One of the things I’ve noticed about myself over the years is that I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time solving problems that I don’t actually have. You too? What the hell is that about, and more importantly, why do we do that?
One of the biggest contributors to this dilemma is our propensity to look at the way things are, and to think that they should somehow be different. Only we don’t tend to do it in a constructive way. We become attached to our “shoulds.” It happens to us far more than we’d probably like to admit.
We say things like, “It shouldn’t be so cold, it should be warmer,” or “He shouldn’t talk to me like that, he should apologize,” or “I shouldn’t feel this way, I should be happier.” Our minds craft an alternate reality that is the way things should be if they were the way we wanted them.
I hear this type of statement from my clients all the time when we’re coaching around leadership initiatives. We may be discussing a project they’re working on, and I’ll hear them say something like, “We should be further along on this project,” or, “This person should be working harder on my project.” Here’s the thing, when you become attached to the way things should be, you are actually resisting the way things are. And in that resistance, you create your own suffering.
And if that isn’t bad enough, think about this – you will respond to people and the world around you based on those expectations, those beliefs about how things should be. It can’t be any other way. We act based on what and how we think. I said this to one of my clients the other day – and I actually thought it was quite brilliant, if I do say so myself – “You cannot out-behave your thinking.” Yup. Pretty insightful, right? I know! I thought so, too!
When you’re holding on to a should be, you are not seeing what is. And in your conversation with the other person(s), you may not be telling them what you’re thinking, but I promise you it’s in the room and affecting your conversation. You may be more terse than usual or there will be an edge to your voice. And when we are speaking to others from a place that is disingenuous or not forthcoming, they will feel it. They might not know exactly what’s going on, but this will create distrust because there’s something that isn’t being said.
“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in while, or the light won't come in.” – Alan Alda
Listen, I’m not saying that you can’t want things to be better, different. It’s in the attachment to the way we want things to be that we experience discontent, pain, and eventually suffering. We’re actually fighting reality, and as self-help author and teacher Byron Katie would say, “You can continue to fight reality all you want. You’re only going to lose 100% of the time.”
So what do we do, then, when things aren’t the way we want them to be? Am I suggesting that we simply give in, accept the unacceptable, and go on our merry way? Nope. Not at all. I’m not that fatalistic. Here’s what I am saying – don’t be attached to your ideas about how things should be. Instead, be more intentional about how you use your thoughts. Here is a framework to help you when you find yourself wrestling with your shoulds.
First, ask yourself, “Is this true?” Can I absolutely know that this is true? Can I say with absolute certainty that this person should be working harder on my project? What other things am I not seeing? Are there obstacles, challenges, or could they be overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do? What might I not know, see, or realize? Be more intentional in investigating your thoughts.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes our assumptions and preconceived notions are wrong, and therefore, our interpretation of events is incorrect. This causes us to overreact, to take things personally, or to judge people unfairly.” – Elizabeth Thornton
Second, ask, “What part of this do I control?” Do I have any control over how hard someone else works? Is that my business or is it theirs? Are they meeting expectations or not? (That is a better measure of performance than a subjective and nebulous “should be working harder.”) If it’s something I don’t control, then what is my role in creating change in this area? Is there a resource I can look to?
Third, and maybe most important, “How would I feel or respond if I were to let go of this thought?” This one question is where freedom lies. Freedom from judgment, pain, and suffering. Remember, you cannot out-behave your thinking. (Yes, I know I said it again, but it’s just so relevant. Deal with it.) If I were to let go of this “should be,” then I might actually be free to see things more as they are, rather than through a lens of disappointment, anger, or pain. It’s in your clinging to the should that pain and suffering occur. Then, when I interact with this person, that underlying discontent will not affect my conversation, creating distrust. If I let go of my attachment to how things should be, I have the ability to rise above the trivial and see the meaningful.
In conclusion, as someone once said to me, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I know, not a pretty picture. But that is exactly what we do when we become attached to how things should be. It’s time to be more intentional with your thoughts. If things are not the way you wish them to be, great. Ask, “If I could change this situation, what would I want it to look like?” Then, identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Formulate your strategy and get to work. That is far more productive and will result in a much higher probability of success than simply living in the world of “should be.”
Let me know your thoughts on this! When you observe your own patterns, where are you stuck in the land of “should be?” It’s time to learn a new, productive, and far less painful way to deal with change.
