Finding Joy, Beauty and Healing through Nature in Challenging Times

Jon Kabat-Zinn when discussing mindfulness and resilience in difficult times stressed the need to be “still aware of beauty” in the midst of the challenges confronting us during the onset of the Coronavirus.  He suggested that despite the incredible heartbreak of these times, inspiration abounds, particularly in the beauty and resilience of nature.  Jon referred to the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, who experienced his fellow monks dying from bombing raids by the Americans.  Amidst the grief during the burial of his friends, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Don’t forget to see the flowers blooming by the side of the road”.  Jon reminds us to lift our eyes beyond the present pain and fear and to be aware of nature and all its beauty and healing power.

Wise@Work recently provided a webinar with Mark Coleman presenting on the topic of Beauty, Joy and Resilience in the Midst of Adversity: the Healing Power of Nature.  Mark is a globally recognised meditation teacher, author of From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness and the creator of the Mindfulness Institute.  Mark has a particular focus on being healed through nature by finding beauty and joy in experiencing nature mindfully.  He shares his unique insights drawn from mindfulness practices, research and experience in this area through his course, Awake in the Wild Nature Meditation.

Attending to nature and experiencing connectedness

What we pay attention to shapes our lives – our thoughts, feelings, mood and perspective.  In challenging times, we tend to become absorbed in what we have lost, obsess about the news and feel a loss of agency in many aspects of our life.  Our natural negative bias is strengthened, resulting in a continuous scanning of the environment (local and global) for threats, both real and imagined.

Mark maintains that we can restore our sense of equilibrium by paying attention to nature – attention being something that we can have agency over.  Through mindful attending to nature we can experience joy, peace, beauty and healing – experiences that are uplifting and energising.  He argues that as we become connected and aligned with nature, we can find our life purpose and delight in living or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it, “waking up to what is” as the “laboratory of life unfolds”. Mark quoted the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, Mindful, to reinforce his view of the joy in nature.

Nature as a source of sensory awareness and joy

We can refocus our attention by beginning to notice nature as it unfolds daily before us and enlivens our senses – seeing the exquisite beauty of the sun rising in the morning over the water, listening to the echoing sounds of birds as they awake to another day, smelling the ground and grass after a night’s rain, touching a furry leaf or tasting freshly picked fruit, herbs or vegetables.  There are many ways to tap into the beauty and healing power of nature – we just have to be alive to them and willing to create space in our lives to experience this unending source of joy.

Mark reminds us that we don’t have to go out into the wild or visit a rainforest to enjoy nature (the very words we use such as “enjoy” expresses nature’s potential).  We can venture into our yard and observe the blossoms on the trees, notice the first seedlings emerging from recently planted grass seeds, feel grounded on the solidity of the earth, smell the earthiness of the soil and hear the wind gently rustling the leaves of trees and plants.  We can even stay inside and connect with nature through pictures and images – the sunflowers in a field of grass, the small child leaning over to smell a flower in a rockery or the tall poplars lining an expanse of crops.  If we study the painting of the girl, we can observe the colour of the flowers, the shape of the leaves, the fallen branches and the stone paving – things that we may not have noticed before.

Reflection

I have always found trees a source of meditation and an inspiration for poems because they reflect the paradox of human existence – suffering and joy, life and death, disconnection and closeness, weak and strong, flexible and inflexible.

Nature surrounds us and is there before our eyes, ears and other senses – if we would only pay attention.  The time required is minimal and the rewards in terms of mental and physical health and overall wellbeing are great.  Nature is a free, ever-changing resource. 

As we grow in mindfulness through paying attention to nature and meditating on nature, we can experience a calmness, peace and joy amidst these turbulent times.  Like our breathing, nature is a refuge readily available to us to enjoy, a source of connection to other living things and means of healing through alignment.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reduce Emotional Inflammation with Reconnection to Nature

Tami Simon recently interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren on Emotional Inflammation as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Lise drew on her newly published book co-authored with Stacey Colino, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.  While the book was written before the onset of the Coronavirus, it is made even more relevant in these times of the global dislocation caused by the pandemic.  Lise maintains that emotional inflammation existing before the outbreak of the Coronavirus has been aggravated by the virus and its flow-on effects such as anxiety and grief and the unnatural states of social isolation and social distancing.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, people were experiencing emotional inflammation as a result of our global and local environments impacted by climate change, gun violence, racial and refugee discrimination, economic disparity and turbulent economic conditions.  Lise acknowledged that the pre-existent emotional inflammation has been exacerbated by the advent of the Coronavirus.

