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Tension: Why We Have It and Why We Need It

Last week, I attended a summit for women's leadership hosted by the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. The event was entitled the INspire Her Summit, and it did not disappoint. From sessions ranging from defining our mission, to board appointments, to running for office--speakers and presenters shared deeply personal and profound words of wisdom.

To culminate the event, the owner of HopeAnchor & Crew--a 501-C Nonprofit who partners with women to create philanthropic jewelry--invited each attendee to peruse a list of words, choose one, and create a unique bracelet that features the word of choice.

Since I love setting intentions and having a focus, I had already chosen my word for 2024: radiance. I wanted a word that invoked positivity and impact; I also wanted something a little playful. I happily set about the making of my HopeAnchor & Crew bracelet (which I've been wearing ever since).

Carrie Rosebrock and HopeAnchor & Crew bracelet

Though my 2024 word is a clear prompt for joy, inspiration, and positivity--the two words that circled my head and my heart in 2023 do not seem to "shine" so brightly.

In fact, the very idea of these words--when combined--seems to push people away, prompt heart walls to appear and quickly cue emotional shut downs.

Though the year has moved on, the tugging inside me still exists, as my curiosity draws again towards these two companions: hold and tension.

Why hold? Why tension? And why do they keep appearing together?

For nearly all of 2023, the word hold would show up almost daily. And this may not seem surprising as hold is a pretty common word in standard English. But I would hear or read hold in a certain context--one that usually indicated the need for us humans to grow in our capacity to sit with and/or hold discomfort. Podcast after podcast, book after book...this idea would surface. A line here. A phrase there.

Our capacity to hold uncomfortable, difficult, sad, dysregulatory feelings would return. And maybe it wasn't even so much our ability to hold the feelings, but even more so--our ability to create and hold space for these feelings. That's really what it was all about. That's what the messages continued to say to me.

Speaking from my own experience, holding space for others' emotions and reactions is not an easy thing to do. Since I was a kid, I have often used my presence as a strong force in groups and teams. I wanted everyone to feel okay, and I wanted every thing to be okay. Sometimes the force was welcomed and encouraged; sometimes the force would stifle and even discourage the team. Usually when the discouragement occurred, I showed up in a controlling manner, unable to hold or create space for teammates' perspectives.

I learned, over many trials and errors, that though I naturally have a stronger energy force, my use of it didn't come naturally. Rather than persuade or influence actions of team members, I needed to use my leadership to create strong spaces that allow others to use their talents and gifts. When I hover up and take the 100-foot-view of the past 25 years, I can see that I've been on a continuous journey to unlearn, learn, and relearn how to create and hold space for all of us--and that includes the tension.

Tension is a necessary component for growth. Though it tends to get a negative reputation for causing harm, I have found that tension is in fact, a friend. When I am with a person or a team, and I feel tension enter the room--I know that there's a potential for growth to occur. I'm not always sure if the growth will come from inside of me, inside of them, or between us altogether--but I know it's coming.

Without the tension, things simply stay the same. And that's not necessarily bad, but it isn't improvement. Consistency is not the same as stagnation, and if you find that your teams are stagnant--then tension is the necessary component that you need for momentum.

When we try to grow our teams without anticipating or fully embracing the need for tension, we actually close ourselves off to our greatest potential. We simply cannot transform, grow, or stretch without tension.

Let's look at this need for tension through a different lens. Imagine that you want to increase muscle tone in your biceps. You decide to get yourself a gym membership. You schedule time for workouts each day and research effective exercises to target this muscle group. You set aside the time, the space, the plan--and you confidently enter the gym ready to hit the weights.

You pick up the 20 lb dumbbells first and immediately set them back down. There's no way you can do 3 sets of 10 reps with those puppies. In fact, you find yourself suddenly pretty doubtful of your ability to do 3 sets of 10 reps with the 15, 10, or even 5 lb weights. You are worried that if you pick a weight that's too heavy, you'll only get half-way through your workout before you quit and throw in the towel.

So you reason that your best bet, your safest bet, is to pick up the 3 lb weights, and you easily complete your workout. You wake up the next day without any soreness or muscle fatigue, and you go back to the gym and repeat the same workout again. Still no stretch. Still no strain.

And also: no gain.

A great team discussion is like a great workout--it provides enough stretch, even tension, in our relationship muscles that we grow and push ourselves to explore new perspectives. If the discussion is too easy--if we only lift the 3 lb weights--we can continue on without discomfort, sure, but we also won't get the results we are hoping for. We won't gain muscle; we won't increase strength; we won't create change as a team.

And likewise, if the team jumps in to too challenging of a discussion--it's like lifting a 20, 30, or 50 lb weight right out of the gate. Maybe, maybe, it can be done a few times, but not consistently enough to build the discussion or collaboration muscles required to transform.

What does tension have to do with this muscle-toning analogy and team dynamics?

Tension is the necessarily component of stretch. We want stretch--not strain--for our students, for our teams and for ourselves. And while too much tension can create the strain and discomfort that causes people to shut down, no tension creates an illusion of collaboration, or faux collaboration, a term coined by educator and coach Casey Watts.

We simply cannot grow, stretch, or transform without tension. It cannot happen.

So what do we do?

We welcome and embrace the need for tension. We make space for it. We normalize it as part of the process. We celebrate the heck out of it when it occurs in our teams, and we help teams repair if the stretch turns into strain.

When we normalize tension as a signal that growth is occurring, we once again remind our teachers that stretch and discomfort is a critical part of learning. The more space we can hold for our discomfort as adults, the more space we can hold for the messy middle, the confusion, the learning experiences for our students. We have to learn how to hold tension with ease.

Learning is not about getting "it" right. Learning is about growth and capacity and expansion. And guess what?

Expansion requires stretching, and stretching requires tension.

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