I sat with rapt attention, listening as the person across from me told me all the things I had done to hurt her, all the reasons she didn’t trust me, the reasons our relationship – for all practical purposes – had ended. Badly, I might add.
She was a former colleague, someone who a dozen years ago had been a trusted friend. And then she wasn’t – for reasons that were unknown to me. But, there were definitely reasons.
I squirmed in my seat as she illuminated for me why we hadn’t spoken for all those years. It was one of the most intensely honest, open, and enlightening conversations I’ve ever had. Let me add: painful. The bottom line is, there are always two sides to every story — if we are willing to listen.
All too often, both in our personal and business lives, we avoid the difficult conversations. All of us have done this at some point in life. Or we continue to do it, many times over. Maybe we’re afraid of how we’ll be received, or maybe we’re even more worried about what we may hear in return. Yet in the end, we all know that ignoring the problem until it goes away is never the right answer.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
But I knew it was time to stop avoiding this very difficult conversation. As you know by now, if you’ve been reading my blog or receiving my newsletters for any length of time, I tend to be very open and honest in my written communication. Today is no different.
We saw each other at a mutual friend’s party — the first time in 12 years that we were together. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted for a bit. And inside, my heart was burning. I realized how much I had missed her, and that in my mind the end of our friendship had nothing to do with my getting laid off, and everything to do with something else altogether.
So how did we get here? Let’s “Tarantino” it; let’s go back to where it started.
Our kids grew up together in their early years, attending the same daycare, and we had the kind of working relationship that was open and honest, and we were a very effective team. At least, that was my story. Somewhere along the way, that relationship was forever transformed. And it wasn’t for the reasons that I thought.
“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg
My story had been that she had betrayed me. Near the end of our working relationship, she had transferred to another department within the company, and the wheels came off our friendship. Not only were we not speaking as we had in the past, but I felt as though she was actively undermining me with our colleagues. I was hurt, frustrated, and angry. And I certainly wasn’t paying attention to her feelings.
As we talked at the party, I invited her to meet me for lunch, ostensibly to reconnect. But I also had another agenda. I wanted to clear the air and understand what had happened that caused us to lose this wonderful and enriching friendship so many years earlier. Do you know that saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” I was about to get a very real insight into that one.
As we sat down to lunch, we caught up on all the easy stuff. How are the kids? What’s new in your work life? And then I asked the pressing, uncomfortable question: “What happened that caused us to drift apart all those years ago?” And she answered, in detail. Vivid, unfiltered detail. Remember the “two sides to every story” assertion above? That was about to rear its ugly head.
I tried my best not to cringe in disbelief at the picture she painted of what a self-absorbed, unhappy, and ineffective leader (and friend) I had been. And as I listened, I knew she was right. I think on some level, that’s actually the worst part of it all. She was absolutely right. I had betrayed her. I didn’t listen when she needed me. I was too caught up in my own struggles and fears to recognize that I wasn’t the only one suffering. I couldn’t see past my own problems long enough to see that she needed me. And I wasn’t there.
As I sat there and absorbed body blow after body blow, inside I knew I had to do something to make it right. I can’t change the past. But what I did in that moment would determine whether or not this friendship would have a future. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I apologized.
“Communication - the human connection - is the key to personal and career success.” – Paul J. Meyer
She was more gracious than I could have imagined. She told me, “I forgave you a long time ago. I knew you were struggling back then. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that you weren’t there to help me when I felt I needed it. You didn’t listen. You promised you would help, and you never did.”
We talked for a long time – close to two hours. We discussed all that had happened, and all that we have done since then. And it was one of the most healing conversations I’ve ever had. We not only cleared the air, but we mended a friendship that at one time we had both treasured. Now we have the opportunity to treasure it again.
As we finished lunch and made a promise to get together again, she looked at me and said, “You know, I never would have imagined it possible, but you are nowhere near the person you were back then. You’ve changed so much. I’m really proud of you.” And as her words washed over me, the only thought I could muster was, “Thank God for that!”
If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, it’s time to meet it head on. Maybe it’s someone at work that you’ve lost touch with; maybe it’s someone in your personal life – a long lost friend or family member you haven’t spoken with. Regardless, take the time to reach out. That’s what real leaders do. Leaders face the truth, and they’re willing to LISTEN to what is being said.
