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Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas is a feature column written by Lee Smedley to offer you an energizing and thought-provoking reminder to invest in your own effectiveness. Topics range from building relationships, developing leadership skills and fostering imagination to overcoming problems, conflict, stress and competition. Bright Ideas is available free of charge to interested clients and potential customers. Subscribe now to have Lee’s next bright idea emailed directly to your inbox.

One, two, three — Building relationships with tea.

Posted by Lee Smedley

Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea has achieved worldwide fame building hundreds of schools in Pakistan. The lessons he learned in his struggles to coordinate action with village elders and religious leaders are shared in the excerpt (edited) from his book:

“Sit down. And shut your mouth”, Haji Ali said, “You’re making everyone crazy…If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways…The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.”

Reflecting on this conversation Mortenson says. ”We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly…. thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Hajji taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them…” — page 150

Paradoxically, when Mortenson moved from foreman to spectator in the construction at this particular village, the pace and quality building the school surpassed what he had been trying to force.

These powerful lessons reinforce the approach Ann Bertorelli and I share in our book on building relationships (Relationships That Work, Work That Matters). Here are some tips from Greg’s work and ours that may help you improve your relationships with others.

Build relationships intentionally. Consider, in metaphorical terms, how many cups of tea (or coffee or how many donuts) you have shared with others.

Build relationships intentionally.

Consider, in metaphorical terms, how many cups of tea (or coffee or how many donuts) you have shared with others.

Some of us never want to go beyond the first cup in which we assign work to a person, and many others of us would rather be the honored guest than to honor a guest with the second cup. In relationship terms, we might call the third cup one that confirms deep trust and alignment on important concerns. Enduring, productive relationships require three cups.

Focus on shared concerns

The child of Christian missionaries, Mortenson was suspected by many Muslim leaders. His challenge was to articulate his vision of secular schools for both boys and girls. Fortunately, the village elders and religious leaders shared that passion. He also was clear about using local workers and local teachers as much as possible, another concern shared in the villages where the schools were to be built.

How much energy have you invested to know the concerns of those you work with? Can you explain your concerns in terms that mean something to them? Have you even considered modifying your plans to ensure that you and they both gain value working together? You might be surprised how smoothly the work progresses if you do.

Be willing to trust deeply enough to abandon work to the leadership of others.

Greg could not function as the director of the Central Asia Institute if he had not learned to trust Pakistani lawyers, Muslim clerics, translators, cab drivers and villagers. Good leaders find and inspire people who are actually better than they (the leader) could ever be in specific areas.

If you have invested in three cups of tea with others, they will surpass your abilities in ways you cannot imagine.

But this relationship building, as Mortenson will attest, is not easy work. Be that as it may, it might be the only way to achieve the really important things in our lives. Recognized for his peacekeeping efforts in building schools in Afghanistan, Greg Mortenson has been nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Imagine what you can do if you follow his lead.

Who Will Sing Our Song?

Posted by Lee Smedley

I will. Actually, I do.

In his book Small Decencies, John Cowan asks the question, “Who will sing our song?”, suggesting that all too often, we do not celebrate the good work we have done in our jobs. Has it gotten out of fashion for us to love our work, to whistle as we walk down the hallway after a good customer call or an attaboy from the boss? I certainly hope not. But I also haven’t heard any whistling recently.

Story tellers and poets have spoken about how stories and poems can enrich our work life. But for many, songs and singing, at least about professional and managerial work, seem relegated to parodies and sick, sarcastic jokes on early morning radio.

From my work as a balladeer in Colonial Williamsburg, I know that songs and work used to be connected quite closely. The cadence of a song could help one keep pace marching, sailing, churning butter or even picking cotton. Some songs even served as simple job aids detailing a certain sequence of events in a given job. Today, most of our work has a cadence determined by a machine or computer chip. And the job aids are often interactive and HD. Still, one more reason for singing about work remains — celebrating what we have done together. Cowen says its important, and I do too.

Can’t you feel the sense of pride in the chorus of The Work of the Weavers?

If it wasnae for the weavers what would we do
We widnae hae clothes made o' woo
We widnae hae a coat neither black nor blue
If it wasnae for the work o' the weavers.

An occasional celebration of production work does emerge even today; Consider this verse from the Alabama song 40 Hour Week.

There are people in this country who work hard every day.
Not for fame or fortune do they strive.
But the fruits of their labor are worth more than their pay.
And it's time a few of them were recognized.

I’m stepping up. I want to celebrate the work we do in the professional and managerial ranks. Over the years, I’ve written songs to celebrate beginnings and endings of good work, to make fun of our own serious-ness and to reflect on how hard we strive to balance our work, family and personal lives. I’ve even written a rather amusing tune about the Marmorated Stinkbug for my friends at JC Ehrlich.

I invite you to sample the songs I’ve compiled in my recently published CD Lee Smedley: Business Balladeer at my new website. Here’s the link: The CD is available for sale for either personal or professional (release rights included) use. You’ll also find information about my keynote and seminar presentations using this music.

If you have something especially important to celebrate song, I’d love to talk with you about an original composition. I’d love to sing your song!

