Jeannie Kahwajy: Catching Everything As Help
“I want to catch what people are offering, catch everything as help; like Aikido. Aikido is a martial art where it doesn’t matter what intention somebody is moving towards you with. I can always catch it as helpful energy — I get to develop this redirecting skill.”
Jeannie Kahwajy is an executive coach and the CEO of Effective Interactions. She believes an attitude of love is the most effective way to show up for all our interactions. It’s a theory she’s put to the test (often with jaw-dropping results) in challenging encounters with diverse personalities, including a purse-thief on board a moving train, a seemingly biased employer, a cocky student, and a rude colleague.
In this in-depth interview she shares fascinating stories of her approach, and helpful guidelines for putting it into practice. Learn more from this dynamic leader who is dedicated to the proposition that there’s no good reason to have a bad interaction. Ever.
Jeannie Kahwajy: Catch Everything As Help
–by Awakin Call Editors, Apr 11, 2017
Jeannie Kahwajy is a scholar, executive coach and the founder of Effective Interactions. She believes an attitude of love is the most effective way to show up for all interactions, including those in the workplace. What follows is an edited version of her Awakin Call interview, moderated by Preeta Bansal and hosted by Aryae Coopersmith. You can access the recording of the call and the full-length transcript here.
Preeta: Jeannie Kahwajy believes it is possible for a single participant in an interaction to adapt his or her behavior and alter the communication dynamic, even when interacting with someone stuck in another mode. She has been inspired to challenge the traditional paradigm of interactions, including the acclaimed ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ theory.
This theory states that what a teacher or another higher-standing individual expects of me, will often define how I perform or behave in that interaction. In popular parlance, it’s often known as the ‘Pygmalion effect’ named for George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, adapted for the stage and the movies as ‘My Fair Lady’. In ‘Pygmalion’, Eliza Doolittle explains to Mrs. Higgins that the difference between a lady and a flower girl lies not in how she behaves, but in how she is treated.
This theory, designed to explain the performance consequences of low expectations, views the low-target person as someone who is powerless to affect the power dynamic within the relationship. This together with confirmation bias — the concept that those in authority tend to hear people and ideas that confirms what they already agree with, can often lead to organizational stagnation and creativity loss.
Jeannie kind of uproots all these ideas. She was motivated to understand how a single person, especially a person lower in the hierarchy, can interrupt this negative cycle and stop being a passive recipient. And what she found in her research is that the low-status person can actually love the higher-status person into finding their way out of the belief-consistency-trap. She calls this ‘the receiving mode’. This is the mode in which a person views and treats every relationship before them as an opportunity to learn and love, rather than to perform, do, and display.
Jeannie’s approach is scientific, innovative, and fairly counterintuitive. And it has achieved breakthrough results with senior executives in major corporations on six continents. Dr. Kahwajy holds multiple degrees from Stanford University, a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and a Ph.D. minor in social psychology, an MBA, and an MS in engineering economic systems, with a concentration in decision science. She also has a bachelor’s in systems engineering from the University of Virginia. I’m very excited to have this conversation with her. So welcome, Jeannie!
Jeannie: Thank you, Preeta. Wow! What an introduction. I think you are embodying the entire message both in content, and how you are being when you’re talking about the content.
Preeta: Let’s look at your work around low-status individuals within any exchange. Let’s say I’m working for an auto dealership. I have the idea that we should be expanding to a new market. My boss doesn’t think much of my contributions on the creative side. He just wants me to do what he tells me to do. So I’m having an interaction with him and it is kind of based on past interactions, but I really want to try and shift that dynamic. How would that work?
Jeannie: You have a focus. If I’m an employee going to my boss, I typically have this focus, which is that my boss has to change. And I’m judging him. And I can’t be judging and receiving at the same time. So when I approach my boss, instead of throwing my suggestion at him, I’m going to offer it as a gift. When you offer a gift, you are curious to know what the recipient thinks of it, and that shifts everything.
I have another story here — I was working in an investment bank in London and I approached this guy who’d failed to comply with what I’d told him to do. He wasn’t my direct subordinate, but he ran the computer systems and in order for my program to be implemented, his team had to perform. I started telling him what he didn’t do and why he should do it. Those were days when smoking was allowed. He started slowly blowing smoke in my face, till I was literally suffocating. I had just finished business school, and was employing all these traditional negotiation tactics, but they weren’t working.
