Create Gratitude and Energy by Focusing on the Most Painful Truths
As the holidays approach, I was inspired by this segment on NPR on “Teaching Thanksgiving,” which is a perfect model for my work with clients.
According to the segment, educators are finding ways to teach about Thanksgiving while sticking closer to historical facts.
Traditionally, the Thanksgiving story has been about two cultures — Puritans and Native Americans — coming together in harmony and appreciation. But as one first-grade teacher recounts, “I didn’t feel like we were teaching truth. If you really dig into the history, we know that Thanksgiving wasn't happy pilgrims and Indians sitting down one day to feast… there were… heavier things that surrounded it.”
These teachers look for ways to be honest about the past and make connections with the struggles and experiences of Native Americans who are living today. These teachers ask their students to explore, “What’s the truth of what happened? And how has this truth led to the present?”
I explore these questions with my clients.
I worked with a leadership team under significant pressure in their high-stakes work that needed greater clarity about their priorities and how they could best work together. The first step was to acknowledge the truth of what wasn’t working. Once they put this on the table and looked at it, they developed a plan for staying connected, supporting one another and carrying out their important mission.
I worked with the board of directors in the midst of conflict. In our work, what they learned together was that everyone on the board felt stuck. Many board members felt disrespected by other board members.
Once the board digested this truth, something shifted. They acknowledged that they needed to find another way to be with one another to move the organization’s work forward. In small groups, they strengthened their relationships, built pathways of respect and made plans for fundraising and strategy.
Can the truth — about Thanksgiving or our organizations — be too much? In the NPR segment, educators spoke about how kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. It’s the same with adults! Those areas that we don’t want to talk about contain a lot of energy. My clients need someone to hold that energy, so they bring me in as an outside facilitator. But when we look at those truths together, the path forward opens up.
And one more thing. The segment was inspiring because it talked about the messy kind of gratitude rather than the saccharine kind. We celebrate the bounty of Thanksgiving. But teaching Thanksgiving honestly is to hold the pain and loss that is part of the holiday, too.
In my work, that’s when things get interesting. When leaders and teams feel seen and recognized with their pain and their strengths, organizations move forward, relationships deepen and genuine gratitude emerges.
- What truths have you or your team been avoiding?
- How can you design safe conversations to explore those truths?
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross is founder and principal of The Ross Collective, a consulting firm that designs and leads inclusive, participatory strategic planning processes for nonprofit organizations.