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Cheri Torres: “Understand your words have consequences”

Pause, breathe, get curious. Have a conversation with yourself first by asking yourself questions like: What have I assumed about the other? Why am I responding the way I am? What don’t I know about the other person that might change what I’m thinking? Are my words going to add value? Is there a question […]

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Pause, breathe, get curious. Have a conversation with yourself first by asking yourself questions like: What have I assumed about the other? Why am I responding the way I am? What don’t I know about the other person that might change what I’m thinking? Are my words going to add value? Is there a question I could ask that might add value or move thinking forward? Why do I feel the need to respond? How would I respond if the person was in front of me?


As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Cheri Torres, Lead Catalyst and CEO at Collaborative by Design.

Cheri partners with people to catalyze positive change in their workplaces and communities. Her primary area of expertise is communication. The two simple practices she introduces give leaders and teams the power to strengthen relationships, expand possibilities, and increase productivity and engagement through everyday conversation. These practices are grounded in neuroscience and positive psychology research as well as Appreciative Inquiry, one of the most widely used organization development approaches for systems change. She has worked with thousands of leaders and teams around the world to support high performance, engagement, and organizational success.

Cheri has written numerous books and articles. Her most recent book is a Berrett Koehler bestseller, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. Her work has been featured in leading media sources including Careers in Government, Fast Company, Forbes, HR Magazine, SmartBrief, Training Industry, and Training Magazine. As a perpetual learner, she has accumulated a number of degrees: a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, specializing in Collaborative Learning, an MBA, and a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology, and Appreciative Inquiry Certification from Case Western Reserve University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

For as long as I can remember, I have been curious about how to move beyond my limiting beliefs — about myself and others. I pushed the edge and always felt like I wasn’t even close to what’s possible. As early as 1972 I sensed there was a significant connection between mind/thought, the physical body, and what’s possible in the world, but I didn’t know what to do with that intuition. After a stint in corporate America, I transitioned to education, and very quickly became a serial entrepreneur. I founded a non-profit childcare resource and referral service, which I ran for 10 years. There, I was committed to working with parents and childcare providers helping them recognized the natural genius of their children and giving them tools to support its development. I also worked with teens and young mothers supported by social services. I could see that what held them back was their own thinking about themselves and what was possible for them. I struggled to create conditions for them to see otherwise, but they returned to environments that reinforced old behaviors.

I transitioned to working with college students, leaders, and teams using outdoor experiential education as the medium for enabling people to see their potential. Five years into it, I co-founded a for profit business, patented an award-winning portable low ropes course, and developed a facilitator training program designed to train facilitators to debrief activities by focusing on strengths. Our efforts to help people focus on strengths lead us to Appreciative Inquiry, one of the most widely used, strength-based approaches for systems change.

Experiential learning activities are designed so that the only way a team can succeed is by sharing leadership and working well together as a team. Time after time I witnessed people look at a challenge and say, “That’s impossible” and then proceed to find solutions. Overtime, I realized that these activities were not teaching people leadership and teamwork, rather, the structure of the activities invited people to tap into their inherent capacity for leadership and collaboration. And the structure was simple: a shared goal, minimal rules, and a commitment that everyone succeed.

This led me back to graduate school for a Ph.D. in Collaborative Learning and into the world of consulting around organizational design and engaging whole systems. Between Appreciative Inquiry, collaborative learning, positive psychology and neuroscience I came to understand that we create our social reality — our relationships, organizations, and communities — through our conversations and the way we make meaning together. Words (our own and other people’s) literally either inhibit our capacity to thrive or inspire us to use our genius to flourish. And we can make the choice! We can co-create organizations, communities, and a world that works for everyone simply by changing our conversations.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A Canadian outdoor experiential learning facilitator bought our portable ropes course and training. He’d been working with gang members from indigenous tribes trying to teach them teamwork and leadership skills in hopes of redirecting them. In the midst of our training, he realized his approach had been deficit-based. He’d focused on what the teens were doing wrong and pointed to why they were not able to succeed. He’d told them what to do; they didn’t listen, of course. He fully understood after our Appreciative Facilitator training that he had been reinforcing their negative beliefs about themselves. He was so excited to return to work with the young gang members and debrief using Appreciative Inquiry.

