50 Women Experience The Value of Collaboration, New Jersey

Women's Collaboration Summit

It was such a joy to co-facilitate New Jersey's first Women's Collaboration Summit.  The joy, started several months earlier, when my collaboration began with two local business women:  Marybeth Gregg and Roe Couture Desaro.  We wanted to design an experience that would bring a variety of talented local women together to share stories and learn from each other and find ways to support each other.

Our design was framed in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) with the ambition to achieve the following

  • bring out the capabilities that exist in the room;  individual and collective strengths;  
  • unleash what else is possible – the positive potential of every person and potential synergies of the collective
  • provide uplifting experiences that energize us all to do more of what we do best

Collaborating for High Performance

The summit started with a discovery interview on the topic of Collaborating for High Performance with the following lead in statement to set the tone of the interviews, table conversations and whole plenary discussion

Collaboration refers to people coming together to produce something they all contribute to in a variety of ways. Because of the increased complexities and pressures in our world today at home, in the community and our workplaces, productive and meaningful collaboration is a huge topic of interest. Collaborations are often loose and voluntary, while teams are usually designed for specific purposes, such as sports teams, department teams, sales teams etc.

Whether it’s a voluntary collaboration or a designated team, we come together with different skill sets, personalities, and motivations, so it’s always dynamic. Effectiveness is enhanced when people know their strengths, their values, their purpose and can be real with each other.

So what is it that makes a truly high-performing collaboration?

We have all been part of a high-performing team or collaboration at some point, even a team of two! Let’s access those high point experiences of high collaborative performance. Let’s identify the strengths of our contributions and the contributions of others and, together, we can co-create ways forward, building on our existing strengths – our positive core – to design ways we can further strengthen collaborations.

We followed the classic AI interview design with the one-on-one personal interviews.  Next, we introduced  the table conversations, when the interviewees  shared what they had learnt from their interview partners. Then we engaged in a whole room discussion when we synthesized some of the common themes from across the table groups.

The Value of Collaboration

When we invited the participants to identify some of the themes that came out of all the high points stories of experiencing collaboration at its best, here is what was shared:

When we are collaborating at our best, we experience

  • Grace under pressure

    Value in Collaborations

    Images – Thanks to Kathleen Edinger of Teascapes

  • Being present in relationships
  • Passion
  • Embracing other's visions
  • Stepping out of our comfort zones
  • Being a leader and a follower
  • Willingness to be truthful
  • Personal Growth – reinvent ourselves
  • Entrepreneurial and resourceful
  • Change agents
  • Pioneers
  • Support self, others and community
  • Courageous, aggressive and assertive
  • Mentor and mentee
  • Sense of fulfillment
  • Inspiration

What is evident is that it's about “we” vs “me”.  It's putting the good of the collaboration ahead of personal ambitions.  A bit like a marriage in a way, when you put the good of the marriage ahead of the individual needs of the partners.  And the words in the above list that best capture that sense are:

being present in relationships; embracing each other's visions; being a leader and a follower; mentor and mentee – meaning we are there for each other to serve the whole.

I am privileged to be able to do this work –  to design and facilitate with the Appreciative Inquiry framework, I am always struck by the vitality and energy that is unleashed within the first minutes, and I am not surprised, because the foundational principles of Appreciative Inquiry guide the process.

  • The way we ask the question determines what we find
  • Words create our worlds
  • Whatever we focus on grows
  • Positive images create positive futures
  • Positivity: It's good to feel good

We have the capacity within us to influence ourselves and others everyday just by the way we speak and act.   As we increasingly pay attention to the value of collaboration, we inspire ourselves and others, just as 50 women experienced wholeheartedly during this recent summit.

Why Strengths Based Coaching Helps Overcome Weaknesses

I bet a number of you have been coached.  If so, it is likely you are into your own development.  It's also likely you are aware of coaching to strengths is very beneficial.

Coaching is about improvement, going to the next level, achieving aspirations, identifying ways to  live to your fullest capacity and potential.  Yet, a dominant, and perhaps traditional model of coaching, has been to start from a place of lack, or deficient that focuses on eliminating weaknesses.  There is this strongly held view that we need to fix the problem before we can move into the areas of development.

