Friday, September 9, 2011

We Are The Stream

While coaching a stressed-out executive several years ago, I shared a metaphor that I thought could be helpful during my client's exceedingly tumultuous time. Probably borrowed from zen tradition, I conjured an image of a smooth stone in a stream. The analogy of the roiling waters fit the description of the many challenges and demands of his daily work. And, like an edge-less stone in a stream, the water will naturally find a way around -- and eventually pass -- without undue resistance.

Well, the conversation proved helpful at the time, but I think I had it wrong. I don't think we are the stones, I think we are the water.

This paradigm shift occurred to me while using the CMM Solutions consulting model to address a workplace conflict. After exploring the ways in which the patterns of communication were "making the conflict" for these two colleagues, I immediately thought of the smooth stone in the stream as a possible metaphor to help ease the emotional tension/burden that the conflict was producing for them. Then it hit me: one of the core causes of the conflict was their effort to stay in one place, continuously engaging in the same pattern of communication that produced the friction.

So I shifted the metaphor. Staying in the moment, I described the stream and invited them to consider how the quality and character of the water is forever-changing with the contours of the rock, soil, and wind. We are the water. We never stop moving. We never stop flowing. We endlessly make and re-make the patterns of interaction that shape our experience. When we think of ourselves as fixed (like the stone), surrounded by the circumstances of life that constantly ebb and flow around us, we get stuck. We miss out on the creative freedom that comes with knowing we will not be the same tomorrow, as we are today.

For me, this shift has implications in other arenas as well. For example, in leadership and career coaching, one of the most common challenges I face is helping clients deal with the gap between their desired quality of experience and the one they are actually living. This frame is based on "being the stone." An empowering shift here is to ask them what it would be like if they were "the stream." In other words: "If you weren't motionless, dwelling on the circumstances that continuously rush your way, how would your focus change?" "If you were ever-flowing and rock-shaping water, never reaching a plateau, never quite arriving at the same place twice, would that invigorate you to see something new and different?"

In the right moment, these could be powerful questions. They certainly offer an opportunity to change the way we think about our oreintation toward "problems" and to think about our influence in shaping the experience we live in.

Perhaps the simplest way to put this is: are you the stone, or the stream?

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