What does inspiration really mean, and how do we get more of it for ourselves and spark more of it in others? In this webinar from our series of Online Positivity Hours with the JCC in Manhattan, executive coach and leadership consultant Val Williams offers three keys to effectively inspiring others. Along the way, she shares personal stories, explores the “elevation effect” and other positive psychology research, and tells a poignant parable about a butterfly that may stick with you forever. 

Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline: In these fast-moving and challenging times, we no doubt feel a range of emotions. Many of us are looking for positive emotions, especially inspiration, that feeling of being uplifted, touched, and motivated to create the best and to be the best of who we can be. What role can we play to inspire others to lift their spirits to encourage the people we care about while also caring for ourselves? And how do we inspire ourselves? In this session, executive leadership coach Val Williams will share what she has learned working with senior executive leaders, that the key to inspiring people in difficult times does not require a business school degree. Inspiration, in fact, comes from a fundamental human capacity to connect deeply, which means that we all have the opportunity to choose to inspire and be inspired. 

Val will share three ways to practice inspiration every day, and you’ve got to listen in to hear what those are. Whether you are a corporate executive, a parent, a teacher, a leader of your own life, a friend, a sister, a mother or a father, or all of the above. Val Williams is an MCC (Master-Certified Coach) and executive coach and a specialist in accelerating senior executive development. She holds a Master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston University, is a graduate of the Wholebeing Institute certificate program in positive psychology—of which I am partaking now and I’m just loving it. And Val has coached senior corporate executives for over 19 years to increase their impact by strengthening their influence and building a powerful executive presence. As a former healthcare executive herself, Val has led an operations team of over 700 people. Her work focuses on providing senior executive leaders and their teams with the tools and practices they need to achieve the most beneficial impact. I welcome to the call Val Williams. You guys are in for a treat. Val and I met earlier and had such a good time. And I can’t wait for her to share with us her PowerPoint and her perspective. Hey, Val, how did you get affiliated or even hear about Wholebeing Institute? 

Val: I took a class with Maria Sirois that was based on positive psychology and I was inspired. And that’s why I said, Okay, let me sign up for more to learn more about this. And that’s when I heard about Wholebeing Institute, and I did the year-long certificate program in positive psychology last year. So I’m a recent graduate of that program, loved it, it was great.
Caroline: I’m enjoying it as well. It’s pretty amazing. Maria, Megan, Phoebe, all the faculty really talk about inspiration. And what I would call authentic leadership too … and, at this time, it’s about being real, isn’t it? A lot of the pretenses have dropped—[with] COVID-19, the racial injustice that we’re experiencing as a country, as a world, it’s time to get real and be inspired to take action. So what inspires you?
Val: I thought I would start with just sharing the story about how inspiration played a role in my own life. You heard in my bio that I’m an executive coach; now I work with senior executives. But before this, I was a corporate executive myself. I worked at a big insurance company, Prudential, loved it. Great company. And when I was in the operations job, I had a big job. So like 700 people in New Jersey, another 150 people in New York, and I had worked my way up in that job. So I felt like I finally, you know, I made it. But what I noticed is that I was busy, but sometimes a little bit bored. You know, insurance is not the most inspiring thing. But when I was working with my leaders, I was very excited. I felt alive and I was like, I want more of this. 

So, as executives do, I went to a training class about leadership, as a student, and the teacher of the class was very inspiring and we were talking about new leadership concepts. And I was like, this is what I want to do. This is the part of the job that I like, I like being able to feel alive and help others and empower people. I just loved it. So I walked away feeling like I’m inspired, I want to do this. Now I want to get into leadership development. But then you know, you go, you get inspired, you go back to work, and I’m like, oh, but I can’t do this, like, I got a job. And I definitely had that feeling of who leaves a great corporate job? I can’t leave. I went through this period, this up-and-down period after that, of being inspired, and then, I don’t know if I can do it. I then talked to a mentor of mine, and I’m like, I want to do leadership development. I want to quit my corporate job. But I can’t because this corporate job makes me successful. And my mentor, she was inspired, because she said to me, “I know, Val, you want to be successful, but by whose standards?” And I found that to be inspiring, like she was saying you could live life by your own standards. So then I’m up again, like, maybe I can do this. But then I said, No, I can’t quit my job, I’ve got to pay bills.

