The Positive Stories Project (TPSP)

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I had breakfast with an old friend this morning. He asked me about work and I just unloaded everything. I think I was just so relieved to have someone I could speak with about it that even though I could hear myself and the red flags popped up that the content was a little heavy for this reintroduction, I just didn’t stop.


slide 2By the time we parted, I apologized, because I knew that it was wrong, I just couldn’t seem to control the impulse to talk about it, and he confirmed my fears by saying, well maybe the next time I see you we can chat you’ll have some more positive stories to share. And I felt sick. I knew I was being kind of a downer. I kept apologizing for doing it, but it was like word vomit. I couldn’t make myself stop. Actually, the truth is, that I did make it stop, but the next time I opened my mouth again to talk about something else, I kept referencing my own experience which only reinforced my anxiety and made me more nervous.

That’s not good.

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As I walked away with this toxic pit in my stomach, I realized that I had poured so much energy into trying to work my way out of this negative experience that my whole identity had become wrapped up into it. I was either this person who felt like a victim in this scenario, or this person who was intentionally practicing these other coping behaviors because I didn’t want to feel like a victim in this scenario.

What I would have liked to have been, was this person who was able to charm and entertain others with these really awesome, inspiring and uplifting stories; and I honestly didn’t have any to tell, unless I talked about the really small stuff, the little everyday miracles that bore most people and make people want to find someone else to hang out with, someone who’s life is a little more exciting. So the little bits of info that my friend and I talked about didn’t have the same kind of emotional tags and we ended up chatting about the sucky parts of our stories because that’s the kind of energy I contributed.

So I made a decision to sit down at the coffee shop and sketch out a storyboard for what I imagined would be a really great story about me and my friend eating breakfast and me complaining the whole time, me having this realization, and then sitting down and drawing a comic strip for a segment I’d like to integrate into this blog called “The Positive Stories Project.”

slide 4I probably should have picked a different location, because I ran into some old friends who were visiting in town. They asked me what I was up to, how I liked my job, etc. and I made an effort to be positive. But my responses came across as kind of cryptic and weird. You could tell that I was giving kind of a manufactured answer, so they kind of automatically assumed the worst. Then I’d have to go, “well it’s not really that, I’ve had an opportunity to learn ___ from this experience.” And the conversation just kind of dragged on. So I kind of changed the subject and tried to make things as pleasant as I could, but my anxiety at “being found out” kept growing, so at the first opportunity, I ditched them for someone else (almost as if I had the opportunity for a do-over) and extended the appropriate pleasantries for exiting and that was kind of the end of it.

Ironically enough, the person I ditched them for, was there to meet up with the old friend I had just had breakfast with, so I kept the pleasantries simple, briefly explained why I would not be able to hang with them (I was honest about having been kind of a downer earlier since it was someone who was already kind of familiar with my situation and she was super supportive and understanding about it. – She even offered to take our old friend to see her new dog so as to change the vibe for a moment). Then I bolted to the outdoor patio and buried my head in a book.

Speaking of irony, the chapter that I read was about how Inappropriate Self Interest leads to errors we believe will produce short-term gains but instead, produce long-term damage. Yeah, so that happened…


slide 5My old friend and other friend stopped briefly to greet me as if I hadn’t seen them earlier and I wished them a great outing and pretended to be deeply engrossed in the reading for my book. Then I read for awhile until I was distracted by an old acquaintance who I talked with about this moped he found on Craigslist that he hoped to buy. Then he asked me how I liked my job; he had recently seen me when he stopped by for information because he assumed that the job should be pretty cushy. I explained that it should be, but that I didn’t expect to be in the position much longer. And we talked a bit and he seemed pretty engaged, so I just kind of let him coax the story out. I felt better afterward, because I had done a better job of avoiding the details and put more of a positive spin on the story, abbreviating the negative parts with descriptions like “misaligned ethics,” “not on the same page when it comes to our operations process,” and my favorite statement, “the reality of working within conflicting boundary constraints, especially when you’re able to quantify it is that when you follow instructions and do what’s asked that when people get the results that they’ve asked for, the reality is that everyone ends up disappointed. Then we discussed whether it would be beneficial or detrimental to include a histogram graphing out the performance progressions/ regressions and how they correlated with the workers performance over the range of time in which the policies were re-structured.

It was a helpful conversation that was very solutions focused. I was obviously craving the need to have someone help me kind of work through it, but I was also kind of bummed that I had not followed through with my intention to publish my storyboard. I decided to change venues hoping that I might be able to find some inspiration with a change of scenery.


