Humble Kindness: An Interview with Dr. Aaron Shapiro

Each month, we spotlight the work of a member of The Rootwise Hub community. Below we share reflections from Dr. Aaron Shapiro on their leadership practice. We honor the courage, service, and resilience that Aaron and their colleagues in the Bronx, NY have shown the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on, be inspired!

Tell us a bit about yourself and your current work for social change.

My name is Aaron. I use he and they pronouns. I am currently completing the final year of my Primary Care Social Internal Medicine residency in the Bronx, NY.

My work for social change largely focuses on providing quality health care to people historically and currently marginalized by and abused by our systemically capitalist, classist, and racist health care system. I got a Master’s in Public Health in Leadership and Management focused on Quality Improvement and later my Evidence-based Design Accreditation and Certification. I am interested in being able to create structures that can provide quality, kind, and welcoming care to patients who are too often not provided safe and humane health care. My clinical work focuses on providing primary care for people struggling with substance use disorders, people struggling with chronic pain, sex workers, people of transgender experience, and people in and out of incarcerated settings.

In six words, how would you describe your experience as a leader in the past 18 months.

Upstream, isolating, collaborative, inspiring, gratifying, relieving.

In your life and work so far, what has been your most transformative leadership lesson? How did you learn it?

Most of my life I reluctantly identified as an anxious micro-manager. After a failed speaking engagement and observing multiple amazingly empowering leaders, I’ve become much more intentional about instilling ownership and trusting autonomy in the people I work with. While I’ll likely never be able to fully unlearn my anxiety, I’ve been so much happier and also a much more effective (and tolerable) leader through this frameshift. I’ve been inspired by focusing less on me egocentrically teaching and steering, but instead focusing more on facilitating others’ ideas and engagement. And there are few things I find more fulfilling than colleagues owning certain aspects of projects, moving those components forward independently, and seeing strong roots for sustainability take shape in my absence.

What is your current commitment or sense of purpose in your leadership practice?

I’ve really been working on grounding my leadership practice in humble kindness. Especially working in a “hot-spot” hospital through the height of COVID, the concept of, “be kind because you don’t know what someone else is going through,” has been such an unforgivingly salient mantra for me. I’ve done – and continue to do – a lot of work to minimize the ego in my leadership. I’m working on honing a leadership practice that creates safe spaces for people to voice their ideas for improvement and turning those spaces into ones of excited inspiration where we can workshop those ideas into action.

What advice do you have for others about how and when to use their voice to make change?

I feel it’s important to constantly use our voices to catalyze necessary change. But I think it’s important to remember that using our voices doesn’t mean shouting at full volume at all times. My voice is often used simply as a tool of active listening. It’s used to object in the moment when a superior says something offensive. I also try to be intentional about using my voice to amplify others’ as well as actively silence my voice to create space for others to be heard. I’ve found that as a white man, that last iteration of my voice has more often than not been the most important iteration.

How do you take care of yourself?

My first retreat with Perry and her colleagues was over a decade ago. I have gone to “refresher” workshops, and I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director/coach trained by Still Harbor regularly for about four years now. I depend a lot on my community and chosen family for support and fun. I try my hardest to prioritize physical activity and getting out into nature. I’ve gotten slowly better at identifying things I cannot change and being at peace with that. I am intentional about working in places that I respect and whose mission I trust to drive me forward.

What are you working to imagine, create, and build through your leadership?

One of the reasons I love Quality Improvement Sciences so much is because the discipline essentially says, “We know what to do, but are we doing it? Are we doing it well? And if not, how do we do better?” And the answers to that last question are more often than not known by the people already working on those issues. We simply inherit a culture of expectations that become obstacles to actuating our work in ways we know can be done better. Maybe we feel we’re stepping on someone else’s toes. Maybe we feel like our supervisor isn’t open to suggestions. Maybe we’re already too overworked and underpaid to have the energy to take anything else on. My leadership practice is about identifying and minimizing those barriers to people living and working with fulfillment and purpose. I want to support people around me in feeling like they’re able to do everything they can to make the world a better place. Seeing so many others light up with excitement and purpose is personally inspiring to me.

