Alan was sitting there, wide-open, vulnerable, and hurting. He had just shared with four of his peers that he’d been moved laterally at work. Again. He was holding a stiff upper lip, as much as possible. But it was clear to all of us that he was hurting.
This was in a peer development group, a group of 5 people who meet for two hours twice a month to support one another in their personal development. And this was important because, in a typical group situation, one of the following things would occur:
- Alan would have said nothing at all and would suffer in silence.
- There would have been an awkward silence, and someone would deftly change the subject.
- Alan would have been met with empathy or sympathy to make him feel better.
- Suggestions would be made about how Alan might “fix” this problem.
- The group would have commiserated with Alan, supporting a “victim” identity.
None of these things happened. Something else did. You see, the purpose of the group is quite different from a typical group. Here’s what happened for Alan…
What Is a Peer Development Group?
A peer development group is a small group of people committed to helping one another grow. This means supporting and accepting one another unequivocally… resulting in very high psychological safety. And at the same time, challenging one another.
- It means helping a person look at themselves, their behavior, their situations objectively, without “the story”.
- It means getting each other to think about our thinking, to map out fears instead of reinforcing exit and avoidance strategies.
- It means supplying different perceptions and meaning-making that pierce the bubbles of self-deception and seeing ourselves as martyrs or victims.
- It means asking tough questions about the anxieties and fears and thoughts and assumptions that give rise to our behavior.
- It means all of this in the context of unshakable caring, compassion, and support.
In other words, it is unlike what most of us have experienced in our lives. Much less… at work?
When it is working, it is magical. And sometimes, it is very uncomfortable. And, almost always, discomfort precedes magic. In fact, it is walking through the discomfort–and staying with it and in it for long enough–that creates the possibility for the magic to happen.
And, so it was with Alan. So what happened with Alan? And what does this have to do with the need for a personal development framework? We will get to that, but first, you need to know this.
Alan is Primed to Grow. Here’s How.
Alan, like each person in this group, has four specific things:
1. A very specific improvement goal. Something, one thing, he is committed to getting better at
2. A list of counterproductive behaviors he does that work against his improvement goal
3. The fears or worries he has about stopping those counter-productive behaviors, and
4. The thoughts he thinks that justify continuing those counterproductive behaviors.
Alan, like you and me, has one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake. He has something he wants to get better at. And he has behaviors he does that work against what he says he wants. The foot on the brake is winning because his unconscious (or semi-conscious) fears and limiting thoughts trump his conscious aspiration.
This is why most people–committed as they are to their personal development–will not change. Their foot on the brake is winning, and they think they only have a foot on the gas. They can’t see how they trip themselves up, and why. But they can. We all can. If we have a strategy for doing so.
There is a “system” giving rise to Alan’s counterproductive behavior, and that system is running amok. But, here, Alan has a schematic of the system. He knows a little about that foot on the brake. So he has some knowledge of it, a willingness and an openness to look at it, to come to know it, and to re-write it the system behind that foot.
More important, Alan is not alone. So, we can add two more things Alan has in addition to the above four things:
5. A growth mindset and a willingness to grind it out… a.k.a. “grit“
6. People who will make him feel fully accepted, warts and all, while at the same time challenging him to grow.
Alan is primed to grow. He is primed to grow, by design and by his intent. So what happened?
How It Went Down
First, the group attended to Alan emotionally. People acknowledged that he seemed hurt, uncertain, confused, vulnerable. They expressed compassion but not pity or sympathy. The way they responded helped Alan relax a little. He “felt, felt.”
Second, the group asked Alan how this challenging situation might relate to his “improvement goal”. To an outside observer, this might have seemed uncaring, insensitive, or maybe even callous. Our social conditioning is to make people feel better, not worse, right? And going deeper into the situation that was causing hurt could make Alan feel worse, right? So why go there?
Often, the learning lies in the discomfort zone. The group is “reading” Alan, I can see that. The purpose isn’t to make someone comfortable, but the purpose is not to make them snap. There’s the discomfort zone, then there’s the danger zone. Harm doesn’t come in the discomfort zone. He can learn there.
Alan has grit. From many prior meetings with this group, from his prior experience of watching others and giving and receiving support, he knows the drill. He’s leaning in as his peers pose questions. He feels some challenge. He is not comfortable. But he does feel safe. Alan knows–through prior experience–every single person around him is pulling for him.
That Was a Wonderful Remark
That was a wonderful remark
I had my eyes closed in the dark
I sighed a million sighs
I told a million lies, to myself, to myself”
— Van Morrison, Wonderful Remark
Alan’s improvement goal is to become more assertive, to act with more confidence. His list of counterproductive behaviors has seven behaviors, all of which are different, specific expressions of passivity. His peers are probing around these behaviors, asking questions like, “Alan, do you think you need to go to the manager who transferred you and challenge your transfer? Have you asked them to be more clear about why you are being moved?”
