Top 10 Ways Purpose Can Change Your Life

This fall we are tackling the four pillars of resilience

  • Purpose and Meaning;
  • Beliefs and Mindset;
  • Habits and Practices;
  • Relationships and Supports.

In the last post, we examined the protective power of traveling back in time to assign strength-based meaning to past struggles.

In this post, we will take a look at the importance of cultivating purpose in both our daily interactions and larger life pursuits.


To review, Dr. Anthony Burrow, the author of “The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan”, describes purpose as the why that propels us forward, the reason we do what we do, the inspiration we have for being in this world (check out his interview on Hidden Brain).

The John Templeton Foundation gives this fancy definition: Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.

In other words, purpose combines the why behind what we do with a long-term desire to make a dent in the world.

Let’s say you are a teacher. To “be a teacher” would not be your purpose but a vehicle for your purpose. The answer to “Why do you want to teach?” combined with “How might that make a positive contribution to the world?” would begin to give us hints about your purpose. For instance:

  • To inspire kids to read, which might open up new horizons in their lives.
  • To help kids enjoy math, which may help create more math-savvy citizens who don’t get exploited.
  • To expose kids to Spanish, so they can be better neighbors and global citizens.
  • To instill a life-long commitment to health by making exercise fun.

Having a sense of purpose predicts a multitude of positive outcomes that allow us to overcome obstacles, thrive in tough situations, and live healthier lives. 

Below is a list of some of these outcomes, arranged in a Top 10 Countdown (though many of them were a tie for me). Some references are included within each section; others can be found in the Reference section found at the bottom of this post.

Top 10 Ways Purpose Can Change Your Life

#10: May be related to higher income over time. A nine-year study of 6,000 American adults showed that people who rated themselves as having a higher sense of purpose had higher incomes at the start of the study and increased their income more over time, compared with their peers who said their life felt more “aimless.” (However, we also know that higher income leads to increases in wealth through other pathways, such as investments, avoidance of fees, and less participation in predatory practices.)

#9: Makes us more likable. A 2010 study showed that people who self-reported a more meaningful life were rated by others as more likable, more desirable conversation partners, more attractive, and having more “friend” potential.

#8: Helps us be more even-keeled. Having a sense of purpose seems to help us stay off the emotional roller coaster of despair and joy caused by outside events, potentially creating more equanimity and peace in our lives.

#7: Helps our brains resist aging and dementia. A 2015 study of 453 seniors in their 80s found that, after they died, those who had “a strong sense of life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have suffered major brain tissue damage, infarcts visible to the naked eye.” A series of studies by Patricia Boyle’s team at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center also found astounding effects of Purpose in Life (PIL) on dementia symptoms. “After following more than 900 older people at risk for dementia for seven years, they found that those with a high PIL were only half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those with a low PIL… and were 30 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.”

#6: Helps us live longer. Several studies suggest that a sense of purpose is related to longevity. For instance, one five-year longitudinal study found that older adults with a higher sense of purpose had a “substantially reduced risk of mortality,” even after controlling for differences in previous conditions, depression symptoms, and income.

#5: Improves our health. Related to #6 above, purpose in Life (PIL) has been shown to dramatically lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular diseases, and reduce the likelihood of developing a sleep disorder. In a correlational study, older women who scored higher on a measurement of purposeful well-being (sense of purpose, autonomy, environmental mastery, and other constructs) had lower levels of daily cortisol (a stress hormone) and lower inflammatory responses.

#4: Improves academic success. Students who rate themselves as having more purpose have better outcomes including increased persistence, a sense of self-efficacy, time spent studying, and satisfaction with school. Students who felt more connected to their purpose at the beginning of a college semester were more likely to exhibit “grit” or stick with it when things became difficult.

#3: Increases work satisfaction and success. For instance, hospital custodians who believed they were an integral part of the hospital’s mission of saving lives and improving people’s health, had greater work satisfaction than those who believed they were doing a menial or technical job. A 2016 international study of over 26,000 LinkedIn members found that employees with a higher sense of purpose had more satisfaction, self-efficacy, and leadership opportunities.

#2: Protects us from some of the negative effects of stressful events such as COVID-19cancer treatmentbereavementfinancial recessionsurgerydaily stressors, looking at upsetting picturesstressful social situations, and being the only minority in a majority group. On the flip side, people with low sense of purpose have been found to be more likely to experience depression, addiction, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom (see Templeton review below).

#1: Helps us experience more hope, optimism, and life satisfaction. According to the extensive Templeton Foundation report on the Psychology of Purpose, “Purpose is a central component of most leading conceptions of optimal human development and psychological well-being (Bronk, 2013).” The report summarizes numerous studies showing that being connected to one’s purpose increases satisfaction in life, sense of efficacy, self-esteem, and hope in both adults and youth. Sense of purpose (especially with a prosocial focus) may be particularly potent in changing the trajectory of young people’s lives. Youth from low-income backgrounds experience similar levels of purpose and positive outcomes as youth from higher-income backgrounds, and can find meaning in their hardships. Teens who pursued meaningful lives “beyond self-gratification” experienced less depression a year later than those who were not connected to a sense of purpose. However, research also shows that purpose is important in midlife as well.