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Of all of the places to run into people, I found a slew of them on the scenic route home. I happen to live near the college where I went to school and it just so happens that some of the younger siblings of my old classmates were going to be graduating from college this weekend. So not only did I run into my old classmates, but also their very large families. It appears that they had all gathered down at the local park near the cross country trail and had begun to grill up burgers, chicken, etc. Now when I say large families, let’s just say that there were approximately 6 families there by the time I left, the largest had 12 immediate family members (which doesn’t include extended relatives). The next largest family had 9 of the 10 family members present and so on…

Interestingly enough, although I didn’t know their families well, I was the only one there who had stayed at each of their residences (mostly on account of my own family situation is rather complicated, and it creates a fair amount of anxiety to have to explain why I don’t go home for holidays to my friends parents, so I generally avoid family events unless someone has gone out of their way to invite me). Even so, I found myself going through the process of introducing parents at an event to which I hadn’t even been invited. So after the initial introductions and talking with some of the less assertive parents for a bit, I eventually excused myself and made a ghost retreat before too many people noticed.

I felt bad for leaving, and probably would have benefitted from to social activity, especially where play was concerned. But for some reason it didn’t feel appropriate. Plus, some of the families were very different in values and I could see the tension building from some of the more conservative graduates, who were worried that one of her friend had arrived to the event in a very short mini skirt and was slightly inebriated. I actually heard one of the parents (not her own) tell her that her initial reaction was, “wow it’s impressive that you can pull that off, but what in the HELL are you wearing?” And that wasn’t even any of the more conservative parents.

So yeah, that’s right about the time that I left…

The good news is I didn’t talk about myself. It was nice to shift my attention elsewhere for once but I did get that overwhelming sensation that I was grossly out of practice. So I can definitely see some benefit toward using a project like the positive stories project as a mechanism to reinforce the behavior I would like to see. That being said I was able to achieve two outcomes as a result:

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1)      I actually completed a digital version of my storyboard (the dialogue boxes illustrate how much I feel like I dominated the conversation in each situation) and

2)      I completed the first step of my positive stories project by acknowledging what kind of energy I contributed toward those interactions and making a vigilant effort to correct it.

This doesn’t mean that I’m out of the woods, when it comes to my work life just yet. But as long as I have other things to focus on that are independent of that experience, I think that I can start to repair the impulse control portions that have apparently been damaged by internalizing all of this nonsense. And if these positive psyche theories are correct, I should go back to being a happier person again because of it.

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These were some ideas of things I could try for TPSP. I don’t have to be successful at them, I just have to try these out and try to turn it into a positive story. 🙂


Move over Bucky; I too want to make a good story…! 🙂


No Rhyme nor Reason

Click image for brief anecdote.

Click image for brief anecdote.


Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict — alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence.”
Dorothy Thompson

Yesterday I attended a conflict management workshop that I’d signed up for since I didn’t want to squander the opportunity to make use of the professional development resources that my workplace offers.  You know, I’ve booked our venue for that particular facilitator before and our management staff would always make snarky commentary about the fact that the facilitator would book the room to set up for the event on the night before. I eventually was able to steer to conversation back on topic by looking wide-eyed and really uncomfortable and then delicately following up with the comment, “I’m sure he means well…” and then those that encouraged the behavior would start to feel a little bit uncomfortable, the laughter would die down and that would sort of be the end of it.

After attending today’s training session, however, I can see where the extra planning went.  The facilitator did not just read off a bunch of slides to us or or even force us to talk about uncomfortable issues, he really took us through an artfully facilitated experience.  It was so well-executed in fact that I knew about 5 minutes into it that when I got home I was going to more than likely blog about it.

Healthy approaches to Conflict, and knowing when to use them, can provide a variety of benefits

Healthy approaches to Conflict, and knowing when to use them, can provide a variety of benefits.  Mindmap

One of the major emphases of this session that he wanted us to focus upon was upon understanding how our own personal conflict styles impacted our perception of the way others approached conflict.  So he took us through a Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory and then had us read over and discuss whether we noticed correlations within our behavior when we experienced what he referred to as “storm shifts” in behavior as we watched conflicts escalate.

I scored almost identically under the cooperative conflict style for my primary (calm) and secondary (storming) mechanisms for approaching conflict.  Some of the costs associated with over-using this particular style included

  • fatigue & time loss
  • distraction from more important tasks
  • analysis paralysis
  • exhaustion from fear of “too much processing”

particularly if the person using this framework is unskilled in dealing with conflict.  The benefits, however, include a high potential for increased creativity and personal growth, a better understanding of the situation, the opportunity to build team cohesion and self knowledge.

