How To Get People To Do Things

The Conversation Roadmap

Here’s part of a conversation roadmap for talking with people about what they need to accomplish. The idea of the “roadmap” is that if you make yourself familiar ahead of time with the conversational territory you might encounter, then you won’t get lost no matter what direction the conversation takes.

The roadmap technique gives you structure for planning what kinds of things to say and not say, what the other person might say, and map out your responses. How do you steer back to the main road from any detours or dead ends, and how do you not throw up roadblocks or take people down the wrong road yourself?

For starters, don’t say, “Here’s what I need you to do.” We don’t motivate people with our needs. We motivate people with their needs.

We should have already taken the trouble to know what motivates each individual we work with, with questions like, “What gives you the greatest motivation here?”

Then we might say, “Here’s another chance to do the kind of work you did on your last (report, design, whatever). I’m confident you can do as good a job or better on this.”

Or maybe it’s, “Here’s something where I think you can really shine, step beyond how people see you now and show everyone what you’ve got.”

Whatever way we find to start, the next key question, after explaining the task, is this: “What do you think?”

It’s an open-ended invitation, and we have to say it with genuine curiosity. Then we follow their lead. We express interest in their view of the way forward, discuss the steps they suggest taking, share their concerns. The conversation is about them, their views, and so on. Many roads can lead to the same destination. Which one is best for them?

Along the way we don’t give directions. We ask questions. “What do you think Joe’s reaction to that will be?” “Do you see a way we can make those resources available?” “How will this fit with your other deadline on project Y?” And so on.

Ideally we’ll have anticipated their concerns and are ready with the right questions for any issue they don’t raise themselves. Our questions can allow the person to give themselves the directions we might have been tempted to give them ourselves. People listen to themselves much better than they listen to us.

If something is still clearly missing and we have to tell them, we don’t say, “Here’s what you need to understand,” or “Here’s what you’re missing.” That subtly emphasizes their inability rather than their ability. It’s a roadblock to their self-direction.

We say, “Here’s what I experienced in a similar situation.” Or, “Here’s something you might look into.” Something that has a tone of colleagues sharing information.

We also don’t say, “I’m here to support you. Come to me for any help you need.” That effectively takes responsibility and ownership away from them. We don’t offer them an “open door” that invites them to interrupt us with a question whenever they don’t want to make a decision.

Instead we might say, “I know you have the experience, the judgment, and the tenacity to do this. All I ask is that we check in together regularly so we can be sure you’re getting all the big picture information from me that you need.” These check-ins are of course the chance to correct the course, assess the competence, expect accountability and so on. But the check-ins start with, “What parts are going well? What are your next steps?” “What’s getting in your way?” We give people the chance to bring up any shortcomings themselves, before we do.

But what about real resistance? What route do we use then?

At the start we said, “What do you think?” We may have to probe here, to invite resistance early. We might even say, “I’m not sure if this is your personal first choice for a project right now.” Or, “I can see that this task might have some downsides for you.” Then we wait, but with a warm, sympathetic attention. We make it safe for people to raise an objection. We’re not laying a trap.

If someone does raise an objection, however small, we say, “Tell me more about that.” If it’s an objection we think others may share, we can ask the group, “Who else feels a little of what Joe’s talking about?”

We let people feel heard. More importantly, we actually hear them. And then we ask, “What would make this work better for you?” People may have surprisingly useful suggestions that will improve the effort significantly.

And finally, when objections remain, we say, “I’m sorry this isn’t exactly how you want it to go. But we have to proceed. What do you need now to go along?” This is a powerful question. It acknowledges resistance, and invites goodwill anyway. And it opens the door for mutual accommodation.

This approach takes time, yes. We may be tempted to say, because we have other fires to fight, “I need this next week and I don’t really care what you think about it. It’s you’re job, get on it.” But that is guaranteed to start yet another fire we’ll just have to put out in the end.

This is an “eyes in, fingers out” approach. and it may make some leaders nervous. But setting things up so we can keep our fingers out saves time in the end. It preempts resistance, and it builds capacity in the people we work with. It builds our own leadership capacity too.

(Questions about resistance used here come from the Deep Democracy work of Myrna Lewis.)

For more roadmaps for difficult conversations, click here.

Generosity or Manipulation – What’s the Difference?


A few people emailed me to object to my last post, An Approach to Chronic Underperformance, saying that “compassionately” manipulating people into firing themselves is horrible.

