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What is revealed to us in crisis?

Updated: May 6, 2020

‘There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self’ — Benjamin Franklin

As we experience grief and loss in the time of Covid — loss of movement, certainty, structure, connection, place, people — our responses and those of others might reveal deeper truths about ourselves and one another, if we take the time to notice.

I’ve had a lot of deeply human, conversations with a very diverse set of leaders in the last few weeks about what they’re facing, what they are finding, and what they’re needing. From those conversations, three new themes are emerging that each offers a deceptively simple invitation to notice and take action from the last two weeks in particular.

1. The right to feel is not a competition prize

At some point early in any conversation, it’s normal that we will ask that question, ‘How are you?’. We’re answering that question more thoughtfully now than with that reflexive, most reservedly British of responses, ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’. And we listen more carefully to the answers when they come — it’s hard, we’re worried for elderly relatives, the kids are missing their friends, a friend has been furloughed, we’re struggling under the monotony, we miss coffee shops and swimming pools and sports clubs and book groups.

And then what follows is the new, self-conscious disclaimer; ‘But compared to some people, I don’t have it so bad, so I shouldn’t complain’. I felt it myself last week, in the sadness that came from cancelling a family holiday later in the year, which was quickly replaced by guilt. Compared to what others have lost and are losing, a holiday is not a big deal.

That may well be true, and if the comparison with others brings us comfort or spurs us to compassionate action, then great. And it can also be true that sadness is not a zero-sum game, or a competition with only one winner; we don’t need to wait for our turn to feel sad. The opposite of ‘grief’ is not ‘gratitude’, and they can coexist quite naturally. There’s a danger, if we deny ourselves the ‘right’ to feel these emotions, that they sit unresolved. Our emotions always have something important to tell us — something we care about, something we are afraid of, something that needs tending to — and in suppressing them because it’s ‘not our right’, we deny ourselves the opportunity take action, find resolution and move on.

Instead of that denial, we might engage more fully with what we’re feeling, and use it to learn. Let’s accept the sadness, the anger, fatigue, grief, or whatever-it-is, and ask, ‘what does this tell me?’; and then, ‘what does it ask of me?’. It’s not an invitation to wallow in negativity indefinitely, but to grapple with it — to notice it, understand it and act on it, in order to change.

On reflection, I have realised that the family holiday was a marker — something in the calendar that said, ‘here’s something expansive and spacious, filled with meals out, adventure, sunshine and family that I can’t currently be with. Here’s a promise of an ending — we may be out of this by summer’. It was a point on the horizon to sail towards, and losing it meant becoming a bit more lost myself. Engaging with that realisation is leading me to a new acceptance; we are finding new points on the horizon, and we are changing how we keep in touch with friends and family over the coming weeks and months.

- What are you feeling? - What does that tell you about yourself? - How will you use that new knowledge?

2. In space, everyone can hear you speak

Do you remember that two-week period back in March when the wave of ‘here’s how to work remotely’ advice swelled and broke across social media? It feels like a lifetime ago. Many teams have moved from ‘Help! We have to do this’ to ‘Hey! We know how to do this’; some are getting deep into ‘Yeah! We’re getting good at this’.

As they do, some teams are discovering that remote working has some surprising gifts. In particular, remote working is proving to be something of a leveller. Remote working has stripped away so many power devices that have been standing in the way of people speaking up and getting involved. Remote working is not just a new way of working; it’s a changed interpersonal dynamic.

One friend noted that he is newly aware of how much of a power move ‘could you come into my office please’ really is. Five-year-olds and dogs will wander into anyone’s peripheral shot with no regard for the job titles in the room. Another client has realised that her CEO (a physically big leader with broad shoulders, a strong jaw and a deep, commanding voice) is constrained to the same 2in, 2d square as anyone else, and has no choice but to take up less space. And a third remarked that it is much easier on Zoom to track who has and hasn’t (yet) contributed to a conversation, and invite quieter members to contribute.

There are many virtual power plays and dynamics of course (‘Am I allowed to just mute someone who’s talking too much?’, asked one friend hopefully). Still, at the moment, working remotely is opening up spaces for people to step into. I’ve heard from several brilliant self-professed introverts — people with a tendency to listen and think internally before acting or speaking — that remote working in the last few weeks has helped them reclaim their power and grow their voices. They are noticing that they’re feeling able to make more of a contribution.

Learning to make a more harmonious noise together can only be good for all of us. It’s something we may want to hold onto consciously as and when this ends, which points to the third theme that’s come up this week.

- How is the power dynamic changing in your new normal? - How are you showing up differently? - What about the people around you?

3. You can grow flowers in shit, if you’re prepared to do a little gardening

As the remote working advice wave broke, it was replaced by a series of others, one of which is the ‘how might this be a good thing?’. On the one hand, that’s perhaps not a conversation to be rushed, as we continue to understand and work out what ‘this’ actually is. And also — there ARE good things coming out of this, like a rebalancing of power in teams, and also a new acceptance of remote working, broken FOMO addiction, and people are starting to ask the question, ‘how can we hold onto what is good, as and when things ease?’. Kurt Lewin’s classic change model invites us to unfreeze — change — and refreeze. We’ve been unfrozen, violently and unwillingly. We are continuing to change, out of necessity, and increasingly consciously. And now, the work to be done is to identify clearly and explicitly, what it is that has shifted that we want to keep, and to deliberately refreeze it together.

In one conversation, a coaching client noted that after a teammate had been unusually quiet on a group call, she was moved to pick up the phone and check in. ‘I noticed you were quiet — is everything alright?’ That’s such a natural conversation to have in these times, and such an unnatural one two months ago. How do we keep hold of that as and when things change again? Without that careful nurturing, the positive changes which are now blooming may prove to be quite fragile and temporary.

- When will you talk about what’s bloomed in the last few weeks? - How will you tend, protect and strengthen those blooms?


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