Months later he ordered another portable course and then another. I asked him what was going on. He shared that by shifting his focus to look for what these teens were doing “right” everything had changed. At first, he was hard pressed to find something positive because they were not succeeding at completing challenges, but he was committed to reinforcing even the smallest achievements. He asked questions such as: “What did you do to stay on the bridge for as long as you did?” “How has leadership shown up so far?” He shared that within a short period of time their perseverance increased, their creativity emerged. He realized they actually were a very strong team and a number of them had great leadership skills. He didn’t need to teach them, he needed to give them opportunities to develop their strengths in positive ways.

So, his purchase of additional courses was to support these young men in designing their own activities with indigenous themes (medicine wheels, dream catchers). He eventually taught them to lead activities and these former gang members facilitated the activities for younger boys, helping them see their strengths and leadership competence. It is a profound example of how simple it is to create conditions and conversations that support flourishing.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was working as Associate Director of an outdoor experiential learning program, we often facilitated ropes courses for high school groups. The counseling office of our local high school brought kids to our program who were struggling to succeed, usually after they’d been together for at least 3–4 weeks. I was facilitating a group that had just formed and had only had one session together before they came. The activity we often used to get them started was called the Blindfold Walk. Everyone in the group is blindfolded the group with the exception of 2–3 people who are to lead those who are blindfold across a field and into a circle. The challenge for the leaders is that they can’t talk or touch anyone. I always suggested to those who were blindfolded that they figure out how to travel safely together as a group. Usually groups line up, hands on one another’s shoulders and leaders clap or make some other sound to guide the group. This group was so dysfunctional. Those blindfolded just began to individually wander off into the field, which raised my level of anxiety for fear of their safety. The leaders couldn’t figure out what to do. I gave them some suggestions, but those who were blindfolded never stopped to think about the clapping sounds the leaders were making. Instead they made random comments like, “Who’s clapping and why?” They just wandered about the field blindfolded. I was so frustrated and exasperated, I told them to take off their blindfolds and get in a circle. One of them commented, “That was stupid, we didn’t go anywhere or do anything!” To which I blurted out without thinking, “And if you continue to behave like that, you won’t go anywhere or do anything in life either!”

And then I was horrified at myself. Their teacher did all she could to keep from laughing. At the end of our time together I apologized to her; she said she thought they probably needed to hear that.

Fortunately, it had a happy ending. At the end of the semester she told me that was the most powerful experience she’d had with all the years of bringing kids to the ropes course. They’d had an incredibly rich debriefing around that experience. At the end of the term, the students said my comment followed with the debrief is what made them wake up and look at their behavior choices.

What I learned: Sometimes the blunt, metaphorical truth should be spoken, especially if it can be followed up with important conversations that enable awareness and the opportunity for growth.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the new exciting projects I’m working on is the direct result of our recent book, Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. With the publication of this book, we’ve articulated two simple communication practices that allow anyone, anytime, and in any situation to shift conversations towards genuine connection, creativity, and possibility. The approach comes from Appreciative Inquiry; we’ve just simplified it, making it easily accessible for anyone to use their words to support thriving relationships, families, organizations and communities. In a little over three years the book is in its third printing and we’ve had demand for training and train-the-trainer programs, which we’ve designed and are offering through the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. We are out to change the nature of the conversations held around the world; to create a movement of fostering conversations worth having!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?

Sharing something you believe to be important or of value and then having someone call you a f***ing idiot was surprisingly hurtful. It’s just words, but their impact on my nervous system cut just as if they were knives. I was replying to a post on my daughter’s Facebook page and the comment came from an acquaintance of hers, who I didn’t know. In addition to feeling shame and embarrassment, I was taken aback by the vehemence of his response. It triggered all sorts of defense mechanisms in me, including the desire to write back in all CAPS, but I didn’t.

