Category Archives: life lessons

The Power of Listening

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about communication – primarily between individual people, and between businesses and their customers/clients/partners.

So much of what I think is important is to create the space to listen. “Creating space” certainly includes staying quiet so that someone else can speak. Even more than that, it means being ready to hear what they have to say.

It means staying curious enough to be open to surprise.

It means not just waiting your turn to talk.

It means encouraging those who have something to say but don’t know how.

It means choosing your mode of communication based on what’s easier for who you want to hear – not just what’s easiest for you.

It means listening without jumping ahead and guessing what someone means or saying what they “should” do.

It means finding out what tools your customers are using before investing in and launching a campaign to reach them.

It means responding when someone reaches out so they know they were heard and are more likely to trust you to hear them the next time, too.

It means staying responsive and flexible in your communication, your product design, your way of working in the office, your choice of restaurants for meetings.

It means getting off your soapbox, putting down the bullhorn, and rearranging the theater chairs into a circle.

It also means being ready to hear that someone else’s way of thinking is just as valid as yours.

It also means enjoying each other, not just ourselves.



The Reactive Boyfriend

For those of you who read & enjoyed the 5 Modes of Interacting, I share with you this wonderful little video about what could happen if you get stuck in Reactive/Responsive mode when it comes to relationships:

When Regret is in the Way

For years I played music and it gave me great joy. It was one of my primary activities, something I did both for fun and in my studies. Then I discovered theater and by the time I was in college, the two started to compete for my time and attention. As my interest in theater grew, I gave music less attention and started to enjoy it less. Eventually, I chose theater and gave up music.

All these years I’ve ranged from somewhat- to very-sad that I no longer play. I know that I could have continued to dabble, but somehow that made me feel worse. I just stayed away. I would occasionally sit down at the piano and gingerly pick out a tune, thinking about how comfortable the keys used to feel, noting how awkward I now felt. I would listen to tunes I used to play and remember, with regret, that time of my life.

For the past few years I have been missing playing music more and more. I’ve been thinking about bringing it back into my life but felt nervous and shy. I berated myself for having given it up, looking at the people who have continued to play and thinking how good I could be now If Only I Hadn’t Made That Choice…

And herein lies the crux of this post. So many of us (if not all) have Made A Choice at some point, one that eventually led us to thoughts of regret. “If Only…” fills our mind and we consider all the possible paths our lives could have taken if we’d made The Other Choice. All too often these thoughts are accompanied by recrimination because regret can be mean and unforgiving.

A couple of weeks ago I bought a ukulele. I was with a friend who’s a great teacher, who managed to sidestep my nervousness and doubt, who got me to start playing before I could stop myself with all those negative thoughts. And the craziest thing happened: I enjoyed myself! Rather than get lost in feelings of past regret, I got lost in the here and now and just played music with him. When we stopped playing, I started to get excited about learning more. And I realized just how much hanging on to that regret was stopping me from enjoying myself now, and from future possibilities.

Yes, maybe I would be a great musician now if I kept at it. Then again, maybe not. The important thing is the past won’t change, and so it doesn’t matter. Right now I have the option to make choices about my future. And whether or not I’m going to be “great” at music is kinda irrelevant. I’m choosing to play music for as long as I’m having fun with it. And after a while I might change my mind again, and that’s going to be just fine.

Dealing with your Inner Critic

In my work with people on how to stop complaining, we always get to a point where they ask, “I get how to control what I say, but how do I stop complaining about myself? How do I shut up this voice in my head?”

Just about everyone I know struggles with an inner critic, no matter how “enlightened” or “growth-oriented” they are. Often, this voice is the meanest one that we’ll put up with, the one that speaks and reinforces our core fears and insecurities, the one that makes us feel small, inadequate, and unworthy. If a person talked with us like the inner critic does, we’d get infuriated and stand up for ourselves, maybe even haul off and punch them in the face. But since it’s inside of us, we don’t stand up, we collapse.

I’m sorry to say that I have no secret that will swiftly and permanently silence that inner critic. But I can offer some tools that I’ve learned to help disempower mine, making it less able to hurt me, enabling me to recover more quickly.

The first and most important tool I learned was to think of that voice as separate from me so that I can start to respond to it. It’s a technique that I know many others use and is foundational for everything else I’ll talk about here. Some people do this by picturing their inner critic sitting in a chair across from them. Others create a mental picture of their brain or body and find the location of the source of the voice somewhere in or around it. Others name the critic. Choose whatever works for you to get a little distance on your inner critic. This is also something that often works best when you have help, such as working with a coach, therapist, or someone like that.

Next step is to respond when the critic shows up. The nature of that response varies greatly, based on your own levels of emotions and what the critic is saying.

Some take a strong protective stance. They get stern and loud, yelling “Shut Up! No one talks to me like that!” Sometimes this can feel necessary, particularly the first time you talk back at it when it’s shaming you and hurting you deeply. It can be very cathartic, finally standing up to a bully that’s been tearing you down your entire life.

