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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Michelle Maldonado. Michelle is founder and CEO of Lucenscia, a human potential and mindful business transformation firm dedicated to developing leaders and organizations with positive impact in the world. She’s a graduate of Barnard College at Columbia University, the George Washington University Law School, and she’s a certified mindfulness teacher, professional level, with the International Mindfulness Teachers Association. And she’s also certified faculty member and a meta-coach for Dan Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification Program.
With Sounds True, she’s on the faculty of our Inner MBA program, which is a nine-month immersion program to do inner work for greater impact. You can learn more at innermbaprogram.com. Michelle Maldonado is such an unusual person, her heart full and brimming, dedicated to public service. It’s clear in this conversation, compassion is her superpower. Take a listen.
Here at the beginning, Michelle, I’d love to know a little bit more, and for you to share with our listeners a bit about your background. I read that you actually were introduced to meditation the summer after first grade. I wanted to hear about that, and what led you to becoming the founder and CEO of Lucenscia.
Michelle Maldonado: Yes. Thank you for that question. Thanks for having me here. So, it’s one of my most favorite stories of how meditation was introduced to me, because it is one of those gifts that you don’t recognize how powerful and beautiful it is in the moment until you get to really embody it, integrated over your life. I grew up in New England in a very traditional Roman Catholic family, and my grandmother had a sister who kind of traveled the world, never had children. She was everybody’s favorite aunt, and she just … Everybody got so excited to be in her presence.
One summer, she had my older sister and I come out and spend the summer with her in Casper, Wyoming, and she introduced us to some of the Indigenous communities, Lakota Sioux and Cherokee nations. We just learned so much. And she had this philosophy of, not just our town view or our country, but a world view, a human view, and she was just having these beautiful conversations with these budding minds. One day, she just simply said, a couple of days after arriving, she said, “Would you like to come sit quietly with me?”
I tell this story a lot, and the seven-year-old mind was like, no, I want to go to the pool. I want to go ride bikes. I want to go play in the dirt. Then I stopped myself, I said, but wait, she is the favorite aunt, maybe there’s something to this, and so I did it. She just was so gentle and quiet and even-keeled. I sat in the chair and she placed her hands on my head and said, “Quiet here—” she stood behind me and then she moved her hands down to my chest and said, “—so you can be here.” That’s all she said. That’s all she ever said.
She never told me it was meditation. She never used any language of anything. And then simply said, “And when you’re ready, you can get up, whether I’m done or not, and go outside and play.” When I think back on what that did for me, I wouldn’t have had the language as a seven-year-old. But what I did know, when I finished sitting quietly, was that I felt better. The colors of the world seemed brighter. The noises were crisper and I just felt better. I felt grounded. Things didn’t bother me. I was happier. I was more joyful, which to me is actually a more intense, more elevated version of happy.
I kept doing it after the summer, but I went back to a very strict, traditional Roman Catholic family, where … My family’s also Cape Verdeans, so there are also cultural traditions. They didn’t really leave room for meditation. I found myself unfolding, blossoming in ways that were different from my siblings and cousins. I would say things to my parents and my elders in ways that I thought were respectful, but they would be very perplexed. I remember one time in particular, my grandmother being mad at me for something and yelling at me, and I took a breath, and I said, “Nana, I can see you’re really upset right now, so am I. Why don’t we just take a moment and come back and then talk about it.” I was 12 years old.
MM: It infuriated her. I mean, I thought I was doing something brilliant. She did not like it. So, I wasn’t in an environment that was conducive to continuing it with other people, but what I did was I continued to practice on my own all the way through high school, all the way through college, all the way. It wasn’t until college that I learned that that’s what it was. And then I started learning terminology, different styles, and all those things. When I got in the workplace, to just wrap this up to say, how did it relate to or lead to forming Lucenscia? It’s because when I got into the workplace, even when I got into law school, when I got into these more professional places, what I discovered was there was so much suffering that everybody was trying to hide and pretend that they weren’t experiencing.
I was the person that people would kind of come to their office and open the door and say, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” And then they’d leave like an hour later. After a while, I got to the point where I was staying up so late at night, because I was getting the work done at night that I was supposed to be getting done during the day. And I started thinking, we have some organizations who are behaving badly in the world. Why is that? We have some systems that are oppressive and full of disparate treatment across different populations. Why is that?
When you reverse engineer it and engineer that, it’s because those organizations are filled with people like you and me, and we’re carrying our life stories, our life traumas, our belief systems that have been ingrained in us. We’re bringing it through the doors of the workplace. We’re doing that and intersecting with a whole bunch of people who are doing the same thing. So, I just decided that that was the part of the work that I did in my own practice and embodiment that infused the nature and quality of my presence, the impact of my ripple, and also my performance. For example, in my last job, my boss came to me one day and said, “What is it that you do that makes your team so high-performing?”
Because our team was out-performing revenue, producing millions of dollars, multiple millions of dollars more than the other teams, and they just couldn’t figure it out. When I was first asked the question, I didn’t know how to answer it. Then I realized, and I said to him, it wasn’t what, it was how. And I started to talk to him about how we do what we do matters, and our presence matters. That piece became really palpable at the forefront. I started weaving all of that into leadership development, team development, organizational development work, and found that people were ready.
