Achieving Skillful Discussion by Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy

By Guest Blogger

Roger Hoffmann

VP of Technology Operations at HauteLook (Nordstrom)

(Roger’s previous blogs on this site include “The Meaning of Work in Japan” and “Yin and Yang – Finding Your Leadership Balance”


In my current role a technology VP, my schedule seems to consist mostly of meetings and discussions.  Sometimes my day is double and triple booked with up to 15 or more appointments.  During a recent meeting of about 15 people, including two other VPs, I lost my cool.  I was not happy with the direction of the discussion and instead of calmly exploring the impasse, I let my emotions get the best of me and became angry and upset.  I lost my balance.

How many times have you been in a meeting or group discussion and found yourself thinking with frustration “We’re getting nowhere fast”?  Or perhaps done some mental math on the cost of the meeting?  By contrast, recall a discussion where clarity was achieved and the meeting objectives were met.  What happened that made the first scenario bomb and the second encounter have a highly productive outcome? One of the keys to having skillful discussions lies in the group finding a healthy balance between inquiry and advocacy.

  • Inquiry: A close examination of a matter in a search for information or truth.
  • Advocacy: The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something.

Focus and Balance

The focus of inquiry is discovery, exploration, asking lots of questions in an attempt to understand others points of view.  The focus of advocacy is making assertions, stating opinions and reasoning, declaring your point of view in an attempt to get others to understand you.  Skillfull discussion requires a balance of both.

Dysfunctional Behaviors

When inquiry and advocacy are understood and employed in the pursuit of productive communication they are very powerful.  But they are not balanced, four distinct dysfunctional behaviors soon emerge.

  1. If advocacy and inquiry are both low or absent, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called withdrawing, which occurs when members of the group mentally check out and stop paying attention.
  2. If advocacy is extremely high and inquiry is too low, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called dictating, which occurs when an overly forceful member of the group basically resorts to “Here’s what I say and never mind why”.
  3. If inquiry is extremely high and advocacy is too low, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called, interrogating which occurs when members of the group resort to “Why can’t you see that your point of view is wrong?”
  4. If inquiry and advocacy are both too strong, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called politicking, which occurs when members of the group give the impression of balance while actually being closed minded while pushing their own agenda.

In balancing inquiry and advocacy, it is important that we lay out our reasoning and thinking, and then encourage others to challenge us.  Statements (advocacy) and questions (inquiry) that facilitate this balance include: “Here’s my view and here is how I arrived at it.  How does it sound to you?” “What makes sense to you and what doesn’t?  Do you see any ways I can improve it?” While hard on people’s cherished opinions, more creative and insightful realizations occur when people combine multiple perspectives.  Let’s look at how to achieve skillful discussion and how it differs from dialog.

Skillful Discussion

In dialog, the intention is exploration, discovery and insight.  Along that path, the team may in fact sometimes reach some agreement and make a decision—but that isn’t their primary purpose in coming together.  Dialog involves divergent brainstorming type communication. In skillful discussion, the intention is to come to some sort of closure.  Along the way, the team may explore new issues and build some deeper meaning among the members, but their intent involves convergent thinking.  Skillful discussion hinges on attaining a specific outcome, usually an important decision that the team needs to make in order to achieve the meeting objective. Skillful discussion is based on an agreement, which team members make: to follow five basic protocols.  The protocols are clear and not difficult to grasp, but they require practice.

  • Pay attention to your intentions

Clarify what you hope to accomplish in the hand.  Ask yourself “What is my intention?” and “Am I willing to be influenced?” If you are not, what is the purpose of the conversation?  Be clear on what you want and do not mislead others as to your intentions.

  • Balance advocacy with inquiry

Ensure that the pendulum of advocacy and inquiry remains balanced and does not swing too far to either side.  Surface and challenge assumptions with honesty and integrity.  Avoid a lack of balance which causes misunderstanding, miscommunication and poor decisions.

