The Corporate Poet held the room. Four hundred high ranking, hard charging executives from such companies as IBM, American Express, and Merrill Lynch, as well as those of us who are behavioral consultants, were entranced by the poet’s deep, melodic voice. We were mesmerized by his hypnotic rhythm. Magically, the imagery of his poetry found resonance within our own minds, and took us on our own private journeys.
“Corporate Poet” sounds like an oxymoron. Yet David Whyte makes a living by working with companies through his art. His passion for his craft becomes a tool for others to find passion for theirs, or perhaps more accurately, to find crafts for their passions. Whyte’s poetry helps leaders and leaders-to-be discover who they are. That may sound frivolous to some readers. In reality, to understand our deepest passions and align our behavior with them is one of the most difficult tasks we face. It is required of anyone seeking to do their best.
Whyte helped all of us in that room to remember the essence of excellence. We can only do our best work when it touches our deepest held values, the core of what matters to us. The energy reservoir within our passions creates dedication, confidence, and focus. Our motivation does not come from external factors, which, because they are external, may come and go. It comes from within ourselves, and is thus under only our own control. Our work matters because it has personal meaning to us.
The distractions from our passions are numberless. Other people pressure us to be who they want us to be. Television and other popular social media present glimpses of life that seem far more glamourous than our own lives, feeding self-doubt. Many organizations use command-and-control management techniques to shape us into their view of who we should be. In so doing, they often rob themselves of the very best their employees have to offer.
Discovering Personal Passion: Whyte talked about having “The Conversation.” The process he described was simple yet compelling, so compelling that I called home that evening to make plans with my wife to try it out.
“The Conversation” happens when one person talks to another person about what is most deeply true about them at that time. The sole purpose is to be understood. There is no request for help. There is no appeal for sympathy. There is no attempt to influence the other person or to be influenced by them. The hope is simply to be understood by another human being, which is essential to really understanding one’s self. With such understanding, we have control over how we respond to what life has to offer. Without it, we are blown about by the wishes of others, shallow cultural whims, and our own self doubts.
My wife Peg and I made reservations at a nearby resort for the next available weekend. We wanted freedom from distraction so that we could focus on our tasks. On Friday night, we had a leisurely drive to the resort. We had a pleasant dinner and evening. After breakfast on Saturday, we got down to business. We had each been thinking about what we would say. Still, we took the first hour or so to organize and write down our thoughts independently. It was a quiet time.
We both knew that two EQ skills would be vital to the success of our conversation. When I was the talker, for example, I would need Emotional Self Awareness, in order to know what was important to me – what made me feel fulfilled, what work was most meaningful. When I was the listener, I would need Empathy, in order to be able to fully understand the same for Peg.
On the flip side, we realized that when I was the listener I would also need Emotional Self Awareness, in order to recognize times when my own emotions might interfere with being able to hear Peg, which, as listener, was my sole job. And when I was the talker, I would also need Empathy, in order to be able to speak in a way that would allow Peg to hear me without becoming defensive, getting too protective, or going into problem solving mode.
And so, while we did our organizing, we reviewed those two skills as well, in order to make sure we were in tune with them.
Next, we each took a turn telling the other what was most true about our own life at that time. As I recall, I went first. Part of my responsibility was to avoid saying things in ways that would invite Peg to help or give advice or to make judgments. Her job was to listen for understanding. She would sometimes rephrase things to be sure that she understood me. At other times she would nod to let me know that she followed what I was saying. Otherwise, she just listened. When she spoke later, I returned the favor.
After the listening, we turned this into something of a “corporate retreat,” which I often facilitate for others. We got out my flip chart (yes, I brought it with me!) and began solving the individual problems we had shared. We used what we had heard ourselves say as the raw data for individual decision making.
For my part, The Conversation helped me to understand that my ongoing fatigue was the result of too many opportunities and not enough focus. I had been pursuing more diverse business possibilities than I could handle. I could no longer keep all the balls in the air. The Conversation helped me recognize where my passions now were. Our subsequent problem-solving discussion used that information to make decisions about what to keep and what to let go.
This was more than an intellectual exercise. There were some long-standing interests that needed to be cut because I could see now that I no longer had the passion needed for excellence. Peg’s role in my problem-solving phase was to help me talk through the decisions without any pressure one way or the other, even though my decisions would have an impact on our family resources. This required considerable trust. As usual, she did this magnificently. The major decisions I made that weekend, now over 15 years ago, have guided day to day decisions since. The fatigue lifted, my vision became focused, and I was passionate again.
So imagine. What are the possibilities if you and your spouse had The Conversation? Or, what if you and your business partner did so? Why stop there? What if you and your whole management team had The Conversation? The energy and focus unleashed might transform your business. Your enthusiasm or reluctance for The Conversation may tell you something about your current level of trust in the people most involved in your work life, i.e., the ones upon whom you must rely most.