I was thinking this morning about the word thoughtful and how, in the Courage and Renewal leadership work that I facilitate, being thoughtful about how we engage with others, actually depends on being thought-less.
What I mean by that is that when I lead a group of leaders in an online or face to face setting, we start with an exercise to help still our minds, to slow down thoughts and hopefully switch them off for a few minutes. This brings us fully into the presence of ourselves and others, whether that is online or in person.
One of the foundations of Courage and Renewal work is deep listening, focusing on what the ‘other’ person is saying, and we cannot do that if we allow our attention to focus on our own thoughts. How many times, in meetings, do we start listening to someone and something they say sparks a thought process and instead of just mentally noting it or jotting it down as something to return to, and continuing to listen fully, we run with it and lose all focus on what that person is saying. Or, worse still, we interrupt, cutting of their thought flow and imposing our own.
By doing this we so often miss the juice, the deepness which comes from letting an individual expand on their point.
At the beginning of Courage and Renewal programmes, we teach deep listening skills, and allowing space between dialogue, to allow what has been said to sink in, to allow ourselves time to see how their words sit within us and what our own response may be saying about ourselves. We encourage reflection, either in the mind or in a journal, and only then do we resume dialogue.
'How on earth could this work in a meeting?', you might be thinking. Well…… instead of racing through a number of issues, and jumping on the first suggestion which often comes from the most confident or most senior person around the table, we can take one issue, explore it much more deeply, invite everyone’s thoughts and reflections. Still waters run deep, but only when we let them become still.
So, if you’d like some time to practice being thoughtless, which leads to better and more thoughtful, respectful conversation in your meetings, find out about our Time to Lead sessions here Reflective Leadership
Every New Year’s day Marjorie walked up the hill which rose above her village. It had become a thing, a sort of commitment she made to herself as she ambled through the valley between Christmas and New Year, snacking.
There was only one year that she’d missed her annual pilgrimage
when the hill was blanketed in thick icy mist, it would have been foolish.
Of course, Marjorie walked up the hill many times during the year, at least once a month, on cold crisp days and sweltering t-shirt days, and she often wondered about the thousands of people who lived in the valley below who had never felt compelled to climb it. But then, she would recall that for many years she was one of them.
But now Marjorie was slipping her gaiters under her boots, hooking them into her boot laces, smoothing the Velcro, pushing the press studs down. Now she was striding away from the car as it beeped to let her know it had self-locked.
Now she was stepping from tarmac onto mud and grass and moss, feeling the grain of the wooden walking stick in her palm, the pull of the muscles in her calves as she picked her way across the uneven moorland. Now the wind was whipping her hair across her cheek and into her mouth and she was squinting across the glorious miles of greens and browns. Now she was alive.
When Marjorie tries to recall the ‘before’, it is difficult, so used to the ‘now’ has she become. She thinks she must have looked at the hill every day as she drove to work, to trains, taxied kids, raced to her Mum’s, but she can’t recall it. She knows the seasons will have clothed it in grey mists, white snows, Spring greens, the mulberry of Autumn, but she had her head down working, worrying, racing.
And it’s a fucking big hill. Almost 2000 feet. A big hulk of a thing with massive boulders along the ridge. It’s not like you can miss it. But Marjorie had, for all those years.
Marjorie is thinking all of this as she gets into her stride along the old miners path, so called because about 70 years ago, someone came prospecting for oil and built a track that ends in the middle of nowhere. The views are stupendous, North to Pendle Hill and the Dales, East West and South, nothing but rolling moorland and huge boulders left stranded as glaciers melted. Best of all, she’s entirely alone on the track, which Marjorie loves.
30 minutes in, at the end of the track, the work starts; the ground is very wet, so she’s picking her way from tussock to tussock, using her stick for balance. She can only think of this, now. Where to place her boot next. Never scanning more than a couple of meters ahead, choosing the middle of the path one minute then the right edge, then the left edge. Looking for the scrubby longer grass, avoiding the moss which hides deep bog. The path is rising now past granite boulders; history in still life. The wind buffeting up the hillside, her rucksack straps flapping. She pulls her hood over her woolen hat, zips the zip higher, tightens her sleeves over her gloves. She’s breathing hard now, cursing the bout of Covid 18 months ago that reduced her lung capacity. But she paces herself, turns to look at the path climbed, slows her breathing for a while.
