When things go nuts at your nonprofit: 3 mindful questions

Sure, social impact work might sound sexy. But the day to day of it can be distinctly unglamorous, and full of absurdity. Oh, the stories I’ve heard.

  • Your new media associate -- who was brilliant in her interviews -- writes press releases that sound like late-night presidential tweets. And speaks in word salad
  • The board hired you because they want to innovate, but now every small change you make is “too radical”
  • The people-pleasing membership coordinator is in tears over her interactions with the grouchy, misanthropic database manager
  • A coalition partner has been publicly taking credit for your organization's work, and it’s confusing funders
  • A board member got drunk and complained loudly about being bored at your last fundraising event
  • A newly promoted director has been clashing with staff, and is becoming increasingly defensive and power trippy.
  • You organization’s fundraising staff have organized a petition demanding that you start working on health care (you are an environmental group)

All of these are based on real events that I've either witnessed or heard about from clients and friends. And our reactions of frustration, anxiety, anger, and judgement can keep us from having honest conversations that work. 

Because as any Executive Director, activist, or organizer will tell you, there is no avoiding it. We’ve got to learn to steady ourselves to face, and even dance with, the absurdity. 

So here are 3 mindful questions to prepare for more courageous conversations 

1. What is my greater purpose, and how am I conflicted? 

Many years ago, I was preparing for a meeting with a colleague, and I couldn’t shake my anxiety.

I was planning on giving him feedback on how my work was being impacted by his program. I hoped that by talking, we could make both of our programs run more smoothly.

We generally got along well. And while the feedback I was giving him was critical, it was by no means earth shattering. On paper, this conversation needed to be handled with skill, but it was no biggie.

So why all the nerves?

In the book Difficult Conversations, the folks from the Harvard Negotiation Project say we get in trouble when we are 1) motivated by a need to protect our self-identity, and 2) we have no idea that that is driving us. And while there are others, the big three identities that Stone writes about are:

  • Being a competent person (I get the job done, and I know what I’m doing.)
  • Being a lovable person (I belong here. People here understand, like, and value me.)
  • Being a good person (I am honest and trustworthy. I do my part, help others, and don’t cause problems.)

So I took a deep breath and took stock. I realized how important it was to me that this colleague, who had seniority over me, see me as mature. And I realized I had this little voice in my head that was telling me that I shouldn’t complain. Because, so it argued, mature people don’t complain!

Once I got a handle on that, my anxiety started to dissipate. I was able to befriend and disarm my critical little inner devil. It didn’t disappear completely, but it became more manageable.

And that was because I knew my greater purpose was in improving our working relationship, and not in protecting my identity as a mature person.

Here’s the key: If we fail to recognize our insecurities, they can still drive us powerfully, and counterproductively. If I hadn’t taken a gentle look under my hood, I might have walked into that meeting defensive and insecure. And that’s a tough place from which to skillfully give another person critical feedback.

But by taking a look within, I was able to align and ground myself in my sense of a larger purpose.

2. How am I objectifying them?

When we’ve got our dukes up, it’s hard to see the person on the other side of our defenses. To really see them, in their full humanity, with all its complexity, contradictions, and good intentions.

I don’t have to reach too far back to remember this coming up for me. What was it… 5? ...10 minutes ago?

Someone in my Facebook feed posted a mean-spirited dig at people like me. You know… special snowflake libruls. Sigh.

And instantly, I no longer see him as a person. He is now a cartoon to me. A flat, soulless, cardboard cut out, waggling his fingers at me while he spikes a football and jams to Kid Rock. You know.

That Guy.

And who do I become as I do this?

I become a more rigid, meaner, smaller version of myself. The version most likely to fit into his caricature of me.

And it’s all a defense. We reduce them to a jumble of unlikeable personality traits, and they become easier to dismiss. It’s easier to see them as wrong, and ourselves as right. We can wrap our brains around that. 

And perhaps we can get by comfortably hiding within the safety of our defenses if we have no intention of interacting, much less working with, the object of our ire. But when we need to work together, we run into trouble when we make them the problem.

  • Because deep down, we know this is not right. We can feel that our sense of “rightness” rests on shaky ground. So we feel shaky, unsure, and more guarded.
  • We end up missing the actual human being in front of us. We are listening to them through a mental filter of prejudgments, so we miss the full picture. And so our blind spots stay blind to us.
  • By making them the problem, we encourage them to do the same to us. Our defenses provoke theirs, then their defenses provoke ours, and so on, and on.  

What helps is to breath past our defenses, and create space to get curious about them. Be open to being surprised. Say to yourself,

“It’s possible he really is that big of a jerk. But maybe there is also more to him than I can see.”

This can be hard. Being open to someone else’s humanity means showing up as human ourselves. Letting go of judgment can feel vulnerable. But in my experience, when I allow myself to stay with that vulnerability, it transmutes into a sense of goodness and integrity that becomes a greater source of courage in speaking my truth, and hearing theirs.

3. How am I framing success so that it’s within my control?

“I want to get people to see my point of view, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or piss anyone off.”

Sounds reasonable, right?

WRONG.

A conversational framework like that is a fast train to crazytown. Because:

  • You can’t control what other people think and feel
  • You can’t control what other people think and feel
  • You can’t control what other people think and feel

Imagine carrying a watermelon down a flight of stairs. Imagine holding the melon tightly to your chest, so that the melon is close to your center of gravity. That's normally how you’d do it, right?

Now imagine carrying it way out in front of you, with your arms outstretched. What happens? I can almost feel the twinge in my back, as I imagine straining to stay upright without dropping the melon, or tumbling down the stairs.

Now bring the watermelon back towards your center. Feels more grounded and steady, right?

Our attention, like that melon, also has a kind of gravity to it. So when we put all our attention on the thoughts and feelings of other people, we are thrown off balance.

What works better is to frame our hopes in terms of our own actions, values and intentions. So something like...

“I want to get people to see my point of view, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or piss anyone off,”

...might instead become...

“I want to speak my truth with kindness and integrity.”

Can you sense the difference?

We can waste a lot of energy in trying to control what’s ultimately out of our control --- the actions, thoughts and feelings of others. And when we let go of that, we are able to put more energy, commitment and discipline towards what is within our control.

The Takeaway

All of this boils down to just one question.

These 3 questions are an opening to let go of something that is keeping us from being able to stand in our integrity and gravity, and speak our truth. They are all, in some way, asking,

“What am I holding on to so tightly, that it’s leading me away from my center, and my truth?”

Maybe it’s letting go of trying to control the conversation, or control what others think of us. Maybe it’s letting go of the need to be right.

It’s a kind of paradox. Once we let go of what we think we know, we become more skilled in responding to life’s unpredictability and complexity.

What do you think? Is there something you see yourself holding onto, that shakes your foundation in these conversations? And what would it feel like if you could let it go?