Then, the facilitator, a more experienced member of the group, says…
“Alan, could it be that these transfers are happening because you are acting too passively to be effective in the jobs you are being transferred from?” BOOM. Someone said what they were actually feeling. Someone said something with high stakes, with the risk of “hurting Alan’s feelings.” While risky, it was also bristling with the possibility of opening Alan’s mind and shifting the way Alan was assembling reality.
The air hung still for a few moments. Alan fell back into himself. And he quietly said, “Yes.” And then he smiled at us and said…
“Thank you.” And he meant it.
I knew he meant it because he took a deep breath, and then he sighed. A sigh is almost always a sign of a person’s desire to change.
Seeing the Patterns of Our Lives
The person who made this “wonderful remark” wasn’t flying blind. In prior meetings, Alan had let us in on some pretty challenging parts of his early life. This group had a sense for aspects of his early life experience that still influences how he feels, thinks, and therefore acts today.
The facilitator used his ability to sense where Alan was at, summoned some compassion and courage, and took a leap of faith to help his friend and colleague. He helped Alan shift from feeling victimized by the lateral transfers to seeing the possibility that Alan’s own behavior was driving the changes Alan didn’t want.
Alan knows he lacks confidence. He lacks belief in self. Now he can see it manifesting in a way he very much does not want. Now that he sees this event as yet one more event in a pattern in his life, how does he do something about it?
Building Belief in Self
A mentor of mine once said, “Otis, all of our counterproductive behaviors arise from a lack of belief in ourselves. And our lack of belief in ourselves arises from the large and small actions we take that dishonor ourselves.” That made quite an impression on me. I began to see it was true for me. And subsequently, I could see it in my clients. Back in 2008, I created a diagram that “teased’ this concept out much fully and that is the diagram you see here.
I asked Alan if he knew how he might change this, how he might build belief in himself. He shook his head slowly, and I asked if he’d like to see one possible way to do it. “Of course! Sure!” I showed Alan this diagram you see here and walked Alan and the group through it. The details of how I took him and them through it is below. But here is the bottom line.
The way we build belief in ourselves is to learn that we can unequivocally trust ourselves to do the right thing, no matter how difficult that is for us and no matter how fearful we are of the potential consequences. Belief in self means that, literally, we can believe in ourselves. This means we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can trust ourselves to know and to do the right thing, no matter what. We have reached freedom because we have shaken free of fear driving our behaviors. This is the self-possessed human, the perfected human. And we are all capable of becoming such.
From a practical standpoint, what this means is to systematically stop doing the little things we do that are violations of our own selves. Start small, and work from there. Go bigger and bigger. And over time, everything changes. This change–which is not fast at all–transmutes and transforms our woundedness and our weakness into our greatest strength. Over the longer arc, we are transfigured.
Building belief in self transforms the way we assemble the world through our thinking and emotions (internal dialogue). This changes our behaviors and actions, which changes our results, which then accumulate into changes in the challenges we face in life. We change the pattern. We are transformed, and our world is.
Alan can shift the nature of the challenges he faces in life by building belief in himself. How? if you look at the diagram…
The key to building belief in self lies in disrupting our old, typical Behavior/Action. My mentor called this a “not-doing.” We intentionally “don’t do” a habitual behavior and do something different, awkward, and often anxiety-provoking.
When we disrupt the behavior, two things happen.
First, it “jars” or “disrupts” the system giving rise to the typical behavior.
- We gain some dominion over the anxiety, finding that while the anxiety that drives the behavior is certainly real, it is not necessarily true. Acting in spite of the anxiety provides the opportunity to build some inhibitory fiber between our prefrontal cortex and our amygdala, thus increasing the likelihood we can modulate that fear or anxiety better and/or faster in the future.
- Disrupting the system also gives us an opportunity to see if the thoughts we think–the beliefs we have–are true, partially false, or totally false in that situation. This is meta-cognition. We are gaining the capacity to think about our thinking, which provides us with the possibility of modifying it.
Second, disrupting the behavior creates a gap whereby we may take action that is more true to ourselves. Very often, when our emotions are triggered, we take action that harms us and harms others. Our typical behavior in such a situation typically isn’t honorable, and we know it. At some level, anyway. Intentionally doing a different behavior–a more appropriate and life-supportive behavior–builds belief in self. It also ushers in hope.