And then, there is the stile, slick with winter green, so she’s careful. She twisted her ankle falling from this same stile 3 years before and it took months to build the strength back in it. Now the huge expanse of the hilltop, the hulking grey boulder shaped like an anvil which appears to balance on the edge of the moor, twice as tall as she is, where she scrambles and sits in the summer, musing. And now the trig, this trig she loves, this hill she loves, this feeling she loves. When she sees the trig, she forgets that her back is pulling low down, that her knee is twinging, that her shoulder burns. All forgotten in the glory of placing her hand on the trig.
She stands. How many more New Year’s will she make this climb. Realistically ten? Fifteen? Who knows. For now, she’s here again.
Turning to look back at her ascent, she is shocked to see the sky. In the space of 15 minutes it has changed from blue to thunder-grey and immediately the first spots of rain fall. Marjorie pulls on her waterproofs and doesn’t hang about. She needs to descend, fast. She’s only just past the stile and 50’ down when the hail arrives, stinging her lips like glass beads. She holds her gloved hand across her face and concentrates on her footing. Her pace is slow and steady, a slip now could be disastrous. She knows she has phone signal up here, a hot drink in her flask, an emergency kit in her back-pack, but even so it’s slightly scary and really exhilarating all rolled into one. She can’t look up, the hail and rain are lashing, the wind is gusting. She thinks of people in hurricanes, tsunamis, how weak the human is against the force of nature. Down, down, choosing grass over mud, stone over grass. Only ten minutes to the lower hillside, but it seems longer. Each breath is the taste of leather and water, the suck of freezing air in her mouth and, if she moves her hand, stinging chips of ice on her lips. Rain is blurring her vision, her eyes screwed up against the hail. She counts one, two, three, four, over and over to keep her pushing forwards into the wind.
The stream at the bottom, which 40 minutes earlier was gentle and burbling, is now a torrent of peat black rage, roaring and swirling between muddy banks. She sploshes through. At least here she is out of the wind for a few minutes brief respite. Back on the miners track now, she’s really exposed. The wind is literally shifting her and she shouts into rain “Go on, throw it all at me, I’ll just keep going.” Knowing this is more than a reaction to her present circumstance, knowing it is in fact a statement about her life.
One, two, three, four. Each four steps taking her nearer the car. Her waterproofs failing now. Feeling the water on her thighs, shins, running into her boots. Wondering how travellers of old on these moors kept dry when the weather turned. The miners track seems to have quadrupled in length since she left the car, so hard is the going. Marjorie suddenly laughs and pulling her phone from her inner pocket, she films herself, water dripping from her face, in the middle of this wildness and she sends it off to her family saying ‘Happy New Year kiddies from your crazy mother’. Then, the car is there and she is peeling off the soaking clothes and pulling on a dry fleece. She is turning on the radio and singing out loud and feeling cold and warm and amazing.
Later that day, Marjorie’s husband shows the video to his Mum who says. “What on earth is Marjorie doing? She’s too old to be doing that, she needs to calm down.”
When her husband reports this back, Marjorie laughs. “Never”, she says. “I’m only 62 and I’ve got so much left to do.”
That night, as she sinks into sleep, Marjorie thinks of her mother in law’s comment. She thinks of all the people who see hills and don’t climb them and all the people who never even see the hills and she thanks the Universe that she has finally lifted her eyes up unto them.
As the weather is so wet this morning, I have decided to ramble through my thoughts instead of through the fields and so, as I look through raindrops on the window at the heavy cloud and rusting Autumn leaves, I have allowed my thoughts to ramble around balance and the interesting fact that our ears are the place in which our body secures, loses and regains its balance.
The 3 little bones in our ears, the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup are a translation of the Latin malleus, incus and stapes and I assume this is because they are shaped as such and early physicians named them so. But this is not a medical piece and so we will leave medicine to the experts. Interesting however, that the hammer and anvil are used to fashion metal into shape and that when the hammer and anvil fashion a stirrup, it is this that helps a rider stay balanced in the saddle.
