I have a vision. I have been to the mountain top. Surely this is the true path to transformation? I have seen the shopping mall, I mean promised land. My mission is to shop till I drop.
Perhaps I am an innovator – sounds more sexy in French, “an entrepreneur,” and I have an amaz-on-ing vision about a new way to do shopping on line, but I can’t get anyone to see it.
The reason is I don’t quite see it myself. So lets call in consultants, have strategy planning sessions and work out a business plan and outline the deliverables and the time lines. Isn’t that what they teach in any MBA. The blind leading the bland to be more blunt about who is right.
OK, but then, new ways of doing things gradually open up new vistas way beyond what we can see at the start. Vision if it is truly vision, is usually something that dazzles you with its light before you see any of the details. You sense a new horizon of possibility opening up, one that only expands as it evolves.
From the planes, you see the pass through the distant hills and as you proceed toward and through them, you see the vast plateaus atop the mountains. That is the map of change. Quite different from the story of change the biographies will tell you, that pretend they knew it all along. How boring.
Perhaps we should start with blind spots– not VISION, for starting a business. Imagine a title that says “The way to success is to find your blind spots. Or find your goals in the gaps.” What about that? I can’t find a cure for cancer. I can’t solve the Middle East conflict. I can’t seem to elect a president who can unite the nation. We cannot close the gap between the rich and the poor. We cannot deliver fast internet service in our country town.
“I can’t see it” is the reason you go looking, just as getting lost is the reason you go searching, for a way through. Because your vision is blurry and confuses you is not the reason you shut down the enterprise. Its the reason you start it.
Prophets and saints are visited by visions. If your vision is something you see so clearly, it is not a vision like those inspired by God. That supreme immanence is usually something you can’t look at straight. Moses was warned, you look at me and you will die. It is the vision that blinds you that is most likely to bind you. Or just ask Saint Paul – how was the trip to Tarsus? Fell off the horse? Struck blind? For Christ’s sake, don’t think of starting up anything!
Follow your passion.
This is another path to transformation. When you think about that sentence, you would be forgiven to think it was made up by ice cream sellers in a heat wave. “I’d love a chocolate chip right now.” Like ice cream, passions tend to melt. Tell me what you were you passionate about 20 years ago and I will be testing your memory for things that you have forgotten you had forgotten.
At 5 if was dinosaurs and then, at 10, it was lego blocks, and at 15, it was the sexy maths teacher, aka Miss Jean Brodie in her prime and at 20, it was ending world hunger. Passions might mature into convictions or commitments, but don’t tell me to follow what is about as substantial as the morning dew.
“Passion” is an interesting word. It means ‘what we are willing to suffer for.’ That makes more sense, rather than thinking it is what makes us hot blooded or horny or excited. Passion is something that shows itself in the testing of time. It is that something that no matter what comes and goes, it seems to stay strong and deep, like our devotion to our kids, or to our faith or the cause of justice.
If that be the case, then we have the positions wrong. We are not following it- it is following us- haunting us even, hanging around even in the most unwelcome moments, forever staying in the picture. If we said, notice what passion keeps haunting you, you might get a more dynamic and exciting take on how life unfolds.
This “find it first” and “then follow it,” “fix it” when it goes wrong, until finally, you somehow end up a success- is a story that works for fixing flat tires but has hardly any relevance to the one mysterious human life that luck or grace has bestowed on us.
Fix tires and live Life. Don’t get them confused. Life does goes flat at times- yes, but inflating the ego with hot air usually does not help.
Find your purpose” is another one of those amazing phrases that sounds so alluring, so profound. Yes, find my purpose and then I am transformed. I can live a more meaningful life. That makes for a powerful story. Alas when its only a story.
For many if not most of us, the purpose of life is to discover by trial and error what it is all about. If there is a purpose, it is one we fall into more as a groove than a goal. The quest is the thing, or as poet Kavafy wrote, the journey to Ithaca is what yields the goods, and when we get to Ithaca, its‘s usually a bit of a disappointment. The journey there was the point.
Humans are future-questing beings. They want to enjoy tomorrow and the next day, and the day after, but as for some overarching goal or purpose, how does anyone know that? The self-help gurus and the self-congratulatory autobiographies tell their story from the peak looking back down, or from the end looking back at the beginning.