So I go home and talk to my husband. And I’m like, you know what, I think I want to do leadership development. I want to quit my job. And my husband said, I believe in you, if you want to, I will pay the bills. And I’m like, Whoa, okay, um, I think I can do this. But then so I’m inspired again. But then I’m like, ah, but what if I fail, because had the feeling of, I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this
Finally, I talked to my parents, because I was like, my parents are proud of me, you can’t quit a corporate job to do something you’re not even sure you can do. And I remember talking to my mom, and I said, “Mom, I really want to do leadership development. It excites me. It’s wonderful. But what if I fail?” And my mom said, “If you fail, we’ll still love you.” So the end of the story is so then I go to my boss, and I say, “I decided to quit my job, I’m gonna do something else.” And my boss said, “Oh, you’re just under stress. You need to go on vacation, you’re not sure.” So I go off for three or four days to the Bahamas for the weekend. And that was the final inspiration, the sun, the sand of the Bahamas. And then I come back to my boss, and I say, “Okay, now I’m really sure.” And then I quit my job.

Caroline: Is that trajectory of wanting a dream or being inspired and then having a doubt, and then being inspired again, and having a doubt, and then being inspired again, and having a doubt, is that common? Is that part of the deal?
Val: I think it is. There are two major things I learned: One is that inspiration is such a positive emotion and such a beautiful feeling that it can totally change your life. But the other thing, to your point, Caroline, is that inspiration comes in flashes. And it doesn’t have to be from a famous person. Inspiration can be small moments, and from people in our own lives, right—in my case from my mentor, from my husband, from my parents. So inspiration can come from anywhere, if we’re open to it. What this conversation is about today is just very simply looking at what is inspiration, just the definition of inspiration. So maybe we can start there. And then why is it important? And how do we get more of it? 
Caroline: I feel like inspiration connects me. I feel like inspiration is the great connector. It connects me to myself. It connects me to others, it connects me to vision, like a larger, bigger part of myself. Like our ideal self, as we talk about in the CiWPP program, or that part of us that isn’t sure if we can do that. So it feels very past, present, and future, in a way. 
Val: Very much so, right? So here’s a definition of inspire from the dictionary. To inspire is to motivate, spark emotion, uplift. Triggering a feeling or a thought to do something, especially something creative, right? And this is from Latin, so any of you who studied Latin in school—”to breathe into.” But if you look at Barbara Fredrickson’s definition, and this is from her book Positivity, an inspiration or feeling inspired rivets your attention, it warms your heart, it draws you in. So inspiration doesn’t simply feel good. It creates the urge to do your best so that you can reach your own higher ground. Great definition. 

If we decide we’re going to be open to inspire others, and to be inspired ourselves, I think it’s the key to our future. I think that’s what’s at stake. Because think about it for right now: We’re creating the new reality, whatever that new reality will be for each of us. For each of us, it’s going to be different. So why not create that new reality from an uplifted place? So if that’s the definition of inspiration, then as we create our new normal, our new reality, what we’re going to do next, wouldn’t it be great if we can create it from that place of feeling uplifted, and uplifting each other? No matter what we decide to create, I just think it’ll come up to be more positive, if it’s from that place.