Initially, they weren’t. But finally, towards the latter part of the 2010s going into the 2015s, people started to say, what we’ve been doing isn’t working and we need something better. I did it for several years until 2018. Finally, just full-time, formed … I formed the company in 2017, but decided this is the way I could serve in the world. We have so many people working in mission-driven organizations and nonprofits that do good work in the world, and they’re bumping up against corporations and agencies every day who say they’re mission driven, but their actions aren’t aligned so that they’re both doing good and being good.
That’s where I wanted the company to kind of bring all those things together, to meet people that are living the everyday every day.
TS: I know you mentioned in managing your team, what a high-performing team it was, and it wasn’t the what but the how.
TS: What was the how?
MM: What was the how? I liken it to saying … A lot of people say, “I just want you to get the work done.” I hear this all the time. I don’t want to be somebody’s counselor. I don’t want to have to hear all that. I just want you to do the work. But when we approach people as human doings, instead of human beings, we’re not acknowledging the whole person that’s in front of us. While people can perform functionally well, when they don’t feel any connection, which then makes them not really feel the value of the relationship and the importance, the purpose behind the work that’s deep and rooted, what you get is a lot of people who don’t have loyalty, who don’t feel any particular affinity, and oftentimes don’t stay.
The how for me was recognizing and really being engaged in authentic conversation with members of my team about what is it … I would ask questions every time we would have our weekly meetings or do our review periods. What makes you excited about this work? Where do you see yourself going? And I would give them permission to say to me that, maybe, where they wanted to go had nothing to do with this company.
If that were the case, then I’d say, OK, so in five years’ time, you want to be out in the world having your own business? What are the skill sets that you’re going to need to be successful there that relate to what you’re doing here? And let’s make sure you get more of that. So, it was always honoring who the people are and giving them autonomy too, and also letting them know that it was OK to make a mistake. Not all mistakes bring the end of the world, and some are really drastic and there are consequences, but people have to know if they make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that they’re a failure. It means we have to figure out how it happened, why it happened, and how to fail fast and move forward really quickly. So, I gave space and permission, first and foremost, and then lots of support and consistency.
TS: That question, what makes you excited about this work? That’s definitely a terrific question, and one I wrote down that I’m going to need to ask the people I work with. I haven’t been asking that question. I did think of one person and I thought, if I asked that question, that person might say, “I’m not really excited about anything right now,” truth be told. “I’m not excited about the work we’re doing. I’m not excited about anything.” What would you do in a situation like that?
MM: Yes. I’ve had that happen, and that’s OK too. That’s the great thing. If somebody feels comfortable and safe enough to say that to you, know that you’re on the right track because some people will just make up an answer because they think they have to, but if you’ve established the groundwork, you’ll get a real, authentic answer. And so when that happens, I ask people, what do they love? What are they passionate about? Sometimes they’ll say, “I love art” or “I love music.” So, maybe there are pieces of the work that we have that requires creativity, like creating assets, creating materials for marketing. Maybe it’s not on your team, maybe it’s another place in the organization or another role or function, but you won’t know if you don’t have the conversation and start saying, OK, well, maybe what we’re doing right now isn’t fun for you.
But is it that it’s not fun for you because it’s a necessary part of the job and we’ve got to get this … People hate doing expense reports, they hate doing these administrative things. But sometimes that’s part of the job too. What about, is there anything that you do like, and if not, then what are the things that you do like doing? And then figure out, oh, well, that’s simple. Actually, that is part of this umbrella. Here’s how we can make that more prominent. That may or may not mean that those other things that the person disliked go away—because we’re all adults, we’re all working, and sometimes we have parts of our job we don’t enjoy as much as others.
But I always think the way to really drill down and figure out: how do you map what inspires and motivates the person to what they have to do, the scope of what needs to be done? Sometimes you can bridge the two, and sometimes you can’t, and you got to be OK with that too. If you can’t, the next step I always ask is, is there something else in the organization? It’s still continuing to have the question. It’s like you peel back the finer layers of the onion. If they don’t say, there’s nothing really that’s exciting me now at work, you can get into, what does excite you? What are you passionate about? And see if you can map, because sometimes people can’t see the connection between what really fuels them and what they’re doing.
When you can sort of make the connection for them, that shifts things a bit. Then, if there truly is no connection after you’ve learned, what are the things that inspire them and motivate them, and they’re passionate about it, there’s another role or function in the organization. Sometimes that is the smarter place, so you don’t lose the person. But the other thing I was saying, we have to caution people thinking, oh, I’ll just have that conversation, we’ll connect the dots, we’ll be fine. Sometimes you’re not, and sometimes there’s not something inside the organization and you have to assist them to transition out.
And sometimes you also have to just simply acknowledge that there are just parts of our jobs that we don’t really enjoy, but that’s not the totality of the job. Nobody likes, like when I was working, even now, I don’t like doing expense reports. That is not my favorite part of the job, but it is necessary to get done. So, we all have those pieces too.