Reaching their point of peak achievement, they retrospect, smoothing out the path, making the road coherent, leaving out the detours and the crashes and road blocks and the speeding tickets. It’s the story successful summiteers of Everest tell you about how to climb to the top, or the story the Olympic champion tells you how to win a gold medal. The core question our narrative mapping asks is- from WHERE are they telling their story? Am I in the same place?
The story of success that successful people tell tends to look back to see a seamless path, a purpose driven life, with all the uncertainly ironed out or only included for dramatic effect. Their story from their achieved end is being presented to us as the story we should assume NOW, at the beginning or the middle of our journey. Most of us are not there, as we look ahead into a swirling world of uncertainty.
Its easy to be told how to do it by those who have done it but mostly, the advice is self-serving. “ As an aspiring film maker, Mr. Cecil B De Mille, what advice can you give me?” “Be born in the USA first up and in the 2oth century. Whatever you do don’t be born in the 15th Century!”
Find your purpose??? Don’t buy it. It reminds me of men who write songs about love that they get women to sing, so women come off as echoes of what men want. It is a deceit. We are being sold a story that is a false map.
Humans are inclined to pursue some greater purpose or sign on to some cause larger than their own singular existence. That makes sense. But that quest usually works by getting us lost, and coming up against failure and surprise, confronting our limits and our flaws, by which we get to know more clearly which way NOT to go.
Life wanted to teach you, “Don’t marry when you are too young.” Three divorces later, you might have matured enough to wait. “Don’t be a priest but I will let you discover that 30 years after you are ordained.” Life narrows down some of our choices but its not ever about finding our one unchanging, universal “written in the stars” purpose. That mirage might sell Netflix movies but the language is deadly to keeping life moving.
Static language gets us stuck. Don’t find your purpose, or go ahead and find it and then get lost on purpose, like a Bill Bryson travelogue. That way, you learn what you are NOT meant for, and you learn that purpose, as the cartoon says, is a porpoise. It loves to dive and jump and play.
What we are all meant to do is not find our purpose but find our path, by taking to the road. Life does not allow us to stand still. Imagine spending 20 years trying to find your purpose and discovering your purpose was not to waste 20 years!!! Too late. No, the path is that next step right in front of you. Step into it. As Yogi Berra says, ” and when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Are you trying to find the meaning of life? Perhaps your cosmic conscience wants you to delve more deeply into the meaning of the universe. Good luck. Unless you have 13.5 billion years to spare, you may run out of time.
You want to live a more meaningful life? If you are lucky enough to find it, well done. The only problem is that the meaning that works for you today is usually slightly off tomorrow or even its opposite. Don’t we look back at our lost years and ask ourselves “What was I thinking?”
Our modern world is suffering from the problems we created with the solutions we implemented 30 years ago. The fact we were so certain that we had the fix to poverty and roads, pollution and racism back in those heady days does not seem to have deterred new generations with the same futile search. When someone tells you they have found the meaning of life, run for the hills. A Tsunami is about to hit.
Quests for meaning still remain popular. You read ads on the NYC subway offering you happiness and success. Just pay 10 dollars. They presume life is some big jig-saw puzzle-just fit the pieces together . But we are deluding ourselves. Life is consistently inconsistent. By the time you have found the answer, it has moved on to a different question and didn’t bother to tell you.
Meaning moves. You have to map it to track it. Humans through history have tried to catch it, trap it, hold it, write books about it, but in the process, they freeze it to death. They use language that has no life, no future, and no chance to dance.
Meaning moves because of time. Time relentlessly moves us forward into an ever-dwindling future where, when we have more time, things like death and inheritance are too far off to worry us. Eat, drink, and be merry. When we are running out of time, the end can become too close for comfort. Death and health and inheritance become the big deal.
Strange that, because the end of life is clear at the start, but it only gets meaningful when it closes in on us. When it makes a move on us, we move it up the priority list. Meaning moves, and when it makes its moves on us, something suddenly becomes meaningful. Isn’t that funny?