The Energizing Force of Strengths Based Coaching

Strengths based coaching comes from the worldview that in every system (human and otherwise) there are also many things that already work right.  Starting from what one does well already – one's strengths – is a far more energizing way to improve quickly.  You actually go from strength to strength which helps to mitigate weaknesses.  It's not to say you don't address or deal with weaknesses.  I am saying that starting from what you do well, what gives you best outcomes personally, or amplifies your organizational capabilities offers greater leverage and takes less time than investing heavily in and struggling with weaknesses.  You also have greater willingness to deal with the weaknesses once you have elevated your best assets.

Strengthen Existing Talents

Strengths based coaching starts with what’s working well already and seeks to discover your natural strengths, talents, and preferences.  You recognize there are choice points and you tend to focus on what consumes you.  Said another way: “Where the attention goes, the energy flows.”

If you’re a leader, a parent, an educator, isn’t it your responsibility to encourage the development of others in life-nurturing ways to help them find the fullest and most satisfying ways possible and strengthen their existing talents?

I'd like to illustrate with a business story that illustrates how strengths based coaching is an extremely effective way of developing people.

Develop your Strengths to Mitigate your Weaknesses

A few years ago, I was brought in to a large professional services firm to coach seven young women who were deemed “high potential”. They were in their early 30s. This firm wanted to groom more young women to be promoted to director level and possibility partner. The business reason for this investment in coaching was to stop the high attrition rate of these young, talented women leaving the firm because they saw no real career path there. Most of the senior jobs continued to be given to men.

Each of the seven young women came to her first coaching session with her “report card” (360 performance review) from her manager, ready to point out what her weaknesses were and what her manager recommended she work on.

Respectfully, I listened and looked at the document. After what I thought was an appropriate amount of time, I put the document down, looked at her, and asked one very simple, straightforward question:

“Tell me what you’re best at?”

The response I got every time was: silence.

Experience Flow

It didn't take too long for the young woman’s demeanor to change with a physiological shift, a softening in the face, a change in eye focus and gaze, and then a smile, followed by a gentle, embarrassed laugh.  Together, we began to explore what gave her greatest joy and satisfaction.  She was able to identify when she experienced a sense of flow – when time was lost – when she experienced a sense of intrinsic reward even though the situation was challenging.  What she found most rewarding was to discover that when she experienced this sense of time just passing so fluidly, she experienced her work to be far more energizing and engaging.

Increase Productivity and Joy

In the six months' coaching that followed, each young woman went through a transformation. They all completed the VIA Character Strengths survey and put their strengths work.

They reported relationships that had been challenging become easier. They felt less stressed because they invested their efforts in their strengths and found ways to manage weaknesses, meaning they become more productive and experienced more joy in their work.

They were so happy that with this new knowledge they found they were also able begin to notice the strengths of their colleagues, bosses and staff who reported to them, so they could optimize their productivity as well by assigning tasks and responsibilities that best fit their strength profiles.

Believe me, when you really know your own strengths and integrate the words and behaviors, you become far more effective in all your relationships, your own productivity and life takes on a whole new meaning.

How Heartfelt Conversation Is Co-created with Appreciative Inquiry

I continue to be struck with wonder at the transformative power of Appreciative Inquiry. It doesn't matter how often I'm present to the experience of  Appreciative Inquiry, the magic, the power, the spirit to move people toward each other to give of their best selves and share their aspirations never fails to deliver.  The collective energy among a group of people who don't know each other at the start, irrespective of how many are in the room, who they are, what the topic is delivers expressions of hope, possibility and positive potential.

Affirmative topic of Generations Wiser Together

I've just come off designing an AI workshop and facilitated the same workshop with two very different groups.  The goal of the groups was the same.  We were inquiring into the affirmative topic of Generations Wiser Together.  My client, worked tirelessly to bring groups together in two different towns.  We aimed to attract as much diversity as possible.

Heartfelt Conversation - younger and older person in dialogueIn the one group, we achieved our objective of great diversity.  We had a good mixture of ages – from 70+ to 17 year olds.  A good balance of genders, and a good balance of Caucasians and African Americans showed up.

In the second group, in a smaller town, we were not as successful with attracting diversity.  The group comprised all Caucasian women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, with an 88 year old and a 20 something.

Yet, in spite of the different group compositions, the magic of Appreciative Inquiry came through.  We opened up space for people to converse deeply and at length with each other.

Maximizing Diversity

Following the classic AI interview protocol, we invited the group members, seated in a circle, to pair up with someone, requesting tJack and Junehey look around the circle and find someone least like them physically.  So we had younger black men paired with older white women, and younger white women with older white men.  Regretfully, we had no older black men.

The connections that were formed in that initial discovery conversation set the tone for a continued evening of enriching discovery, deep sharing, surprise and delight, joy, laughter and demonstrations of great talent from group members.

Co-creating Wishes and Dreams

Demonstrations of great talent came in the second phase of our AI protocol when groups shared their wishes and dreams for a wiser world, when generations are living more wisely together.  With the invitation to be as imaginative and as playful as they dared, groups in less than 30 minutes co-created presentations of their wishes and dreams.  Words and ideas they had been sharing moved from the head and heart into the body.  Embodiment of artistic talent through poetry, music, dance and drawing transformed the space and transfixed the groups witnessing each others' performances.  Spontaneous applause and appreciation broke out after each group had performed.

Heartfelt conversation - Wisetribe 1We moved into identifying opportunities – what might we design that could bring the dreams and aspirations into reality?  What ideas did member of the group have that could strengthen the bonds across the generations and help bring about a wiser world? Here was the chance for members to share what they had a passion for, would be willing to take responsibility for.  They invited others to join them in their dreams.

Opportunities for a Wiser World

Opportunities for a wiser world ranged from bringing Eastern practices into one of the hospitals in town in the form of meditation and yoga, that would not only help patients who could take part in such activities, but especially for the staff who experience stress in their jobs in the hospital environment. Another suggestion was to take the produce being cultivated in an organic farm into restaurants in the town.  One woman, a retired journalist, was excited to take the AI questions and ask them in her community to deepen connections among community members.  Moreover, she was inspired to reach out to her journalist colleagues, hoping to bring some media attention to the intergenerational wisdom exchanges.

Simplify ChartAnother project that inspired a young woman was to assist older people in their “right sizing”.  She had discovered that when she helped her father simplify his life by sorting through all his possessions, amassed over a life-time, their love, respect and appreciation for each other strengthened.  She listened deeply as he told the stories associated with different objects before he let them go.  She learnt so much about her father's past, valuing the experience, she felt so many other older people might also enjoy telling their stories as they simplified their situations for a new phase of their lives.

Heartfelt Conversation

In our closing circle, where the participants are invited to share a high point of their experience and also what they might to take forward from the experience and implement for themselves, the insights and connections were truly touching.  This is when the magic and transformative power of Appreciative Inquiry is evidenced.  At the beginning, we were a bunch of strangers and in 3 – 4 hours.  After a series of heartfelt conversation, we had deeply touched each other's lives, through a series of intentionally constructed affirmative questions that seek to discover the best in people, their communities and the world around them.







Invest in Developing Strengths – Why Bother?

Before I even started school, I remember annoying my grandmother, mother and father because they thought I asked too many questions.

“Curiosity killed the cat” was one of the many proverbs my grandmother delighted in repeating to me, every time I poked my head into something new, or asked “Why?” It silenced me, as I was upset by the idea of “killing cats.”

My mother, too, after endless “Why?” questions, in frustration would sigh, “Because I said so” or “’Y’ is a crooked letter that can’t be made straight.” I had to pause to think hard about trying to straighten the letter “Y” and wouldn’t dare ask, “Why does it need to be straightened?”

Even my father would tell me, “Mind your p’s and q’s.” I couldn’t fathom that one.

Curiosity and Love of Learning Energize Me

In spite of these early reprimands, it seems my curiosity, love of learning, and desire to seek out new ideas have been my constant guides. These days, whenever I am in a new territory, I am called to go further to explore what’s around the corner, over the hill, or beyond the horizon.

I am truly satisfied when I discover for myself what I can learn and what new ideas come up that stimulate possibility-thinking and what-if scenarios.

After all these years, I know now that curiosity, love of learning, collecting ideas, and seeing the big picture are my best attributes, or my signature strengths. I know I am most satisfied when I am playing or working to these strengths.

Our Weaknesses Attract More Attention and Investment

It’s a relatively new, and thankfully a growing trend, to focus on and develop strengths. Yet, the old paradigm of ‘overcome weaknesses first’ is played out every day in most of our homes, our schools, our institutions, and our places of work and worship.

The behaviors, the processes, the decisions that are weak or problematic in some way, are the first to grab attention. You focus on the things that “need fixing.”  What happens as a result is those behaviors, thoughts, feelings, decisions, and processes that are working well and bring you successes don’t attract the same attention or the investment of resources.

Do you think it’s a fair generalization to say that you invest energy, money, time, intellect, and emotion into things that don’t work for  you more than you  put energies into those things that will give you an easier and a much-better return for your efforts and investments?

The Task of Leadership

Key question: Are you better off investing in and developing strengths? – defined as innate talents that can be more easily and speedily developed – than dealing with weaknesses that can be worked around and will take more effort, time and resources and always be a struggle?

The late management and leadership guru, Peter Drucker’s quote is relevant more than ever:

 “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.”

Strength-based approaches to human and organization development and positive psychology, defined as the study of strengths, excellence, resilience, and optimal functioning in general, focus on people’s talents and gifts.

Your talents and gifts are your strengths. When people are performing in roles in which they play to their strengths, studies show that performance and satisfaction increase, productivity improves, and they have greater chance at achieving their full potential.  That’s from the book Now, Discover your Strengths, by Buckingham & Clifton (2001).

This is a radical departure from the long-held view that to help someone perform at his or her best, you work on improving the person’s weaknesses. This view is evidenced by the fact that in 2001 only 20 percent of employees in companies across the globe feel their strengths are in play on a daily basis or  “have the opportunity to do their best work”.  Good news is, in 2014, that statstic has jumped to an average of 30%.

Are you helping grow that statistic?  I sure hope so.  I know as an agent for positive change, I am.

Increase Your Self-Awareness with Four Easy Practices

How you describe yourself is who you live into. What habits and actions you practice day in and day out, shape your behaviors. The sum of those two determine your beliefs about yourself, your beliefs about others nd the world at large.

You describe the world as hostile and unsafe and you become fearful, you believe people are not to be trusted and that resources are scarce, competition is tough and you become anxious.

You describe your world as kind, friendly, welcoming and beautiful, and you'll notice people and places in that light. You will be more open and expect to experience kindness and generosity, and see beauty around you.

You activate an awareness in you that determines how you describe your world. This is one of the  lesser know principles of Appreciative Inquiry: the Principle of Awareness.

Become Curious About Your Words

What are you noticing about your use of words and how you describe things?  It's very helpful to become aware and notice the words you use and the metaphors you use to describe people, places and institutions. What percentage of the time do you describe your family members as loving or indifferent? Is your work place culture collaborative or toxic? Do you describe yourself overall as a high achiever or a failure? Do you hang out with champions or losers?

Become curious about your language and the stories you tell yourself. As you become more skilled and practiced, and notice the words of others, you’ll also notice what kind of responses their words provoke in you. This awareness is a first step to increasing your conscious awareness about your use of language and how it makes you feel and how you interpret it.

Four Practices to Develop the Principle of Awareness

Here are three practices to help you develop the Principle of Awareness

 1. Pay attention to how words impact you

Notice if the words you use elevate your power of positivity or diminish it? Is it moving you in the direction you want or holding you back? In a previous post, my story about my best friend, Jenny illustrated how Jenny was not aware of the impact of her self-talk. Her language kept her small and closed to possibilities. She hung out in the negative zone and influenced most people to hang out there with her.

2. Notice the sensations in your body

Second thing to pay attention to are the sensations in your body that certain words arose in you. Words have power and can have a visceral effect. They can upset you really badly and make you angry, and they can bring you to tears; they can even make you feel so deeply understood by another, if you do not have a healthy self awareness and self identity.

Physical responses you might look out for: when you have a tight jaw or a relaxed face; your fists are clenched or loose; your shoulders are hunched over or expanded; your breathing is fast and shallow or slow and deep. If you’re experiencing tightness much of the time, chances are you activating your reptilian brain, alerting you to be ready for fight or flight. At the same time you are creating negative emotions, releasing the stress hormone cortisol, and you are strengthening your negativity bias.