TS: I just want to underscore a couple of things before we move on with our conversation. First of all, what an unusual young person you were. I could imagine a lot of young people getting introduced with their favorite, great aunt and being like, of course I want to do it when I’m with her, but then forget it. I’m not going to keep sitting here focusing on my heart through my teenage years. No way, I got other things to do, lots of other things. I think that’s really unusual. Then also this kind of just deep, intuitive care about people. I also think that’s unusual. How do you understand yourself in terms of these two things I’m highlighting?
MM: I don’t know any other way. I don’t know any other way of being. I’ve always deeply cared about not just humans, but all things, our creatures, big and small. I think that it probably has evolved over time because of my practice. I always remember feeling this way, but I believe that when you do your work, your inner work—the word “work” always … I don’t have a better word for it. It’s our journeys, it’s becoming and being. What we’re being right now is exactly beautiful, who we are, and at the same time that we are being, we are also becoming. I have just such profound love. I have love. A lot of people don’t understand that, and because they don’t understand that I can kind of be in this place of love for another—because I coach people and I prepare. I open my heart. I want to become from a place of love.
And sometimes when you use the word, love, people think of romantic love. They think of all these things are kind of wishy-washy. But I think love is an intelligent sort of way of being that allows us to connect with one another, that allows for wisdom to come through and to be present. It’s a lens, I think, that helps to keep us grounded and connected and interconnected. I’m still learning, and I’m sure if you ask me that question next week, next month, next year, I’m still learning and growing in who I am and my presence in the world, and I may answer it differently. I may have better clarity next time.
But for now, I just feel this way and I believe that it is uniquely what we all possess inside, and it also is uniquely what the world always needs.
TS: Beautiful. One more question about you personally, Michelle. You wrote an article called “Finding Your Power at Work, at Home, and in Life.” In that article, you wrote several years ago, “a series of events in my life were triggered that led me on a journey to discover my own power.” I wanted to hear more about what that means—to your own power—and also what those events were that triggered this journey to discover your own power.
MM: Yes. Wow. I wrote that article, actually, when my son, shortly after my son was born, and didn’t share it with the world until I think more than a decade later. My son is now 17. What was happening at that time was, I grew up in a very sort of … Many people have different childhood experiences. We all have our own journey, but my childhood was really full of inconsistency, there was lots of abuse, neglect, trauma, addiction. There was a whole bunch of stuff that I thought I had processed well, which is probably why I stuck with the contemplative practice. Because it always provided me a sense of safety and calming and grounding.
When I had my son, the whole world, all kinds of things opened up again to me about, how do I protect this human? How do I love this human in a way that promotes him, his well-being, and happiness and joy? I was working—and I was conflicted with working while I had a young baby—and I wanted to be with him. I also had had knee surgery shortly—when he was still a toddler—and I developed a post-op infection and that was … It was just horrible. Then I was at a job where I had been for seven or eight years. It was a job that I got that everybody in the world would have wanted. It was back in the tech … It was just as the tech bubble burst, and everybody was like, “Oh my gosh, you work for that tech company. Can you get me a job there?” I was unfulfilled for so long, but I didn’t know …
All these questions and all these sort of senses of feeling very vulnerable and not knowing where I was going next or what I was doing and wanting to gain some answers and clarity for myself. The thing that I found that I was doing, which a lot of us do, is I was looking for so many answers outside of myself. Where’s that training? Who’s that guru? What’s that device? Whatever it was, and the many … What I was learning was, when you claim your own power, that you understand that you have all the answers that you need, but nobody can tell you what’s right or wrong for you, what’s best or not for you. And that the people and supports and resources around us are meant for us to help discover our own answer, not to usurp it or replace it. That was where I was in that moment that had me write that article.
TS: That’s a super, super powerful to know that you have everything you need and access to the support you need to make the decisions you need in your life to feel empowered. It’s beautiful. OK. One of the things you write and teach about is inner work for outer impact. You’ve already referenced this idea that there can be a lot of mission-driven companies that exist for the right reasons, but are maybe not operating in all of the ways that are consonant with the mission they’re trying to accomplish in the world.
Really, the launch of the Inner MBA, the program that I’m so happy that you’re on the faculty of, it’s really about this. It’s wanting to say to all of those people out there who want their mission-aligned company to do good work, do the inner work so that you can have the kind of outer impact you really want to have, really, at every level in your organization. What kind of inner work do you think creates the greatest outer impact?
MM: Yeah. It’s interesting because a lot of people think automatic and say mindfulness and meditation. What I will say is that, yes, that’s a foundational element, but the way people’s minds work is they’re like, I need a framework, I need a process that I can follow. To make things easier for people, what I often say is emotional intelligence, because the grounding inner linchpin skill there is self-awareness. And that’s where we bring in the mindfulness. That’s the one that I would spend the most time on, because if you’re not developing that in your capacity there, you can’t even get to the second, third, and fourth pieces.
The second, third, and fourth pieces are really important, because the self-awareness is, what’s happening in all of this inner world? Then the social awareness is, how am I receiving, perceiving, and being received by others? That’s the social awareness. Then, how do those two together impact my relationships and interactions and how I lead? I use the framework, but there’s this underpinning and threading of mindfulness and compassion, self-compassion. The thing that people often have to understand is that they want to transform their organizations—and there are lots of good people wanting to do good in the world—through their organizations and are having a hard time.
