The Power of Healthy Tension
Featured Guest: Tim Arnold
How do we make sure we are walking our talk and infusing our big picture vision, mission and values into how we treat both coworkers and those we serve? We’ll answer this with Tim Arnold on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.
Interviewer: I’m here with Tim Arnold. Thank you so much for being with us.
Arnold: It’s great to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Let’s have you start just by introducing yourself, a little bit of your personal story and how maybe the journey was that got you interested in leadership teamwork and all the rest.
Arnold: Sure, well, I’m a recovering accountant actually. I studied accounting and realized in the university years that’s probably wasn’t where I was going to land and throughout those years, had the opportunity to do a lot of outdoor guiding with corporate groups. Had a bit of a rock climbing background, so I used a bit of my business and outdoor pursuits to pay rent for a while. Then as I was doing a lot of outdoor adventure-based guiding, I realized that I really love that field, that space. So in the late 90’s got into leadership development and just still a little bit of outdoor work but mainly got more in the classroom and really working with leaders and executive teams.
In the world of leadership development and team effectiveness, and for whatever reason started to really find my focus and my passion was helping teams and leaders grasp this concept of tension, unavoidable tensions that we all deal with in our life, in our relationships in our teams, to try to instead of avoiding them, embrace them and realize tension can actually be a good thing. It can be a healthy thing and it’s something we can even leverage and make it a bit of a competitive advantage. So I did that, right until about 2007, 2008.
Interviewer: Were you still using some of the outdoor stuff in this training? [crosstalk]
Arnold: Yes, I have always been a fan of learning by doing or experiential learning so it’s, even if we were in the classroom, it was super interactive. I loved that, did that all over the world and again, mainly in the corporate space. Then had a bit of a 180. I sold my business in 2007 and embarked on what I thought was going to be just a short-term change up and rather than go in and consults to get practical and I was part of a small team that got a 40-bed residential homeless shelter off the ground. We were a
residential facility, we had partnerships in addictions and recovery and mental health partners. I thought that was going to be just something to change things up but I ended up staying there almost 10 years.
Interviewer: And where was this?
Arnold: I am from the Toronto area, so it was just outside Toronto. It was interesting, at that time I assumed that I was leaving my corporate training and leadership development and specifically this passion I had for managing tension, I was leaving it behind. Little did I know, I feel like all of that was just a bit of a training ground for me because I realized really quickly, in the 10 years I was working in a director’s role in that space, this conversation of leveraging and even managing tension was going to be make it or break it for me. Not only for our team but for the folks that we were serving and working with, it became way more personal, way more important and front and center in everything we’ve done since.
Interviewer: Yes, and so I imagine working with the homeless shelter, that program, that must’ve been really interesting, coming from something totally different and so what were some of the things that you learned? What were some lessons that you learned in that?
Arnold: I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I would say that, again, as a person who for a number of years was the consultant that was in and out and provided great leadership theory and team models, I realized real quickly it was a lot easier to talk about that stuff than it was to live it out. That in the day in day out of really trying to do important but challenging work, a lot of times we don’t always walk our talk. We know where we want to go and we feel like we’ve got a pretty good plan and even a good team to get there but you can get stuck really easy. I found that – I think now I believe more than ever the more important the work you do, the more you feel that you’re often doing work that a lot of people would like to avoid, the more you’ve got to be ready to wrestle with some pretty significant, make it or break it tensions. Like I said, I realized really quickly that this kind of passion and interest I had in managing tension and conflicting values, sometimes become a chronic issues. It was just so vital if we were going to walk our talk, if we were going to actually live out what we would call our core values.
Interviewer: Yes, and then how did that evolve into what you do now? Because you’re with Leaders for Leaders.
Arnold: Yes, so I was with the shelter in a director role for close to 10 years and then as those years progressed, I still was doing a lot of work, mainly in the Toronto area with other shelters, other recovery centers and partners as a bit of a coach and doing some executive development there. Then I worked for about two years with our board to slowly move out of my staff role into more of an advisor and just a part of the community. Now with the shelter, I’m actually a full on volunteer and still my tribe.
Interviewer: That’s nice. So you still kept that connection?
Arnold: Yes, now I still, in that community, I’m pretty close, really connected in a lot of our recreational outreaches and programming but have really put on the trainer consulting hat again and using that 10 year period to, I think speak with a lot more confidence and passion on how critical it is to identify, diagnose and manage the key tensions that are really going to be make it or break it, if you’re going to live out your values. Yes, I’ve had a bit of a 360 in my career so far, it’s been pretty fun.
Interviewer: Yes, so you’re back to the [unintelligible 00:06:13] world. On that note, I read that you’ve helped organizations from United Nations, Citibank and then I’m sure smaller organizations as well. What are some of the common threads you see across these seemingly very different environments?