As stated by the Templeton report, although there are some exceptions,

“Researchers have found that across the ages, one of the best predictors of happiness is having a purpose in life.”

Moving Toward Our Purpose

Thankfully, a sense of purpose can be both discovered and cultivated.

If you are ready to explore your sense of purpose and resilience – and would enjoy doing so in a small group of supportive peers – you may want to check out the “Moving Toward Our Purpose” Program on Conflict180.com (the next cohort starts January 2022).

Future newsletters will include sample activities used in the program, so stay tuned.


References

Besides the links included in each section, below are some resources that summarize multiple studies on purpose:

Increase Resilience by Rewriting the Past

For those of you who are science fiction fans, or simply fans of social science, I have good news and less good news.

Good news: Time travel is possible, right now, today. We can go into the past in our minds and shift how we think about it in ways that can change our future.

Less good news: It’s not as simple as getting into a souped-up DeLorean and flooring the gas pedal. It’s challenging and takes lots of practice.

More good news: It is never too late to start, and it’s truly worth it.

Dusting off our DeLoreans

In my last post on “4 Ways to Boost Resilience,” I briefly talked about the importance that a sense of purpose and meaning can play in helping us thrive during tough times. 

Although I have used these two words interchangeably for most of my life, it turns out they are distinct, and that each of them supports our resilience in a different way.

Dr. Anthony Burrow, the author of The Ecology of Purposeful Living Across the Lifespan, describes purpose as the why that propels us forward, the reason we do what we do, the inspiration we have for being in this world. 

Having a sense of purpose predicts a number of positive outcomes, from better health to more wealth—and I plan to cover this super-achiever of the resilience world in another post.

Today, however, I want to talk about the time-traveling machine we all have at our disposal: our ability to create alternative meanings from the same situation.

According to Burrows, meaning is what we say to ourselves looking back. It is how we explain what happened, the interpretation we give to past events.

Every time we go back to visit an event, we are time traveling. When we assign meaning to that event, we are shifting our own future.

While all events are made up of unchangeable facts, we can control which facts we highlight—and the story we tell ourselves about them. This story, especially when it takes on a particular pattern over time, can change our future in concrete and specific ways. 

For instance, there is now evidence that repeatedly delving on the negative parts of an event can create neural changes in our brains that make us more susceptible to cognitive decline. A massive British study of more than 30,000 people also suggests that the meaning we ascribe to stressful and traumatic events can help protect us from depression and anxiety—or make these symptoms worse.

Thus, using tools like cognitive reappraisal, we can create a better tomorrow for ourselves when we find that we have been transported to yesterday. Cognitive reappraisal, which relies on reality-based information (not wishful thinking) to purposely reframe our explanation of what happened in the past, has been used to help people overcome mental health struggles (especially in situations where people feel low levels of control), improve performance in mathreduce some PTSD symptoms, and even make a tough run feel easier.

Below are two personal illustrations to show how it works.

One of my bucket-list items has been to visit the Grand Canyon before I turn 50. Over time, this goal turned into a desire to hike down and see the bottom of the canyon, which eventually morphed into a wish to backpack and camp in the canyon (with no backpacking experience whatsoever, when this final version of the dream solidified in 2018).

Two years and a pandemic later, I was 48 and time seemed to be speeding up. Thus, I began to make my way towards my goal by getting support, getting in shape, learning about backpacking, and going on increasingly more difficult backpacking trips with experienced groups of people. The latest of these was a four-day trek in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains this summer. I trained for the trip by walking around my neighborhood with a heavy backpack, taking weekend hiking trips, and working with weights in the gym.     

Some of the facts: (a) I was able to keep up with the other hikers on the NC trip; (b) I made it to the peak of Cold Mountain (our final destination); and (c) the climb was at the edge of my technical and physical abilities (for the non-hikers out there, “technical” means scrambling over loose rocks and pulling yourself up boulders while questioning whose idea it was to go on this trip).

The meaning: What meaning shall I assign to these facts?

Option 1: Do I focus on how difficult the climb felt, how the younger members of our group sometimes surged ahead of me with apparent ease, and how much my knees complained on the long trek down? Do I tell myself that I need to set a more “realistic” goal than the Grand Canyon, that I am too old to dream so big, that it will be too difficult for my aging body? Which future would this help to create?

Option 2: Or do I interpret the climb as something to be proud of, an illustration of my inner strength and stamina? Do I focus on the way I kept up with the group, the months of training I put in to get there, the ease with which I carried a 35-pound pack in the pouring rain for eight hours on day two, despite my squelching shoes? Do I tell myself that successfully climbing 2,000 feet of boulders and slippery rocks shows I can accomplish more than I ever thought possible? Do I tell myself that the Grand Canyon will be the biggest physical challenge of my life and clearly, I can get there? Which future would this help to create?

It’s easy to see how the interpretation I give to the facts of the trip will influence what I do next in terms of the Grand Canyon—and beyond. 

