.

“When I first came to Seattle there were only five alums here.”

Step three: ENCOURAGE and EXPLORE

Now you can start asking questions that invite your partner to go further into the conversation.

“When did you graduate? Are many folks from your class here?” 
 following up with “How do you think the school has changed?”

I could continue by asking about their experience at Yale, how their current experience taps what they learned at Yale, what they think of the school, etc.

The big trick is to LISTEN and, like a good improv artist, build on the conversation. Listen for bits of information that lead naturally to questions and stay alert to what your partner is sharing. You can also notice things about your partner that might spark a conversation. (“I love cowboy boots, yours are great…”)

It’s up to you to show interest and keep moving things ahead.

When it’s time, move on

At mixer-style events, we aren’t meant to stay with one person the whole evening. (Introverts, remember this!) At some point, you’ll want to thank your partner and move on. Do it graciously. Acknowledge the conversation and maybe one thing that stood out about it. 

“I’m going to remember that recipe for margaritas with lemon gumdrops.”

There are ways to be inviting while acknowledging the end of your conversation.

Hey, I see Martha has just arrived. I really enjoyed talking with you. Want to join me in greeting her? ( A nice way to give your partner an easy out.)

However, just because you’re at a holiday mixer, don’t spend your conversation with someone scanning the room for your next partner. I hate when someone does that to me! 

It’s so annoying that I’d be tempted to change the subject and start talking to them about grief. (ha ha).

But, with a bit of cautionary self-coaching, “Sally, don’t take it personally,” I’ll smile, take a holiday breath, and say, “It’s been great talking to you.” Then I’ll make a beeline back to the hors-d’oeuvres.
 
Let the holiday games begin.

What you can and can’t afford to forget

Do you forget things? I do…and it bugs me, although the consequences are often minor. Selective amnesia is not such a bad thing. Think of it as a kind of spring cleaning of the mind, so you can free up some room for stuff that matters.

That said, here’s what I’d be happy to forget…and what I hope not to.

Stuff to forget during brain-cleanings:

My childhood phone number: (WO6-0642).
The star of Dr. Kildare: (Richard Chamberlain).
The name of the girl down the street who bullied me: (Maureen).
The teal dress I wore to the Junior Prom.
The Kardashians.

I forget other things, and often it’s not a big deal.

What I can forget (no big deal):

Occasional words.
The reason I just came into the kitchen.
How old I am.
The botanical names of the plants in my garden.
The name of the last book I read. (It was good…)

Forgetting can also have consequences–embarrassing, but largely remediable.

What I wish I hadn’t forgotten (but nobody died):

My anniversary. (Isn’t our love to be celebrated every day?)
Birthdays. (“Belated” is a term I use frequently.)
The name of the former client I ran into out of context. (Embarrassing!)
A Monday morning meeting. (Why didn’t I check my calendar Sunday night?)
The list I made to take to the supermarket.

Yet there are memories burned into me that I hope never to forget.

What never to forget:

The twelve people who were murdered in a Jewish Synagogue last weekend.
The children who have died in school shootings.
The stories of my grandparents and other ancestors, fast disappearing.
The lives of the faceless refugees leaving terrorized lands.
The children separated from their mothers at the border.
That guns kill.
That the marginalized: elderly, prisoners, disabled, or poor, are human like me.
That our world needs elders and my job is to become one.
That democracy cannot be taken for granted.
That hope heals even in the worst times.
To vote.

Let the small stuff fade away, but hold on to what counts, like remembering what’s in the United States Constitution.

And please, don’t ever forget to vote.

With prayers for the families of recent victims,

The Dummies Guide to Disrespect (15 tips)

Enough!!  I hate to add anything to the pantheon of required government trainings, but I figured a little handbook was urgently needed at congressional hearings, so I created something you can keep in front of you at committee meetings, hearings, or public events where you want to look like a decent human being. I call it Disrespect for Dummies. Who’d have thought it would be needed?  I’ve kept the list short and basic. (I’m also working on a poster for those who don’t read books.) The reading level is simple–about the level of a US Senator, member of Congress, or third grader. Because this is a draft, I welcome your suggestions. This way you can feel you have accomplished something positive after watching government hearings. Instead of just rushing to wash your hands.

Here are the fifteen signs of disrespect:

  1. Not making eye contact when someone asks to speak with you directly.
  2. Interrupting before someone has even begun to make her or his point.
  3. Refusing to listen to an idea that is relevant to the conversation.
  4. Talking at someone rather than talking to them.
  5. Talking about someone like she (or he) is an “it.” This includes talking about a person in their presence or behind their backs.
  6. Using a colleague’s point as your own in a meeting, without crediting the idea. (Particularly noxious after ignoring an idea that came originally from the opposite sex,) This can also be called “stealing.”
  7. Tweeting while someone is talking to you.
  8. Sneering or sarcasm.
  9. Making derogatory comments or off-handed remarks about someone during a meeting, often to an associate.
  10. Not responding in a compassionate way to someone else’s heartfelt emotion.
  11. Making sexual references to a person in public.
  12. Generalizing about a person because of their affiliation, such as race, gender, nation, or political party.
  13. Closing a meeting abruptly and arbitrarily while group members are waiting to be heard.
  14. Announcing your decision prior to hearing evidence.
  15. Hoarding information or evidence so that your associates won’t know what you’re talking about; bogarting.

