Mind your language. The language of COVID-19. The language of instruction. Language and cognition.
Hope I did not startle you with the imperative: mind your language. I do mean you personally, but I do not mean to imply that you have said something inappropriate. It’s simple: all of us should be mindful of the language we use. All the time. I know this is hard to do. I have failed miserably. Too often. It is more something to strive for, to be aware of. We are focused on What we want to say. We inform, explain, promise, declare, question, list, pray, or baptize. All by using language. We rely on our utterances when we teach, train, coach, or mentor. And it is this area I want to focus on in this blog post.
Personal confession: I have been studying language, teaching it, and teaching about it for many years. I enjoy thinking about language and texts. Taking them apart and putting them together (again). Language or the way we communicate is one of our characteristics that makes us who we are—human, so I believe. Language and thought – or more technically: cognition – are inextricably linked in many different and complex ways. And yet, we are all able to use a language we grew up with without ever having to necessarily learn about it, think about it, or reflect on it. What a luxurious gift!
So, we all got a gift. Would it not be better to take good care of that gift? One polishes it to make it shine for the joy of others. Another monitors it to make it a precise and useful instrument. And a third ensures that no injury or misunderstanding results.
And if each of us strives to do all three at least most of the time, then I would call that being mindful about how we use language. This can improve all of our social interaction, and I will focus on the role of language and how we use it when we teach, train, coach, or mentor in this series of blog posts.
Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?
Time! Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.
Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?
Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous? We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours. We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month. We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly. We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else? We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?
Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.
Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.
Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.
Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.
Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.
Time changes and is the same all the time.
Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexityof Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.
That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.
COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:
This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.
Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.
My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.
Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.
Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.
I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …
Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.
And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.
In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.
And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.
In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.
Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.
Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.
I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone. Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.
Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom? For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.
Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.
Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.
A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.
Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.
If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.
How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.
Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.
Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?
Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.
Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.
I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.
In a rush to bring a close to an already overly long post last week, I paid short shrift to the Interpersonal aspect of Professional Boundaries. I wrote a bit about establishing and maintaining clarity on the difference between purely social/personal relationships and those of the professional type, but I left out two essential pieces. I will boil them down in this (relatively!) brief addendum: it all comes down to statements and questions.
In my first real job out of grad school, I quickly found myself in a supervisory position where I interviewed, hired, trained, managed and, yes, fired people. Accountability (another staple of the BASE model) was becoming an ever-expanding part of my professional world. One day (a “casual” Friday at that), in our three-person office, my boss was working from home. That left me and my fellow teacher supervisor to our own devices. A re-hire candidate was coming in for a pared-down interview to determine if she would come in to teach again for us that summer. We had it on our shared calendar and thought that meant that our boss was aware and was fine with it.
Later on, when back-briefing him on what we had accomplished that day, we found out that we had been mistaken. The long and short of it was that our boss would have never approved of us bringing any prospective employee in for an interview if he thought we were going to be dressed casually (Friday or not). He was not pleased, and I realized later that it had more to do with the assumptions that had been made (more by my co-worker and me than by him) and the resulting communication breakdown, than with the actual situation of an employee seeing her supervisors in casual clothes. My boss made me keep “Challenge Your Assumptions” as my computer screensaver for the ensuing 12 months. The phrase, and the lesson it was meant to teach, has unsurprisingly stuck with me.
What it has to do with today’s post is simple. We often make not-so-good assumptions about the importance of differentiating between our statements and our questions in interpersonal interactions in the workspace. The other day, I heard about an employee who will soon be leaving a workplace, and as such is having some responsibilities transferred to other colleagues. When one of those colleagues got together with this person to discuss the details, the soon-to-depart employee at one point exclaimed, “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!” Their interaction went downhill from there.
As soon as I heard this story, an empathetic smile came to my face. This person has a question, whether they realize it or not. What happened? A statement was made, and to the wrong person at that. This employee, somewhat understandably given the stress associated with leaving a job, failed to challenge assumptions about how the transition would be handled, and as such made a statement to a colleague when a question directed to the supervisor or manager was what was most needed to clarify things. So, to keep this as short as I can, here’s the upshot: do your best to have clear Professional Interpersonal Boundaries around your statements and your questions in the workplace. This is likely to require active challenging of many of your favorite assumptions, but that’s almost never a bad thing. At worst, you come to the conclusion that your assumptions were good. At best, you save yourself (and your co-workers) some embarrassment and grief.
This leads me to the second thing: questions. Everyone knows how to ask them, right? But, how many of us can claim a high level of clarity and confidence that we most often ask the best kinds of questions in the most important work conversations? Count me as one of the people who can’t always make that claim. But, maybe you’re reading this and aren’t even sure what the heck I’m talking about. Let me try to clarify.
