Experiential Learning

All things EL, from theory to practice.

Are you human? You should read this book.

There are currently 12 books occupying space on or in the little 2-drawer nightstand beside my bed. Everything from Getting Things Done by David Allen (on stress free productivity) to The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (exactly as it sounds). Most of these books are in some state of “about to be read, partly read or nearly read”. At some point I’ll decide that I’ve soaked up what I can get from the pages of one of these books, and it’ll migrate to the bookshelf in the office downstairs, or often, onto a colleagues desk.

One of these books that has taken up residence on the nightstand, and doesn’t show any signs of going anywhere, is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Hands down, the most important and influential book I’ve ever read. 

Interchangeably called “A language of life”, “language of the heart” and “compassionate communication” , Non Violent Communication (hereafter NVC) is based in the premise that ALL human behaviour is driven by the underlying desire (conscious or unconscious) to meet the individuals needs. But not the kind of needs that we’re used to talking about, like “I need to go on that vacation” or “I need that promotion”, or “I need you to stop running around the house and go to bed!” (me to the 4-year old recently). Those “needs” are actually just strategies to meet the underyling needs. In the case of the vacation, the need might be to relax and celebrate with loved ones. The promotion might be a strategy to meet a need for recognition, contribution or a sense of meaning. Getting the 4-year old into bed meets a pretty real need to get some rest myself.

The problem with mistaking strategies for needs, of course, is that those strategies often bump up against the strategies of the people around us, who are also trying to meet their underlying needs. My 4-year old is getting his play & movement needs met. He’s not actually trying to exhaust his parents (not yet, I hope, anyway).

The power of NVC to transform conflict has been demonstrated in some of the hottest conflict zones on the planet, from Rwanda, to the streets of major cities rife with gangs, to the inside of federal prisons.  Deepak Chopra calls NVC “the missing element in what we do”. Jack Canfield (author and founder of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) “cannot recommend it highly enough.”

It’s a book that will fundamentally change your point of view, as it has mine, but it won’t be easy. Though simple in theory, the practical application of NVC concepts into your daily life, a life likely filled with subtle and unknowing violence, is incredibly hard. Just knowing that the 4-year old is trying to meet needs that are different from my own is a good start, but then what the hell do you do with that? Thankfully Dr. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication provides as much “how”, as it does why.

Hands down, the best 20$ and a few hours of reading time that you’ll spend on yourself…probably ever. Grab a copy.

Mindfulness should come with a warning label.

I’ve been working hard to be more mindful these days. I think that part of the problem is getting past my preconceived notions of what “mindfulness” actually is. If it stirs up images of long haired yoga enthusiasts for you, you’re not alone. Yet, I know many people who are truly mindful…present in the moment, grounded, calm…you know, how most of us want to be, yet find to be a hard place to inhabit.

I’ve (finally) gotten around to looking at mindfulness in a more serious way. I’m particularly interested in mindful parenting. I don’t know about you, but my life can be pretty distracting between phone calls, emails, facebook, twitter, 3.5 year old, wife, dogs….etc, etc. I found myself never truly present, always thinking about what happened earlier in the day, what was yet to come or being distracted by someone else’s needs or thoughts.

It’s funny, because being diagnosed with diabetes set me on a path of mindful eating years ago, apparently by accident. I guess I’m a slow learner, as it’s just now creeping into my parenting and life in general.

Enter Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts and creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Here’s Jon discussing mindfulness.

Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it.

On purpose. How many of our thoughts and emotions are “on purpose”, and how many are just reactions to our world? You’d be surprised at how little of our day is intentional, especially the comings and goings of our own minds and attention.

In the present moment. What other moment is there?

Non-judgmentally. A thought is just that, a thought. An emotion is just an emotion. Too often we beat ourselves up for having thoughts and emotions, judging them, feeling guilty or ashamed for having them.

As if your life depended on it. Because it does. As Jon says in the video, the only moment that we’re actually alive in, is this one. The only time that we can love, laugh, cry or experience anything is this present moment.

