The Owl's Perch

Raising the Bar

Sunday, January 10, 2016

As I thought about my “one word” theme for this new year, this quote got me thinking in a different direction: “A funny thing happens when you raise the bar. People find a way to get over it, once they realize it's expected. Human beings can do amazing things - if they're asked to,” from John Powers, American playwright best know for his work Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? I labeled this year, “BIGGER” as a reminder to me that one of the ways I can raise the bar is to expand the horizons in which I live, work and play.

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Lessons from the Chickadees and English Sparrows

Sunday, December 06, 2015

I have a bird feeder just outside my window and, as an amateur bird-watcher I love noticing how different species interact while jostling for the sunflower seeds I put out. This winter I’ve been fascinated by the two most frequent visitors, the solitary Black-Capped Chickadees and the prolific flocks of English Sparrows. Both had lessons waiting in the wings.

First, the amiable Chickadee dips from a nearby branch to my feeder and selects one special seed in its beak. Flitting back to the branch, it holds the seed between its feet, cracks open the shell and enjoys a bite-sized snack. This process is repeated many times, often attracting attention from other Chickadees nearby and then they move on all at once. A renowned birding expert commented to me that scientists are beginning to notice that some migrating species may actually look to the Chickadees as local hosts, suggesting the best places to eat in town. Warblers, finches and nuthatches follow them to my feeder and grab a quick snack in a similar format. These species are all native to Illinois.

Then the ubiquitous flocks of non-native English Sparrows swoosh in and sit on the feeder for hours rummaging through the seeds, spilling most of them on the ground and emptying my feeder in less than a day. When close by, I angrily shoo them away so the Chickadees can come back to eat in a less piggish, more conserving way.

If you noticed, I’m biased – I admire the way the Chickadee mindfully eats its fill and critique the fat little Sparrow’s gluttonous behavior.  And so I began to notice my quick judgments that Chickadees are good and English Sparrows are bad. [In fact, most non-native, introduced species of plant and animals do serious harm to native populations and as a conservationist I’m interested in reversing that trend.] But it was my harsh judgment that was most fascinating. Where else was I being quick to judge? Just when I started questioning my assumptions and checking my judgments, I noticed all the seeds on the ground were being enjoyed by ground feeding species like Juncos, Mourning Doves and squirrels who certainly appreciated the fallen bounty.

The lesson for me was this: I have thought patterns that I deem educated, correct and even enlightened but they don’t always serve me with the whole truth. There are always hundreds of different perspectives that offer something I hadn’t thought of or considered and always suggest something to learn.

While I still shoo away the English Sparrows now and then because I can’t keep the feeder filled frequently enough, I smile when they arrive and ask myself, “what judgments are keeping you from seeing life in a different way?” What might you notice if you considered things from a different angle today?
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Tolerant vs. Intolerant - Mutually Exclusive?

Sunday, November 01, 2015
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The Power of Noticing

Sunday, October 04, 2015

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Living in Life's Beautiful Question

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Taking most of August off this year to drive west was an incredible gift as it gave me time to dream into what the next chapter of my life might hold, especially if it includes a move to another place. After returning I was reminded of a concept credited to David Whyte about life’s beautiful question. As I understand the idea, a beautiful question is one that inspires and scares us at the same time. In my case, it’s something like, “where would I live if I could go anywhere?” which intrigues me and I wonder if I could ever really just pick up and go.

The most important aspect of this beautiful question is in not answering too quickly but letting yourself just live into the question. Then instead of an answer, we receive an invitation to get curious and notice what arises within us. Often overlooked because our mind is so busy thinking up various answers, is how our body responds to the question – and in those responses there is deep wisdom. David Whyte phrases this question as, “What do I already know that I haven’t let myself overhear?”

Back to my 4300 mile, 2 ½ week trip: what I learned was that it was both daunting to consider moving anywhere else but my hometown since 1971, and a breath-taking opportunity to consider other landscapes, grocery stores and communities. In my body I noticed that my feet became very heavy, which I read as a reluctance to move – as if playing it safe was going to be much more satisfying. At the same time I noticed an ease of breathing in my chest and shoulders, which I read as a comfort with the adventure of letting many places call me.