Arnold: Yes, it’s been interesting and yes, from small startups to three years on and off with weapons inspectors with the United Nations, in some ways there couldn’t be more different in terms of the organizations I work with and still do a ton of work with homelessness and recovery and addictions and mental health. I find there’s a commonality and one commonality I referred to it a few minutes ago but that is folks feel, especially when we’re driven by a real true purpose and mission. It’s like we know that, we know where we want to go, we even sometimes have a clear picture. We do the work to put a great plan in place, we work hard to make sure that there’s right people around the table and yet we still feel stuck. It’s like I know where we want to go, man, we just, either we’re not getting there or we’re not, it just feels like it’s a slugfest. It should be easier than this.
Interviewer: Why do we get stuck?
Arnold: Well, I think there’s lots of reasons we get stuck but I’m confident that one of the primary reasons that we don’t walk our talk and we don’t live out our plans, is that we mistakenly treat every challenge that we face as if it was a problem to be solved. When in fact a lot of the chronic issues that we face, I’d suggest are tensions that we just got to learn to manage. Again, accountant background, I like problem-solving and I’d certainly never want to encourage folks to stop solving problems, research would say —
Interviewer: Get all the numbers down there.
Arnold: Absolutely. Researchers as leaders, you generally deal with 200 to 300 problems a day. Solve them, be done with them. You know something’s a problem because once you’ve solved it, it’s done. If it’s an equation or a factual, it’s choose the right answer, you’re done. A lot of times we are dealing with lots of good options but we still choose one path and even though the other ones may have had value, it’s like, “Yes, but we’re going to go this way” and you’re done with it, it’s like, “Let’s go.” That’s good, you want to hold on to that. What’s interesting is that we’re chosen. That takes what I would call either-or thinking. It’s either this or it’s that.
As a young kid, I have two young kids at home and the first thing we teach them is right from wrong, good from bad. Then they learn this in the earliest years in school that if they get the right answer, they get a check mark, maybe get a ice cream that night. If they get an X on their paper, there’s some sort of a ramification, whether it’s even just disappointment. There’s this innate drive in us to get the right answer, to choose the right option. I think, especially in North America, we are so driven to eye up every challenge we face and say, “Okay, it’s either this or that” and I’m going to go with this and I’m going to be done with it.
That’s good, the problem is, you know this, there is a whole other side to life, where that either-or thinking doesn’t work for us, it actually works against us. There’s other scenarios in our life, probably best metaphorically identified as like breathing. We have inhaling and exhaling, we do it about 20,000 times a day but you can’t wake up today and say, “You know what, I think today I’m going to inhale.” You do it for a moment, it feels great, but then within seconds, you’re like, “Something’s off here.” There’s other systems in our organizations, in our relationships, in our lives that are like breathing and not, they’re actually values but they come in pairs. As much as I want to be about consistency, I also have to be about individuality and not realize that, yes, we need in our facility to be consistent so there’s no favoritism and people know what’s expected.
We also have to realize that everyone in our facility has a different background. A lot of our folks have different experiences of trauma and different ability levels and if we treat everyone the same, people fall through the cracks. If we’re going to live out this value of fairness, then we’ve got to just find a breathing pattern between consistency and individuality. Another one that I found is often real in our world is, we want to support people. We want to provide the best support and care and sometimes even love possible. When I started to get into working with folks, especially in homelessness, I thought “Well, the answer to that, the solution is unconditional acceptance.”
I found that in my life, as many good or bad decisions that I made, I always knew I had people in my corner. When I started to get to know a lot of my folks that are street-involved and I’m like, “Well, that’s not always their story.” They haven’t always had that unconditional acceptance. Maybe if we as – me as a friend and if we as a community provide this unconditional acceptance, meaning we’re not going anywhere, no matter what. We’re going to be there, we’re going to support you no matter if you make good or bad decisions in our opinion, we’re not going anywhere.
You’ll always have a place and that’s a good thing. I can think of friends in my life that through unconditional acceptance, start to move forward in really powerful ways but what happens is like breathing. If you choose one of these values without the opposite, the very choice you make starts to work against you. What I found, sometimes the hard way, is unconditional acceptance. If we don’t hold that intention with accountability, it’s like unconditional acceptance is the gentle love, accountability is the tough love. It’s saying, “Yes, I’m going to always be there and I’m going to hold you accountable for your decisions. I’m going to allow you to experience consequences. I’m going to hold you to a standard that maybe you don’t see but I know you’re capable of.”
Interviewer: That’s real love. As a parent, [crosstalk] that’s — Yes.
Arnold: Absolutely. It’s not just homelessness, it’s not just recovery, it’s called caring for someone but what we found and I’m thinking of my days in the shelter as gang, we’ll never solve this. If we’re really going to live out this aspirational value of being as a community of care and support, it means that we’ve got to start to be comfortable with this tension between unconditional acceptance and accountability every day. You won’t last here long if you’re not willing to embrace that tension. If you’re someone who says, “You know what, this tension thing, I just don’t do that well.”
