The Archer: A Zen Parable About the Most Critical Leadership Skill

After winning several archery contests, a rather boastful champion challenged a Zen master who was renowned for his skill as an archer.

The champion demonstrated remarkable technical proficiency when he hit a distant bull’s eye on his first try, and then split the arrow with his second shot.

“There,” he said to the Zen master, “see if you can match that!”

Undisturbed, the master did not draw his bow, but rather motioned for the champion to follow him up the mountain.

Curious about the master’s intentions, the champion followed him high up into the mountains until they reached a deep chasm spanned by a rather flimsy log.

Calmly stepping out into the middle of the perilous bridge, the master picked a far away tree as a target, drew his bow, and fired a clean, direct hit.

“Now it is your turn,” he said, as he gracefully stepped back onto the safe ground.

Staring with terror into the seemingly bottomless abyss, the champion could not force himself to step out onto the log, no less shoot at the target.

“You have much skill with your bow,” the master said, sensing his challenger’s predicament, “but you have little skill with the mind that lets loose the shot.” 

This little parable explains why I focus on helping leaders learn how to handle difficult situations better than I’ve ever been able to do so.

We all face countless challenges in the workplace every single day. People rub us the wrong way, workloads become overwhelming, stumbling blocks and delays test our patience… to name but a few.

The emotional brain records everything. When leaders handle difficult situations poorly, people remember and respond accordingly.

So let me ask you… when challenges arise in your workplace, how ready, willing, and able are you to calmly step into the middle of that perilous bridge and focus your mind so that you can make the shot?

This is the only way you’ll reach your goal of cultivating a high performing team with healthy interpersonal relationships… or whatever your particular end goal may be.

It takes discipline and practice to reach this level of self-mastery.

And that practice needs to happen when everything seems to be falling apart, not when things are easy.

So the next time that life at work goes haywire, ask yourself, “What is this situation providing me the opportunity to practice?”

And then practice that.

Because every fiber of my being believes that we all have a Zen master hidden within us… just waiting for the opportunity to emerge and light the way for others.

3 Life Coaching Questions Leaders Need to Ask Themselves Regularly

Every next level of your life will demand a different version of you.

Anonymous

My life coach training is foundational to the work that I do as an executive and leadership coach because helping people shift their approach to situations in the workplace requires MUCH more than simply learning new strategies.

Personal growth and development makes us become a different person… the person we are meant to be. 

As much as many of us would love to escape to a mountain top and figure out how to self-actualize in isolation, surrounded by nothing but the sound of trees and birds (myself included!)… real life doesn’t work that way.

So, instead we need to bring mountain top moments to our day-to-day routines.

And that’s actually not a bad thing because we tend to learn and grow best by working through how to effectively be “in relationship” with others… hence my never-ending fascination with difficult conversations, disagreements, and conflict resolution in the workplace.

If this resonates with you on some level, then you probably already know that our most profound experiences of personal growth aren’t easy… but they’re not meant to be. We’re hardwired to seek out stability and generally dislike change, especially when that change requires us to make fundamental shifts to how we show up in the world.

Beyond this, dealing with certain people in the workplace can be incredibly frustrating. We all have our own special blend of triggers. And, of course, it goes without saying that we’re all absolutely just as frustrating to certain other people.

[Side note: As a former conflict-avoider who still has the occasional relapse, it took me MANY years to come to terms with this last sentence. Figuring out how to rock the boat when needed, make your peace with people being annoyed with you, and still look for ways to maintain the relationship takes a commitment to self-awareness and mastery that will have you working harder than any job you’ve ever held. So if you’re struggling with this particular sentence, I hear ya!]

But if you’re a seeker… and if you’ve read this far, I suspect you are… somewhere deep inside, you know that the only way out is through. 

And this is why you’re willing to face the the “icky” emotions and real-world consequences that will ensue when you finally decide to step into the next version of yourself that your particular life path is demanding of you.

So, let me ask you 3 questions that will help you define your next level and stay on track with your higher purpose (whatever that may be), especially when you’re feeling stuck in the weeds:

(1) How do you want your workplace to be different because you were in it?

(2) How do you want to be different because of what you learned through being in your workplace?

(3) What can you do today that takes you in the direction of your goals?

Please know that your fellow seekers, such as myself, are cheering you on 🙂

Self-care Is a Leadership Competency

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” – Lao Tzu

I’ve had many jobs over the course of my career. I was a family law lawyer, a human rights investigator, a workplace mediator… to name but a few of my wild and wonderful forays into the search for a meaningful career.

But being a coach is the one that I feel is the most personally rewarding… and accordingly the one that carries with it the most responsibility.