She described out current conditions as a “fraught inflamed time” and encouraged us to be kind to ourselves and others as we work our way through the many challenges confronting us on a daily basis.  Lise maintained that individuals will deal with the challenges in different ways, e.g. some will keep themselves busy and get engaged with community work such as The Care Army, while others will use the time to retreat, read and reflect and/or listen to encouraging and inspiring podcasts.

Loss of connection to nature

I have previously discussed the impact of  the “nature-deficit disorder” and the loss of connection to nature and its healing powers.  Lise, who is a renowned climate change activist, argues that much of our emotional inflammation is caused by a loss of harmony with nature and its natural energy flows.  We have not only devastated our ecosystems (and the “immune system of the environment”) but also lost our capacity to be attuned to nature and its tranquillity and timelessness.

We have become time-poor, impatient, intolerant and stressed by the pressures that surround us and, increasingly, by the technologically paced character of our lives.  We refer to “slow mail” and “running out of time” on a consistent basis as our communications have increased in speed, simultaneously with increased expectations about response times and constant exposure to information overload – we are drowning in information and unrealistic expectations.

Lise is a firm believer that our ecology impacts our biology and she bases her assertions on sound scientific evidence.  She is at pains to point out that climate change has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health, a perspective reinforced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Our physical and mental health is intimately linked to our connectedness to others and to nature.  Connection is a deeply felt need and frustration of this connection leads to physical and mental illness, including depression, ill-health and anxiety.

Reflection

Emotional inflammation is strongly associated with disconnection from nature.  Reconnection with, and respect for, nature can bring many health benefits and reduce the enervating effects of this “fraught inflamed time”.   Mindfulness practices involving breathing can help us to become better attuned to nature and more at peace with ourselves and others.  Nature is a rich source of healing and time spent being mindful in nature can assist us to develop the equanimity and creativity we need to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our time.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on nature, mindfulness practices and reflection on our way of living, we can begin to realise the critical role that nature plays in our health and wellbeing.

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner for his work on infectious diseases, suggests, like Lise, that there are opportunities to be taken, and real lessons to be learned, from the current challenges of the Coronavirus:

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we live in the world, what’s of value to us and start to look at what is really important. (Interview quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 9-10 May 2020, p.37).

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Strategies for Couples to Cope While Working at Home during Quarantine

In a previous post I discussed Rick Hanson’s ideas about the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges facing couples working from home during the quarantine conditions brought on by the Coronavirus.  In his podcast, Coping with Quarantine, Rick also explored strategies for couples to cope with these challenges.  His suggested strategies focused strongly on connection, contribution, control (inner and outer) and compassion.

Strategies for couples to cope with the challenges of working together at home during social isolation

  • Connection with others: the fundamental principle underpinning physical distancing is avoidance rather than contact and connection.  However, this does not prevent us from connecting with each other as a couple, with our family and friends or with colleagues.  All of the remote communication strategies are available to us – online video calls, telephone, social media and email.  There can be a tendency to let the physical distancing principles impact the rest of our behaviour.  However, now is the time to reconnect with others who are also feeling socially isolated.  As a couple, connection can take the form of increased hugs, considerateness, words of love and appreciation and thoughtful touch – all of which builds the relationship. It also involves avoiding the temptation to escalate an argument or conflict to prove you are right or to assuage your pride.  Fundamental to connection with your partner is listening for understanding, not interrupting but being open and vulnerable to the thoughts and feelings of your partner.  As Rick points out, listening provides you with the time to deeply connect with the other person and enables them to experience calm and clarity.  He reiterates Dan Siegel’s view that deep listening enables the communicator to “feel felt by the other person”.
  • Connection to nature:  we are connected to nature on multiple levels and it is possible through mindfulness practices, including mantra meditation, to experience this connection at a deep level.  When we experience our deep connection to nature, we can feel inspired, energised, positive and calm.  The very act of breathing and walking in nature regenerates our physical systems, clears our mind and helps us to reduce the power of our negative emotions.  Nature has its own healing capacity which we can tap into in multiple ways – if only we would stop long enough to let it happen.  
  • Contribution: there are so many people in need as a result of the pandemic.  There are also endless ways to contribute and help others, to draw on our creativity and resourcefulness.  For example, despite the lockdown in the Northern Territory in Australia, Arnhem Land artists are offering a series of free online concerts to lift people’s spirits and reinforce their connection to the land and the resilience of nature.  Thirty of Australia’s top singing stars have also collaborated to provide an online concert from their homes, Music From The Home Front, that is dedicated to people who are in the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  Another exemplar of contribution in adversity is Nkosi Johnson who was born with HIV in South Africa and died at the age of 12.  In his short life, he dedicated himself to fighting, locally and globally, for the rights of HIV affected people in South Africa and beyond.  Nkosi is quoted as saying, “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are”.
  • Controlling yourself and your environment: in times of crisis it is important to develop a sense of control over our difficult emotions and our immediate environment.  There is a growing pool of advice on managing anxiety and achieving mental and emotional balance during these times of uncertainty and social isolation.  In times of uncertainty we can achieve a sense of agency by controlling aspects of our immediate environment – whether that be tidying or renewing our garden, removing clutter from our workspace, developing new skills or getting our finances and accounts in order.
  • Compassionate thoughts and action: in the section above on contribution, I stressed the importance of finding ways to help and to take compassionate action.  However, action is not always possible because of our personal circumstances, including being confined to home as a high-risk person.  This is particularly where loving kindness meditation can be used to experience compassion towards others who are suffering and/or experiencing grief.  Everyday there are stories of individuals and families experiencing heart-breaking situations brought on by the Coronavirus.  We can keep these people in our thoughts and prayers and feel with them.