What we have to understand is that while language stays reliably stuck, Meaning moves at the speed of life. We treat it as if it was a model, posing in a photo studio waiting for us to take its picture. But Meaning does not sit still. The picture we manage to take is always blurred because meaning was jumping off somewhere else at the very moment we pulled the shutter.
When you think you have it, you have lost it. So we keep feeling we are lost, and that the times are out of joint, and that it’s the end of the old world as we know it. But the world is just fine. It has 13.5 billions years under its belt. We will be lucky to last 90.
We feel lost and left behind because we are still on the platform and the reality train just left the station.
The energy of the world is moving at the speed of light, and meaning is moving at the speed of life.
Don’t wait. Get on board.
I am currently working on a manual to share the storywise practice of narrative mapping. It’s working title is “Mapping a more Memorable Life.” Here is the opening.
Lost? Stuck? Tired? Looking for a new life? Want to get rich? OK, but isn’t that how most self-help books begin? This manual is different. I don’t want to help you. In fact, I hope to show you that mostly you don’t need it. You don’t need to get a life. You need to get a map.
First, we’ve got to get rid of some obstacles, to make a space for change to happen. The discourse of change and transformation are a little crowded right now by four ideas. We have to get rid of four tired out clichés that sound as if they have the secret but are ultimately hollow. They no longer pay for our attention.
Words and ideas such as “the meaning of life” and “finding purpose” and “discover your vision” and “follow your passion.” They are the four horsemen of this apocalypse of irrelevance that have besieged the progressive mind, and contributed to that pervasive feeling that we are lost, stuck, tired, or that the world is no longer working for us.
We are lost- not because we have lost our way, but because we have lost our language, a moving language. Our words have betrayed us into searching for zombies and phantoms, for what is not there.
These seductive territories of passion, meaning, vision and purpose are ultimately mirages, sold to us by the consultancy machines of modern leadership training. They never work but we keep trying anyway. “It must be us- it can’t be the ideas,” we say. But the game is up.
Wittgenstein said that the job of philosophy was to undo language’s bewitchment of the mind. Ludwig W had the idea. So lets get to it.
CHAPTER ONE- WHAT IF THE MEANING OF LIFE WAS MEANINGLESS?
I have sent out the Happy Holiday greetings. I have wished all my diverse friends the generic blessing so as not to offend, not to be culturally blind to the fact that not everyone is celebrating the Christmas that I am.
I get that. But for me, something is lost because Christmas is such a stand alone feast. I want to say Happy Christmas and have that be heard not as exclusive to my faith, but as a gift to all. Christmas claims to be everyone’s story, whether you believe in its creed or not.
THE DAY THE HUMAN STORY CHANGED
No one celebrates the birth of Buddha or Moses or the Prophet in this way. Not even the birth of Washington and Lincoln, though at least we get a holiday. Christmas as the day of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem is the day that culturally changed the human story forever because on that day, the human story became part of the God story. Of course, Christian orthodoxy will insist that this helpless child was the “Son of David” “The Messiah” “Second person of the Trinity” but dogma kills the suspense.
BIRTH AND DEATH AND ALL IN BETWEEN
Birth is the original drama of human existence. We know till modern times, most babies didn’t make it past their first hours. This birth in Bethlehem is surely a big deal to Mary and Joseph. But Christmas insists that the birth into poverty and occupation of a helpless child is a God-mattering and Earth-shattering moment. Fast forward 33 years and it is an ignominious death that comes into focus, and that too will be just as God- Worrying, and Earth-Bothering and ultimately God-Revealing.
The theologians of the Eastern Church always insisted that Christmas and Calvary were a two way street– that god becomes human so that humans could become part of god, “divinized” caught up in shared glory. Sin was never meant to define humanity. This marks a dramatic change in how to read the world.
GOD AS PART OF THE HUMAN STORY
The deity has been part of the human story from as far back as we have records. Though they seem primitive, they show how humans have always had these intimations of some force that felt divine.
Mind you, their gods did not seem to care much for humans. He would destroy them in a rage or on a whim. The Greek gods seem to delight in confounding human hubris. Even the later major religions insisted that man is not god, and that when she thinks she is, banishment or Babel happens, or the Great Flood. The role of humans was to worship, obey and submit. Christmas is the story that changed all that.