For now I’m letting both responses live in me and am giving myself the gift of living into the beautiful question and refusing to make a decision just yet. What I know is that there isn’t an urgency to decide right now, and even though my mind for plans and details isn’t too crazy about this I’m learning to stretch into the discomfort of not knowing rather quickly trying to come up with an answer. Being ok with this paradox is, in fact, right where I need to be living right now and until my body shares some other wisdom with me I’m fine staying here and being content with what I do know – that living in life’s beautiful question is a gift.
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W.A.I.T.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

W.A.I.T. stands for “Why Am I Talking?” A close colleague of mine shared this acronym with me many years ago as a simple gauge to better listening. Deciding whether speaking is really important, helpful, kind or necessary at any given moment isn’t always easy. But with this simple question – to myself – before continuing or opening my mouth I’ve found that my ability to listen with more focus has increased.

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The Need for Better Conflicts

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Recently, I listened with great interest to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” program aired on PBS. She interviewed two people on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate who are proud of their ability to “achieve disagreement.” While still advocates for their side of the debate their willingness to stay in conversation with each other inspired me.

For years I’ve wrestled with the positional nature of conflict. A dozen years ago, after a falling out with my business partner I began studying conflict resolution and got trained as a mediator to learn a different approach than walking away to resolve my conflicts – a strategy that never really resolves anything but rather breeds resentment, anger and mistrust. As I started seeing the value of “getting to yes” type conversations (for more on this see Fisher and Ury’s book by the same title) I found more and more opportunities to practice a new craft.


But what stood out to me in the On Being conversation was the idea that CIVILITY and DOUBT need each other for true discourse to take place. Civility was defined as the treatment of another person the way you want to be treated by them and doubt was defined as the belief that you may not be right. Imagine in the most heated disagreement– in a marriage, a business partnership or a political divide – if both sides agreed to the need for both civility and doubt to be acceptable. How might that affect not only the outcome but the relationship itself?

I recall attending a marriage celebration years ago in which the parents of the groom, in their speech to the couple said that the most important three words in marriage were “maybe you’re right.” That recommendation stays with me and resurfaces when, in a moment of mindfulness amidst a heated disagreement, I see the positions taking hold and moving me farther away from the person with whom I disagree. I can now see that mindful moment as the healthy presence of doubt.

It still takes two people to have a disagreement. But here’s the rub… it only takes one to start moving toward resolution – one who is willing to say, even if only internally, “maybe you’re right and I want to start treating you like I want to be treated.” It’s important to recognize that resolution doesn’t have to mean agreement. Like the two men interviewed above, whose goal was “achieving disagreement” both sides can find alignment on some neutral ground like values or purpose.

This isn’t an easy topic, nor can it be easily addressed with platitudes. Still, I’m fascinated by what might be possible if I really understood how crucial civility and doubt are to each other. What do you think?
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Whatever the Problem, Community is the Answer

Sunday, March 01, 2015

One of my most inspiring and challenging teachers is Margaret Wheatley. Over the last decade I read with fascination nearly all her books starting with Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World and had the incredible opportunity to take a workshop with her in Nova Scotia a few years ago. Her Berkana Institute took a hiatus for a few years while figuring out how to best contribute to resolving larger world issues. This morning, I received the first communication from them in a long time and was struck by their tagline, “Whatever the Problem, Community is the Answer.” *See Berkana.org.

The line struck a deep chord in me because for the last several years most of the communities I joined during the last three decades began falling away for various reasons and as I participated less, the more isolated I felt. So, a few years ago I actively began looking to join or create new communities in my life. The groups I found tended to be smaller, more intimate gatherings of fellow travelers on this journey of living a full, wholehearted life – and they were often spread far and wide. While that feeling of isolation still exists at times, connecting with one of my communities alleviates isolation and overwhelm quickly.

Today, I am connected to a small group of people I went through a leadership program with from around the world and we have a phone call once a quarter. I recently joined a group of dedicated, soulful native flute players who inspire me to find my soul’s music. Once in a while I join with others passionate about saving living spaces for living things for a prairie restoration workday. When possible I join with my grown children to enjoy family, relaxation and fun. I have dinner every couple of months with two guys who have been on a similar journey over the last five years. Together, in all these communities, we connect on topics or activities that unite us. Sometimes we go deep, and other times we just have fun together.