Reflection

Creating connection, making a contribution, achieving self-control and control over our immediate environment and offering compassion and loving kindness are ways forward for individuals and couples restricted to working from home.  Meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices will help us to grow in mindfulness and to develop the necessary self-awareness, awareness of others, self-regulation and presence of mind and body to bring these positive aspects into our lives as individuals and couples.

Chris James captures the essence of connection to nature in the songlet Tall Trees on his Enchant album:

Tall trees

Warm fire

Strong wind

Deep water

I feel it in my body

I feel it in my soul

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Challenges for Couple Relationships During Quarantine and Working from Home

Rick Hanson, in one of his Being Well Podcasts, spoke of Coping with Quarantine.   His focus in this discussion was on the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of physical distancing and restrictions on movement.   In the podcast, he identified the challenges and highlighted the fact that the pandemic and associated quarantine conditions have contributed to an increased divorce rate in China since the pandemic outbreak.  Rick spoke of the interpersonal challenges brought on by the confinement conditions and the mental and emotional pressures experienced by couples working from home.

Challenges of social isolation for couples working from home

The unusual conditions for a couple working from home in the context of other social constrictions creates increase emotional pressure for individuals in a relationship as well as for the relationship itself.  Rick describes some of these challenges as follows:

  • Heightened emotional activation: both individuals in a relationship who are working from home will be experiencing heightened emotions in the form of anxiety, fear and frustration as a result of the Coronavirus and associated restrictions on location and movement.   Couples typically experience daily aggravations with some of the comments and actions of their partner.  These aggravations can be intensified in the situation of limited physical space in the home environment and restrictions on movement.  The home environment can become a place of continuous annoyance, conflict and anger rather than a haven of peace and contentment.  Married couples in this situation can experience suffocation and/or staleness and need to draw on considerable internal resources to increase their tolerance and maintain their relationship.
  • Loss of social support: physical distancing can separate us from people we usually associate with and from whom we draw support and reinforcement.  Normally, we gain validation and confirmation of our competence and self-worth through these external relationships.  The change to a working from home environment means that we have lost the daily “water cooler chat” and with it the exchange of information, including sharing of our thoughts and feelings.  The loss of various forms of social reinforcement can cause us to challenge our self-concept and self-worth – difficult feelings compounded by feeling inadequate working from a home environment where we lack the personal capability for remote communications or the working space and technology to take advantage of the positive aspects of remote working.
  • Loss of structure: it is surprising how many people report in the current situation that they “don’t know what day it is”.  This is due, in part, to a loss of structure in their day.  The loss of regular, repetitive activities results in a loss of anchors to our days that serve to remind us what day it is.  We no longer get dressed for work, take the train or car at set times, play our social tennis on Monday nights, watch the footy together on Friday nights, visit our extended bayside family or the local market on weekends or undertake any other activity that serves to structure our day or week.  Rick suggests that these structures normally “prop us up” and their absence can leave a sense of “groundlessness”. 
  • Loss of familiar role:  in the work environment, we can feel competent and in control.  When forced to work from home in a more complex and difficult environment, we can feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and be ill at ease for much of the time.  For some people, this can be temporary as they develop the skills to master their circumstances; for others, being able to adapt becomes a real issue and aggravates the feelings of frustration and reduced self-esteem.  The intense sense of ill-ease and associated stress can debilitate people and hinder them from seeing a way forward and acquiring the necessary skills to capitalise on the current situation and personal conditions.
  • Loss of freedoms: with the restrictions on movement and need for social isolation, people can experience a loss of the fundamental right to “freedom of association”.  Along with this, may be the experience of a lack of privacy where both partners are working from home, especially where for many years one partner went to work every day for an extended period.   Introverts may experience a loss of access to their “cave” where they would normally retreat to recover from extroverted activity, including interactions with their partner.   One or both partners in a relationship may feel that their other partner is constantly “under their feet” – a complaint frequently voiced by people where one partner usually works from home and the other partner has recently retired from their job in the city or away from the home.