Alan smiled. He didn’t need to “believe” any of this. He knows how all this works. Nothing here is taken on faith. It is all experiential. He can and will test this. Or he won’t. If he does, he will find out through his own experience whether this is true for him. And this cohort of peers will be with him every step of the way, through the successes and through the inevitable setbacks.
The Need for a Framework
Perhaps it has occurred to you that there is no way Alan could have drifted his way to this potential insight. I hope through the above you see that Alan was primed for change. He has a strategy, a framework, and that framework includes peer support.
I outlined a personal development framework in an article here. And the purpose of this post has been to give you a real-life example of how that framework works. This story–which is an amalgam in order to maintain confidentiality–is real. This happened. This happened because five things coalesced:
- A solid framework, including peer support
- Alan’s clarity of intention, growth mindset, and grit,
- Alan disrupting his behavior numerous times before (priming himself),
- The right situation at the right time, and
- Group work that supported a person in sensing and then saying a wonderful remark.
Here are the nine aspects of a framework for personal development I covered in that prior post. Let’s look at each, and how they apply for Alan.
1. Get Clear on What Personal Development Is
Alan attended an onboarding where we covered what personal development is. That onboarding process includes the resources named in that prior article. This is important because Alan already possessed a broader context of what was happening. He learned he has an ego, how the ego operates, and how to work with it.
2. Widen Your Aperture
Alan had used the DISC and the Enneagram to see his strengths and weaknesses, his behaviors, fears, and typical ways of thinking. Therefore, Alan knew there were very specific patterns at play, a specific system, that he needed to work with. Also, through the Enneagram, he has a vision of what it looks like to transform himself. What gift he will bring to this world and the people around him.
3. Identify Your Change Goal
Alan knew very specifically what he wanted to improve. Clarity is power. His change goal was clear and therefore powerful.
4. Amplify and Anchor Your Change Goal
Alan got clear on what his new behaviors would look like, he tested for sufficient motivation for change, and he validated his change goal with others. In these three actions, he turbocharged his change goal.
5. See the System Driving Your Counterproductive Behavior
Using the Enneagram and Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change Process (see Chapter 6 of An Everyone Culture), Alan had a solid working understanding of the system giving rise to his counterproductive behaviors.
6. Rewrite the System
Prior to this potential breakthrough experience, Alan ran a number of “tests.” A test is where we disrupt the system by “not-doing” our typical behavior. What is deceptive about a breakthrough is that it is preceded by a number of small actions. A year of “tests” preceded this pivotal moment, this potential “expansion experience” where his life may never be the same. So, this isn’t fast. It is, however, real.
To be clear, it isn’t clear at this point whether Alan’s life will be changed. That will be determined by what he does now, what the nature of his future tests are. All we can say is that–by design–he has the support he needs. What he makes of it is up to him and his destiny. What we can say is that a new door is open to him. What we don’t know is whether he will walk through it and keep walking.
7. Create a Workable Weekly Strategy to Do This
Alan works in a high-growth, large company and has a very demanding job. He has a strategy to integrate “testing” with the work he has to do anyway. He knows that this doesn’t take as much time as it takes intention. When he plans his week, he plans for this work. It’s funny, this always starts off feeling like something we are “adding” something to our already overwhelming demands. Then, at some point, it dawns on us that our counterproductive behavior is costing us (and others) so much frustration, time, money, and suffering, that our notion of “our work” and how we go about it changes. This becomes the work.
8. Tap the Power of Peer Support
He certainly had this, didn’t he? The chances are slim-to-none that without his peer group giving rise to that “wonderful remark” this door would have swung open. In the prior post on this framework, I wrote only about one-to-one peer support. In the organization in which Alan works, he has a “TP”, a “training partner.” They meet one-to-one for 20-30 minutes a week to support and challenge one another.
In the situation I’m writing about here with Alan, three pairs of TP’s come together for a two-hour meeting twice per month. Therefore, there is a second tier of peer support at play. The frequency and intimacy of the TP meetings combine with the power and collective intent of the small group meetings. They interlock and reinforce one another.
9. Expand Your Capacity to Change
Alan has not been through formal training on how to be skillful with emotions, how to cultivate and practice self-compassion, and how to broaden and deep his compassion. Up to this point, we teach these skills in-the-moment, in these cohort meetings. During 2019 we will teach these three things formally, along with psychological safety and candor.
In this article, I’ve attempted to share–through a story–why you need a framework for personal development. You need a comprehensive, workable framework because in personal development you are attempting to see what doesn’t want to be seen. You are attempting to change a system that doesn’t want to be changed.
You need a framework like this because (probably) no one has taught you how to approach all this at the same time, as a cohesive whole. No doubt you know some or many parts of this framework. But you wouldn’t be alone if you don’t have all the parts working together.