If you’ve ever had a virus or illness that affected your balance, you’ll know how awful it can make you feel; often sick, scared of standing, not wanting to move your head and look around because everything will swim. And it occurred to me, as I thought this, how closely related hearing and balance are in more than a physical sense.
Isn’t is strange that balance, a function so important to our staying alive; being able to focus, stay upright and move with accuracy and therefore hunt and protect, is also connected to our hearing? Does this in fact suggest that listening is critical to balance too, to being balanced?
What do we listen to? External sound from others? Video footage, snatched conversations, songs, the radio, the TV? There’s so much to listen to it can be overwhelming. In the main, our ancestors, right up to only 200 years ago, will have listened to the words of family and friends, an elder, a teacher. If they were lucky enough to listen to music, it was played on a physical instrument in front of them. With the industrial revolution came the cacophony of machines and the growth of towns and cities with non-stop noise. Now sound pervades, and even when we run, walk or drive, many of us choose to listen to something other than nature, other than our own inner voice.
Why might this be? Have we lost the art of listening to ourselves? Maybe even the art of listening to one thing at once?
I believe our balance is connected to our hearing to remind us that we must listen to both sides of an argument to balance it, but maybe more importantly, that we must listen to both outer voices and our inner voice in equal measure.
When I say inner voice, you may think of that negative voice (author Steve Peter’s ‘chimp’ voice). The one that’s saying ‘you can’t do that’, or ‘you’re rubbish at that.’ But if we sit quietly and slow our breathing and think of kindness, there is another inner voice. One that gives you answers to tough questions. Some call this voice their gut, others their conscience, I like to call it my inner teacher.
I think our balance resides in the inner ear, to remind us to listen to this inner voice, and often we can only hear it if we switch off all the external noise – other people's opinions, commentary and dialogue. Yes, it’s important to listen to a wide range of views, to turn our head and look at things from many angles. But this should be balanced with an internal conversation, a positive and kind one. Then we can be balanced, we can stand up straight and say with conviction, I have listened well and made a balanced choice here, I have used my hearing well.
As a busy leader, mum and daughter, with a myriad of deadlines, responsibilities and relationships, the most profound lesson I ever learned was to STOP.
As it happens, I was forced to stop by my body, which was obviously fed up of being treated like a workhorse.
Now, some four years on, and after a lot of self discovery and learning, I only wish someone had taught me the power of stopping, at the start of my career, instead of me realising it towards the end.
For 20 years, as a business consultant, I’d been used to advising busy leaders to step back from working in the business to working on the business, but that isn’t stopping; that’s business planning, visioning, values, segmenting your markets, brain storming, SMART goals and so on.
Yesterday, a successful and busy client emailed me to say he had to make a member of staff redundant and he wondered if I could give him some advice. He was OK with the legalities of it but he wanted advice on how to handle it.
When I rang him as agreed to discuss this I asked him where he was and he advised that he was in his car, parked at a site he was about to visit.
“Right” I said. “I’m going to ask you to try something new, are you up for it?”
Although he was hesitant, he agreed. And so, he STOPPED. All thoughts, actions, vision. He closed his eyes as instructed and for 2 minutes thought of nothing but deep breathing and something he was very grateful for. Even a period as short as this will chemically shift what is happening in the brain, from our amygdala (fight or flight region) being activated, which disables logical thinking, to the frontal, reasoning part of our brain working. Then I asked him 2 questions.
What would you want to hear if you were the person being made redundant?
How would you want to feel as you left the meeting?
And then we STOPPED again and I asked him to try and just let the answers come. I didn’t want him to say anything for at least a couple of minutes. He got his answers and they were damn good ones.
The work I do now is all about helping people to STOP and letting the answers come. This happens on retreats, in online circles of trust, in peer groups and one to one. Yes, of course your experience is helping with the decision-making, but you are also connecting to something deeper, your feelings and maybe even, if we believe, your spirit or essence. From board meetings to one on one difficult conversations with employees or loved ones, this STOPPING has a profound effect on how we respond to events and make decisions. Rushing, which creates stress hormones, is bad for decision-making and very bad for our physical health.
I found out this the hard way, now I am helping as many people as I can, to allow themselves the time to be great leaders by STOPPING.
