Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rx: Storytelling

Like many of you this week I have been asking "what would make someone do that?" in the  aftermath of the the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Acts of terror are always scary. But even more so when we confront home-grown terrorists. We want to know: "How could they do this to us of they are of us?" But as the story of the suspects emerges, we see that though they were living in Cambridge, they were not at home there. The Tsarneav brothers seem to have felt cast adrift, disconnected from the world around them. Certainly they had no family support. And it seems, even though Dzhokhar had friends at school, the brothers weren't all that rooted in their community.

Which brought to mind a very different article I read last month in the New York Times. This article  resonated with me. Though we all experience stress in family situations, most of us cope with it in a very haphazard, ad hoc way. So I was happy to see author Bruce Feilor more closely examining the issue by asking: "What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?" I hoped, for the sake of parents everywhere, that he had an answer we could easily implement. In a world that allows for instant connectivity, it seems to me that true connection--the kind that grounds a young person in a real community--is harder and harder to come by.

The good news is: it's not rocket science or brain surgery. The answer is a strong family narrative, a story of the generations who came before and rode the rollercoaster of life, of the family that has survived and now makes up this generation. The article sites research by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robin Fyvush of Emory University that shows kids who deal well with adversity are the ones who feel embedded in a strong family story: "Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves..."

They continue to explain that even after suffering the trauma of September 11, the kids who had a strong family narrative recovered from their psychic wounds more quickly. Of course most of us know we need to communicate about problems, struggles, what we may call our "issues." But building a family story involves more that trouble-shooting or reacting to the next bad report card or phone call from the principal. To create this story you need to take the initiative and be proactive. The experts tell us "talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence."

Your children, nieces, nephews, and younger friends may resist your stories, greeting them with eye rolls and yawns, but it is important to tell them. We all have a deeply human need to be part of some group larger than ourselves. And if we have an empty space inside where that connection should be, we can easily fall prey to gangs and cults that offer to fill it. So we must make these connections by telling those stories to do our families--and our communities--a greater good.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Of courage and connection

I was speaking to a colleague yesterday about our mutual work with leaders/leadership. We were lamenting the disproportionate number of leaders who confuse possession of a large ego for that special quality of "presence." Fortunately, many of our clients do not suffer this delusion; they are not those stereotypical extrovert glad-handers. In fact, as I have written before, many good leaders dwell in that interesting space between extroversion and introversion. So the general assumption that a super-sized ego is necessary to strong leadership is (thankfully!) an idea on its way out.

Henry V: courageous and inspiring
When looking at definitions of leadership, one quality jumps out at me. It is often mentioned as if everyone knows what it means and how to cultivate it, but rarely discussed: Courage. An authentic leader, one who can inspire followers, must have courage. This is a deeply personal quality, one not possessed by all who want to lead -- especially if the desire to lead springs from a sense of entitlement. Such leaders manqué try to fool people by mimicking courage with a showy ego, or aggrandized view of self. They fall back on "fake it till you make it", applying what can be a useful technique to their inappropriate circumstances. No matter how hard they try, they will never be the leaders their egos tell them they deserve to be. They lack true courage.

But where does such courage come from? Research of social worker Brene Brown deals with the fact that the best leaders are the ones whose courage comes, counter-intuitively, through the recognition of their own vulnerability. See her excellent TED talk  for a fuller discussion of this.

Dr. Brown suggests that we must not only identify our own weakness, we must embrace it as part of the human condition. That is the only way to achieve what she calls the "whole-heartedness" that allows us to feel worthy of love, belonging, and connection. And without that sense of authentic connection, no one can be an effective leader. Look to Shakepeare's Henry V as an example of a leader who has learned this the hard way. He has grown from the wastrel Prince Hal to King Henry who rallies his troops while acknowledging their mortality. His courage and connection are intertwined and fully expressed in the eloquent St. Cripsin's Day, a.k.a "band of brothers" speech.

I tell clients who are working on their authentic leadership presence  that being willing to draw upon your whole self to communicate in this way is not for the faint of heart. But it is the best way to courageously connect. And inspire your followers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Safety training required

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: humor is the most dangerous tool in your communications toolbox. It should not be handled by amateurs!

I just returned from a Spring Break rite of passage: college tours with my high school junior. It is not my first time at this rodeo, so quite possibly I am listening with jaded ears. But far too many of the information sessions run by adults from the admissions office, as well as tours given by students, seemed to rely on "humor" as a needless way to bond with us. No bonding is necessary when your audience is there voluntarily, and for such a short time. We all played along and dutifully chuckled at the weak jokes. There was one person out of the ten we encountered this way who wielded her humor like a pro. I suspect she had previous training in stand-up comedy, and I am sure she had practiced her "routine" several times in front of an audience. She even made one or two of the "laugh lines" we had heard before sound fresh and new. But her comedy got in the way of her information delivery. To set up a joke takes time--and timing. Even one-liners have a certain rhythm, and need to be placed just so in your patter to work. Other content gets neglected at the expense of successful humor. Afterwards, I realized that this info session had actually given fewer of the basic facts than any other.

We did not travel hundreds of miles to be be entertained. We could have gotten better comedy from dozens of venues closer to home. We wanted information, we wanted to see what differentiated one school from another, we wanted a small slice of the experience of being members of that college community (because parents are very valued--if remote--members). It should have been about us and our experience. Not about how funny the representatives of the schools were. "Mom, Dad, I want to go here because the Assistant Dean of Admissions is a mediocre comedian," said No One.

Sadly, this desire to "entertain," this need to "break the ice" and "bond" with a group instantly, in a forced, synthetic way, is not limited to college tours. I have many clients who insist on starting with a joke. "Oh yes, that always works for me!" they tell me. Because who is going to let them know after the fact that their jokes fell flat, or needlessly slowed down the momentum of their presentations? Only the coach you hire to help you. Even a trained comedian saves her jokes for the appropriate venue. She does not subject innocent bystanders to them in her day job. And if you are not trained? Here's a quote from a friend who is a comedian: "I'll make a deal with you, I won't stand up here and do your job if you won't go back to the office and do mine!"

If you want to do comedy, take a class, then find a stage. If you want to communicate, find out what your audience wants, then give it to them.