Here’s the thing we have to remember, is that it took years, decades, some companies, centuries, to become what they are today. Many of them, particularly if they’re publicly traded companies, are dealing with external pressures like investors, shareholders. That oftentimes can drive the decisions that are made because the people with the money, power, often have an exaggerated sense of influence and control in the companies. One of the things I think that people have to really be mindful of is that we have to appreciate that, just like we have to meet people, individuals where they are, we also have to meet organizational systems where they’re at, so we can practically meet them and put pieces and supports in place to help move us forward.
Because a lot of times we’re like, we’re so excited. We want to make this change. We put in this new training program, why aren’t things changing? We did it last year, we did it last month. But these things take time, and one of the things that people have to have is patience as we … This is a journey as an organization. I mean, it’s often harder. I’d invite people to think about the elements of emotional intelligence, but first, spend the most time on self, and the self-awareness pieces.
Even with self-awareness, the way I often will describe that is just sort of mindful awareness. And think about it in context, because it’s the context that influences and helps us develop the awareness. The context of what happens in your family is different from the context that happens when you’re driving your car or in a supermarket. What’s the context? I invite people to think about three concentric circles, with yourself in that middle circle, the center circle, and then the next circle out being others, and then the final circle being your surroundings or ecosystem.
As you develop your awareness, as you build that muscle and capacity for mindfulness and self-compassion, you carry that through each of those levels of awareness. You don’t develop it and leave it, drop it there. You bring it through each and every one, and that’s part of the inner work. As we bring it with us, as we embody it and remember that, yes, oh, it’s not just when I’m at home on my cushion or I’m walking through the woods, it’s when I’m in that office meeting and my boss has said for the second time that I can’t do this project that I really want to do. Or it’s: I’m in my office and, once again, my colleagues have decided to do something social and they haven’t invited me. Or gosh, this is the second year in a row I haven’t gotten the budget request that I’ve asked for. It’s in all of that and it’s also in times when we need to speak up or we need to add something. So, there’s a lot of work in that first piece. Then you bring that to all the other pieces.
TS: What I’m curious about is, when I think about self-awareness, and it’s just me and myself, we’re good. OK. Now we move out the context and we move out to others, and that’s where some problems start. Then we get into the ecosystem and it’s, OK, suddenly I’m aware of myself in a toxic ecosystem. OK, how does that help me? Why is understanding that context, how is that going to help me now?
MM: That’s a great question, and I love the question because how we do—there’s a book by Dov Seidman called How, and I think the subtitle is something like Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. This matters because if I’m sitting in a meeting, for example, that is crazy toxic, people in the room don’t get along, they’re whatever, are we adding fuel to the fire or are we helping to bring about clarity and understanding and solution to the room? What is the nature and quality of our presence? When we know what our state is, what the narratives are, they’re running around in our minds, whether our chests are tight or our shoulders are tight.
When we know that information, that gives us a great opportunity to take a purposeful pause and choose, how am I going to show up next? What am I going to say? What am I going to not say? Because that sometimes could be equally more as important as what I’m going to say. What am I going to do? What am I not going to do? When you do that, you can start to influence that environment in a very different way. There’s this cartoon, this illustration I saw where there are a whole bunch of angry people, and there’s one person in the middle, and they’re just happy. Then all of a sudden, you see over the frames of the picture that it starts to be contagious.
What I will say is that oftentimes when you’re in a meeting and you’re not adding to the fury, that doesn’t mean that you’re silent and withdrawn. It means that you choose skillfully how to be a productive participant that models the behavior we want to see. Let me tell you, I have no illusions that it’s easy. People who’ve worked with me before have heard me say this tons of times: this work is simple, but not easy.
It’s simple to get it. Oh yes, I get it, but when you actually have to do it, you’re not always going to be surrounded by people who are supportive and right there with you because we all are where we are. That’s why that self-awareness, self-compassion, resilience piece is so important, because we have to stay the course and then others join us.
TS: One of the things I learned in reading up about Lucenscia is that you offer trainings on becoming aware of unconscious bias in the workplace. I wanted to hear more about that and to begin the science that shows that we all have unconscious bias and how, when you work with people in an organization, you help them appreciate that in a nonjudgmental way. Like, I don’t have to be judgmental about myself because this is human.
MM: Right. That’s one of the first places I start in my trainings, because the state of our world, let alone our country or our individual communities, we’re very tender right now and people are feeling very vulnerable and very raw. Many people are feeling judged around what their particular population in society may have done or may not have done to others. But the reality is that there’s some neuroscience, there’s some biology around why we do what we do, how we perceive other people, and why we do it in the way that we do.
One of the things that I often, well, there’s a couple things I borrow from, but I use the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett, Regina Pally, and even a modified video-ish of David Eagleman’s work. When you start to look at how we separate people who we feel are not like us, and then we attract and bring in people who we feel are like us, and how that creates breaking or bridging. The Othering & Belonging Institute by john a. powell is some work that I bring in as well. When we can start to see like, oh, well, we had to do that eons ago because somebody from another community, a tribe or community, that could have meant life or death, or me walking alone in the world could have meant death.
