Border Collie Wisdom: Sensitive, responsive & aiming for Mastery
“After a long time of practicing, our work will become natural, skillful, swift, and steady.” —Bruce Lee
Descended from wolves, dogs were domesticated some 13,000 years ago around human campfires when it became clear that collaboration would be mutually beneficial for these social animals. Dogs have highly-attuned senses, enabling them to know things are on the move long before humans do, which makes them great allies in hunting and herding and for survival itself. Known for their enthusiasm, for their boundless curiosity, and for taking whatever they learn “to the streets,” Border Collies model a kind of responsive commitment to mastery.
Below are some of the core Self-Mastery practices that all of our clients learn, whether in executive coaching programs or in Leadership Learning Community work. Take a look and experiment with bringing a bit of canine wisdom to your own process!
Cultivating self-awareness & seeing signs of pressure
Many coaching engagements start with a 360 degree feedback report, showing clients what others see and how others assess a client’s leadership. We prefer to start with a more internally-driven self-reflection process of learning the Enneagram.
We teach the Enneagram not to become smart about types in an intellectual way but instead to become more sensitive to signs of pressure when unconscious habits show up quite unbidden. Because leadership is filled with stressful moments, it’s important to find ways to support ourselves and others in coming back to presence.
As a simple recurring reflective exercise, you could journal about:
When did you or others show signs of going down the levels when under pressure?
What triggered you or them specifically?
What were you or they really longing for?
What could have supported you or them in returning to a higher level of presence?
How can you signal to each other that you are showing signs of going down the levels?
How can you create a network of colleagues who can help you recover to presence when you start showing signs of pressure?
Refer to the Wisdom of the Enneagram and the Enneagram Institute’s Levels of Development as well as The Complete Enneagram and The 9 Types of Leadership for more depth. For a lighter touch with illustrations, we recommend The Enneagram Made Easy.
Boosting Emotional Intelligence — Quickly!
Sensing moods in others is a vastly underappreciated job in leadership. As social animals, we are highly attuned to one another and can quite literally catch moods.
Difficult moods set off alarm bells because our brains are designed to pay attention to threats, so the person in the worst mood drops the emotional intelligence of an entire team, sometimes an entire organization if the person is high in rank. Alas, trying to set a positive mood as a leader without sensing what is already in the field can come off as inauthentic cheer-leading.
We've found that the Mood Check practice is one of the fastest ways to build emotional intelligence because people start to really check into what is alive for them emotionally and they start to pay closer attention to one other, becoming more curious about and compassionate with each other in the process.
Print out our Mood Check Chart (left) or follow the guidelines below when you want to help people get more present with each other before trying to jump into or even out of important meetings and conversations.
Form a circle and hand out individual copies of or pass around a Mood Check chart laminate.
Eliminate perfunctory answers and evaluative words such as: good, fine, okay or stressed. In fast-moving, innovative organizations, people very frequently experience "stress,” which can coexist with feelings ranging from “excited” (to be sprinting toward a meaningful milestone) to feelings that closer to "resentful" (because no one is helping!).
Ask: “Another word for 'good?’” to invite others to use an emotional versus evaluative word to really “check in.”
Invite everyone to share their mood—as a leader, you can go first to make others feel safe or you can let whomever volunteers start and then go clockwise from there. Ensure the check-in round goes quickly, with mood check words and no long stories.
Come back around and ask people to “say more” about any difficult moods. This encourages stories that bring people closer to each other—whether someone is experiencing a family emergency or facing breakdowns at work.
Some clients ask why the focus on the “difficult” moods in the early phases?
People are generally least comfortable talking about or responding to difficult moods. The work in the beginning is continually sensing into hidden longings and needs that arrive in the form of difficult moods.
As people become more sensitive to one another during difficulties, the mood check process can start to encourage stories behind good moods, which are contagious in a positive way!
Many groups also use a Mood Check to close a meeting, enabling people to "check in to check out," rather than scattering to the four winds without any sense of how the meeting went.
Refer to Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence & Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions & The Language of Emotions for more background.
cultivating a Calm, Grounded Leadership Presence
If Mood Checks are about emotional intelligence, Centering is about recovering resilience in the body when under pressure and when fight/flight centers have gotten activated.
Just as professional basketball players and golfers must find their center, over and over, so must leaders recover to center after getting bad news, when feeling frustrated with performance, and before going into important meetings or negotiations.
Take a look at our Centering Practice, and follow the guidelines when you want to restore calm and resourcefulness quickly. The five dimensions of centering include:
Breath – This is the rhythmic dimension of centering and supports our connection to our life force and capacity to be nourished. Breath is the fastest way to balance our sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous systems. We start many Centering Practices with big, exaggerated exhales - to let go of what we were so full of, to start to clear out cortisol and other stress hormones, and to invite the relaxation response to begin.
Length – This is the vertical dimension of centering and it is is highly personal, showing our aspiration and our capacity to reach for what we care about. By lengthening our spine and releasing areas of collapse, we feel more on purpose, inspired, and aligned with ourselves (head, heart, and body). Hiking our shoulders to our ears and then releasing helps us open up stuck areas in the neck and shoulders, which carry a lot of tension for many leaders.
Width – This is the horizontal dimension of centering and is highly social. Our connection to others is enhanced by widening and softening our gaze and opening our stance to become more receptive and welcoming. Width helps us notice the broader social circle, including who is assertively participating, who seems anxious, and who may be feeling shut out. When we widen our view, we are better at sensing non-verbal cues as well as hearing what people are saying with their words.
