Assuming positive intent- the secret weapon to surviving the holiday season.

The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)

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‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions.  While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.

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How to ‘assume positive intent’

The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:

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  • Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
  • Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
  • Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.

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Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.

So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!

Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation  behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference.  Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.

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How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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Lost a Job or suffered a career setback? Don’t flip out, take these steps.

Today’s job market is faster paced than ever, with swift role changes around every corner.  Learning you’re out of a job, whether it has to do with your performance or not, can be a tremendously stressful life event.  Job loss often ranks among the highest in stress on a list of life-altering events such as a death in the family, divorce, and serious illness.  In other cases, losing a key manager that was positioned to train you and advocate for your career advancement can also feel like a huge setback.

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These experiences can lead to feelings of panic, grief, anger and turmoil about what to do next.  If you let it, getting caught in a tailspin of emotions after a professional setback can keep you from moving forward in a productive way.  Allow yourself a good rant with your friends and family (not your colleagues) about the misery and injustice of it all.  Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and pull together an action plan so you can get on with your life.  No one wants to stay paralyzed like a deer in headlights after what feels like a dismantling career blow.  If you find yourself struggling to build momentum, consider enlisting an executive coach who can be a strategic thought partner in creating your next career come-back.

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1. Flip the script.  Major changes like the loss of a job or manager who was critical to your advancement can lead to emotionally derailing thoughts, rattling one’s sense of direction and purpose.  When clients in my coaching practice share professional setbacks with me, their emotionally charged reactions are often fueled by the perception that they’ve lost control of their future.  Particularly for the hard-driving, high-achieving ‘Type A’ people that make up Silicon Valley, this feeling is particularly intolerable.  Rant. Breathe. Shake it off. Hit the restart button. Relocate superpowers.

 Adam* had spent the last 2 years pouring all of his time and talent into an early stage startup after leaving a lucrative but uninspiring job at a large corporation.  He’d given up higher compensation for the chance to hone skills and autonomy typically not accessible at his level of professional development.  When the company shutdown unexpectedly as a result of cofounder conflict, he couldn’t stop ruminating about his decision to stay with the startup for as long as he had, and felt cheated thinking of all the financial sacrifices he’d made.

After losing a job, it’s completely normal to re-think every decision you made that contributed to the grim outcome of being out of a job.  People can get stuck obsessing about the past, especially if they feel jilted.  Moving on can feel like an unfair concession,  but dwelling on the past will only impede your ability to start over, not vindicate you.  Take inventory of what you’ve learned, where you are developmentally in your life, and let that inform how to prioritize your next work move.  Ask yourself “how have I changed?  What new insights am I taking with me? What opportunities am I free to pursue now?”  To develop an empowered point of view- flip the script.  Rebuild your narrative about what happened, and what’s going to happen next in such a way that you feel emboldened to turn the storyline into one of courage and success.  This is not to be mistaken for ignoring the role you played in how things transpired, or fail to learn from how you got there.  But those decisions are done and dusted, and now it’s time to move on. Develop a new narrative that captures the best possible scenario.  A few examples to illustrate the point:

Reactive thought: “I sacrificed for nothing, and losing this job is evidence that that my gamble with startups is a failure.  I’ve lost time and money and now I’m behind in life.”

Reframed thought: The calculated risk that I took gave me firsthand, invaluable experiences and insights that I could not have gained otherwise.  I now have clarity on what types of opportunities are best suited to my priorities in life.  With that knowledge I can start again with improved focus and direction to achieve my goals.”  

Notice the different approach to defining one’s progress and success in life- instead of measuring yourself by outcome alone, evaluate how capable you are of responding to life’s setbacks and challenges with aplomb.

2. Work backwards from the future.  Fast forward for a moment in your professional trajectory.  What specific learning and skill mastery will you need to successfully advance?  Staying focused on solutions, flexible problem-solving, and the ability to dig your way out of complex situations will aways be seen as evidence of competency under fire by future employers.

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Catherine* landed a coveted role at a prestigious financial firm after graduating with honors from an Ivy League university.  She was meticulous in architecting her career trajectory, parlaying her work experience to train in a new area of finance under the tutelage of a managing director at a different firm.  When this manager left for a rare work opportunity elsewhere, her chance to develop skills outside her wheelhouse was cut short.  Emotionally immobilized and without a game plan, Catherine was at a loss for what to do next.

When elements outside of our control topple our specific strategy for achievement, it can feel like our route to get from point A to point B has been destroyed.  Take a solution-focused approach and identify alternative routes to stay on target.  Imagine where you want to be two steps ahead in your career path, rather than focusing on what’s directly in front of you.  I asked Catherine to share with me what type of role she would be competitive for had her manager stayed and provided the specific guidance and training she’d wanted. 

“Let’s say you got everything you wanted from the current role you’re in, and now you’re interviewing for your next advancement.  What markers of success can you draw attention to in your interview?  What specific qualities and skills will you need to have demonstrated to be competitive for the next level of growth?” 

Catherine shared that she would need to demonstrate a high level of autonomy in her day-to-day work operations, process communication effectively between various parties involved in decision-making, and show success in developing and maintaining relationships that lead to new business.  From there we mapped out specifics around whom she might target for support and how, identifying internal and external resources for mentorship and learning, and personal routines to help her stay on track.          

None of these approaches are particularly swift or easy.  They take a high level of personal discipline and an ongoing willingness to course-correct when you notice yourself going astray.  Keeping people in your life who are closely aware of your intentions and support your efforts helps!  With practice and mastery, these steps will be to your overfall benefit by helping you cultivate new and effective resiliency skills when life throws you a curveball.

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*Names have been changed for privacy

 

Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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