Reflection

Quarantine as a result of the Coronavirus and enforced working from home conditions can place increased stress on couples and their relationship.  The current environment also offers an opportunity to develop our inner resources through meditations (including mantra meditations), mindfulness practices and reflection on our resultant emotions and responses.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing, keep issues and aggravations in perspective, develop tolerance, build our skills and draw on our innate resourcefulness and resilience.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Maintain Mental and Emotional Balance When Physically Isolated

Previously I have spoken about mindfulness practices as a way to handle the mental and emotional challenges inherent in the current Coronavirus and the imposition of social isolation and social distancing.   What I have covered there is a list of discrete practices that can help us to manage the overwhelm associated with these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  Arjuna Ardagh, author of Radical Brilliance: How and Why People Have Original Life Changing Ideas, offers a more holistic approach that recognises the mind-body connection.  His tips on maintaining emotional and mental wellness are mutually reinforcing and place the body as central to emotional and mental stability in our current environment.

A holistic approach to mental and emotional wellbeing

Arjuna highlighted some of the unproductive and potentially aggravating practices that people are engaging in to release tension and stress at this time, e.g. spending many hours on social media and indulging in the blame game and conspiracy thinking or turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the mind and distract from the fear and anxiety that people are feeling.  He suggests that this current pandemic challenge provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to develop self-intimacy and learn to change our mental and emotional state through holistic practices.

In his short tips video (17 minutes), Arjuna proposes four integrated approaches or types of practices that are designed to strengthen the mind-body connection while releasing negative energy and building positivity:

  1. Removing physical blockages – this entails elements such as stretching and moving emotion though your body.  Arjuna suggests that you identify and practice a physical expression of the emotion that you are feeling, e.g. fear may be experienced bodily as a curled-up posture and then released through stretching to one’s full height.  Frustration, on the other hand, might be expressed by an angry, explosive gesture and a prolonged cry of anguish such as “Aargh”.  This bodily approach releases inhibiting emotions locked away in your body and opens the way for developing a “positive disposition”.
  2. Relax into awareness – this can take many forms such as somatic meditation, the use of singing bowls as described in a MARC podcast, exploring natural awareness (opening to the infinite reality that is accessible through our senses),  or deep listening to classical music, singing of mantra meditations or “sacred acoustics”.  Arjuna maintains that all that is really required here is to be “naturally curious” about the sensations that you are experiencing in the present moment (including awareness of the fact that YOU are doing the experiencing).
  3. Enter the flow – this approach involves engaging the flow of energy through your body.  There are a range of Eastern practices that can help you achieve this but one of the best and well-researched practices is Tai Chi.  Arjuna asserts that if you can engage in the process of flow (even through dancing to music), you not only release energy throughout your body but also emotion – you can experience the joy and ease of wellbeing.
  4. Use thought creatively – Arjuna suggests that after you have removed blockages, experienced deep awareness and engaged your energy flow, you are well placed to engage your uncluttered mind.  So, instead of marinating in negative thoughts that generate complex and harmful emotions, you can begin to write creatively in a journal or blog or create a video podcast that reflects your positive, energetic flow.

Arjuna maintains that if you practice each of these approaches each day, however briefly and in whatever form you choose, you can release the hold of your complex emotions and develop emotional and mental wellness.

Reflection

Arjuna’s approach involves a progressive release of creative energy, moving from clearing blockages to engaging the senses in awareness and tapping into the energy flow of the body.  The outcome is creative expression and resolution of perceived, impenetrable challenges.  His approach is deeply embedded in the mind-body connection and employs integrated approaches that open up a wealth of possibilities.  As we grow in mindfulness through adopting these holistic practices, we can more readily access our creativity, build resilience, manage our confounding thoughts and emotions and experience the peace and ease of wellness.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Strategies for Managing Remotely

There are numerous suggestions available for managing remotely given that many people are working at home because of the social isolation associated with the Coronavirus.  In a previous post, I explored some of the challenges and opportunities involved in working from home that managers need to be aware of.  There are many common strategies employed by companies in relation to communication, support, information management, performance management, accountability and frequency and modes of interaction between managers and staff (and amongst staff themselves).  However, it is vitally important that the practices and processes of remote management reflect and reinforce organisation culture.

