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Podcast Transcript

From Strangers to Sisters

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:10  
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path To Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we uncover what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Marsha, welcome!

This topic today is bringing back so many wonderful memories for me just knowing what we're going to talk about. So welcome, and share with our listeners what we mean by the title "From Strangers to Sisters."

Marsha Clark  0:38  
Well, thank you very much, Wendi. And I too, would like to welcome all of our listeners! So our topic today is really reflective of a transformation that I and my team, quite honestly have had the honor to observe time and time agai, over the many years and around the world. We often refer to it as the magic of what happens when we bring a room full of women together. And that we thoughtfully, methodically facilitate a series of activities that are intended to create what I refer to as psychological safety, self exploration, and mutual support.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:16  
Yeah, this probably needs a little setting up for our listeners so they can understand what these activities are and how they might use them themselves to create their own powerful alliances and relationships.

Marsha Clark  1:28  
Absolutely. So the tools and activities that we use to create this psychological safety, and really to help women move from oftentimes being complete strangers as they walk into the room on day one, to building a powerful sense of "sisterhood." And that word comes into play by at least Module Three or Four. And it can be used by our listeners as well as they think about bringing groups together. And our situations are a little different in that we often use these techniques in the context of a one to three day workshop setting. But really, the process or the approach is the same just with an adjusted timeline.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:07  
Okay, so that's good to know. So maybe the best approach is to break down a few of those specific activities, explain what they are the intention behind them. And then what if any adjustments our listeners might make for their groups or teams.

Marsha Clark  2:23  
Sounds like a good plan.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:24  
Awesome. So what I remember most about those early exercises, was that it felt like we were continually like peeling the layers off an onion. And we were the onion!

Marsha Clark  2:38  
Right, yes, I think that's a beautiful analogy for what the approach looks like and feels like. And each activity is designed to slowly and safely take the group to a deeper level of connecting, quite honestly, through sharing and through storytelling. And so we use this very intentional approach of moving from individual reflection. So everybody does their own personal activity, writing down their individual thoughts without discussing that with anybody, then we move to sharing it with just one or two other people, typically at tables, and then sharing with a small group of four to five people, and then at some point have been opening up the conversation to the larger group as a whole, I often refer to it as one to five, you know, large. So peeling an onion describes some of what's happening, because with each new level of self discovery, we invite group members to explore their own personalities, their own behaviors, beliefs, and so on. And as they begin to better understand themselves through these various activities and assessments and discussions, they find ways to connect with the other women in the room, who, to their delight and discovery are maybe more like them than they initially assumed, sometimes on a simple, fundamental, universal female level.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  4:04  
Okay, let's get specific. Now, what are a couple of examples of some tools or activities you use early on with a group to help them kind of build that safety?

Marsha Clark  4:15  
Sure. So I'm going to first share a couple of prep suggestions, preparation before the group even enters the room. So whether it's a physical room or a virtual, you know, screen, on screen type of meeting,  it's building what we often refer to as a safe container. And that begins even before anyone arrives. And so, if you're the leader or facilitator of such a gathering, I need to have I personally need to have connected with each of the people one on one. So typically, there's a pre-call, if you will. And I've talked to them on the phone or had a video conference prior to their ever arriving into the space. And I want to make sure if I can't do that, that someone from my team has reached out, and provided this personal welcome to the group or session meeting whatever it is that you're setting up so that when the person arrives or gets there that it's at least one familiar face that they already know. Sometimes it's maybe a familiar voice, but there is some connection that's been made. And another prep activities to gather some information about each of the attendees. Now, if I'm doing this with my in tech team, certainly I know a lot of this. If I'm bringing people together who've never met each other before, this becomes really important. So for example, we're collecting what what what they do for work, where they are located, because we have people coming from all around the country or the world, where they went to school, the community activities. They might be involved in any hobbies or family information.  Anything that I can learn that might connect them with one another and cross connect, if you will, with others in the group.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  6:03  
Oh, yeah, I remember how much more comfortable I felt walking into the room, because there's 20 plus women there, but knowing that I at least knew you. And we had talked a few times. And then to discover that I had something in common with a few other women in the room that I was it, that's also comforting.

