Welcome All!

If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Easy, Quick Exercises to Increase Awareness & Focus

Buddhist monks, practicing meditators and the like excluded, we all have difficulty being aware in the present moment. Many of us suck at focusing on what’s going on here and now. We have a hard time fully staying with the conversation. If you wish to change this, practice these six easy and quick exercises. It will improve your awareness, strengthen your focus, and help keep your attention fixed in the present moment. 

1. One minute check-in
Sit or stand somewhere comfortably and focus your attention completely on the physical sensation of your body, whether it is the feeling of your buttocks on a soft surface or your feet standing on the floor. Focus on nothing else than your buttocks or feet. Focus your attention on their warmth, the pressure exerted, or the tension in your muscles. Notice how this body part feels. Don’t judge it or try to explain it, just notice.

2. 45 Seconds conscious observation
Choose an object in your proximity (cup, pen, paper, folder, bag – not your phone J). Set a timer for 45 seconds (here your phone is useful) and hold the object in your hands, turn it around as you please. Take in the object with all your senses for 45 seconds. Fully absorb the object. Look at colors, shape, and size and feel the material. Make sure not to study your object intellectually – just observe it for what it is to feel a heightened being in the ‘now’.  

3. Count down
Close your eyes and focus your attention on slowly counting down from ten. If your concentration wanders of, you start back at number 10. Most people have to start again multiple times and that’s okay. It may go like this: “Ten … nine …” When is the deadline for that proposal? Whoops, I’m thinking, not counting. “Ten … nine … eight … seven … six … “ Who is Tim talking to on the phone, he seems upset? Oh dear, I’m not focused on my counting. Lets start again! …

4. One sense only
When you are brushing your teeth in the morning or when you’re eating lunch at work, decide to focus on one sense and one sense only. For example: focus on the smell of the toothpaste and just that smell for the duration of the brushing. Or focus on the texture of the food, just the texture and nothing else. Notice how it feels in your mouth and on your teeth.

5. Focus through repetition
Choose an inspiring phrase and repeat it silently in your mind for 90 seconds minutes. Whenever you notice another word or sentence entering your mind, start again and repeat until you reach 90 seconds of uninterrupted repetition of your phrase. A few examples:
- We ought to question the things we’re inclined to take for granted.
- We do others a big favor whenever we delay our judgments.
- It takes courage to unmask the reassuring lies we love to tell ourselves.

6. Unexpected guest
When someone comes to your desk or into your office unexpectedly:
- Stop what you are doing, turn your body to face the person, make eye contact, and focus completely on the person.
- Instead of labeling it as an interruption, see what happens if you smile, welcome, breathe, and listen.
- Whether you decide to meet with the person right there and then or not, make sure to leave the interaction with a genuine feeling of having made focused contact.

As you practice these six exercises daily, don’t judge or condemn diversions and distractions. Whatever grabs your attention, whether it comes from outside (people laughing, a car engine, the coffee machine) or whether it comes from within (rumbling stomach, thoughts about the 3pm meeting), I ask you to accept the distraction as a fact right here and now, and then push it aside gently for a later time to pay attention to. Nonjudgmentally release any thoughts of the past or the future. Slow down, re-focus completely on your exercise, and remember: Constant practice is the key to success.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Want to get better at handling tough conversations?

Early January I had the honor and pleasure to be back at the webcast studio of Minnesota Continuing Legal Education in downtown Minneapolis. This time I was asked to speak about "The How of Tough Conversations". 

I will share seven elements of this presentation that should strengthen your confidence, insight, and skill in handling a variety of tough conversations. Regardless of the exact nature of your conversation or circumstances, many tough conversations are unpredictable, emotional, and draining. Therefore:  

1. Schedule your conversation early in the day, if you have any control over the timing, to feel as fresh, sharp, and positive as you can. Since we all have a limited amount of mental energy (and thus limited self-control) make sure not to have to exert unnecessary self-control on things that you can do after your conversation or that don't need to be addressed at all! You want to keep sufficient reserves of mental energy for your difficult conversation. 

2. Prepare yourself physically:
- Deep breathing: 6 of them (about 55 seconds!) will already slow down your heart rate and provide your body with the necessary oxygen, including your brain and it's amygdalae (your fear center, involved in processing emotional memory and responding to stressful situations) and your prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision making, personality expression, and moderating social behavior).
- Power posing: a great source to learn about the positive effects of power posing is a TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, but in brief, if you perform power poses your dominance hormone testosterone goes up and your stress hormone cortisol goes down.

3. Reflect on your fears, needs, assumptions, and thinking flaws that may be at play in this situation. For example: you fear that you won’t be able to contain your frustration, you may be driven by the need to always appear in control, your assumption about the person could be that she’s driven by a wish to outsmart you and your most prominent thinking flaws are drawing premature conclusions and taking things too personal. A great resource on examining and correcting assumptions and thinking distortions is “How to Keep People from Pushing your Buttons” by one of my 'mentors' Albert Ellis. 

4. Know your expectations and make sure they are realistic. Check your partner’s expectations and how he perceives yours. Only if you ask questions about expectations and goals is it possible to align. 

5. Increase your awareness during the conversation: what do you sense in your body (tensing of shoulder muscles?) and which emotions are developing (anxiety)? Emotions provide valuable information to evaluate and guide your thinking and acting. Also use heightened awareness to understand what your conversation partner may be experiencing in the here-and-now. However check your assumptions about the person and delay your judgments – you’ll do yourself and the relationship a great favor.

6. Ask more and better questions. Not questions to prove your point, but questions to understand the person better. Then listen and observe attentively. Remember, most of us are lousy listeners because we allow our own needs, fears and thinking flaws to dominate and we too easily give free reign to internal and external distractions. Hence the importance of awareness in the here-and-now. 

7. Distinguish between the content of a conversation and the relationship or process aspects of that conversation. A great article on this topic is:  https://hbr.org/2016/01/defusing-an-emotionally-charged-conversation-with-a-colleague

Practice makes progress, so use these tips in your next tough conversation!