A smaller and less dramatic example happened last week. One of my training goals has been to do two “tough” gym workouts a week. For these, I want to complete three circuits of stair-machine/plyo box/leg press (rinse and repeat). This particular week, in which I was feeling fatigued and somewhat “off,” I skipped one workout and barely dragged my body to the gym for the second one. Then, I was only able to complete one of the three circuits before giving up and making my way back to the car.

Sitting in the parking lot, I could hear the two parts of me dueling about which meaning to assign to my gym experience. 

One part insisted that I was emotionally weak, lacked grit, and was never going to make it into the Grand Canyon at this rate. Another part reminded me that I made it to the gym during a tough week (true) and that one circuit is better for my body than zero (also true). 

This example underscores one of the keys to cognitive reappraisal: it is not as much about validating your self-worth (you are awesome no matter what) as it is about finding a reality-based alternative explanation to the event that is also true.

It is also important to know thyself. While studies have shown that self-criticism and negative self-talk are not sustainable motivators for most people, there are individual differences. One thing we can do is start tracking what works for us. My personal experience has shown that celebrating small wins—when I can manage it—is a better way for me to get back on the stair machine than beating myself up.

How do we use our time machines to build resilience?

As I said in the beginning, learning to use our time machines to increase resilience takes practice and persistence. There are multiple times per day that we mindlessly get into our DeLoreans, revisit our past, assign meaning, and inadvertently shift our futures. Unfortunately, we often operate on automatic pilot and don’t even notice the science-fiction feat we have just accomplished.

The trick is to start doing it more mindfully so that we are first aware, and eventually in charge, of the choices we make.

The truth is that even when we remember that we have a choice, as I did in the parking lot, it can be challenging to go against our propensity to choose the more negative story. In my case, despite years of awareness and practice, my parking lot duel ended in a kind of grudging draw with neither side claiming victory.

Other times, however, I am successful. After all, I am now booked to travel into the Canyon this fall with a small group of other dreamers. Thus, even in thinking about how tough it is to time travel well, I need to choose my meaning with care. It is in my best interest to remind myself that I own a time machine and can use it to create a better future for myself, even if it’s not always easy and not always effective.

As we practice more, we gain increasingly more choice during our time-traveling forays. Even now, as some of you may be blaming yourselves for being “too negative” too often, you can take a moment to be kind to yourself and ask “what else is true?” 

I hope you give your DeLoreans a spin and remember to have fun along the way.

Four Ways to Boost Your Resilience

For many of us, individually, and for our community more broadly, the past few months have brought several losses: lives lost to gun violence and illness; confidence in our ability to overcome COVID-19 lost to a barrage of alarming news; a nationwide loss in our collective confidence that we can hear and respect each other’s perspectives–to name a few.

While we know that it is not healthy to stuff our anxiety or grief, pretending it’s not present, we also know that it’s detrimental to focus solely on what frightens and upsets us or delve exclusively on feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

The truth is, we need to balance anger, mourning, and disappointment with a sense of hope, faith, and purpose. 

During this turbulent and uncertain time, we need to focus more on our collective and individual resilience.

Are We More Resilient Than We Think?

Think about what the concept of resilience means to you. How do you define it? What are examples from your own life where you have witnessed or experienced resilience?

When I asked myself this question, I was astounded with how manyexamples of resilience I could come up with rather quickly. From family members who had lived through WW2 to people I know who have overcome serious illnesses to entire groups of people who were thriving despite great odds, I saw resilience in action all around me.

My definition: To me, resilience is like a cork that pops back up out of a deep body of water no matter how much life pushes it under or a rubber band that is strong and stretchy enough to bounce back after you pull it out of shape.

Most of all, resilience is about overcoming the odds to thrive rather than survive.

Fancy definition: The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:

The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.

What Are 4 Ways We Can Start Boosting Resilience Now?

Scientists have found that resilience can be strengthened, like a muscle, by focusing our attention on four main areas:

  • Purpose: Pursuing purpose and meaning in our daily lives.
  • Relationships: Cultivating deeper, more nurturing relationships and support systems.
  • Habits: Shifting from less healthy to more healthy habits (like how we respond to stress).
  • Beliefs: Shifting our mindset from cynicism and hopelessness to possibility and exploration.

Over the next 4 months, we will explore how we can notice and cultivate resilience in ourselves and others (e.g., our students, family members, and employees).

Starting Small

You might be thinking that the four areas outlined above seem like a lot of work to add to an already overflowing week; that you are too tired to take on another self-improvement project, no matter how worthwhile.

I have found, however, that any lengthy journey can be broken down into smaller steps.

If resilience is something you want to explore together over the next 4 months, here are some small ways to start right now:

1. Purpose: Purpose is the “why” behind what we do–the reason we want to be an educator or volunteer coach; we have for getting up every day. Suppose you are having trouble connecting to your “why,” no worries. Happens to lots of us. One small step you can take toward accessing your purpose is to start a list of things that you enjoy, things that seem to nurture you (gardening, playing with my dog, walking in the woods, watching old black and white films, eating raspberries with chocolate, working with wood). Pay attention to what you want to do for free–the things you may actually pay to do. Often, these hobbies, activities, and nurturing actions are the first hints toward a bigger purpose. The first step is to start paying attention and writing them down.

