Bringing Out Our Best (When We’re At Our Worst)


The worst time for having to be with lots of other people is when we’re feeling stressed or even depressed. The holidays often bring both those things at the same time — stress AND being with people. Talk about set up to fail!

My Catalytic Thinking practice has changed all that for me. When I let that practice take over, it instantly brings out the best in the people around me. And there are days when having that to rely on means everything.

This week was that week for me, where the stuff of life had me feeling pretty miserable — angry and shut down. Because anger and shutting down are among the brain’s tools for defending us against what’s painful, those sorts of protective responses happen to all of us sometimes, each in our own way. The holidays just exacerbate it by forcing us to be with a lot more people.

And of course the day when I was feeling the most shut-down happened to include three appointments with people I’d never met. Each of these meetings required that I be something I was absolutely not feeling that day: I needed to be my best self. On a day I needed it the most, Catalytic Thinking did all the heavy lifting for me.

Conversation #1:
What I knew beforehand: This was an informal lunch with a former foundation CEO. Without my practice, I would have been thinking about all the stuff I’d read in his online bio. Even before the conversation, I might have been preparing my follow-up email, with foundation-related references. Business as usual.

But Catalytic Thinking guided me to ask about his winding path, the journey of his life. In listening to his story, I quickly got to know the person, not the persona. That person was warm and open, self-effacing and funny, deeply dedicated to making every bit of the world more humane  —  entirely delightful. My follow-up email was more about the Bill Nye / Amy Schumer take on the Universe than about business. (Warning: Link is NSFW. It’s also hilarious.)

Conversation #2:
What I knew beforehand: This was a call with someone who works at a rural hospital in the US, who wants to step into Creating the Future’s online immersion education. She wanted ideas for making the case for how her taking the course would benefit the hospital.

Without my practice, I might have prepared for the meeting by drafting a list of ways this course could benefit a hospital. In “business as usual” mode, even before the conversation, I would likely have been preparing a follow-up email, linking our courses to the latest issues in healthcare. I might even have sent that ahead of time.

But Catalytic Thinking guided me to ask about her own winding journey, listening for what is important not just to her, but to her boss who would make the decision about covering the tuition for the course. It guided me to know each of them as people, not titles. The person in front of me was actually a former journalist who cut her reporting teeth in Paris and London before heading to Egypt right before the Arab Spring. She was a delightful storyteller, deeply in love with language and with its power to create change.

My follow-up email encouraged her to listen to what is important to her boss, and to draw on her experience as a storyteller to help him see the things she saw that connected to their work. It wasn’t about my list, it was about her own.

Conversation #3:
What I knew beforehand: Dimitri and I were having an informal dinner with a psychologist I’d met on Facebook, who just moved to our community to care for his aging mother. Business as usual would have included questions about the present… “Tell me more about what you do” and “Have you found a place for your mom?”

Instead Catalytic Thinking guided us to ask about the meandering journey of this man’s life. Then Dimitri and I shared our own journeys. Our new friend called these our immigration stories — where we’d been, what had brought us here. And within an hour we had found so many connections and such serendipity, including the fact that he knew and clearly remembered my mother!

Asking for people’s stories. Listening and reflecting back the things that bring out their best, right there in real time. Any of us can do that at any moment, with strangers and with people we think we know (including family members during holiday dinner…).

On my way home from dinner that evening, I stopped at Target for shampoo. During the holidays, I religiously avoid shopping unless, like that evening, I have no choice. And that led to…

Conversation #4:
I made my way through the aisles, grabbed the shampoo, waited in line and finally reached the cashier. Back in closed-down mode, I did not want to engage. I wanted to sign my name and leave.

Instead, my practice took hold. “How’s your day been?” I asked.

She smiled. “Fine.”

Reflexively I asked, “What’s been the best part?”

And her face lit up. “All of it!”

She went on. “I love seeing all the things people put in their baskets! The different toys. The beautiful blankets. And fluffy boots! Did you know they make fluffy boots???”

She was alive with joy. “The clothes. And the jewelry! It’s like going shopping and all I do is stand here!”

“How wonderful!” I said, her energy infusing me, too.

“The best part is the little ones. Some are shy, but then there are the ones who love to talk. And oh my, the newborns — I’m way past having kids, and I get to see these tiny babies!”

In that moment, she was not the persona of the 60-something cashier at Target; she was the most beautiful soul on the planet, feeling and sharing every bit of life’s joy.

That is what my Catalytic Thinking practice made possible, on a day when my being had felt so beat up.

By the time I got home, I could feel the walls around my heart begin to crumble. I was starting to breathe again.

By simply changing the questions I asked, I had brought out the best in all those people. And that had brought out the best in me.

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