In his 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” celebrated Organizational Culture/Behavior/Psychology expert Edgar Schein lays out exactly why questions, and being very clear on when to they are superior to statements, matter so much. He writes:
“How can we do better? The answer is simple, but its implementation is not. We would have to do three things: 1) do less telling; 2) learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry; and 3) do a better job of listening and acknowledging.”
Simple, right? No, of course not. Schein already told us it isn’t simple at all. So what does it mean? He says we should “do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry.” But what is that? Well, to paraphrase Schein, it’s finding the opportunity in any given interaction or conversation to be genuinely curious about something that is being said or communicated, and then asking a good question (i.e. NOT one whose answer we think we already know) about that something in which we are truly interested in learning more. Still not simple, I know, but at I hope least somewhat clearer.
So, what now? Well, for this week (and well beyond, if you like), perhaps just try paying more attention to the frequency and type of statements and questions you notice in your workspace, both yours and those of others. If you are a formal authority figure, let me suggest you REALLY pay more attention to this, but I advocate strongly for it no matter your position.
As you pay more attention, look for opportunities to turn a statement (one of your own or one you notice) into a question. Once you have a handle on that, try to turn it into a Humble Inquiry-type question. Want an example? Let’s go back to the situation I outlined earlier: “I’m not gone yet and this is still my responsibility!”
What kind of question can that become? In the moment, talking with a co-worker, perhaps something like “Did (our supervisor) say that you were to take this over effective immediately, and would it be alright with you if we went and asked (our supervisor) for clarification?”
Either or both of those might work, no? I am confident that the interaction would have been less likely to go south (as it did in reality) had either or both of those questions been asked in place of the statement that was made. Especially if they had been asked with an authentic tone of curiosity and interest. I wonder (genuinely) what you think.
Remember, comments are welcome on this blog. Feel free to post a reaction, a question, or an anecdote of your own. Mat and I will be happy to read them and respond whenever we can!
Take a moment and watch this, even if you’ve seen it many, many times before. This time, watch it with an eye and a mind for cognitive and interpersonal boundaries in the professional context. Be prepared to look, somewhat critically, at the kind of thinking and interacting that is going on, and how the boundaries that are in place for the protagonist, Peter, are involved:
What did you notice? Just make a mental, or written, note of it for the moment. Now, watch this clip and do basically the same thing:
So, what changed? Go beyond the narrative device(s) utilized in the movie, and just think about what could have gone on within Peter in terms of his thoughts and interactional decisions vis-à-vis the workplace. It’s quite something when you stop and look at it with a different lens…
In today’s post, part two on Professional Boundaries, I will once again outline a couple key elements of Professional Cognitive and Interpersonal Boundaries, much as I did for the Temporal and Kinetic aspects in part one.
Cognitive Professional Boundaries can cover a lot of territory. There are so many things to think about at work, around work, between yourself and “the work.” For my money, though, it mostly boils down to a couple of main things: 1) Your relationship to authority in the work context, and 2) the way you think about tasks in your workplace. Let’s begin with your relationship to authority…
For most people in the workplace, “authority” begins and ends with positions, titles, and so-called hierarchical org charts and corresponding work-flows. I’ll not dispute that in many work environments this is (or strongly appears to be) the law of the land, but I will assert that it is (almost) never as much the case as it appears to be.
Yes, supervisors, managers, and all-around “bosses” wield a certain amount of formal authority that can be neither avoided nor denied. But, do you automatically fold your tent or change your overt point of view when it doesn’t align with whatever the “boss” is saying? If so, I must simply ask you to consider why that really is. I mean, I get it, sometimes it is downright dangerous to disagree with a supervisor, manager, or other “boss” monster-type. Yes, you do need to read the terrain well in order to decide when it is acceptable to be a voice of disagreement or even dissension. You also have to do your homework. Nobody wins points for having the courage to disagree in an uninformed manner.
So often, the tasks we perform at work are tied to a dry, frequently outdated, job description that was written more to make sure we could be held accountable in the event of underperformance than to offer us pathways to success and growth. As a result, all too often we restrict our professional enthusiasm and working passion to those rare opportunities we are given (note the use of passive voice there) to step outside of those constraining job responsibility boxes and take on a special, usually temporary, new task. And once that special task or project ends, we return to our cubicles (real or imagined) and resume our business-as-usual routines. We resume a posture where all our real authority and light is dampened by a self-protective stance, doing just enough work, as Peter would say, to not get fired. Oh, we probably tell ourselves a different story about it. I’ll even grant that many of you reading this are doing much more than that notional bare minimum, but… is it really your best? And if it isn’t, why not? Really. Why not?