2. Relationships: Text or email someone you haven’t talked to for a while who lifts your spirits, makes you laugh, or reminds you of your better self. Tell them you’re thinking about them and would love to have coffee/lunch/phone date soon. If they are responsive but vague about their schedule, be the brave one and don’t give up until you get something on the calendar. 

3. Healthy habits: Come up with something healthy you’d like to increase (not something unhealthy you want to decrease). Maybe you want to add one green vegetable to your day; maybe you want to add a 20-minute walk; maybe a brief daily gratitude practice. Now, make it into a challenge. Reach out to a friend, colleague, or family member who would enjoy a little healthy competition. Create a text thread or other accountability system and update each other every day (“one green salad at lunch; check”; “20 min evening walk after dinner; I’m crushing it”; “gratitude list first thing in the morning and you were on it!”)

4. Beliefs: Beliefs underlie how we see the world, how we act with others, and whether we actually think something can or cannot be done. One small step you can take in this arena is to list three or more examples of resilience in your own life–with at least one being a personal story of resilience. For instance, when I did this exercise recently with a group of teachers, one talked about his grandfather, who had returned from the war with his sense of humor, warmth, and love still intact. Once you prime the pump, start to notice–throughout your day–examples of resilience around you. Notice, as well, when you might be shutting out the possibility of your own or someone else’s resilience and rewrite that script.   

As we return to school with both excitement and anxiety this fall, let’s balance the reality of our lives with the belief in our ability to bounce back, recover, and even grow from the hardships we face.

How one word is helping me feel lighter

As some of you know, I am excited to be entering the new year using purpose-driven themes – something I kind of stumbled onto through experimentation. 
 
Only after I designed the little poster below did I realize that there were 13 themes. The first twelve would make the perfect framework for the activities and exercises in my new January 2021 program – leaving one for me to play with this month.

So, I began in December by making “Lighter” the theme of the month and just noticing what happened as a result. 

Unlike the program starting in January, I didn’t have a master plan for this theme. I just got up every morning and looked at my poster (on my phone screen) and then, throughout my day, I would pause and say the word “Lighter” to myself. 

For instance, I’d be in the kitchen puttering around and I’d pause and say “lighter” – and then it would occur to me: maybe it’s time to finally replace that oven light. I know – it’s such a small silly thing (and maybe we should’ve gotten to it a long time ago) – but it was always stuck at the bottom of a long list of house projects.

However, that day, with the theme of “lighter” on my mind, it somehow floated to the top of the list. And voila, within 24 hours, I could see my pies rising in my oven again.

The first sign that something really cool was happening, though, was the day I was staring moodily at our dark 70’s built-in bookshelves. 

When we first moved into the house 16 years ago, it seemed like a charming thing to have a “library” in one’s family room – something you might see in a mystery film, or maybe a school for wizards.

However, somewhere along the way, the dark imposing reality of our particular shelves began to weigh me down. 

Often, the sight of them across the room would trigger thoughts of Zillow and feelings of self-pity. Why did other people seem to have homes with walls of lovely glass windows in white frames? Why did we have to get stuck with two walls of ugly dark shelves which feel way too time consuming to paint?

But that day, as I was staring at them with my usual hostility, I said the word “lighter” to myself – and an image began to form in my mind. 

What if we didn’t have to sand, prime, and paint every single shelf and cabinet? What if we pasted light wallpaper on just the BACKS of the shelves? That might lighten up the room substantially. When I shared the idea with my husband, he had an even better idea: we could paint the backs of the shelves the same color as the wall, creating the illusion of backless bookcases.

It was like one of those synergy moments when you unlock creativity and work together toward the same goal. 

The project has just begun, but I must say I feel really good about it already.

As the month rolled on, we kept saying the word “lighter” to ourselves (yes, it caught on and my husband started doing it too) – to more delightful results, including:

  • Lightening my emotional load by tackling 2 projects I have been procrastinating (since summer!)
  • Getting lighter on my feet by using my standing desk more during zoom calls
  • Lightening up our evenings by getting some jigsaw puzzles to do as a family
  • Lightening up our bedroom by decluttering one corner
  • Lightening up another shelf by getting rid of 10 years of Sports Illustrated magazines!

Not too shabby, considering that we are less than 2 weeks into the month.


FOR THE NERDS AMONG US: WHY IS IT WORKING?

Though it’s hard to know for sure, there is some research to suggest why using one purpose-driven word throughout the month may be helping us think outside the box and get our wheels unstuck.

AFFIRMATIONS. First, the one word, repeated 3-5 times per day, may act as a kind of affirmation. Affirmations have been shown to help us problem-solve more effectively under stress and guide us towards certain actions that make way for change. 

VALUES. In addition, the words on my poster capture purpose-driven values I want to harvest in my life. Values have a different effect than traditional resolutions, which focus on strategies (e.g., start jogging, declutter the house) or metrics (e.g., move for x minutes per day; work on my project for x minutes).

Instead, values capture deep universal human needs and provide us with a way to create “goals with intention”, allowing us to move toward our purpose.