  • Build shared meaning

Words are abstractions and have different meanings for different people.  In many meetings, the discussion moves at such a pace and people use words so loosely, that it becomes very hard to build shared meaning.  People walk away with vague ambiguous misunderstandings.  Decisions made in such an environment won’t stick.  It is important to use language with great precision, taking care to make the meaning evident.  If the word is important to you, then converge on the meaning with as much precision as possible.

  • Use self-awareness as a resource

Ask yourself, at moments when you are confused, angry, frustrated, concerned, or troubled, What is happening right now?  What do I want right now?  What am I doing right now to prevent myself from getting what I want?  What am I thinking right now?  What am I feeling right now?  Then choose your response accordingly.

  • Explore impasses.

Ask yourself: What do we agree on and what do we disagree on?  Can we pinpoint the source of the disagreement or impasse?  Which category does the impasse fall into?

  1. Facts – what exactly has happened?  What is the data?
  2. Methods – how should we do what we need to do?  Is there only one right way?
  3. Goals – what is our objective?  Is it consistent with our vision?
  4. Values – why do we think it must be done in a particular way?  What do we believe in?

Simply agreeing on the source of the disagreement often allows people to learn more about the situation, clarify assumptions that previously were below awareness, and move forward. Remember to listen to ideas as if for the first time.  Work at being open to new ideas.  Consider each person’s mental model as a piece of a larger puzzle.  Look at the issue from the other person’s perspective.  Ask yourself (and everyone else):  What do we need to do to move forward?


The meeting I referred to in my opening example could have gone very differently.  At the moment I felt my frustration rising, I could have asked myself what I needed to do to find balance.  If I had used the fifth protocol mentioned above (using self-awareness as a resource) and explained my position, asking for feedback in an open and calm manner, I’m sure I could have achieved the skillful discussion needed to achieve the objective at hand.


Which of those protocols resonates with you the most?  Which comes naturally and which seems beyond your reach?  What could you do to strengthen your skillful discussion muscles?  What concrete action will you commit to this week, however small, to become a more effective team member?

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Encounters with Grace

Our biggest struggles in life are not with external circumstances like a business failure or a divorce. Rather, we wrestle mostly with our inner struggles like insecurity and reactivity that emerge in our crisis moments.

This blog is about encounters with grace in the midst of our internal civil war. The point of view one adopts towards this redemption story depends on whether one is a realist or an idealist in regard to human nature.

Realists view human nature as deeply flawed. By contrast, the idealists see us a brimming with nothing but positive potential flowing from our inner golden nature.

In my early years, especially from my theological training, I was a realist that viewed human nature as so broken that it could not be fixed even with our best efforts.

My subsequent experience with humanistic psychology led me to an entirely different conclusion. I came to believe that we as humans are essentially good and that we can trust this innately good self. All our inner nature needed was self-actualization and expression.

Today the idealist and the realist in me are married. As a result of that imperfect and at times strained union a third entity has evolved. Call it a reformed realist or a modified idealist.

In “The Road to Character” (incidentally I would rate this book as my most instructive read in years) author David Brooks sees a place for both the realist and the idealist in our internal drama.

When we are brought to our knees with this fragmented self, grace suddenly appears, sometimes completely out of left field. It pulls and prods us to the vertical dimension that some call god, others see in the acceptance of friends and family, and others as a mysterious inner resource beyond intellectual knowing.

Brooks writes that you “reach out to something outside of yourself to cope with the forces within yourself.” In those moments grace, an unconditional love that accepts us for what we are, finds us.

For me grace shows up in my moments of greatest defeat and desperation when my deepest flaws are exposed. It is in that kind of struggle where I relinquish the illusion of control over my life and my arrogant belief that I may have the answers.

As I surrender to grace I begin to know the experience of “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” As a result of that internal struggle Brooks sees that, “we are better people today that we were yesterday.”

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Being Fully Present

Have you ever tried to talk with someone while she/he is heavily engaged in a movie? The result was a minimal level of communication.