We naturally have used these practices to protect ourselves, to make sure our species survives. Then as our brains evolve, we started to have more executive functioning and processing capability, but at the same time, the parts of our brain that scan for threats are still scanning for threat, even though those threats may look a little different, maybe they’re not saber-toothed tigers anymore, but they’re something. So, when we can start to get to a place we’re like, oh, we all have it, the next layer of context is to introduce, not only your life experience that then informs on top of that, and your traumas, which can be individual, generational, and collective.
We know this from Resmaa’s work in My Grandmother’s Hands, and so we know all of this sits in the body. That naturally influences how we perceive things. I have this piece of work I do that I talk about paradox, prediction, and perception, and what the brain is doing, and how it’s pulling from the narrow data set that’s called your life, right? That’s what the brain can pull from. It’s only what our experience has been. If our experience with a particular person or group of people has not been pleasant, or it’s been based in fear or has had a traumatic event, then that’s the way we perceive that unless we disrupt the narrative to be able to be in engagement, in relationship in a healthier way.
But we have to process the trauma. We have to heal the trauma before we can do that. You just can’t move right into it. When you talk about that as the baseline for people, and everybody can experience like, yes, I have had trauma, I can think of some. There are some collective traumas that we’re not even aware that we are carrying and that we enable and that we continue to perpetuate. So, when you open up the first part, you start to be aware of the other pieces. That’s where we start. Then you can start to bring in the concepts of, what is unconscious bias? How is that even possible? The one thing I often hear in my work: I would never say that. I don’t even think that. I would never do that.
I give a lot of, there’s some wonderful work that’s been done by professor Sue, Derald Wing Sue, at Teacher’s College at Columbia University around microaggressions. I love the examples that he and his team give. The example that helped me, pulling from that work was, when I was little, there were wonderful cartoons on TV that all of us loved. One of my favorite ones was The Jetsons, this futuristic thing, and the flying saucers, and robots that worked. It was a great cartoon. All my friends watched it. We all watched it. We couldn’t wait for it to come on TV. I grew up with lots of different sort of cultural groups around me, Asian, American, and Latinx, and different sort of religious groups, and we all watched it.
I tell people, a sort of example of a macroaggression, macrolevel, is that, think about how all of us, white, black, everybody from the BIPOC community, everybody from the white community was watching this cartoon. When you see the cartoon, there is absolutely no one in that cartoon that looks like me. There’s no person of color in the future. There’s no person of color in any positions of power, working, managing a home, raising children. There’s nothing. We’re not present. What that does is it allows this perception to kind of seep in, I say it’s like melted butter, into the nooks and crannies.
Nobody said, people of color, there’s no place for you. It was implied in the absence. We have many things like that, where there’s no representation. This is why representation matters. When you start to think about it, and I pull out TV … I use things, I also infuse a lot of humor, not so that we don’t address what’s present, but I really believe that humor also allows us to process and open doors. When I start to use things like The Jetsons, people start laughing. They’re like, oh my gosh, that is absolutely right.
When they began to think of, who can run this company? Who can do this? I mean, we’ve come a long way since The Jetsons, but bear with me. But when you’re starting to think of, who can fill this position, the images of who would best suit those things weren’t people who look like me, and they may not have been people that look like you either, because in those earlier days too, there weren’t even women who were holding those roles.
We kind of traverse through that, and it’s a journey, so that people can incrementally get comfortable talking about bias, microaggressions, and then identity and intersectionality. Because the way I identify myself in the world may or may not coincide with how you identify me. I’m actually experiencing something like that now, because my name is Lopes-Maldonado. A lot of people think I’m Afro-Latina, but I’m actually Cape Verdean. I had a couple of people ask me to self-identify as Afro-Latina, because I could be it. I was like, but I’m not. I’m looking at how people … It’s interesting, because people want to identify you a certain way, and when you don’t fit that identity, there are some gaps there. To me, that’s a comical example, but this happens all the time.
People want to identify you as one way, you identify yourself as another way, or maybe you do overlap. But then, when we intersect in our ecosystems, our systems and structures, which could be the world of work or what have you, all of us are coming together now that we’ve gone through our bias. We look at the biology, we look at the biases, we look at microaggressions, we’re looking at identity. Now we’re intersecting how, in the midst of all of that, do we then create psychologically safe workspaces for everybody. That’s part of the journey. You have to go through all of those things in order for us to be intentional about that and make sure that we are practicing intercultural competence in all the things that come along with it.
TS: Well, let’s talk for a moment about psychological safety, because that is such an important idea. It’s now clear that, if you want to have exceptional teamwork, the people on the team need to feel psychologically safe for that to happen. What do you think are the biggest drivers, creators of psychological safety?