Even affirmations involving values are more powerful, activating key regions of our brain that are associated with activity and rewards.

Regardless of how or why it worked in our case (no pun intended), I invite you to come up with a value-driven word or phrase and experiment with it this month. 

I hope you enjoy the experiment and let me know how it goes if you have a moment by emailing me: elaine @ conflict180.com

[Caveat: Many of us are feeling heavy right now because we have experienced significant losses and setbacks in our lives. This post is not meant to imply that a purpose-driven word or affirmation can take the place of a healthy grieving process, therapy, or other kinds of critical support. Instead, such small steps can complement or enhance other work we are doing to let our light shine in the world.]

Saying Yes in a Time of NO

When our son was an infant, he became very ill with a mysterious gastro-intestinal disorder that no one in the medical world could figure out.

He was in an out of the hospital so often during this period, that our overnight bags were always packed. When home, whether for a week or ten days, he was hooked up to various machines that fed him intravenously and beeped loudly when they thought they detected an obstruction. 

This period of our life was the Year of NO.

No answers.
No diagnosis.
No knowing how long it would last.
No predictability.
No routine.
No “normal” baby milestones.
No clarity.
No guarantees of recovery.

And somehow, during this extremely difficult time of NO, we managed to miraculously say YES to any and all offers of support – and to actually CREATE support where there was none.

If our friends stopped by on their way to visit family across the country and offered to cook up a stack of meals and deep clean our kitchen, we gratefully said YES.

If someone offered to bring over dessert and have tea with us on the same dining room table where the baby was splayed out while I hooked him up to his evening tubes, we said YES.

If someone wanted to take a turn cuddling him while at the hospital, or bottle feeding him the latest disgusting formula to see if it would stay down, we said YES. Washing dishes? Sterilizing bottles? Mowing the lawn? Calling the phone company? YES. YES. YES. YES. YES.

Not only did we do this unprecedented and unlikely thing, but we went another radical step further and HIRED A CHEF! This chef, whom we found online, would come over on Sunday afternoons and cook up a week’s worth of delicious, freezable meals for us to defrost every day. 

Yes, we were extremely lucky to have the resources to do so. However, only a few months out of grad school, we actually had little disposable income and hardly any savings.

Yet, somehow, during our year of NO, we had the uncanny wisdom to see that we were in a dangerous state of zombie apocalypse every evening, which resulted in greasy takeout or frozen dinners, further enhancing our zombie state.

And the best part is that we had NO SHAME. 

Mind you, at any other time in our life, this would have been impossible. In our family, guests were doted upon – and certainly not allowed near the kitchen sink. Friends were entertained while children were tucked away in their cribs, not displayed in all their medical glory on the table. 

In our previous life, and in the future life which followed that period, we were STRONG. We could do it all by OURSELVES. We deep cleaned until you could see your freckles in the bathroom faucet. We threw themed parties with rad finger foods and butcher paper on the walls that guests could paint. We did the supporting, not the other way around. And we certainly did not HIRE people to make us food.

But in our year of NO, we had a sick baby and each other to take care of. We had to do more than survive. We had to find a way to say YES to life.

Now, 18 years later, we find ourselves in another Time of NO.

For some of us, there is:

No work
No play
No touch
No security

For many of us, there are:

No answers
No tests
No knowing how long it will last
No predictability
No routine
No normality
No clarity
No guarantees 

And again, my husband and I find ourselves needing to move beyond what is customary and usual – to move beyond the pretense of safety and independence that keep us both lonely and hidden. We find ourselves needing to be more deliberate, assertive, and yes – courageous – in figuring out what feeds us, what helps us feel better, and what gets in the way of us going for it. 

We find ourselves asking, in small wavering voices at first, and then in louder and more confident voices as others join in: What supports do we need? What are the barriers in the way? How do we band together to find the YES behind every chorus of NO?

This means enlisting other people (ugh-how cringe-worthy) and making agreements with them to reach out to us, to hold us accountable, to poke us, to problem-solve with us, to hold the tiny trembling embers of our intention with us.

Because the thing we actually want to do most in a time of NO is hide from everyone and everything that is life-giving and say YES to nothing.

The examples of what is most supportive and how to band with others to get there will be different for everyone.

So far, for me, it has meant figuring out a list of what feeds me and taking it one item at a time.

For instance, writing is one of the things that feeds me but I have not written for four months. So, I began by sorting out what has supported my writing in the past, what has gotten in the way, why it is not working right now, and what may help me get out of the slump; then making some false starts that led nowhere; talking to a friend about it; bumping into and purchasing the Right to Write by Julia Cameron; figuring out what I need in order to do the exercises in the book successfully; making multiple failed attempts to create 30 minutes of uninterrupted morning time to do the exercises; and finally, with agreements from family, creating the 30 minutes of time, doing the exercises, and Woo-Hoo  – writing this essay!

Another example has been the scheduling of specific weekly support calls with two friends by phone (instead of Zoom) so I could walk outside while talking to them and so I did not have to reach out to them when I feel low, because that is the one thing I won’t do when I feel low. 