I have the privilege of getting to know people at a level that they don’t readily go to with others. My clients share their deepest hopes, their biggest fears, and their most painful insecurities with me.

Part of my job is helping people to feel safe enough to open up in this way so that we can work together on moving them forward. And this can’t be done unless I know what’s actually going on inside their heads… and their hearts.

Given the above, in most of my coaching engagements, the topic of self-care comes up periodically… because wrestling with your inner demons is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage, it takes humility, and most of all, it takes self-compassion.

Knowing how to take care of yourself emotionally and physically as you embark upon this journey of inner excavation is critical to its ultimate success.

Self-care is an underdeveloped muscle (or competency if you will) for many of us. And some coachees discover along the way that it holds the key to every other leadership skill they want to work on. 

It’s also one of the topics that can be covered in the themed group coaching series that I run for organizations. As much as I love helping clients gain insight into the importance of self-care, I see even more value in having small groups of leaders talk through their strengths, opportunities for growth, and action steps together as they flex their coaching muscles with each other.

There’s something about creating a supportive leadership network that can’t be replaced by any one individual (in my humble opinion).

So the next time that’s you’re wondering whether you “should” make time to see your friends, block off a few hours to read a novel, or spend part of your morning at the gym (or doing yoga and wondering when everything started to hurt so much, like I was this morning), keep in mind that the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation… and that this can’t happen unless you take care of YOU.

If this topic or approach to coaching speaks to you, send me a message!

Much of my work as a coach and facilitator is done online, so location is never an issue. Individual coaching objectives and group coaching themes are developed through a collaborative process so that everyone is on board with what will be covered. (Other possible group coaching topics include how to bring out the best in employees, talent management, creating healthy team dynamics, having difficult conversations, leading through change, etc. The sky is literally the limit!)

I’d love to connect with you about how I can support you or your team so that more people can bring their best selves to work… every. single. day.

The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make When Having Difficult Conversations and How to Avoid It

What makes difficult conversations so difficult?

If you’re the boss in your workplace, you have the ability (and the responsibility) to sometimes pull rank, call the shots, and make tough decisions. This is an absolutely appropriate way to deal with certain difficult situations, assuming it’s done in a way that doesn’t shut people down.

If “taking a stand” is your default leadership style, however, you’ll probably run into trouble pretty quickly because the bottom line is that your people’s needs aren’t getting met. And this isn’t the best long-term team-building strategy for you.

So let me let you in on a little secret… the biggest mistake that leaders make in difficult conversations is that they waste their time arguing about positions instead of dialoguing about underlying needs.

This is because many leaders don’t really understand how to have difficult conversations in a way that enables them to get their needs met, while at the same time meeting the needs of the people they lead.

Let’s break it down…

If you’re managing a team that’s leading a big project, you may prefer to have everyone update the project plan on a weekly basis. Perhaps you need this information to keep your boss appraised of progress, concerns, questions, etc.

Breaking this down into positions and needs:

Your position: Team members update the project plan once a week

Your underlying need: Information

Now perhaps Sally is on your team, and Sally prefers to update the project plan at the end of each month. She finds that this is the most efficient way for her to work given her natural preferences and time constraints.

Sally’s solution: Update the project plan every month

Sally’s underlying need: Efficiency

You and Sally could argue for days about whether the project plan should be updated every week or every month and get nowhere. But as soon as you shift the conversation to a dialogue about how to meet both of your underlying needs (i.e., information and efficiency), you have a solid foundation to come up with options that actually work for both of you.

A conversation about “How do we meet both of our needs?” could lead to options like:

  • Sally shares her updates at weekly team meetings.
  • You ask Sally when you need information about the project and she proactively raises issues with you.
  • Sally updates you at your weekly individual check-in meetings.
  • Joe (a co-worker) takes a small task off Sally’s plate, freeing up time which she will use to update the project plan every week.

And the list goes on. The point is that now you’re working towards a resolution that you both can buy into! And this is how you get your needs met, while meeting the needs of others.

Quick Tip: A position is nothing more than a person’s preferred solution for meeting their needs. The way to distinguish between positions and needs is that positions can only be satisfied in one way (or very few ways), whereas underlying needs can be met in many different ways.

How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake

The problem with most difficult conversations is that the underlying needs of each individual remain below the surface in the conversation, or in other words, they are left unsaid. So it’s no wonder that we find ourselves spinning our wheels!

Underlying needs are kind of like the roots of a tree – we don’t see them but they play a crucial role. They anchor the tree to the soil, provide it with nutrients, give it support for its structure, etc. A person’s underlying needs are often based on their goals, their desires, their values, etc. In other words, all of the things that make up who they are as an individual.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to hone your open-ended questioning skills so that you can help surface the underlying needs of others when you’re faced with a difficult conversation. Questions like the ones below will help you do this:

  • Walk me through your thought-process here.
  • Tell me what’s most pressing for you in all of this?
  • What’s your biggest concern right now?