HUMANS ARE PART OF THE GOD STORY
With Christmas, the human experience from birth to death, is now caught up in the divine story. A human being born poor and under Roman occupation, to an undeclared father and a embattled teenage mother matters- as it has never mattered before. Christianity more than any other faith insists on immanence, on creation as a force of incarnation- spirit becoming flesh. Life is no blind accident. Birth and parenting and childhood and all the other familiar Christmas stories, the animals getting the front row seats, the three wise kings from the East and their gifts, the poor shepherds hearing the angels sing- Herod’s murderous rage against the innocents, the refugee family forced into Egypt- these are not told as folk tales but as scripture- core to gods story. they happen in the life of god.
THE THREAT OF A NEW WORLD
Herod, like typical rulers, only sees threat, suspects secret resistance, and Intelligence has tipped him off that this child would overturn his kingdom. The weak will upend the strong, the carpenter’s son will teach the elders in the Temple, the angels will appear to poor shepherds, the star will be followed by three foreign kings from the East, a woman will be the god-bearer. The world suddenly seemed to be spinning on a new axis. Herod was right to be worried.
HOW POWER SEES THE WORLD
Then as now, the world seen through the eyes of power, from the terrace of a Palace or from the porch of the White House, is seen from the top down. Freedom and prosperity are supposed to flow “magnificently and beneficently” downhill from there- or more usually they trickle down to their subjects.
The world seen through the eyes of a baby born in a manger is bottom up. Grace is luck, surprise, and indiscriminate, like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust. Imperial power is an illusion. God comes in the form of helplessness. Later it was what Jesus preached, but it was the story of his birth too. Blessed are the poor, the downtrodden, the occupied, the peacemakers, those who mourn, those who hunger for the day of justice.
CHRISTMAS PRESENTS IN WASHINGTON
Mary and Joseph, summoned by the Empire of Caesar Augustus, had to show up at Bethlehem Social Security office for a census, so they and the rest of the world could pay taxes. Unwittingly this Christmas week, Congress seems intent on playing their own part in the Christmas Pantomine with their Christmas present of Less Taxes for everyone, especially the rich. But their Nativity play stopped there. The 3 foreign Kings were stopped at the Mexican border because of the Muslim ban, their gold, frankincense, and myrrh seized- and Balthazar, king of the Arabs was arrested for carrying drugs. The poor shepherds, losing their health care, were too poor and sick to even travel through the checkpoints of occupation to get to Bethlehem. A teenager the same age as Mary dared to resist a modern day Roman soldier and her home was raided and she has been imprisoned. Herod is still at large.
No matter the rulers of the day, at this Christmas, plenitudes of Josephs and Marys will be travelling on the refugee roads of occupation, under threat, starving, exhausted, hoping for a place of shelter to finally give birth to a new and better life. Armed with this Christmas story telling them they matter too, they surely will pilgrim on, demanding in the name of God that we pay them respect. Peace on earth depends on that.
Christmas remains this most dangerous of memories-and the most amazing blessing to offer anyone. On this special day, a baby, helpless, and startled and under threat, was born into occupation, the same as any Bethlehem baby born today. But this baby and this birth and this family matters, just as every baby and every birth and every family -from now on- matters. Christ is born. There is divinity hidden within our frail human purposes. The god of disguise is this god in diapers
To wish someone Merry Christmas means that we are inviting everyone to join together to treat life on earth and every human, born of a woman -with respect, as if they matter, and with reverence, as if they matter to god even more. Christmas tells us they do. And we do too. We Count. We Matter. Not Seasons Greetings. No, Merry Christmas.
In our work, the focus is not simply on techniques though they are important but also conceptually reframing listening as more than an activity of the passive receiver– or not to put it into the simple communications model of sender message and receiver.
Rather, we understand listening to be a co-created reality and that if we want to be heard, then we need to address the need to speak in such a way that we invite people to listen- so much of our efforts in teams and so on is addressed to selling our ideas or arguing or proving and not to the issue of how do we create a listening culture by the very words we employ and the attitudes we display. Effective story listening will always reveal the power of joining, or identifying in with the speaker, and making someone feel that they are not alone, that they are not isolated in their experience of need, and out of that sharing comes a team, a support network, etc.