MM: Well, we already know from Google’s Project Aristotle that when we look at psychological safety, one of the core underpinnings of that, in order to have that, you also have empathy, compassion. They say empathy. I always say compassionate because I think compassion is empathy in action, but I also know there are different types of empathy that correspond to the word compassion. I don’t want people to get tripped up on, is it empathy? Is it compassion? It’s empathy with action to it. I think that is definitely one of them, because when people know that you care … I don’t remember who said this. Quite frankly, I know I learned it when I was co-teaching with Scott Kriens, who is a cofounder of 1440, but he says that people, I know he was quoting somebody, I just can’t remember who, that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
I believe that to be true. To have psychological safety, there has to be that component. There also has to be a felt sense, not a spoken word but a felt sense, of feeling heard, valued, and seen, and that you understand that my experience—as a white male is different from yours, or my experience as an Asian woman or a Latinx woman, or somebody from the LGBTQ+ community, or me as an African American woman—that they’re all going to be different. I’m going to lend different perspectives, and can we have the grace to allow those perspectives in and to be valued completely?
I can think of some time, some examples in my own work life. I remember working with a team to design a new product offering for the public. This team had worked so hard, and it was such a worthy, wonderful concept. The content was good, but when they rendered the final product, every single person in the product was a middle-age to a senior white male. The only two women in it were women crying. There were no young people, there were no people of color, there were no empowered women. I noticed it right away. And they were so proud of what they produced. Now, the topic and the content was great, but the way they translated it into imagery is what I found problematic, and they didn’t see it at all.
Sometimes we’re sort of caught saying, well, how do I speak to that without hurting feelings in the room? Sometimes what happens, when you point something out like that, instead of listening to the words that you’re saying about, hey, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we add whatever? People feel like they’re being judged. They feel like there’s an underlying message. You’re racist, you’re sexist, you’re whatever. So, they’re internalizing and they’re feeling something is being reflected back to them that makes them very uncomfortable, because they don’t believe it to be true about themselves.
What I say, which is what makes unconscious bias so hard for people to process, is that consciously, we would never think, feel, act that way. We’re like, that’s just not even what I would do. Of course, that’s the whole nature of it being unconscious. We have to have a little bit of grace to let people make those statements and learn as we go in the room. People have to feel like it’s OK to make a mistake and that people still have their backs.
If you don’t have that and empathy, and that compassion, and that feeling heard, valued, and seen—and that part is around that intercultural competence piece—if you don’t have minimally those three things, you will never be able to create any kind of meaningful or deeply rooted, sustaining psychological safety. There has to be accountability too. If somebody is not, is violating, sort of, the norm, or the agreements around psychological safety, we have to be empowered. And whoever the ultimate leader of that particular team or group is, they have to be modeling it and they also have to hold people accountable, because there’s nothing worse than saying “this is what we stand for,” but nobody’s held accountable to stay in alignment with that standard.
TS: Michelle, I wanted to ask you about something that I’ve been pondering ever since I started reading up about you, which is your favorite saying is something that is repeated in different articles and stories about you, and that your favorite saying is: “What happens to one of us happens to all of us.” I wanted to talk about this. First of all, it’s just such a powerful statement, what happens to one of us happens to all of us. What I realized is that philosophically, I get it and I say, that’s true. I mean, we’re all part of the web.
What happens, a butterfly’s wing happens to all of us. I appreciate it at that level, but I also know in my own experience, I don’t necessarily feel things that way. This is the hard part of bringing this up. I don’t feel that way. What happens to someone in my family feels a lot different to me than what happens to someone who I don’t know at all, who I’ve never met, or somebody who lives three-quarters of the way around the world. I don’t feel it in the same way. How do we take that favorite saying and bring it into our emotional and lived experience, not just at a kind of philosophical level?
MM: Thank you for asking that question, because the first thing that often happens is exactly what you said—but I don’t feel the same with somebody over here as I do over with someone over here. What happens to one of us happens to all of us doesn’t mean we’re going to feel the same level of intensity. What it means is, how do we get ourselves to care? It’s not going to be the same intensity of emotion, but how do we notice that something is happening that is an injustice or is inhumane or is a humanitarian crisis, how do we get ourselves to care, and caring matters? Because think about the things that have happened, I think just in the US alone.
One of the examples I give, like why would we want to care? Sometimes in the US, because of the way our systems and structures are the way they are, there can be a crisis happening that begins in one of the BIPOC communities that people don’t pay much attention to. They either sort of blame the community as it being their fault or, well, that’s the way they are, or whatever, until it starts to spill out beyond that community and starts to ripple into more affluent communities, and then it becomes a national crisis.
Now, if you don’t believe me, think about the crack epidemic in the ‘80s. It was not considered a problem when it was contained to the Black community. When it spilled out, it was all of a sudden a national crisis. Now we move forward and we’ve got, cool, a bunch of national attention on people addicted to drugs and narcotics that are prescription and others. But all of this, when we start to not care when the initial signs start to appear, it means we allow it to kind of grow on its own, almost like in a petri dish when mold starts to grow. If we don’t care when the initial signs start to appear, what happens is we lay the groundwork for it to continue to grow, to spread.
The question that is asked through that statement is how, and what do I care about, and what capacity or ability do I have to use my voice or my resources to bring attention to it, to help mitigate it? Now, when I say this, people automatically often have this reaction in their body like, oh, that would exhaust me. There’s so much to fix in the world. We’re certainly not saying that, because some of us really love to tackle problem or situation A, and we’re really skilled and have the resources to do it. Other of us like problem B, C, D, whatever. Find the areas where you are best suited and bring your care and attention and resources to it.
