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Make Tension Your Superpower!

If you are a person who views change as something done to you and out of your influence and control to define on your terms, then this writing is for you. You always have the power of choice and deeply knowing this to believe in your power of choices requires that you use some skills that humans often take for granted. Those skills include, noticing what captures your attention, pausing in that moment to identify the qualities that describe the experience of tension that are part of tension, reflecting on the habits that hold that tension as the enemy to stimulate curiosity that frees up choice about how we relate the conditions of our lives. This blog introduces four steps to practice in the week ahead to strengthen these skills and gain confidence in your power of choice in any domain of your life. 

"Wow, you could cut the tension in the room with a knife." I hear that from leaders these days as they describe their workplace environment. "I just can't watch the news anymore; it makes me too tense." I hear that a lot from friends and family. Both personal and professional settings generate tension today. Has that always been so, or is something new happening that has upped the level of tension in modern living? The better question focuses on the experience of stress and the influence of that experience on what we say we want in our lives. And yet, the minute someone asks us, "What do you want?" tension begins.

I notice this for myself starting in August when we begin our business planning and forecast cycle. Uncertainty, complexity, and the enormity of factors to consider when declaring goals and performance measures produce tension. But I have to admit, I like it. Just the right amount of tension activates original thinking and creative translation of those ideas into plans for learning and producing valuable products and services. Tension fuels the generative process when harnessed in proportion to the task. Rather than dismiss the experience of tension, we want to notice and get curious about it. Getting curious means learning to recognize what qualities produce tension and what blend of qualities effectively provides a resource to sustain excellence. These two steps harness tension as a superpower that optimizes creativity in every decision.

Tension is the state of being stretched tight, like a rubber band. If that band stays stretched for an extended period without a moment to pause, it breaks. If that band sits on the desk without being stretched for an extended period, it disintegrates and may no longer function. The rubber band provides a metaphor for this dynamic human principle; tension empowers and endures when we make deliberate choices. What degree of stretch we choose depends upon the situation, the context, the desired outcome, and the experience we find most compelling and satisfying. As I began to explore my personal experience of tension to understand why I liked it, seven daily tensions showed up for me. I noticed these same tensions commonly showed up for others, too.

All the qualities in the table invite us to consider a set of different internal influencers for choices. Paradoxically, it is fear and anxiety that stimulate us to center and activate our awareness about which unique tension of presence is at play. Neither opposites nor paradoxes, the presence of tension describes two qualities that co-exist and can often create a bit of "mental or emotional ping pong." Consider the pairs of words as ends of a spectrum of experiences we can notice as we express ourselves in the world. Tensions such as these are always present, and each person represents a unique blend that is adjusting and adapting over time in different situations. 

Noticing and being curious about tension presents the opportunity to choose behaviors that alter the balance between the ends of the spectrum. Each time, we can choose what most honors personal and professional excellence when deciding how to show up and interact in any context. Here are some tips for learning to recognize tension – in yourself and others- and select the ratio that optimizes any situation.

Tension is and endures because it is how learning and growth occur. Consider nature and think about the tension in a flower trying to bloom that doesn't yet have enough warmth from the sun and water from the rain, until it does. For one week, keep track of the situations in which you notice the presence of tension inside yourself. Name the two qualities that create the tension and capture a few details about the context. Look at your notes at the end of the week and identify one pair of words that appear most often to explore.

Draw a line on a piece of paper or imagine the line on the floor and do this standing up. Write one quality at each end of the line. Stand at one end of the line (or imagine you are standing) and answer two questions for yourself – jot down some notes as you reflect, and then switch to the other end of the line and ask the two questions again. 

What is the benefit for you of this quality?

What is the consequence when you use this quality to an extreme?

Now, move to the middle of the line and ask one more question to combine the qualities.

What new possibilities do you see if you balance both in the middle, 50%/50%?

What we say reveals a lot about our experience and helps us to identify the qualities of presence and their impact on our experience. Vocabulary in any language describes and defines our state emotionally, physically, mentally, and even spiritually. Witnessing how you or any person moves can indicate contraction or expansion felt in the body. The sharing of mental models to support a point of view or explanation for choices made often reveals the role tradition, cultural origin, and spirituality or religion may hold in how we envision the whole of our life experience. Consider how you answered the questions to identify what new possibility you want to pursue to transform tension into generative change.

The evolution over a lifetime forms unconscious filters on what experiences we choose who and how we interact with others, and how we make decisions. The longer we live, the more our reticular activating system embeds filters that result in habits and preferences. To change, we deliberately pause those filters to determine which habits create a satisfying life and which are ready for replacement.

Revisit the two qualities and now, released from the habit that produces tension, choose a new preference that arises from a different ratio between the qualities, 50%-50%, or something else you find more satisfying.

Have fun exploring!

Janet M. Harvey, MCC

Experienced with individuals at the Board of Directors, “C” Chair, Executive and Senior Management levels, Janet assists executives in adopting effective habits of perception and behavior to lead and accelerate corporate strategies. Typical engagements address executive development in the following areas: articulate and inspire through clarity of vision, enable respectful challenge, debate and catalyze synergy for strategic business choices, risk/reward critical thinking about investments and shareholder value, plan leader succession and architect sustainable cultural/strategic change.
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