Caroline: What a beautiful vision to have as a foundation.
Val: Yeah, right? So now that we have that foundation, let’s talk about how to inspire yourself, because I really think this is the first step. I hope one of the messages you’ll get today is that, even though we’re going to be talking about how to inspire others, my belief is that inspiration is always internal. It’s always something that comes out of us. But we can help create the conditions with other people to help them feel inspired. One of the first places to start if you’re going to inspire somebody else is with ourselves. Many of us haven’t really taken the time to identify what inspires us. Think of what people inspire you, that feeling of being uplifted or being sparked. For me, it’s artists, I am inspired by artists. Or think about the conversations that inspire you. For me, it’s conversations about how do we become successful? How are we happy? How do we get more connected to people? I like those kind of conversations. But what is it for you? Because inspiration is personal, it’s individual. You can also think about what kind of environments inspire you—is it Central Park? Where do you need to be to be inspired? What kind of activities? What kinds of things are you doing? And even think about memories, right? What kinds of memories inspire you? When I was a kid, my dad used to come to all my dance recitals, or whatever I did, and it was very embarrassing as a kid, but at the end, when people are just clapping politely, my dad would always stand up and say, “That’s my kid! That’s my kid!” So even that memory inspires me. 
Caroline: There are so many people on this call that inspire me. And my parents and my husband, of course, and my dog inspires me. Like the way he loves to just lounge around and he can lay completely on his back and put up all his paws and balance. That’s pretty darn inspiring.
Val: You know, it is. A colleague of mine once said, in terms of her personal goals, her goal was to become the person that her dog thinks she is. I thought that was perfect, right? 
In positive psychology, there’s a very simple exercise. I think this is from Rick Hanson, who talks about savoring, and to savor something. So everything you wrote that inspires you, whether it’s a person, an environment, an activity, savoring is just when you bring to mind that thing that inspires you, just for like 30 seconds, and feel that feeling that you feel when you remember that activity or that environment, just feel that. Can you feel it right now? Just for 10 seconds? And just feel how that brings us up just to have that. Notice that savoring is what we can do to feel instant inspiration.

Let me talk about the elevation effect for a moment. Jonathan Haidt’s research says the elevation effect means that when we actually just observe other people being at their best, that alone will inspire us to want to be our best. So it’s not just a good idea to be inspired—you being inspired will help somebody else. One of my best examples of this is where children can teach us something. A quick example, one of my friends whose niece at the time was six years old. And he and I are just chatting at some kind of a family event and his niece is jumping up and down on the bed, and she’s saying to us, “Look, look, I want to show you, I want to show you what I can do.” And she’s jumping up and down. Very cute, but you know, how you’re trying to have a conversation with another adult? And you’re like, “Okay, that’s great.” And she says, “Come on, I want to show you.” And so he says to her, “Okay, sweetheart, we’ll we’ll see it in a little while.” And so then you’re thinking like, Oh, I hope you know her feelings aren’t hurt. You know what she did? She said, “Oh, okay, I’ll show myself.” And then she kept jumping. She decided, I’ll just show myself. I felt the elevation effect by watching her. I’m like, this kid is great. She’s not waiting for anybody else to do anything for her. She’s saying, I’ll inspire myself. So that’s our first step. Inspire ourselves. 

So shall we go a little bit further to see how can we inspire other people? I’m going to give three suggestions. And this is the first one, that if you want to inspire other people, the first thing to know is you’ve got to have a light touch, like butterflies. So when you’re trying to inspire somebody else, you’re not going to like hit him over the head with your positive affirmations or anything. It’s got to be light. How many of you have noticed that when you try to give people a lecture, like “Just think positive” or “Don’t worry about that, don’t feel bad,” that doesn’t work. 

I was in a group situation in a personal development class and we were all talking about careers and bosses and one of the women in the room had a problem with her boss. It was about 15 of us there and we all know each other fairly well and she’s talking about her difficult boss and not sure what she should do, and then suddenly everybody starts jumping in. Fourteen other people start jumping in, saying “Here’s what you should do with the boss,” and “I remember the time when I had a boss like that, here’s what I did” and “No, you should do this” and pretty soon the woman who asked the original question she’s not even part of the conversation because everybody else is jumping in saying you should do this, you should do that. Sometimes we so want to rescue somebody when they seem in distress but we’re not actually helping them go through what they have to go through. 

