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January 2017

Crossing PathsPatti Lind

Recently someone asked me which is more truthful about a person …. the moments when their choices show promise, or the moments that reflect how they have always behaved in the past? Both are true. Like it or not, we are always in the cross roads of who we have been and who we are becoming. Rarely does maturity and growth happen in dramatic fashion. It happens over time, each moment carrying with it the opportunity to respond out of habit or to practice something that is building towards a different future.

The idea of the past crossing paths with the future is especially true in the development of communication skills. I am around people everyday who are working to overcome their reactiveness, lessen their tendencies to make matters worse and increase their comfort and skills in being honest, going direct and listening when they would rather talk. They are curious people who are willing to try something different so they can have less stress in their lives, better relationships and feel more successful at what they do. Like all of us, their pathway always has them in the middle of who they have been and who they want to become. They are working on being patient, and feeling disappointed with their ongoing reactiveness. They intentionally walk into meetings intending to listen more, only to find themselves interrupting and over-talking. Allowing for this dance between the past and the present takes a lot of patience and forgiveness. It also takes ongoing commitment to keep trying something new even though the past beckons us back to the familiar.

The past especially beckons us back to the familiar when we tell old stories of disappointment: a thoughtless remark that stung, an email that humiliated, a conflict that blew tremendously out of proportion, or the time we felt unfairly criticized. They are stories that reflect low points in long-standing conflicts or serve to reinforce our ongoing disregard for someone. They are particularly powerful in drawing us back to past habits because they are told as if the dynamics in the story are just as real today as they were 2 years ago, 5 years ago or even more.

The truth is, our stories from the past are extremely suspect. They are naturally biased in our favor and primarily serve to judge or cast blame. Plus, they only reflect what happened at that precise moment in time. In every passing moment there are an abundance of options available to us: speak up, stay silent, quiet your voice, get tough, tolerate, pause, react, listen. We are limited to just one — and that becomes the remembered moment. Even when we have instantly regretted the choice and learned from it, the re-telling of those old stories by others suggests that we are no different from that moment of indiscretion.

This fixation on repetitive, old stories keeps us stuck. They are stories from a moment in time that no longer exists and vanquish hope. Each retelling resembles looking at life through the “rear view” mirror of a car. In a car it is stunning to see how quickly the road we just traveled is receding into the past. Within a block or two, we can no longer see what was right in front of us just a minute earlier. The moments of our lives recede just as fast. The road ahead is the road with possibility and choices, and it is the road we are destined to travel whether we like it or not. It compels us to be observant and skillful so we can travel the road of life richly and safely.

If your story telling is holding you back from being in the present,
•  Write down the stories that you find yourself telling over and over, and decide from this moment forward those stories have been told enough.
•  When minor annoyances happen, instead of creating a story about it and re-telling it to countless other people, try imagining the incident as receding into the past at a rapid rate and not worth remembering.
•  If the person is still in your life, you can soften the memory of the past by creating a different present with the person. Change your interactions with them in a way that reflects how you would like to be with them someday in the future. Greet them courteously, look them in the eye when you are talking with them, spend time listening to them, let them know when you appreciate something they have done. This is the path of active forgiveness.

As far as the road ahead is concerned, pay extremely close attention to what is surrounding you today.

•  Increase your association with people who support your new path, increase your exposure to information that informs your new path, and increase your experiences with moments that resemble what you are building towards. The people and information we surround ourselves with are tremendous allies when it comes to the crossroad between who we have been and who we are becoming.

Teams are also perpetually on the crossroad of who they have been and who they are becoming. If your team is wanting to change your past history of gossip, coalitions, mistrust and a sense of powerlessness, then you will benefit by realizing that the pathway forward is a trajectory. Everyday, there will be reminders of the past and the opportunity to move towards a more respectful, inclusive work environment. At your next team meeting, consider asking each person to write down the following:

  1. Describe what you would like the future to look like.
  2. Identify a behavior that is holding you back from realizing that future.
  3. Identify a behavior that will lead to that future.

Each month, ask two people from the team to share their progress with their goals and what they are learning. Encourage them to talk about the ups and downs of being in the crossroads and what is helping them remember their goal. If there are people on your team who are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts, don’t force them. They are potentially benefitting from hearing other people’s stories more than they are able to benefit by sharing their story.

Sometimes the stories of our life are quite raw and fully impacting our present. It is not enough to simply decide to stop telling the stories. Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path through Difficult Times by Jack Kornfield is an excellent resource for people going through challenging times. You will not feel alone or without options when you read this book.

My book, Communication At Work, is available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and eBook formats, and may be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell Bookstore and Inkwater Press.
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