I was doing a workshop. The woman in charge oversaw many people who were doing serious work. During lunch she approached me. With some feeling, she said, “What you shared with us this morning, I have always believed, but I have never been able to articulate it.”
This happens often. When we expose people to principles of social excellence, they often claim that they have always believed in such principles but they have never had the language to articulate their beliefs. This suggests that perhaps in many of us, deep in our memories, are the elements of a theory of social excellence.
I began to ask her questions about her work and her life. I was seeking to understand her heart as well as her mind. I asked questions to help her consider her feelings and she began to share. Then something unexpected happened: she began to weep. She indicated she could not be seen weeping, that is, she could not be seen as vulnerable at work. We drifted toward a more private space and as we conversed she continued to weep, noting that the weeping was highly uncharacteristic. Then a number of important insights came, including a new strategy for the afternoon. As we finished, she was upbeat and conveyed a sense of empowerment. Then she said, “It has been so long since I have felt heard and validated.”
I pondered her statement for the next two days. The next day I found myself with a young mother who was struggling. She said she felt stuck and was questioning many of her long-held life assumptions. We sat down for a chat, and she explained her problem. She was exhausted and inundated with seemingly meaningless tasks associated with the mother role.
I asked a few questions. One of her answers had more passion in it than the others. I found myself suddenly leaning in and I formulated another probing question. As she answered, I listened, searching to understand the feelings beneath her logic. She became even more open and I asked still more questions designed to help her search her own feelings.
The interesting thing is that I was not in control and she was not in control. I never knew what my next question would be. I had to formulate it while discerning her feelings in real time. I had to trust that the right questions would come because I needed to be focused on her and not myself. Likewise, she did not know what her next answer would be. She had to consider the questions and formulate the answers in real time. We were linked in a relationship of increasing trust, and we were co-creating a deep learning process. We were co-creating social excellence.
Suddenly there was an event–what psychologists call a catharsis–a relieving of emotional tension. It was a moment of clarity, of deep insight, of liberation. It became clear that her exhaustion and depression in the mother role was not a cause but a symptom. The real drain on her energy was coming from a deeper concern.
As the deeper concern became clear, a new strategy emerged. She said she needed to center herself in her faith and then approach her family member in fearless love. This was a tall task. If the requirement had been externally articulated just a few moments before, she would have said it was impossible and it would have added to her depression. Now, after the catharsis, and holding a new perspective, she was desirous to engage.
In that moment, she was free. Free of what? Free of her fear. Her emotions turned positive and she was enabled. She was ready to do something she could not possibly do an hour before.
The two conversations had impact on me. In both cases I engaged with wonderful people as co-creators. In both cases people searched deeply because they felt both challenged and loved. They discovered hidden feelings. They became enlightened and they embraced a new perspective. With the perspective came new energy. Both conversations were conversations of social excellence.
- How long has it been since you have felt heard and validated at work?
- Do the people around you feel heard and validated?
- What role does active listening play in the emergence of social excellence?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?