What I learned at TED Women 2017

Hosts Pat Mitchell & Kelly Stoetzel speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Hosts Pat Mitchell & Kelly Stoetzel speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Joan Blades (Living Room Conversations) & John Gable (All Sides) speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Joan Blades (Living Room Conversations) & John Gable (All Sides) speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

I recently returned from the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans. TEDWomen is a three-day conference about the power of women and girls to be creators and change-makers. The stories on stage were inspiring, and the connections we made in the gathering spaces were also enriching. We were there to learn from each other as much as from those who took the stage, so we did not hesitate to strike up conversations with people we did not know. The entire three-day conference felt like a warm embrace. 

Since returning I have wondered how we can foster more of that same trust and openness in our daily lives. As I reflect on what works and what doesn’t, I realize that it doesn’t take much. We just need to ask questions that cause the other to reflect before answering.

A friend once asked me in an e-mail: “What is lighting up your life these days?” This question yields a very different response than if she had asked: “So, how are you?” With the former question, I reflect on what is meaningful to me and share it. With the latter question, I tend to offer a litany of complaints. (“This happened, and then that happened…”)

We spend so much time actively thinking about how we present ourselves to the world; and with friends and family we tend to unload. Imagine if we spent just as much time inquiring about what is vital and meaningful to another person. It doesn’t have to be a touchy-feely question. It simply needs to be an open-ended inquiry that makes space for the vitality of the other to bubble forth.

Need suggestions on open-ended questions? Consider The 36 Questions that Lead to Love and in your mind replace the word “love” with “connection.” The other person does not need to be a potential romantic partner, nor do you have to ask all 36 questions. The idea is simply to ask questions that open the door for the essence of the other to enter the space. This is where connection and possibility take place.

Teresa Njoroge (Clean Start) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Teresa Njoroge (Clean Start) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Stephanie Speirs (Solstice) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Stephanie Speirs (Solstice) speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Anger and Kindness

Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, recently spoke about the value of anger to prompt us to action. He emphasized that the value is derived from being able to channel the anger without aggression, and that daily self-reflection on what we can do improve ourselves is what gives us the power to improve the world. Wise words indeed!

In our era of outrage, far too many people seem to be blinded by anger, and even to cultivate it. Their actions appear intended to draw attention to themselves rather than to effect meaningful, positive change. I am dismayed to see the pride with which so many people proudly proclaim that they “called someone out.” To what end, I ask? Is the targeted person likely to change his/her behavior in response to being publicly shamed? Unlikely, I believe.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” has been interpreted in many ways, often with concrete actions to build, create, or transform something. I think it also means finding ways to be kind, compassionate, and patient in our everyday lives, even with those who drive us crazy – such as colleagues, family members or service providers. It means seeing the dignity of the other and speaking to it, from one’s own place of dignity.

All too often, we explain away our outbursts or aggression as a response to what someone else did or said. But this means that we live our lives in reaction to others, rather than from our own core. A crucial question to ask ourselves is not “What do I want to do in the world?” but “How do I want to be in the world, regardless of what anyone else does?” I know from my own personal experience that developing this type of grounding can be challenging at times, but I also know that it is well worth the effort because of the way it transforms relationships.

Many of us want to make the world a better place, and schools try to instill this aspiration in students. It is heartening to see young people apply themselves to innovative thinking to help those in need, or who address injustice with a problem-solving mindset. We need this. But it is equally important to cultivate kindness. I believe a kind person can generate more valuable change in our society than an outraged person, even when addressing injustices. A kind person is not a push-over, but someone who has a grounded awareness of self and others.

You can read the short article about Dr. Arun Gandhi’s talk here.