The Story We Tell Ourselves

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This series on situational awareness is principally about how we learn to relate to people in situations outside of our comfort zone.

To do this we need something more than tactics for making conversation. We need to be able to know who we are, what matters to us, and why.

What I've learn by working with a wide variety of people and groups, who are in the midst of change, is that we need a story that we tell ourselves. This story distinguishes us in every situation we are in. It is a story that enables us to know who we can trust, and who we can't. It is a story that tells us, don't go there, or, let's find out more.

Another way of understanding this story is as a foundation, a platform, upon which we stand, while everything whirls around us. It is the story of our inner strength and commitments in the context of the external world.

It is not necessarily a story that I will tell people. This story is private, not public. It isn't a branding or a promotional story. It is, rather, a story of the values that matter to us, that we are unwilling to negotiate away by our accommodation to others. It is the story that enables us to walk into any situation and not feel compromised.

In this post, I'm going to describe two ways to create this story. One way out of reflection on who we are and what we want. The other through a more analytical approach using the Circle of Impact. 

Let's start with the first method which creates the story by looking at a couple of  scenarios.

Seeing the Situation

For example, when you go on vacation, what do you want to gain from it. Are you like some of us who enjoy adventure and discovery, or, like others, seek to be quiet and still. What appeals to you here is a part of your story.

I know folks who love going to the beach. They love sitting in a chair at the beach, reading a book, watching the waves come ashore, and then going out for a seafood dinner at night. They don't enjoy a manic schedule of biking, card playing and trips to the outlet malls. They have come for peace and quiet.

In this instance, that is their story. As a result, they need to be honest with their family members who love an action oriented vacation. That is the story which they tell themselves.

As a result, both types of vacationers need to be honest and respectful of the other. Both have to give in a bit, let the other have their approach, and plan to join them for some of the time that they enjoy, whether quietly on the beach or riding a jet ski jumping waves.

Here's another scenario. You are invited to a business after hours networking social event by a friend in your industry. You've never been to one of these meet-n-greet things. You don't really know what to expect. You are meeting your friend there. As you walk in the door, he texts you to say that he is running late, and will be there in 15 minutes. What do you?

The story you tell yourself, about who you are and what matters to you, guides your response in this awkward situation. You can stand outside and wait for him. Or, you can go in, register at the door, get your name tag, get something to drink, and stand near the front waiting for your friend. Or, you can immediately begin to introduce yourself to people you do not know. If you are somewhat shy, this may take some effort. However, I believe, what you will find is that many of the people in the room are experiencing the same uncomfortableness.

If being uncomfortable in social settings is the story you tell yourself, then you will be. If, on the other hand, the story you tell yourself is

"I'm not here to impress people. I'm here to listen, and learn, and make one new contact with whom I'll schedule a follow up meeting."

In effect, the story is a plan of action which sets specific boundaries, and is focused on one goal. Once there, and the goal is met, then, a release of pressure will be felt, and our story changes.

This shyness thing used to be me. Those of you who know me personally may find that hard to believe. But it is true. The story I told myself in those days was

"What do I say? How do I start? What if I look weak and silly?"

It took time but the story I told myself changed. I began to walk into those situations looking for someone whom I could befriend. I would not go to a mingling of 3 or 4 people, but to the person who was standing by themselves. I'd introduce myself, and just start asking questions. Each question was not planned other than the initial one,

"So, what do you do? How do you spend your days?"

After they told, me, I'd ask a question about that thing. If they said,

"I sell insurance."

I'd respond with,

"What kind?"

Then they say, something, and then I asked, something like.

"How do your new customers find you?"

Or,

"What is generally the first question people ask you when they come to you for insurance?"

My story shifted from being about my fear to about my curiousity and interest in the other person. The rapport that comes from asking questions is the kind that builds trust, at least when the questions are kind and respectful. Now, I am not afraid to meet any person regardless of who they are.

Another Approach

The story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but about who we are. If your sense of identity is murky, then the story you tell yourself will be too. As a result, it may then be helpful to take a more analytical approach to developing your story. My Circle of Impact model can be a help.

3dLeadership - Purpose-Vision-Values

To develop the story that we tell ourselves, we don't start with the Three Dimensions of Leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. Instead, we work from the Four Connecting Ideas - Values, Purpose, Impact and Vision. Let's take them one at a time.