That’s not okay because we won’t walk our talk unless we’re willing to lean into that tension, which means that there won’t be a staff meeting where we’re not going to feel sometimes a bit polarized. In our shelter, we have coaches that work with everybody one on one. They know their story, they know their background. We also have our floor managers that have to make the community work. 60 people are – anywhere from 40 to 60 people living there and volunteers and community members and partners. Well, we have a strong bias in our coaches towards individuality.
The gentle love, the “Let’s just be”, more grace-based. We also have our floor managers that are way more about consistency. Saying “No, this has to be no favoritism.” Well, that tension’s felt often and what we would say is, “That’s okay.” Actually, it’s not just okay. The more that we can live in that tension and actually be okay with seeing things from different points of view, the better we’ll actually serve our folks. That doesn’t, what happens often is people just avoid tension and just hang out with people who share their point of view. All of our managers who are all about consistency, in the meeting nothing gets said but the meeting after the meeting, you get managers acting —
Interviewer: When it comes out.
Arnold: Exactly, but it’s coming out with people who share your point of view. Our coaches gather and they’re like, “I can’t believe we’re going to suspend this person or do this.” Again, this isn’t serving anyone well including yourselves. We have to realize a couple things. One is this tension is not going away. This is not a problem we’ll solve and if we’re not feeling this tension, if we’re not talking about this tension, we’re probably not — Someone else should be doing what we do because this is the business we’re in. We identified a few. For our shelter, we had this kind of unconditional acceptance and accountability.
We call that the tension of care love. We have this consistency and individuality and we call that the tension of fairness. If we’re going to have to be fair, we do both. Then we have this other one. If we’re going to be this place that embodies the values of a healthy home, we’ve got to just be willing to live in the tension between, we call it fun and seriousness. Meaning that we want to have fun every day. We want to have rec programs, we want to celebrate birthdays and milestones and recovery moments, we do karaoke once a month and we have fun.
This is our refuge from a hard life but this is also life and death for people. For some folks, this isn’t all chuckles and giggles. Somehow, we’ve got to be willing, if we’re going to live out this value of a healthy home, to live in the tension of fun and seriousness. We would say to every staff member, as it every volunteer, because we’re a volunteer-driven organization, “You won’t work a shift here and not feel these tensions and that’s good.” This is in the five dysfunctions of a team, Patrick Lindsay only talks about the foundation, it’s healthy conflict.
That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the good kind of conflict. Which means that I sometimes am going to see a situation from a totally different perspective than you and that’s a good thing. I think the leaders’ role is to make it safe. I’ve rambled here, but I’ll go back to your original question. The consistency is, I think every organization has one or two of these underlying tensions. They’re not going to be the same as ours, but there’s going to be a shortlist. I’ll send you a resource where you can look at 25 that research would say are unavoidable.
Even out of the 25 most common tensions in organizations, I’d say there’s two or three for every organization that will make it or break it. They’ll actually allow you if you embrace them to be an organization that starts to walk your talk or by ignoring them or not making them safe to engage with, we just get stuck. We’re like, “You know what, we have these beautiful values on the wall, but that’s not how we live. We don’t live that.” [crosstalk] Yes. I feel like and this has been my soapbox and passion. It was something I was interested in before my work in homelessness but once I started to run the shelter, I just realized that this is important stuff.
I don’t feel, especially here in North America, we don’t need a lot more training in problem-solving. We’re pretty good at it. We can eye up a situation, hopefully pick the best option and move forward. We do that well but we don’t do this tension stuff well. We don’t, for some people, I just worked with a client yesterday that they just said, “But I refuse to accept that some things are unsolvable.” I’m like, “Then you’re going to be stuck.” Any time that you have a — Any time and I say people, “Well, give me an example.” I’d say, “Well, you already know it because they’re what you would call in your organization the chronic issues.”
It’s the stuff that surfaces over and over again. It’s the stuff, in a staff meeting, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Are we actually having this conversation again?” Anything that’s chronic, generally, I would suggest probably isn’t a problem that you’ll solve. It’s chronic for a reason. It means that yes, this is one of those things that’s not going to go away. Whether it’s, in our world, consistency versus individuality. Sometimes it’s cost versus quality, sometimes it’s embracing innovation and change, but at the same time, holding on to core values and consistency.
Those are underlying filmed, I call them cracks tension. They’ll make it or break it and it’s just so critical to even name them. Even if you don’t have skills on how to manage them, just name them. A lot of our — I’m sure your listeners would be familiar with the Serenity Prayer. There’s something about accepting things you can’t change and it’s saying, “Gang, it’s okay, but this is surfacing over and over again.” It’s actually not just okay, it’s a good thing and that’s not an excuse. The courage to change the things I can are saying, “This tension isn’t going away but we can manage this well.” Tension can be a healthy thing. It doesn’t have to be something that beats us up all the time. It’s actually something that we can lean into and leverage.
Interviewer: Yes, and this led to you writing your book The Power of Healthy Tension. Why did you decide to write that book?
