How to Get Back in the Saddle When You’ve Been Thrown Off

2014 - 07.17 - #13  Getting back into saddle-mounting

It happens to all of us: we lose our seat and get thrown from the saddle. Maybe we get bad news about a friend, a project we wanted to do is canceled, a promotion doesn’t happen, or our kid gets in trouble.

Hitting the ground is never fun.

And sometimes we get bucked off. That really hurts. We learn that we’re losing a job, a marriage has died, a relationship is over, or our company is closing. We hit hard.

Four years ago a big black gelding bucked me to the ground, a horse that I should never have bought. I lay sprawled in the sand arena, chest heaving. Fortunately, I didn’t break any bones. I hobbled home, collapsed on the coach and called my husband, spending the next two days with ice and ibuprofen while I slowly started thinking about what to do next.

2014 - 07.17 - #13  Getting back into saddle - on groundRecently, I was bucked off again when I learned that I did not win a big contract proposal I submitted. I was thunder-struck. My clients liked my work, my proposal was first rate – and after doing the work for 22 years, I knew it better than anyone else. But sometimes life throws us a curve, and a competitor had come in with a very low-ball bid.

And there I was on my back again in some deep emotional sand.

At first I was numb. Speechless. I couldn’t believe what had happened.

Then I started asking: how do we get back in the saddle when life throws us off?

Here’s what I found can help:

1) Call someone right away who cares. That could be a good friend, partner, or spouse. You don’t want to deal with this alone, especially when you’re in shock.

2) Check for broken bones. Take a quick material assessment. Yes, you’re in emotional shock – but is there anything else you have to deal with right away (like calling your lawyer)? If not, this is probably a good time to chill.

3) Go slow. Do the next simple step that’s in front of you – like pulling up your socks. Don’t try to do much. Just keep going. (Don’t tell your agent to sell the house!)

4) Make a list of immediate pleasurable things you can do for yourself. For me it was:

  • Take a walk.
  • Buy flowers.
  • Snuggle with the cat.
  • Buy and eat a big box of blueberries (I’m a fanatic).
  • Take some photos (kept me focused outside of myself).

Avoid doing things that you’ll regret tomorrow (like eating two cartons of Haagen-Dazs) but if you do overdose – forgive yourself immediately. Life has hit you hard enough!

5) Get ready to feel whatever comes up. This is the hard part. You may feel numb and want to stay numb. But feelings will eventually come and you want to let them – maybe not at your staff meeting, but as soon as you get home.

You may feel many things – fear, sadness, numbness, depression, anger, and even joy (I did). This is where a good friend (see point #1) can help. Who likes to feel anger? (I don’t!) You’ll pay a price (like an accident?) for stuffing down difficult feelings. I’ve discovered that when I feel like my heart is breaking with gut-wrenching emotions, it’s probably just getting stronger.

6) Tell your inner circle. OK, it might feel embarrassing to share bad news, but this is a good time to practice receiving support and working your vulnerability muscle. Pick the friends who know how to be there for you. They don’t know want you to hide.

7) Reframe your experience to keep from being a victim. I told myself:

  • I submitted an excellent proposal, and did quality work until the end.
  • Losing to a low-bid was not a reflection on me.
  • After 22 years on this project, I was ready to move on.
  • New space was now available for creative projects and key endeavors.

I wasn’t being Pollyanna! I wasn’t pretending that there weren’t still financial consequences and fears to feel. I just wasn’t a victim!

8) When you’re out of shock, assess the tangible consequences. What will you need to do? Are there real risks? Stuff to handle? Changes to make? Be kind. Don’t deprive yourself or force too much analysis when your bones are still hurting.

9) Be grateful for the journey – and use what you’ve learned to deepen your story. Real heroic stories always have bumps and challenges. Failures add drama to our story and depth to our character.

When I was bucked off my horse, my confidence was creamed for a while. I hurt for months. I had to sell the gelding. But life moves us on. Now, four years later, I watch as Mariah, my sensible, personable, smaller mare walks across the field to greet me, and all I can feel is gratitude. I bet in six months, I’ll feel the same way about the lost contract!

Wishing you all the best,


After the Tragedy: A circle of support

2014 - 07.01 - #11 - After the Tragedy

Last month, a crazed man opened fire at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). One student was killed, and others wounded. Had it not been for a student working as a building monitor who pepper-sprayed the shooter and wrestled him to the ground, the carnage would have been much worse.

Such shootings are horrible, senseless and tragic anywhere – but this one was doubly shocking for me because it happened in my city – just minutes from my sister’s house.

Over the days following the tragedy, we read lots of coverage in The Seattle Times – about the shooter, the deceased student, and those injured. What interested me most, though, was the Times headline I read:

“At SPU, Grief Not Despair.”

The article described the faith, calm and courage of the students. It showed pictures of students sitting together in prayer circles on the campus green. SPU professors spoke about how the students, in this Christian university, were allowing themselves to feel their deep confusion and anger, while tolerating the ambiguities of faith.

As seminary student Megan Wildhood was quoted: “We’re allowing ourselves to not really have answers, to have whatever feelings we are having. What I’m seeing most is the desire to really be together, to find each other, to look after each other. To both give and receive the love of Christ.”

The Power of the Circle

Many of the students had deep faith. But the power of the circle, as a place where grief and hopes, stories and sorrows can be shared, is not confined to the religious.

Many of us found a community of support in circles following 9 -11.

I remember sitting in a circle, the evening of 9-11, trying to understand or at least share the pain of what had happened that morning. We meditated in community and listened to each other, sharing our shock about the horrors we had heard about or seen broadcast during the day. We cried for the victims, and let our hearts break open without hoping for answers or crying for vengeance.

In the circle, we found a place where we could seek hope without denying a tragic, gritty and scarred reality.

Richard Steele, a professor at SPU, spoke about the experience at SPU: “We can experience anger, even rage, but we do not give vent to vengefulness. We can experience intense grief, but we do not lose hope. We recognize the brokenness in ourselves and therefore try to extend compassion and mercy to other people whose brokenness has been unleashed.”

The students at SPU showed a deep courage that did not retreat to quick, hateful reactions. They came together. They prayed. And they found solace in circles.

Everyday, the possibility of despair for the state of the world surrounds us.

We read reports about the dire state of climate change, the outbreak of more war in Iraq, or, unfortunately, the next crazed shooter. Standing in community, in the circle, we can find the power to stand with our hearts open and wounded.

Together, we remember our compassion, rekindle our hope, and choose grief not despair.

Quotes are from the Seattle Times Sunday, June 8, 2014.

Unleash the Creativity Within Conflict!

combat on horsebackAs I began to teach about conflict, I saw a bunch of hesitant faces with those “do we really have to deal with conflict?” expressions.

Most folks I know don’t like to deliberately face conflict. Sure, they can handle objective, professional conflict – with some detachment and calm.  But stir deep emotion into the mix and they’re running for cover. 

But without conflict, we can’t harness the fruits of collaboration and creativity. 

Think a firm full of “yes” men and women!

We need conflict for creativity because conflict is about dealing with differences – and we’ll never get to the best solutions, and real innovation, if all we encourage is sameness.

We  want to encourage some tension in our teams between competing values.

In a hospital system, that tension may be called the conflict between money and mission. In other firms, it may show up as a fight between marketing and finance.  When we get down from our emotional high horses and stop fighting, it becomes clearer that we need to honor many diverse values in order to succeed.  to see that. Chances are we need to maintain all those values –

Often a conflict in values shows up as a personality dispute. When a team calls me in with a conflict, they are usually experiencing some ugly symptoms such as communication breakdowns and differences in styles.

What’s harder to see is how underneath the personality conflict are built-in differences in values that may never go away.  These are often polarities.

Manage the tensions that will never go away

Polarities are  tensions between interlocking values that will never go away – conflicts that are embedded in a system – because you can’t have one pole without the other pole.  Think yin and yang, day and night – we can’t have one side without the other.

I watched as an agency that always applauded individual achievement revised its focus and started promoting teamwork (while forgetting that individual achievement still mattered!)  Sure enough, after a few years, the technical specialists started feeling like their work wasn’t adequately respected – and started wanting to leave – because all the rewards were going to teams.