The examples are not important. What is important is asking the questions and saying YES to the small shy answers we hear, saying YES to our children’s attempts to find what works for them, saying YES to creating support and accountability from people we trust. 

For me, saying YES to support in a time of NO feels both scary and celebratory, both counter-intuitive and totally instinctual. It is a stretch into the unknown and a tiny act of rebellion against the darkness. 

Shifting from Drama to Dialogue

We often express irritation and exasperation with other people’s “drama”.
However, how careful are we in avoiding the pitfalls of drama in our own lives?

WHAT IS THE DRAMA CYCLE?

I am thinking of drama as being characterized by negative side-talk, vilification, righteousness, and increasing escalation. That means that, in a conflict, we are participating (or supporting someone else) in:

  • talking about people behind their backs, often in ways that are sarcastic, caustic, highly charged, and one-sided
  • making someone into a villain 
  • justifying how we (or those we “support”) are “right” to make the choices we did and think the thoughts we are thinking
  • adding fuel to the fire by expressing horror, outrage, adding more examples of villainy, pulling more people into the issue, creating “sides”, engaging in retaliation, and/or freezing others out

We can tell that we are engaging in drama, versus trying to address an issue, because we can see an ESCALATING CYCLE in which the issue gets worse and everyone feels MORE upset and more entrenched over time.

Drama can feel “delicious” and even a bit addictive, because it activates our emotions and taps into our needs for belonging and validation. 

In other words, the behaviors above are an understandable response to feeling alone, confused, and hurt. The behaviors are a signal indicating that we actually need more support, company, understanding, and safety.

Unfortunately, over the long haul, drama LOWERS a group’s sense of safety and belonging by creating divisions, eroding trust, and inducing fear.

Thus, over time, the negative drama cycle contributes to a culture of conflict rather than a culture of collaboration.

WHAT IS THE DIALOGUE CYCLE?

The dialogue cycle is definitely less “sexy” and appealing in many ways. This is because dialogue is an INVESTMENT into each other and into our group’s culture. 

Dialogue is something to which we COMMIT, even though it may not feel as pleasurable.

Dialogue is characterized by:

  • curiosity in other people’s perspectives
  • self-responsibility (for our parts in the issue)
  • getting to “understanding without agreement” (Kit Miller)
  • sharing “truth with love” – with the goal of improving what matters in our group

We can tell that we are engaging in dialogue, versus drama, because we can see a DE-ESCALATION in the conflict over time, and an increase in collaboration and constructive solutions.  

While seeming to be time and energy intensive, over the long haul, dialogue improves team morale and a sense of safety by creating cohesiveness, building trust, and increasing creativity and hope.

Dialogue is something to which we COMMIT AGAINST THE ODDS, as part of a desire to create a culture of learning, growth and connection.

In my 25 years of experience, dialogue about difficult issues is not something that ever “feels good.”

Thus, to me, dialogue is not something we learn to LIKE as much as something we learn to VALUE.

DOES THIS MEAN I CAN’T VENT ANY MORE?

No. It does not!

Sharing concerns, getting emotional support, talking things through, and getting input on difficult issues are critical ways of connecting and becoming better leaders. Not all venting is created equally, though.

Most kinds of venting escalate us and entrench us further in our negative and righteous thinking, rather than shifting our perspective.

To engage in the kind of venting that helps rather than hinders, try approaching venting with a different intention.

Think of the kind of support you might get from a useful podcast, a great essay, an interesting book, or an insightful mentor. What you probably gain in all these cases is learning and enlightenment through reflection and a focus on solutions.

SHIFTING FROM DRAMA TO DIALOGUE: THREE SMALL STEPS

The shift from drama to dialogue happens over time as we make multiple small choices to do it differently.

Here are three small steps that can serve as a reminder or support in your own shift:

1) COMMIT to shifting from drama to dialogue in your own work and personal life – rather than focusing on the “ridiculousness” drama of other people around you. We begin with ourselves and our own integrity, modeling and walking the walk in small ways every day. Even more powerful is to see whether a small group of colleagues or friends want to join you in this.

2) CONVEY what you want from others, rather than letting them assume or guide the conversation into habitual territory. Let people know you want to end up with some reflection and understanding, rather than feeling escalated and righteous at the end.

Here are some phrases I have used or have heard others use successfully:

  • “I want to vent for a bit and then move on to problem solving, if that’s ok”
  • “I want some fresh perspectives on this mess, without making myself or the other people seem like stupid idiots”
  • “I’m wondering whether I am paranoid, but I don’t think it will be helpful for us to de-humanize the other person together, if you know what I mean”
  • “I need some strategies that don’t escalate the situation further but also give me some relief because I am at my wits end!!”
  • “Hey – I know it’s hard. But I believe in the power of talking it through. I can help.”

3) CAPACITY – learn some new ways (or refresh your current skills) for having difficult conversations, listening for understanding without agreement, and telling truth with love.