That’s certainly a possibility. Of course it’s not what I’m talking about.

For me, the question lies in motivation. Are we “getting” someone to fire themselves, or “letting” them fire themselves. If a boss tries to get an under-performing manager to quit in order to cut costs, or for any other self-serving reason, his actions are manipulative and wrong. A direct approach, “To meet my goals, I have to let you go,” is right.

But if our motivation is good, then we genuinely want people to find the situation that meets THEIR goals, that lets them thrive. That’s different. If our motivation is to help a manager see themselves more clearly, it may mean that the manager sees that they are not going to grow into their particular job, that it’s just not a fit. The mis-match isn’t helping the company, and certainly that’s a concern for a boss and part of the equation. But a mis-match doesn’t help the manager either, in their career, or personally.

When the boss in my story asked the manager, “What do you suggest I do next?” the question was genuine. A question like that can serve as a mirror, and in this case the manager saw themselves, through the question, as being in the wrong place. With help from the boss, they were able to find another place elsewhere that fit better. There were no recriminations.

I believe that helping people to see themselves more clearly is the essence of generous leadership. It’s tricky business. If we don’t see our own real motivation clearly first, we may well become manipulative, patronizing, self-righteous, or worse, and sadly we see that in workplaces all the time.

If our motivation is truly good, what is the best technique? Asking questions, if they are genuine, is always better than telling. Inviting people to see for themselves is better than telling them what we think they should see.

For more on using questions to deal with problem employees, click here.

An Approach to Chronic Underperformance

Questions can be a mirror


A recent post was about using the “questions only” approach to deal with a problem employee. But what happens when questions aren’t enough, when you need more improvement than you’re getting?

Here’s another real-life example of how to deal with a problem employee. Let me know if you think this intervention went well or not.

The owner and CEO of a marine safety training company told me this story. Their company trains oil rig workers to escape from a helicopter that’s crashed in the ocean, as it capsizes and sinks, and all kinds of other very high intensity marine safety training.

This CEO had a manager who was consistently under-performing. They set clear goals and expectations with each other, but these just weren’t being met. The CEO took the questioning approach to understand what the man thought the problem was. The manager was active in the conversations, seemed to be looking realistically at the situation, said what he would do to change, but nothing changed. He just didn’t seem to have the attitude of accomplishment, of taking the bull by the horns, that a company with as demanding a product requires.

So at their next meeting, the CEO said, “This doesn’t seem to be working. We’ve made these clear goals, and we’ve made them together, and we can both see the goals aren’t being met. The situation isn’t improving. Frankly, I don’t know where to go from here. What do you think I should do next?”

The manager thought a moment, and said, “I think I’m in the wrong place. I should look for another job where I’m a better fit.”

We can’t say the CEO changes the manager’s attitude. Some things won’t change. Not everything is workable. But the CEO solves the problem without any rancor or hard feeling. The manager sees his own strengths and weaknesses for himself, not just as his boss’s opinion of him. He gets a severance package and help with getting another job better suited to his talents. Everyone is happy.

When you reach a dead end with someone, it’s still not too late to let them take initiative for the solution. “What do you suggest I do next?” is a great question.

Is this really just manipulation? Read other opinions here.

What Makes a Great Place to Work

What's the Secret?What does it take for your business to be a great place to work?  Many business leaders have figured this out, each in their own way. And it’s exactly the each-in-their-own-way part that is the key to leading an award-winning workplace.

There’s no formula for being a great place to work, no 5 Easy Steps. There are however two principles we see reflected in businesses that boast low turnover, few sick days, high internal promotion, few grievances and high individual initiative; all good measures of a workplace’s health.

The first principle is, work is personal. We often say, “Don’t take it personally, it’s just business,” but really we want people to take their work personally, to feel that their work is worth their personal best. Getting people to bring their personal best to work is the holy grail of leadership. If we want to lead people to bring their personal best to work, we have to get personal.

Some leaders are more naturally personable than others, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Personality is not a business strategy. Getting personal means treating employees as individual persons, each in their own way. How can you support each person, individually, to get their work done in a way that makes them feel willing, and able, to do their personal best?

The second principle is the answer to this last question. It has three parts:

Give what’s needed
Don’t give what’s not needed
Know the difference

Knowing the difference is the hard part, but it’s what distinguishes great leadership and creates great workplaces. How do you know the difference?