The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James Humes
You never know what might happen. You just might find a long lost friend like I did. And even if you don’t, even if it turns out that there’s no going back, it’s better than spending the rest of your life wondering, “What if?”
The lessons from these difficult conversations can transform us — personally and/or professionally. This conversation, despite the squirming and discomfort, allowed me to reconcile lessons from a dozen years prior. On many levels, it freed me from the confines of a past that was characterized by miscommunication and misunderstanding. And it redirected me down a path I never imagined — one in which an old friendship is renewed and a relationship, healed.
So screw avoidance: I’m tackling the difficult conversations with an open mind and heart. And I challenge you to do the same.
WARNING: If you are easily offended; if you are not open to reading raw, real content; if you find yourself being judgmental of people who speak truth and bare their souls in a powerful and open way; or just plain want to read “happy, happy, joy, joy” drivel… STOP reading. Right now. Yep. You’ve been warned.
For the brave souls who are good with some raw emotion and a peek “behind the curtain,” as it were, then you should read on. Time to take the mask off, and show you a bit of what my year has been like in retrospect. I am typically a very private person. I don’t write much about my life. And right now, this feels like the right thing to do.
This past year has been like living through a waking nightmare for me. In fact, as I sit here writing this, I am stunned by the body blows I absorbed this last year. To say it’s been “intense and difficult” is like saying that Donald Trump is “somewhat outspoken.” (Yeah, I just went there. I told you if you’re judgmental or offended to stop reading. Not my fault.)
At the end of last year, I lost my dad. Just when we had truly healed our relationship after years of struggle, misunderstanding, judgment, and confusion, he was gone. Shit, that hurt so bad. I miss him every day, and I’ve spent a good part of this year mourning his loss and reliving some of the most fond and funny memories of his last days on earth.
“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.” –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
And it only got worse…
In 2018, my 20-year marriage came to an end. The pain, hurt, and emptiness are beyond any scale I previously have known or had reference to. For those of you who have experienced loss like this, you know the shame, guilt, disappointment, and complete sense of loss that comes with the end of a marriage. So much of my identity was tied up in this relationship; and now I find myself navigating the unknown, and asking myself who I am without this other person. The profound loneliness is enough to bring me to my knees, and it has.
Then, within a two-week span of each other, both of my beautiful German Shepherd dogs – Sugar and Spice – died. Spice had lymphoma, and we knew her end was coming – which didn’t make it any easier. Sugar was another story. My poor son came home from school and found her lying dead on the kitchen floor. Completely unexpected. No kid should ever have to experience something like that. The devastation was beyond description… my family was completely gutted by their loss.
Why do I tell you all of this? Am I looking for sympathy? Nope, not even close. First of all, it helps me in my grieving and healing process. Second, because I want to help you all understand on a very visceral level how tough life can be for all of us. I am not immune to the incredible glories and absolute despairs of life. We all have to navigate this place as best we can.
Thank you, 2018.
WTF? Am I losing my mind? Not at all. Out of the ashes of this past year, life has begun again. I have begun the process of rebuilding. Myself. My life. My business. And it has been the single most profound year of growth I have ever experienced.
“The greatest difficulty always comes right before the birth of a dream.” – Joel Osteen
I have instituted a new regimen of self-care that has helped me to build a foundation that I’m confident will support me through any trial life has to offer. It begins with my spiritual development.
Every single day, I spend the first hour in prayer and meditation (yes, you read that right). Before I look at email, the news, social media, or anything else, I sit in silence and pray and meditate for a full hour to get my mind right for the day. This one practice has had a profound effect on how I see myself and the world around me, as well as how I respond to situations that in the past would have triggered either intense anger and rage, or a flood of tears and depression.
After my morning meditation, I go to the gym and move my body. Again, every day. I am diligent and consistent, and it’s making a huge difference. And my body is responding. I have more energy, a more positive attitude, and feel healthier than I have in years.
My business has been impacted, too. The first few months of the year I had difficulty getting any traction – mostly because I wasn’t focused on what I needed to do, but rather on how difficult my life had become, and how depressed and self-critical I felt.
“Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.” – Niels Bohr
Then, something shifted. My coaching became bolder. More impactful. For those of you who’ve been in my coaching program over the past year, you’ve felt it, too. I have more clarity, more insight, and I’m much more focused than ever before. And my clients are reaping the benefits. They are generating greater results than ever before, and becoming more impactful leaders.