Were you ever on a conference call checking your e-mail while others talked? You remembered only half of the discussion.


Was another person more concerned that you listen to him/her than to stop and ask whether you wanted to be heard to as well? You felt like an audience in some bad performance.

All these are typical scenarios in our fast-paced me-centered world.

Contrast the above examples with the CEO who would get into the elevator with just about any of his thousands of employees and greet them by name, know something about their world, and for those few seconds be totally there for them. Granted his photographic memory was remarkable but all of us could do better at being fully present when the occasion so demands.

The result of not being fully present is that

  • Everyone knows we are not fully there for them.
  • We live with unnecessarily high levels of stress generated by brains that seem to operate at light-speed.
  • We cannot sleep at night because our “Energizer mind” keeps going and going.
  • The more we become addicted to hyper-activity the more alone we and others feel.

The answer.

Stop and pause

Ways of pausing include,

  1. Take time out from our electronic devices. I know an executive who receives 300-400 emails a day and has learned so to prioritize that he only responds in depth to 10 a day. Such prioritizing is not easy but possible.
  2. Recognize that the tendency to be at the center of our own universe requires our conscious effort to be other-centered.
  3. We could ask,

“What is this person really saying?”

“How do they feel about it?”

“Why is it important to them?”


What small steps have you taken to be present?

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Humility. How I Achieved It

Humility is not a personal quality that one would post as an accomplishment on Linkedin or Facebook.

In fact a humble person is hardly conscious of the fact that he/she has this character trait. Mention to the person that you view him/her as humble and you are more than likely to hear the response “What me, humble? I don’t think so!”

Before we look at the ‘real thing’ consider some examples of people who leverage humility for ego needs. 

False Humility

We have all seen people who pose as humble when what in fact they are saying is “Look at me. I stand head and shoulders above others in my humility”. Here are some fictional examples.


“I have been so busy lately working at the soup kitchen helping the homeless. By the way, it is the one where (name of famous actress) works as well. So I am very sorry that I did not visit you while you were in hospital with your cancer surgery.”


I hang around very important people (name dropping)

I am very busy (That makes me important)

You really do not matter all that much to me anyway even though you are supposed to be my friend.

I am really humble (I work with the homeless)

Text of Holiday Letter.

It is really so astounding that despite the humble beginnings of our family our son received a scholarship to study law at Harvard. Our daughter received a special invitation to perform at the Tanglewood  festival. Our dog, despite being a street rescue dog, won the champion of champions prize at the Beverly Hills dog show. We have been so blessed. By the way, how is your daughter doing at the community college?”


 Your kids don’t hold a candle to ours

We have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps (and not depended on public assistance – a government grant – like you did for your schooling).

The universe has singled us out for special favor because we either deserve it or are so special.

The basis of all these proclamations of humility; humble beginnings, charitable work etc., are that they are used as a frame for self-promotion. The sad fact, however, is that they come from a place of deep insecurity and self-negation.

Humility – The Real Thing

Intuitively most people recognize the real thing when it comes to humility. Humility has the following criteria.

1.    No one person is more deserving than the other.

2.    A person is humble and does not really know it.

3.    There is no attempt to showcase one’s humility.

4.    It is a sign of the person’s character far above all their achievements in life. David Brooks  in his book on Character calls it our “Eulogy” resume.

So the title “Humility and How I Attained It” could be a skit on the TV Show “Saturday Night Live”.

In the end humility is what defines a person as great. It is one of the great human virtues because, with it, one is transcending the needs of the self and working for the greater good.

See also “Humility and Inspirational Leadership”

Humility Quotes

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest may err.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“If you consider the careers of the people on Wall Street, the ones who were humble lasted and prospered; the ones who were self-centered and thought they had the whole answer often made mistakes. More than half of the mistakes made on Wall Street are because someone thought they knew it all. They didn’t have humility.” Sir John Templeton.

“How can you be humble if you are always paying attention to yourself? True humility excludes self-consciousness, but false humility intensifies our awareness of ourselves to such a point that we are crippled….” Thomas Merton.