Marsha Clark  6:23  
It is. And we think about that in terms of affiliation, right? Feeling connected, or affiliated with another. And that sense of affiliation, and belonging are so important to setting the stage to begin the process of people feeling safe. So I'm going to do everything that I can do up front as a facilitator and my listeners as leaders as early as possible.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  6:46  
And yeah, it totally makes sense. Because, you know, I hadn't even thought about how much work went into setting up the conditions for safety before we even walked into the room. And I don't know that people necessarily when they're gathering a large number of people together, think about mental safety. And I know that sounds almost kind of an extreme phrase, but it's actually most people walk into rooms where they with foot that are full of strangers, and they really are extremely uncomfortable. You don't see it in their physicality, but they are mentally spinning.

Marsha Clark  7:23  
Well, and women are really good at this. They're checking out everybody. Yeah, what purse is she carrying? What dress is she wearing? Or blouse? Or, you know, whatever all that might look like. So shoes! Yeah, we're and when we're assessing ourselves.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:35  
Exactly! We're putting ourselves on this pecking order.

Marsha Clark  7:38  
Right right right. Or, and I've had women, you know, introduce themselves as (I'll never forget this), "I'm just an artist."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:46  
Right? "Just"

Marsha Clark  7:49  
And everybody else is like, overwhelmed, and mesmerized. Oh, my gosh, an artist amongst us! Right? Yet everybody's doing those kinds of comparisons. So I do want to say, though, it's good that you didn't know all of that, because you don't want that to be a part of sort of a contrived, you know, state, if you will. So it's not intended to be blatant and obvious, at least, at least not right away. And it's almost like if we have to immediately start talking about how safe the room is, from the very beginning, people's buttons start getting pushed, and we end up with some unintended consequences of almost creating apprehension or fear. "What are we going to talk about if we if we have to create this safe space?" "Do I really want to be here?" "Am I really going to be okay?" I say that, and again, there are some very deliberate things we say and do early on to be clear about the confidentiality and honoring one another stories that we hope will be shared, as you know, the program or the workshop, or the time together goes on.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:49  
Yes, I remember we had the whole "Vegas Rules" conversation.

Marsha Clark  8:56  
So "what's said in Vegas stays in Vegas." "What's done in Vegas stays in Vegas." And in our case, wherever that workshop is being held, because we do them in lots of different places, iit's a common enough phrase that we can use a little humor to relieve the tension of holding those confidences. And it's not enough to invoke Vegas rules. So after the initial introduction of the confidentiality promise, we always take a moment to actually stop and ask everyone to agree, you know, to hold one another stories confidential. And that the stories will not leave the room. And I go so far as to reinforce that even in our programs where we have supplemental coaching outside of the workshops, we don't share what happens during the workshop with their coaches. That's not my story to tell it's theirs. And I think that's true, whether it's the coaching support that get or anyone else, it's not okay for me to tell another woman story. And I may encourage them to share it with their coach or whoever they, you know, feel like might benefit. But it's not something that I'm going to report back on.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  10:04  
You know, it seems simple to be clear and explicit with a confidentiality promise upfront, to help create that safety. But I guess it's, as I said earlier, it's not common in teams or meetings, right?

Marsha Clark  10:20  
There's either an assumption that it's going to be true, but it needs to be explicit. That's, that's where I go with it. So it's just like having clear agendas, and setting intentions and meeting norms. You know, we don't always do that. And those, those tools, though, are crucial for an effective productive meeting getting clear and firm on the confidentiality, it's as crucial as creating the container for psychological safety.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  10:48  
Right! Now, what else can you do to help instill that sense of safety?