My particular pattern typically played out the following way: my first reaction to conflict is to tend and directly address the issue at hand to negotiate for the win-win, but if these attempts are rejected I respond to the shock I experience by withdrawing momentarily to gather relevant data and information, so that I can assess it in a calm and methodical way in order to comfortably enter negotiations and resolve them efficiently once things have calmed down.

I might look for relevant details, plans, options, weigh costs, check for policy compliance, and precedents from elsewhere before making that decision, and if the situation requires a directive, I either make it and do the best I can to explain what course of action I’ve taken, who’s involved in that process if they want to appeal and my basis for evidence that led me to the decision.  Occasionally those discussions may take place retroactively, but once I have better information it becomes easy to let the person I’m experiencing conflict with make a decision about how they are going to react to this conflict, what they stand to benefit and what’s at risk should they choose an action that doesn’t reflect everyone’s best interest.

Click this image for a lovely anecdote about trust and healthy conflict management

Click this image for a lovely anecdote about trust and healthy conflict management

What I also learned is that your previous experiences with a particular conflict style (e.g. I associate those who raise their voice or snap at others in order to be dismissive with prior associations in which those who used that style, often people who I cared about very deeply, resurfaced that conflict because of some previous form of conflict they hadn’t resolved previously that left them feeling un-affirmed, hurt and afraid of being abandoned when they encountered that previous conflict… and those patterns of behavior, that imprinting was passed on.  Often large, demonstrative expressions of anger reflect

  • accumulation of resentment due to needs that haven’t been acknowledged or met
  • a fear of being perceived as weak or threatened when approached to engage with someone they haven’t built trust with but have been approached by to engage in conflict
  • resistance out of the belief that one is being denied the right to be validated for simply being themselves
  • inability to articulate of boundaries

According to the book that was recommended to us to supplement the assessment: Style Matters, when dealing with those who have a more in-your-face conflict style or a history of abusing others, my best plan of action is to withdraw to safety but I need to express when I do so a clear intention to return and work on things once things cool off.  Otherwise it will escalate their anxiety and increase the likelihood of the behavior increasing.

Susan Wheelan states that:

“We know from our experience that it is easier to develop trust in another person or in a group if we believe that we can disagree, and we will not be abandoned or hurt for our differences. It is difficult to trust those who deny us the right to be ourselves.”
5 styles


Kraybill seemed to believe that a direct correlation existed between the way a person approached a particular conflict style and the importance we placed upon whether we valued our agendas more over our relationships.  I realize now that the emphasis I place upon how important the agenda I’d like to convey definitely determines the approach I display when working through conflict because I absolutely hate the idea of giving up on a relationship, especially if I find the relationship to be important.  But the moment that I realize that the other party places little value upon the relationship, the easier it is for me to divest and redirect my emphasis upon confirming my rationalization (coming up with evidence for whether/why I’m right in case I have to protect myself) rather than placating the other person in order to try and salvage that relationship.

So I suppose in a way, I can be a bit willful myself.  But I think having that self knowledge and understanding which considerations I need to make (e.g.

  • whether the circumstance requires that I place more importance upon the relationship or the issue,
  • the time and energy constraints for addressing the conflict,
  • weighing potential consequences,
  • and alternative approaches to mitigate any damaging effects).


We may be able to move forward and to develop more healthy and appropriate avenues for working through workplace conflict.

We’re Going to be Alright


Say to yourself, regardless of what you are facing…I’m going to be all right. Create an energy of peace, healing and hope around yourself. Whatever it is…finances, unexpected challenges, health concerns, job security, or long-term changes in your life situation.

Despite what you see, hear, and feel…say to yourself…I’m going to be all right. Calm your mind, speak to your body, rest your spirit. Allow yourself to relax so that you can sleep at night. With this mindset, you will be all right!! You Deserve!

—Les Brown

Sometimes when we’re under duress, we can become shell shocked by the challenges we face, become exhausted and deplete our inner reserves of oxytocin (trust) and dopamine (what we find rewarding). Since I never did make up a decision about what to give up for Lent this year, (last year it was negativity…. the outcome of which was AWESOME), I’ve decided that for the remainder of this Lent that I’m going to create a log of activities, experiences and people that I find replenish those reserves — which means that I’ll have to be intentional about creating experiences to discover these things. I have a pretty good list already that I keep at my desk, but I’m hoping that I can implement some of these into my daily practice so that I can anchor some of these behaviors in response to undesirable behaviors. Currently in real time my favorite go-tos are either talking it out (my first go-to) finding tasks that let me appear to be productive but more importantly remove me from the undesirable behavior (when I find that talking doesn’t seem to be effective), or finding another person (usually another person or client) I can take an interest in to change the vibe rather than focus upon the person being rude. A.k.a. modeling the behavior I’d like to see.

