In the middle of May, we had a event — what we called a “collaborative” — for a diverse group of our clients. The first half day was focused on the personal, where we guided the participants through crafting their own “change stories” — i.e. how did they want to live into their own goals and intentions and difference they wanted to make in the world.
It was relatively unstructured, and I was surprised at how effective the cutting and pasting and ripping images out of a magazine part was for people I didn’t expect to welcome the “craftiness.”
This was one of my favourites, a woman who was upfront about the fact that her style and politics were quite different that many of the people in her sphere, illustrated not only by the image of the duck, but by the way it actually leaps off the side of the page.
The event also meant I got to have my sister and one of my best friends/business partner in the same place, and to delight that they’ve crafted a friendship and working relationship of their own.
The second day was more work focused, with several of our clients talking about their own change experiences, and doing some collective learning about how to lead change, make a difference, influence the world, in a generative and vital way.
One of the themes that keeps coming up for me, in so many contexts, is about making choices. We talked about it a lot at our collaborative, telling this group-that-gets-us the story of a woman from another client group who really, really REALLY doesn’t like our use of the word ‘choiceful.’ She’s one of the folks who encounters us in different settings, but never *chose* to work with us (that word again), and has chosen to be antagonistic with us rather than collaborative. At a large holiday cocktail party a few months ago, she sought out Danny just to say “if you use that word ‘choiceful’ one more time, I’m going to hit you.” When we encountered her again, in a large group event, she came up to us at a break and said “I’m counting, and you haven’t used the word ‘choiceful’ yet. I’m warning you, if you do, I’ll hit you.” She was *not* being playful. I tried to make it playful by saying “oh, you’ll have to get through me to get to him” — and she sternly waved her finger at me and said “I have a black belt….” and melted away.
That session did not go well.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about making choices, shaping and being more intentional. It just keeps coming up. I think I posted about how when I did my own little “what do I want to be when I grow up” cutting and pasting a few weeks ago, I kept settling on this image as deeply appealing:
The image is from one of this year’s Governor General winners in Visual Arts — someone I’ve not encountered before, named Ron Martin. It appealed, in contrast to a spattering, angry Riopelle canvas.
I posted about this at the time, about how some instinct was telling me to sort, to shape, to find a space in life that was just as colourful, just as vibrant, but more contained, more deliberate, more intentional.
This contrast keeps coming up: from random spatterings to something complex but comprehensible. In some ways, picking the things to do in this way is a bit easier. My friend Age joked with me on the phone yesterday “if I hear you decide to take up sky-diving, I’ll warn you off.” That part, though, even for an impulsive gatherer-of-experiences like me, is relatively simple. Think twice before getting on a plane. Create an amnesty about learning brand new things (not the year to learn kinyarwanda or portugese, clearly). Be intentional about spending money, going to events, moment to moment activities. What am I creating if I choose to play one, four, 13 games of Bubble Witch Saga on Facebook instead of reading the fascinating Proust was a Neuroscientist I haven’t cracked open yet? What am I making if I put off writing up the report for that chafing event where that psychiatrist threatened us for using the word “choiceful”?
Those parts are practices, and not *easy* — but they’re simple. It’s simple, when I get home from a meeting mid-afternoon, to make a decision to head for my desk and a cup of tea and digging into a client request, rather than veering to the couch (or worse, my nest of a bed), to mindlessly surf website after website, while mentally promising that when the clock hits a certain point, THEN the work will restart.
What’s more difficult is a kind of choicefulness about moments, about presence. In CMM parlance — the communication theory I work with — we call this “critical moments” or “bifurcation points.” These are conversational junctures where making one choice rather than another has consequences. Most of the time, the way we operate, these don’t *feel* like choices — they happen quickly and “automatically”, and before we know it, we’ve created some kind of conflict, or wandered into territory that we didn’t “intend,” find ourselves more agitated or unheard than we hoped.
I’ve been noticing, lately, more junctures where my choices (which don’t feel like choices) belie a not-so-choiceful, not-so-mindful presence. A moment with a client where I responded to a wondering expression of anxiety with a gentle rebuttal, not a question. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” the participant said, anxious and a bit querulous. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said, with just the tiniest of edges. That may seem innocuous, but it shut her down — which I knew would happen. It was a choice, really, to call on “impatient cate self,” not “open, generative consultant self.” It was especially egregious on my part because it was territory we’d trod before, many times, and if I’d opened the question up to the group, they would have responded. She was on edge, this woman, and ended up in tears a few minutes later. I made a choice about how to be in that moment.
That’s a simple moment, but my life has been rife with these points lately. Where before you know it, I’m arguing with the star alliance woman who won’t let me use the lounge, rather than effectively using my wiles like the small bachelorette party I saw in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago who got moved onto an earlier flight without charge through being persistent, gentle and charming. Much more consequentially, finding myself in antagonistic relationships with people I need to collaborate with on the Uganda project, directly contradicting the “change story” I set out for myself on the first day of our collaborative.
At my best, my own ‘change story’ — or ‘best self’ — is about interacting in ways that enliven people, that help them discover and act into possibilities they hadn’t seen (or invented) before. I help people see what’s beyond right in front of them. I step in. I listen. This does happen, a lot of the time. The clients who were in the room with us in mid-May respond to that part of us, value it.
And, it requires a lot of work to be in that place, to take the time and the space to explore, to find the collaboration that I *know* always moves us forward — whether the us is a client group or my most intimate relationship. And I haven’t been living the practices I know make this possible very well. We talked about this in my weekend with friends in Arizona, our work on “spiritual practice.” There’s something in there about making the choices to leave room for the other person’s humanity, create a mutual agenda and story, hear more than asserting. And I’m noticing — noticing — noticing — how I need to bring this practice back into my day to day interactions.
It’s not about “being a saint,” as Finch sometimes terms it. It’s about being conscious of the relationships I want to live in — the impact I want to have on people — and trying to bring that to life. Recognizing the pragmatic factor that generosity begets generosity. And when it doesn’t, I still like myself better when I make choices that make me feel “relationally generous.”