That’s my starter series. Yours?

If I had room on the poster (I won’t), I’d add three more:

  1. Passing laws that will directly affect a group of people without including them in the decision-making process in more than a peripheral way.
  2. Not passing laws that are needed to protect a group of people because you didn’t, well, notice that they were needed.
  3. Assuming someone is guilty because of the color of their skin or the sound of their last name.

I’ve kept this simple, out of respect for very short attention spans. I admit to a few paradoxes. One is that I’m being rather disrespectful of our national disrespecters, including the disrespecter-in-chief. Oh dear. It seems the disease is catching. In a rare tip of the hat to non-partisanism, these tips apply across sectors, and to all sides of the House. Even to pundits and commentators. I admit that the idea of requiring people to read a Dummy’s Guide might seem disrespectful, but that’s another story,

Tell me what you see…and then, even better, what to do about it.

How to support a friend in need

As I’m writing this, my friend Susan Partnow’s husband is having a laryngectomy, a difficult surgery that will take away his ability to speak, except through devices, and hopefully spare him from the cancer that has been hiding in his vocal cords.

Susan and her family have been incredibly generous sharing about their journey via online care-pages they set up to share information with friends. As a former communications coach, Susan has been helping her friends learn what helps and doesn’t help when you reach out to someone who is dealing with a very difficult condition. (You can read her amazingly wise thoughts here.)

Chances are you know someone who stunned you by announcing, “I have fourth stage cancer” or something equally grave. What do you say?

I’ve heard of situations where people actually hid from their friends or dropped contact because they didn’t know how to deal with the tragedy their friends were facing. A friend who survived a bout with cancer said she became a pariah at work as people stopped talking to her, acting as if they might “catch” cancer if they came too close, or were embarrassed about not knowing what to say. That was some years ago. Hopefully, times have changed.

What hasn’t changed is that it can be really hard to know what to say in such a difficult situation.

Maybe that’s not the real question.

Maybe the question is “how do you listen?” How do you open your heart to receive what a friend in crisis has to offer when you start a conversation? How do you listen deeply with compassion, neither jumping to a conclusion, nor offering a solution, nor shaping their space?

I once read a book that was life-altering for me: Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber. Wilber, a profound philosopher of consciousness whose books can make my head spin, wrote with a different, heart-opening prose, as he described the five year battle with cancer he had his new wife Treya went through. Treya was diagnosed just weeks after their wedding. As part of their journey together, Wilber encountered all sorts of “helpful” people who tried to tell Treya what she should do to cure her cancer. They might have thought themselves kind but…

They didn’t have a clue.

The very worst of all were the folks who told Treya that her cancer was a result of her thinking, which she could change with positive thoughts, affirmations, or visualizations. To tell such things to a vibrant and positive woman, who was doing everything she could to survive cancer was 1) insulting, 2) demeaning and 3) very cruel.  As well as being nuts.

Reading about the deep hurt unintentionally caused by telling a person in crisis what she should do, made me want to preach (contradicting, of course, my message), Do not tell people what they should do.  Probably ever. But not when they are grappling with their life or their health, except, I suppose if they specifically ask for your advice. Even then, go lightly.

If you listen, deeply, you’ll open the possibility for someone else to hear, in themselves, what they need to know.

If you listen, deeply, you may open up a space of communion and dialogue that may itself be healing for you both.

If you listen, deeply, you may open up your own heart and build its capacity to love and support.

I don’t think it’s easy.  It isn’t easy. Your heart may start hurting and you’ll need to take care of yourself after this kind of visit.  I left my mother’s bedside so many times, both grateful for being able to sit in communion with her and feeling absolutely wrung out and wiggy. I’d go home, sit on the coach, and web-surf until I found some comedy. Find what helps you.

What you can always do is pray, or send love from your heart to your hurting friends, asking for them to be given what is best for them (without assuming you know). Send positive thoughts. See them in light. Envision them healed. You can do all of this all of this on your own.

They don’t need to know what you’ve done, for them to feel it. (I have evidence to support this, but that’s another story.)

If you’d like to have a beautifully articulated set of suggestions for supporting someone, read Susan’s words here. You’ll be learning from a communications pro and wise, wise woman.

Finally, I have a request of you even if you don’t know Susan or her husband Jim, who will have completed his surgery by the time you read this. Just send them a good thought, some light from your heart, and hopes for healing. If that’s too big a stretch, think of someone you know who is hurting, and extend your loving thoughts to them.

Every bit of light counts, in these times, it really does…

 

 

Do you have FOF? (Fear of feedback?)

Turns out a lot of us are feedback phobic.