When you feel like you’re not the best person, think about who you might know who might be, and bring it to their attention to say, “Hey, did you hear about this? I know you’re really interested in this, and I thought this example of something I heard might be really something that you might want to take a look at.” The more we can kind of stitch together the fabric, we start to see that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. It becomes an individual responsibility of each of us to be a caretaker of one another and our community and our nation and our world in a way that gets us out of just thinking about ourselves or the ones we love.
TS: OK. Let me keep going a little bit in this hard, crunchy territory, which is, I like the fact that you’re saying what happens to one of us happens to all of us doesn’t mean that I’m going to have the same emotional response. That’s a good clarification, and it’s about caring. But let’s say someone says, “Look, truth, be told, I don’t really care that much about this thing. I want to, because I want to be a good person, and I know we’re connected and I want you,” but care is like a feeling. You have to feel it and I don’t feel it, but I want to. What would you say to somebody who, maybe, who knows what it is that they hear about happening, and they don’t find that caring response emerging inside of them?
MM: I mean, there’s so many ways to answer that, but the two in particular I will sort of offer is that the first is, maybe it’s not your thing to address. That’s somebody else’s thing to address. The other is maybe there’s an opportunity to get involved and see. There have been things that I’ve done over time where I never had an interest in it. Then something happened where it brought me into it. I chose to participate, and I’m like, holy cow, I never knew that. That was really cool. I’d like to learn more of that. For me, I’ll give you an example, I’m really … There are two things in particular, hunger and affordable housing, that really, I think, are important.
But when I was younger, I was kind of like, yeah, no, that’s really important. Everybody should have something. I mean, I put no action behind it. Then I started volunteering with a local community organization and distributing food during Ramadan. Then it became later, outside of Ramadan. That’s in the Muslim religion. I’m not Muslim, but it was food for everybody. I thought, this is a great example of how you serve. It’s like, what can you do and what action can you take? I wasn’t interested in participating in a food bank or a food distribution, but I did care about people eating.
The one thing I say to people is, if this is not what’s calling you, it doesn’t make you an insensitive or unkind person. Maybe that’s not where your thing is, where you, your resources, and your skill and your passion lie. But again, you might be able to tell somebody else about it. Finding out, what is it that you do care about, that goes beyond just what makes you comfortable now. Here’s the other thing after I say all of that. I still believe that if you are a self-aware, compassionate, kind person showing up in the world every day to your family, to your friends, to your coworkers, there is a powerful ripple effect in that. You may say, “I just want to be a good whatever.”
And if you are really good at that and you integrate all those other pieces, I want to say, I acknowledge that that’s also true, that you can do all those things, and your ripple effect can impact many lives that may inspire and open up a space for people to do the work that you’re not interested in. I feel like it’s not a straight black-and-white answer, that there are so many ways, but even in that, that is one way that what happens to one of us happens to all of us, because if you show up like a jerk, that’s going to affect the people around you as well.
TS: Very helpful. Thank you. Now, I know one of the inspirations you received, what you call a compassion project, one of your compassion projects was to create something called A Bridge to Better, and I wonder if you can share a little bit about what that compassion project is, A Bridge To Better.
MM: Yes. In my company, Lucenscia, I love the work that I do. It is what sort of keeps the lights on in the house and food on the table. But there are so many things that I want to gift to our communities and so many things I want to do. So, we decided that we were going to have compassion projects, and I particularly use that instead of passion projects, because I want people to start getting comfortable seeing compassion as a superpower, as a normal everyday thing that we need to infuse in all that we do. This Bridge to Better was our second compassion project. It didn’t start out to be that way at all.
It was when we were experiencing the nation—but our family in particular, my husband, we have one child, a 17-year-old son who was 16 at the time—when Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd were murdered. And our nation was just … I mean, we all know what was happening in our nation, and the families of the people, and the friends of the people that were murdered. I’m sitting here, I was sitting there with my husband looking at my son, who is an Afro-Latino young man, who is tall. He’s 6’3”.
I’ve had this experience all my life, watching my father’s interaction with police and other people. There’s this part of me, as a mother of a Black child, that is scared. I never want to live and operate from a base of fear and I didn’t want my son to and neither did my husband. My husband and I said, “We have to do something.” As a family, we have to do something, because most importantly, we have to show our son that, no matter what things look like, there’s always something we can do. We have to be open about what that something is, because if we say I can’t fix that, that’s beyond me, that’s too big, then we won’t even take the little steps.
And we wanted to show our son that even the little steps matter, so let’s do something. We decided, I don’t remember how we got to it. It’s like, we just decided we were going to write an open letter to Humanity. And the letter includes pieces from my son, pieces from my husband, and pieces from me, and then we finished the letter, and it was like cathartic. There was a couple of iterations of it, and there was a lot of emotion around it, and then we just wanted to share it. But after we read it, we’re like, people are going to look at this and say, “OK, I totally feel that, now what?”