This approach can be challenging when you’re feeling frustrated, but it opens up the possibility of having a deeper and more meaningful conversation that actually resolves the issue at hand.

And keep in mind that in most situations there are usually key joint needs that both people share, such as running a successful project. You may have different ideas about how to get there, but keeping these key shared needs in mind is incredibly helpful… especially if the conversation starts to become heated.

You can use joint-needs to refocus the discussion if things escalate, for example: “Hey, I know we both really want to ensure that this project is a success. We just have different ideas about how to get there but our end goal is the same. Let’s get back to talking about options that might work for both of us. Say more about why [xxx] is important to you…”

Working towards win-win resolutions may take a more time in the short-term, but building this type of goodwill with your employees will pay off in spades in the long run.

The Highway Analogy – How to Stop Other People from Derailing a Conversation Without Offending Them

Having difficult conversations can be a little like merging onto the highway.

I know this analogy sounds far-fetched… but stay with me here for just a moment.

Preparing for a difficult conversation is one of the best ways to ensure that it will be successful.

But what if the other person throws something at you that comes out of left field?

You’ve spent all this time mapping out your needs, anticipating what might be important to the other person, thinking of potential win-win solutions (more on these topics in upcoming posts!)… and all of that gets derailed in one fell swoop.

Yeesh!

So here’s the deal, as much as you can prepare for a difficult conversation, you can’t anticipate everything that the other person will say or need.

And this is where the highway analogy comes in.

If you’re clear on which topics you’d like to discuss, you can consciously assess the importance of the new topic and then decide whether you need to “speed up” or “slow down” to deal with the issue instead of just getting derailed by it.

Speeding up (in a collaborative way) is essentially saying something like – “That’s a really important topic and I’d love to discuss it with you. Let’s set up another time to talk exclusively about that so that we can give it the attention it deserves. For this meeting, let’s focus on what we decided to discuss – [insert the agenda items that ideally you would have agreed upon together beforehand.]”

Speeding up is a helpful technique when it’s more important to focus on the topics that you had intended to discuss first.

And when you can make it safe for the other person by helping them see that you’re fully committed to addressing the new issues they’ve raised (just at another time), it helps them come back to the conversation at hand.

But sometimes the thing that comes out of left field from the other person is actually more important… and needs to be dealt with first.

If that’s the case, then slowing down to talk about their topic makes sense. And here again, it’s incredibly helpful to make this explicit so that everyone knows that you’ll come back to the other topics later.

It sounds SO simple, doesn’t it?

However, I can’t tell you how many executives, managers, and professionals I’ve shared this analogy with and watched it “click” things into place for them.

The clients that I work with need to have numerous conversations with the people in their workplaces every single day… and many of them are difficult conversations. So simply strategies that can help people quickly course correct when things get off track are worth their weight in gold in my books!

This analogy came to mind for me when I worked as a workplace mediator. Part of my job was tracking the conversation between parties to help make sure that they addressed everything that they wanted to talk about.

Whether I was working with two individuals or an entire team, everyone was always clear on what would be discussed beforehand.

In some of my sessions, however, I would see parties skirting around the more contentious issues. They’d want to talk about everything else that was going on in the workplace instead of addressing the actual issues between them.

My job in those moments was to check in and find out if this is how they wanted to spend their time – essentially highlighting that they had a trained professional in the room who could help them work through their sticky issues and they could take advantage of that or they could continue to talk about things that they probably didn’t need my help to discuss.

This usually brought them back on track and they were always grateful for the intervention.

But sometimes they would let me know that they actually needed to address the issue they were talking about before they could get back to the other topics.

This was also great for me to hear! Mainly because my goal was to help ensure that they made the most productive use of their time with me. And I generally found that whatever they were discussing got wrapped up much more efficiently than it would have been otherwise. Bonus!

In other words, speeding up and slowing down was something I had to navigate constantly with parties in my work as a mediator.

People generally don’t like wasting their time, but they’re sometimes scared to address sensitive issues. When you can lead them there gently and help them understand that you want to work with them to fix things, they generally tend to hop on board.

Most people actually appreciate being held accountable in a supportive way. And sometimes we need to check ourselves and readjust our plan based on new information that emerges in the situation.

The key here is that when we choose to speed up or slow down consciously, we avoid getting derailed.

So the next time you have a conversation and you feel like things are falling off the rails, remember the highway analogy and consciously choose what to do about it.

Let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear back from you.