When I get caught up in an anxiety spiral, my thoughts quickly go worse case scenario. Something has happened, I get triggered and I run straight up the ladder of inference, jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Too often I am not even conscious that I have leapt from an incident – something someone did or did not do, something someone said, even a facial expression – to all sorts of beliefs about that, and most critically -- accepting those beliefs as fact.
The ladder of inference created by Chris Argyris breaks down what our brains do so naturally and so quickly. We jump from the observable data to the data we pay attention. We then assign meaning to it, make assumptions, jump to conclusions based on our beliefs and then often take action based on this chain of thought. All this can happen in a split second.
I have found that the ABC framework is a useful tool for slowing myself down and examining the validity of my thoughts and conclusions. Originating in cognitive psychology and the work of Aaron Beck, the acronym stands for Adversity, Belief and Consequences
The tool is useful because it gives you a framework to break down what just happened. Here is an example of how you would use the tool:
This first step captures what just happened. The next step is to examine those thoughts and beliefs.
Then one step further takes each of the worse case scenario beliefs, examines their likelihood and helps you play out alternative scenarios as well as make sounder decisions about next steps.
Adversity: A colleague yawns during my presentation.
The next time you find yourself caught in an unhelpful thought loop try this out for yourself. Learn more in the book The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatte, PhD.
I consider myself a life-long learner. In fact ‘learner’ is one of my top five strengths in both the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment as well as Via values assessment. I spent some time in December looking back at the year and one of the things that I thought about my year in terms of learning.
Learning shows up in a couple different ways for me. I love to read and have shared short summaries of a few of the books I have read this year in these posts – summer book reviews – winter book reviews. I also ask myself the question, “what did I learn?” each week when I do my weekly reflection. Thus I capture the informal learning that emerges as I work.
Designing learning experiences
I design learning experiences for others as well. This year that included speaking engagements including workshops and sessions on a variety of topics:
I also created more in depth learning experiences for others. I led day-long workshops on building partnership and board development for a network of nonprofits as part of a longer series of trainings on strengthening organizational sustainability. One of the highlights of the past year was partnering with a colleague and 14 (relatively) new executive directors to facilitate a program designed to meet their specific needs. Through content and peer coaching, the group evolved over the course of eight months from a collection of individuals to a group who trusted each other with their most pressing challenges. It was so rewarding to support and help cultivate that shift.
I participated in formal learning experiences offered by others. When I do, I practice my novice sketch-noting skills. A few highlights included:
Nonprofit Quarterly’s webinar series on evaluative practice led by Jara Dean-Coffey and Jeanne Bell. The series stretched my conception of program evaluation and building learning organizations. My biggest take-away was the caution to be mindful of the purpose of any research. Part of this means making explicit the recognition that evaluation is always inherently subjective, even though it is often perceived as objective and the arbiter of worth and value. Too many evaluation and other research efforts for programs that serve marginalized communities have been designed with the organization or researcher’s needs in mind, leaving the impact on the community out of the picture. The impact of this approach may be unintended or unintentional yet is extractive nonetheless. Learning and evaluation needs to be in service of the mission and mindful of impact, not just because one is curious.
Learning with the brain in mind
A session at ASAE’s Annual Conference in August focused on the basics of neuroscience and learning. Scientists now know that as adults we have neuroplasticity. So old dogs can learn new tricks! Designing learning with the brain in mind includes connecting the new information/content emotionally to the person’s previous experience, working with the material actively and repetition. It was good to hear that keeping my brain healthy includes all the habits we all have heard are healthy generally – staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, moving regularly, eating healthy, cultivating mindfulness and stimulating our brain on a regular basis. The last few years I have managed to make all of those regular practices, especially by reminding myself – something is better than nothing.
An exciting intensive training that I participated in focused on Collaborative Innovation. It centered on how to build collaborative networks intentionally to bring together organizations and groups of people. Networks have the potential to solve wicked problems beyond the capacity of one organization. Yet collaboration can be challenging and time intensive. By incorporating aspects of human centered design with iteration, rapid prototyping and testing, the network can move to action and not get bogged down in analysis paralysis. When started with intention they include both the power brokers in a system and those impacted by the system at the grassroots level, starting with the friendlies and then spiraling out.
An important skill in facilitating is harvesting -- designing a meeting, a convening, a retreat with a set of intentions and outcomes in mind that will be harvested from the conversation. The degree of stickiness of the outcomes from a process is dependent on the level of engagement of those participating. When people talk about buy in, they need to remember that buy in is built not bought. Just telling people about a vision or a direction is not enough.
Dewey contended that there is no real learning without reflection. “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” What are you reflecting on as the new year launches?
Too many people – especially women – suffer from perfectionism. While it used to be that this was the perfect “weakness” to admit in a job interview, perfectionism gets in the way of performance rather than enhancing it. Perfectionists live in fear of mistakes. Gripped in this fear, they struggle with committing to a course of action, to get started, or to finish a project.
Try and make mistakes
I was talking to someone who was in the throws of perfectionism. I joked – why not try and make mistakes? Set that as your goal. Make as many mistakes as possible today. I was joking but why not give it a try. You can’t learn without making mistakes so rather than avoid them why not try to have them? This seems very counterintuitive yet if you were to approach your day that way I am guessing you would jump into action – because how else would you up your mistake ante? Also I would guess that you are unlikely to make a lot of mistakes, but making that goal might make them seem a little less scary.
What’s the “right” place to start?