The first step is simply acknowledging that the surest way to miss what’s needed and give what’s not needed is thinking, “I know what people need, and it’s my job to give it to them. That’s what’s expected of a leader.” You may pride yourself as a business leader on having the savvy to know what to do and the hutzpah to get it done, but at this point those are habits of mind that may not serve you well. What people need from a leader is not all the right answers, which no one has anyway, but the right questions, asked at the right time of the right people.

When it comes to supporting your people’s personal best, you need a culture of not-knowing, a culture of curiosity.

This culture of not-knowing calls for habits of mind that are curious, accommodating and non-judgmental. It’s about ongoing personal conversations. “What would help you thrive at work? What do you need more of, what do you need less of?” It will be different for each person.

You can make it your daily personal practice to ask questions like this; as an expected part of meetings, just passing someone in the hall, or wherever you can. You can probe the answers, to help the person clarify what they’re really asking for and to be sure you understand. If the request isn’t something you can immediately meet, you can ask, “What part of that would be easiest for us to start with?” Or if the request seems extreme, you don’t have to cut it off with, “Well, let’s be realistic.” You can continue the conversation, including other people too. “How can we do that?” You can be transparent about what you see as the obstacles. People may have a creative answer that surprises you. The culture of curiosity and mutual support these questions create allows you to distribute resources (time, talent, money, materials, supervision, support, collaboration, goodwill) in the most efficient and personally satisfying way possible.

Many organizations are too big or spread out for you to have these conversations with everyone. That’s no problem, because these conversations can happen up, down and across the organization, between everyone. A place where everyone is committed to finding out and trying to provide what their fellow employees need in order to thrive at work, is a great place to work.

To lead any kind of cultural shift, it’s your habits of mind that are the first obstacles. In sports, “the mind is the athlete,” and it’s the same in business. To help you and your executive team shift your habits of mind it can be helpful to work with an organizational coach, who can ask you the right questions at the right time, and be an accountability partner. But simply starting to ask your people what they need can in itself challenge your thinking habits. You can practice stepping past any habitual limiting reactions you have to these conversations, and let your people be your teachers. Leaders who learn from their people are one thing everyone needs.

First published in Progress Magazine

How Not to Get in the Way as a Leader

Kicking Your PointLeadership is not about the leader. Management is not about the manager. Teaching is not about the teacher. If we think the people we’re working with need to learn a lesson from us, that’s a sure sign that we’re thinking about ourselves rather than about them.

Here’s a cautionary tale.

At a conference on experiential education in the corporate sector, a trainer named Melinda presented one of her intervention techniques that she thought we could all learn something from. It was a disaster.

Melinda asked us to bring something of ours that we cared about; jewelry, journal, photo, whatever, though she advised us not to choose something too fragile. She arranged us in a circle and invited us to put our objects together on the floor in the centre. She asked us to look at them and think of why we care about them. She asked us to write out the story of our objects, how they came to us, how we have held them, what they mean to us, how it feels to be separated from them.

Melinda engaged us in this appreciative reflection for several minutes, building up our connection with our objects, and then in the middle of our writing, she suddenly stepped into the centre and started kicking the objects around, stomping on the ones that wouldn’t break, trashing everything.

We were all outraged, insulted, hurt. We felt set up and betrayed.

Melinda explained by asking, “What so-called precious thing do you need to destroy to liberate your potential for the future?” She uses this with corporate clients, those she has worked with for a while, when she feels they are stuck in old ways.

Whatever our reaction, we had to admit that Melinda’s technique was powerful. The exercise was real, visceral and mind-stopping, and allowed us to see very clearly for a moment our emotional attachments. We all knew of course the importance of looking at how emotions can get in the way of innovation in the business world.

The problem was, our anger at Melinda completely distracted us from the lesson she wanted to teach. She had made herself the focal point.

She might have invited us to try throwing our objects into the trash can (if just for a moment), or we might have given them away to each other, or she might have asked us to imagine destroying them ourselves. But Melinda deprived us of making the experience our own by putting herself in the spotlight. By forcing her lesson on us she made herself the agent of change. She gave us no chance to practice changing our attitude ourselves.

This meant that rather than learning something about how we might be stuck in our attachment, we couldn’t get past feeling angry at her. It was all about her.

When we create a learning situation for a group we must stay out of the centre of it. The participants are in the centre, and it’s their territory. If after the exercise they remember us more than their experience of learning, then we have failed.

As leaders, or teachers (and the difference is small), our mantra must always be, “It’s not about me.”

(For more on leaders who know how not to get in the way, click here.)