So what does mindfulness look like in my life? Well for starters, I took Facebook and Twitter off my phone. It was just too easy to be distracted by all the digital noise coming out of that small, handheld device. I also started to cultivate a practice of being grateful every day for something wonderful in my life (of which there is much).

In case you’re not convinced that mindfulness is worth cultivating, here’s the warning label. It’s been shown to;

  1. Relieve stress
  2. Improve heart disease
  3. Lower blood pressure
  4. Reduce chronic pain
  5. Improve sleep
  6. Help with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc.

So give it a try, and start by picking up a copy of Jon’s classic book; Wherever You Go, There You Are. Click the link below to buy it off Amazon, and I’ll donate the commission to a local charity. Win-win.


Sugar’s not the problem.

I recently did a workshop in Cochrane called The Sugar Fix: 4 Easy Steps to Curb your Cravings. It went really well, likely because that particular topic lies at the intersection of my diagnosis with diabetes, and my work in the addiction sector. We’ve known for awhile now that sugar is addictive. What we haven’t done a great job of (and what I’m trying to do), is use some of the proven methodologies behind addiction treatment and behaviour change and apply them to “sugar”, helping people reduce or eliminate their consumption. I’ve got another one lined up for November 27th in Calary


One of the first, and probably most important, things to realize is that sugar is a solution. It is rarely, if ever, the problem. If we consider sugar to be an addictive, mood-altering substance (which it is), then the problem becomes “why do I need my mood altered?”. Stress. Boredom. Depression. Anxiety. Just having a bad day in general. All great reasons to reach for a bag of chips or bowl of ice cream for a little pick me up.

One of the first steps in really tackling a sugar addiction is not to rush out and buy some new cookbooks. It’s to notice. Notice when you’re reaching for the next hit and asking yourself, “why do I feel like sugar right now?”. And if the answer isn’t “I’ve got low blood sugar and need to eat something before I pass out”, then you’re trying to fix a different problem…and I’m going to suggest that sugar isn’t the best solution to try.

Less is more. Really.

It’s been awhile since I put a blog post up. Probably because I’ve been “busy”. Work, raising a toddler, being a husband, rebuilding the deck, doing a little volunteering…before you know it the days bleed into weeks, the weeks into months. If you’re like me, you might find yourself stopping every once and awhile and looking back, wondering…”what have I REALLY accomplished?”. Did responding to all those emails at work REALLY move anything forward in a meaningful way? Did the meeting about how to solve our “meeting problem” actually DO anything?

Enter a recently acquired book, titled “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. In it, author Greg McKeown argues that being stretched thin, overworked and under-utilized, busy but unproductive has become societies status quo, a type of badge of honour. How many times have I responded “busy, but good” to the question “How are you?”. Definitely too many.

The author makes a compelling case for learning how to say no to projects and requests that don’t fit a narrow set of priorities that keep your life (be it work or personal) headed in the direction you want it to.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

The book does a nice job of dispelling the myth that you can “have it all”, a symptom, I believe, of our deeper yearning for connection and validation in our 100 mile an hour culture. I can work on the weekend AND make the little league game. I can pull an all-nighter to get that presentation ready AND be in top form to present it. Of course, the reality is that we can’t have it all. We probably can’t have most of it, whatever “it” is. What we need to recognize is that everything has a trade off, that prioritizing one thing will automatically de-prioritize something else. And, ultimately, we need to be mindfully aware of these trade-offs, acknowledging the fact that putting our attention, energy, time, money or any other resource into the pursuit of something means that we can’t put that resource to use elsewhere.

So, what does this all mean? For starters, it’s about embracing the “less is more” philosophy, something I’ve always known, but haven’t always been good at practising. 

Second, it means saying “no” to a few more things, and doing a better job of focusing on those things that are important, things that I’m not willing to trade off for something less consequential.

Finally, it means embracing this notion of essentialism in all areas of life, and realizing that to do so, I need to be mindfully present and aware, not only of what I’m doing, but what I’m not doing, and what’s not getting done because of what I’m choosing to do.