Although there is definitely an art and science to constructive dialogue, many of us know more about it than we care to admit. For instance, most of us probably know that it is helpful to:

  • Eat before having any difficult conversations!
  • Schedule a time rather than improvising or bamboozling someone in the middle of something else
  • Get in the zone by doing something that grounds us, or being very clear and focused about the goals (increase understanding, truth with love, etc.)
  • Take turns to listen and reflect meaning
  • Have someone who is not directly involved support the dialogue, even if it’s simply witnessing the conversation with a peaceful presence, or giving everyone some small reminders

Working on moving from Drama to Dialogue in your life? Let me know how it’s going (elaine@conflict180.com).

Ten Tiny Ways to Grow Hope

As I mentioned in “The Courage to be Playful“, human beings cannot thrive without play. They also wilt without the knowledge that they are valued, appreciated and wanted.

As we enter the home stretch of the school year, we may find ourselves swinging between extremes of exhaustion and discouragement one day, and “too busy to smile – getting it done” another. We may find it hard to find hope or enthusiasm and feel ourselves slipping into resignation or “just making it.”

That’s why April is a great month to remember that micro-connection, celebration, gratitude and fun are like vitamins for our soul. They give us energy and hope and remind us that in the end – what we need is to be seen by each other.

TEN IDEAS FOR GROWING HOPE THIS MONTH

Try a different one every day, or choose a few to try DAILY.

  1. Stop and say a small kind word about someone’s work, art, or cooking.
  2. Let someone know you are happy for them (we all need to work on our vicarious joy muscles!)
  3. Write something positive on social media.
  4. Schedule in a tiny celebration of someone you care about (birthday? 5k? kid got license? doesn’t need to be a big reason for a tiny celebration).
  5. Compliment someone in front of others OR in a group email.
  6. Bring a snack to share to that thing you are dreading (you know which one).
  7. Begin a 21-day Gratitude Challenge if your appreciation cup is low (I am beginning one today with a long-distance friend from Portland. Such a nicer way to hear about her day for 3 weeks!).
  8. Make time for coffee or muffins with someone you’re worried about OR someone who makes you smile (kid OR adult).
  9. Express empathy or gratitude to someone in a position of relative power. Empathy does not flow uphill easily (Kit Miller).
  10. Do something playful you wouldn’t usually do (splash in the rain, slide down a stair rail, eat with no silverware, see other ideas my family tried in Courage to Be Playful).

How are you growing hope this month? 
I’d love to know.

Beyond “I Like Your Shoes”: Aligning Feedback with Values

The restorative theme for March is Value-Driven Effective Feedback.

Often, when we hear the word feedback, we imagine a formal evaluation meeting or slightly disguised criticism.

However, feedback is actually neither of those things. Feedback is simply information from the environment about the IMPACT of our actions and choices.

PDF version of “Informal Value-Driven Feedback” handout


Read more below…

For this reason, feedback is happening ALL THE TIME.

When we make passing comments to colleagues or students in the hallway, when we respond to someone’s answer in class, or when we tell someone why their behavior is not working – we are giving them FEEDBACK about WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO US.

However, unless we are prepared and PURPOSEFUL about our feedback, our messages often contradict our actual values.

For instance, we say that attendance and engagement is important to us. 

Yet, when we see a student in the hallway or a colleague in a meeting we say “I love your hair!” or “Cute hoodie!” – INADVERTENTLY giving them feedback that what matters around here is how we look. This is totally normal and not a reflection on our character. Physical compliments are low hanging fruit and an easy way to express warmth. Thus, if we are not PREPARED with a different message, we are more likely to focus on appearance as a way to be friendly.

As another example, we say that we care about “growth mindset“.  In a nutshell, this means praising hard work and effort rather than correct answers.

Yet, how often in class or during a professional meetings do we inadvertently show enthusiasm for the right answer rather than praising courage and validating effort. How often do we say: “First of all, I appreciate your courage in responding. That was a tricky question and not many people even raised their hands.”

OR “First, I appreciate your honesty. It’s not easy to be the first one to give an opinion that goes a little outside the group. And yes – I can see how that character was both generous and a little selfish at the same time.”

If this is intriguing to you, your challenge for the month of March is to work on aligning your comments (your informal feedback) with your values.

Let me know how it goes!


In other news, have you seen this lucid and powerful piece about Restorative Justice in the NY Times?

Reckoning With Violence by Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow)


 “… Fully 90 percent of survivors [of violent crime] in New York City, when given the chance to choose whether they want the person who harmed them incarcerated or in a restorative justice process — one that offers support to survivors while empowering them to help decide how perpetrators of violence can repair the damage they’ve done — choose the latter and opt to use the [RJ] services.

… Ninety percent is a stunning figure considering everything we’ve been led to believe that survivors actually want. For years, we’ve been told that victims of violence want nothing more than for the people who hurt them to be locked up and treated harshly…”

READ THE ESSAY HERE

The Courage to Be Playful

As you’ve probably noticed, this month’s theme has been courage.

One of the origins of the word courage is the Old French “cuer,” meaning “heart.” We have marked February by opening our hearts to love and history, and by asking our hearts to take small difficult steps towards something we have been avoiding.

We began the month by delving into the idea that fear, and not hate, is the opposite of love. We then looked to the science of courage, which showed us how to practice our “couraging” by connecting to our values and taking small do-able steps.