Depth – This is the linear dimension of centering that requires balancing our past and our future out in the world. Our depth determine how much we extend toward or retreat from life. Depth is about being willing to be known more deeply by readily sharing our personal history as well as our vision for what is possible in the future. Making small circling motions with the pelvis can help us come back to center if we're a bit ahead of ourselves or come forward if we have been laying back energetically.
Ground – This is the releasing dimension of centering, where our connection to gravity and the ground promotes feelings of security and confidence. Feeling our hips, our legs, and our feet connected to the earth gives us a sense of solidity that not only calms us but also communicates a kind of grounded presence, which calms others at the same time. Spending time noticing sensations in the body, feeling gravity’s support as we release our weight and energy downwards, and even imagining stabilizing roots extending into the ground are all helpful and can bring a kind of meditative ‘time out’ from all the distractions of the day.
Noticing how we are shaping ourselves, especially when under pressure, helps us find how we are off-center internally as well as in our relationship to others. Instead of arguing with ourselves about the need to be more calm and present, we take the path of least resistance —we can reshape ourselves using a simple Centering Practice and our mind and heart can follow the body’s lead!
Converting Complaints to Longings & Future Directions
One of the most draining parts of any human enterprise is our propensity to have a lot of language, often quite colorful, about what we don’t like, don’t want, and can’t stand. It’s a talent that 5 year-old children exhibit quite confidently so it’s not a graduate level skill! Alas, indulging our complaints makes us experts on a past that doesn’t work rather than creators of compelling futures we want to step into.
In leadership we must always be making the pivot—from complaints to generative narratives around Where are we going? For the sake of what? Who is going with us? and How are we going to get there—together?
Our MORF Process is a deeply contemplative practice, exploring the language of emotional longings, including: what do I want more of for Myself, for the Other, for our Relationship, and for the Future? The goal is to consciously move from victim/villain/helpless stories to we stories, filled with mutual respect and mutual purpose and leaving behind the traps of going to silence or violence when conversations turn crucial. Ultimately our goal is to move from a heart at war to a heart at peace.
Clients find that doing the MORF Process in a sincere way begins to resolve even long-standing difficulties, often quite rapidly. And, the process is vital when restoring relationships that are under pressure. We start this process in the following fashion.
What is my complaint?
It’s okay to have a conscious rant with a practice partner to let off steam. But don’t indulge in this for very long.
What is the difficult mood associated with this topic?
Take time to explore the Mood Chart words to find an accurate description of how you are feeling.
How does my difficult mood hold clues to my longings?
Think of all difficult moods as “rocks that weigh us down”
Turn these rocks over to discover longings that have been hidden in plain sight. Our body has been trying to alert us to pay attention but these signals must be converted into language first before we can more consciously act upon them
What is the topic I want to explore?
The topic frames where we start and helps us identify the territory we want to explore in our conversation.
A good topic is neutral. Rather than talking about “Poor Performance,” we may want to reframe our topic as a discussion about “Accuracy & Timeliness.” Rather than talking about “Us/Them” mentalities, we can reframe our discussion to focus on “Shared Vision,” etc.
The process of converting difficult moods to positive moods can benefit from examples, such as:
If “Anxious” I might want to feel more “Confident” that I can show up with presence.
If “Angry” I might want to feel more “Respected” or “Trusting” that we share mutual purpose.
If “Frustrated” I might want to feel more “Hopeful” or “Patient” in working through challenges.
If “Pessimistic” I might want to feel “Reassured” or “Optimistic” that things are on a good path.
If “Resentful” I might want to feel more “Appreciated” for my efforts or “Pleased” that help is on the way.
If “Remorseful” I might want to feel “Proud” of myself and/or more “Compassionate” toward others.
If “Discouraged” I might want to feel more “Committed” to creating new possibilities.
Now, how can you answer the basic MORF questions? It’s encouraged to engage a practice partner who can help you express and sense into unspoken longings in the other person. We encourage different Enneagram types to partner up on this process to widen perspectives and increase empathy.
What do I want for Myself? + What do I want to Bring to the conversation?
What do I want for the Other person?
What do I want for our Relationship?
What do I want for the Future?
Path to Action
Giving Feedback with clarity & Dignity
Leaders are always having to give feedback—on business plans, budgets, performance, teamwork, attitudes, creativity, and so on. Giving great feedback is much more akin to sports coaching, where we see behavior improve because of the way we give feedback.
We use a variation of the Path to Action process from Crucial Conversations work to help clients map how they are reading others and the world around them more accurately and to tell more generative stories about behavior and outcomes.
The more abstract our language, the less powerful our feedback becomes. The more grounding we provide (“being the video camera” in the first step), the more technicolor detail we provide, the more others follow what we are seeing and hearing as well as what we are not seeing or hearing that we would wish for.
When we are stuck in victim/villain/helpless stories, we need to run through the MORF Process to shift from a “heart at war” to a “heart at peace.” When we bring a deep sense of care and concern for others’ longings as well as our own, when we bring a kind of loving presence to the most difficult assessments we need to share, we are more likely to make it safe enough for others to truly hear us and engage with us in more open and committed ways.
The same Path to Action process is used to give appreciative feedback and tell stories of success and contribution in more memorable ways.