How to Follow

When Lao Tzu referred to those streams, he was describing the flow of energy that creates balance and harmony, including our own feelings of inner tranquillity. Doing whatever brings us the most inner peace is how we align ourselves with this benevolent power.

I thought the power of harmony was metaphorical until I studied a Japanese martial art called aikido, or "the way of the harmonious spirit." An aikido master's objective is not to crush opponents, but to stay aligned with inner calm. You might think that this peaceful philosophy would create the fighting prowess of a geranium. Oh, how wrong you'd be. When you spar with an expert aikido practitioner (I've tried it), you don't really see what's coming; you just wake up on the floor. And when you practice aikido, you soon discover that finding a peaceful energy within yourself can give you strength you never knew you had.

I haven't practiced martial arts for years, but I still try to follow the harmonious energy in myself and my environment. When I'm frustrated by politicians, unsure of an expert's advice, or coaching a client through dark feelings like rage or fear, I don't blindly follow their lead. Instead, I focus on the most peaceful energy I can find within myself and then try to follow that. Over the decades, I've found that the following steps (pun intended) usually work.

Step 1: Listen with your whole body.

To follow means to focus attention on something until you understand it well, as in "Are you following my argument?" or "I follow politics." This kind of following can tell us whether the situation we're in is just or unjust, safe or dangerous, desirable or repugnant. It will also guide us to our sense of truth in any situation. Listening with full attention—with the whole body—is the first step to expert following.

Try it after reading this paragraph. For 30 seconds, drop all thoughts of past and future and open your senses to whatever's happening right here and now. There's no need to think, strive, or react. Just notice what's going on around you and what you're feeling. Follow your breath, your heartbeat, the temperature of your hands. When you do this in the presence of another person, you'll find that you can almost sense what's going on inside them. You'll perceive your own feelings, and theirs, much more clearly—and no matter what the relationship, this is the ideal state from which to communicate.

Step 2: Declare your observations and ask for disconfirmation.

Full attention paves the way for something that shocks most people in our leadership-obsessed society: voicing your observations, then asking to be told where you're wrong. This is high risk for the ego, but it brings the full power of following to any situation by clarifying communication. Asking where you're wrong, rather than where you're right, puts you in the position of a powerful follower: confident enough to handle negative feedback, humble enough to be corrected.

For example, if you notice that your child seems to be having a bad day, you might say, "Sweetie, it looks like you're feeling frustrated. Am I wrong about that?" In a meeting, if everyone seems annoyed, try the truth: "Hey, you guys seem annoyed. Tell me where I'm wrong." You'll need to use a mild voice that won't be mistaken for sarcasm, because asking to be told where you're wrong is so unheard of in our culture that people may have trouble believing that you're serious. Once they do, though, you'll gain enormous trust, people will be more honest with you, and any group you're in will begin communicating better.

Step 3: Implement feedback.

It's strange: Being very attentive and then asking sincerely to be told where you're wrong almost instantly buys you all sorts of agreement. Most people will say, "No, you're not wrong," and respect you for asking. But when you do get negative feedback, receive it calmly, even gratefully. (If this strikes you as impossible, you may have a very fragile ego or a case of genuine denial. In any case, for you, right now, this advice is wrong. Feel free to resume seeking validation and approval.) Don't simply agree with naysayers—remember, you're following inner harmony and peace, not other people's whims. If the feedback is true for you, it will have a bracing sting, like alcohol in a cut, but it will also help you see what action to take. If it's wrong, it will feel crushing, confusing, and deadening. If the advice feels right, follow it. If it doesn't, follow your instincts away from it. In both cases, you'll be honing your following skills.

I put this process on the line back in my business-school teaching days, and it worked better than I'd dared to hope. I loved learning from my students, and they seemed happy with me, too. In fact, they were the first people to suggest that I write down my methods for creating a career, a business, a life. That's why I'm writing these words right now. All these years later, I'm still following their advice. And so far they haven't led me anywhere I haven't been happy to follow.

Martha Beck's latest book is Using the Greek Goddesses to Create a Well-Lived Life for Women.


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