Please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more and to learn about our fully funded Lancashire programme for leaders ‘Time to Lead’ follow this link https://role.uk.com/time-to-lead.html
Rising from a bed of ragged dreams I strode into the morn.
The whole village slept, even the cars, tucked in, bumper to bumper along the narrow lane; curtains drawn in cottage windows and me, strolling along the middle of the road, under a dawn sky fading from blush to blue.
Passing the woods, I stood and held my phone aloft to record the morning chorus. From every corner of the valley different sounds, a cockerel, wood pigeons, rooks, blackbirds and so many more I didn’t know. Not a dog barked, not any sound at all but birdsong. Why oh why, didn’t I do this more often when I couldn’t sleep?
Crossing the beck I cupped my hands under a little waterfall, the peat softened water dropping from my fingers as I splashed my face. Did my ancestors do the same long ago? Sheep stared as I started the climb, calf muscles pulling deliciously.
Sitting on a stone stile atop the field, the morning stretched before me, the blues and greens and greys of this northern rural landscape, old as time. Lapwings soared, curlews pee-witted and a tiny but brave little bird landed on the wall only feet away from me and considered me gravely.
Boulsworth is a tough little hill and from Trawden, you’ve already walked a 2 mile gradual incline before you get to the foot of it, so once on the hill proper, I didn’t feel too bad stopping every hundred feet or so to have a breather and inspect the view. This was I admit, the earliest in the day I have ever climbed Boulsworth. I came up once on New Years Day around 9, but I’d not been here at 6.30!
What can I say? The peat was slightly frozen, my boots crunched and squished into the soft mud below, last year’s heather scratched, moorland tufts of grass tickled, wind found its way inside my collar. My legs ached, my lungs gasped and my heart blew itself wide open with the sheer joy of it all.
I startled moorhens, their throaty cackle echoing across the wide expanse. But other than their indignant call, all was silent. I headed for the huge boulders that dominate the ridge. From the village they appear to be no more than 4 equi-distant piles of stones, but as you climb you realise the might and size of these glacial boulders. The path I’d chosen to climb this morning was the most direct one, practically straight up to Little Chair Stones, where the formation of the boulders provides a ledge tucked away from the wind and up there this morning, the wind was chilly. After days of unseasonable warm weather in this last week of March, that had seen youngsters baring shoulders and legs, I was only just warm enough in thermals and a woolly hat!
I love the walk across the ridge of Boulsworth; the black of the peat, the grey and rust of the coarse grass, the views as far as the Lake District to the North and nothing but moor after rolling moor to the South East. It’s a place to feel alone but never lonely. I leaned on the trig and gazed across to Pendle hill, its outline soft in the morning haze, my first hill at age 3 or 4 and the hill I’d seen in the moonlight above me as I camped out many times with friends in my early teens. Where have all the roaming teenagers gone I thought? Where are the kids building dens and messing in streams. You just don’t see that anymore. Will they one day walk and climb and find joy in the outdoors like me?
“Hello Dad, Hello Mum.” I said out aloud to my long lost parents. I turned and made my way back to a sheltered spot and lost myself in thought as I sipped hot coffee.
Skirting the boggiest bits, with the wind behind my back, I was soon at the start of my descent. The Countryside ranger’s land rover was parked half way up the hill and I remembered choosing my A levels many years ago, Geography, Biology and Maths, because I dreamed of being a forest or countryside ranger. How I ended up as a Finance Director is another story.
Gradually down, all the while with that glorious long distance view of flat topped Ingleborough and the haze clearing from a milky sky. Zig sagging down as Dad taught me many years ago, reaching the old roman road that skirts the moor and leads to Wycollar, I sat upon a big slab of granite that I call my thinking stone and poured another cup of coffee. It was 8am. I’d been up and down a hill. The tension has drained from my body through the soles of my boots into the very earth and as I scribbled ideas for poems in my little notebook, the countryside ranger made his way down the hill in his land-rover and drawing level with me, he wound his window down to say ‘Mornin’ and I grinned and said “Good Morning to you too.” Never a truer word.
If you'd like to hear the birds as I did, for a glorious 2 minutes, please follow this link.
If you enjoy my blogs, you can read more of my work in my book available here www.amazon.co.uk/Words-Walks-Wisdom-Wendy-Bowers/dp/1671172353