Marsha Clark  10:53  
So there are a couple of principles that we use very early on. The first is getting everyone's voice in the room as early as possible, but on a topic that's relatively safe. So you know, once a person speaks, they're more likely to speak. So we talk about that. And in our case, as part of their introduction to the group, instead of them having, or excuse me, sharing the typical name, title, you know, where do you work, all that kind of stuff with everyone, we asked them to think about a time when they felt powerful, and why. So think about the name of the program is "Power Of Self." The name of the book is "Embracing Your Power." You know, the name of the podcast, and so on. It's about being POWERFUL. And that's the story we asked them to share to introduce themselves. We, as the facilitation team, you know, go first to model the type of story we're looking for. And one of the things that I know is that I want to be as sort of provocative or, dare I say, bodacious about what story I'm going to tell because if I'm willing to go that far, they're willing, perhaps to go a little further on that. And it's so it's something beyond the time I got a raise. But more about the time I asked for that raise and lobbied with my boss for that raise. Negotiated. It's the stories of personal power and agency. So looking for a way to peel back a layer of that, or onion early on, allows them to share a part of their story, that celebratory and shines a light on who they are as a as a woman as a person as a human being.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  12:29  
Yeah, I so remember those introductions, even after all these years. Being drawn in to everyone's stories and feeling a sense of awe and connection.

Marsha Clark  12:40  
Yeah, it's the a-typical that we learn about a person earlier than we normally might. Right? And so there's something so incredibly intimate about connecting with someone else on this very human level, and where we get lost in each other's stories. So as people share their stories of what made them feel powerful, we all get to relive that experience with them. I mean, the energy in the room is just electric. And, and, and maybe we weren't there, but literally, but on some level, were there with them emotionally. And some, some stories are more elaborate, and quite honestly more emotional than others. I've often had women say are tears of price of entry. Right? Because there's often tears and sometimes it's tears of joy, sadness, overwhelm, connection. But simply sitting in witness to those stories and the feelings that they evoke. In us, it's feelings of pride, triumph, validation, even sometimes grief and overcoming those deep, dark places, is, is really profound. And that activity happens early. It's within the first 90 minutes of our multi-day workshops. And it really does set the stage for connecting with each other on a very personal level. And then we, you know, continue to build on those foundational elements as we set adding levels of trust as we go. And, you know, this is a part of when I often say "This is not your father's Leadership Development Program" because this is not what typically happens in training sessions.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  14:18  
Right? So I'm assuming that the topic you use for those introductions around your most powerful moment is specific and deliberate for the context of the workshops. Right?

Marsha Clark  14:31  
Right! The work itself is about power, so let's jump right into the topic in a deep and meaningful way. And that first stone that we said in the foundation, were laying ground for the topic of authentic powerful leadership. But a group could could use something you know, more relevant, because power, the word power, is an overwhelming word. And I will tell you, I've seen this type of deep trust building activity work with a roomful of strangers and culture. All over the world. And I've also seen it happen in a roomful of C-suite level executives who've worked around each other and built up you know, what I would describe as significant negative relationship residue over the years. And it's powerful just to watch the facades and the layers of protective (I'm gonna say BS) really start to loosen, shift, and melt away.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  15:23  
Okay, relationship residue? That's that's an interesting phrase. Is that what I think it is? You mean like gunk and goo you build up over time? When you're in an unhealthy or a toxic relationship?

Marsha Clark  15:36  
You got it exactly. Right. That's what I mean. And when people work in toxic environments, and that toxicity is never really dealt with, avoided, or pushed aside or rationalized... whatever it might be. Over time, that unhealthy residue builds up in virtually every interaction I have with that person or those persons that team is tainted, and more than likely unproductive or at least less productive than it could be. And certainly unsatisfying, even if there are some results that, you know, get eeked out as we move along.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:11  
So how does an activity like this help with that kind of toxicity?