I rarely talk about my affliction (the first step in recovery: acknowledge the problem), because clients know me as someone who has taught others how to give and receive feedback. But it’s not hard to tell someone else to be specific with the feedback they give or to say thank-you when they receive it; it’s another thing to receive feedback yourself.

My dirty little secret is that I’m sensitive, and feedback can leave me cowering in the corner looking hangdog like my pooch Riley when he’s feeling confused.

I hate class evaluations. When I teach, I pour my heart and soul into preparing. Then, in class, I work with participants as if they are friends. I care. At the end of a training or presentation that appears to have gone reasonably well, the last thing I want to do is hand out rating sheets with their dismal ten-point scales. That’s like handing pistols to participants and telling them, “OK, now shoot me.”

It turns out I’m not the only one who has trouble receiving feedback. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, authors of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, wrote:

“As we worked to develop ways to approach feedback differently, we soon realized that the key player is not the giver, but the receiver.” 

“Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away.”

“Receiving it [feedback] well means engaging in the conversation skillfully and making thoughtful choices about whether and how to use the information and what you’re learning. It’s about managing your emotional triggers …”

I devoured their ideas, hungry for tips, knowing that in just a few hours friends would be arriving to give me feedback about a draft introduction to my book.

I needed help. (Really? To talk with three kind and compassionate friends?)

When you have FOF, feedback is always difficult.

Heen and Stone distinguish three kinds of feedback:

  1. Appreciation: Positive acknowledgment–something most all of us want and need.
  2. Coaching: Specific ideas designed to help you improve performance.
  3. Evaluation: Information that includes a judgment about how you rank or place.

I like kinds one and two. Unfortunately, I often translate designed-to-be-helpful coaching into number three: evaluation. (What, I’m not perfect?).
Evaluative feedback is rarely necessary for me because I run an in-home, in-my-brain evaluation service that judges me constantly. My father trained me in the fine art of self-judgment at an early age, offering me lots of critical comments designed to “help” me and show his love.

As a result, it’s pretty easy for me to overdose on even small amounts of evaluative feedback.

I’m not alone. Feedback triggers a lot of us. Part of the art of handling feedback, according to Heen and Stone, requires managing our triggers. They cite three kinds of triggers:

  1. Truth triggers–when the feedback seems off, unhelpful or untrue
  2. Relationship triggers–when we get tripped up by our relationship with the person giving the feedback.
  3. Identity triggers–when the feedback rattles our sense of identity and we feel threatened, ashamed or off-balance, no longer sure how to think about ourselves. This is where I go down. (Don’t like that section of work? Well, that proves it, I’m not a writer.)

When my identity is triggered, I disappear. Sure, if I’m working I’ll still stand in front of people with my mouth moving, trying to look professional as if nothing has happened, but the truth is I’m a shell. My real self-has learned to evacuate at the first sign of danger.

The authors acknowledge that some of us are particularly sensitive to identify triggers and may need some extra time to regain our bearings (tell me about it!). But they don’t offer an easy fix.

I was so hoping I could be inoculated.

Learning that there are many of us who are sensitive to feedback helps me have compassion for others. Those of us who give feedback can benefit from realizing that what we say may not be what our receivers hear after filtering information through their identity systems.

Preparing for my big evening of book feedback

As I read about feedback, I knew I needed more than insight: in four hours I’d need to manage myself at an event.

Here’s what I did, and what can you do, to set the stage for helpful feedback:

First a little self-talk.

Note to self: my friends are not my judges, they are coming to help.

State the context.

It’s my job to set up the feedback process, I will ask my friends for appreciation and coaching. They do not need to tell me whether my book is 1) good or 2) publishable. I don’t need evaluative feedback at this early stage of a long writing process. They might also want to be careful not to offer directives about what I should do. It’s just too tempting for me to morph into a circus cat and get burned trying to jump through all of their hoops.

Probe deeper.

It’s fair to ask questions, and I’ll receive more gems of insights if I ask to clarify what I’ve heard.

Make specific requests.

Writing and branding consultant Jeffrey Davis, coaches his writer-clients like me to be very specific in asking for feedback about their writing. “How did you like my book?” is too general a question to be useful. He also suggests that we writers manage the process of asking for feedback. For example, if someone strays too far away from our questions or adds too much judgment, we need to graciously redirect the conversation.

Here’s the kind of feedback I’ve requested from fellow participants in Jeffrey’s programs:

  • Where did my writing pull you in?
  • Where did you get lost?
  • Where could I have been clearer?
  • What particularly interested you?
  • Do you still love me? (Sometimes I can’t resist.)

Comfort yourself.

Knowing I am sensitive, I have dark chocolate ready.

The bottom line

If you, like me, have FOF, there’s help for us. We can read the Heen and Stone book. We can improve our feedback-receiving skills. We can practice identifying identity-triggers. We can have compassion for ourselves.

Repeat after me: I am sensitive. I am not defective. I can survive feedback and make it work for me. 

Footnote: Hurrah! With wonderful support from my friends and their thoughtful comments, the feedback session on the book was incredibly useful and encouraging, despite some FOF and a few identity tweaks! 

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