April 2, 2020

Welcome the Stranger: Close to You

Is 10:30 a.m. too soon to be eating chocolate?– a friend texted yesterday.

I burst out laughing. Our new normal is hardly normal, whether outside, inside or within.

Outside spring is unfurling her magnificent new life and invites our reflection: What is new, emerging, strange, struggling and perhaps beautiful that I am welcoming into my life?  

This practice applies to our business world as well (Leadership & Hospitality: When Stranger is Guest ) and requires the mindset to greet our uncomfortable differences in dialogue and perspective with the same graciousness that we welcome guests to our table.

This wasn’t easy pre-COVID-19 and now it’s even more challenging.

In his new book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, author Timothy Clark unfolds a practical process to guide teams straight into strangeness with “low social friction and high intellectual friction” – the place of vibrant innovation. He continues:

Leaders must be comfortable portraying themselves as competent through their ability to learn and adapt rather than their expertise…..leaders must model a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien to most traditional concepts of leadership. Ironically, leaders are being challenged to develop confidence in the very act of not knowing. They must be submissive to the fact that they will pass through periods of temporary incompetence as they move through learning cycles. pp. 60-61

Submissive? Incompetent? Not knowing? Well, welcome vulnerability! 

And this, I believe, is our collective calling and reality in the COVID-19 crisis.

We are challenged to open up and welcome the Stranger – of fear, discomfort, awkwardness, irritability and yes, panic. We’re asked to live it, learn it, and lead from vulnerability as never before.  

Of course, there are easier options.

Like paternalism. Clark continues that with paternalism we ensure our position of control while everyone else obediently and passively obeys. This is perhaps an effective short-term gain but hardly the solution for long-term and innovation success.

Or, like polarization, observes Pema Chodren, a Buddhist nun, in her new book Welcoming the Unwelcome. She writes that with polarization we safely distance ourselves from uncomfortable ambiguity and sort people, places, things and ideas into two boxes: Us and Them.  

Polarization will certainly keep vulnerability at bay, but it will also push the Stranger farther and farther away. And that’s a slippery slope as we unconsciously disregard and eventually dehumanize others.

To shift our consciousness from other to us, from Stranger to a curious welcome, Pema recommends an exercise called: Just Like Me.

She recommends going to a public place. (Okay, that won’t happen, but how about practicing with a political leader pushing all your buttons? Or an aggravating family member, friend or colleague?)

Look at them and think: They’re just like me. They feel pain, just like me. They want to be included. They’re scared and feeling out of control. They lose it and say stupid things. Just like me.    

This practice shifts our fear of Stranger to empathy and interconnectedness.    

Again, and obviously, this is not easy.

Pema continues with what I call the parable of the spider and polarization.  

She writes that instead of flushing a spider down the shower spout (me), why not take a piece of tissue to help the “little fella out” and move him to safety?

Now I’m not afraid of bears or snakes, mice, worms or wiggly things – but I AM afraid of spiders. It has nothing to do with spiders (of course), but rather where I put my teenage anxiety when things were way beyond of my control.

So, last night, I got into the bathtub for a soak, and what do you think I saw? A spider, the first one since last summer. It wasn’t black, thank God. And it was in the corner of the bathroom, pretty far away from me.

Well, isn’t that a coincidence, I thought, having just read Pema. How funny would it be if the spider moved nearer to me? (Please NO!)

And then seconds later – BOOM – the “little fella” had booked to the middle of the bathroom ceiling and dropped precipitously down, dangling dangerously close to my nose and trapping me in the tub. I waited and watched, fixated, as it slowly, slowly, then swiftly, made its way back up the invisible thread.

Then I bolted out of the bathroom.

About 10 minutes later, I needed to brush my teeth and spotted it on the far wall. Phew, I thought. I’m safe. But honest to God, it immediately made a beeline toward me, traversing laterally on the opposite wall. 

I swear it seemed like that “little fella” just wanted to get close to me.

We’re quarantined with ourselves in so many new ways now. Your fears, my fears, our collective fears and our unpredictable behaviors under stress.

So what’s dangling in front of your face right now? What’s begging to be invited just a littler closer as you lead with vulnerability in the unknown?

And finally, if you’d like a joyful weep in celebration of our gorgeous, collective humanity, check out the Couch Choir – produced on March 22, 2020. More than 1,000 voices from 18 different countries join together singing – Close to You:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HezxInuN1YA

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Emotional Intelligence, Psychological Safety, Self-Awareness , , , , ,
Deene Morris
About Deene Morris
Engaging Emotional Intelligence | Team Think Generator | Psychological Safety & Inclusion | Moving Positive Change Forward

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