When your brain, your emotions and your body are on constant alert for danger that takes a lot of energy and can drain you. Overtime, these responses build up and become our default. In fact, for most of us this kind of response is our default and we reinforce the negative when we don’t have to.

3. Distinguish between negative and positive emotions

Both positivity and negativity have a contagion effect. No prize for guessing which one is better for you and will get you moving in the direction of greatest possibility! Be mindful of your emotions. Positive emotions open us up and make us more playful. Negative emotions narrow our though- action repertoire and we are therefore less resourceful.

4. Recall past successes

In closing on this topic, increasing self-awareness, I invite you to increase your attention in the present moment. I advocate you don’t dwell too much on the past failures – as helpful as they can be for learning, and you can reframe past mistakes so they become valuable learning opportunities, but it’s more resourceful when reliving the past, you go to where you’ve had some modicum of success, because that’s your leverage point. When you’ve had a taste success, it motivates you to do more of the same.

How Appreciative Inquiry Questions Work, With Robyn Stratton-Berkessel – PS040

How Appreciative Inquiry Questions Work, Episode Overview

RSB Resized to 400 by 600 approxThis episode is Part II of a two-part show.  Kathy Becker, CEO of the Center for Appreciative Inquiry interviews Robyn Stratton-Berkessel. Both are Appreciative Inquiry Practitioners and professional colleagues. In the previous episode, Part I, Robyn interviews Kathy demonstrating  the Appreciative Inquiry Discovery Interview.  In this episode the roles are reversed and Kathy interviews Robyn.  We demonstrate how Appreciative Inquiry Questions work. Appreciative Inquiry is a positive approach to change which has been used globally for almost 30 years. It seeks to inspire, mobilize, and sustain, employee engagement and collaborations.


It's my great pleasure to be interviewed by Kathy Becker.  As the creator of Positivity Strategist, let me introduce myself.  My name is Robyn Stratton-Berkessel, and I am most grateful that you've come to my website and are listening in to my show.

In a nutshell, I'm an author, a speaker, a podcast host, an app developer, a designer and facilitator, and coach.  My strengths are leading positive change. I partner with executives and teams around the world, designing and delivering high impact and positive change with a focus on co-creating cultures of ownership, inclusion and collaboration.  You can find out more about my journey on my About Page.  If you scroll to the bottom of that page, you'll find out how I was an annoyance factor in my earlier years and the shift I underwent in my life.

High Point Experiences as an Appreciative Inquiry Facilitator

Being interviewed is such a wonderful opportunity to actually experience the work I love – as participants in my workshops do.  Instead of interviewing or facilitating others, I am in the participant's chair.  I have the chance to talk about the work I do from a very special place.  I talk about a high point experience in my career as an Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner.

You’ll hear not only the unfolding story of a high point Appreciative Inquiry experience, but some of behind-the-scenes set-up as well.

Appreciative Inquiry Questions

Below is the generic Appreciative Inquiry Discovery Interview Protocol.

Listen in to the episode to hear the responses to each of these questions and learn much more about the Appreciative Inquiry experience.

1 What has been a high-point experience for you as an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, when you felt most alive, successful, and effective? Please share your story.

  • What was the situation?
  • Who was involved?
  • What happened?
  • What was the experience like for the client group and you?
  • How did you feel?

2Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself, your work, and how it’s organized?

3What are the core factors that make this work function at its best, when it feels a perfect fit for who you are, and you see how this work impacts your clients.  What are some of those impacts?

4What are three wishes for the future of this work for you as an AI practitioner?

Appreciative Inquiry Case Study - How Appreciative Inquiry Questions WorkBonus Offer: Free Case Study Download

To learn more about this Appreciative Inquiry Summit, please download the full case study co-authored by the client and and the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner.

You will learn about the entire process from detailed preparation leading up to the summit, the design of the summit, the team work that make it works so powerfully, the project milestones, the participant experience and their outcomes.btn_Download


Delighting Clients

As you listen in, you’ll learn not only about my personal high point experiences doing my work, but also how it impacts everyone involved.  You will hear what happens when people share their stories and feel truly heard. You will hear what outcomes result from the conversations that happen. You will hear how an Appreciative Inquiry Summit is organized.  You will hear how the clients are delighted.

