Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Nine words on leadership and learning

“For the rest of my life, I want to…”

Can you finish the sentence?

This is the question posed by Learning and Leadership expert Kevin Eikenberry, here.

What do you want to learn about for the rest of your life? What holds your attention enough to keep you motivated and interested, especially during tough times?

When you have a clear purpose and strong desire to learn…well, you are unstoppable. And, if you can combine this drive with a constant beginner’s mind…well, you are my hero. These are nine powerful, wonderful, vulnerable words.

Leaders inspire and help others to finish their sentence, or turn it on its head, or keep you out of your comfort zone, who pose more questions instead of answers and who stress the importance of a mission.

Sometimes, nine words are enough.



What’s the drill – February 26: Controlling the outcome

Try as we might, we can never really know the outcome of anything. My book might not sell, I may not get hired for a job, the group project may actually exceed expectations.

The more we try to exert influence over circumstances we can’t and don’t actually control, the more frustrated we can become.

Beginning Improvisers are often fearful their first time taking the stage. Neurologically they feel threatened, and this fear shows up in different behaviors. Often times the feeling of threat or lack of safety makes us want to control the scene because we think we can control the outcome.

In spite of what we think, we never know the outcome of anything.

When the stakes are high, our task to not control the outcome gets tougher. We feel that we have something to lose. When money, pride, reputation are on the line, the job gets even tougher – especially if you are a leader.

Teaching others to let go, accept offers, and say “yes, and” means controlling less and supporting more. It can be a fundamental shift to our psychological and neurological safety.

In tough, stressful and threatening situations, we revert back to our natural instincts and habits. If we are to help others lead through change and high-stakes, it will take practice and it will take work but the outcome will be worth it…of that we are certain.

2 questions to help you crack the employee engagement code

Stan the salesman was not engaged in his work. He felt isolated, lost, and flat-out miserable.

(Just wait, this story has a happier ending).

Stan is not unlike many workers these days. For many, work lacks meaning, it lacks a feeling of true responsibility and purpose.

So, what to do, when we could bury our heads in motivation theory or simply wish there was a quick fix.

Brilliant and experienced management consultant, Suzy Norman, wants you to consider these two questions:

1. How much do you feel needed, and that you matter to your community?

2. Do you feel in control of your future?

For Stan, he’d probably tell you, “not much”.

There is a shift that takes place for us when we feel like our work and just being who we are makes a difference – that we can do something no one else can. That powerful feeling of being needed resonates for us at a human level, and not just at work. Furthermore, not only does it boost our self-esteem, but I’d argue it also allows us to feel more control over that scary word: future.

The next time you feel like Stan, check-in with these two questions.

What’s the drill – September 12: And because of that…

Remember the Story Spine? The fantastic tool we use to apply elements of storytelling to a plethora of organizational situations and cases?

  • Once upon a time …
  • And every day …
  • Until one day..
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day ..

Today specifically we can talk about the Story Spine as a means of discussing risk and reward.

Take the phrase, “And because of that…”

Improvisers are taught, and become more comfortable with taking risks. They feel on stage, experientially, what it’s like to get out of their comfort zone. And because of that, they stretch, grow, and so much more.

Sometimes, off-stage, we take a risk (“until one day”) and wait for the reward (“because of that”). We see risk taking as a means to an end. It’s got to be something tangible, right?

“Where is my ‘because of that‘ already?”, we ask. Show me the reward! Let’s flip to the end of the story.

In truth, the other, “because of that’s” might not have been written yet. We often can’t see them coming although we hope they appear. It may take months, years for you to recognize what they are. You might find there are more than 3, perhaps dozens of “because of that” phrases. All we know sometimes is that the risk moves us forward, certainly in learning, and hopefully in tangible results.

If we are taking risks solely in pursuit of the reward we might never be satisfied with our story spine.

The point is that we as organizations and the people who run them have a responsibility to keep the story moving forward. Choosing to take risks and to use the call to action of “until one day” moves us forward, compared to the glacial, steady, predictable pace of “and every day”.


Saying Yes to the Mess – The Improvisational Mindset of Frank J. Barrett

In the midst of change (large or small), our natural instinct is often to try to control the chaos and the mess.

What if instead of fighting it, we said yes to this mess?

This question and more is one posed by author and professor Frank Barrett in his new book, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.”

His approach is one we might recognize, as the author of “Appreciative Inquiry – a Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.

We can safely say he is a fan of the tenants of Improvisation and Positive Psychology and their application to leadership and management.

This Improvisational mindset is one we’ve discussed:

  1. Face the mess
  2. Learn to take action with incomplete information – you can’t always stop and problem solve
  3. Build affirmative competence by learning how to respond in the moment
  4. Solo and Support – Learn to play both roles, let others shine, while following your instincts.

Learn more from Barrett in this insightful interview here!

This just in… emotions are contagious – via The Energy Project

Emotional contagion spreads quickly and fills the air of your environment. Can you put out the fire?

Take this warning (story) from Energy Project CEO, Tony Schwartz, and his lessons learned…

Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team – The Energy Project.


  1. The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders.

  2. Because it’s not possible to check our emotions at the door when we get to work — even when that’s expected — it pays to be aware of what we’re feeling in any given moment. You can’t change what you don’t notice.

  3. Negative emotions spread fast and they’re highly toxic. The problem with the executive we let go was not that he was critical, but rather that he was so singularly focused on what was wrong that he lost sight of the bigger picture, including his own negative impact on others.

  4. Authenticity matters because you can’t fake positivity for long. It is possible to put on a “game face” — to say you’re feeling one way when you’re actually feeling another — but the truth will ultimately reveal itself in your facial, vocal, and postural cues. We must learn to monitor and manage our moods.

  5. The key to balancing realism and optimism is to embrace the paradox of realistic optimism. Practically, that means having the faith to tell the most hopeful and empowering story possible in any given situation, but also the willingness to confront difficult facts as they arise and deal with them directly.

To embrace uncertainty, start with this strategy

Paul B. Brown, Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer (authors of  Just Start: Take Action; Embrace Uncertainty and Create the Future ) give us a secret to a happier, more successful life:

“The thing to remember is this: Successful people work with what they have at hand— whatever comes along—and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.”

Life is unpredictable and uneven. The strategies we use to embrace uncertainty in our everyday life can be no different from the strategies we as Improvisers use on stage.

To embrace uncertainty is to:

1. View mistakes as gifts

2. Accept whatever is in front of you

This weekend I led an improv workshop in the wilderness for a group of 50 adults and kids.  At one point, we were speaking about failure and what Improvisers do when we “mess up”. To improvisers, mistakes are gifts. Actually…

To Improvisers, everything is a gift. 

One participant chimed in, “well, not all mistakes are okay, it depends on the situation”. True, I responded.  But to accept a mistake as a gift, to be more tuned into what is happening around us, to stay focused on the positive and in the present moment are all strategies that help us thrive and grow in times of failure. It’s a mindset. And, if this mindset makes us more successful (however you define success), it’s a mindset worth working towards.