Questions can be a mirror

Here’s an concrete example of using the “questions only” approach to change the attitude of a problem employee. The problem employee in this case was me.

(For a post with more info on the questions only approach, click here.)

On one of the Tall Ships I worked on, early in my career, I was hired as Able Bodied Seaman, a senior crew position just under the Mates. The “ABs,” as we were called, while not in official leadership positions, were expected to lead by example and help develop the crew.

I loved the ship, but the mate in charge of my watch, my immediate boss, was much less qualified than I was. I had to help him with the navigation, I had to take on teaching the other crew about sail handling, I had to keep a sharp eye out for his mistakes. I was very resentful about this, and my resentment showed in everything I did. I was angry and rude, undermining my boss’ authority, demoralizing the crew. And I basically checked out of the job, always taking the easy tasks for myself, letting the crew do the grunt work without any example from me about how to be a hard worker and a good shipmate. I was a problem.

The mate I worked under couldn’t handle me any better than he could handle the ship, so another one of the mates, Eliza Garfield, not my direct supervisor but someone for whom I had a lot of respect, took me aside and asked, “How are you liking the ship?” She knew I loved the ship, so that was a good place to start. Then she asked, “How are you liking your watch?” And I started on my rant about my boss. You can imagine.

Then she said, “So you’re feeling a lot of resentment.” And I said to myself, right on, she gets it, she sees my problem. But then she asked, “How are you getting on with the other crew in your watch?” This slowed me down. I had to admit that they didn’t seem to like me that much, didn’t want to hang out with me, didn’t seem to value my experience.

And she asked, “Why do you think that is?” This really stopped me. I had to think. I couldn’t blame them for being bozos like the mate. They were good people, a lot of them enthusiastic to learn, to become good sailors. And so eventually I said, “Maybe they don’t like how resentful I feel all the time.” It was the first time I’d said that, even to myself.

Bingo. So Eliza asked, “Is your resentment getting you what you want?”

I had to pause for a while again, and then I said, “No, it’s not.” Bingo again. I wanted to be a leader, and to be seen as a leader, but I wasn’t being a leader at all. Eliza went on with questions and some of her own observations to help me see myself as others were seeing me, which I had not been seeing clearly.

That conversation was a big step to getting me unstuck from my resentment. I realized the crew were resenting me in return, and that instead of this circle of discontent, I’d rather be a shining example of what the Able Bodied Seaman role could be.

Eliza ended our conversation with, “I’m really glad you’ve been able to help me see what’s been going on with you. I’ve been wondering what the problem was.” I really felt she had seen through my bad attitude and seen my potential, and helped me see it too. I felt supported, understood, appreciated, and I wanted to live up to that.

If Eliza had begun by telling me what a problem I was being, telling me all the things I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t have listened. She would only have brought out my resistance, and I would have blamed everything on my boss. Her questions were encouraging, curious, concerned. She wasn’t letting me off the hook, but she wasn’t impaling me either. Her questions were a mirror in which I could see for myself, and tell myself, that I was a problem. That worked. I would listen to myself. We’re often the only people we will listen to.

But what happens when your questioning approach doesn’t go as well as Eliza’s did with me?

That’s the subject of a December post. For now, how can the “questions only” approach help you deal with your own problem employee?

For more on the questions only approach, click here


Walking Down the Hall Practice

Feet and Mind

Here’s a simple practice for shifting your attitude, on the spot, whenever you need to.

If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or even just a bit preoccupied and distracted, pay attention to how you walk. If you’re walking down the hall, or along the street, or through the parking garage, slow down. You will lose a few seconds getting to your destination, maybe even a minute. So what? Walk at a moderate pace, relax your shoulders, look up. Let your breathing fall in rhythm with your pace. It’s not Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny Walks. It’s simply enjoying the movement of your limbs, and your movement through space.

It’s simple, but when we’re feeling encumbered by too many things to be able to bring our personal best to the moment, deliberate walking can have a remarkably unencumbering effect. Even if you don’t have anywhere to go, get up and walk around the floor once.

Your mind may be distractable, but your body is not. Let the physical sensations of walking unencumber you, and help you reconnect with a more expansive state of mind.

For many people, walking is a good way to relax and think, and that’s great. But this practice is different. It’s not about thinking so much as it is about sensing, using your physical senses to clear your head. It’s a practice of bringing yourself to a more spacious, expansive attitude first, so you then can bring that more clearheaded state of mind to whatever you need to think about, and to whatever you need to do next.