Reflect organisation values in remote management practices, processes and tools

While there are many suggestions regarding best practices for remote management (for example, on YouTube©), it is important not to just “copy and paste” them into your own company’s processes.  What is really needed is to build company-wide processes for remote management that reflect your company’s core values, e.g. friendliness, empowerment, accountability, transparency, consistency, inclusive.  Elizabeth Hall provides a comprehensive example of how Trello’s values are embedded in a wide range of remote management processes, systems and practices for their global organisation, e.g. virtual parties, chat system with multiple channels (work and personal), saying good morning (despite country of location) and mandatory overlap hours for working wherever in the world.

Communication practices and processes for remote management

One of the basic rules for managing remotely is to find ways to compensate for the lack of social interaction that people would normally have in a “bricks and mortar” environment.  From a management perspective, systems and processes for accountability are also important but need to be culturally compatible.  Communication strategies can be adapted to the nature of the work, location(s) of workers, time cycle of producing product and services and sensitivity/urgency of the core business.  Here are some communication strategies that companies employ to achieve these goals of social interaction, accountability and adaptability:

  • Mandatory online meetings – these can be daily or weekly and are mandatory often within a flexible working arrangement.  This ensures one form of interaction across the team and can build in accountability via a reporting mechanism (e.g. against KPIs, project milestones, or output measures). For teams that have a high level of interdependency, a daily “stand-up” meeting via video conferencing can be important to ensure that people are “in-synch” in relation to work-in-progress.  The sharing involved can take many forms, e.g. sharing “three things I did yesterday” and “three things I plan to do today”.  The manager then has the opportunity to check for coordination of effort and re-visit priorities in consultation with staff.  Some companies that have a mixed mode arrangement (work from home and work from company offices) ensure that all participants in the mandatory meetings are online (not a mix of face-to-face and virtual participation) – a practice designed to build in consistency and inclusiveness. 
  • Replicating the “water cooler” experience – finding ways to make up for the lack of social interaction of remote workers.  The processes employed are intended to build trust and understanding through mutual sharing, informal information exchange and storytelling.  Processes range from continuous online chat channels (both business and personal) to time-structured interactions for pairs or groups of four to enable them to share information about their personal life through online video conferencing (videos of the interaction can be shared more widely in the organisation with consent of the parties involved). 
  • Face-to-face interactions for the group – many companies institute an annual get together for a team (or linked teams) to create connections, build relationships, facilitate consistent communication of company information, share progress/strategies/intelligence and for forward planning.  These can take the form of retreats, conferences or workshops and incorporate games, partner interactions and/or social events.  It is important that the structure and processes of these scheduled face-to-face interactions reflect the characteristics of the company’s culture such as values, rituals and norms.
  • One-on-one interactions with the manager – ideally these entail visits by the manager to individual staff members.   However, regular and predictable one-on-one interactions are important to gauge how a staff member is coping with their work and environment and to provide a means of accountability.  It is increasingly important that managers find a balance between task and personal needs of staff when having these interactions.  In crisis times like the present, managers may need to change the balance by giving employees more slack and spending more time on personal matters to provide additional personal support.  This is necessary when working from home is enforced and not a matter of choice, when there are high levels of job insecurity and the broader environment is turbulent and uncertain.  Managers have a duty of care in relation to the mental health of their employees.  If they observe signs of mental illness, they can employ approaches such as the “R U Okay?” enquiry and access the relevant resources.

Processes and systems to support work achievement

It is important to put in place processes, systems, technology and policies to support effective remote management.  Clarity around expectations and system processes supports efficiency and effectiveness and reduces misunderstanding and conflict.  Developing protocols, practices and rituals provides some degree of certainty in a very uncertain world.  Strategies companies employ to support work achievement include:

  • Setting expectations: being clear with staff about performance and behavioural expectations is critical at the outset.  Included in this is establishing onboarding processes for new staff so that they understand what is expected of them as well as become familiar with the team’s processes and systems. It is common for different teams (e.g. system developers vs sales staff) to have different preferences about the means of communicating – e.g. email vs phone.  At the outset, the manager can support teams to develop groundrules about how they want to operate and collaborate.  For an established team, this could include exploration of the “unwritten rules” which create behavioural norms unconsciously.  Clear expectations provide the stimulus for personal motivation and contribution and the groundwork for performance management.  Some organisations employ 360-degree feedback to support performance management and identify development needs – the frequency of these feedback processes (e.g. quarterly, half-yearly or annually) will depend on the time cycle of the organisation and the need to highlight accountability.
  • Systems development: develop systems and procedures to support daily processing and achievement of team’s goals.  These should be documented and readily available to all staff.  In the absence of formal systems and procedures, information and intelligence can be lost and result in inconsistent treatment of staff and customers.  Systems should cover data storage, retrieval and editing. Cloud storage is often recommended for ease of access for remote workers. Visuals such as flow charts, diagrams and videos can be used to support communication about systems and procedures.
  • Support for workers in remote localities – often remotely located employees feel “left out” because their needs are not taken into account.  They suffer from inadequate infrastructure, the increased cost and limited availability of transportation and limited resources.  Ways to reduce the sense of isolation for remotely located workers include establishing a “buddy” system; visits by senior management; developing joint projects involving these staff and people in hub localities; and connecting them with local groups, organisations and government entities.  To help people in remote localities really feel as if they belong to the organisation, the manager can involve them in planning and review processes, ensure equitable access to training and be conscious of their timeframes (and time zones where relevant) and commitments when scheduling meetings.
  • Facilitate remote social interaction – this involves establishing a culturally appropriate way of providing fun and light relief so that staff can interact on a non-work basis.  Some groups have instituted virtual coffee breaks or lunches and others have introduced a virtual “happy hour”, while some groups with a light-hearted approach have enjoyed virtual games and parties.  Whatever form of remote social interaction you choose, it is important to encourage staff to take time out.

Reflection

Managing remotely adds considerable complexity to the role of a manager, especially in these uncertain times.  The demands for emotional agility and adaptability on the part of the manager are very high.  It is critical for remote managers to be able to manage themselves effectively in times of crisis.

With appropriate communication strategies and supportive systems and processes, a manager can help staff realise a work from home environment that is both enjoyable and productive.  As managers grow in mindfulness through reflection on experience, mindfulness practices and meditation, they will be better able to access their resourcefulness and resilience, heighten their compassion and build a sense of agency for themselves and their staff.

In his book, A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles writes about Count Alexander Rostov who was evicted from his usual plush suite in the Metropol Hotel and confined to an attic room in the hotel for an indefinite period by The Bolshevik.   During an early stage of describing the house arrest, Towles shares the Count’s reflection on his confinement and depleted situation (which incorporates a salutary lesson for dealing with changed circumstances):

Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement. (p. 38-39)

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Image by Anrita1705 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Managing Remotely: Challenges and Opportunities

Managing remotely brings many challenges and these are compounded in the current uncertain times associated with the relentless march of the Coronavirus.  Managers like their staff can be ill-prepared for the sudden change in their work location and circumstances.  Managers who are used to seeing their staff daily and being able to observe what they are working on, lose that “line of sight” and can become anxious about their perceived loss of control.  Workers themselves can experience a sense of social isolation and can lack access to timely information and adequate technology.  These difficulties can be aggravated by distractions, particularly where there are young children at home and other children who need to maintain a school study program while being unable to attend school.  Managing remotely demands increased flexibility and adaptability on the part of managers, the willingness to “cut their staff some slack” and the emotional agility to manage themselves in times of crisis.

While the challenges of remote management are personally demanding for managers, particularly in times of uncertainty, there are also opportunities inherent in the remote circumstances.  These include the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with individual staff, to build effective teamwork and to promote creativity and capacity development.

The challenges of managing remotely

Staff working from home and/or in remote locations can lose their sense of belonging very quickly and become withdrawn and disengaged.  Managers on our Confident People Management (CPM) Program report that some of the other challenges that arise are:

  • Things can get out of hand quickly
  • Staff can become demotivated because they often do not know “what is going on” (compounded by the absence of the informal, “drink fountain” conversations that often entail sharing, “Did you know that…?”)
  • Misunderstandings and conflict can arise because of the lack of information and/or communication
  • Staff can feel a lack of support because the normal supports (presence of mentors, technical experts and resources) are not readily accessible
  • The working space and/or technology of staff working from home may not be ideal
  • The potential for negative cohesion and “groupthink” to arise in the absence of the physical presence of the manager
  • Staff can experience feeling isolated and this sense of disconnection from others can compound, or be the catalyst for, mental health issues such as loneliness and depression
  • Managing poor performance can be more difficult because of the loss of “line of sight”, the lack of face-to-face interaction and the extra demands of communicating and problem solving on a more regular or routinised basis.

People ideally suited to working remotely are those who are self-reliant, strong communicators, self-directed, resilient, trustworthy and outcomes/results focused.   Unfortunately, in these times of enforced working from home arrangements, managers do not get the opportunity to decide who is personally suited to working from home and whose work is adaptable to a working from home environment.  This situation of lack of control over a critical aspect of decision making can be particularly challenging for a manager and also make performance management even more difficult because some people will not be suited to these quickly implemented, new working arrangements.  The current need for social isolation and social distancing for both managers and staff can place an added burden on the manager and can make it difficult for them to maintain a positive mindset when faced with the added challenges of complexity, uncertainty and anxiety (their own and that of their staff).

The opportunities of managing remotely

Managers on our current CPM Program report that the remote management situation has surprisingly improved their communication with individual staff when they use video as apart of remote communications technology (such as Zoom© or Microsoft Teams©).  Both managers and staff are finding it easier to share openly and with some degree of vulnerability in this new context.  They put these relationship improvements down to the lack of workplace distractions, the absence of an open office environment where privacy is sacrificed in the misguided pursuit of efficiency and a mutual sense of vulnerability (occasioned by the Coronavirus).

With the right strategies for managing remotely, managers can create opportunities for staff to develop new skills, build resilience, improve teamwork and collaboration and gain more enjoyment and motivation in their work.  As the oft-quoted English-language proverb goes, Necessity is the mother of invention – the need to do something imperative about something that is significant to working effectively, generates creativity and innovation.  Both managers and staff are forced to find new ways of working and communicating to maintain their own sense of agency and to achieve the desired team outcomes.

Reflection

There is a tendency to see only the challenges inherent in remote management because of our natural negative bias when we feel threatened or forced to go outside our comfort zone.  However, there are very real opportunities involved in managing remotely, not the least of these being the catalyst to involve managers in accelerated self-development.  As managers grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection they can build their personal resilience, enhance their capacity to make “adaptive change” in their behaviour and more readily access their creativity and innovation.  With every challenge there is an opportunity for personal growth if the manager has worked at creating fertile ground, through mindfulness, for their own flourishing.

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Image by Anrita1705 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

What Absolutes Are Holding You Back?

In a penetrating video presentation, Lance Allred asks the questions, “What is Your Polygamy?”  Polygamy in the context of his talk is a metaphor for the “absolutes” that we carry in our head from childhood (absolutes that have been reinforced by our own self-stories and by the projections of others).   Lance was raised in a polygamous Mormon community established by his grandfather. The community’s beliefs were very “black and white” – no room for grey.  Polygamy was practised because of the belief that the more wives you had, the closer you were to God. 

Lance’s absolutes included the following:

  • He had to prove himself to God and man because he was born defective as a legally deaf child
  • Mormonism is the one true faith and you can only get to Heaven if you are faithful to Mormon beliefs.

Lance escaped from the Mormon community at the age of 13 years, but he maintains that it is taking him a lifetime to escape his “absolutes”.  He did become the first legally deaf NBA player, but this became another trap – he became captured by the lights and accolades to the point were his sense of self-worth was dependent on the views of others.  He won the praise of others but began to lose his integrity.  He was so caught up with defining himself as an elite basketball player that when he was cut from the NBA team, he was severely depressed and entertained suicidal thoughts.

What are your absolutes?

Our absolutes are “culturally indoctrinated” and embedded in our everyday language – they live underneath the “shoulds”, the “musts” and the “have to’s” that we tell ourselves daily and use as excuses when confronted by personal challenges or the requests of others (either explicit or implicit requests).

Lance contends that knowing our “absolutes” is a journey into “self-intimacy” and overcoming them is a lifetime challenge of moving outside our “comfort zone”.   He argues persuasively that “we were not born to be caged within our comfort zones” – places of comfort created by our absolutes that we mistakenly view as giving us certainty in an increasingly uncertain and ambivalent world.

Our absolutes hold us back from becoming what we are capable of being.  We fear failure because with new endeavours we will need to move beyond what we know and are comfortable with.  We are concerned about what people will think of us if we don’t succeed in our endeavour, particularly if we put ourselves “out there”.  Lance, however, maintains that “you are bulletproof if your worth is not tied to an outcome” – in his view, by being authentic and true to yourself, you can overcome fear and rest in the knowledge that your worth can never be challenged or questioned.  Growth comes through discomfort, and failure contributes to growth because it precipitates deep learning about our self, our perceptions and our absolutes.

Reg Revans, the father of action learning maintained a similar argument, when he said:

If you try to do something significant about something imperative, you will come up against how you view yourself and how you define your role. 

Don’t let others determine what you are capable of

Lance stated that others can reinforce the cage of your comfort zone by projecting onto you their own absolutes and/or fears.  He tells the story of his first game as an NBA player that he came to play because someone was injured, and a replacement was not readily available.  The coach told him not to try to do too much, just settle for one or two goals and lots of defence.  He was effectively communicating his belief that Lance could not accomplish more because of his deafness disability.  Lance went on to score 30 goals in his first game as well as 10 rebounds.  His message as a result – “don’t define yourself by your disability and don’t let others determine what you are capable of”. 

Often people associate deafness with both physical and intellectual disability.  As Lance stated, the greatest challenge he had to face with his disability was not the disability itself, but others’ perceptions of who he was and what he was capable of.

Lance had been profoundly deaf since birth and had difficulty talking in a way that people could understand.  He spent thousands of hours in speech therapy and has become an accomplished public speaker and author.  I discussed his latest book, The New Alpha Male, in a previous post.

Reflection

In another video presentation, Lance contends that moving beyond our absolutes and associated fears takes perseverance and grit, traits that he maintains define leadership.  I can relate to the need for perseverance and grit in moving beyond peoples’ expectations of what you are capable of when you experience a disability. 

In 1974, a disc in my back collapsed resulting in my inability to walk or even stand without extreme sciatic pain.  I was told that I would never play tennis again. However, over 18 months, I undertook every form of therapy I could lay my hands on – chiropractic treatment, remedial massage therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, light gym work, physiotherapy and osteopathy.  When using the exercise bike in a gym (I hate gyms!), I would envisage playing tennis again.  My osteopath, Dr. Graham Lyttle, got me back on deck and I having been playing social tennis weekly for the last 40 plus years.

I can also relate to Lance’s concept of “absolutes”.  As I used to play tennis fixtures at an “A” Grade level, I have carried in my head the absolute that I should not make a mistake at tennis.  Managing my expectations around this personal absolute, has been a constant challenge.  I can take to heart Lance’s exhortation that if your self-worth is not tied to an outcome, you can overcome your absolutes and become what you are capable of being.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our absolutes and how they play out in our lives and develop the self-regulation and courage required to move outside our comfort zone and realise our full potential.  We can move beyond our procrastination and undertake our meaningful work.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Building Your Relationship

In an earlier post, I looked at the different levels of connection involved in “love”.  Before that, I explored ways to develop a sustainable intimate relationship through mindfulness.  The reality is that building a relationship takes time and effort, but the rewards are great.  No relationship is perfect and the belief that this is possible, leads to unrealistic expectations that can easily undermine a relationship.  Every relationship experiences its ups and downs – its highpoints and low points – as two people try to negotiate the waves of life.  Many people offer sound advice on things to do and to avoid in a relationship to enable it to grow and develop.  Here are some suggestions that resonate with me:

  • Express gratitude and appreciation: this is a consistent theme and it is understandable why people recommend this so highly.  No one likes being taken for granted, especially in an intimate relationship where there is always substantial give and take.  Kira Newman points out that research shows that a lack of gratitude can drag down a relationship.  Gratitude can not only help the relationship but it can also be healthy for you and enable you to deal with things that would normally get you down – things like wanting to complain, being bore or feeling overwhelmed by difficulties.
  • Don’t harbour resentment: Leo Babauta suggests that resentment is one of seven deadly sins that can kill off a relationship.  Resentment can eat away at us and cloud our thinking as well as undermine our health and wellbeing.  Leo offers ways to deal with resentment in a relationship in his discussion of the deadly sins.  In a previous post, I offered a process of in-depth reflection designed to reduce resentment.
  • Challenge your unrealistic expectations: in the early stages of a relationship, the other person seems to be perfect (our perceptions can be clouded by the honeymoon stage of love).  As time goes on, we begin to notice words and actions that we find annoying or upsetting.  If we dwell unduly on these unmet expectations, they can outweigh our positive experiences in the relationship.  Leo suggests that unrealistic expectations of perfection in our partner and our relationship can be the seeding ground for resentment.  He argues that a foundational unrealistic expectation is wanting the other person to fulfill our lives – be the source of our personal fulfillment.  He argues that it is important to find our fulfillment within our self and bring to the relationship a person who fully shows up in their life.
  • Comprehensive and regular communication with your partner:  Leo reaffirms the views of many people that communication is “the cornerstone of a good relationship”.  He suggests that this communication should not only cover what we appreciate in our partner but, in a kind and courageous way, involve sharing our resentments, jealousies or unfilled expectations that may arise over time in a relationship. 

Reflection

It is so easy for a relationship “to go off the rails” and many people who have been able to sustain a long-term relationship, readily admit to the times when they experienced “darkness” or deep dissatisfaction in their relationship.  The suggestions in this post can help to move us out of the dark and into the light again.  If we can grow in mindfulness as we pursue our personal fulfillment, we can bring to the relationship a deep sense of gratitude, an enlightened self-awareness, a capacity for reflection-in-action (to prevent unnecessary escalation of a conflict), the resilience to meet relationship challenges and the ability to sustain the effort and the lifelong learning required to enrich our relationship.  Developing our relationship will enable us to reap the rewards of companionship, mutual respect, love and a deep sense of psychological safety.

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Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.