Links Mentioned In This Episode

  • Robyn’s Twitter            

Books Mentioned In This Episode


Let's Stay Connected

It's always great to hear from you. Please connect with me to ask questions or leave comments about this episode or the podcast in general, and there are several good ways to do this:

  • Share your questions and ideas on the Podcast Feedback page
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  • Leave a comment on the show notes below

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Finding Energy for Positive Change will Boost your Productivity

positive changeWe’re educated to use our so called “left brain” to be analytical and solve problems and make endless lists and focus on things that need changing because they don't work.  Think about your meetings at work and other social interactions throughout your life.

This trajectory most likely started with how your parents taught you to be a good boy or girl growing up. It continued with your relationships with teachers at school, and then your bosses at work.

This meme seems to be the traditional way across most post industrial cultures.  We value our analytical brain, our executive brain, but that brain doesn’t run our lives when we are faced with fear or anxiety or the unknown, or when feeling discomfort or insecurity and especially when we feel vulnerable.

Recently, I was present in a meeting after a software roll out in an global bank.  They name these meetings “post mortems.”  Really!  The language is already ominous.  It smells of death.  The leaders of the meeting, by default, as most of us do, focused immediately on the things that went wrong and failed in the rollout.

Indeed, these things needed addressing, but the tone of the meeting within minutes of starting was spiraling downwards fast and people’s energy was deflating and eye contact dropping to the floor for fear of the blame game.

Energy Spiraling Upward

So, imagine if the team members (or the leader) had started the meeting with:

“We’ve just had a global roll out of a product we’ve been working so hard on together for months, and it went pretty well. In fact, it went great!

“Let’s start this meeting congratulating ourselves by spending a few minutes on what worked well from our individual perspectives and then we’ll address what we need to change.

What are we proud of in this roll out?  What good feedback have we had from clients?  What really worked well?”

The tone and the energy starts to pick up and spiral upward, a different set of chemicals fire within the brain and there’s energy to listen to each other, collaborate and increase engagement and productivity.  Solutions to problems and a willingness to address them begin to emerge without even having to drag them out of reluctant mouths.

RS_2005_04_29_0588The people in the room experience a different energy and begin to initiate changes from a place of engaged, solution-focused creativity and possibility.

Energy for Positive Change

This is one of the lessons of embracing change from a valuing or appreciative perspective.  You first discover and focus on what works and all the existing assets and then the weaknesses or faults begin to come into the conversation and they get addressed also – but from a very different place.  It’s a place of we’re-in-this-together:  we’ve just praised ourselves for what went well, and now we can together begin to address what we need to fix and improve on.

Appreciative Inquiry

In summary then, Appreciative Inquiry  (AI) as a change methodology looks for what’s already working well in a person or situation, not what’s broken. It takes a little practice to make that shift, as our default seems to look for what’s wrong in ourselves, each other and society at large.

One of the key principles of AI is ‘what you study grows’.  If you study deficits, you’ll find many, and if you study success, you’ll find a lot of it. Appreciative Inquiry is both a way of thinking and doing.  It provides a framework and a method to initiate positive emotions,  thoughts and actions that can produce outcomes directed with intentionality toward affirming life, heightening positive energy and uplifting the human spirit.

How do You View Change?

Focus on the changes in your own life.  If you stop to appreciate what you have already working for yourself, in terms of what has helped you to get to where you are today – it could be your past achievements, past successes, past and present relationships, your network, your skill sets, your personal attributes – you might just have a shift in perspective about what you might change, or how you might view certain changes that are happening to you.

What’s your default disposition to change? What kind of changes do you fear and avoid at all costs; and what kind of changes do you embrace with positive energy?

I’d love to hear from you as I'm developing an online course on change and I'd love to hear your perspective.


Importance of Storytelling

Importance of StorytellingWe are all story tellers and depend on a regular narrative to help us navigate through our days.  We tell each other stories everyday: at home with our families, at work with our colleagues and clients, at play with our mates, and in romance with our lovers.  Who you hang out with informs your narrative – your story –  what TV shows you watch, what clothes you buy, the food you eat and all that you regularly do informs your world view and is your story.

Stories Get Lived Out

Significantly, the stories we tell ourselves get lived out daily.  They guide our beliefs and choices, thereby impacting our actions.  As we become more conscious of our own stories and the stories of others,  we begin to notice different perspectives and potentially reach new levels of understanding.  We begin to make sense of complex issues, and together can create new stories.