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

I paused, took a deep breath, and got curious. I wondered what it was about my posting that was so triggering to this person. I wondered what was going on for him that prompted such anger and animosity towards a complete stranger. By the time I’d finished doing that, I was in a more reasonable and emotionally stable place. From this place, I asked him a couple of questions: It seems like my comment really triggered you; your reply sounds very angry. Is that correct? I’m curious why. Would you be willing to share? His reply was more reasonable, but he wasn’t interested in doing more than responding once to me after that.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I have shared other people’s postings that afterwards I regretted sharing. Everything that happened on social media during our last election was so geared to polarize and I fell into it. I contributed to the polarizing by sharing and reinforcing these postings.

Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?

I initially shared these posting because I thought I was sharing valid information that everyone needed to know. At one point a close friend posted something that I thought had to be false, so I checked it out. Sure enough, Snopes assured me it was misrepresented partial facts. That made me start checking out everything that I was tempted to share, and I discovered false news was being spread on all sides.

In addition, reading and sharing all this vitriolic material left me anxious, irritable, judgmental, and angry all the time. I knew we moved in the direction of our focus and conversations. I knew that what we focused on grew — what was I doing sharing all this negative stuff?

So, I stopped. The only thing I share now is true, positive/inspiring/uplifting posts that reinforce what we are capable of when we are at our best. I write and post only those kinds of messages these days. And I encourage others to do the same.

When one reads the comments on YouTube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

Even if you are prepared and know such comments are coming, words nonetheless impact our nervous system. Our words actually trigger a bio-chemical response in ourselves and in others. Words that attack, are hateful, hurtful, or angry trigger the release of stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, testosterone, adrenalin). If our brain is flooded with these hormones, our fight or flight, self-protective instincts kick in. We see a saber tooth tiger where there is only a paper tiger. If we are not aware of this and don’t do something to counter it, we’re at the mercy of what’s known as the “amygdala hijack.” We jump to defend ourselves. If there were a saber tooth tiger, this would be a good response. Unfortunately, this response inhibits access to parts of our neo-cortex and the pre-frontal lobe, which host rational thought. We don’t have access to emotional intelligence, critical or creative thinking. The result can be an all-out war of words.

Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

If the words are the same, I don’t think there is a difference in the initial reaction. The circumstances surrounding it, however, are likely to make it different. Online, total strangers may come at you. You can’t see them; you may not be able to engage in conversation with them. You may not be able to reason. One comment may fuel a torrent of negativity from other total strangers with nothing you can do about it

In real life, you are likely to know the person or at least be able to look them in the eyes and reply. One on one, people are much less likely to be cruel and if they are, they immediately see the impact. That feedback can be palpable, especially if the person is attached doesn’t respond by defending or attacking back.

What long term effects can happen to someone who who online?

This depends upon how strong they are and what the level of attack is. People commit suicide. They may feel forced into isolation or live in fear if their life is threatened. Both of these have negative effects on the person’s health and well-being.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

Lots of people think it’s the anonymity. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s because they aren’t responding to the person, they are responding to 2-dimensional words on a page or ideas that a person is sharing. On social media, the person is physically separate from the idea — out of sight, out of mind. Because we don’t see and experience the human being, our humanity and compassion are not inspired. And then mob-mentality can also encourage more of the same. Again, I think it’s easy to get caught up in attacking someone’s ideology with words that attack the person and forget that individual people are involved.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