Throughout the day, you can practice bringing a sense of relaxed and spacious doing to simple things, even to getting yourself from one place to another. And out of many small simple things, bigger simple things arise, like a spacious, unencumbered attitude throughout the challenges of your day.

How to Engage People Without Engagement Work

Let the Work Do the EngagingThere’s a huge industry grown up these days around employee engagement. This is great, but how many of the retreats and strategies and engagement committees bear lasting fruit? How good a use of time and money are they?

In the last couple of years I’ve been hearing more and more people talk about “engagement fatigue” whenever they’re asked to sit on yet another committee or be part of yet another initiative, in addition to their regular work. We all have stories of suffering through workshops facilitated by well-meaning people who are obviously clueless about our organization. We’ve all completed engagement surveys that we never hear the results from.

These kinds of efforts aren’t necessarily bad. There are some good ones. But on the whole they’re a distraction. The real engagement potential, the real team-building opportunities, are already right in front of us, in the work.

So work with the work.

Here’s an example. My friend Gerry Giffin is an industrial engineer who worked at the Michelin tire plant in Nova Scotia a number of years ago. A lot of his work ended up being engineering processes that involved people rather than just machines.

One of the production lines at the plant had been having productivity and morale problems for a while. Some of the workers had been on that line for 12 years, but they hardly ever spoke to each other, except to blame each other when there was a problem. And there were lots of problems. What to do?

Management of course tried coaxing and threatening, all the usual tactics, but without success.

Then Gerry suggested they take a bigger view of what the solution could be. He designed and undertook a two-year initiative to change the way the line worked. Each worker got trained in every position on the line. This took time, but eventually they were able to rotate through all the positions. Each shift was also given responsibility for its own supply chain, to make sure everything they needed for their shift was ordered and available.

Two years is a long time, and the initiative cost money too. But it had powerful results. First, because all the workers were familiar with all the positions on the line, they could rotate through and have more variety in their work, so they didn’t get stuck in so much repetition. They also couldn’t blame each other as easily for problems. They knew how difficult some of the positions were, and how things could easily get backed up or out of sync. So there was a big increase in mutual support, respect and appreciation.

Having collective responsibility for their supply chain gave the people in each shift a chance to work together, rather than just separated along the line, which also helped build a cooperative culture. And because the workers had these new skills and responsibilities, they all got significant raises, which made them happy.

And what was the benefit to Michelin of all this time and money? Productivity on that line rose 30%. Michelin made pots of money, even after all the raises. It was a very smart and very effective investment.

And no third party, offsite, empowerment retreats were involved. They just worked with the work.

Let’s face it. The work is what it’s all about. It’s the thing everyone is most personally invested in, either positively or negatively. It’s the place where the money is. It may be hard to justify an expense for vague notions of attitude change, but it’s much easier to justify the expense for something that will directly improve the work.

So take advantage of the work itself to be your ally in dealing with stuck attitudes. See if you can change how the work itself is done in a way that has a beneficial affect on people’s attitude. Often it doesn’t even have to cost any money. Changing the snow day policy so that people can work at home on snow days costs no more than the paper the new policy is written on. But allowing people the flexibility to handle snow days the way they want to, individually, that has a huge beneficial effect on people’s attitude even when it isn’t snowing. And no manager has to give any kind of moral uplift harangue.

For more on innovative snow day policy, click here.

keep calm and blame someone elseWhat do you say when you have to address someone’s poor performance, but you know that they never listen to criticism and always start blaming the system or other people for the problems? They may even throw it all back at you, saying, “The tracking system, or Joe in sales, (or whatever it is) is such a pain that I just can’t deal with it. You’re in charge, it’s your job to fix that, so I can do my job.”

Here’s a conversation roadmap for what to say, and what not to say, to get this person to start taking a more honest look at themselves.

If they blame something systemic, you can say, “Yes, I know the tracking system has some problems, but I also know that not all of your colleagues are coming to me with the same complaints about it that you do. The system may be a problem, but I’m not sure it’s the whole problem. Are there any other obstacles for you that are making this performance issue difficult?” You acknowledge their concern is valid, but you don’t let them off the hook.

Notice that saying “not all of your colleagues are coming to me” is different than saying “Pete and Sally don’t blame the system” or “no one else on the team does.” Even if those statements are true, they’re much more accusatory. Saying “not all of your colleagues are coming to me” implies that maybe some of their colleagues are, that the tracking system may be difficult for others too, that the person isn’t being unreasonable. They need to be confident you’re listening to them first, before they can start listening to any other suggestions.