So all of a sudden, as I was choking, I got to the end of my unraveled rope. And in a very non-sequitur way, I said, “Am I really yelling at you?” And he said, “Why yes, you are.” And I said, “Well that really surprises me. Does that surprise you?” And he said, “No.” “How come? I want to know,” I asked. He said, “Well, you’ve been hanging out with all those traders over there.”
The traders I was working with were lovely people, and very different people outside the trading desk, but I was actually becoming like them. However, once I’d shifted my mode, things changed. He gave me a VIP tour of the bank and delivered all of the computer systems before he went home that evening!
Preeta: So, I just want to get that story right. You shifted into receiving mode with someone who was physically assaulting you with smoke?
Jeannie: Well, you enter into what I call crisis mode. And when you are in crisis mode, you are just like “help me, help me.” Often when you are in crisis mode, the person that can help you the most, is the one offending you the most.
I think I actually learned this from an experience with feedback forms. I was teaching a course with my colleague, Leo, in New Orleans to some senior oil executives. I taught a 3-day class and was going to teach a 2-day class later that week with the same group of people. We typically have evaluations at the end of each course.
When I got my evaluation, it was all 5s except for one 1 on an evaluation. And this guy who gave me the 1, was going to be in my next class. So, I was devastated. I was jogging through the streets of New Orleans and Leo who was there, knew I’d done a good job but was still disappointed. And he looked at me and said, “Jeannie, I have a problem with how you are still perturbed by this. You have this information. You’re going to see him tomorrow. Go up to him directly and ask him about it.”
This is what receiving really is, if we give people correct feedback that really fuels them. Well it turns out this guy didn’t really understand something. In trying to rationalize why he didn’t understand it, he blamed it all on me. To segue, this is how I found out that in the world, when we look around for someone to blame, we usually look for a very smart woman! Anyway, I was able to get around what he was judging and to convert that judgment into what he truly wanted. I explained it to him again, personally. And then he changed my grade to a 6! So the people that are criticizing us, they are our teachers.
Preeta: What do you do in a situation where there is actually insidious bias involved? Say, I’m African American and I have a boss who thinks that whatever I put forward is not worthy of serious attention. How do I shift that?
Jeannie: Here’s the thing: however my brain thinks is a way to be heard, do the opposite of that. I remember I was overlooked for a consulting position on a project and I was available, and interested in it. The head partner decided to take a guy off a case that he was in the middle of, and put him on his thing, overlooking me.
So, I went to the head in an inquiring mode because I wanted to shift. I really wanted to be prepared to be a viable candidate in a similar situation in the future. So I went and asked him from my heart, “Can you help me understand why you picked him over me?” I said, “Because I am available and he is not. Was it because he speaks Spanish?” (Actually he didn’t and I did). Then I said to him, “I bet it was because you’d worked with him before.” (He hadn’t worked with either of us). And then I said, “I know he’s probably done a lot of these portfolio projects before”. It was a particular kind of analysis project and it turns out that I’d done them and he hadn’t.
So here I am offering him information that he was unaware of, and probably if he had been told in a different way, he would have just rationalized it away. That afternoon, I was put on the project. And I’m very grateful to him. I wasn’t angry with him for being biased against me. I went to him because I wanted to learn from his bias. So I had to love him and his bias and the injustice or else I was going to leave value on the table unrealized.
Preeta: I was really struck when you said, “I needed to learn from his bias and the injustice.”
Jeannie: Yeah, and I really consider that to be a large gift. One of my clients in Geneva, Switzerland said, “You are retraining people’s eyes.” I want to catch what people are offering, catch everything as help; like Aikido. Aikido is a martial art where it doesn’t matter what intention somebody is moving towards you with. I can always catch it as helpful energy — I get to develop this redirecting skill.
You know, this reminds me of another pivotal event that happened in my early childhood. And it might have been what triggered a lot of this shift. When I was in junior high school, a person I knew ended up getting pregnant. And it was shocking, and so sad. She had the baby and I believe, had great difficulty with her family. And I remember my neighbor saying, “You know, this girl needs our support, our encouragement and our help; she does not need our judgment.” So even that insight came from an external source. I really pondered that for a very, very long time.