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Go Ahead. Write That Letter

Eleanor Roosevelt letter

(Letter from Eleanor Roosevelt)

That’s right. Go ahead and write letters not just e-mails or texts.

A friend of mine told me recently that she kept a hand-written letter from her former boss outlining the way he viewed her talents and potential as a leader. She reads it from time to time to remind herself, despite sexism in the workplace and internal self-doubting messages, that she is a highly competent leader that continues to make huge contributions in her sphere of influence.

We all carry such letters. I have a small box of letters gathered over the decades from my parents, former patients, and leaders I have coached. I read them occasionally to both celebrate the past as well as remind myself of the ways that others valued my person and contribution.

Although hand-written letters seem to be an artifact of the past, consider the impact they will have on the recipients in today’s world of instant electronic communications.

The great letter writer in a previous generation was Eleanor Roosevelt. Reflect on the impact of her communication to the Daughter’s of the American Revolution. She wrote to resign from their organization after they refused to allow singer Marian Anderson, an African American, to perform in their venue in Washington DC. Instead Ms. Roosevelt lobbied for Ms. Anderson to perform a free recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people.

Her letter and act put the issue of racial discrimination at front and center in the national debate.

Imagine the impact of a letter that you write, especially by hand and sent through the US or other Postal Service to a co-worker, family member, or friend. This will be especially true if that letter has a positive message focusing on the person’s potential or possibilities.

I remember a time when I gathered with a group of socially conscious people and wrote hand-written letters to the prime minister of South Africa advocating for the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. I really don’t know whether the letters were read but I did feel that I was acting on my convictions about social justice.

What letter do you need to write?

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The Gift of Feedback

Think about a time when someone you respected told you that you had certain strengths but also specific areas where he or she thought you needed to develop. How did you receive this feedback?

Were you defensive“Who is she to tell me what I do well and where I need to improve? I’m doing the best I can with all the others things I have to do.”

Did you summarily reject it? Perhaps you have fixed ideas about your abilities and will not accept any evaluation of yourself or your work unless it comes from you. Perhaps you are in denial about what needs development.

Maybe you were perplexed: “What does he mean I don’t listen carefully? I never interrupt….”

Or, perhaps, it was an “aha” moment for you. The timing was right—the strength mentioned was something you had wanted to leverage, the development challenge noted was exactly what was holding you back. “This is really what I needed to hear right now. Now I know where I need to focus my efforts to grow.”

In most of our work (and personal) relationships people typically are not that direct in telling us how well they think we are doing in a particular area. They may hint or beat around the bush. Or, they may avoid giving an opinion at all, especially when we do not ask for it.

The corporate world where we work as executive consultants is rich in feedback. Leaders regularly receive performance input and based on this, they create development plans to improve their effectiveness.  As coaches and assessors, we, too, receive feedback on our performance. To a great extent, we welcome it, even if it initially takes us out of our comfort zone.

We view feedback as a gift. If we are open and ready to receive it, feedback helps us grow. Integrating feedback can be important in developing our capabilities as well as helping shape the important life or career directions to which we aspire.

However, for those of you who don’t receive feedback as a regular part of your lives, what exactly is feedback? To answer this, we’ll include some of the misconceptions people often have about feedback by noting what it is not.

Feedback is not about…

  1. weaknesses. It is not about pointing out a deficit (which can come across as criticism and/or result in lowering morale). Rather, feedback is about highlighting a performance gap that presents a developmental opportunity; that is, an area where we want to grow and where we can make significant progress. Feedback is also about revealing where we may be underusing our strengths; e.g., we may be limiting our potential in a job that is tactical by not engaging our strengths in strategic thinking.
  2. how we see ourselves. Rather, feedback is about how others see us. Consequently, others’ perceptions of us become the basis for our growth or change. If others view us as distant and cold in our relationships, then this is the impact we are having on others and this is what needs to change. If in our hearts we know we are very loving and accepting of others, then we need to change the way we relate to others so that others also see us that way.
  3. people telling us what to do. As consultants we don’t go around telling people what to do about their development challenges. Rather, people decide for themselves what changes they need and want to make based on the data we collect (e.g., co-worker assessments, personality tests).  These data, once analyzed and synthesized, reveal consistent patterns of behavior for that individual. What drives people to change their behavioral patterns is a big desire or inspiration to grow; e.g., to have greater influence in higher levels of the organization by developing a more effective communication style.