In Defense of Dialogue — Part 2

Posted by Lee Smedley

Happy new year, one and all. Many of you share the concern for reclaiming dialogue in our discourse with one another. Here are some comments:

I agree wholeheartedly. We either end up in conflict (like I did at ..…) or we end up with a useless discussion of niceties in order to avoid what we think will end up as adversarial. — Dennis P.
Right on! I just had this conversation last week after getting a bit ruffled when the meaning of ”moral values“ took a turn. — Ron C.

Commenter Wayne B. recommends further reading for us: ”Solving Tough Problems“ (An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities) by Adam Kahane.

We have established the case, now on to doing something about it.

I see two kinds of work here. The first, and perhaps most difficult, is the work on ourselves. Then we need to think about how to engage others. Here we go:

Work on ourselves…

Ask the tough question — how do I limit dialogue?

Think about your own prejudices, and accept responsibility for working through them if you intend to have real dialogue with another. My son Craig is very good at calling me on my snap judgments about anti-intellectualism, gun control and consumerism whenever I start to run on about dumb white guys with guns and big trucks. It’s worth listening to the trusted friend who cares enough to be brutally honest with you, and can help you remove the log from your own eye. ( Matthew 7:3) We are doomed to fail at dialogue if we are not able to grant the other person the right to a view different from our own.

Accept understanding, rather than agreement or problem solving, as the realistic outcome of dialogue.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, we often enter conversations with very specific goals assuming we will change another, either by convincing or publicly humiliating them. Even a more benign goal of reaching agreement on a particular point of view begins to dilute the real purpose of dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is understanding and that is all your should expect. Pursuing an additional purpose will tempt you to manipulate, sell, use sarcasm or one of your other verbal warfare tools. In the process, you will surely limit understanding. Saint Francis had it right when he sought to understand rather than to be understood. This is not to say that we may not experience additional benefits from the dialogue. It is to say that good dialogue may yield nothing more than understanding.

Take Baby steps — Start with shared concerns and people you like.

Have you gotten an “edge” about you lately? I sensed that in myself. Well, stepping into serious conflicts with people you genuinely don’t like or whose opinion you don’t respect is probably not a good place to work reclaiming dialogue. In such situations, one facial expression or a sarcastic tone could be all you need to drop the dialogue olive branch and pick up the swords of sarcasm. Start, instead, with someone you have had a disagreement with, but for whose opinions you have great respect, even when they are not your own. Then ask him or her to try a few rounds of dialogue with you. It could go something like this — “I realize that I’ve actually discounted some of your comments about the new project without really taking the time to understand your concerns, Joe. We’ve done so well on so many projects over the years, I want it to stay that way. Would you be willing to share your concerns, and help me keep listening, rather than trying to explain them away ? “Note how this approach incorporates four familiar communication tools: referencing shared concern, using I language, offering a choice and asking for help

Leave the tinder and the matches at home

Select a neutral location, come to the conversation will rested. In tune with your own spiritual traditions, meditate or pray for peace and understanding. Envision a positive outcome, then work to make the possibility a reality.

Reward yourself for staying the course and displaying calm, commitment and courage under fire.

Remember that dialogue is a two way street, and that at least some of those you approach for dialogue will NOT respond favorably. They could be assuming that you are trying out another “bait and switch” debating technique. How you respond to the pushback is critical. Stay the course. Close the conversation by offering dialogue again as the opportunity presents itself.

This approach may seem thankless; you may be the only one willing to offer any appreciation for your efforts. My advice to you — do it anyway. Treat yourself to that latte or strawberry cheescecake after you have maintained your courage under fire. Tell a loved one, perhaps even your God, how you lived into your commitment.

Offer trust and accept miracles.

One of the premises of the coaching I do with clients is that relationships don’t stay constant. As we enter into conversation and take action together, the relationship is either strengthened or weakened. In my experience the verbal warfare approach usually strains relationships and, thereby weakens the capability of you and that other person to take productive action in the future. Offering trust to another through dialogue can help build a relationship. And, as the relationship grows (as the “bowl” gets bigger) the possibilities for action grow. Focusing on the understanding and relationship-building can and often does lead to amazing possibilities for collaboration and joint action. These miracles come from dialogue. If you focus too much on the results, you will strain the relationship. If you think about the relationship as a dimension of the whole, you can be more patient.

Accept that dialogue requires two persons’ commitment.

We can and should be offering the possibility of dialogue to more of our friends, relatives and business associates. This edition of Bright Ideas, has provided some options on how to do that. Still, some will refuse your offer. Maybe not forever, but initially and repeatedly. Find peace in your intentions and efforts, and accept your own humanity. Politely refuse to play win/lose debate and offer dialogue again when the time is right.

In Defense of Dialogue — Part 1

Posted by Lee Smedley

Public discourse seems to have taken on an unusually adversarial tone these days.

It’s about making sure no one else gets your fast food chicken, or that we’ll all go to hell in a hand basket if the “other guy” is elected, or that being manipulative, cunning and ruthless are the best ways to stay on that reality show for another week.