Think of this discovery process as a conversation between us right now over coffee or dinner. Just the two of us talking. We aren't looking for the perfect answer, but an honest, beginning point of understanding. We've just met, and I'm just asking questions because I'm curious, not nosey, just interested getting to know you.

Values:

I ask:

"If you didn't have to work for a living, and you had access to all the financial resources you would need, how would you spend your days, and why?"

"What do you think are the values that are important to you in doing those things? Do you think those values define you more than any other? Do they please you, make you smile, get you excited about the day ahead?"

In discovering the values that matter to us, we are identifying the foundation upon which we have built our lives. These values help us to establish the boundaries that guide us. If this is new to us, then we may have to live into this awareness. These values may not be evident, active or relevant at a particular moment, with some people, and then, some comment, triggers in us an awareness. This is how we grow into the values that matter. We try many, discard many, from our emotional investment in them, and then come to realize what is truly important to us.

These are the values that tell us who we are, and are the ones we want to have always present. I have five of these values, and I'm looking for them in every thing that I do. I, personally, have decided that if three of the five are not present in the opportunity before me, that I'll not participate. Knowing the values that guide and give meaning to our lives is a way of saying No to situations that are not supportive of the values that are important to us. This is why knowing what our core values are is so critical to being able to walk into any situation and function well.

Purpose:

I ask:

"How do you spend your days? How did you end up doing this kind of work? Does it give you a sense of purpose, a sense that you are making a contribution?"

The conventional thought is that we all have a singular purpose for our lives. I find that very limiting. Instead, I see purpose as an intentional focus on applying our values in a specific way in the situation that presents itself to us. Here's how this could work.

One of my values is integrity. It is so that I don't live with regret or fear, or, even the sense that I've compromised by values to accomodate some person or situation. The purpose of integrity beyond that is to provide me a basis of relating to every person from the same position of respect towards them. My purpose, then, in social situations is to act with respect, by listening, being honest and truthful, without being beligerent. The purpose of my integrity is to establish a basis of friendship that is open, mutual and filled with opportunity for shared work and contribution.

Purpose is a way of translating the values that matter to us into action. While our values may become clearer and more specific over time, they rarely change in any radical sense. Our purpose, however, can and should change. For purpose is the mechanism for focusing our values in the situation that is before us right now. Even if we are talking about our purpose as sort of a life mission, it still is subject to change. With our values as a foundation, we live out a purpose in an adaptive manner to fit the time and place in which we live.

While our purpose is about what we do in acting upon our values, it is also about the effect that we want to have.

Impact:

I ask:

"Tell me what difference you think your work makes? Why is it important? Who is impacted by what you do? What do they tell you?"

The way our world works is by an exchange of products or services by an agreed upon price. Money is the most tangible medium of measure we have. It is simple, straightforward, and for that reason obscures many of the signs of value that actually exist, yet we never really see.

To look at the difference a person makes, we have to look at what our expectations are, right now. This requires us, on both sides of a relationship, to have an idea of what we want, or, what our purpose is. If we can define our purpose, not as what I do, but rather the difference I want to make, then my story takes on a very different feel.

Let's return to our business after hours event. In that room, our purpose is what? Is it to meet people? Or, is it something more. Is it primarily about "my" interests or about the other person's?

My friend and colleague Meridith Elliott Powell told me years ago about her strategy for after-hours business events. Her focus was to go, meet people, and leave as soon as she had three follow-up meetings with new contacts. She would go to alot of these events, and built up a substantial client list through that focused approach to business relationship building. She's one of the best I know at this. I found her approach incredibly helpful, and focused on the purpose of the event, which is to initiate new business relationships. Then she works her "magic", she's really good, in the interaction she has with people within the context of their business.

When the story we tell ourselves is not about what we do, but what we create, the difference that we make, about the relationships that we form, then we approach everything with a different level of confidence. If we measure our lives by our activity level, then we never really see clearly the outcome of that activity.

Measuring by activity comes out of the old factory production model focus. The most tangible measure of that work was the paycheck. Measuring by impact is a change model focus. One is repetitive. Let's see how many events I can go to this month. The other is a creative relationship with people where together we learn to make a difference. How many relationships do you have right now that if asked they would say, "She makes a real difference in my work." And, then be able to describe precisely what that impact is.

The Four Connecting Ideas are not isolated from one another, but, are interconnected as a way to understand how things can fit together in our life and work. To be able to see the impact of our values and purpose in real life, then our perspective changes, and our story does too. It opens up possibilities that may have been present, but were hidden behind the production measure mindset.