Again, feedback is a gift. Its value lies in:

  1. Recognizing a developmental challenge or underused strength as an opportunity to grow.
  2. Aligning our perception of ourselves with how others see us.
  3. Using the feedback about developmental gaps (and strengths) to make us more effective individuals or leaders.


Where do you need honest feedback in this period of your life?

What value would this feedback be to you and how would you use it?

Who do you trust to give you the most productive feedback?

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When Slow is Good

Everything is so fast in our society.

Remember the Slowskis, the two tortoises on the TV ad reveling in a slower paced life. Maybe there is more to the commercial than just the product being sold, faster internet service.

Slow is good. And so is having unstructured time and shorter days. Good for our health and good for productivity.

If working longer hours is not the answer to increased productivity, then what about working faster? This belief was challenged by psychologist Guy Claxton in his book

Claxton summarized research which strongly indicates that some problems are better solved by slower paced, intuitive thinking which originates from the unconscious mind rather than the fast-paced, analytical, “meet-the-deadline” thinking with which we are all more familiar.

This finding flies in the face of prevailing business practices which demand fast, logical thinking as the way to solve business problems. Contrary to popular belief, at times we need to learn how to slow down our thinking rather than speed it up.  This is especially true, Claxton argues, for the development of complex and original ideas.

A couple of years ago we moved to Mexico and in our town, at least, slowness is a way of life. This takes time for folks North of the border to get used to. I was standing in a bank line and a person was taking forever to use the cash machine. I muttered under my breath in English, “Is he taking out a home loan or something. Get a move on, hurry up”. I was surprised when a Mexican woman turned around and said “Sir, you need to calm down”

Lesson received.

What then can you do to slow your life down before some life crisis does?

The demands of your job will not let you work the proverbial “Four Hour Work Week“. You do not have to feel bad about working so hard.

But we can intentionally create pauses in our day by

1. Restricting our email times and visits to social networking sites

2. Finding silence in nature

3. Creating stillness in our minds through focussed activity such as the practice of yoga or meditation

4. Celebrating pauses in conversation and enjoying moments of silence

5. Taking restorative power naps at work

6. Turning the TV off, or better still, don’t turn it on.

Change your focus from noise to silence and from speed to slowness.  And it is likely to change your life. Just as music has pauses between notes or else it is noise, so create pauses in your life. In line with the previous blog, in so doing, open up room for your imagination to soar.

Listen to the Slowskis.


How do you slow down your life?

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Be Creative Now. Here’s How


Everyone can become more creative.

This could  involve everything from inventing new software, decorating a home, or preparing a unique bean dish.

But did you know that your creativity can be nurtured and enhanced? Here’ how.

Test your creativity

 How many ways can you use a brick?  You have twenty seconds to come up with the answer. Go.

Now reflect on what you have just done. Did you come up with 2 ways? Five ways? It doesn’t really matter because, and this may surprise you (!), this type of task is guaranteed to crush creativity. Why? Because it is the antithesis of what creative people do. Let’s see why.

What Creative People Do

The above exercise violated two of the four principles for creative production: I asked you to give a list but there was no overarching problem to solve (e.g., how can you use bricks to solve a particular problem). I then asked you to make a decision.

Here is what happens when you are being creative. Each step is a pointer to what you can do to become more creative.

  1. Solve a problem.

When a person is being creative, whether they know it or not, they are attempting to solve a problem. They are working on questions like “How can we find a solution for the water shortage in our community?”  This presents an invitation for the creative journey to begin. It cues the mind to start connecting disparate pieces of information and looking for patterns of thought.

