In junior high I believed the myth of one shared American experience. I lived in a mostly homogenous town and watched, with a fairly average group of White kids, as our earth science teacher wheeled in a TV on a cart so that we could watch the space shuttle Challenger take the first teacher to space.  I was probably talking with a friend or passing a note or otherwise entertaining myself before the shuttle exploded. Once it was clear that something had gone tragically wrong, the classroom went silent. The teacher quickly turned off the television, pushed it to the side of the room, issued a reading assignment and left the room. I have no idea where he went or what he did.

What I do know is that in that moment, the unexceptional students of my class shared an experience. It was visceral.  Many Americans, like me, were soothed by Ronald Reagan’s speech in which he used poetry to describe the crew slipping “the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” He provided leadership through language that drew us together. The speech, written by Peggy Noonan, made a certain kind of sense out of the disaster.

Sometimes tragedy can do that: create emotional bonds that transcend our immediate personal perspectives. We can grow more empathetic, hold space for the struggles of others, and generally rise to the occasion. But right now, as a country, we’re failing.

Our words aren’t only missing the target, they often have no constructive goal at all. Too often we are using language like a small child in the midst of a tantrum. Things do not please us and we’ll take you on a nonsensical journey through our unrelated and copious complaints if you’ll let us. Don’t let us.

Let’s press pause and take a deep, collective, metaphorical breath. What we have are multiple crises confronting each of us in often dramatically different ways. Your experience of the COVID pandemic is different than mine. The same is true of your experience of our country’s attempted reckoning with systemic racism, economic uncertainty, political polarization, or any of the other urgent issues pressing up against us. We cannot continue as though our own individual beliefs, issues, concerns, or resources are the most important or the only ones that really matter.

We get from where we are to where we want to be with words. We start with our own spheres of influence. We begin with ourselves. Where ever you are, whatever you are doing, you can lead. You can be the first to press pause and take stock. You can look around you and see beyond your own urgency. You can choose to take a single action that will pave the way for sustainable change.

How? Begin small with a single situation or relationship. Map out the best situation you can dream up while staying grounded in the realities you cannot change. Perhaps you want to build better rapport with a senior team member to foster future promotion opportunities or move from a culture in which you uncomfortably ignore disparities to one in which you introduce a conversation that might result in greater understanding.

Start by identifying the most obvious, manageable changes over which you have some control. This may be as small as altering the way you personally respond to the next faux-urgent issue. For example, if you know your lead executive regularly gets aggressive when stressed and passes that contagion on to the team, you can take a couple of small counter-balancing steps.

First, think through the last time the situation occurred. How did you feel? Did you immediately notice a change in your breathing? Did you find yourself searching anxiously for ways to meet the exec’s demands?  Research shows that the chemicals our bodies release in times of stress can greatly impact our ability to problem solve. Cortisol, the biggest chemical culprit, reduces our clarity of thought and clouds our judgement.

A few ideas to consider as you prep for the next engagement:

  • Practice controlling your breathing which will help manage your cortisol production.
  • Learn more about neutralizing aggressive behavior which will give you tools to manage yourself in the next volatile situation.
  • Reprogram your self-talk so that what your internal voice delivers is affirmation that you can handle the situation.
  • Think through how to reframe the issue so that your exec feels heard and you are moving toward a calmer playing field and, eventually, a solution.

All you need to do is take one action. That one action will pave the way for each successive action and eventually lead to sustainable change. Every one of us has a responsibility for being the change we want to see in the world and I invite you to start now.

Talk to you next month,

Amber D. Nelson



Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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