Marsha Clark  16:16  
Yeah, so remember that I mentioned earlier that we refer to it as magic. And I even go so far as to say something magical happens on day three. And that's why I love doing three day workshops. But what we've discovered that has been validated, since by leading experts on building trust that people like Patrick Lencioni and Brene Brown. The idea of creating a space where people can express true vulnerability, the vulnerability part, like sharing a personal story about a powerful moment in their lives. It breaks down those artificial walls that have been built up and quite honestly been solidified over the years. Lencioni talks about it in his book of "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" as a first step in creating vulnerability-based trust. He calls it a personal histories exercise. And yet, it's the same thing that we had been doing at EDS nearly a decade before his book ever was written. And in our case, we created these openings a couple of different ways. The first one is going to sound familiar to anyone who listened to our episode on "Power Tools." We asked the executives to bring in a recording of a song that represented them in some ways. And I love the idea of using music. So whether that music was something that motivated them and got their blood pumping, or something that reflected an important time in their life, a powerful lyrics of powerful artists, they got to choose the song. And over the period of the two days when we were doing programs at EDS or three days in "Power Of Self," we would play the songs and each participant would share why that song was our song.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:02  
Yes, we love our power songs.

Marsha Clark  18:05  
Well in in the early days, you know now it's people create playlists for right but back in those days, they would create CDs. Making CDs, right? Yeah, so it's exactly those power music power songs. And we didn't call them power songs when I was at EDS. They were autobiographical songs!

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  18:21  
Oh my!

Marsha Clark  18:24  
But the results were just as powerful. And this was men, by the way, mostly men. But most of the time, you can almost hear a pin drop by the end of someone's song. Especially when the story that set it up was so deeply personal. And Wendi, you know, this... 99% of the time we are in rooms full of men. You know, middle age, highly successful men - top execs of companies - when we're doing leadership training. And they too were moved and their relationships shifted in those moments. Because of the stories they shared and by quite honestly the vulnerability it took to share them and they just never made time for that kind of sharing.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:01  
Wow. Well, no wonder you love using music as a way to break down walls.

Marsha Clark  19:07  
Well, it is definitely one of my favorite ways to help create a safe way for for people to share their story and tell their truth. And what I find is that music music speaks for me in what often times in ways that I can't. It has the words it has the feeling. And and you know, I still go back to songs that I love and listen to. You know, often it facilitates our ability to own and tell our stories. And it reminds me of the Brene Brown quote around owning and telling your story.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:39  
Yes, the one that says "owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do." And that's a quote from Brene Brown.

Marsha Clark  19:50  
Isn't that? The bravest thing that we will ever do? I mean that just... Oh, I love it! And in the case of, you know, high-potential, high-power, you know, high-performing execs, coming together and their stories about each other, and about how they assumed others saw them, were old andfamiliar, but not necessarily helpful or productive. And so especially when you work together or know someone for a long period of time, you're going to see him under a lot of conditions. And so this act of sharing a different side of themselves, created some new stories and new endings -- a version of their story that few if any of their peers had never had the chance to hear before.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:29  
Yeah, I remember getting goosebumps listening to the power of sharing stories in the group and with each other.

Marsha Clark  20:36  
Yeah... the music, the stories... It opens up a different part of ourselves. And that's just it. We watch that magic unfold time after time, with colleagues who knew each other well, and quite frankly, maybe didn't like each other. Didn't trust each other. But slowly, it began to work towards some reconciliation, because it was a way of connecting. You know? At least on a level where they could appreciate each other. And, you know, as I said, we've seen it happen, and as you experienced, it was a roomful of strangers. Women you'd never met before.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  21:07  
Yeah, it makes me think about the Stephen Covey, quote, "Seek first to understand before being understood." That resonating of coming through understanding by sharing these stories and hearing the music that inspired it. Yes. So you said earlier that there are a couple of principles you use to help build safety. And the first one was getting the voices into the room early on. What's the second?