All of us have inchoate burning questions about problems that we care about deeply. They point to a path never traveled. But the creativity does not begin until the problem is felt.

Question: What problem do you feel passionate about?

  1. Defer making a decision

In the initial stages of a creative process the last thing a person needs is some externally imposed deadline. Of course we all have deadlines from editors, bosses, and other stakeholders in life. But true creativity happens when the mind can operate without such constraints. We all know about writer’s block, stage fright, fear of failure, and mind freeze. All of these occur in part because we impose on ourselves the real or imagined expectations of others.

So in order to be creative we need to defer making decisions. This allows the mind to mull over the burning question even if we cannot envision the timing of the end result.

Question: How can you arrange it so that there is no particular outcome expected of you?

  1. Engage the unconscious

The unconscious mind is like part of a car engine. It’s under the hood and we are vaguely aware its there. It is therefore imperative that we know what it is, how to access its power, and what to do to nurture its growth.

The creative mind is a different form of intelligence from our rational abilities.  The creative path does not follow the path of left-brain analysis. It shows up in dreams and images and feelings.  One reason we don’t hear its voice is because it does not use the language and logic of our everyday discourse. Albert Einstein talking about his creative process says,

“The words of the language as they are originally spoken don’t seem to play any role at all in my mechanism of thought”

The first step in nurturing the unconscious is for us to get off the 12 hour a day work treadmill.

The unconscious thrives on slow contemplative ways. 

One executive even insisted that he have a shower installed at his office because he did his best creative thinking in the shower. Others find that jogging, yoga, meditation, or time in the beauty of nature can help their most creative thinking. When we are not consciously thinking about the problem the unconscious mind is putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The result is that, out of the blue, a unique answer to the problem pops into our mind.

Question: What can you do to slow down and put yourself into a creative frame of mind?

  1. Play at it

Creative people seem to be in a state of play. They are like children in a sandbox totally immersed in building some equivalent of an enchanted city. Their imagination is so engaged with the challenge at hand that time passes by and they don’t notice it, they have lots of fun, and their work seems like a game. * Others have described this as a state of “flow” where they are so deeply absorbed in the creative process that it does not seem like work to them. How many times have we heard creative people say “You mean, they pay me for this?”

Question: What creative activity seems like play to you?

5. Work the Learning Curve.

There is a big gap between our creative aspiration and the final output. Artists have to learn the color wheel. Writers have to learn the basics of editing. Works of genius don’t just pop out of the mind of the neophyte. All of us have felt that the first draft of our work is useless. At some point we all felt that we wanted to throw in the towel and quit.

We need to learn the patience with ourselves that comes with viewing creativity as a journey not a destination.

Now let the creative journey continue for you. Check to see if the above steps are evident in your creative effort”.

What has facilitated the creative process for you?

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Seeing “I” to “I”. The Face of Authentic Connection

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

Has anyone ever told you, “I feel so comfortable with you; it’s as if we have known each other all our lives? Or, have you ever said to someone else, “I feel that we are soul mates?” 

This type of intimacy, which we call “I to I”, occurs when one’s true self or essence makes an authentic connection with that same aspect of another, resulting in a memorable and highly positive experience. We seem to register this kind of mutual connection at an intuitive level, making it feel somewhat mysterious. It likely also occurs when many variables come into play, making it difficult to describe or explain.

What we do know about “I to I” relationships is that ego concerns are set aside. These include,

underlying agendas

the need to control the process or outcome

the desire to have others conform to our needs or values.

In contrast, in an “I to I” interaction, we accept the other person unconditionally, and we are truly present with and for that person.

One of the authors once had a dramatic and unexpected experience with such a connection. While living in the countryside, a neighbor who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, used to stop by to chat. One day upon leaving, he said: “You are the only person who talks to me like I am a normal person, not someone with a mental disorder.”

