Playing Well when we don't know (1)

November 3, 2008

I’m just home from walking in the fog.

Although I am writing literally, my walk in the fog could have been equally metaphoric. The future seems pretty fuzzy on Sunday, November 2nd with presidential elections in two days, volatile financial markets and heightening tensions in Syria, Pakistan and…and…and…

Fog rarely appears in Bozeman, MT so the weather’s novelty caught my attention. It reminded me how, according to cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, some parts of Africa call times like the ones we are navigating “walking in the land of gray clouds.”

Today it feels impossible to fully predict what our economic, political and social landscape will look like a year from now. While I visited our eldest son at college a few weeks ago, I wondered, “How many of these students will be able to return next quarter, let alone next fall?” I try to guess what’s next and envision positive results, but I don’t really know. 

If my thoughts run wild, I can move to a panicked state pretty easily these days and I’m noticing I’m far from alone. Clients, family, and even strangers all want to talk about the candidates and stock market. The old adage, “don’t talk politics or religion,” somehow has been ignored at every dinner table I’ve visited over the past month.  Friends aren’t sleeping and madly canvassing homes with “get out to vote” brochures. We seem to be in a bit of a state.

So, how does one play well in the fog? 

1. Watching our attitude

As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why is it playing well?” when in doubt every culture I researched suggests you should  “count your blessings.”  Make it a habit. For example, Native cultures, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam prescribe professing gratitude for what is working in your life at least once if not multiple times per day. When we don’t know what’s next, remind yourself what is.

Recent psychological studies show that we are happier and more able to recover from traumatic events if we foster an “attitude of gratitude.” University of North Carolina researcherBarbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory suggests that using positive emotions broadens our attention and ability to perceive a bigger picture. When in a state of appreciation, we are more able to think creatively and gather information on the situation at hand. Her research also suggests that we are more resilient when fostering appreciation, optimism and joy. 

So, taking my own advice as I walked, I thought how cool it is to get to witness such a historic election. I was happy that I get to be alive during these unique times. I went on to enjoy the mist and the temperate afternoon. And my list of my “blessings” continued to grow the more I focused on appreciating my circumstances. I came home calm and more objective than I was when setting out.

When times get really rough,  all I can muster is “I can walk” or “I’m still breathing” to begin my “happy list.” But, starting with those, others appear. Priming the pump with blessings I can’t deny help to move me from my most miserable into a productive mind set. 

So, over the next week, ask yourself daily, “what’s working?”  I welcome your thoughts and results!

In my next post, I will continue with another technique for playing in the fog  – “Watching our actions.”


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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