Is it your boss’s fault that you don’t consistently put your best work forward? Is your compensation rate truly to blame? Is it your competitive/counterproductive/challenging colleague’s fault? Is it because you haven’t been vested with the kind of positional, formal authority that you (and sadly most people) view as pre-requisite to being fully enabled to unleash all your talents? I mean, come on…
What if you could seek to embody and exercise a different kind of authority? What if your threw all your extra energy and focus at work into identifying right actions, tasks, and solutions for as many relevant issues as possible? What if you worried more about doing what is needed than what is “right” or “fair” in your, or someone else’s, highly subjective point of view? It’s risky terrain to navigate, no doubt.
But if you can change the way you think, actively challenging all your most embedded assumptions about what work owes you and what you owe work, you may find that a different kind of authority, the kind Ronald Heifetz and others in leadership studies call “informal,” can become yours to wield. Understanding, and learning to engage with, the part of yourself that is authoritative and solution-oriented, irrespective of your position or title, is as close to a fool-proof pathway to professional success and fulfillment as I can think of.
And it all starts with mastering your thinking around what authority really is for you, and what purpose it really serves. Professional growth then extends to how you can apply that thinking not just to the tasks that land on your proverbial “desk,” but also on those that face your entire workplace team and/or organization. Rare indeed are the stories of people who got bumped up in responsibility or pay, or who reported feeling more fulfilled, by having the firmest handle on what their job wasn’t…
Interpersonal Professional Boundaries are the trickiest to capture and make meaningful change within. Work relationships, as discussed at length above, are often driven by the almighty org chart, workflow, or by the prevalent culture in a given place of business. Haves and have-nots emerge and we all behave accordingly or we move on to a different job.
There are, however, a few things I believe it is important to keep in mind. They mostly center around what I see as the erroneous, and even dangerously misleading use of words like “family” and “friends” in the workspace. Before you close this tab, deeply offended that I dared to disparage the great familial environment that exists at your work (and that you may have perhaps even helped to create), bear with me for a few moments more.
While friendly and familial relationships are no doubt the great joys of most of our lives, are they always only joyful? The answer, of course, is “no,” or at least “probably not.” They swing and cut both ways. Sometimes they are the most volatile kinds of relationships we can have. Is this really the kind of thought and feeling process that will serve us best at work? I’ll just come out and say that I firmly believe the answer to be “no.” This is especially true if you hold a position of formal authority.
Certainly, there are cultures outside the so-called “West” where the expectation is precisely that bosses, subordinates, peers and co-workers will treat one another as if they were friends and family (many times because they actually are!). However, in the context of the U.S./North American workplace, and in the ever-more globalized professional landscape, the safest bet is to establish and maintain interpersonal professional boundaries that are driven and informed by mission, tasks, work, and shared professional values.
Finally, I hope you’ll spread the word about this blog and check back next week for my first post on Physical Boundaries. Most importantly, whatever you do, or don’t do, infuse it with intention and conviction.
Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction.
If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often.
Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries.
Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic.
One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result.
All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…
“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.
“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.
“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…
Something changes, I change something. I experience this change or I don’t (really) notice it. I anticipate or plan this change, I am surprised or spontaneous. I feel joy or sorrow or both about it, in it, after it.
We are all the same and all different in how we bring about change, experience it, and handle it. Some of us—and I am surely one—find it easier to start and sustain change, to enjoy and tolerate it, and to (co-)adapt and vary the speed and direction of ever-present change, if and when we—I—understand it, its context, and its origin, at least to some extent. And when this specific change feels familiar. It even seems to be secondary whether this change is perceived—at that moment—as positive or negative.
How can one gain a better understanding and more familiarity of and with change? The very simple answer is: Through sustained and reflective learning: we notice a “gap” or a tension between us and our context—the people, things, and processes, within this context, or within ourselves. If one then does decide to act or react, we begin to gain a better understanding through – mainly – repeated reflected experience of this and similar phenomena of change often in the realm of emotions, through action engagement (basically by doing stuff about it), and through rational thought.
All three—emotional experience, relevant action, and rational thought—are reactions to change. They also can induce change, and can help us adapt to and influence change. Of the three, I will continue in subsequent blog posts with rational thought. And this is where complexity comes in.
Change is a complex process. It has multiple actors, components, facets. Quite obvious, right? What is often less obvious, especially when change is experienced as pressure, stress, and/or adversity (at that moment or for longer periods of time) is that the actors, components, and facets are changing too, repeatedly. They “have to” change because they are in continuous, repeated, intermittent interaction with one another.
I am well aware that I have invoked a number of theoretical concepts (change/dynamism, complexity) in this text already, and I am sure so are you. This is deliberate because I believe that I can reflect better, more productively, and more constructively, when my reflection is informed by an appropriate theory. Of course, complexity in and of itself is complex. So I find it helpful to use theory both as a crutch and—more importantly to me—as a lens.