We will conclude the month by talking about the courage to be playful and how it can be another doorway into difficult conversations or reconnection.

Traditionally, at least in the midwest states where I do much of my work, February and March are two of the toughest months of the school year. One administrator calls this period “Funky February”, claiming that the days between President’s Day weekend and Spring Break are always the longest and hardest for both staff and kids. 

This also appears to be true for our household. February and March seem so long and gray and dreary. That is why now – more than ever – we need to remember the importance of playfulness.

WHY PLAY IS CRUCIAL

It turns out that play is a human need, much like touch. Remember those orphan babies that failed to thrive because they did not get held enough? It seems that humans, including adult humans, also need play.

Play helps adults be more productive and improves their mental health, while play deprivation in rats and monkeys has been linked to poor social development. Playfulnesshas even been shown as a preferable quality in romantic partners in one European study.

Incorporating play into education can also help middle-school and high school students learn content.

Just as importantly, playfulness can help us get over the hump of a rough day or turn a criticism into a connecting moment – by creating laughter or lightening the mood.

Although being silly or goofy is NOT natural to me, I have been trying to include playfulness in my work and home life this month in small purposeful ways. As you can see below, these playful actions built on each other, eventually shining their way into difficult conversations and making heavy things a bit lighter. Some examples from this month are below:

For some of you, being playful with your students, at home, or with colleagues is a natural way of being and you just need a reminder to do your thing (OK – GO DO YOUR THING!)

However, as I mentioned, I am not playful or goofy by nature. Sure – our family does “Full House” Appreciations and 180 Questions at meal times. However, even our “connecting activities” seemed to sag under the gray clouds of February.  

It seemed that I needed a bit of en-courage-ment to bring more playfulness into my life. I needed to just start somewhere. 

GO FOR IT

A couple of years ago I read an essay in the NY Times in which the author granted people permission to make a change they really wanted (based on a study by Freakanomics author Steven D. Levitt). It seems that many of us need a Permission Fairy – someone to grant us the permission to make our own wishes come true.

I have talked to teachers who say they long for the days when the curriculum was less confining and they could drop what they were doing (on a bad day) and just play a game with their students. I have talked to parents who wish they were having more fun with their kids or parenting was more joyful. I believe that we need those games and moments of lightness MORE desperately now than ever.

So please, consider this letter to be your permission to courageously begin injecting more play into your work and home life.

And yes – feel free to borrow any of our goofy dinner ideas as a start!

Finding the Courage to Start

Courage Rosa Parks

Courage Marie Daly.png

Faith is taking first step_King

This month’s theme is “small courageous conversations” because fear, and not hate, is the opposite of love.

Courage is often described not as an absence of fear, but as the ability to act in the face of fear.

The science of courage tells us that we are better off taking small courageous steps and building a HABIT of courage – than planning large courageous acts that are too daunting to attempt.

Science has also shown that we are better able to overcome our fear when we link small courageous acts with organizational or personal values. By being value-driven, our courageous acts become moral or ethical acts – bolstering our determination to act.

It is also important to remember that courageous conversations are not a synonym for “conflict conversations”. Asking for something we need, getting feedback about our work from an ally, or reaching out to get support are all examples of small courageous conversations.

PERSONAL EXAMPLE

As a personal example, one series of small courageous conversations I have been practicing this month is asking people for feedback on a Restorative System model I have been working on for almost a year. The model is a wheel with 12 spokes which describes 12 commitments that can help people create a more restorative organization or classroom. Ironically, shifting to seeing feedback as a “gift” is one of the first commitments.

As you can see below – another commitment is “trying small courageous conversations.”

Breaking Good Feb 9 2019
Restorative Wheel PDF


Receiving honest feedback on our work is a courageous act for many of us, especially when we are trying out something new.

Becoming clear about how the model was linked to my values helped me gather the courage to start bringing it into the light. Specifically, one of my value-driven goals is to “nurture the creation of restorative systems”. This means that in addition to coaching individuals to be more skilled with conflict and communication – I want (very much!) to support the creation of restorative organizations and classrooms.

By thinking of the model as something that was clearly yoked to my personal values, I gained the courage to start showing it to one person, then another, and finally to whole groups of people. This resulted in great feedback and many improvements to the model – which further supported my goals and values – and boosted my courage to keep going.

In this way, small courageous steps can help us practice “couraging” and build our courage muscles.

What are some of your value-driven goals?

What are some small courageous steps you can take this month to support these goals?

Good luck and let me know how it goes.


Still looking for last minute Valentine’s Day gifts?

Try a gift that has been shown to increase happiness (reprinted from 2018):

Which Gifts Increase Happiness_2018


NEW FOR 2019

Elaine is honored to be part of a
year-long RJ Webinar and Mentoring Series
with 12+ global Guides.
Webinars start at $15/month.
Small group mentoring starts at $25/month

connection series banner

Get small group mentoring with Dominic Barter, Kay Pranis, Joe Brummer, and others working on restorative justice in schools and communities.

Most session recordings are available to participants who cannot make the calls.

Choose from 4 Membership levels ($15, $25, $40 or $100 per month).

Learn more and register here


 

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