Upon reflection, the author realized that she was responding to his essence — to the essential person he was (and always had been) that lay beneath the layers of behaviors that were brought about by his schizophrenia (e.g., anxiety, poor eye contact, disorganized thinking). During those conversations, she was somehow able to remain focused on his true self, that aspect of him that was unaffected by his schizophrenia and, similarly, he was able to connect with hers.

What is the climate in which an authentic connection thrives? It seems to occur when we are open, not shut down; celebrating the other, not competing with him or her; accepting, not judgingfocused on the other, not self-absorbed.

Regrettably, our egos often get in the way in making an I-to-I connection.

Barriers to Making an Authentic Connection

In order to clear the path for an authentic I-to-I connection, we need to remove some of these common barriers:


Sometimes we come into an interaction with an agenda, for example: “What is in this for me?” “How can I influence this person to think or behave my way?”


In our very busy culture, it’s hard to be present and focused on the “now”. For instance, we are sitting with a friend who wants feedback on a family issue but we are distracted by interfering thoughts and our immediate needs. We’re thinking about what we need to get at the grocery store for dinner. We’re worried about a project deadline.


Over the years we have built up layers and layers of defenses against being hurt, disappointed, or manipulated by others. We also have mastered the different roles we must adopt in life (e.g., parent, manager, teacher).  Unfortunately, these roles can interfere with our ability to make a true interpersonal connection; they are like a mask we wear, preventing us from revealing our true nature.

Tunnel Vision

We often walk into relationships with unconscious needs, which can blind us in seeing the whole person. When the person turns out to be unlike we thought they were; for example, highly limited, we become disappointed, disallusioned and/or unable to relate. For instance, we are drawn to, then befriend someone who is intelligent, witty, and funny. Later, we realize that we have neglected to recognize some very important limitations in them that threaten to derail the friendship. We did not see those qualities initially because of our tunnel vision and blinding needs.

 Making an Authentic Connection

Imagine you had an hour long conversation with a stranger in a park where you felt a deep, soulful connection. What happened that led you to believe this? Perhaps, it was one of the following:

*You felt safe, trusting, and without the need to defend yourself — you were open to the other person.

*You experienced the other as being fully present with you and you with him or her.

*You felt unconditionally accepted. For example, you were not judged, interrupted, or stereotyped.

*You felt the other person really listened to you and that what you said interested him or her.

*You did not feel interrupted or competed with by comments the other said.

Sound more like an encounter with Jesus or the Dalai Lama?

Surely, we are not likely to meet someone where all of the conditions noted above have been met, but sometimes a connection is made that seems to transcend the mundane or every day, leaving us moved as well as capturing our imagination.

Think of a time when you made an I-to-I connection. What do you think happened between the two of you?

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I Work Therefore I Am

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

The other day one of the authors had a long conversation with a highly educated Mexican tour guide. We were on a seven-mile hike through a national forest near our home in Mexico. We were discussing the meaning of work in our respective cultures, and he remarked,

“People in the USA live to work. Here in Mexico we work to live. Sometimes I think people north of the border have gone crazy about their work.Everyone seems so stressed out.”

It made us wonder: Have we as a society become dysfunctional in regards to work?

In a previous posting we discussed how work lies at the very heart of our personal identity and sense of value in the USA. This orientation has its ups but it also has its downs.

On the plus side, work still promises to bring Americans personal satisfaction, a sense of contribution, increasing affluence, status in the community, and a deep personal identity. This all sounds essential to living a good life, right?

What then is the down side of our work life in the USA?

For a start consider the experience of Marie who recently commented on one of Cedricj’s blog postings: When I stopped practicing law and I became a full time homemaker I was increasingly annoyed by the question “What do you do?” The one instance that stands out in my mind was the time I was wrapping up my cases. I had made a final appearance in the family law courtroom and was asked what are you doing these days? I told her (the other lawyer) that I was a stay-at- home mom. She said aloud in the open courtroom, “It must be nice to sit on your ass all day.” I was speechless. What a put down!

