Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.

If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

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The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

When the baby cries

I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.

I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting. 

It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.” 

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It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion. 

I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.

My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.

You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.

The next time the baby cries -  when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?

“Sticks and stones” was dead wrong

I can remember complaining to my mother when my brother or a schoolmate said something mean, and hearing her tell me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.”

Well, it turns out my mom was wrong - and that has consequences both at home and at work. 

How the brain processes social pain

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman described the neuroanatomy of pain processing. Though we’ve long understood the mechanisms for how we perceive physical pain, what’s remarkable is that those same mechanisms are involved in processing social pain. One study even showed how taking Tylenol, a common painkiller, “made the brain’s pain network less sensitive to the pain of social rejection.”

Why would this be?

“Mammals, and particularly humans, need to feel social separation as painful. It keeps infants and caregivers close together. That may have been the reason evolution gave us social pain, but now we are stuck with it our entire lives, and it colors almost every social experience we have.”

Not only do names hurt, but their effects are worse. I can put a band-aid on a cut and a cast on a broken bone, but what do I do for bullying? Or feeling like I’m not getting the recognition I deserve at work? We experience social pain every day throughout the day, and we have few remedies.

"Tragic expressions of unmet needs"

One way to lessen social pain is to improve how we communicate. To help, my friend (founder of Fearless inventory) introduced me to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. My first reaction was that it was “too touchy-feely.” Then he told me how Rosenberg used the method in political negotiations in the Middle East and Africa, in resolving gang conflicts in the US, and even counseling married couples. That convinced me.

I read the book and watched one of Rosenberg’s workshops, and he described a process that was both empowering and joyful. His simple methods help you clearly state your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without resorting to judgment, shame, criticism, and worse. 

“All such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us.”

The examples he used for “violent” communications were uncomfortably familiar. Even if I'm not often overtly mean, I might use forms of judgment intended to get what I want. I saw how I could improve the ways I made a request, offered feedback, or shared what I was feeling.  

“Words contribute to connection or distance,” Rosenberg wrote, and practicing nonviolent communications was a way of “sharing power with others rather than using power over others.”

First, do no harm (“Primum non nocere”)

Earlier this week, I spoke with an educator in Missouri about this topic. We talked about the discouraging state of dialog, not just in politics and our Facebook feeds but in the workplace and everyday life. 

She said she found herself in situations where she was uncomfortable with what was being said but didn’t know what to do. If she didn’t say anything, she’d feel like she was condoning the behavior. Yet if she challenged the person, they would likely just get defensive, and these were people she needed to work with. She needed to relate to them and work with them, not alienate them. 

We talked about nonviolent communications and agreed that, while it’s hard to practice, a good first step would be “don’t make it worse” by judging or shaming. Simply paying more attention to what you’re saying and why you're saying it - ““how words contribute to connection or distance” - is a good first step to improving how we relate to each other.

“Did I take my pill today?”

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s happened more than once. I’ll be holding my bottle of vitamins, staring at it with a puzzled look on my face, wondering if I’ve already taken my pill or was just about to take it.

The first thing I’ll realize is how absent-minded I was being. I was so un-conscious that I could not remember whether I opened the jar and swallowed a pill just a few seconds earlier.

Then I'll think of my mother. She would take medicine daily and would often wonder aloud, “Did I take my pill today?” Instead of offering empathy, my younger self could only react with a mix of irritation and shame. “How could you forget such a simple thing?”

Finally, I'll reflect on the power of nudges. I read recently how simple text messages helped people in Nigeria take their malaria medication. For me, my nudges include putting the vitamins in the same place and taking them at the same time, and checking off a box on my daily progress chart.

Maybe you also have some things you forget, like where you placed your keys. Or maybe it’s something much more important, like telling those around you how much you love and appreciate them.

You’re not thoughtless, you’re human. Each of these moments is a gift, a chance to remember to be mindful, to offer compassion to yourself and others, and to perhaps change your environment a bit so you’ll remember next time.

Learning how to give

Despite writing (some might say preaching) about the importance of generosity in building relationships, I’m still learning how to give. A recent interview with the Pope made me realize how much more I need to practice. He was talking about giving to the homeless.

“He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.”

I had written about homelessness before, and about my own need to develop compassion instead of pity, detachment, or whatever else you might feel when you pass someone who is suffering.

A few months later, I was walking home after one of my worst experiences in recent memory. I was in something of a daze, replaying the events in my mind, when I noticed a homeless woman out of the corner of my eye. It was cold. She was sitting on the sidewalk, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by a shopping cart full of things and several bags. I turned around and walked back towards her. I took a Kind bar (of all things) out of my bag that I normally carry as a snack, and asked, “Would you like this? I like them very much.”

She looked me in the eye and smiled a slow, beautiful smile. “No thank you," she said. "I’m okay.”.

I wished her well, turned, and kept walking. My eyes teared up. How could she be okay? It was cold and she was on the street! How could I not be okay, when I was healthy and returning to my home and family?

That moment taught me that giving doesn’t have to be one-sided. It can be an exchange. For the offer of a bit of food, I got perspective, a lesson in giving without judgment or expectation, and a glimpse of our interconnectedness and shared humanity.

Whenever I have something to give, whether it's a compliment to a colleague or food to someone in need, I think of that woman on the street. And I carry Kind bars with me ever since.