I encourage you to grab a copy of the book and put some time into reading it and considering the implication of what it offers for your own life.

And wish me luck.

Every single moment.

What better time to reflect a bit on the journey of parenthood than on Mother’s Day? My wife and I are 2.5 years into raising a wonderful little person, and are due to welcome our second into the world in September. It’s quite the trip, this parenthood thing, especially considering that between my wife (an elementary teacher) and myself (someone who works with youth with addictions), we’ve got some pretty strong ideas about parenthood and rearing little people. Combine that with a relatively keen interest in brain development and neuroscience, and you get a perfect storm of theory meets practice, laboratory meets the real world.

Did you know that a newborn’s brain is 25% of of it’s adult weight? And by the age of 3 it will have produced billions of new cells and hundreds of trillions of connections? The growth of young people’s brains is absolutely incredible, and fundamental to developing so many important life skills…from counting to 10 and singing the ABC’s, to learning how to regulate emotions and share toys. And how does this learning happen? We teach them, of course.

Every single moment, we’re teaching our children something. We’re teaching them to love…or hate. We’re teaching them to judge or accept. We’re teaching them to laugh or cry.

Every single moment, our children learn how to handle frustration or get overwhelmed. How to comfort someone who’s sad, or ignore them. How to use their imagination or play angry birds.

Our children learn from us whether they can trust people, or whether they need to fear them.

We teach them whether the world is full of possibility and wonder, or disappointment and scepticism.

Sometimes I hear people lamenting the “coming generation”. They’re lazy. Entitled. Disrespectful. They lack work ethic and social skills. And so I ask, “who taught them to be this way?”. Or perhaps, “who didn’t teach them something better?”.

If you interact with children, be it through your job or as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or neighbour… the single best thing that I can think of for you to do is become familiar with even the basics of brain development. From “serve and return” to the effects of “toxic stress”, knowing how young brains develop, and what they need to develop effectively, might just be the most important and powerful gift that you can give to the young people in your life.

Take 4 minutes and watch this great video, compliments of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. And remember…children will become what we are. So let’s be what we want them to be.









The Resiliency Workshops

I was serious in the last post, when I said that focusing on Lifeworth over Networth was going to be a goal of mine in 2013. So along with spending a lot of quality time with my wife and son, and growing Givyup, and working my day job, and occasionally updating the blog…I’m embarking on a bit of a journey to help build resiliency into our communities. Because apparently I need 8 projects at the same time.

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I’m doing this through a series of workshops, called The Resiliency Workshops. I just did a workshop today at iWeek/Global Environmental and Outdoor Education Conference at the University of Alberta, and I’m lined up for a few teacher’s conventions this month and next.

What are these workshops about? A variety of things, but notably I’m focusing on two areas, Change and Resiliency.

The ChangeMaker’s workshops are designed to provide a sound theoretical background and some hands-on practical skills for making change happen. From individuals changing their lifestyle habits and patterns, to organizations changing their focus and dealing with change, the ChangeMaker workshop is the perfect prerequisite to any change process.

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The Resiliency Workshops are broken down into 3 streams, Resilient Family, Resilient Classroom and Resilient Systems. Although some of the content overlaps, the connections that are drawn and the areas of focus vary greatly, depending on the audience.

Why the focus on resiliency? Isaac Asimov (a notable author) wrote;

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be…

In this constantly fluxing world, where the pace of innovation and disruption seems to be steady and unrelenting, it’s enormously important that we find a way to foster resiliency in ourselves, families and communities. I witness this first-hand through my work with young addicts and their families, and through my own journey with my diabetes diagnosis and ensuing lifestyle changes.

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So, there it is. I’m taking up my own challenge from some previous posts to get out there and do something about creating the world I want. It’s no longer enough to tweet and blog about it, it’s time to engage others in becoming active participants in their lives and their communities.

You can check them out at www.resiliencyworkshops.com.