Thrust into conversations like this, I often react strongly and just as adversarial. Sometimes, I even start the conflict. It disturbs me. I realize that I have chosen to engage in verbal battles where winning, possessing or humiliating, as opposed to understanding, are the goal. I have chosen NOT to have dialogue.

Well, I’ve seen enough and had enough. I’m hoping you will join me in my commitment to bring dialogue back to public discourse. This edition of Bright Ideas makes the case for action. Part 2 will offer suggestions on how to take action.

Adjustment to the ever-present threat of terrorism, a bad economy, drive by shootings near to home, an election year, the war in Iraq - are those the reasons we seem to be trusting each other less? Perhaps. Preserving our own views and honorable values, defending them from attack has been and will always be important. Especially important since we may have assumed good intentions in others when they did not exist, offering trust naively. Readjustment has been necessary and difficult, for me at least.

But not trusting anyone different from me, defending myself and my interests without regard for those of others, goes too far. My own feelings about this have been many and varied — resolve, disgust, sadness, even rage. It is so tempting to surround myself with likeminded colleagues and to get pumped up ridiculing others’ point of view. It’s almost as though we are preparing for battle. Another adversarial exchange.

Joseph Phelps (More Light, Less Heat. Jossey-Bass, 1999), describes dialogue as something quite different from the verbal warfare I’ve described. He says it’s “loving, strong, intentional, risky and redemptive…active peacemaking at its most basic level.” Imagine that.

Lest this degrade into a peace versus war debate (have you already begun taking sides and deciding how to “win” this one?), let me ask you to focus not on national affairs, but on your own life and face-to-face conversations within your family, business and community. These are the places where something important and useful begins. These are the places we can reclaim dialogue.

Let’s look at Phelps’s definition of dialogue — “coming together …to learn and grow in the truth through building on the insights and observations of others, particularly adversaries.” What an awesome goal — growing in the truth. He identifies some necessary elements of productive dialogue - teamwork, trust, and a commitment that goes beyond our own perspectives and self-interests.

Why should we do this? Because dialogue is how we create productive options from conflict. Is it the way we come to respect one another and to explore the possibilities beyond what any one of us might imagine. Phelps, a pastor, even suggests that dialogue is a place to experience the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

It can be slow. It requires both strength and humility. It doesn’t always work, but I believe it’s worth the risk. Do you yearn for peace on earth, goodwill among all people? Offer the gift of dialogue.

Finding Answers in Unexpected Places

Posted by Lee Smedley

You are generally a skilled problem solver. However, today you are stumped. Your usual approach — the all hands on deck, full steam ahead, direct approach just isn’t working. It might be worthwhile trying other approaches.

You might be surprised by what you find in unexpected places…

Look to your dreams.

Keep a notepad and pen at your bedside and record your dreams. One explanation of dreams is that they subconsciously “connect” the various elements of our experience in unexpected, but often very fruitful ways. Consider Kekule, whose dream of six circling snakes was important to his discovery of the molecular structure of the benzene ring.

Let your problem “perculate”.

Expect possibilities to emerge over the next few days. In some ways, it simply extends the “listen to your dreams” approach to your waking hours. And, it’s quite different from focusing intently on a problem for hours on end. It allows different parts of your brain and different elements of you life to come to bear on the problem.

Once you are clear about the problem, let it roll around in your mind. If it is always present but never quite the direct focus of your work, new connections may emerge. For example, unexpected insights might come from these activities:

  • Reading a novel with a meaningful plot
  • Listening to music that moves the soul
  • Searching for meanings in advertisements, a well-put phrase, a clever cartoon and a young child’s perspective on life.

Look to ideas that were once rejected.

How easy it is to become self-limiting, based on our “been there tried that” experience. True, choosing not to re-try a previous failure may be wisdom. But, it could be an error as you overlook a solution whose time had simply not arrived when you tried it earlier. Go ahead! Pull out some of your old files and look over those old plans and proposals. You’ll never know if you don’t look.

Look under your nose one more time.

I am famous in the family for going to the logical place to find my car keys, pda, or passport, getting no results and then taking my search further and further from my original spot. Disgusted and flustered, I stumble along for a day or so without what I need. Then I return to where I started and find what I need right in front of me. Slowly over the years, I’ve come to accept that my wife did NOT put the keys back on my dresser merely 8 inches from their usual position to irritate me. I realize that they were there all along. If that’s true for you also, you might want to go back to your earlier work on the problem. Do you actually have all the data you need for a good solution right in front of you? Did you overlook the 800 number of the product label? Did you glance over the troubleshooting guide in your owner’s manual? Did you forget to talk with the colleague across the hall who dealt with the same customer? Stop, look and listen — right where you started. You may be surprised, and more than a little embarrassed at the gold you find there.

High energy, direct focus, time on the task. These are often useful and necessary approaches for working and problem solving. But when we get stumped looking for answers in those ways, it’s worthwhile to dream, perculate, embrace what didn’t work and look again at where we began our search.

Now, about those keys…

Lee Smedley founded Smedley Consulting in 1996 to bring Fortune 500 Organizational Development talent to non-profits, small and medium sized companies. Through presentations, facilitation and coaching, Lee and his associates have helped organizations achieve organizational alignment, attain challenging business goals, and develop new leaders.