We know that you have bunny friend, can you tell us about them?

WHAT IS THE WORD LIMIT!?!?!? My bunny friend is Pinecone. He’s a one-year-old Holland Lop. He is literally the fluffiest living creature to ever live on Earth. I got him during COVID times, and he has been a lifesaver for me. He loves snuggles, fresh hay, and big carpets to zoom on. Yes his picture is the background of my phone, and yes I threw a super extra bunny themed first birthday party for him.

Six Powerful Listening Behaviors to Transform Connection

At a certain point in my life, my motto became “say less.” I’d discovered I preferred being on the outskirts of conversations, hearing and observing everyone engage with each other. I thought my position on the periphery of social environments made me excellent at listening.  

Needless to say, I was shocked when my sister told me recently, “You are a terrible listener.” I’d spent countless hours hearing her challenges and offering her sound advice or a different perspective. I’ve considered my reserved and assessing nature to be a benefit to my listening skills. So, it was a real challenge to be confronted with an opinion of me so vastly different from my own. My immediate response was defensiveness. I felt slighted by her critique. 

Putting my defensiveness aside, I decided to seek her honest feedback. I asked her to tell me more about how she felt and the specific ways in which I could have listened better. As she spoke, I listened with intention, stifling my desire to respond in order  to truly understand her perspective. Instead of just hearing her, I took in what she was saying and observed her with a more keen awareness. I realized there was so much more to what she was sharing with me than just her words.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

Most of us regularly make the crucial mistake of confusing hearing with listening. Often in our effort to problem solve or empathize in conversations, we hear words and quickly create a narrative colored by our feelings, thoughts, assumptions, or judgments. This narrative, more often than not, creates an ego-centered response to what others share with us. We envision previous experiences that felt similar to what they were sharing. Or many of us are guilty of shifting to “fix-it” mode. How can I help? How can I resolve the issue?  Many of us are unknowingly but justifiably bad at listening. Not because of any malicious intent or lack of respect for the people we are sharing space with, but because we were never taught how to listen well.

Learning to listen is critical to our lives both personally and professionally, especially in the areas we are leading or working with others.  Though “85% of what we know we have learned through listening,” it remains a deeply underdeveloped and unexplored skill for so many of us.  According to Forbes, human beings generally listen at a 25% comprehension rate, and less than 2% of all professionals have had formal training to understand and improve their listening skills and techniques.  On a typical business day, we spend 45% of our time listening, 30% of our time talking, 16% reading and 9% writing.

Listening is a skill that like weightlifting must be honed through consistent practice and proper technique. According to Harvard Business Review’s “Listening to People” by Ralph G. Nichols and  Leonard A. Stevens, “to be good listeners we must apply certain skills that are acquired through either experience or training. If a person has not acquired these listening skills, his ability to understand and retain what he hears will be low”.

So, how can we listen more effectively?

There are a few different frameworks that can be supportive in practicing listening. This one below comes from our collaborative work with Sharon Bueno Washington. It is not a cycle or series of steps so much as all of the practices that must be attended to in dialogue that is rooted in intentional listening.

The External (often observable) Behaviors of Listening in Conversation:

Active Listening: Making a conscious effort to be present in our bodies and to hear the full messages being shared. It requires that we give our full attention not only to the content being communicated but also to the meanings, feelings, body language, and context being communicated to us.

Seeking to Understand: To discover what someone is really sharing with us, we expand the conversation by asking open, honest questions. This requires both that we seek to understand and that we have a willingness to be changed by what we learn.

Speaking from “I”: To listen to others often requires that we also are vulnerable in sharing the truth of our own personal experiences. In doing so, we listen to ourselves, and we can then speak using ‘I’ statements. Speaking with “I” honors the reality that our experience may be one part of a larger reality or truth that we seek to understand together through dialogue.