We struggled, because we didn’t want people thinking or encouraging this, sort of, “go to somebody else for these answers.” You need to do your own work to educate yourself about our history, what’s happening in our country, and then be in dialogue or be in dialogue on parallel tracks. But what we decided was, we called it not enough but a good place to start. And we decided to create a resource guide to go with the open letter that was broken into four quadrants, self, family, community, world of work, or I call it something else besides world of work.
MM: Thank you. And we started weaving in the contemplative pieces. So, each of those pieces, you had reflections and questions to explore for yourself, with your family, with your children, with your partners, and then your coworkers, and all those, and lots of resources. You can imagine everything. It was like one-stop shopping like here, this is not enough, but it’s a good place to start your journey, your exploration, your inquiries to figure out, how do you want to show up in this moment, when our nation’s at an inflection point, to choose and be different?
Then we just put it on the web for people to have and be free. Within days, it went around the world, and we found that school systems, boards of directors, companies, teams, government agencies were all using it to train their people and to guide their conversations and their process making. We felt really honored by it, and people asked us to do a couple of webinars, so did one webinar for each one, and my husband and my son were involved, and it was just a family project. We just have kept it for free for everybody.
Some people said, “Oh, there’s so much work that went into it, can I pay you?” So, we put up a button for like $5, but you can still get it for free, or if you feel … so whatever. That’s how it started. It was a self-healing and a sort of self-empowering project for our family. Then we just wanted to share it with the world in case it was as helpful for them as it was for us.
TS: How can people get a copy of Bridge to Better if they want to see this?
MM: They can go to abridge2better.com. It’s a bridge, the number two, better.com.
TS: Wonderful. Then, at the end of this online resource, A Bridge To Better, you write, “What we do now matters.” I want to ask you a question about this, and I’m going to read these bullets that, “What we do now matters. Silence is complicity. Inaction is complicity. Heartset matters. Mindset matters. Voting matters. Risk is not binary.” It was that last bullet, risk is not binary. I took a moment, I was like, I don’t know if I know what Michelle and her family mean by that. What does that mean, risk is not binary?
MM: Anytime we are in a turbulent time, it doesn’t have to be turbulent, but in this case it was, when we make a choice to stand out and stand up, it’s a risk, but the risk isn’t just, will I get hurt or is this good, or is this bad? That’s the binary thinking we all find ourselves getting trapped into from time to time. It’s good, bad, up, down, black, white, no, yes. What we were trying to offer is that risk has cascading, when you take risk, it’s a cascading effect. It is not just, I took a risk, I participated, I said that thing, and done.
So much comes out of that. Not only does it come out of it for you in your own personal growth and awareness, but in the seed that was planted through the expression of you in that moment. I always like to invite people to catch themselves when they find themselves in binary thinking, and instead ask the question about “yes, and …?” You can think of things like pros and cons, but there’s something beyond pros and cons. There’s always those other things. We really wanted people to think beyond the binary track.
TS: Taking a risk has a cascading effect. It’s a very powerful statement. And you have now also personally taken a risk, and I think there will be a cascading effect from it, to actually run for public office, a total political newcomer. And not only that, you have now won the primary just a couple of days ago and are moving into a general election. This relates to the House of Delegates in Virginia. What made you decide to run for public office?
MM: Everything that we’re talking about today. There’s so many of us that want to see this sort of level of being, this way of being in the political process. I mean, we can look at what’s happening on Capitol Hill, we can look at it, what’s happening across our nation, and so many people standing on either side of the divide. We need bridge builders, and we need bridge builders who will be willing to take risks and extend hands and arms across political lines. We don’t see enough of that. I think that a lot of us are operating from a base of fear because things are changing. And we have to do things differently, and that’s scary for a lot of people, so we need people in the process who can hold that complexity.
The things that inspired A Bridge To Better, the things that happened on January 6th, the culmination of all those things, and the things that came before, I stopped asking the question, where are the leaders who are going to be courageous enough to stand in the gap? Because the last time I asked that question, the immediate whisper thought I heard was, maybe you are one of those leaders. And so the next part of the journey began. I hope to be one of those leaders. But even, I feel very confident going into the general election, but even if I don’t win, what I do know is that how I campaign matters.
One of the things I want to do is to bring back some level of compassion, but wisdom to the process. It doesn’t mean that you just have to be nice. As you know, in all of this work, sometimes people confuse compassion with just being nice and not dealing with the hard problems, and that’s not what we’re talking about. We want to make sure we do all of that, because the one thing that really bothered me in the 2016 election was that it was hard for parents to allow their children to watch the presidential debates. We shouldn’t have that kind of thing, where parents don’t feel comfortable even allowing their kids be a participant or a witness to the political. That’s when I think we start to sort of break the fabric links, and I want to make sure that fabric is mended, and mended well.
TS: Well, you are one of those leaders. If people want to support you in your campaign, Michelle, what do they do? Where do they go?
MM: They could go to Michelle4VA.com. That’s Michelle with two Ls, the number four, the letter V like Victor, A, like apple .com, and everything is there.
TS: I’d like to say, I want to call our conversation “Compassion as a Superpower,” and I think it’s a super power you have. Thank you so much for embodying it and demonstrating it here and being such a terrific bridge builder. Thank you so much.
MM: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure to be here.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.