That technique feels great for me to stop a heated attack from my inner critic, but it doesn’t work as well in a lasting way to get it to stop showing up in the first place. For that, I’ve learned to become understanding of what my inner critic is trying to do, and grateful for the love it’s showing me. I know that sounds weird, but I’ve learned that mine is often trying to protect me from getting hurt. It’s afraid that I’ll get ostracized or criticized and it’s trying to stop that from happening. It’s carrying the memory of childhood times when I felt like an outsider and was hurt by it. My inner critic hates to see me cry. I can feel so much love coming from it in those moments. I have conversations with it where I thank it for loving me enough to protect me – and I make sure that I feel that thanks, not just say it. Then I gently remind it that those are old memories and old hurts and I point out that I’m all grown up now. I tell it that I’m stronger and that I have to take some risks in order to grow even more, that I know I’m likely to get hurt and I’m ok with that. I ask it to trust me, to believe I’ll figure out a way to recover. I also tell it that I don’t like that language, that I no longer respond to someone tearing me down, that I won’t listen to it if it’s mean. I know that I once believed things more if they were mean, but I no longer tolerate it.

Lastly, I thank my inner critic for holding out a dream for me. I can hear frustration and disappointment underneath the words – and I know that it wouldn’t feel these things if it had no expectations or hopes for me. It’s only because of those expectations that it can feel disappointment.

My shorthand reminder:

Every time you beat yourself up for not being the person you want to be, take a moment and thank yourself for having the ability to dream of a greater future for yourself.

I hope that this helps, and I’d love to hear your own techniques for dealing with your inner critic. Leave me a comment or a question and let me know your thoughts. Let’s all face down our inner critics and start engaging with the love and dreams we carry around inside us instead!

Cianna P. Stewart is Founder of the No Complaining Project and a resilience coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also spends a lot of time producing events and dancing. Connect with Cianna on Google+.

5 Modes of Interacting

I’m fascinated by how we all learn how to be with each other. I’ve spent a good portion of the past few years reading books on psychology, neurology, self-development, behavioral economics, sociology, and philosophy. I’ve also been taking classes, doing a lot of coaching, and learning interpersonal meditation.

Through all of this, I’ve developed an understanding of what I call the “5 Modes of Interacting.” These are not “stages” because it’s not a progression from one mode to another. Also, as you’ll see, different situations can send us into different modes.

In Reactive Mode, we receive an external stimulus and react immediately, without thought. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and lack any kind any kind of social filter. We are all like this when we are babies, feeling cold and immediately crying, seeing sunlight and laughing without inhibition. As adults, we can drop into Reactive Mode when we are in a state of reduced cognitive ability, such as when we are hungry, exhausted, stressed, furious, or drunk.

We are in Responsive Mode when we have a sense of self and of social norms, but are still greatly affected by external stimuli. We know what is expected of us and have established our own personalities, filtering our actions and thoughts through these as we make our way through the world. How we express ourselves about things like taking a new job, seeing a sad movie, or having our home team win the big game depends both on our feelings and on our sense of who we are and how we want to be perceived. Even as we are being ourselves, we may still be Responding, meaning we are primarily motivated by the situations presented to us externally.

For many people, there comes a point when we start to question who we are and why we are here. This is the Reflective Mode. In Reflective, we examine ourselves internally, questioning the truth of how we have been behaving, what we believe, and whether or not we agree with what the world has been expecting of us. We encounter external stimulus and don’t react right away, taking time to pause and consider what we really want. We start to develop a more long-term vision for our lives. We may even start to question our personality and whether or not it is fixed or if it could be changed. This is often the time when we seek out help in the form of mentors, therapy, or spiritual guidance. While reflection happens often to varying degrees, being deep in Reflective Mode is often triggered by major life events such as the birth of a child, the death of someone close to us, graduation, an accident, terminal illness, or new love. In the popular mindset the extreme form of this is often referred to as a crisis of some kind, such as a “mid-life crisis,” a “crisis of conscience,” a “post-college slump,” a “Saturn return,” or some other term for radical-break-from-what-has-been. We may sell everything and travel the world, do a walkabout, hole up in a remote cabin, or take some other extreme action to “get away and find ourselves.” There are also less extreme ways of being in Reflective Mode, such as meditation, prayer, hiking, or another way of setting aside time for contemplation without abandoning everything.

I believe that most people live the vast majority of their lives in a combination of Responsive and Reactive. It can feel like a luxury to take time for the Reflective Mode, and sometimes that time feels justified only when we start to feel acute strain or pain from living our lives primarily in response to what we are offered.

When we have a good sense of who we are and why we are here, we are able to live a Realized Life, to be in the Realized Mode. This can come directly out of being in Reflective Mode. We have a vision for our lives, often one that goes beyond ourselves. In this mode we know what we want to offer to the world and we start creating a life that fulfills the soul. We may give up everything we were doing before Reflection, or we may just have a shift in our mindset, our approach to everyday life, finding ourselves filled with renewed wonder and joy without making any external changes. Instead of primarily reacting to external situations, we are internally motivated, creating and generating what we send out into the world. We touch this whenever we experience a state of flow, being fully absorbed in the task at hand, feeling inspired, and forgetting time. In a fully Realized state, we are engaged with external situations but they do not change our sense of who we are. This means that even if we change our actions in response to another’s request, we do so only in alignment with our internal compass, never leaving the path to our life’s vision. There’s plenty of room for play, but there’s little chance of forgetting.