The Internal (often unobservable) Behaviors of Listening in Conversation

Awareness of Assumptions: Doing the inner work of uncovering the beliefs that underlie our opinions; of getting curious about how our bias informs what we’re hearing; and of allowing our assumptions to be challenged as we seek to understand. If we don’t want to understand, listening is purely performative.

Pausing on Judgment: Putting aside our drive to assess, diagnose, or judge others. There may be times when our expertise in assessment, diagnosis, or judgment is called upon or necessary, but truly listening is about pausing judgment until we’ve developed enough understanding and/or clarity to guide a discerning use of our assessment.

Remembering the Whole: Grounding ourselves in why we are practicing listening and noticing all the elements of what is unfolding. Remembering the whole might mean connecting to our purpose and values, noticing themes and patterns, zooming in and out of the details, or identifying all of the people, places, and things that are influencing us and others in the conversation.

So, what’s in it for me?

Consider how it feels when you feel listened to with intention. Consider how it feels when you feel unlistened to or misunderstood. Intuitively, we can understand the importance of having colleagues and team members who feel listened to, who feel heard. But often the protests come when people consider how much time and effort it will take–time and effort they say they don’t have. Consider listening as preventative, helping avoid misunderstandings, conflicts, resentments, and misalignments from taking up too much time. Imagine the impact of a group of people who feel valued, trust they can say what they need to say, know their perspective matters, and are regularly practicing listening themselves. If to exercise leadership, as scholar Ronald Heifetz says, means to be “orchestrating the process of getting factions with competing definitions of the problem to start learning from one another,” then we leaders definitely need to learn how to listen more intentionally.

As I learned to leverage the power of active listening, I created the space for my sister to feel heard, valued, and appreciated. By listening, I connected with my sister at a deeper, more meaningful level. She’s been able to reveal herself to me more openly, she’s unafraid to show me her vulnerabilities, and her  hopes and fears, joys and excitements in life. In our personal and professional lives, active and empathetic listening allows us to develop self-awareness and an understanding of others.

If you’d like more expert leadership insights and resources, check out The Rootwise Method, our foundational interactive course to help you bring your full potential to your role. This course will meet you right where you are, inviting you to tap into your own wisdom so that you can get what you most want our of life and work. 

Practicing Play

As children, play is both how we learn and how we build relationships. Play supports us in connecting with others, experimenting with ideas, and finding our place in the world.

Too many of us lose our ability to play along the way: whether we forget how, get embarrassed about it, or just can’t find the time. Our athletic games turn into health and weight loss activities with metrics and goals; the time for imagination and story-telling disappears in pursuit of work; we turn to substances to “have fun” rather than exploring other ways of embracing our free time; or perhaps we reserve play for vacations only.

Experiencing the light-heartedness of play, even for a short time, frees up our energy, shifts our perspective, and offers space for seeing ourselves as whole beings. Play often invites us into a celebration or savoring of the ordinary and small joys of life.

Leaders need to make time for real play to take themselves less seriously and loosen up every now and then.

Hopefully we all know the people in our lives with whom we can play. Maybe you find time to play with the kids in your life, with friends with whom you feel the kind of safety and trust that you can let down your guard, with your family members, or with your partner.

When’s the last time you really played?

If you find yourself searching back to months or years ago, what might you do to be more intentional about play in your life? Play can mean all sorts of activities. Consider carving out time for:

  • Creating art for enjoyment alone in the process of playful creation not for the perfect product (making a painting, drawing, collage, music, etc).
  • Playing cards, board games, or outdoor games (go fish, tag, chase, kickball, etc).
  • Creating skits or telling made-up stories just for fun.
  • Playing anything with kids to bring out your inner child: bubbles, drawing, hide and seek, dress-up.
  • Playing in nature (swimming, fishing, hiking, flying a kite, dancing on a beach, etc).
A regular play practice or hobby will help you:
  • Loosen up.
  • Break out of stuck-ness.
  • Feel joy.
  • Tap creativity.
  • Reconnect with childlike wonder.
  • Gain fresh perspective.
  • Learn about yourself.
  • Have fun in a healthy way!
Set an intention for yourself today. What will you do to play this week? Notice how it feels (and if it is awkward at first or someone makes fun of you, work through it by grounding in your intention or by finding the kind of play that opens you up).