Arnold: Well, [chuckles] it’s funny because for anyone who’s contemplated or written a book, I think probably the angel on one shoulder saying that you’ve got something to say and then the devil on the other is like, “Does the world really need another book?” [chuckles] I think that’s a good thing to battle out. I would say that the more that I was in my role running our shelter, the more I realized that this is a conversation, this tension conversation, that’s just not out there. I go to conferences and it would be on problem-solving or five habits or seven steps which generally are gap analysis from two.
Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, here’s the steps to get there but I just wasn’t finding a voice that was allowing people to accept that some things that we face are not going to go away. It’s not that I’m the first person. Dong Zhongshu talked about Ying Yang thousands of years ago and Jim Collins wrote about embracing the tyranny of the end and rejecting — Sorry, the genius of the end and rejecting the tyranny of the or with good to great and built to last. I just was feeling that maybe I could bring just a user-friendly language and perspective to something that folks are already feeling.
I say it to everybody, “You’re not going to listen to me or read my book and say, “Okay. Well, now we’re going to start managing tension.” You’re already doing all this.” It’s just great to be able to name it and then to have a just a few basic steps on, “Okay, how do we move from a place of, as I said earlier, getting beaten up by these tensions to actually leaning into them and leveraging them. The whole — It’s 110 pages. It’s just a guidebook to help people navigate tensions that they’re already feeling.
Interviewer: Yes, and so how like for someone who, like you said, we all experience this whether we know it or not, but for someone who’s just stepping into this, how do you introduce the idea of polarity management? That was something I read as I was researching.
Arnold: That’s right. Polarity management is Dr. Barry Johnson’s original term. Dr. Johnson was someone who I studied under and has been a mentor and a friend to me for the last 20 years. He gave me the blessings to take his work and go in my path of healthy tension, but we’re all talking the same thing. Polarity management, I like that language as well because it implies this idea of polar opposites, but like breathing, they’re opposites that you can’t choose one without the other. What I would say is the first step for anyone in their life, because this isn’t just about organizations, this is something in life I know, as a parent, for example, I had to learn pretty quickly although there were 101 books on the structured approach to parenting, the Ferber approach or everyone call it routine consistency.
For every one of those books, there was a book on attachment parenting or the flexibility-based parenting. You learn pretty quickly that in life, if I’m going to be an effective parent, I’ve got to dance the dance between structure and flexibility. The structure that worked with this kid doesn’t work with this kid and what worked with this kid didn’t work next year. I know and I’m fortunate to be working in partnership with my wife. That we’ve just say, “Hey, this – we’re never going to solve this but this is the tension we just got to learn to be comfortable with.” In our personal life, it’s helpful to name it.
It’s helpful to say, “Let’s just be comfortable with that – it is what it is. I’d say the same in our leadership. When I work with leaders, I’d say, “I bet you right now there’s a one to two, maybe three make it or break it tensions, name them. Let everyone around you know about them. Post them on the wall.” Say, “Hey, gang, this is the business we’re in right now.” Sometimes they’re ongoing. In our shelter, we had three that never changed, it was like that unconditional acceptance, accountability, consistency, individuality, fun and seriousness, that’s just this place.
Whereas there’s others that are seasonal. I just worked with an organization recently that they had a group of sales individuals that were high performers, like off the charts. What they did, by these individual choices well, was they put these folks on the hardest cases, the hardest sales challenges. Well, not surprisingly, these high-achievers started to feel discouraged because all the sudden they weren’t on the metrics board. They weren’t seeing the gongs and the whistles rang in the office and what they realized was, “Okay, right now, as a team, we’ve got to embrace this tension between not only achievement but also effort. If all we do is celebrate achievement, these folks are going to feel like failures.”
Right now, we’ve got to say okay, achievement matters, results matters, sales matters, but effort matters just as much. Some folks that are putting in amazing effort aren’t going to have the achievement of others, that’s okay. They said, “Okay, we’ve got to slow down a little bit and let everyone know, especially this team, that success isn’t just achievement, it’s effort as well.” Yes. Again, I’m rambling a bit but the first thing is just name it. Find out what’s matters. As I said, I could give you a list of 25 tensions that I guarantee every leader manages. Don’t worry about most of them. You wouldn’t be in your role if you weren’t doing a pretty good job of it but find the ones that you’re like, “Man, as soon as I read that on the paper, it’s like that’s it. That’s what I feel every day.” Name it, accept it, and then go further than that. The next step that I’d say is critical is in the book I refer to it is “Minding your bias.”
Interviewer: Yes, well, we’ll get into this stuff [crosstalk] No worries. Yes, I’m glad that you brought up the personal application to this as well because that’s really just as applicable when you look at even like work-life balance, bridging that.
Arnold: Yes, great example. Work-life balance, I bet you there’s a thousand new books a year that comes out on how to solve that problem. Don’t trust any of them. If anyone ever would have solved that problem, none of us would be plagued by it constantly. It’s a great example of where – for those of us who have a vocation, we’ve chosen to live in the tension between work and life. It’s actually a really good one to bring up because what I’m not talking about is balance. Balance assumes that there is this place and as soon as you find this place, everything is in perfect harmony, perfect equilibrium. Well, with these tensions, that place changes every day.
