Granted. Discernment is not a wish most people would add to a New Year’s card.
It can't compete with "Peace" and "Love" in terms of popularity.
It doesn't manifest itself with the wave of a magic wand.
The ability to discern is like a muscle; it needs to be used to get stronger.
Unlike “focus” or “empathy”, discernment isn't really recognized as a “soft skill” either.
Still, as a coach, I have found the need for discernment increasingly important.
To give you a better idea of what discernment is and its potential value, let's imagine using it in 2 different contexts - personal and professional.
For the former, we'll use the example of classical music.
Say, for example, that you're fond of the clarinet but can't quite hear it in a symphony recording. To do so, you would have to adjust the treble and bass on your stereo system until the desired sound came through. Another option would be to put on headphones to reduce environmental noise. In this situation, you are in control of what you hear.
Yet often there may be very important messages in things you don't really WANT to hear but need to. In a professional context, the ability to discern helps one determine whether there is VALUE in any given exchange or conversation. This is especially true when the delivery or the outside "noise" is unexpected or unpleasant. Did a performance review or a job interview not go as well as you had hoped? What was the intention of the person speaking? Although we initially react with anger or indignation, we cannot let these emotions influence our relationships at work.
A coaching session is an opportunity to process a message or put it in context. Stepping back, slowing down and observing the stream of "thoughts" lets one determine which ones carry truth or wisdom.
This often creates much needed distance from the thinker and his/her thoughts.
Observe, choose and explore -- hmmm....a bit like opening a box of chocolates!
Which ones hold promise? This brings me back to discernment -- a word which had been in my semi-active vocabulary until I had a powerful coaching session with a client.
First a bit of context. My client is in her early 30s, Chinese and works for a financial services company. She was bitterly disappointed to learn that she had been turned down a second time for a promotion. We'll call her Lynne.
She began by blowing off steam...expressing her exasperation.
I listened patiently and gradually she became more reflective, more curious about her situation.
“I can’t help but wonder how management sees me – what they really think of me. I have the impression that they don’t like me.”
“Well, what do you consider to be your greatest personal attribute?”
Silence. Lynne needs a moment to consider this and overcome her reluctance to speak highly of herself.
During this moment of quiet, I get the idea to use the Orfman quadrant to build a little self-awareness. Push an quality to an extreme and it becomes a handicap.
This blind spot is interesting territory for exploration.
Lynne chose optimism.
“How might other people view an excess of optimism?” I inquire.
We dance with a few adjectives: naive, insincere, spontaneous and then finally settle on reckless (téméraire in French, 鲁莽 in Chinese). The next box in the quadrant asks one to consider possible qualities as antidotes to the excess. Again, I let my client ponder this in silence…
“I guess that would be... thinking things through and taking time to… know…to distinguish…”
She is struggling to find the right word so I ask permission to offer one.
“to discern?”, I suggest.
This word makes her curious. I momentarily switch to Chinese.
“That would be “shí bié” in Chinese”, I add.
“shí bié” ? This word seems vaguely familiar.
At this point, I use my index finger to draw the second syllable in the air,
with the radical for knife刂 .
It is then that I see, once again, the beauty and the wisdom of Chinese characters. 识别 shí bié.
First character: Shí – knowledge (words 讠) + 只 only, merely
Second character + bié – to part, separate 另 + knife 刂.
While the image of a knife might seem a bit primitive, I do feel with our increasing dependence on social media, it is important to “arm ourselves” with the intention to filter or cut through the onslaught of (repetitive and often useless) information.
Said differently, discernment increases our self-awareness and helps us make better choices. It's the perfect antidote to distraction – clearly a growing problem in our society.
If you’d like to know more about the stories behind Chinese words and their impact on your well-being, check out this link
for more details on my upcoming workshops “Well Being and Chinese Culture”.
No knowledge of Chinese required.