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Breathing As A Strategy

It sounds simple; breathing. In and out, and we’re alive and showing up.

But while most of us are fortunate enough to do this every day (and I heartily recommend it) without much fanfare, many leaders are missing an opportunity to use breathing as a tool to be more effective.


How It Works

 There is plenty of research that shows how breathing can help us be better leaders. Here are just a few examples.


  • helps us decrease stress and regulate the stress hormone cortisol (so we can access our executive brain for our best thinking)
  • increases optimism (every business outcome improves when our brains are positive…we make better decisions and are more creative etc.,)
  • strengthens our ability to regulate our emotions (important at all times, and especially in those times we are giving difficult feedback or in uncomfortable conversations)
  • reduces impulsivity (hold on to that email that may not be the best approach)
  • can actually help us change and regulate our emotions (so we can connect with others and communicate in ways that are most effective)

The Strategy

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Lighting The Spark

At a recent Women Presidents’ Organization conference, 17-year-old CEO, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author Maya Penn keynoted. She started her first business at 8 years old. She’s both impressive and inspiring, and she shared her journey and her wisdom.

In her talk, she called out a few things that have worked for her in her short but accomplished life so far. Among them:

  • Be positive so you can do your best work
  • Celebrate your failures and wins on an ongoing basis
  • Light your spark so it shows up in all you do

These are important areas on which to focus for all leaders, but coming from this young girl, especially surprising!

After Maya had finished speaking, an attendee approached the floor mic with a question for a book she is writing. She asked Maya “What extinguishes your spark?”

The audience was on a high. We had started thinking about how to follow her lead, and how we could look forward in our own work. And then, the question. I believe, this was the wrong question!

Map Making

Our brains connect events to make sense of our experiences all day long. They’re busy making maps and connections, and putting things together.

Exploring and asking about what we want (so that our brains focus there, and help us map our way) is much more effective than asking about what we don’t want. Why?

Because our realities and actions are shaped by the questions we ask.

So, when we ask questions about what we want to move toward (How do I best “light my spark”? How can I fully use my strengths in this situation? What outcome would have us both win in this conversation? How can I support and build more capacity in this person? How do I build a culture that the best workers are drawn to? How do I invite my people into the conversation? How can my employees contribute? What was my best experience when innovating on a team, and how can I replicate it? How can I challenge myself beyond my comfort zone today?), our brains are already starting to build the map to get there. They are filling in the blanks for what doesn’t work.

We begin to get somewhere in this question from a noted performance coach and psychologist: “When our questions focus on shortcomings, can we truly expect great things to be forthcoming?”

Flip The Script

However, the better question flips this around to: How can we ask questions that help recall our peak experiences, so we can amplify them? How can we ask employees questions that build their capacity and inspire them to be their best?

So, if we turn the earlier question to Maya around to: “what most lights your spark?” we bring forth an inspired journey that our brains then begin to map.

Strengths focused. Assets focused. Solutions focused. Amplifying peak moments.

Our Daily Spark

What questions are we asking during our meetings with “difficult employees”, during feedback, in strategic planning work, and in every day conversations?

Learning to ask these appreciative, spark-based questions seems simple, but takes a lot of practice. Finding a partner with whom to practice will help you make quicker headway. (Think; a trusted colleague or even your family).

The inner and outer dialogue and enacted changes that come from these simple, positively-focused questions can positively power an entire organization toward new ideas, engaged employees and provide greater returns.

What new questions will you begin to ask, in order to light your own spark and that of your people, and your results?