So what are the strategies and the underlying ideas that should guide us into a richer communicative competence. Questions of how do I make it safe for others to speak to me, and how do I win listening rights from others.
-adopting the “I am not sure” approach- seeing listening as a mutual exploration
-owning one’s own ideas as yours and not as statements from on high
-The use of questions
-adopting the approach of a learner rather than a expert
Listening Skills Summary–The Assumptions Behind our Practice
There are skills that we practice about listening based upon the distinctions we make such as
1-What we think a person has said is not equal to what they actually said so we need to reflect that back in our speaking with phrases such as “What I heard you say was that…” rather than “You said…”Also note- Sometimes what the speaker heard themselves say isn’t what they actually said when you replay the audio tape back to them.
2-What a person says is presumed to be what they mean but that again is a fallacious presumption given that we use words to mean what we want them to mean (as we hear them) but not necessarily the way our hearers hear or use them. So, if we acknowledge this- what you say might not be always what you mean, we need to reflect that back to the talker in phrases such as “What I heard you say was…. and I take that to mean…Am I right. Did I get that right? Is that what you meant?”
3- It is also risky to presume that what people mean is what people feel. A team member can be vociferous on a certain point and we presume that she is passionate about it, but we need to check that out, because how we detect that emotional undertone may not be the way they feel it. That needs to be reflected when we check back in phrases such as “So I am wondering if you feel as strongly about this as I think you might, going on the tone in your voice?” We need to check out the emotional investment in the exchange so as to know how to respond.
4- We also need to guard about reading minds too readily. Though we may catch what a person says and have reflected back correctly what they mean and what they feel about what they mean, we also need to check out what the point of all that was– in other words, what was the intent behind the sharing, so we might say “So I am taking it that your point here is that we need to …Am I right in that?” This is related to the idea of communicative intent- so that as listeners we get a wider frame of meaning to situate the message. If we are asked to interpret it later when the person is absent, we know the spirit behind the message- the story behind the story- if not the way it is specifically applicable in a new situation. This is also the narrative principle we have called compassionate intention which is to always impute to words and actions a larger broader positive intentionality than they might seem to betray just by themselves. It is saying to the speaker that you make sense in the world, that you are on purpose and not an accident.
5- We also stressed that there is an economy of attention out there. Attention Deficit is not just a disorder but part of an exchange, and part of the media trade in image and celebrity. Just because I am speaking does not guarantee that I am being heard. Listening is an act of generosity and a gift we donate to the speaker. And it always within our power to revoke the listening rights that we give to the speaker. No one can force us to listen. So listening somehow always happens in this glorious field of freedom and grace. To speak to this field of freedom means we have to earn listening rights, just like a movie must win our attention or a book must grab us somehow to get us to read on. That does not mean we have to cultivate all sorts of cheap rhetorical tricks exactly, but to be much more aware that listening is about an economy of attention. There is attention deficit and attention surplus. Note how we say “We pay attention” how true- We have to pay for attention by the way we invite the listener in, and by what we offer them in return. How much we pay for that attention is going to be how much our listeners think we value them. If they feel we are too cheap, they pay us in kind. Quality of listening will often mirror the quality of the effort to earn attention.
6. Listening is a co-created reality and response– if people are not listening to me, I need to ask where am I speaking to the listening, where am I inviting them into the process? Some conversations that we must hear are never inviting us in, so it is very hard to listen. Not to listen is one of the subtle but most powerful forms of resistance to authority when we feel that we are being taken for granted or not being recognized. We perfected that art, most of us, in 12 years of schooling, the art of “switching off while seeming to be attentive.” The problem of not listening then is no longer just an individual thing. It is a product of group culture and values as well as an individual act. Listening is the way we create and reward relationships. Non-Listening is the way we opt out. We are still listening, mind you-only to something else that has our attention.