Since I am hoping you find it useful both to think about change and to inform and influence your thinking systematically, I have picked a set of related theories—Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory—and will be writing about these by making them the servants of understanding change both theoretically and practically.
More on this in later posts. The titles of these posts (will) all start with “On the complexity of change.” If you find this or a later one interesting, I am hoping you will want to look at the others. So, why not follow this blog, if you are not doing so already.
What better topic for the start of the New Year than boundaries? Liminal spaces are defined by boundaries and, if we stop and think about it, so are many of the crucial decision points in our daily lives.
Last week I provided an overview of the personal and professional leadership model I have come to conceptualize over the years as BASE. Yes, it is yet another acronym for us to consider in a world that seems to be quickly approaching, or perhaps even exceeding, a critical mass state of WTFs and SMHs. Nevertheless, I share this with you in the sincere belief that by reflecting on the thoughts that underlie each of BASE’s four principles, you can build a program for yourself that will aid you in challenging even the most powerful of the FOMOs!
Over the course of this month, each week I will outline some critical questions and guidelines for developing ourselves and our thinking around the “B” in BASE: Boundaries. Today I will quickly outline what I see as the critical elements of Boundaries, and offer a few reflection questions to prepare us for the work ahead.
So, in that spirit, I offer you this invitation: when you read or hear the word “boundaries” what other things (whether they be other words, images, or emotions) do you immediately associate with the term? Take a moment and write some of those down before reading on.
Now, armed with your list of associations, consider the following question: what are the relationships between the boundaries that exist in your life today and your “self”? Are they relationships of reassuring structure and congruence? Do they generate productivity? Tension?
Reflect on the things you jotted down just a moment ago and try to connect with the thoughts and emotions you may have experienced as you wrote them. Did you feel mostly positive and reassured, or were apprehension and friction also involved? For many of us, traditional boundaries are experienced as much as limitations on what we want and need as they are sources of security and wellbeing. This ambivalence, or the potential for it, is vital for understanding the power of boundaries in our lives. However, let’s return for a moment to the definition and question about Boundaries that I posed in last week’s post:
Boundaries: The things in your life that are non-negotiable, both for yourself and for others. What are they, really, for you, and how consistently do you hold yourself, and others, to them?
For me, the real core question has to do with the extent to which we are in charge of the narrative we hold for ourselves around the Boundaries in our lives. In order to answer these questions, it may be helpful to think of Boundaries as falling under some different kinds of categories.
I divide my thinking on Boundaries into two major sets: areas and aspects. The four areas of Boundaries in the BASE model are: Personal, Professional, Physical, and Psychological. If we want to fully understand the nature and role of Boundaries in our lives, we must be able to identify and evaluate them across a spectrum of our existential domains. Do these areas and aspects sometimes, or even often, overlap? They almost certainly do, but Boundaries that inhabit two or more of these areas in our lives most likely originate in just one of them. Knowing the genesis of any boundary that permeates multiple areas is vital to our ability to (re)assume agency with respect to it.
Again, take a moment to consider these four areas and make a short list of the Boundaries, for yourself and for others, that you can already identify in each. Remember that there is no way to get any of this wrong. If you perceive it as a Boundary in your life, then it is! Feel free to underline any that are present in more than one area, as they will likely be ones that warrant greater consideration from you.
Once we have a sense of the way Boundaries in our lives work across the four areas, it can be productive to examine them in terms of their aspect(s). The four aspects of Boundaries that comprise this portion of the BASE model are Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal. When considered properly and kept in balance, each of the four Boundary areas will also entail some element of each of these four Boundary aspects.
Temporal Boundaries are concerned with how we organize and manage time for ourselves and those around us. Kinetic Boundaries have to do with our movements and physicality or, worded a simpler way, what activities we do and do not engage in. Cognitive Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, and Interpersonal Boundaries pertain to our interactions with others.
As one final reflection exercise for today, return to your list of Boundaries in each of the four areas, and try to label each with one or more relevant aspects. Once you have made a pass at this, examine the list again and notice the distribution of Boundaries across both areas and aspects. Does it already suggest anything to you about the relative equilibrium in your life in this regard? Does it challenge or reinforce any closely held ideas you may have about your “self” and the ways in which you engage with your world? Feel free to journal a bit on this (set a Temporal Boundary for it!) and see what surfaces for you. Hang on to these “notes” you have made, as they will prove valuable as we delve more deeply into each of the four Boundary areas each week for the rest of the month.
I will stop here for now. Over the course of the rest of this month, I will delve into a different Boundary area in a new post each week. Along the way, I will provide more detail and definition to my understanding of each area and the important aspects within it, as well as offering some additional reflection questions and, here and there, book, podcast, and/or app recommendations.
About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):
We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful. We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.
We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …
This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.