It is bad enough when others insult us, in public no less! But the lawyer’s crass comment to her colleague says a lot about her personal attitudes toward work. It also reflects the underlying attitudes of our society toward work. Let’s look at a few of these attitudes:

  1. Homemaking is not a job.  Homemaking has a negative value, and is a situation to be avoided.
  2. Our society ranks professions in terms of value and importance and rewards them, accordingly: lawyers are more important than homemakers caring for children; business executives, movie stars, and sports figures are more important than educators, social workers, and nurses.
  3. We are judged on (and our value pegged to) the particular profession in which we choose to engage and our rung on the organizational ladder; by how much we earn; how many hours we spend working; our ability to pay others to do less-valued work (e.g., paying a nanny, an eldercare provider, a carpenter).

When work is viewed in such a narrow, biased way; that is, as the vehicle through which we achieve status and acceptance in our society, there are consequences. If our life is totally consumed by what we do, how hard we work at it, and how much we are compensated, there’s a price we pay in our quality of life.

For example, we can: a)   lose focus on what really provides profound satisfaction at work. b)   have very little or no time for a life outside of work and consequently, neglect other aspects of ourselves that could be developed (e.g. developing other aptitudes, discovering spiritual aspects of ourselves) c)   allow ourselves to be exploited by employers who constantly strive to do more with less and require that we, for example, do the work of two people while our salary remains the same. d)   endure high, even dangerous, amounts of negative stress because we believe that our identity, significance, and value are determined exclusively by what we do (our “Work”).

Consequently, we are willing to devote our entire lives to “work”. How then do we release ourselves from this noose around our necks and make the changes we need to live a well-rounded life of purpose and meaning? Without retiring from the workforce altogether, how can we achieve balance and a higher quality of life?

One question you might first ask yourself is how much discomfort or pain are you experiencing at work?

For some, a major negative life event is the catalyst for change, e.g., a heart attack or a relationship breakdown. Though painful, these events can serve as a wake-up call, causing us to reevaluate the way we view our lives and our work.

For others, it may be the realization that life is becoming highly unbalanced, crazy, or meaningless.

If you are ready to make significant changes in your orientation to work, how do you begin? Let’s look at some possible first steps:

  1. Face the fact that the way you are working is not working for you. You cannot change your culture’s work orientation but you can change yours. Examine the personal price you are paying in the way you work and ask yourself:  “Is there not more to life than this?” “Could there be a better way?”
  2. Ask yourself what it is about work that is working against you. Is it working long hours that you believe may be negatively affecting your health or relationships? Is it that your work no longer gives your life meaning?
  3. Are you over-investing in your work at the expense of other aspects of your life such as pursuing a life passion, balancing your life with healthy pursuits such as exercise or meditation, taking adventurous or restorative vacations, or spending more time with your children or an aging parent?
  4. If work has lost its meaning, identify the factors that make for positive work motivation and begin to think of ways to build them into your life. According to Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, these include: a sense of contribution, autonomy, and mastery. What powerful and positive motivational forces drive you?
  5. Begin to visualize how your life will be in a work situation where you have both passion and life balance.
  6. Act intentionally. This is one of the most important initial action steps you can take. For instance, you may start by devoting one hour a week to developing the artistic talent you have been neglecting. This breaks inertia and opens the door to new possibilities and ways of being.
  7. Realize that personal change comes slowly. You will need courage, focus, and the support of key people. In some cases, you may need to change careers or physically move to a different area in order to transform your life.
  8. Make changes and don’t quit your job. Perhaps staying in your job is the right move; however, you may need to change how you approach your work. Write down your most important life priorities, decide which ones you can implement now, and then set firm boundaries so that work does not compromise them. To do this, you may need to think of ways to reorganize your work.
It doesn’t have to take a crisis to make changes in the way you do your work. You can begin right now. In the comments section, please share your personal story of how you transformed (or want to transform) your approach to work.
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