On Wednesday, March 25th at 11am CST, the Berkana Institute will host a free webinar with Margaret Wheatley to invite participants into the practice of "Gathering Friends." I'm curious what will come of my own gathering together with friends to simply listen to each other and inspire strength to continue doing my world work. I will be on the call - will you join me? Register on the Berkana website by  CLICKING HERE.
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Aiming to Be a Better Listener This Year!

Sunday, February 01, 2015

I make my living by coaching people, so I consider myself a “professional listener.” After over a decade of doing this work you’d think I’d be a pretty good listener, and yet I’m always trying to learn how to get better. Research shows that we typically listen an average of about 125-200 words per minute. The problem is that we think at nearly 10 times that rate – between 1000-3000 words per minute. So no matter how much I hear (with my ears) what another person is saying, it’s pretty likely that I am thinking most of that time rather than fully listening.

For example, last week I was co-facilitating a team development workshop and as someone on the team was speaking, I started thinking about how they were presenting their material and how it was being received by the rest of the team - typically good stuff. However, when they finished it was my turn to ask a few questions and debrief the exercise – but since I wasn’t fully listening, I fumbled and came up momentarily blank. Fortunately, my partner picked up right where I fumbled and we didn’t miss a beat.


It got me thinking about how to stay fully tuned in to what was, and wasn’t being said. How could I both accept that I am always thinking and remain curious enough to really be fully present with those to whom I’m listening? For the next year, I’m committed to trying something new.


I’m learning that there is a muscle between noticing when I’m present and when I’m thinking about something else – and I’m learning it by building a consistent, minduful meditation practice. That practice is all about just noticing, without making myself wrong, when I lose focus and when I come back to it. Sounds simple enough, right? Try it this week… set a timer and see just how long you can focus on one thing (meditators often use the breath to focus on) before you realize your thoughts have wondered off. I believe that over time, I can become a better listener by practicing that muscle once a day, even if only for 15-20 minutes.


I’ll check back in a few months from now and let you know if the needle has moved on the length of time I can focus and my ability to remain present. Until then, I’m on my way to kicking my practice of great listening into overdrive… care to join me? Let’s see what the side effects might be!
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Slowing Down to Speed Up

Sunday, January 04, 2015

I love speed. Working on the CBOT trading floor for nearly 20 years required a keen ability to think quickly, react to opportunities with just the right amount of forethought to consider the risks but not so much time to miss the short-lived opportunity. Likewise, riding a sport motorcycle most of my life required quick reflexes as well as a disobedience to physical intuition. The ability to move quickly is a well-honed practice that actually requires a counter-intuitive move: slowing down.

Let me explain… when a sharp corner appears ahead, whether in a car or on a motorcycle, in order to move through the corner as quickly as possible it is imperative to set up the right angle of attack and throttle back – both of which seem counter to what your senses say should be done. This is a matter of physics regarding weight distribution and how the power to the wheels is applied.

But it’s the metaphor that I’m finding is so appropriate as it relates to making key decisions. Typically, a day starts very early and we hit the ground running - powering through fast reps in the gym, speeding through emails and feverishly driving to the first appointment, hoping to arrive only 5 minutes late. Just writing this down, my heartbeat is racing and I know the routine all too well. But here’s what I’m finding: when I slow down my pace first by letting my body wake up slowly before getting out of bed (not by hitting the snooze button though!), taking a few minutes to gather my daily intention and consciously transitioning my body from sleeping to being awake, I’m able to start my day much more productively.

The same goes for heading into a meeting, preparing a presentation and answering a phone call. Taking a moment to get centered by taking a breath, remembering my purpose for the activity and physically feeling my feet on the floor I am able to move more efficiently through the activity and at the end of the day I recognize that so much more has been accomplished.

That said, I fail frequently – at least once a day, if not once an hour! However, I’m learning that part of the slowing down is letting go of the judgment about my failure. Acknowledging the failure with a quick, “How fascinating!” helps me maintain the speed needed to accomplish all that needs to be done.

They key is how to remember all this in the moment, right? For starters, how about if you join me this month in finding one place to try mindfully slowing down – so that you can move even faster than you did before? I really think this is the only way to make real progress given the overwhelming demands on leadership. Let me know how it goes.
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