I like the idea of imprinting biochemical markers, because I think our first inclination is react (or in my case to withdraw since liability risk is a considerable anchor I have to factor in), so this acknowledges that feedback from those red flags and allows me to redirect my energies to the kind of behaviors that are designed to keep me emotionally and psychologically healthy too.

When men do nothing


This morning at a community event, I was standing with a group of people from another department who I used to be really good friends with before I got promoted and a young African American male who only knew the group from grief social interactions, but for the most part got along with the group. There was one woman in the group, fairly young (about 19) and not very well versed in social etiquette that I didn’t know very well, and another African American male who was relatively new to the group, but often used his home to host his peers for social gatherings, usually involving a large amounts of alcohol. I’d stopped attending these gatherings once I got promoted to maintain that professional boundary and so the only real association I had with the group was at these community events.

The group surprisingly enough, showed up this morning after one of their all night shindigs and as we were watching the event, I overheard the African American male get upset at the young woman for using the n word. One member of the group, not the African American, stated, “c’mon man, why are you trying to make it out to be like that.” The girl defended her action by stating that it was from a rap song she had heard and that it wasn’t been a big deal because she was only quoting something she had heard from the other African American in the group.

Their attempts to condone the behavior only escalated the man’s anger and despite my attempts to persuade him to dismiss the matter until he could speak with the other African American male at a more appropriate time, the group convened, and wandered off to placate the matter among themselves.

The young man, looking to me for a sympathetic ear, found that I validated his reason for being upset as well as his decision to articulate that he felt uncomfortable with the usage of the word, but that I did feel as if he also had a responsibility to modulate how he reacted in those situations, because it wasn’t going to be the last time he was going to find himself in those situations — and unfortunately, since that group was in the class that was going to get promoted he was going to have to find a way to manage his responses better if he was going to mitigate the risk of limiting his opportunities every time he responds. I reminded him that she was 19, probably still drunk from the night before and that once he realized that his friends picked her side over his that it was in his best interest to leave and disassociate from the group rather than exacerbate the situation.

Because it wasn’t a work event there’s not much I can do to help him in that situation, and I’ve had conversations with people in the past about their responsibilities as the offended or as perpetrators when a derogatory word is used. Even though I did educate the guy to a very real and recurring reality, I do feel this very deep seated sense of disappointment that I had in fact done something wrong. I spend most of my time trying to instill in my workers that hard work should be rewarding and that there is merit in acting with good character, yet in the instant that a real problem arises I didn’t back him up and the only person who left the situation feeling as if he’d done something wrong was the person who I should have defended.

Irish statesman Edmund Burke once said that:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

and today I regret to admit that I dropped the ball on this and for that I am DEEPLY and regrettably sorry.

As a token minority I often hear people say (usually of one specific cohort) that it’s unnecessary to make race issues a big deal because these days we live in a colorblind society. I’m about 90% certain that’s only true for those who haven’t been discriminated against. And whether or not the girl intended to be malicious with her statement, I have no doubt in my mind that the girl did something wrong. And her friends were reckless not to pull her aside and gently remind her that it’s quite normal and valid for someone you don’t know to get offended if you use language that someone in the group may consider to be derogatory.

Does that mean you have to censor your language?

I’m not going to tell another freedom loving American what they can and can’t say, but I think that we all need to remember that the way that we respond to these kinds of situations sets a precedent for what kind of behavior we condone as normal and acceptable in our society. And as long as some people get to be offended by reckless and tasteless behavior but not others then it’s completely valid and healthy for that person to articulate that they don’t condone the behavior. To take offense to that is an indicator of weak stewardship, weak character and is often one of the first things you find in an unjust and inequitable society.

People are often quick to bemoan the afflicted for speaking out against these kinds of behavior.  And I can understand why, it makes others uncomfortable and most people would rather not talk even talk about it, especially in “polite company” or what should be a light and fun social setting.

The truth of the matter is, standing up to someone can be incredibly exhausting, especially if there’s a likelihood that you will increase the risk of being stigmatized by your peers because of it.

What we should be doing instead of reinforcing the humiliation people experience when we condone this behavior with our silence is acknowledging that our own lack of accountability often makes the problem worse. The states of hyper-vigilance that result afterward (from both parties) are but a symptom that somewhere along the line we have mismanaged the situation, and in order to create the kind of environment where people feel safe and valued, we each have a responsibility to intervene when these things happen so that we can be responsive to the needs of those who have actually earned our support and make sure that these wrongs are corrected.