  1. See the person. For example, before posting, link to the person’s page, recognize them as a human being with a family, friends, a purpose — just like you. Look at their photo and imagine saying to them in person what you are about to post. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t post it.
  2. Understand your words have consequences. They affect people in tangible and important ways. Neuroscience tells us that negative comments that devalue people trigger defensiveness and negativity, whereas positive comments and genuine questions make people feel valued and they inspire connection and engagement. Choose to have a positive impact.
  3. Pause, breathe, get curious. Have a conversation with yourself first by asking yourself questions like: What have I assumed about the other? Why am I responding the way I am? What don’t I know about the other person that might change what I’m thinking? Are my words going to add value? Is there a question I could ask that might add value or move thinking forward? Why do I feel the need to respond? How would I respond if the person was in front of me?
  4. Ask generative questions. Instead of making a comment, ask a generative question. A generative question is one that shifts people’s thinking (including your own) and changes the focus of attention. For example, if someone posts something you think is false or infuriating, instead of reacting, you might ask a question such as: I’m curious about why you think that. What thoughts, feelings, or information leads you to say that? What outcomes are you hoping for and why? Did you know that [then provide some facts back up by references]; followed by a question such as, Does information like that change your thinking at all?
  5. Create a positive frame. Talk about what you want instead of what you don’t want. If you must share negative factual information, follow it up with an invitation to talk about positive change. Instead of pointing to problems and negativity, invite people into dialogue around solution-finding and fact-finding. Find stories of people doing what you want to have happen and post those instead of posting stories of people doing what you don’t want. It takes more time, and you’ll be part of creating a movement of positive change in the world. There are so many people doing amazingly positive things that will help everyone move towards flourishing. Find them and post them.

Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?

I don’t think this is an easy question to answer because social media platforms feel like public spaces, even though they are not. That being said, I think the solution to these challenges lies in all of us moving forward, growing in our awareness, consciousness, and humanity rather than trying to legislate or govern our behavior. I see this time in history as one where our social systems are hitting a record low when it comes to values, morals, and common sense caring. People who want to be “in control” can use fear to control the public or members of their specific groups; they can polarize and divide countries. The solution is not control and prohibition, the solution is education, a call to the deeper parts of what makes us human, a call to have conversations worth having — one’s that bridge divides, generate solutions to that which makes us fearful, and offers a realistic pathway to a future that works for everyone.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

I would choose something that educates and invites people to step up to their best selves. For example, imagine there was an algorithm that recognized a hurtful or harmful attack and before posting, it pinged the sender with a message that said: The message you are about to send will negatively affect the person you are sending it to. At the very least you will hurt this person’s feelings. At worst they could commit suicide. Why do you feel the need to be hurtful? What is going on for you? If you want to talk with this person, is there another way you might engage that would recognize your own humanity and theirs? Try rewriting your message to reflect who you are when you are at your best.

If they still write something hurtful or harmful, they could get pinged a second time with: I’m going to let you sleep on this. Given your profile, who you are as a [father/mother, son/daughter, etc.]; this just doesn’t sound like you.

The next day if they still want to send it, they can. And then they could get pinged with message that said something like: We are all disappointed in your decision.

If they send something more humane or nothing at all, the response might be: Nice decision. I hope you feel good about your choice.

There would need to be a variety of these messages, so the person didn’t tune out. The point would be to raise awareness, educate, and call forth the best in each of us. Artificial intelligence should be able to do this . . . soon, if not now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Our words create our worlds . . . our organizational lives and the lives of others flourish or flounder one conversation at a time.” David L. Cooperrider.

Relevance for my life: I remind myself daily that my words are sacred, they manifest in our world — so being choice-full with my words has become very important to me. We can uplift and create joy, beauty, and positivity in the world, or we can do harm and destroy joy, beauty and possibility . . . just using our words.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Bill and Melinda Gates. They know that education and healthcare are core to the success of humanity. I would love to talk with them about bringing Conversations Worth Having into their work and reach. I’ve come to see just how central conversation is to EVERYTHING we do — we are almost always in conversation (with ourselves or others) and those conversations are fateful. We are either reinforcing what is, bringing about something worse, or engaging in conversations that promise positive change. They are working for positive change and I believe the two simple practices in our book would enhance everything they are doing no matter where in the world they are doing it.

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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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