Another person was trying to figure out the “right” way to start doing more strategic work with her board. There were lots of reasons that the board was in an operational mode. Crises in the past had forced it to shift its focus to the day-to-day. With the crisis past it had not yet shifted gears. There were lots of possible ways to get started. But she was paralyzed with looking for the “right” one – the strategic one. Certainly there is value in being strategic for greater impact and efficiency. But searching for the perfect strategic action can also have the impact of not taking any action. My feedback to her – pick one and start as an experiment. See how it goes. It might not be the “right” one and if not, adjust and try something new.
Planning and experimenting
I love planning and love working with organizations to help them think through their future direction to help them be more strategic. At the same time, organizations trip themselves up when they fall into the trap of thinking that they can plan out everything in detail at the outset. You just do not know what of your plans will be a ‘mistake’ or a learning opportunity. The ‘mistake’ provides you the opportunity to shift gears and try something new. Try thinking of your plan as a series of experiments. This way you can hold the plan more lightly and be more open to learning. Identify a couple big goals to set your own or your organization’s direction. Plan in more detail for the first year of implementation, especially first actions. Then get started.
Need help thinking about how to get started? Inquire about a complementary coaching session.
If you are like me, the end of the year includes some time to look back and see what you have accomplished. You likely set some goals at the beginning of the year. How much progress did you make them? And further and probably more important– what did you learn from the experience? I use four tools to help me prioritize taking the time to reflect on what I have learned from my experiences.
At the end of each day, I take a few minutes to consider the day and write down what I accomplished – my daily wins. Some days those wins are big – and sometimes they are really small – like cleaning out my email! But even after a day that did not feel super productive I can always come up with items to note that I got done. It helps me see the progress I am making. One small step after another – moving forward.
First I take 30-45 minutes at the end of each week to do a weekly reflection. My daily wins journal helps remind me what I did over the course of the week. The weekly reflection is centered around seven topics and I answer the same questions each week. I focus on vision, awareness, needs, feedback, core skills, action and results. I begin each reflection by looking at the intentions I set for the week and think about how things went. Did it go as I imagined? What was different and why? Often times I am setting intentions around how I will feel during a piece of work – confident in a presentation or centered while facilitating a session. You can download my weekly reflection worksheet here.
At the half-year mark, I take a few hours to review my weekly reflection notebook. What happened? What were the ups and the downs? What patterns do I notice over the course of months? What did I take away from the experience? I use this worksheet to capture my notes as I review my weekly entries.
Yearly professional learning plan
To take this six-month review one step further I create a professional learning plan for the year. What do I want to learn over this coming year? I start by taking stock of where I am. What have I learned this past year? What does my current situation require of me? What do I currently contribute to my field?
Then I think about where I want to be in a year. What is the next year going to bring for me? What challenges am I facing? What skills and knowledge do I need to do my job more effectively? Will an upcoming project push me in a new direction? What does the field demand from a successful professional? When I look back on this coming year, what do I want to have achieved?
How will I learn the skills I am aiming for? This may include formal professional development opportunities – yet it likely also includes taking advantage of informal learning. By setting intentions about what I want to learn in the next year, I am ready when opportunity presents itself. Here is a template for creating your own professional learning plan.
For example, a couple years ago I wanted to learn how to sketchnote. I bought a book, read about it, watched some videos. Now when I attend conferences, I go with a sketchbook and a couple colors of pens and I sketchnote each session I attend. My notes may not be super pretty or incredibly well illustrated but they help me remember the session. – They are also a great conversation starter for those at my table!
Give yourself the gift of reflection
In our go-go culture, it can be difficult to find the time to reflect when there are so many urgent things going on in the present. Yet the benefits are great when you take some time to capture your learning as you go. Make an investment in yourself by giving a broader view at the six month and end of year point. Give yourself the gift of some reflective time to support your learning!
The new year is often a time that people step back and think about where they are in life. This is a good time to look back and think about what the year has brought you, what you have learned, what you have achieved. And what your hopes, dreams and intentions are for the coming year.
Developing a Practice
I have a weekly reflection practice that I developed and have practiced over the past five years. It gives me rich material to review at the beginning of the year to answer those questions. This practice came out of my experience at graduate school. I consider myself a life long learner. Yet the reflection we had to write after writing every paper was the bane of my existence. Too often I wrote it in the last 20 minutes before the submission midnight deadline. Deep reflections they were not.
My graduate cohort was prepping to go on our international residency to South Africa. We were discussing what would support us as we worked with our clients. Through a variety of visioning exercises, we culled our conversation into a few key concepts:
I saw these as all interrelated and remembered David Sibbet’s work on visual meetings and how mandalas demonstrate unity and holistic thinking. I then built on a set of daily reflection questions I had come across, adapting it and using these major topics as a framework. Download the tool for your own use.
Adding a layer
I began using it regularly through my work to set intentions as well as observe what I was learning as I went along. Because it is structured and now a regular practice, it makes reflection do-able for this reluctant reflector.
With this habit established, I then added another layer. At the six-month and year-end mark, I review my weekly reflections and look for insights and themes. I use different categories on large 11” x 17” paper to capture what strikes me as I review what I have written. These are:
Seeing the patterns
Even though I am no artist, I have also sketched the journey of the year. What were the twists and turns? Ups and downs? Significant events and memories? How did the year feel?
What have I learned? And what will I do as a result of that learning? With that in mind, what is my vision for the week ahead, months ahead, year ahead.
What is yours? Need help getting started? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session that can help you reflect on where you are and what your intentions are for the year.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.