You need a framework that includes peer support because–just like me–you are self-deceived and your ego is a wily adversary. Ego never ceases to amaze me with its cleverness and skillful machinations. It will trip you up left, right, and center. Like Cato and the Pink Panther.
You need peer support because while you must do it yourself, you can’t do it alone.
In short, through the prior post and this one, I’ve now given you:
(1) a framework (prior article, but also highlighted here),
(2) the dynamic that framework is designed to address (diagram and “belief in self,” above), and
(3) why you need both the framework and an understanding of the dynamic (Alan’s story).
If you take nothing else from our time together but these three things, your journey ahead will be the better for it. That’s my hope, anyway. And that is why I keep writing. And I hope that is why you keep reading.
See you next week.
Appendix: A Description of the Diagram
1. Results — Our results arise from our actions. Actions are not limited to physical actions, behaviors. Thinking and feeling are also actions.
2. Behavior/Actions — Thought–our mental activity–typically precedes behavior or action. It isn’t always that way. Emotion or instinct may come first.
3. Emotion — Emotion tends to color or influence–and sometimes even drive–thought.
4. Internal Dialogue — The dotted box around Emotion and Thought depicts that they do work as a system. My mentor called this the internal dialogue. I always thought internal dialogue only meant thought. Our circling thoughts. He had a much more expansive definition…
Internal dialogue is the sum-total of the mental and emotional activity that determines our view of the world. (The way in which we assemble our perception of the world)”
5. Shortcoming — Our shortcoming–which everyone has–is related to a wound we have. The degree to which we have healed that wound impacts the degree to which we have transmuted that shortcoming. Our shortcoming transmutes into our greatest strength, our gift to give the world.
6. Belief in Self — Underneath the shortcoming is our belief in self. The more we believe in ourselves, the less of a grip the shortcoming has. We can’t directly work with or on the shortcoming. We can work with our belief in ourselves by changing our behaviors.
7. Challenges — Our challenges in life are those long-term patterns–often repeating–that are the accumulation of the results we produce. Here, I pointed out to Alan, that a challenge in his life might be this pattern of being moved laterally amongst different jobs.
8, Reacting to Our Challenges — If we react to our challenges, we typically will take actions that less than optimal and at some level we know so. Often, after the fact. Sometimes, during the action. When we act in such a way, we are acting in a way that dishonors our inner knowing, that quiet whisper from the higher parts of ourselves. When what we know and what we do is disconnected, we can’t trust ourselves to do the right thing. This is what is meant by our reactions “dishonoring” ourselves. We are dishonoring our higher self. Self with a capital “S”.
9. Responding to Our Challenges — When we respond consciously and intentionally, rather than react unconsciously and unintentionally, we honor our Self with a capital “S.” We are willing to stand for what is right, good, and true. We are willing to bear the consequences. We are free. We can believe that in any situation, we can sense the right thing, do the right thing, and withstand whatever comes, desirable or undesirable, comfortable or painful.
My mentor taught that there is no benign action. Every action — every behavior, feeling, or thought — is either relatively honorable or relatively dishonorable to the Self. This is key.
How to Build Belief in Self — We build belief in self by systematically disrupting and “not-doing” the dishonorable things and by doing actions that are more true to our Self. We start small. We build from there. We go bigger. And sometimes, we go BIG. It’s the flywheel effect or the long-term savings plan. Over time, the effects accumulate and compound. Unceremoniously in the short-term, and remarkably over the long-term.
Changing the Nature of Our Challenges — Each time we do the right thing, often the hard or difficult thing, and respond impeccably to our challenges, we build belief in self. This transmutes our shortcoming into a particular strength and heals the underlying wound. This changes the very nature of our internal dialogue. Thus, the way we think, feel, and “assemble reality” changes. The way we see ourselves, others, the world changes. As a result, our behaviors and actions change. That changes our results. And that changes the nature of the challenges we face in life. Our greatest oversight is that all the capacity we need to change how we experience life is within us and that it does not lie outside of us.
Common Humanity — I often tell my clients that personal development isn’t about fixing anything, and it isn’t about adding anything. “What is it then?” they say. Once you start to actively work with the dynamic above, you will see that what you are doing is removing distortions from your thinking, seeing the reality of your emotions, and breaking habitual patterns of behavior. In short, what we are doing in personal development is stripping away all that we are not, so we can be exactly what we are. Once the stripping away is done, we are all fundamentally the same. Perfect, whole, and flawless. Our personalities are different. But that which wears the personality… all the same. Perfect. Whole. Flawless.
Personal development is stripping away all that we are not, so we can become who and what we truly are.” — Me