Interviewer: You’ve got to keep finding it.
Arnold: It’s almost like an ongoing balance. The way that I achieved I’d say a healthy work-life tension when I was single, changed when I got married. Then it significantly changed when we had kids and then my business started to grow, which included more travel. Which means that we just have to have our eye on that all the time and say, “Have we solved it?” No because we’ll never solve it but is it healthy? It’s something that in our team, i.e. my wife and I, we’ve got to step back and say, “Okay, where’s it at right now?” Like breathing, does it feel like yes, we’re getting the benefits of both or does it feel like we’re a bit blue in the face, something’s a bit off? Everyone in their life has lots of these tensions focusing on others but also focusing on yourself.
How do you be someone who’s all about helping and supporting others sometimes in our lives? Especially in a care system, we can do that. Lots of folks, I’m sure, hear compassion fatigue. Well, I think compassion fatigue’s a great symptom of having that self and others’ tension unhealthy. Meaning that, “Oh, I just overdid.” It’s almost like I inhaled and held it. It was all about others and now I’m useless for everyone including myself.
Interviewer: Yes, and so you’ve got into this a little bit already but in the book, you outline the path for navigating this tension. The first one is drilling down and identifying what is the crux tension? What are those key elements? Could you tell us a little bit about how you recommend that people do that?
Arnold: For sure. I think one of the ways, as I said earlier, is to pay attention to what I would call chronic issues to things that just feel like they surface over and over again. I would be willing to bet if something is a chronic issue in your organization, it’s probably linked to one of these tensions. It’s probably, I would say that you have a pretty good indicator there. There’s other resources. I don’t know. Do you have resources with the podcast that you would give out?
Arnold: I’ll give you a list of [crosstalk] — Yes, I’ll give you a list of 25 that I’ve researched for the last 15 years including Dr. Barry Johnson’s work, Jim Collins’ work that would say, you won’t be in any sort of an organizational team or a leadership role and not feel these 25. Generally, from that short list.
Interviewer: You can just like when you’re reading down and feel –[crosstalk].
Arnold: Exactly, you’ll feel it, you’ll read them and be like, “Yes, get that, get that, get that, woah, that one, that’s it.” I work with teams often every week and they’ll look at the list and all the sudden, they’re looking each other, not even saying a thing. Like, “Oh my God.” That’s words for everything we feel. Yes, I would say the first thing is just name it if you’re in a team or if you’re in a relationship, make sure you’re on the same page about it. It’s incredibly healthy just to be able to label a name something that everyone’s already feeling and to validate that it’s okay.
Interviewer: Yes, and that’s like a little bit about being vulnerable is like, okay. Well, it’s not perfect. We all know that but let’s just go ahead and say it and name it, like you’re saying.
Arnold: Yes, naming, it’s number one if nothing else and I’d say if folks that are listening do nothing else, be open to the fact that some situations are unsolvable with these tensions and take a little bit of time to figure out what are the one to three that matter to you. Or matter to the leadership role you’re in or the organization you’re part of or where you’re at your personal life. I know in recovery a lot of my friends in recovery realize that they’re in a place where it’s all about personal responsibility held in tension with community.
If I overdo personal responsibility, I just – I can’t do it on my own.
I look to community but if I overdo community and don’t look to myself, I just blame other people not being there for me. How do I be reliance on self-reliance on others. There’s in our community and this is one that a lot of folks debate me on, but there’s this – we used to use the term of there’s this tension of beauty is in all of us is both brokenness and excellence. Meaning that no one’s perfect and no one ever will be, which means that there’s always some part of us, no matter how well we perform that we’re working on and we’re a work in progress.
That’s the brokenness and that’s not a bad thing as long as it’s held in tension with excellence. Meaning that all of us bring something to a relationship, to a community that is, no matter how we show, it’s truly beautiful. Whether it’s your smile, your laugh, the way you play the guitar, the way that you can get a conversation going in a group, your insight into certain areas and in a community, we’d say this in our shelter. If all of us can come to community embracing both our brokenness and excellence, it’s a pretty beautiful thing. Finding that crux tension matters and then and that’s just the first step. The second thing is this whole idea of bias.
Interviewer: Yes, and so what role would those play?
Arnold: Yes. I would say that, with any tension you’re managing, you’ll always have a bias towards one pole, one side over the other.
Interviewer: That’s just like your personal experience that you had — [crosstalk].
Arnold: It’s just how you’re — Sometimes experience, sometimes it’s nature, sometimes it’s nurture, but when it comes to, for example, unconditional acceptance versus accountability, tough love versus gentle love. I get that on paper but my bias is way on the unconditional acceptance pole. It’s like you know what, that’s the way I care for people. I’m just going to love and support them. I’m not going anywhere but I’ve actually, because my bias — Let me just start by saying, hold on to your bias. I think it’s who you are. The goal isn’t to give it up.