I’m going to read you a story now. I would like to give credit but it’s anonymous; I don’t know who wrote this. So everybody just settle back, I’m gonna read you a short little story. This is the butterfly story. So a man found a cocoon of a butterfly and one day a small opening appeared in the cocoon. So the man sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole in the cocoon. Then the butterfly seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared that it had gotten as far as it could and it couldn’t go any further. Then the man decided to help the butterfly so he took a pair of scissors and he snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily but it had a swollen body and small shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that at any moment the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time but neither happened. In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It was never able to fly and eventually died. What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening was nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If nature allowed us to go through our life without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been and we could never fly. So that’s the butterfly story, right?

So this is basically saying that if we want to inspire somebody else, we want them to stretch, right, and [we don’t want to] necessarily rescue people right away. This is the light touch. You want to ask them questions. I’m an executive coach so we’re trained that everything is about asking questions versus lecture. You want to ask people questions so it opens them up and they see what they’re able to do, and the light touch is really about, can you help somebody dream, right? Can you ask somebody questions about their life and what they care about until their face lights up? That’s the kind of questions that you want to ask people and we don’t want to rescue them too early, right? I’ve been a coach for many years, I’ve coached senior executives, but I also have my own coach, because I’m working on my own development as well. And an example of this would be one time I was working on a project where I was trying to write an article, something about leadership, and I just couldn’t get the article together. I couldn’t get my ideas. And I was getting discouraged. So I was talking to my own coach, and I said, “You know, I’m trying to write this article, but what could I possibly have to say that’s worth reading?” It was just one of those discouraged days, and I said to her, “I’m just on the floor. I’m on the floor. I just can’t get it together to write this article.” And so you know what she says? She says, “You’re on the floor?” I said, “Yeah.” And she says, “Are you going to stay there?” And I was so stunned. I was like, “Well, okay, well, no.” That was her whole coaching, right there. Are you gonna stay there? Because in that question, it implies I have a choice, I could get up and do what I needed to do. She didn’t give me a big lecture, don’t feel bad, get up off the floor. She just said, “Are you going to stay there?” Light touch. 

So what was your butterfly moment? What was the moment when you might have allowed somebody to struggle so that they could soar? Caroline’s poetic words. Thank you. So when have you allowed someone to struggle so that they could soar? What butterfly moment have you ever had? Or put another way, when have you realized, I needed to use a lighter touch. So whether you’re a leader, and it was with your team, or you’re a parent and it was with your kids or with a friend that you’re trying to help? But have you ever had an example of your own butterfly moment?

Caroline: I have an example. When I think of the young people in our lives, whether you’re an auntie or an uncle, or you know, just someone that’s younger that you’re mentoring, that can happen a lot. I was thinking about my niece, and where there was a time when I felt like, you know, if I just gave her some real good feedback …  and, you know, she burst into tears. How’s that for immediate feedback for me? Recently, just doing exactly what your coach did, which is just asking her, “Well, how do you feel about that? Or what do you think would be, or what do you want to do about that?” Or just, you know, again, asking her and just listening and resisting that temptation and watching the struggle. As [choreographer] Twyla Tharp talks about it, we need to push against something in order to move, we need resistance, we push against something and that’s what makes movement happen. So I’m always inspired by that, as a movement professional that resistance is part of the deal. It’s part of the formula. 
Val: Listening is one of the key trainings that leaders get all the time. But most people actually don’t listen very well. And so when when you can just listen to someone, that might be all the inspiration you need to do right there, right? Just listen to them. Because when someone feels that, it’s actually kind of unusual, because we don’t always listen to each other. 

