About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

25 April 2014

The Answer to How Is Yes

Peter Block, author and consultant, is well known for challenging conventional theories of individual and organizational development.

In his book The Answer to How Is Yes, Peter makes the case that we too often short-circuit ourselves by asking "How?" questions prematurely, instead of first pondering the deeper, more important question, "Why?" Many of us have been trained and rewarded all our lives for asking the penetrating questions about how such-and-such a thing might be accomplished. Asking how can make us feel smarter, Block says, but it won’t make us wiser. It just submerges our most important personal and organizational missions in a quagmire of misdirected analysis.

He proposes a moratorium:
"If we could agree that for six months we would not ask 'How?' something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might shift for the better. It would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we do, as individuals and as institutions. It would create the space for longer discussions about purpose, about what is worth doing. It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the right question, rather than what is the right answer."
He took on a challenging task in his book, advising us to pursue what matters most not only in our own lives, but also in our organizations and through our societal institutions. And, while he acknowledged that risk, uncertainty, and anxiety will accompany any decision to lift our heads up from the mundane and peer toward the ultimate, he said it’s an action worth taking nonetheless. By doing this successfully, he says:
"We can reclaim our idealism in a materialistic environment, reestablish an intimacy with what surrounds us, and find depth in a world that is happy with a quick makeover."
Peter's advice is more relevant today than ever. And, though it's hard to take up his challenge, it is most certainly worth the effort. For otherwise we’re left with a painful conundrum of the sort described by the novelist Thomas Pynchon:
"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."
  • Can you tell a story about a "how" person you have worked for or with, or been married to? Can you do the same for a "why" person?
  • In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of a person whose default approach to life is asking "how" quickly and often? How about the person whose nature is asking "why" first?
  • Would others describe you as a "how" person or a "why" person? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate?
  • How do you respond to Peter's notion of not asking "how" for six months? Can you imagine what might change in your life or work if you did?
"Dear ones: Beware of the tiny gods frightened men create to bring an anesthetic relief to their sad days." - Hafiz

"'Goodbye,' said the fox. 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.'" - Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

"The theme of the Grail is the bringing of life into what is known as 'the wasteland.' The wasteland is the preliminary theme to which the Grail is the answer. . . It's the world of people living inauthentic lives - doing what they are supposed to do." - Joseph Campbell
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to fore go the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not." - Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizzly, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk bound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards." - Edward Abbey

18 April 2014

The One Who Stands Within

In December of 2004, John O'Donohue talked to our Masters Forum audience about leadership. And, while acknowledging that leaders need to possess certain skills, he focused on the seven personal qualities he thought underpinned all truly successful leaders.
"The first quality that I would like is that a leader would have an inner life - the person wouldn’t be just an outside, external functionary.

"Secondly, they would have a quality of vulnerability. I don’t mean vulnerability in the sense that they are assailable from every corner, but when you’d look in their eyes, you would know that they knew what it was like to be vulnerable.

"Third, I like a leader to have a bit of solitude, a very rare thing in our times. It’s hard to find it, and a lot of people are terrified of it, and they’ll run from it, but a person that can’t endure their own demons or know them, or have a secret place where they can meet them, can’t be trusted fully in the interaction of combat, where power is the question.

"A fourth thing I like in a leader is imagination and vision. Vision is vital. A vision is something that links together the gift of your own individuality with the need that is where you are, it links gift and hunger together in a way that links the best in you toward the best in them. Vision can only be developed if you are awake to the blessings and the potential of your own mind.

"Fifth, a leader has to have character. A person who has character is someone who is not a prisoner of their own ego and limitations.

"Sixth, a leader is someone who has the gift of compassion as well as the ministry of encouragement. It’s amazing when you think of some of the gifts and abilities that you have, if you hadn’t got that old praise or recognition or encouragement, you might never have crossed over into your own gift.

"The seventh thing I think a leader should have is the quality of listening. Heidegger said that true listening is worship, and it’s amazing, actually. It’s amazing to be listened to. When you’re truly listened to, a burden and all kinds of old false layering falls away from you completely."
He went on to say that we can't fully develop these inner qualities until we shed the notion that we are the sum total of where we've been and what we've accomplished, and somehow get in touch with who we really are, or the one who stands within.
"Identity is being reduced to biography, whereas in actual fact identity is a far more sublime, substantial, and sophisticated concept. . . . Meister Eckhart says, 'There is a place in your soul that neither time nor space nor no creator’s thing has ever touched.' There’s a place inside you where no one has ever got to you, where no one has ever damaged you, where you have a niche of tranquility and natural serenity, and a courage and a hope that can never be taken from you. And I think that the intention of prayer, creativity, and true leadership is to somehow bring you into that place within you."
  • Who is the one who stands within you? How is that person like the one you present to the world? Different?
  • How have you been vulnerable? How has it shaped you?
  • Is solitude something you avoid or cherish? Explain.
  • How are you impacting those around you with the ministry of encouragement? Or not?
  • How is true listening worship?
"Nothing resembles the language of God so much as does silence." - Meister Eckhart

"You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or something where you do not know what is in the morning paper. A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. At first you may think nothing's happening. But if you have a sacred space and take advantage of it and use it everyday, something will happen." - Joseph Campbell

"There is a deep power in which we exist whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment the individual feels invaded by it is memorable. It comes to the simple and lowly, it comes in the form of serenity...when it breaks through the intellect it is genius; when it breathes through the will it is virtue, when it flows through the affections it is love." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

11 April 2014

Let's Talk About Me

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has sold more that 100 million books. His most popular book, The Alchemist, has been translated into 65 languages. He posted the following story at his blog:

I was just leaving St Patrick’s Church in New York when a young Brazilian came over to me.

"It’s great to see you," he said, smiling. "There’s something I wanted to tell you."

I was equally pleased at this encounter with a stranger. I invited him for a coffee, told him about my awful trip to Denver, and suggested that he go to Harlem on Sunday to attend a religious service there. The young man, who was in his twenties, listened to me without saying a word. I talked on. I said that I had just read a novel about a terrorist group that launches an attack on St Patrick’s Church, and that the author had described the scene in such detail that I had noticed many things I had never seen on previous visits. That was why I had decided to go to the church that morning. We spent nearly an hour together, drank two coffees, and I dominated the entire conversation. Afterward, we said goodbye, and I wished him a good trip.

"Thanks," he said, moving off.

That was when I noticed the sad look in his eyes; something was wrong and I didn’t know what. Only after walking a few blocks did I realize what it was: the young man had come over to me saying that there was something he needed to talk to me about. During the whole time we spent together, I had been in control of the situation. At no point had I asked him what he wanted to tell me; in my desire to be friendly, I had filled up all the spaces, I hadn’t allowed one moment of silence when the young man could have transformed a monologue into a dialogue. He may have had something really important to share with me. Perhaps if I had been truly open to life at that moment, I too would have had something to give to him. Perhaps both my life and his would have changed radically after that encounter. I will never know and I am not going to torture myself with the fact that I failed to take advantage of a potentially magical moment: mistakes happen. But ever since then, I have tried to keep alive in my memory that farewell scene and the sad look in the boy’s eyes. I was incapable of receiving what was destined for me and so was equally incapable of giving what I wanted to give, however hard I tried.

  • Who convenes the meetings or conversations in your life?
  • Who decides what you will talk about?
  • Who decides what you will not talk about?
  • Who decides what the conversational rules are?
  • Who decides when the conversation or meeting is over?
"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked." - Mark Twain

"I try to follow the advice that a university president once gave to a prospective commencement speaker. 'Think of yourself as the body at an Irish wake,' he said. 'They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.'" - Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor

04 April 2014

Call Me Trim Tab

R. Buckminster Fuller - inventor, futurist, and humanitarian - is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. His tombstone reads simply:


A trim tab is a small device on a ship’s main rudder that must be turned before turning the large rudder to change course. Fuller saw trim tabs as a symbol for the small but strategic acts that change the course of world events, and he devoted his life trying to determine what a single individual like him - or a small group of like-minded people - could do to better the human condition that large organizations, governments, or private enterprises could not.

There are many individuals who've changed the course of history. A case in point is Rosa Parks, whom the U.S. Congress named "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement." On December 1, 1955, she was seated on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. When the driver ordered her to give up her seat so a white passenger could take it, she refused. Her action ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was among the first dominoes to fall on the path that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Most of us are not in a position to change the world, but we are all capable of improving things in our world. Sadly, many of us forget to do the small things that can make a big difference in the lives of those closest to us. Mother Teresa laments:
"It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start."
Several years ago Rabbi Joseph Telushkin closed his Masters Forum presentation by sharing five short phrases - trim tabs - we can use to heal broken relationships with those close to us, or deepen ones currently in fine repair. It's a great place to start if you want to go there.
  • Thank you. Gratitude is more than a virtue in Telushkin's view: it is the cornerstone virtue, the one on which all goodness is based. Say thank you often and sincerely.
  • I love you. Don't be like the man at his wife's funeral, who was overcome by the love he felt for her but never expressed to her. It's not enough to keep love in your heart - it must be continually handed over to the one you love, in words and in deeds.
  • How are you? This question shows that you care, that you are concerned. Say something to communicate that it matters to you whether the other person lives or dies.
  • What do you need? Ascertaining what a person needs allows you to give him or her what is most meaningful - and thus, the highest expression of your love. But if you don't ask, you won't know.
  • I'm sorry. Once a man came to Telushkin and confessed an inability to come out and say he was sorry for things he had done. Telushkin said, "Can you then say I'm sorry I am unable to say I'm sorry?"
  • What contributions do you dream of making to others?
  • Dag Hammarskjold, former United Nations Secretary General once said, "It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses." Does his statement ring true with you? How does it intersect with your life today?
  • Of those closest to you, is there one in particular who needs more of your time, attention, and support than you are currently giving? Do you see how applying one or more of Rabbi Telushkin's trim tabs can help repair your relationship with that person? Will you do it?
  • Has anyone every done a small thing for you that ultimately had a profound impact on your life? What did this person do? What impact did it have?
  • What makes someone unforgettable?
"Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." - Mother Teresa
"To live in love is to accept the other and the conditions of his existence as a source of richness and not as an opposition, restriction or limitation." - Maturana
"Beware how you take away hope from another human being." - Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Falling leaves that lie scattered on the ground,
The birds and flowers that were here cannot be found.
All the friends that he once knew are not around.
They're all scattered like the leaves upon the ground.
Some folks drift along through life and never thrill,
To the feeling that a good deed brings until,
It's too late and they are ready to lie down,
There beneath the leaves that's scattered on the ground.
Lord, let my eyes see every need of every man,
Make me stop and always lend a helping hand,
Then when I'm laid beneath that little grassy mound,
There'll be more friends around than leaves upon the ground.
To your grave there's no use taking any gold,
You cannot use it when it's time for hands to fold,
When you leave this earth for a better home someday,
The only thing you'll take is what you gave away."
- Grandpa Jones, Falling Leaves