Interviewer: It’s not to get rid of them.
Arnold: [crosstalk] No, right. It’s not to meet in the middle. It’s to say, “Hey, here’s how I am.” In this unconditional acceptance accountability kind of tough love gentle love, I’m on the unconditional acceptance pole more. That’s my perspective of the world but I have to and it works for me. It got me here. It’s how I care for people well.
Interviewer: It’s part of what makes you who you are.
Arnold: Absolutely. It’s also not an excuse to be an enabler. It’s not an excuse to – because I found that if I overdo unconditional acceptance to accountability, I actually do it because I want to care for people but I end up hurting people and that’s not okay. Now, I also have learned to say, even though my point of view or my bias isn’t really on the accountability pole, I can do that well. I can learn those skills. It’s almost like building a muscle at the gym I’ve never used before. Man, it hurts a little bit but it can get strong.
Interviewer: It’s not impossible, yes.
Arnold: It’s not impossible. It may never be my and I’d suggest it probably will never be like a biceps or a leg muscle. It’s not my dominant strength but I can do it well. It doesn’t have to hurt. The other thing with biases, I talked about the meeting after the meeting and how we often talk to folks who share our bias. This is just part of human nature. We want to be affirmed in our views, so, as a result, if we have political views, we generally watch those news sources and we like those things on Facebook. It gives us a sense of rightness.
When you’re managing tension, the best thing you can do is have confidence in your perspective but actually find someone with the opposite point of view and reach out. We call it embracing your opposite. To say, “Hey, you know what, when it comes down to how we should care for people or how we should deal with this specific decision, you know where I hang out. I don’t get your point of view, help me see it.” It’s interesting because it means that we have to have conversations that are more difficult. It’s easier —
Interviewer: Yes, I was going to say that sounds hard.
Arnold: It’s always way easier to just camp out with people who share your point of view. This isn’t just recovery and addictions. I just worked with a corporate organization recently that they were open to the right on many levels. They were just about expansion and innovation but then there was this other group of folks that are like, “Hey, let’s not lose sight on the profit and the bottom line.” You had this kind of profit growth division. Well, what they were doing was all the growth people hung out with the growth people and just got more and more entrenched in how right they were.
Interviewer: Yes, it’s no boss. Yes.
Arnold: Absolutely. As opposed to saying, “Hey, is it possible again that we lose this either-or perspective and that there’s actually truth on both fronts? How do we have a conversation with each other that doesn’t give up our point of view but expands it?” I say there’s a huge difference between exchanging your point of view and expanding it. I’m not looking to exchange it. I’m not saying I’m going to give up where I’m more of value but I potentially could go further than that.
Interviewer: Yes. Moving into the next step, as we understand our own biases, as we get the point of view of some other people, that language, then it becomes a key factor.
Arnold: Yes. Well, the third step I’d say is that you have to almost learn a second language because most of us and I work in the space a lot, I’d say the vast majority in North America, our first language is problem-solving. We think it’s English, it’s problem-solving. Meaning that we like to debate, we like to hear your point of view, but ultimately get you to our side. That’s not a bad thing. Problem-solving language is critical. Policies, procedures, facts, history, it takes this problem-solving first language. There’s lots of times, even I’m thinking in our shelter, where I’d say, “Hey, what you’re doing is unsafe, you need to be here. This is what we do for these reasons.”
It’s a great thing, the challenge is that first language of problem-solving is very ineffective when I’m trying to have a conversation for you around an unsolvable problem or a tension. It results in what I refer to in the book as a tug of war conversation. Meaning that I just want to get you to my side and you just want to get me to your side and the more I pull, thinking I’m pulling you to my way, the more you resist. We have the enemy, I’m not even going to go political here but just look at the way right now the right and the left are not having a conversation. You start to believe that the other person’s foolish or and I’m not going to put words in here, instead of —
Interviewer: Yes, you see them less as people.
Arnold: Absolutely. [crosstalk] Instead of saying, “Hey, where I stand matters” and I – there’s things that I value and it’s possible that there’s other perspectives that are as true or could be complemented here. I’m going to simplify this in an incredible way, but two things that are critical if we’re going to speak this second language, this new language of tension, one is that we’ve got it ground our conversation in our shared higher purpose. Again, very, very, very dabbling in the political but rather than me just talk about your right or left wing point of view, ground it in, I know that you want a thriving country, help me understand how that – because I want that too.
Assume that you, and most of the time we do actually have shared higher purposes. Rather than just talk about immigration, your view, my view or economic policy, your view, my view, saying, “Hey, we both want to great a country, I know that. Help me see how what you’re saying is linked to that. I need to see that and I’m going to do the same.” What I’d say is if we’re going to have that conversation, you’ve got to eliminate the word “But”. In Canada, we’re very polite. We use the word “however”, but it’s the same thing.
Interviewer: [laughs] It’s bringing your background, “Okay, I’ll let you have your exactly, your little speech there” [crosstalk].
