The Owl's Perch

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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Hunting Like an Owl

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Another owl just flew into my life over the Thanksgiving break and I’m taking notice! In many native traditions and certainly in my life, owls appear at transitions and crossroads, beginnings and endings. This owl was a beautiful Mexican ceramic figurine – a gift from my girlfriend to celebrate our long-awaited trip to New Mexico together. There, the warm light, indigo skies and snow-capped mountains inspired conversations about our dreams to take uninhibited flight. The owl, now watching me from its new perch on my mantle, reminds me to consider the connection between visioning and listening.

Many owl species have ears that are asymmetrical – they aren’t placed evenly on the owl’s head like most mammals, including humans. A kind of triangulation allows the animal to pinpoint where a mouse is scratching its nose under two feet of snow from fifty yards away. Accuracy is further refined by the owls very large eyes being located in the middle of the facial disks, built specifically for creating a the perfect dynamic between sight and hearing that allows it to hunt with one of the highest success rates among all raptors. [Click HERE to watch this in action.] There is a poignant leadership lesson here: asymmetrical listening that is highly correlated with vision leads to success.

Asymmetry can be about varying proportions, different time horizons, conflicting points of view, etc. Fundamental to great business leadership is gathering information from multiple inputs like economic conditions, market trends, capacity utilization and workforce flexibility. Holding opposing views proves difficult for the leader for whom symmetry and harmony are desired. But I believe that the leadership of the future belongs to those who can, in greater degree, hold and work with paradox.

Alignment of vision within this context may seem impossible. But taking the owl’s cue, it appears paramount to success. If humans had eyes proportional to body size like an owl’s the pupil would be the size of a small saucer. We compensate for smaller eyes with a much larger brain that allows for greater cognitive abilities. So, it stands to reason that when vision is focused on what things could look like down the road or in the marketplace and all the asymmetrical inputs are considered, achievement of our goals should be more consistent.

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A Propitious Intersection

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Imagine arriving at the intersection of two streets – one called “Envision” and the other called “Cooperate” and something wonderful happens… suddenly you’re able to see around the corner and serendipity is a regular occurrence. It’s a rather magical junction! I’m learning more about two ways of traveling that help me get to this place, both of which are needed in just the right amounts.

ENVISION: This path requires some imagination of what things might look like in the future. It’s a dreamlike sequence that doesn’t need the confines of consensus reality – in fact the “that will never work” type thinking inhibits it. It’s a road filled with open-ended questions without succinct answers like, “if money weren’t a limiting factor, what do you want to be doing in 10 years?” Or, “what would the future look like if you were freely living your core values?” Often there is a voice within us named Reason, Practicality or even Skeptic that doesn’t let us enjoy a few moments of picturing what could be down the road. To travel this road is to appreciate what those voices have to offer… and agree to travel without them. Read More >

The Narratives that Drive Us

Sunday, October 05, 2014

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What is it about Inner Demons?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The news of Robin William’s apparent suicide this week has many people expressing shock, sadness, compassion and an offer to be a listening ear for those who need help. What is it about inner demons that scream so loudly in our heads and all too often are invisible to those around us unless we reach out for help? Read More >

This One Wild and Precious Life

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Mary Oliver wrote a beautiful poem entitled, The Summer Day, which ends with this provocative question: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Those words haunted and taunted me deeply today as I every breath I took reminded me of this day 24 years ago. Read More >

The Unseen Costs of Being Reactive

Sunday, June 08, 2014

“The Leadership Circle” developed an assessment tool I use in my leadership development work that has helped guide thousands of leaders to a more effective style of leadership. The tool probes deeply how people act as leaders, and also uniquely surfaces why we do what we do. The why results are called our “Reactive” tendencies and fall into three categories: Complying, Protecting and Controlling. Read More >


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