Vision:

I ask:

"Where do you see yourself in a year? What's your plan for today?"

The vision we need is not some grand, epic adventure into the future. Instead, our vision is our story lived out in real time, right now. It is the story we tell ourselves every day that enables us to make decisions. In the context of the Circle of Impact, it is about people, and the organizational structures in which we live and work. Our vision emerges and is lived out every day through the story we tell ourselves.

A vision then is simply what I do and the decisions I make, based upon my values and my sense of purpose for this particular moment, all through a deep desire for impact, with the people that I work with and encounter everyday.

The story we tell ourselves is a guide in the unexplored land of today. It helps us to know the boundaries that will both protect us from the unwanted compromise of our values, as well as, opening us up to the possibilities in every human relationship and situation.

When we find the story we tell ourselves, and, we grow into it, it ceases to be a story "out-there" that we tell myself. We become the story. We become the living embodiment of the values, the purpose, the difference and the vision for being an authentic person regardless of where we are and with whom we are with.

The story that we tell ourselves is the secret to being situationally aware. If you are a person who finds him or herself overwhelmed by circumstances, people and change, then you need a story which helps you live in those moments that are threatening and uncomfortable. 

Where do you begin to write your story. Here are two suggestions.

1. Think of the situations where you are most comfortable. What are the values at work in those situations that you'd like to see in those uncomfortable situations.

2. Write a three sentence introduction of yourself that describes the person you believe you actually are. This is not what other people think of you, but you at your strongest, most impactful, most free and at peace self. Write it down, carry it with you, and edit it until you've found the story you really want to tell yourself. Then toss it away, and let your story unfold.

It all starts with personal initiative. One step. Then another. And another. If you need to share your story with someone outside of your world, send it to me. I'll not critique, but will ask questions to clarify, so you can be clear. Then you can go live the story you tell yourself.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


The Social Space of Situational Awareness

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

Situational awareness functions in real time and in real places. Think of it as a relationship, as a connection, to people, places, ideas, structures, institutions and to one's self. The space is a kind of gap, a discernable distance, between me and the other. This space is a situation that calls upon us to think, to engage, to decide and to act in a way that reduces the distance that exists between me and the people and situations that stand apart from me.

Situational Awareness is the skill that enables a person to establish community, peace and reconciliation in places that are fragmented, broken and in transition from what they once were to what they will be in the future.

These social relationships are varied and inter-mingled in time. They follow patterns of attitudes and behaviors, but not always in a predictable fashion. To be socially aware is to observe all that is taking place in a space, and, then, understanding how to respond appropriately.

Here's an example.

Walking into a coffee shop on the way to work, you are talking on the phone. You acknowledge the server, see your best friend in a business meeting in the corner, nod an acknowledgement, and, read an ad on the community bulletin board for a local theater group's play to be performed this coming weekend. The phone call ends. The order is placed. An introduction is made to the friend's business contact, and, order for tickets to the play made from the smart phone all within a matter of just a few minutes.

However, what if this typical busy, non-stressed moment in your morning, randomly includes the following. After you've order your coffee, the person next to you picks up their coffee, the lid pops off, and the hot liquid goes all over her and the floor at your feet. As you turn to find some napkins, you see that your ex-mother-in-law is standing in line behind you with your ex-husband's new wife. Then a text message buzzes, and it is your son letting you know that he has been in an auto accident on the way to school, and that he is okay. 

We move through situational spaces that require us to observe, engage and act. If however, we personalize all these situations, we then demand that each of these situations function for our benefit.To personalize a situation is to make it about ME, and, to narrow and confine the possibilities for interaction and impact.

To practice situation awareness is to see a larger picture, where my needs, wants, desires and demands, are not at the center, but just another set of considerations to be addressed in that moment of decision.

To treat this moment from a socially and situationally aware perspective is to take the initiative to help the woman whose coffee has just spilled, by reaching for some napkins, and to begin to help clean up the mess on the floor. At some point, you wipe coffee off of your own shoes. Instead of ignoring your ex-mother-in-law, you go over say hello, and introduce yourself to your ex-husband's new wife. Then you pick up your coffee, step aside, and text your son asking whether he needs you right now.

If, in each of these situations, we are unsure of ourselves, lacking the confidence to know what to do because we are unsure of who we are, then we avoid having to make these choices. We may stay hunkered over our smart phone, reading email as if no one else in the shop matters. We present an image of strength and detachment in order to block out intrusion.