The solution is simple – yet sometimes difficult to achieve:  Think “both-and”: asking how do we honor both?

Some polarities we all know include the tension between balancing home and work.  If we ignore either side, we’ll feel the consequences.  Or trying separating our concern with our own self interest vs. our concern for others. Emphasize one without the other and you’re in for trouble.

Think both/and:  team and individual

Going back to our team/individual example, as we’re thinking about rewards, processes, and how we use training dollars, we can add one simple question:
Team working together

“How can we maximize team performance while encouraging individual excellence?”

Voila: our thinking is enhanced when we think both/and!

(And fyi –  polarities are everywhere!)

Our stories need conflict

As a storyteller, I listen for conflict. Think how b-o-r-i-n-g it would be to read “Young entrepreneur has a dream.  Successfully raises money. Builds team. Company succeeds – now she is rich.” (Alas, this kind of simplified story keeps being told!).

Instead, I want to hear about what really happened behind the scenes – the bumps along the way, the mistakes, the failures or almost-failures – everything that gives a story texture. Great stories always include some conflict. I want to root for a heroine who learns how to work her way through conflicts on her journey.  She’s my gal – not the one for whom everything mysteriously works out!

Healthy conflict is needed in any group. How about you? What do you do to manage conflict creatively – for yourself and with others?



How IGNITE Seattle! Ignites…

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 3.37.55 PMI had such a great evening this week speaking before 600 people at Town Hall Seattle, on a well worn stage that has seen poets, writers, academics and dignitaries. My claim to fame was a five-minute talk for IGNITE Seattle! whose motto is “Enlighten Us But Make It Quick.” In the spirit of the evening, I chose a talk that was not part of my professional portfolio but close to my heart: “Embrace Your Inner Clown.”

A friend, watching the live streaming of the evening event, wondered why people were still milling about on stage just minutes before the event. She asked me whether IGNITE Seattle! was “professionally run.”  I answered with a resounding YES!!!  I told her the organizers were a great team, and super tuned into their audience.  Just to prove it, I decided to offer five leadership lessons I took from IGNITE!:

Play to Your Audience

IGNITE Seattle! has a following and the organizers know it well. Without advertising (I didn’t see any at least), they packed the hall through social media and word of mouth, offering the best $5 entertainment in town. The audience, a bit geeky, hip and fun was diverse – ranging in age from 11 to 78 years old (including two of my guests!) From the stage, the crowd felt relaxed, informal and ready to learn.

IGNITE! doesn’t try to be a junior version of the TED talks.Their audiences want to be engaged, inspired, informed and have a good time. IGNITE! delivers that. As a friend I brought to the event said, “This would have been great even if you weren’t speaking!”

Go for Passion Not Pomp and Pretense

Credentials, degrees and speaking experience matter a lot less than a presenter’s passion for a topic. (One woman had never presented before!) Speakers don’t come to IGNITE! to market themselves or their professions – they present because they have something cool to share.

The IGNITE! team sets the tone for the event. You get the feeling that the group really likes working together. The organizers exuded a kind of relaxed, no-sweat, this-is-going-to-be-fun confidence, which, of course, it was.

Pamper Your Performers

The sandwiches from Paseo served at our first speaker prep session were a great way to start our work in the funky, fabulous Makerhaus – a design and fabrication studio in Northwest Seattle. The organizers generously offered us two optional prep sessions, lots of tips, and tons of encouragement. Rules were minimal: 20 slides, no more no less, and five minutes to present. Period. Oh, and we had to stand on a small, red rug on stage so we would be positioned well for video recording. The rest of their suggestions were informal (a.k.a. no dress codes!) and designed to encourage our confidence and uniqueness!

Stay Unbelievably Positive

The night of the event, speakers for each half of the evening sat in a few rows of pews near the stage, our own “bull pen.” I was second on stage, (gulp), but as soon as I heard the first laughter from the audience, I knew it was going to be all right. As I returned from the platform, I saw a host of hands sticking up in the air from the bull pen waiting to high-five me. Wow! The response from the audience was equally generous – the enthusiasm and positive vibe was infectious.

All fifteen of the speakers were great in their own ways. The range of topics was amazing – from the history of baby names, to food, to magic, to issues with girls bleeding in the developing world. Fascinating!

