Adapted from Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less.

Several years ago I was asked to lead a ninety-minute session during the second day of a three-day retreat for an organization’s board of directors. The board was composed of CEOs and executive directors from around the country, and the purpose of the retreat was to develop the organization’s strategic plan for the next two years.

As I was about to walk into the conference room, one of the board members took me aside and informed me that the retreat was not going well and that they had just fired the facilitator. People were frustrated and anxious. “We have made little progress toward formulating our strategic plan,” he said. “Welcome, and good luck.”

As I walked into the room the tension was palpable.

Stress was obvious just by glancing at everyone’s furrowed brows and body language. I introduced myself to the seventeen board members seated around the table and suggested that we begin with a brief period of meditation.

About a third of the board members (mostly women) seemed delighted and made straight away for the front of the room and sat on the floor or in a chair. About a third of the members seemed reasonably willing to comply and began to sit comfortably. Nearly a full third sat in the back of the room, faces tight, with arms or legs crossed. You could say they were not having it.

I rang a small bell and we sat quietly together. I gave some basic meditation instruction:

  • Sit in a way that is comfortable and with energy; sit up straight with your back slightly arched, without leaning backward
  • Keep your eyes open, looking down, without focusing; pay attention to your body and breath
  • As thoughts and feelings arise, just note them and return to your body and to your breath
  • Let yourself be curious, like a child, noticing your breath as though being aware of it for the first time

The Practice of Generosity

While we were all sitting I spoke for a few minutes about the practice of generosity, of being open and kind to yourself and others. I mentioned the importance of paying attention to fears because they are real, but that fearlessness was a form of practicing generosity.

After about fifteen minutes of sitting, I rang the bell and separated the board members into four groups. Each person in the group would have five minutes to speak, without interruption and without being asked questions. I suggested that each person address three questions, though they might sound unrelated to the scope of the retreat:

What is my purpose for being here on this planet?

How am I doing in relation to this purpose?

What steps do I need to take to align my purpose and my actions?

My thinking was that the members of this group needed to step back from focusing on the organization’s strategy, and instead find a way to connect with fellow board members and be more vulnerable with each other.

Becoming more vulnerable with each other in this safe context might allow them to better understand who their fellow board members really were and how their deepest personal goals dovetailed with the larger mission of this particular organization.

I suggested that the person speaking in each group not try to look good or impressive or smooth. I further suggested that the person speaking might be surprised by the words that came from his or her mouth. I asked that the people listening give full attention to the person speaking rather than rehearsing what they would say during their time.

As the groups began to meet I could see that people were taking the questions I posed seriously. Group members huddled closely together. I spent some time briefly visiting with each group, listening to a variety of people speaking. There was a lot of emotion expressed: a lot of laughter and even a few tears, respectful listening and impassioned exchanges.

After about thirty minutes I called everyone back into the conference room. The energy of the group was transformed. The group felt more relaxed and connected. I asked how the groups were for people. The first person who spoke said,

“We should have begun our retreat this way! This is what was missing. We tried to begin working without stopping, without opening our hearts, and without connecting with each other.”

These words came from the CEO of a large technology company, someone who by his own admission didn’t usually talk this way.

The Courage to Slow Down

I left shortly after this session and learned afterward that the last day and a half of the retreat was extremely successful. The board established a good deal of clarity and agreement on the organization’s strategic plan. Several board members sent me notes expressing how important they thought the meditation had been. Others mentioned that slowing down and reflecting, thereby getting the discussion to a deeper, more effective level, had not only transformed the meeting but had positively impacted the way they thought about structuring future meetings.

Three days after the retreat one of the board members, the CEO of a venture capital firm in Washington, D.C., sent me an email: she said she’d felt concerned when she’d heard about my proposed quiet time and was both cautious and curious about meditation practice. She usually strongly resisted anything that smacked of being “New Age,” or as she put it, “woo woo.” She concluded:

“If what we did is woo woo, I want more of that!”

It can be difficult to accept that to accomplish what we want often requires doing less, not doing more — especially initially.

In this case, that meant putting aside the retreat’s planned agenda and courageously taking time to be reflective. To move forward, everyone needed to step back and engage deeper questions, both of the organization’s mission and of what each person hoped to realize for themselves and for the retreat. Slowing down or stopping (such as with meditation or other practices) is a very important part of doing less, but only one part.

The retreat got off to a terrible start because the group was so intent on immediately tackling the most obvious question — formulating a strategic plan for the organization — but this wasn’t necessarily the most important question. In order to work together at all, they needed to be more open to one another and establish their common ground first. It took courage and commitment to do this in an agenda-packed, fill-every-minute environment.

In our world of more, faster, better, it can be difficult to get to the heart of what’s most important. Here are several questions to think about or even better to write about to help get to what matters most.

  • If money weren’t an issue — that is, if you had all the resources you needed — what would you do? What problems would you want to solve? What type of life would you lead?
  • What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of partner, parent, child, sibling, human being? What personal qualities do you most admire in relationships? How would you respond to the question, “Who are you as a leader?”
  • Why are you here on this planet? Do you feel a larger sense of social purpose or calling?
  • What do you wish you could do to make the world a more beautiful place? What everyday things; what huge things?
  • In your current life, what problems do you wish you could solve? Be specific. If you want more money, space, or time, how much? If the problems are with or at work, what’s your ideal scenario?
  • In your current life, what would increase your joy? Do you play, laugh, and love as much as you want? What activities have you always wanted to do but haven’t yet, or wish you could do more often?