Arnold: The moment that you’re talking about your point of view and if the first word out of my word is “But”, it means if halfway through you talking, I stop listening and I started to work on my response. Which is the sure fire way of knowing you’re having a tug of war conversation. The other person knows it. We see this in meetings all the time. People just wait for you just stop so they can say “You know, but –” which means that we’re just saying, “You’ve got to come to my side.” Let me say I challenge you to replace it with the word “And.”
Get comfortable with the word “And.” Sometimes you’re talking about your point of view and I was like, “Okay, and –” Sometimes I’ll say and they still don’t get it. Help me see more or what I find sometimes is I’ll use the word “And” and I’ll realize that our point of views, although they’re not the same, there’s intersection points. I said this a little bit earlier but there’s a huge difference between exchanging point of views and expanding point of views. To say, “Hey, what I believe matters and it’s possible that it’s incomplete.” Meaning that there could even be a more powerful way to look at it.
I think for anyone who leads teams, not that the word “But” is a swear word but the more that you can start to encourage teams to embrace conflict, to embrace healthy tension, and do it in a way that’s more conversations anchored in “And” as opposed to “But” and anchored in an assumption that even though our positions may be different, we’re all working towards the same higher purpose. That’s a different type of conversation and it’s a powerful one. It’s still sometimes emotional, it’s still sometimes even a little bit heated, but it’s good. It’s the good conversations.
Interviewer: Yes, and it keeps things moving. What it makes me think of this, I had a friend who has done improv and the improv thing is like “Yes, and.”
Arnold: That’s a great example.
Interviewer: You have to keep it moving and that would work in a team environment as well.
Interviewer: Yes. The last step, decision making. When I was reading about that, it made me think like I’m Enneagram type nine. If you’re familiar.
Arnold: My wife is a nine as well. I’m very familiar.
Interviewer: Great type, yes. That leads me to see both sides of an argument, to see both paths of a road as equally viable and that can be great but the flip side of that can lead to indecision, avoidance, stuff like that. What are some ways that people can use this information and still be more decisive and move forward while preserving these two polar opposites?
Arnold: That’s great. I would say if there’s one challenge people have to the conversation we’re having it’s like Tim, this is great for you, your point of view is right, but in my world, I’ve got to get stuff done. I’ve got to make decisions, I’ve got to make calls and I would say I get it. I live in that world too. Research would say that, as a leader, you’d make between 200 and 300 decisions a day. I would say that out of most of those decisions, they’re problems that you can solve. Keep solving them, do it effectively, do it efficiently. When you can use either-or thinking, use it. The goal isn’t that everything becomes a tension to manage. It’s like no, most of the challenges I face are problems, solve them.
What happens is and I’m sure it’s going to happen to some of your listeners once they hear this, you’re going to have an email come in, you’re going to have a challenge, a chat at a meeting, and at the back of your mind, you’re like, “Oh, I think it’s a tension.” Actually, this is a conversation where both points of view are right. What I would say is, make an informed decision. It’s paradoxical but I say go slow to go fast, meaning that, I’ll give you an example, I’m someone, as a speaker and trainer and coach, i have to constantly pay attention to the tension of truth and tact.
Sometimes I use the word candor and diplomacy, meaning I got to be truthful and clear and concise but I also have to be relational and diplomatic and empathetic. My bias is very, very, very far on the truth side. I like to just say what it is, call it like it is. I think that’s part of who I am but that never can be an excuse for shutting people down or it can never be an excuse for blowing up a meeting when it didn’t need to happen that way.
Interviewer: Yes, maybe it’s not the right time.
Arnold: For sure. I don’t want to become someone I’m not, but I also have learned to say, “I’m going to hold on to this bias I have towards truth and candor, but I’m going to learn to integrate it with sometimes relational diplomacy. What I’ve learned is that that bias towards truth works for me most of the time, but it’s also caused a lot of pain, and it’s actually not only in my life, in others. What I’ve learned is, when I’m making a key decision that is this pushing that tension, sometimes if I just go in a little bit slower, it will allow me to go way faster down the road.
For example, a great example is email. I have sent emails that I have felt incredibly confident in and then blown away by the impact. My intent and my impact were very different. What normally I do is I’d read the email and like, “That’s all true.” I’d feel fine, I’d feel vindicated say, “You took it this way but this is what I said.” The other stuff is that, okay, well then before I press send on this, not saying all your emails but maybe that one that you’re like, “Oh, this could have ripple effect.” I’ll find one other person to read it just to make sure but again, mistakenly, we often go to people who share our bias.
