The Truth Will Set You Free

Truth Willingness and Openness, Keys to Accelerated Learning

I am often astounded by individual demonstrations of courage and growth that occur in my workshops. Not long ago, I witnessed a participant response that provided a profound lesson.

It happened on the second day of my “Powerful Presentations” workshop — often a challenging morning. Participants have had one-day of instruction and rehearsal of new behavior and are often deep into the awkwardness/resistance stage of learning. In addition, many have viewed their videotapes the night before and, sometimes having witnessed the discomfort of trying new behaviors for the first time, return to class suggesting those first takes were proof that the new moves don’t work. In some cases, a spouse’s laughter may have cinched the case. This day began with the usual conversation in which I am called on to acknowledge the logic of resistance while motivating participants to continue the exploration.

I was surprised that one of the men in the group who had been responsive and enthusiastic Day One — a guy who had jumped in and learned fast — now appeared defensive and a little angry. Although Don verbally supported Day One’s learning, his tone was terse. I suspected his problem was with the homework for Day 2. He confirmed my suspicion when he declared that although the day before was great; he strongly disagreed with this morning’s exercise. He just wasn’t “a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy kind of guy, and he didn’t feel business was a place to get personal.” I was taken-a-back by his remark because I’d found him to be very open, congenial and warm.

The exercise he was resisting is a simple exercise where participants tell a three-minute personal story with a transferable point. It is to be a life event they care about, expresses their passion, and holds a general principle that can apply to effective communication or workplace concerns. I also ask that they incorporate around-the-table presentation skills. The exercise shows how simple, personal revelation evokes natural expression and increases audience interest.

I accepted his discomfort, yet encouraged him to participate in the exercise. As we moved into the first segment of Day 2, Don remained skeptical and distant.

When we later began the Personal Story exercise, I was happy to see that Don’s comments hadn’t inhibited others. However, throughout the exercise Don appeared nervous and angry as he listened to the others perform. Finally, everyone but Don had volunteered and had completed the exercise. I braced myself for a challenging exchange as Don reluctantly took his place.

He began by stating that because he had disagreed with the concept of the assignment, he hadn’t prepared. (My breath caught a little, but I shifted to openness and curiosity and made sure my facial expression reflected it.) He continued by saying that not only had he disagreed that it was effective to use personal expression in the workplace; he was adamant that the expectation to speak personally while practicing specific behaviors was unfair. (I considered interjecting to reframe and restate the effectiveness of the exercise, but decided to keep listening to see what I might learn.)

He then complimented each member of the workshop for how courageous they had been to jump into the exercise, and how deeply each of his or her stories had affected him. The emotion he felt naturally heightened his expression as he spoke. He continued, saying he had learned a great deal from watching others successfully offer a personal anecdote, and from observing his own defensiveness and refusal to prepare. He promised that in the future he would take care to be more aware of any feelings that signaled strong resistance and, rather than oppose, choose to explore. He sighted that his new commitment offered a much more effective response to specific changes now happening in his department. He’d be happy to give up his habitual stubbornness.

Don had spoken eloquently. His truthfulness and the strength of his feeling had penetrated everyone deeply. There was “not a dry eye in the house.” The room rang with applause. I congratulated him for his courage and for demonstrating that:

Speaking one’s immediate truth with feeling coupled with a willingness to be open and to learn is extremely powerful!

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