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The way we respond changes everything

A few months after I hired our new Executive Director, she called me, her tone somber.


"I made a mistake," she admitted as she proceeded to explain what she had done.


I listened to her and immediately responded with encouragement, "It's ok. We all make mistakes. We will figure this out. Don't beat yourself up over it. We will get through this. How can I help?"


I heard her sigh and exclaim, "thank you so much for your kind response right now."


The fact is, I was screaming inside when she first told me. But I didn't let my initial reaction be my response. I did that once earlier in my leadership journey and it didn't workout well. In fact, it completely backfired.


I've worked hard to show compassion rather than react with anger, judgment or ridicule in these types of situations.


To do that in the moment, I focus on my breathing and let my initial reaction dissipate with each exhale.


There's many benefits to remaining calm and caring during such moments.


First, I quailed her fears. As a result, we were able to have a constructive conversation. We troubleshot and developed a game plan for recovering from her mistake. In the end, it truly wasn't that big of a deal.


Second, our relationship was strengthened moving forward. I felt a deeper sense of trust with her, knowing she would be transparent with me. And she felt assured knowing I would respond with compassion when she had to talk to me about hard things. We became more unified as a result.


Last, we modeled practices for growing and learning collectively. This experience set a foundation for safety within our organization during situations where things don't go as planned. We set a tone together that impacted others involved in the organization as volunteers or staff.


As our years working together unfolded, we kept coming face-to-face with disruptions that created a lot of uncertainty. We had to figure out how to adapt on the fly. We learned how to be in the messy middle together with grace and ease despite the stressors.


Because we focused our attention on collectively solving the problem at hand, rather than combating the person, we came out ahead.


Wholehearted leaders know that the way we respond changes everything.


Yelling, making accusations, eyerolling, judgement and name calling erode trust and perpetuate fear.


People aren't going to be able to give their best if they're constantly walking on egg shells worried about getting in trouble. Their going to hold back if they're afraid of being embarrassed or humiliated in front of the team. They're not going to take risks or speak up. They're just going to get by.


Being in control of how we respond in stressful situations is determined by the practices we have in place on a daily basis.


Consciously shifting out of a knee-jerk reaction, like yelling, requires self-regulation. To cultivate this skill we need to deepen our self-awareness. This includes being able to notice how our moods change as a result of different stimuli. Awareness of how our words, actions and behaviors impact others is another component.


Developing this skill can be uncomfortable at times. We have to reckon with the fact that we don't always show up as our idealized version of ourselves.


When I yelled at my team earlier in my career I had to wrestle with the discomfort. I felt ashamed and humiliated. At first I justified that my reaction was warranted. It took radical self-honesty for me to acknowledge to myself that my reaction was wrong and courage to apologize.


And that's the thing. While we know that how we respond can change everything that doesn't mean we are expected to be perfect. After all, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." Alexander Pope.


Being able to own our mistakes and apologize starts with first forgiving ourselves. And with that very act, the way we are showing up changes everything for the better, even when we have a misstep.

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