Preeta: Your theory, your practice — all of this sounds brilliant and exactly right. At the start of the call, you said you grew up in a family where your opinion mattered. When someone grows up in a different environment where they don’t have that sense of being, how do you teach them this?
Jeannie: I’ve had this question asked often. I think, initially, I have to demonstrate to people that I am interested in helping them, and not in judging. That then enables them to share with me their real struggles. So, there’s authenticity. And I often think of it as having to be receptive, and that is what allows them to be unafraid.
And I think once you begin to practice these methods and then keep doing it, it becomes almost like an addiction. After you learn good grammar, you can’t use bad grammar in an interaction anymore. When you know internally what it feels like to be in an effective interaction, then it just doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I had a roommate in college who was a gourmet cook and she would say to me, “There is absolutely no reason for food not to taste delicious. No reason.” And I then decided to think about interactions that way. I said, “There’s absolutely no reason for interactions not to be effective. None!”
Preeta: Do you have any examples of any aha moments that you’ve witnessed over the years?
Jeannie: Sure. I worked once, with the general counsel of one of the tech companies who wasn’t particularly spiritual or religious. And I remember I called him a couple of months after we had finished our work together and I asked him, “How are your peers doing?” and he says, “Jeannie, they are being particular jerks. But that just means I get to love them more.” That kind of surprised me. I said, “Hey I’m going to use that — that’s amazing!” So often somebody will share something that they somehow attribute to me, but it was really our co-created conversation!
There was another story that came up yesterday. I was at the Amtrak station in Philadelphia, traveling from Philadelphia back to Washington DC, many years ago. I was waiting for my train and there was a British couple that was complaining. And I wondered, “Why?” I guess I’d grown up with sensitivity towards other’s needs. So I went up to them and said, “Hey, can I help you?” And the woman said, “It’s my husband. I gave him the portfolio and he left it with our passports, our credit cards and money in the taxi. He always leaves it behind!”
And I looked at her and injected a little humor, I said, “Really? You knew that? You knew that he always loses it — then why the heck did you give it to him?” “Well,” she says, “Nobody’s going to return it.” I said, “Well you know if I got into the cab next and I found it, I would give it to the taxi driver.” And I turned to the woman next to me and asked, “Hey, what would you do?” and she said, “Oh, I would hand it to the taxi driver.”
So I said, “There are two people out of the billions of people on this planet who would actually give it to the taxi driver, so I call into question your hypothesis. So given that there’s a possibility that you’ll get your portfolio back, you have to play your role, or else you’re not going to get it back, because of you.” And I said, “Wait in a central location. Have your eyes fixed on the door that he would come in by. He’s going to be waving. And if he comes in waving your portfolio, and you are not there ready to see that, then the reason you’re not getting it is because of you.”
I said, “I’m working on this theory of receiving so I’d just love if you try it out for me and see if it works. Because you really don’t have anything to lose.” And I said, “Here’s my number if you need anything when you get to the area; if you need any money, just give me a call.” Well, I took an earlier train and arrived at my parent’s house in Maryland.
And a couple of hours later, there’s a phone call that comes to the house. And I’m taking a little nap; my dad answers it and gives me the phone saying, “There’s this British woman on the phone.” And she said, “Put me in your class! I did exactly what you said. I looked and it was like an angel coming through — the doors opened and a flood of light comes in and there’s that cab driver waving my portfolio, just as you said.”
A similar thing happened to me when my purse was stolen on the train in Geneva and I actually talked the thief into giving it back to me, by using this approach. How they steal your purse on trains is, they have one guy who helps you with your luggage, while the other one steals your purse, while he’s nudging you. Well I nudged him back, which is part of the receiving theory. You give people correct feedback.
So I nudged him enough so that he and his partner ended up remaining on the train instead of exiting the train before it took off. So, there I was standing next to the guy who I thought had stolen my purse, right? And so I looked at the door and I kept saying this is what I want, here’s what I want, I don’t need this but I truly want this.
Here’s the thing about receiving. People want to give to those who are ready to catch. And so I was explaining in great detail what it was that I wanted, even to the extent that I told him where to leave my purse, and he did exactly what I asked. A thief! So this represented to me the real power of this approach…
(Concluded in Part 2, below.)