What is authentic leadership?

Most people know authentic leadership when they see it but have a hard time figuring out what makes up the authenticity factor we trust.

We’ve found that it comes down to representing your beliefs and values in action. What’s nice is that this definition can apply to an individual as well as to an entire organization. And it offers a clear pathway for development!

Half of the development work is the inner work of figuring out what you believe and value. The other half is about bringing those beliefs and values in action and being accountable for when you go astray.

In a way, leading authentically means being an author of your life, bringing the stories and stuff inside out. This metaphor needs a bit of unpacking, though. At first pass, authoring your life might seem devoid of the self-inquiry that authentic leadership calls us to do. It might sound more like creating and selling an image or a story, which might actually be the opposite of what we’re looking for in leaders. But if we really look at authors who are successfully generating ongoing original work that is trusted and engaged by their readers, they are immersed in this cycle of turning their lived experiences or understandings into ideas and then turning the stories birthed within them into words. Authentic leadership relies on a similar cycle of making meaning of experiences inwardly and then putting that meaning out into the world in order to have another experience and begin again.

The more you embrace life and leadership as an ever unfolding story, the more this praxis (cycle of reflection and action) becomes intuitive and natural. Often the biggest stumbling blocks are either not taking the time to figure out what you believe and value or expecting to arrive at a time when you get to stop engaging the praxis.

A robust authentic leadership development program (whether formal or informal) must support leaders in developing the “muscle” needed to engage this cycle as a matter of both ritual and instinct.

Authenticity is not something that you can develop on your own: it requires relationships with others and the world. It is only through relationship that your beliefs and values are turned into action. It is also not you can develop without failing at it. As human beings, we are all unreflective or inauthentic sometimes. It is your awareness and willingness to receive feedback from the world and others in those moments of misalignment that will allow you to begin again .

How can you seek greater alignment, honesty, and clarity between your inner and outer lives? Leading in this way is as simple as meeting yourself and others right where you are in any given moment. Leading in this way is also as radically aspirational as actively living into the ideals of an ever-emerging sense of self and offering others space to do the same. There is freedom in this orientation to leadership if we are willing to dive into the reflection, the action, and the relationships.

On Building Trust

Google study on what makes certain teams work better than others showed that the number one factor that makes teams effective is simple: psychological and emotional safety. So, how do you establish more emotional safety and TRUST in your workplace?

1) Create small reminders that you work with humans, not robots:
The notion that we need to separate personal life from work life is proving ineffective and false. When people like their colleagues, they work harder and smarter. A simple exercise like sharing one thing from your weekend, or a one word mood check in during team meetings, can open the door for deeper bonds to form and emotional safety to be created over time.

2) Be honest about fears and failures, without shame:
If you tell a colleague you’re struggling with a project, do you believe you’ll receive support or reprimand and judgment? Create a culture where vulnerability is affirmed and even celebrated. Make it fun! Some teams use a “I was wrong Gong” or “Failure Hall of Fame” to create shared humor and openness around failure and struggle, rather than a culture based on the pressure to be perfect or on shame when mistakes are made.

3) Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate:
Simply put, we are more likely to trust others when we feel seen and appreciated ourselves. When was the last time you appreciated someone at work? Take a minute right now to write down three people you will show appreciation this week. And then do it… be specific. Trust me, it will make you feel great too.

Get coaching and training on building trust and the other conditions needed for collective leadership to thrive by enrolling in The Collective Leadership Certificate Program today!

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