A beautiful quote says it all:

“Remember, you don't fear people whose stories you know, real listening always brings people closer together.”  Meg Wheatley. Read more

Just Listen: The Secret to Getting Through to Anyone, With Mark Goulston – PS036

Episode Overview

In this conversation, Dr. Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, shares personal stories from very early on, when he was given multiple chances by people who saw the goodness in him.  Mark felt he had been touched by an angel and has devoted his life to paying it forward.  This is a beautiful conversation.  You will be touched by the heart and wisdom of my guest.

Episode Introduction

Just Listen: Secret to Getting Through to Anyone, With Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston is a business consultant, coach, speaker, former FBI hostage negotiation trainer, and psychiatrist.  Mark is the author of seven books, including Get Out of Your Own Way and co-author of Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving in. He blogs for Huffington Post and Psychology Today. He also co-hosts a weekly radio show and is featured frequently in major media, including The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN, Fox News, and the TODAY show. He lives in Los Angeles. (See links to some of Mark's work at the end of this post).

Just Listen: The Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone

Just ListenMark’s impetus for the book, Just Listen came out of his clinical work as a Suicidal Prevention Therapist.  In this episode, Mark shares a personal story of a specific life-changing experience when he mirrored the feeling of his suicidal patient, Nancy.  In a moment, Mark saw the world and felt it through Nancy’s eyes.  When he reflected to Nancy his feelings: “I didn’t know it was so bad … I understand why you are going through this,” she made eye contact with Mark for the first time.  “If you can understand my situation, maybe I don’t have to kill myself.” was her response. She knew he had seen the world through her eyes.  She felt heard, she felt felt and it was that connection that enabled her to move on.

This episode contains many such heartfelt personal stories, that illustrate to us what can happen when we see the world through others’ eyes.

I am not alone in finding this book so powerful.  It reached #1 ranking in six kindle business categories at and #1 in China and Germany for US business books.

Mirror Neuron Gap

Neuroscience increasingly helps us understand how our brain works.  One of the discoveries are mirror neurons which are responsible for imitation, learning and empathy.

We feel the mirror neuron gap when we don’t feel heard or understood by others.  The gap occurs because we feel something in missing in our lives or our relationships.

The more you care about outside world and you conform your emotions to the needs of the outside world, a strong hunger builds up to have the world care about you.  You want to be cared for.  If it’s not reciprocated, this mirror neuron gap widens.

So, when you experience kindness in unsolicited way, you are so deeply touched, you are likely to  cry with relief because the mirror neuron gap is filled up and you feel whole.

When we feel truly heard or understood, the mirror neuron gap closes.

Be a First Class Noticer

Be a first class noticer, because when you do, you connect more deeply and begin to strengthen relationships.  This was an early lesson from Mark’s life long mentor, the late Warren Bennis.

First class noticing takes you out of yourself and your self preoccupation. Noticing things outside yourself frees you to be very present.

Focus on Customer Experience by Improving your Noticing Skills

If you or your business is in any way focused on customer experience, Mark highly recommends you become  a first class noticer.

Go out in the world notice what people are smiling and about and what frustrates them. Notice what they are noticing. Notice the customer experience.

Mark offers some excellent advice about how to improve your noticing skills.

Conversation deepeners

Mark shares some great practices to deepen conversations with all kinds of people. Listen intently to their language – how they use adverbs and adjectives, and their inflection.  In addition, watch how people invest more of themselves in the conversation with their hands and how they lean in.  Get where they are really coming from.

Diamond Rule

Do unto others as someone who loved you did unto you.

The most powerful action you can take from such a gift is to forever pay it forward!

When Mark’s experienced, at a young age, that someone cared for him deeply, stood by him in a crisis, stood up for him against the odds and stopped him from doing something foolish, his life was transformed.

Mark’s insight from this transformational experience was to honor such a kindness by paying it forward and give a “Power Thank You” to the person, if you can.  (In Mark’s case, the person who helped him transform his life has since passed on, yet Mark continues to share the story, thanking him every time he does).

The Power Thank You

There are three parts to a power thank you once you make the commitment to pay it forward.

