Several years back I had the opportunity to work with a co-op founded by a group of artists who had all formerly experienced homelessness. I was invited to facilitate a strategic planning meeting involving the entire co-op membership. We met in their rented warehouse on Skid Row inLos Angeles. One key question facing these artists was how to effectively promote and sell their work to the public. Many struggled with addiction and mental illness. Some had been incarcerated. About twenty minutes into the meeting, I heard loud giggling, a hand slapping the table, and mumbling – something about “getting on the bus.” I assumed it was a nervous tic, and carried on facilitating. When the outbursts became more frequent and disruptive, I found myself feeling frustrated. Then the singing began, “Getting on the bus – yes, we are – getting on the bus.” I had to work hard to replace my frustration with compassion for this person. At the same time, I didn’t want our meeting to get hijacked by someone who seemed to be having a lively conversation in a parallel universe.
I could not remove this person from the room, and yet it was impossible to ignore such a disruptive presence. Table banging, laughing, and chanting was the reality on the ground, and the sooner I surrendered to it, the better (I later learned that this participant had recently gone off a medication prescribed for mental illness). This process of accepting inconvenient and unanticipated circumstances is key to what I call “dancing with surprises.” Dancing with surprises means learning to be fluid and flexible in the face of events that blindside us, shake us up, or knock us off our feet.
To dance well with surprises, try the following…
1. Practice Letting Go. It’s easy to become attached to “how things should go.” We grasp too tightly to expectations of ourselves and others. We become too invested in a narrow definition of “success.” Letting go involves first recognizing you are feeling overly attached, then naming what you are struggling to let go of, and finally loosening your psychological grip on it. In the midst of “unwelcome” surprises, ask yourself: What’s really needed at this moment? What lessons or gifts does this moment hold for me and this group?
2. Adopt a Stance of Playfulness. When we approach serious and complex situations with a playful spirit, we bring joy, fullness of participation, spontaneity, and humor to our work. Building capacity to “play” means learning to view chaos, confusion, and conflict as partners rather than foes. We can take the work seriously, but we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. The notion that there is no “one right move” in any given situation – that many options will work – has helped me become much more playful when facilitating high-stakes meetings. This belief frees me up to play creatively with ideas and the choices I can make.
3. Cultivate a Possibility-affirming Faith. Faith is not necessarily unquestioning confidence in someone or something. It involves active, committed inquiry about the way the world works and the beliefs that enhance and affirm life. How do we cultivate faith? As you choose what to put your faith in, consider beliefs that enable you to be of service as a leader, keep your ego in check, and navigate the uncertain and painful moments of fire tending. Ask yourself, What beliefs put me into rapport instead of conflict with the challenges and mysteries of life? Over time you will want to evaluate these beliefs, not based on their truth, but by asking, How do these beliefs enhance my ability to dance with surprises and remain a centered, affirming presence in the face of high heat moments? Some of my core beliefs include:
- Every response I demonstrate as a leader is an opportunity to shape the world in which I want to live.
- Breakdowns, surprises, mishaps, and messiness (which we often label “failures”) are a normal part of the journey toward innovation and transformation.
- There are nearly always many paths to get to where we want to go.
Let’s return to my story about the artist co-op. After accepting that I had to integrate a disruptive person into my meeting, I invited people to join in slapping the table and singing. Soon after, we had quite a lively performance piece going – percussion, chanting, and yelling out ideas. The “bus person” seemed delighted. We all stopped being bothered and resentful and began to celebrate, play, and think creatively about product marketing. And here’s the best part: at the conclusion of the planning day, the group decided that the best way to bring their art to the public was to buy a reconditioned school BUS, decorate it, and take it to street festivals throughout the state as a mobile gallery.
Facilitating the artists’ co-op was rewarding in many ways. I was proud of their hard work and, on a personal level, it truly helped me tackle my innate struggle with “surprises.” I’m not someone who naturally welcomes the unexpected. Those who know me will tell you that I lean more toward control. In the face of surprises, unwelcome, and inconvenient, I can lose my sense of humor, become fixated on what’s not working, and get lost in my own annoyance and blame. We’re all works in progress. But here’s what I know – when we view every person, every event, every piece of new information, and every expressed emotion as a welcome partner in the creation of something new, we are better leaders and better humans. We move through the world with more fluidity, joy, and creativity. We dance.
What’s the first example that pops into your mind about turning the unexpected into a dance? It can be something you did yourself or something you observed. I’d love to read about a few “dancing with surprises” stories in the comments below!