Charles Taylor speaks about these spaces as a moral space, as "a space of questions" that require us to make distinctions. These distinctions that we make in these situational moments are answers to the fundamental question of who am I in this particular setting at this moment in time. If everything is personalized, or, if we lack confidence to make those decisions, or, if we have no clear idea of what we believe or value, then these situations fill us with fear and anxiety. What happens in situational space reveals who we are at our most basic level.

This is why living in the world of The Spectacle of the Real can be so attractive. We vicariously live through the lives of others, transferring responsibility for acting as a person onto the celebrity or the news opinion reader, instead of discovering the life that is available to us to live. The development of Situational Awareness is a path towards understanding who we are, finding our identity, and with humilty and confidence, understanding how we are to fit into all the social situations that we find ourselves in everyday.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


What Defines Us?

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Family

I grew up in a family environment where family history verged on ancestry worship.

Connection to the past mattered. I have a folder in my photo file of the grave stones of family members, from both parent's sides of the family.

I regularly recognize in my interactions with people how my family has defined me. My mother's parents (below) had more to do with this than anyone in my family.

GrandmereGrandfather

What my extended family gave me as a child, and continues to provide me as an adult, is a ground upon which to stand that defines a part of who I am. Increasingly, I am aware that this is a fading reality in our society.

It is not that family doesn't matter. It just matters in a different way. Family has become, like any social relationship, a vehicle for self-expression and social positioning.  This is a result of the fragmentation of social and organizational life.

In the pre-modern past, one's identity was less individual and more social, defined by family affiliation and community proximity. Where you lived and what your family did defined you.

Today, we are all individualists, with a choice as to how we are defined.

Recently, this question came to mind as I talked with a friend about her past, and how it was filled with traumatic experiences from early childhood into middle age. I was amazed by her ability to stand apart from the abuse of her past and see it objectively. While that did not cancel out the deep emotional trauma she felt, her pain did not define her. She was not her pain, nor the abuse she received. She was something else, something more. For her family is central in defining who she is and is largely responsible for the healing she has experienced.

Questions

As I thought about her experience and her response to it, and reflected back upon my own family experience, a number of questions began to come to mind. Here are some of them.

To what extent are we defined by ...

        What we do?

        Where we work?

        Where we were born?

        Where we went to school?

To what degree do  ...

        Our choices,

        Our actions,

        Our network of relationships, and,

        Our daily work and recreation schedule

                ... define us?      

Is our personal identity a manufactured public perception like a product brand? Or, are we the person others think us to be?

I don't think there is an easy answer to any of these questions. There are answers, however they are complex, not simple.

The Question of Potential

Each question above I've thought about often, and in various ways, for almost 40 years. I used to think that our identities are unitary, singular, only one thing, that we are born with an identity.

I, now, see us human beings as much more complex. The range and possibilities for our sense of who we are is greater that we can imagine. One way to understand our identity is to understand what our potential means.

Potential is that unexplored, undeveloped part of us, born from the talent, gifts and experience that expands our awareness and reach in life. It is all future and very little past. It is the difference that we make that has yet to be realized. 

Potential is not something fixed and set at birth. It isn't a commodity. It is unbounded openness. It is not only unknown, but undefinable before its realization.

Potential is not additive but exponential. It isn't a container of what we haven't achieved. It is a platform from which our whole life & work is built. The more we build upon, the greater our potential grows. Our potential creates opportunities for new possibilities in our life and work. 

The only limitation on our potential is time. We must apply ourselves to reaching our potential everyday. I'm not advocating for becoming a workoholic. Rather, I am suggesting we develop an opportunistic attitude about each day. We look for opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact, and to affect change within the contexts where we live and work.

If we build toward reaching our potential each day, then over the course of our lifetime we reach far beyond our present abilities. If we did not try to grow or think that potential doesn't mean very much, then a growing sense of lost time and opportunity will grow within us. I do not wish that feeling on anyone. Regret and longing are not comforting thoughts when one is old and past one's prime.

My point is that we need to see potential as an ascending line of development throughout the course of our lives. This is the inner truth of our experiences of transition in life and work. Each transition point is one where we are being pulled to change in order to fulfill our potential. In each life or work transition is opportunity, if we only see it that way. 