If they blame other people, you can say, “Then I’d be interested in talking with them about this issue too. But I think it’s true, the old adage, that it takes two to tango. Do you see any way that you’re contributing to this problem yourself?” 

Note again that this is different than bluntly asserting that it takes two to tango, which has that subtle accusation in it. Look at your language very precisely from this point of view. At this early stage in the conversation, accusations and directives, however subtle, will defeat your purpose.

If the person starts to open up, if they acknowledge something or start to talk about what’s going on with them, express your appreciation, and encourage them by saying,I really appreciate you explaining this to me. I feel like I’m starting to understand what’s going on. Is there more you want to say about it?”

If they suggest any change to how things are working now, take it seriously. “Yes, I see that that would help. How do you suggest we go about it?” Invite their intelligence. They may have a good point.

But don’t let them divert the issue from themselves to other issues. Ask again, “Apart from that issue with the system, or with Joe, is there any way that you see you might be contributing to the problem yourself?”

Again, this is different than saying, “Yes, but what’s your role in this problem?” Do you see the difference in flavour? It’s not trivial at all. The first question is open-ended, Do you see anything? The second question, what’s YOUR role, is a veiled accusation. It’s like saying, “This is obviously your fault. ‘Fess up.”

If they suggest a change beyond your control, you can say, “That will be hard to change. As you know, it’s not within my authority, but I’ll speak to the boss about it and we’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, what will you do yourself to get things working more smoothly?” You keep bringing it back to them.

Notice, everything ends in a question. You’re asking, not telling. As the conversation continues, more and more the questions head toward two things:

  • Asking the person to look at themselves.
  • Asking the person to suggest a way forward.

If the person just doesn’t get it, still won’t take responsibility for their own actions, then finally you may need to be blunt. You might say, “I take your concerns about the system or your colleagues seriously, and I’ll pursue those ideas. But you need to take my concern seriously too, and my concern is that part of the problem here is your own creation. I expect you to do some serious self-reflection on this, and we’ll talk again in a week. I expect you to come back with a plan for how you can help change this problem yourself. Because the status quo can’t continue.”

Even here, where you make it clear that the person’s job may be on the line, you haven’t changed the basic approach. You ask them to look at themselves, and to suggest a way forward. You don’t tell them the answers. It’s on them. It’s they who have to take responsibility. That’s the whole point.

And don’t ask, “What can I do to help?” Don’t say, “I’m here to support you.” They need to take their own look at themselves and do their own work to address the issues. Only if they take some useful, concrete steps first, only then do you offer to support them with your help. Do they want a 360 feedback done for them? Is there any training they think would be helpful? Even your help is still asking questions.

Because you can’t tell people much. A direct attack invites resistance. But if you let them tell themselves, they’ll believe it.

For more on the questions-only approach, click here.

Sea Room

The Treacherous Coast

A sailing ship near shore is a nervous thing. We may think that being near land offers refuge if we need it, but harbour entrances can be narrow and treacherous, and the rest of the shore is made of rocks and reefs and sandbars all waiting to rip the hull out from under us. They demand constant vigilance. Keeping to the coast is false comfort.

What a ship needs is sea room, deep open water. The ocean may seem vast and unknown, but vastness has its own safety. It’s the safety of being unimpeded and unbounded, free from reference points, free to see as far as the horizon and have the horizon mirror back to us what we know is true.

For some of us this kind of space can be unsettling. But without it our experience is narrow and linear, and filled with false, nervous comforts.

For those of us who don’t get to go to sea, we find our sea room when we give up knowing what we’re going to think about: in the shower, walking to a meeting, lying on the couch with a cat. We find it sitting with a friend when the conversation runs out and we’re comfortable enough to enjoy each other in silence. We find it perhaps in our morning meditation, or when we crest a hill in our car and see the horizon. Then our car drops down the hill into traffic, and we’re sailing along the rocks and reefs of the coast again, our vigilance on high. But if we don’t get a glimpse of the horizon now and then, the vigilance wears us out, and we forget to look up.

Sometimes we find some sea room and ignore it, lying on the couch with the cat and our financial projections, cresting the hill and seeing only the argument with our friend. The rocks and shoals feel familiar, the horizon may not.

But as Herman Melville said, “You must have plenty of sea room to tell the truth in.”