Marsha Clark  21:33  
Yeah, so the second one, also equally important as getting the voices in the room is about how to listen and hold. So think about "holding" another person's story. And if you just put your hand out, palm up and think about it. In a way, you're going to hold that story in a way that honors the story and the person. And it's especially important as people are sharing stories that do make them feel quite vulnerable. And I don't know if you remember the visual example that Tracie Shipman and I often do in the front of the room that we use when we set up the rules for holding other people's "stuff?"

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  22:11  
Oh, yes, I remember. I mean, it's so simple, but so powerful.

Marsha Clark  22:15  
So I'm glad it's stuck with you that, you know. We like that! So why don't you explain what you saw and experienced with our listeners.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  22:21  
So, okay. So everyone who's listening, please imagine that you're holding a piece of paper that represents your story. It has all the details on it from the event you're talking about... Has all the feelings from your story wrapped up in it, and it also has all the feelings you might be experiencing right now as you even consider telling someone else about it. So how am I doing so far? Marsha?

Marsha Clark  22:46  
Perfect. It's great. You're holding this piece of paper, and it represents your very personal story and you're about to share it...

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  22:53  
... with someone else! Yes! And so imagine that you hand this piece of paper to someone else, which represents the act of you sharing the story. So everybody following so far?

Marsha Clark  23:04  
Yep, you're doing great. We share our story. And as people often, you know, what do people do as we tell our stories? And again, these are stories that might have some pain in them some discomfort. And what's their typical response? Wendi?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:19  
Well, I know what my circle of friends... Our immediate response, and these are female friends, is they try to fix it. Or, I try to fix it. If I'm taking someone's story or listening to someone's story, I want to take away that pain, that discomfort, that hardship. And so I'm either trying, or THEY are trying to fix it. Or fix us. Right?

Marsha Clark  23:41  
With the best of intentions! Right? Yeah, so people do a couple of things, both out of this strong desire to help. They try to fix and/or get in to our stories with lots of empathetic responses. "Oh, I know!" "Oh, my goodness!" "I can't imagine!" "Oh, how awful that must have been!" Or if it's a positive story, they're in there, too. So, "Oh, my gosh! That was awesome!" or "So great for you!" "Good for you!" And then they have this running commentary, as if they're in your story with you.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:43  
Right! And all of this commentary is basically as if they are making tiny marks on your paper. I mean, it's like inserting themselves into your story. And what feels even worse is when people start, you know, tear, proverbially tearing segments out of your paper. Like folding it up into a ball and making it smaller. I mean, that's what it feels like.

Marsha Clark  24:32  
Yes, yes, yes. And you know, when I told you that women learn in relationships, that's a part of what's going on here. And there's a good side to that. And then there's this side to this that's not always as effective. So it's not a great feeling when somebody is inserting themselves into your story or trying to hijack your story. Or, you know, take over the story, or make their story bigger, or whatever. And so you're being really honest and vulnerable. Sharing your story. And it says if the other person is ripping it up right there in front of your face in the guise of advice and a bunch of should-haves or could-haves.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:06  
Yeah, a bunch of "should-ing" on you. Yeah, I remember the impact of watching you unwind that sad little piece of paper. I mean, it just it represented the other person's story and had little rips and little pieces missing. And you were trying to flatten it out and iron it, you know, back and hand it back to them in its original form. But it was like you've done them... you've done them some sort of favor by listening. But mostly, you had just mangled it all.

Marsha Clark  25:36  
And get that word MANGLED it. Right? So with the greatest and purist of intentions, of helping. And that's why we use the visual metaphor of holding people's stories. Just holding them. That's all. That's all you have to do. So when we, when we say hold, we really mean hold gently, reverently. Holding it. Don't mangle it. Don't minimize it. Don't insert yourself in it. It's their story, not yours. And you're there to witness the story. Not to, you know, put yourself in the middle of it. Right?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  26:13  
And, I think that's a challenge for a lot of us. I have definitely been working with myself on this over the last couple of years. It's a challenge for all of us, but not because I want to fix everyone. Well, maybe I do sometimes. But, for sure I want to empathize and show support. Like, that's the main thing I want... To empathize, show support, show that I'm there. Especially if someone is sharing something that seems painful, or they're struggling with the story.