7- Thinking of Listening as a set of rights that are given and earned also alerts us to the experience of having our listening rights stolen away from us. We tell a story and instead of our listeners attending to what we said and following on with that recognition through referencing, e.g., “when you said…. I couldn’t help thinking….” We get the usual switch to their story. We are being compelled to surrender our story for theirs, and often it can become a game of who can tell the better story. Once that happens, you know that listening is not taking place. And it makes you wonder if listening-active or passive- is actually a rare experience for many of us. Otherwise how explain how grateful we are when we find a person who can deeply hear us.
8. We also wanted to draw attention to the silent listener to our every conversation and that is “ourselves listening to ourselves.” How we hear ourselves has a dramatic effect on the quality of our speaking and listening. We give a presentation and our inner critic keeps saying-“You stuffed up again- they are laughing at you.” That inner listening will make it almost impossible to hear what people say in response or it will make us only hear the critical comments.
The paper “Story as the Shape of our Listening” that I have given you discussed the idea that we listen through a story as well as to a story, and how important it is to identify that story. If we think others are not listening to us, often it is because we are not listening to what we are saying or how we are saying it or how it is being interpreted by others. We think that because it sounded right or wrong to us, it must sound right or wrong to our listeners. We refuse to make the imaginative leap into the territory of the other, where words once released are subject to the play of outside interpreters who co-opt our words into their own stories of what makes sense. As one critic said, all communication is mis-communication. The miracle that we hardly recognize is when someone can say back to us genuinely, “Now I understand.
9. If you do a whispering exercise whereby a story is retold in a chain or transmission, one can demonstrate how we take words and phrases and make sense of them as best we can- that we will not pass on let alone be able to remember material that doesn’t make any sense. Try and remember a set of unrelated names compared to remembering 6 different tropical fruits. So we as listeners need to make the compassionate assumption of a communicative ethics that says– even if what you said makes little sense to me as I hear you, I presume that it is making some sense to you. This is where my listening can be directed. I need to ask “How does that make sense for you, so that you can help me understand where you are coming from?” Also we might note what Malcolm Gladwell writes in Tipping Point about rumors and gossip, how stories are leveled, sharpened and assimilated.
LISTENING AS A CLIMATE
In summary, we can consider listening as creating a climate- and whenever we are in groups or working in teams, this climate will determine the quality of the connection between the members since the way we honor people and give them recognition for even existing is how we treat or give recognition to their voice. The use of names and referencing other’s ideas when we speak our own is not just a smart coalition building exercise, it is also a way of humanizing the group culture. This is more than just about people meeting to complete a task. This is People meeting People. It is a human encounter.
As well as a climate of connection, listening also speaks to the quality of attention. Who speaks and who gets heard? Sometimes that may be because bosses play favorites and it also may be that some are more articulate and more effective than others. Everyone has a responsibility in group process for the quality of attention. If the group allows people to drift off into irrelevancies, or pays little attention to preparation and time, then it is not exercising appropriate care for the quality of attention. It is never a given, it is always paid for, as in “pay attention.” Yet ironically, it is also a gift- the first we give to another human being when we meet them and the first we will withdraw if we feel that we are not being included.
Lastly, we can usefully speak of listening as a doorway into the climate of intention. Listening is not a blanket skill that covers all- we are listening-yes, but for what exactly? If the goals and the processes are unclear, then the quality of the listening will decline simply because listening is an exercise of focusing, of selective editing in and out. Listening as we have described it will help disclose purpose, and the more purpose becomes clearer, the better the listening becomes.
At bottom, listening is about granting to others the space for their voice by which they can hear that they exist, that they have brains and that they have feelings and that what they do and say makes some sense. It is how we take others into our space. If listening is a problem in a team or a group, it is about relationships and not just skills.
People often think that there IS the conflict and then there are the stories ABOUT the conflict.
It really is a distinction without a difference for narrative practitioners because the narrative understanding says that the stories ARE the conflict, they contain it, provoke it, prolong it, sustain it, and justify it.
Any attempt to put dual narratives side by side and find common ground is wholly worthy but as futile as two gun slingers comparing guns as a way to agree to peace.
In war, stories become weapons no less than bombs or rockets. Solving the old stories won’t work. They are made to detonate. They must be disarmed along with the checkpoints and bombs and stones and rockets that they provide the alibi for.
We have got to stop telling explosive stories.
We have got to find a new story.