  1. Let them know what they did specifically
  2. Acknowledge the effort it took from them – honor how much they did for you and what it took
  3. Tell them what it personally meant to you. (The deep impact on your life and what it really did it for you)

Heal the World One Conversation at a Time.

Mark’s legacy question: Why am I here and what am I here to do?

Mark’s response: To heal the world one conversation at a time.

To this end, Mark has created an initative through to bring such awareness globally and begin to facilitate the conversations that will heal.

Moreover, Mark’s site Heartfelt Leadership has a series of videos with significant conversation with leaders who are making a difference.  You will be inspired.

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Mark offers his perspective on positivity:  he offers up that it is a willingness and eagerness to believe.

A skeptic is someone who is reluctant to believe – who once believed, once was positive and was disappointed.

A Cynic is someone who refuses to believe or be positive. Cynics  will only believe or be positive if they are without the fear of being disappointed or deceived ever again.

Most want to believe, to be positive, but only if it’s safe.  Mark warns:

To be only safe, you’ll end up sorry.

Links Mentioned In This Episode

Books Mentioned In This Episode

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How to Strengthen Neural Connections

Neural Connections I recently delivered the opening keynote at a community college.  The audience were Academic Advisors.  It was their annual Professional Development Day. The request was to speak about Appreciative Inquiry and strength-based approaches and how they could support the Academic Advisors in the work they do. I felt honored to be invited. I was delighted to give such a keynote. I had no hesitation. Of course, I would do that. That’s what I do.

Yet, as I mulled over the content of my talk in the next couple of days, I became a little apprehensive. I thought of their context – an educational institution. Would I be able to satisfy them with my stories, and background? Would they be looking for specific data relevant to education when most of my work has been in the corporate world?

Anticipatory Anxiety

In my heart, and from experience I know that the approaches I integrate into my stories – Appreciative Inquiry, strength-based approaches and positivity have universal application, are context agnostic. Added to that, I hold the view that my audience is smart and they can make the translation. But still, the relevance and the impact of my message is my number one priority. I want my talks to make sense and be applicable and relevant to my specific audiences – always.

In my conversations with the client, it struck me that one of my stories, the one that I love to tell, and had started me on my professional journey, and informs my work today, is a story about teaching and is set in educations institutions, in fact five of them.

I almost always tell this “education” story, as it is my vocational story.  This story was there within me all the time, and it was so obvious that I simply could not access it in my few days of anticipatory anxiety.

How true is it, that so often the simple truth is right under your very own nose, within your grasp and in times of fear or anxiety, stress, self-doubt, our thinking narrows and you can lose sight of what is truly available to you.

Strengthen Neural Connections

When you experience doubt, anxiety or fear, your negativity bias kicks in and screams at you. You are shut off from seeing the things that work for you and other possibilities.  Fear and anxiety are negative emotions, so you go into this mode that defends you against anxiety, and self-protection sets in.  The walls go up, your bigger view is closed off and you shrink your world.

Once an emotion takes over, it begins to recreate itself and anticipate the next moment. You begin to amplify that which reinforces your world view in that moment and the associated emotions.  When they are negative, you become self-absorbed and you close yourself off from your best self.

How to Strengthen Positive Neural Connections

When the BFO struck me (BFO = Blinding Flash of the Obvious), I laughed out loud with relief and amusement. And, I was acutely aware how my negative emotions shifted to positive emotions and I created a whole new different experience.

Positive Neural ConnectionsIn reconnecting to a positive emotional state, I was able to set in motion a whole different response in my brain and body. In feeling relief, my body relaxed, my gaze widened, my face softened. A whole new set of neural connections were ignited and I could see the solution right there.  I was open to my own insights and inner knowing.

Positivity can swing open the door to new experiences, that shift your perceptions. When you see something as a possibility, it sets you up for the next moment to see more possibilities. It’s that lovely upward spiral of being open to more possibilities.

To strengthen those positive connections in the brain, you can:

  • start paying attention to more positive things,
  • engage in more positive interactions,
  • listen for, and use language that is life affirming, and
  • hang out with more positive people.

All these experiences will build up your positivity muscle and over time strengthen and broaden your capacity to access positivity next time you go into a funk.

Try listening to Positivity Strategist Podcast and hear positive stories and learn some strategies and tips to strengthen your positive neural connections.