Marsha Clark  26:44  
Well, and that's, that's what I try and help people understand. You want to help them, and what you're doing, though, is really managing yourself in that way. So what you said is a pretty universal response. That's empathy, right? I try to see it from their point of view. So it's important for each of us to recognize that when that's kind of welling up inside of us. And as I witness your story, as someone who's holding your story, you know, I need to check in with you. And you know, when I noticed that you're struggling, and rather than insert myself, you know, my question to you might be, "How can I support you in this moment?" And those are questions in this moment, need to start with what and how? Because that's the helpful are probing questions, powerful questions, if you will. But if we believe we're trying to satisfy our need to fix the emotion that they're feeling, and somehow to reduce it, our own discomfort, then it becomes about us. And it's not about me supporting you. So when we allow people to share stories, their truth, without interruption without judgment without unsolicited remedies, then we're truly honoring who they are in that moment as fully as we possibly can. So for some people, it's the first time in their lives or careers, you know, that they've received that kind of unconditional support and respect. And creating a space where that kind of support respect and honoring of one another at such a deep level takes really intentional deliberate work, and yet the payoff is exponentially worth it.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  28:26  
Yeah. This happens every time we have a deep conversation. I get so lost in this discussion and the memories of going through these experiences that I really don't want it to end. AND, we can always revisit this in another episode with other suggestions. So let's start wrapping this one up with a few key takeaways for everyone, "From Strangers to Sisters."

Marsha Clark  28:52  
Absolutely. So what we tried to do in this episode is to highlight a few of the tools and techniques that we use to build psychological safety and high trust within a group. So first, remember that creating this safe space begins before anyone enters the room by connecting with individuals first as the leader or the facilitator, and looking for possible connections between and among group members that you can call out early on. Next, you need to ensure that your group agrees explicitly upfront, not when somebody just told something really special, but up front on the level of confidentiality that needs to be maintained. And as a group, you may need to report out to someone else that maybe the decisions that were made by the group or but you don't have to talk about the inner workings of how the group came to the conclusions or decisions. Because that that part is where you really want it to remain confidential in order to maintain the integrity and the safety of the space itself. And finally, building deep trust in the group, ironically requires people to work through vulnerability. And that vulnerability is almost a critical path item if you will to building trust both their own and that of others in the group. So one way to do that is to ask people to share their stories. And your job as the leader or the facilitator of the group is to teach them and remind them how to hold one another stories. Gently, respectfully, and reverently.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:25  
Ah, just beautiful. I can see why the women in your programs go from being complete strangers to feeling that sense of sisterhood within just a few days. And I know our group experienced it, but I didn't know that there was just so much behind the scenes making all that happen.

Marsha Clark  30:42  
Well, Wendi, that's partly why we call it magic! So we wave our magic wand! But no, we do a lot of work on the front end. And I I do want to say one other thing. Women often tell me at the end of programs that that was one of their most memorable events was day one, almost morning one, the walk and talk that they did where they got to share their story. And that's where some really deep relationships got established that lived on through the remainder of the program.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  31:12  
Absolutely! Well, thank you all listeners for joining us today on our journey of authentic powerful leadership. We invite you to download, share, and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google, Spotify, or wherever you prefer to listen. And please visit Marsha's website at for links to all the tools, other resources we discussed today. Subscribe to her email list and stay up to date on everything in Marsha's world. You can also find out more about Marsha and her latest book "Embracing Your Power" on the site as well as her social media.

Marsha Clark  31:51  
Well, thank you, Wendi, for another great session and good questions and good topic and all of that! And I to invite our listeners to let us know what they're thinking, and if you've got any questions to let us know because we want to be here to support you and help you be the best authentic leader that you can be. And we hope you'll join us again next week. And as always, here's to women supporting women!

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