I have also grown as a trainer and facilitator. I have created immersive leadership retreats for teams that bring them face to face with their most difficult challenges. Together they learn how to navigate those challenges, communicate more effectively, ask for help, support each other, and build a culture that is intentional and creates a foundation of trust and openness that is all-too-rare these days.
I’ve grown as a speaker. In this past year, I’ve spoken on more stages, in more cities, and to larger audiences than ever before. I brought them a message that is powerful, relevant, and practical. I honestly don’t think I was hitting on all of those cylinders before.
“Surmounting difficulty is the crucible that forms character.” – Tony Robbins
Out of the ashes.
We all have the ability to do this same thing. I know that many of you reading this may have had even more difficult years that I have. And, the one thing that has been driven home for me more than ever, is the power of decision. We can all DECIDE to overcome, to prevail, to get up off the deck and keep moving forward. Or not. At the end of the day, I’m reminded of that age-old saying, “It’s not what happens to us that matters. It’s how we respond.”
Bring it, 2019!
Listen, it’s easy to focus on all our problems. That’s how we’re wired. Look for a problem. And when we seek, we tend to find exactly what we’re looking for. The more difficult thing we can do is to look for the lesson. What can I learn from this experience? How can I grow from this?
All too often, we desire – or even expect – growth to be sterile, easy, or at the very least non-invasive. But that’s not how it works. Most of the time, our deepest pain leads to our greatest healing. Our most challenging circumstances lead to our most incredible growth. And our most devastating defeats lead to our biggest victories.
So 2018. F*ck you. And Thank you. Let’s see what 2019 has in store! The best part is that despite the uncertainty about what may come, in my heart I know that I can handle whatever that may be. I hope the same for you.
One of the first things I tend to do when working with new clients is to have them clarify their values. What things are most important to you? What values best define or describe who you are and what you stand for? What inspires you, both in yourself and in others? Write them down and keep them close by, where you can see them or refer to them easily.
Then, as you go through your day, ask yourself, “How often do I refer to these core values when making decisions?” If the answer is “not very often,” then you, like many of us, have work to do. If your values aren’t guiding your decision-making, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage.
“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”
– Roy E. Disney
You see, when your decisions and actions are disconnected from your core values, you tend to withhold your best, experience a general lack of inspiration for taking action, and may even feel stressed as you go through the day. It’s the difference between being the lighthouse, shining your light despite the darkness, and being a weathervane, simply going in whichever direction the wind is blowing.
I know, easy to say! I get it. In fact, I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone in the past. It’s not easy to live up to the values you profess. But then again, who said it was supposed to be?
“Nothing is given to man on earth - struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible - the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.”
– Andrew Bernstein
I think so many times we get distracted by busyness, overwhelm, and urgency that we can forget to keep our values front and center. That’s why I recommend checking in every so often. Look at your values every so often and ask yourself, “How well am I living to these values? And if I’m not, what do I need to do in order to get back in alignment with who I say I am?”
There are few things that will take us off track quicker than living out of alignment with our values. In fact, I don’t think there is anything more harmful to a leader than to realize that they’ve built their career on a set of values that mean nothing to them. It’s why we feel that internal uneasiness as we go through the day. And then we get home and ask ourselves questions like, “Is this really all there is?” or “Why do I feel so disconnected and frustrated?”
Like I said, I get it. I was there myself. In fact, the discomfort I felt from continuing to work in an organization where I clearly wasn’t living my core values finally got the best of me. At age 46, I turned my life upside down and started on a journey to become the best version of myself. And I’m thrilled to say that more than 10 years later, I’m not only working in a profession where I get to live my values every single day, I’m also experiencing more purpose, meaning, and fulfillment than I’ve ever felt in my life. Easy? Not at all. Worth it? Absolutely!
“Our problem is not to find better values but to be faithful to those we profess.”
– John W. Gardner
Commitment to your individual values offers a surefire way for you to embrace more opportunities, enhance personal initiative, and create more clarity around the type of leader you aspire to become. Research has shown a direct correlation between dedication to values and the commitment to doing exceptional work. You may put your intellect into your work, but you won’t put your heart and soul into it without a clear connection to your values. And in fact, the research even supports the notion that personal values are more important than adherence to shared or organizational values. Why? Because it’s our compass, our guide to how we wish to be in the world.