In order to continue to reach for our potential, we must stop doing certain things and begin to learn and master new skills, attitudes, behaviors as we move into new social and organizational contexts. This is the secret to mastering our transitions in life and work. It is the secret to being adaptive and reaching our potential each day.

The Question of Impact

To understand and identify our potential is to understand our potential Impact.

Impact is the change that makes a difference that matters.

Embedded in that statement are the values, talents, relationships, strategies, structures and ways of measurement that are required to live a full, healthy, meaningful life. 

Impact isn't just what we accomplish or what we achieve. It is also opens up new potential, fresh opportunities, and environments that may not have existed even yesterday.

Impact never reaches a final point of completion, either. It is a stage along a path of development. Our potential is the same, not a fixed quantity, but something that grows and develops with initiative and action, or, diminishes from inaction.

We are not human machines, but living systems that are constantly evolving. We are always either growing or declining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This growth is not set, fixed or predetermined. It may show itself as a pattern of development, but it is not formulaic. We are open and responsive to the full range of experience that we have. Our potential for impact is far greater than we can imagine.

To envision our impact is to imagine our potential.

To imagine our potential is to understand better who we are as persons within the social and organizational contexts of our life and work.

To define ourselves is to see that we are both the same and always changing. This is human nature at its most basic.

The Shift in Question

It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change. Up to now personal identity has been seen as a kind of object, a thing that we possess, and lasts our life time.

I am (fill in the blank).

One of the reasons why we viewed our identities this way is that for most of human history we lived in homogeneous communities formed by generations of families. But over the past couple hundred years, that social context has been eroding as families fragment through relocation to new places for economic, ethnic and political reasons. Identities have become more fluid as social interaction required greater flexibility and adaptation to change in society.

As a result, we must learn to adapt to the relationships as they present themselves. This shows us that our sense of self is far more fluid and maleable than maybe we once thought. In this sense, our core identity ends up having multiple expressions, which may appear to us as different identities.

The question that confronts us most directly, then, is what makes up that core identity that allows us to be the same person in very different social and organizational contexts? Or to state it differently how can I be a person of integrity who knows how to find strength for any situation?

The Question of Identity

This post, like many I've written over the past three years, has taken not minutes to create, but weeks, and in this case months, to write. They have because so much of what I write is done in a quest to discover my own understanding of what I sense or observe in my and other's life and work. This quest to understand defines me as much as anything I know. What I learn feeds the importance that integrity has for me.

What I write therefore is often much more personal than may be evident. But it is also social because I writing in the context of many conversations and experiences that I have with people and organizations.

I find that many people have the same issues or needs as I do.The need is to be clear about who we are, and how that factors into how we live each day.

The Place of Desire

A third thing that I've discovered about personal identity, along with the importance of integrity, and our potential impact, is that we are driven by desires. We often talk about these desires as passions.

I have come to this view through the work of philosopher/ theologian James K.A. Smith. He writes,

"Because I think we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities - what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are - is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate - what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like."

I find this to be true, and yet hard to get at it. It is so much easier to create a list of values or strengths or traits, and say, that is me. But down deep inside of us is a presence that is passionate for the things that matter.

As I have written before (The Platform of Desire 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) on desire, I see that there are three principal desires out of which the whole of our identity finds expression.

Three Goals of Life-Work - Simple

These desires are for Personal Meaning, Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make a Difference that Matters in our live and work.  These desires form the core of our identity. They do because they are ways that we define what we love.

These desires must form the core of our identity because the platform of our identities in the past is eroding.  No longer will families live in inter-generational community. No longer will we work for the same company all our lives. No longer will we find homogeneous environments where everyone finds support and affiliation with people who are like them.

The future is open, diverse and filled with constant change. For this reason our identity cannot be based on external circumstances, but rather on who I am within. And who I am is what I love and desire to create in my life.

When our desires drive us to clarifying the values that give us identity, then we know where to find meaning in our life.

When our desires point us toward the kind of people with whom we can have happy, healthy relationships, then we will know how to be the kind of person who can create those relationships.

When our desires define the impact we want to have, then we know what our life's purpose ultimately means.

As I have worked through a number of scenarios that could possibly define who we are, increasingly they became more complex. The more complex they became the more I realized that the picture I saw was a picture of all the choices from which to build our lives. As a result I was pushed back to what I had discovered before.

There is more to say, and I will in future posts. But let me leave this long post with this final thought.

To live is to love.

To love is to give.

To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters. 

Series Note: This post is the first in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.