When I was growing up, my mom, brother and I would visit Grandaddy Milholen. We usually took doughnut holes and stood around chatting while he snacked on them, offering us some.
On one of these afternoon visits, his sister Stell barreled in and announced, “R.F., I came to see you, but I can’t stay long. Groceries are in the car. I had to stop at Food Lion on the way or I would’ve had to make a left hand turn. And you know how I feel about a left hand turn.”
Even as a kid, I saw it was hilarious for a grown person to plan a driving route around only turning to the right, and I stifled my laugh with a quick cough. I made eye contact with my brother and looked away before we both went into a laughing-coughing-cover-up fit. Even our mom had a twinkle in her eye that said she was holding back.
True to her word, Aunt Stell didn’t stay long. Then we finished our visit and headed to the car. My mom, brother and I laughed about left hand turns all the way home, and it became a punch line we still use today.
I was thinking about left hand turns this week when my laptop told me it was time for an update. I hate making updates. It can mean I’ll have to learn something new and make some sort of adjustment even though I’m perfectly happy with the way things are now. Most of my adult life I’ve been a late adopter to technology and kind of proud of it. The same way Aunt Stell announced her commitment to avoiding left hand turns - as if that was the most sensible thing in the world.
But what if I never gave in and updated technology? I’d still be typing on a blue screen in Word Perfect.
A while back, I was speaking at one of those lunches where leaders come together to think and talk about some leadership topic that will hopefully be useful to them in their organization. We spent an hour talking about 4 ways people make decisions and what happens in interactions when members of the same group use opposing decision-making processes. Afterwards, a pastor came to me and said, “Can I be brutally honest with you? I might not be the right person for this job.” When he looked around the room during that training session, he felt so different from the rest. They seemed to thrive on structure and organization, but he was overwhelmed with his workload. He felt pulled between what he experienced as dreaded administrative and programming demands of running a church and the real desire to be with people in his congregation. Those administrative tasks were his left hand turn.
I knew it was a matter of time before I heard from a different pastor in that room who would say something like, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this job,” because she feels pulled between what she experiences as the dreaded obligation of being with people in the congregation and the real desire to organize healthy and thriving structure and programs. The socialization required in that job is her left hand turn.
We all have something in our lives like Aunt Stell’s left hand turns, those things everyone else seems to be doing just fine. But we don’t have to organize our lives to avoid turning left. We can face that thing we find intimidating and develop the skills we need to address it. Here’s how.
Talk About It
Last month my friend stopped short before making her first tee shot and said, “Let’s say we have to pay 10 cents every time we say something negative today.” I laughed.
This will be good for her because she is really negative, constantly criticizing herself for the whole round of golf. It will be a relief not to have to deal with that. So I said, “Let’s make it a quarter.”
She hit her drive, not a brilliant shot, but in play. I teed up and watched my ball hook way to the left. “Look at that,” I said, “right in the fairway.” My friend said, “That will be 25 cents.” I argued I wasn’t being negative – just making an observation. She said I was being sarcastic and negative since I’d hit the ball into the fairway of the hole next to us. Turns out I'm pretty negative myself.
That’s how the first three holes went. Each of us calling out the other’s negativity then defending ourselves. By the fourth hole, we just stopped talking about golf. Changing the subject helped some, but even that was precarious, because we couldn’t say anything negative about other topics either.
On the seventh hole, I hooked it off to the left again. Instead of saying anything, I just stood in my stance and watched the ball go. Then for some reason, I looked down at my feet and realized I’d hit the ball perfectly straight. I wasn’t hooking it at all – I was lined up pointing left. My friend had a realization of her own about her follow through and managed to fix a slice that had bugged her game for years.
After a while, we decided it was dishonest to ignore negative results in our game, but talking about that result wasn’t too helpful either. Instead we started to frame our discussion around what to do next time. So in place of, “What a stupid shot,” I would say, “Hmmm… next time I think I’ll check to see if my feet are lined up right.”
The last three holes were some of the most delightful golf we ever played. Not a perfect game – we still missed a few strokes, but enjoyable and even relaxing.
What happened? We think it had to do with our intention and our point of focus. Our negativity was always focused on the result, not the cause. The problem in my tee shot wasn’t that it went to the left – that was just the result. The problem was the direction I’d placed my feet. Venting about the result distracted me from recognizing the actual problem.
I’ve seen this power of intention play out in our work with horses during Equine Assisted Learning Sessions. A horse has sharp intuition and can read a human’s nonverbal communication to determine intention. For example, without using a halter and lead rope, without touching the horse at all, I might ask him to walk with me to the other side of the arena. My mindset will shape the result of that experience. If I set my intention to success (we’ll both walk together to the other side) and I focus on that success by walking with calm confidence, my eyes focused on where we’re heading, the horse is much more likely to follow my leadership.
If my mind is in a place of weak intention, of defensive hopes like “I hope this works out” or “what if the horse won’t come along” then the horse is more likely to perceive me as an untrustworthy leader and less likely to join me in the task.
Let’s go back to refusing negativity in a round of golf. After that first informative nine holes, we found creative problem solving and relaxed innovation seeped into other areas of our lives for several hours, even a full day, afterwards. Eventually it wore off and, like any new mindset, we have to keep practicing. So we scheduled the next round.
Talk About It
lead a better meeting
We offer these stories for leaders to use in meetings because shared stories build strong teams.