Once we know who we are and how we want to be in the world, we are able to fully Relate with another person, to interact and share while maintaining that sense of self. When two people are Relating while both are in Realized Mode, they are fully themselves at the same time that they are with each other. Anything that they decide to do together will support each person’s vision for their lives. They are authentic, open, honest, and true. They operate from a  place of curiosity, ready to discover the other person in every moment. They leave the interaction feeling even more alive.

While our understanding of each Mode builds on the foundation of the previous one, the Modes are not linear, nor is “progression” through them fixed. All kinds of triggers can send us from one mode to another. For example:

  • Encountering something (or someone) new is often a trigger for dropping into Reactive or Responsive mode
  • Extreme states of emotion (fear, anger, giddiness, grief) inhibit our ability to be Reflective
  • When one person is in a Realized state, they may drop out of it when encountering a Responsive person – or they may help move someone Responsive into a state of Reflection
  • Two people may be Relating, but then one or the other may find themselves unable to hold their sense of self in the face of the situation
  • Without taking the time to be Reflective, it is difficult if not impossible to develop and sustain the Realized Mode
  • It is possible to get stuck in Reflective Mode, unable to take action and live a Realized life
  • A person can be in different Modes in different circumstances, e.g., Realized in their career, but Responsive in romantic relationships

These 5 Modes are useful as tools for understanding and discussing how we are interacting with the world. They are not fixed, just as we are not static beings. I find them particularly useful for understanding why I feel more myself or not in certain situations, what it is that is solid or lacking in my ability to be in the world the way that I would like to be. I also find them inspirational in terms of why I am doing all this reading and this work, helping me focus on what I want to do next.

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on the 5 Modes. Do they make sense to you? What do they make you think of?

Cianna P. Stewart is Founder of the No Complaining Project and a resilience coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also spends a lot of time producing events and dancing. Connect with Cianna on Google+.

2012 Themes

It’s the start of 2012 and in addition to resolutions, I’m thinking about two themes for what I want to get out of this year.

In keeping with the sentence stem that I’m using to start all my resolutions (“I resolve to express love for myself by ____”), I’m declaring that a theme for me for this year is to place a focus on self-care. (I have no doubt some of you are going to be happy to hear that.)

The other theme feels hard to admit to myself and also feels important to say out loud: I’m working on accepting the fact that I inspire people. I have it that I always hope I inspire, that it’s a goal of mine. The difference is for me to recognize that it’s already happening. Or (more true) to recognize that it’s been happening for years now.

Why put this focus on accepting it? Because I think that this will open up other possibilities for me, and because I think that it’s necessary in order to step into some of the work that I intend to do this year. I need to own my voice and my impact, and not expend much (or any) energy trying to prove it. Once I take it as a given, then I can move on to what I can do with that influence.

In so many ways it seems obvious yet I have had a hard time accepting it. Maybe that’s because I would then have to deal with the responsibility of my impact, maybe it’s because truly I’m most afraid of already being the person I hope to become. No matter what the cause it’s not really serving what I want to accomplish.

Even more, it’s not realistic for me to shy away from believing that I have, do, and will continue to influence and inspire others with my thoughts and actions. Thank you all for being persistent about continuing to tell me that over and over. It’s taken a while for it to get through. I might still forget, but at least it’s my intention to let it sink in this year.


Yes, I am thinking of this most famous quote from Marianne Williamson as I consider my theme:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Resolutions Coming From Love

Today I’m thinking about New Years Resolutions. I’ve also been thinking about how often in the past I made resolutions out of a sense that I “should” be doing something, that I was imperfect and wrong, that I had to be better.

One of my resolutions is to show myself more love, to be kinder and more forgiving when I make a mistake or fall short of the (admittedly high) bar I set for myself. To treat myself with the same caring and understanding that I want others to treat me, in line with how I strive to treat others. This may be the underlying resolution for the whole year.

So in keeping with this I am going to start each of New Years Resolutions with the sentence stem: “I resolve to express love for myself by…”

For instance: I have been feeling heavy, out of shape, unhealthy. So I started out making my usual kind of resolution, about my weight, exercise, etc., one that felt like an order. After reconsidering how I’m thinking, these are my resolutions around that:

I resolve to express love for myself by caring for my body.

I resolve to express love for myself by taking steps to ensure that I have enough energy and stamina to get out in the world and do the things that bring me joy.

Those feel so much more inspiring to me. Yes, I have yet to see if I can keep them in mind – and I imagine that if I can, I’ll experience far more than weight loss.

How would you finish that sentence?

“I resolve to express love for myself by…”


This post written with many thanks to Brene Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, for helping lead me to this understanding.