First World Problems: The grad school dilemma


Original Photo

Original Photo

An old acquaintance who I now only keep up with on occasion via Facebook recently posted a query to all of his Facebook friends (not to be confused with REAL friends) regarding what grad school he should pick. The problem was simple. He had applied to his dream program but was also accepted into an MBA program at one of the ivy league schools he hadn’t expected to get into, and now had to make a decision about which program would put him into a better position to “start and manage “sustainable development” projects in the realms of renewable energy, environmental restoration, and forestry/agriculture.”

He comments:

Both options have pros and cons. The Yale FES MEM comes with the Yale name brand and possible connections to northeast capital and well-established national/international groups, but it would be quite removed from the specifics of Appalachia and 12+ hours away from home. The total tuition-only price tag for two years after a scholarship (I’m going to try to haggle for more scholarship) is $52k. I’m somewhat concerned that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously by “real” business people (especially when structuring fairly large project financing) with a non-MBA degree, but I could take about half of my classes at the business school at Yale and end up with a very solid understanding of the financial side of this work. My understanding is that there isn’t a huge amount of technological innovation happening at Yale in sustainability/renewables, but I could be wrong.

The UNC K-F MBA is a highly ranked program (top 20 in the US, top 50 in the world), but I’m not sure if it would have very much name recognition beyond people in the corporate business world (who I do want to be able to get financing from). It’s only about 5 1/2 hours from home, but I think that part of NC is very removed from Appalachia and not too concerned about it. The Research Triangle Park (Silicon Valley of the East) is just down the road and there’s a ton of sustainability innovation happening there that I’d like to be able to implement in the coalfields, and I’d also be able to take classes at Duke. They didn’t offer any scholarship, and the two year tuition-only total there would be $111k. Basically I’d have to be pretty certain that the MBA would be significantly more valuable than the MEM to be able to justify the much higher cost at a place with a less prestigious name.

So I’m sure you can imagine that right now I’m probably a little bit green with envy. I was one of those classmates who scoffed at the fact that he was learning how to produce ethanol because there was a body of knowledge out there to support the fact that the emissions output of ethanol and biodiesel was much less clean that the current grade of diesel we’d been producing.

But after the historic tornadoes hit Eastern Kentucky back in the spring of 2012, and I discovered that he was the only source of fuel regionally, I realized that aside from the yields he was getting, that the knowledge he possessed was incredibly useful in a crisis and that perhaps I’d been short sighted because I hadn’t recognized the value he now contributed to his under-served community because he could produce something as critically essential as fuel.

[I should probably add the reason that I’d been downgraded to merely a Facebook friend is that during this time, I worked on coordinating local fuel companies with the Department of Kentucky Emergency Management for the Relief and Recovery of some of the more rural regions that had lost their communications. There were only two fuel companies listed in that area, so I recommended that they start there and his company (which I didn’t realize was affiliated with him at the time) was the only company with the capability to produce fuel on site, so he spent the next two weeks, against his will, rendering tons of animal fat into bio-diesel. Which as it turns out, can be kind of a deal breaker in a fledgling friendship)]. 😉

So in full acknowledgement that I may have already compromised my own credibility, even after apologizing for the way I mismanaged that aspect of the situation; I did, however, recommend the following:

At a glance, I noticed that UNC has a much more developed program when it comes to bio-remediation research, so you may have more established and specialized contacts if you were to do that work. Yale, however, seems to provide funding for studies abroad in developing nations etc. for anything you’d be interested in researching. If the end goal is to increase accessibility to the kind of resources that could really benefit the Appalachian region, then I would recommend setting up informational interviews with lower income masters and doctoral candidates from each program to determine what level of personal involvement and support you would get from your advisers.

If it turns out that you will get a lot of personal and professional development opportunities, I would lean toward the Ivy, but I would NOT recommend taking on debt with them unless you can land really good financial and mentorship support. But if they believe you would be able to generate good returns on your research and enhance the reputation of their program, I would encourage you to let them invest in you. You could still partner with programs like UNC and increase awareness about the culture, impacts of extraction, etc. and serve as an incredible conduit to create accessibility within the region… something you might not be able to do approaching from the other side.

As a pioneer at that level you do also have the opportunity to get up to up to speed with the latest metrics –which would give you a lot of usage data for future publications, allow you to expand your research network, and consequently help others who see the value in similar kinds of work in other areas with the same resource challenges as the Appalachian region.

Also, congratulations.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to poll the commons: