April 20, 2010
Life Challenges
The fool who thinks he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man; But the fool who thinks he is a wise man is rightly called a fool– Dhammapada 63

Last week a friend suddenly disappeared. Like magic, one minute she was engaged and providing her perspective in a meeting we were attending together and the next minute she was gone. Her body stayed at the meeting, but she had left.

My car battery also went on “walk about” last week…twice. Like my friend, its essential spirit took off and I was left searching for alternative transportation.

When I dropped my daughter off for a soccer game on Saturday, I noticed that I returned to the same mind set that had appeared during the earlier described disappearing acts. My mind raced like a train on an oft-used track clicking past scenarios of where we stood and what might happen next. My thoughts sped along with:

Will she score?What if it rains?What if they lose?

Earlier in the week, my mind-train visited its usual stops:

Will my friend return?Is there more wrong with my car than the battery? and the ubiquitous,What could I have done to prevent this?

That last one always gets my inner conductor yelling, “Next stop…Let’s Try To Control The Future…all aboard! Getting off that station, I’ll be sure to try to fix whatever is worrying me, whether it is a friend’s silence or a child’s potential disappointment.

Sometimes trying to control outcomes makes sense, like getting the darn car fixed. However, my “control the future” reaction is far from appropriate when it comes to wanting to shift the mental or emotional states of others.

Being a control-focused leader — be it as a manager, friend, parent or instructor — is not very attractive. While the conductor is calling out that next station, it is important for me to consciously decide if I need to disembark at “Control!”

In my examples, I had no need to intervene or control my friend or daughter. My friend, it turned out, disappeared because she was preoccupied with worry about an ex-boyfriend was very ill. My daughter did score and they won that day. Their experiences and emotions were best witnessed and left to unfold as needed, whether they were painful or pleasant.

Meanwhile, we are wired in such a way that just watching can be really difficult. Latest brain research seems to show that we are each equipped with “mirror neurons,” that mimic the emotions that we witness in others. You are sad, and I have a good set of mirror neurons, I will feel your sadness. You feel pain and I’ll register it too. Thus, when those I care about are on the way to tough emotions, I might wish to circumvent their route so I don’t feel discomfort.

I have been trying out a new approach to scoot me right by “control the future” land when the conductor calls. When another looks like they might experience pain, I first check if they are in true danger.  If the answer is “no,” I begin repeating silently, “Allow.”

“Allow” reminds me to let go of needless control. It’s my code word for allowing others their own experiences; to let them feel sadness, anger or disappointment. Saying, “allow” to myself calms. My body relaxes as I become more focused what’s occurring now instead of pushing to shift the future. It is a practice of recognizing that I don’t necessarily know emotions or situations are best for others and in repeating “allow” I place a bit more trust in those I care about, and in life.

Notice this week, what supports you moving from a quick “fix it” reaction to a more centered response?

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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