Polish didn’t matter. I loved hearing one speaker who would have failed the count of “ums” and “ahs” at Toastmasters. The audience went wild cheering him – he was the real thing, authentic, quirky and enthused with passion for his topic.

Keep the Beat

IGNITE! has a rhythm and knows it well. The evening pulsed. The M.C. gave a short, positive and punchy introduction and then we were off.  Each speaker climbed briskly on to the stage, spoke for five minutes, with the transitions just long enough to hear a wave of applause and welcome the next speaker on to the stage. Even the one promotional announcement from our illustrious venue – Town Hall – was brief.  The intermission gave us twenty minutes for drinks and socializing (an important part of the evening) before we started up again. We closed before ten p.m. and I made a ferry back to my island before midnight.  It couldn’t have been better!



How to Stop But-ting

512px-Goats_butting_headsIn improv, you learn what happens in a story or conversation when two partners block each other. The conversation slows, stops or becomes very boring. The most common way to block a point in a conversation is to use the word “but.”

That’s why improv teaches us to say “Yes, AND” not “Yes, But.”

There are many ways “but” can get expressed without saying the word. In fact, you can even use the word “and” to mean “but” as in “You raise an interesting point – and that’s why I think my idea is better.” Or “Yes, and of course that won’t work” (it’s too idealistic, expensive, etc.)  Other phrases to watch out for are words like “however” and “although” and phrases like “of course, that wouldn’t be feasible” or even the sneaky one, “Interesting, why don’t you research that (to death)?”

And “yes, but” isn’t always a conversation stopper.  A lot depends on your intent. You could say, “I’d love to go hiking with you tomorrow, but I hear it’s going to rain.  Shall we shoot for Sunday?” and your words would advance your plans – and lead to a good time.

In their book, Conversation Transformation (I highly recommend), authors Benjamin, Yeager and Simon offer the following exercise to help when you are beginning to argue opinions with your partner, tension is building, and you’re about to jump in and argue.

Start building rather than but-ting

When you want to encourage listening around a contentious issue, respond to your partner’s argument by first building on it. When you build, you offer true statements that acknowledge points in an opposing argument that you can agree with.

For example, you believe that taxes are needed and justified to make sure that the government can provide essential social services and rebuild our decaying transportation infrastructure. Your partner starts the conversation with:

“The trouble with America is that government has gotten too big. They are wasting our money and taxing the middle class to death. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and force the government to cut spending.”

You gulp and get ready to spring into your argument.

But first you think build…three times

You look for points in your partner’s argument with which you can agree.  And you offer three of them.  (Three can be hard – it requires you to stretch!)

  1. “I know that there have been examples of government waste and excess.”
  2. “Many middle class Americans are feeling pinched and I understand that the effective standard of living has gone down for much of the middle class,”
    and finally
  3. “It’s important to prioritize where to spend government dollars to make our money counts.”


Now the next part. Instead of jumping in with your best arguments, you offer a question about the issues that underlie both of your arguments.

“How can we curb excess federal government spending and make sure our dollars will be used well while also insuring that we have the essential government services that will keep our country strong?” 

The process of building three times and then asking a question is a skill that is easier said than done, especially when our desire to be right is so strong.  But it can keep us away from needless conflicts in relationships and promote a spirit of inquiry and discovery.

Remember to have fun!

In the class I taught on conflict last week, we supplemented these ideas with some fun improv exercises.  I used my version of the exercise “Presents” to promote a spirit of “Yes, And.”  One person gave an imaginary present, the second person named it and the third person made a comment about it.  We also had a fun time playing a “but” game where one person voices an opinion to a partner and the partner responds with a “but statement.”

As we debriefed the exercise, we observed that there are many ways to convey the spirit of “but” without using that word.

But then, I got in trouble.  (Note to readers – avoid this if you can!)

I was addressing all the ways people can say “but” without using that word and I added,

“I have a nose for “buts.”  I can smell them a mile away. “


There was silence.  Then lots of laughter.  Oh dear.  Now they have another, Sally-ism that I am sure to hear about at their graduation. At least they won’t forget the point!

How do you keep from “but-ting” in your challenging conversations?



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