Here’s an exercise I encourage you to do. It will help you identify where you’re doing well, and where you still need to focus attention. First, write down a list of words that you hold as values. Write as many as you can. Think of who you are when no one is looking; think of your highest aspirations.
“Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Then, go through the list and ask, “What are the five most important values on this list for me; the ones I would not compromise or let go of?” Read them aloud and ask yourself if they ring true. Are they a true representation of who you are? If not, find other words that are closer.
Now, here’s the challenging part. On a sheet of paper, write these five words down the left side, and across the top of the page write the days of the week. At the end of each day, perform a self-assessment. How well did I live up to each of these values today? Make notes and hold yourself accountable. Ask if you’re satisfied with your results, and where you could have done better. Then commit to doing better. This is where the hard work lies. We have to bridge the gap between knowing something and doing something. After time, these values will become more ingrained in you, and they’ll serve the purpose you intended – helping you to become the best version of yourself.
What do you want? It seems like a simple enough question, but when you look at your life and leadership, goals and aspirations, what comes to mind when you think about the things you would like to change or improve?
Have you ever felt frustrated at how difficult it can be achieving many of your goals or creating lasting change? Why does that happen? Is it because you’re not smart enough? You don’t have enough money? Is it due to a lack of time? You don’t have the right resources or support in place? Actually, it’s not.
I’m going to share with you the #1 reason that it’s so difficult to reach your goals or create lasting, meaningful change in life and work.
When it comes to achieving goals or changing our lives, the natural tendency for us is to focus on behaviors. If I change this habit or that one, then I’ll be able to achieve my goal. Or if I get this training or take that class, then I’ll have what I need to succeed.
But changing habits and behaviors alone is rarely enough to help us overcome the biggest challenge to creating lasting change.
Let me give you a stark example.
Not long ago a medical study showed that if cardiologists tell their seriously at-risk heart patients they will literally die if they do not make changes to their personal lives—diet, exercise, smoking—still only one in seven is actually able to make the changes. One in seven!
Now we can probably assume that the other six wanted to live, see more sunsets, watch their children and grandchildren grow up, and do more of the things that bring them joy and fulfillment. They certainly didn’t lack a sense of urgency. In fact, the incentive to change could not be greater. Their lives were on the line, and still they couldn’t do it.
When you’re working toward any goal or looking to create meaningful change in your life, you are driving some kind of plan or agenda, but some kind of plan or agenda is also DRIVING YOU. The problem is that it is out of your awareness. You cannot yet take responsibility for it. And most of the time, that agenda will limit or even doom your ability to actually achieve the things you set out to do.
I remember hearing a quote by psychologist William Perry, who once said that the two most important things to know about people you are trying to help change: “What do they really want, and what will they do to keep from getting it?”
The challenge is we set up competing commitments and conflicting priorities that prevent us from achieving what we say we want.
Let’s say for example that you have a goal at work to be a better delegator. What competing commitments might get in the way? As you dig into this question, maybe you realize:
All of these things work in direct opposition to you becoming a better delegator.
Change does not fail to occur because of insincerity. The heart patient is not insincere about his wish to keep living, even as he reaches for another cigarette. We fail to change because we mean both things simultaneously. It fails to occur because we are a living contradiction. It’s as if we have one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake at the same time!
At the simplest level, it gives us a picture of how we are systematically working against the very goal we genuinely want to achieve.
So the bottom line is this: any time you set a goal for yourself, get clear on those underlying commitments that will prevent you from making the changes you seek. Identify your conflicting commitments. Make the invisible visible. Only then can you begin to do the work to remove them.
Otherwise, you will do the dance that we do so often, where we take one step forward and two steps back.
Leave a comment below! Think about some past goals and aspirations that you failed to achieve. What were the potential underlying competing commitments that prevented you from achieving your goals? Share that realization below. This is how we learn and build community, by sharing our thoughts and experiences.
Kevin Ciccotti, CPCC, PCC, is an authority in helping leaders to build stronger, more sustainable relationships with their teams, helping them to drive engagement, increase productivity, and lead to greater overall success. He is passionate about helping leaders to create an environment in which their people can thrive and achieve their full potential. Read More...
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Kevin Ciccotti, Human Factor Formula
Helping companies create sustainable, effective teams that are committed to the success of their projects, the organization, and the individuals with whom they work