Interviewer: Right. You want to be confirmed —
Arnold: [crosstalk] Yes, I”ll go to someone else who’s a truth teller. I’m like, “Hey, I’m going to send this to the team. What do you think and what are they going to say?” “It’s great, it’s a great email. Send it.” I send it and again, it blows up. What I need to do when I make the decision to send or not send is like, “You know what, I’m going to take two minutes. I’m going to walk across the hall. I’m going to have –” In my team, her name’s Claudia. I’m going to let Claudia read this because Claudia embodies the poll of diplomacy, of relationship. I’ll tell you, I’ve done this many times. I’ve read this email five times, felt great about it, I’d say, “Hey, Claud, just take a quick look at this” and she’s saying, “Oh no, no, no. You’re not sending that.” She’ll say, here’s what you’re saying. I’m like, “But I’m not saying that.” She’s like, “But you are.”
Interviewer: [crosstalk] That’s how people are going to hear it.
Arnold: This is what you’re actually saying. Here’s the thing, I could have, with it, I had the decision to either take two minutes and check my blind spots with Claudia. That took me two extra minutes but it probably saved me five days of clean up meetings. All I would say is when you’re making decisions that you know are tied to these crux tensions, sometimes there’s this paradoxical wisdom to go slow so you can go fast down the road. Just make a informed decision to say, “Hey, what, the way I’m making this decision, I’m going to do some things to check my blind spots because we all have them.” We have them individually and in our teams, we have them as well.
Interviewer: Yes. In the field of mental health, addiction treatment. We’ve talked about, there are a host of challenges, complexities, from changes in regulations, insurance to helping seemingly successful people who have major underlying issues. What are some things that you would hope those in the helping profession take away from these ideas as they go back into their work?
Arnold: I would say a few things, I think. One is, I have found that, when I was working again in the shelter for the better part of 10 years, this was a conversation that very few people were having. I would say, if you can start to accept and name some of the tensions that you’re feeling, even though it doesn’t solve them, seeing is relieving. There’s a bit of a, “Okay. It’s okay that I’m feeling this, it’s okay that our team’s dealing with this, not only is it okay, it’s important that we’re dealing with this.” Allow yourself to accept that, to name them.
I would say, and this is, when you talk about addictions and recovery, I’d say anyone who’s taken on the hard stuff. The stuff that a lot of people want to see happen in the world but they’re not willing to step up to the plate. This is really not great language for it but we used to use this internal language of, there’s this tension of it’s not okay but we have to hold that tension with it is what it is, meaning that –
Interviewer: It’s always going to be a problem.
Arnold: Yes, and I know that’s going to be uncomfortable for some points but I’ll give you an example. We started this sister program that was working with youth. This wasn’t a typical youth group. This was a program that started with six people and then through our partnership, grew to about 500 kids on a Saturday program. It was in the most targeted, challenging neighborhoods in our community. It was a — We used buses to bring the kids in. As a person going into this program, my directors had everything in me is not okay. Some policies and procedures were not being lived out and there was certain things that I was just like, “We need more order.” I was right.
I had to live out that, but I also had to hold that in tension with, “This is never going to be a youth group. This is never going to be perfect” and I can’t use that as an excuse for being unsafe, but I also have to be comfortable with the fact that this is messy. The work that we do is not cookie cutter, it’s messy. In a team, I’m going to bring the bias of gang, we’ve got work to do around compliance and we’ve got some stuff that we’ve got to be safe and we’ve got to be within code and all these other things, but I also have to be able to hold that in tension with “We’re never going to be perfect”. Even in the delivery, sometimes I’d leave a program on a Saturday.
I’m like, that wasn’t everything I hoped it would be but I got to be able to sleep at night. I’d say the more you’re dealing with messy work, you’ve got to be able to hold on to the ideal but be comfortable with the real. Not as an excuse but to somehow hold those things in tension because either you’re going to be just a complete idealist that disassociates with the reality of your team or you’re going to put up with things that you’re like, “No, it can be better. But if you can start to bring that perspective to teams for us, for whatever, it was super helpful. It helped us.”
Interviewer: Yes, all right. We’ll just wrap up with this final question. You’ve given a lot of yourself to this world over the last couple decades. Could you wrap up by summing up why helping people spark change that brings teams together, bring people together to help others, why is this so important to you?
Arnold: It’s funny, I’ve, for whatever reason, really been drawn to leadership development and team effectiveness. Just out of interest, just out of passion, but when I started to work in homelessness, in addictions, and recovery, I just realized more than ever how critical effective leadership and effective teamwork is. Meaning that if we’re going to really start to tackle the challenges that a lot of people just won’t accept or look into, we’ve got a — We’ll never do it perfectly, we’ve got to do this well. It’s not okay for us to say, “Our teams aren’t walking their talk.”
It’s not okay just to put words of values on the wall but know secretly that we don’t work that way. If we’re going to make the impact that we believe we’re capable of making in our world to demarginalize the excluded, the ignored, then we’ve got to walk our talk. We’ve got to strive to know that we’ll never get there, we’ll never be perfect but the better in alignment, the better we start to truly work well together and lead people in a direction that they wouldn’t otherwise go, the more that we’re bringing folks into the circle and seeing lives changed.
Interviewer: All right, well, Tim. Thank you so much for sharing all that and thank you for your time.
Arnold: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege. Sorry.