So let’s move to suggestion number two. You actually do have to increase your level of connection with somebody. The more we can be connected, the easier it’s going to be to inspire. And actually, I think it’s tough to inspire without that connection. I see it all the time in leadership. I’m thinking of a senior executive that I worked with who was in a financial services firm and was very accomplished and had done a lot of great things. But one thing she had never done was she had never had her own thing that she had built from the ground up. So she got this great opportunity where the company said, we have a new product, and we need to roll it out to the marketplace. So you’re gonna have to build a team from scratch, learn this new product, get it out to the market. So she had nothing to go on. New people, new team, new everything. And what was inspiring is that she did it. She did a lot. She was very accomplished in terms of knowledge. But she didn’t do a lot based on connection. So she pulled together a team of people, many of whom she had worked with before. And when she brought them together, she said, “Let’s together create a vision for this new organization that we’re going to build.” As part of her building the vision, she asked them what they cared about, what was their vision? And how did that vision go with the organization’s vision. As they went along and built things, people made mistakes, but she gave them feedback, without making them feel wrong. She was, to me, a great example of not just connection, but what I would call interconnection. If I want to connect with people, I make sure that I reach out and I connect to them. But my suggestion, if you want to inspire people, is to upgrade to what I would call interconnection and interconnection is mutual, it’s not just that I reach out to try to connect to you, I also want to make sure you’re connected to me. 

So if the first thing to do is have a light touch, the second thing to do is increase your level of connection to interconnection. I use the infinity symbol because you want a connection that feels mutual. Sometimes I get the opportunity to coach teams of leaders, not just leaders, and [one team I worked with] wanted to work on interconnection as a team. So we came up with a self-assessment, a little checklist that has 14 questions about how well am I connecting with others, am I satisfied with my level of connection? Am I 100% responsible for the mutuality of the relationship? Most times in life, we say, if I’m in a relationship, well, I did my 50% so I’m good. However, if you’re going to increase your connection, the question is, are you willing to be 100% responsible for how your communication lands over there? 

Let’s say there’s a disagreement or breakdown in the relationship. Now, this is an old coaching skill that I probably learned 20 years ago, and the coaching skill is called “making people right.” Instead of making people feel wrong, can you make people feel right, and then add your different opinion or a correction? The example would be if someone is insisting on something, and you just think they’re dead wrong, what you say is, “I see how you could view it that way. I actually have a different view. Can I share that?” Because what I’ve noticed is that when you try to insist on your point of view, sometimes that doesn’t go well, because then the person is not talking about what you were talking about anymore. Now we’re in a debate about who’s right and who’s wrong. So maybe they can be right, that’s fine. And then you can still go on with the conversation. One of the best definitions of connection I’ve ever heard is from Brené Brown, who says true connection is when people feel seen, they feel heard, and they feel valued. 

The last suggestion is, Can you remind people of their power, of what they can do? It’s easy for people to get discouraged sometimes, this is why we need inspiration and we need to inspire each other. Sometimes when you’re discouraged, you can go in a downward spiral. So we want to help people go in an upward spiral. When you remind people of their power, it really means reminding them of what they care about. If you can just ask somebody what they care about, what do they want, what are they dreaming of, and how can they use their voice to speak about that? That’s reminding them of their power and what they can do, because what we care about is an organizing principle, it helps us know what to do with our life. And so sometimes if somebody is down, and you can remind them like, But wait, you told me you care about XYZ, that’s a great way to inspire a person. Reminding people of the power of their care. That’s one. 

Another way, remind people of the power of their ability to make a request. There used to be an old saying, turn every complaint into a request. So when people are complaining, you want to help them by saying, okay, so I get you’re complaining. But now, what are we going to do about it? What are you asking? And who do you need to ask? So remind people of the story that they’re having about themselves. This is a big part of positive psychology that we’ve heard in these lunch-and-learns, right? That the story you have about yourself is the most important story. So when you want to inspire people, remind them of their strengths, remind them of their best self. Are they carrying a story of their best self, or are they carrying a story of their discouraged self? Bring their attention to that. And then, of course, remind people of the power of their relationships, right, because I think people forget we have many types of power, many ways that we can do things in the world. And sometimes people have to be reminded, you can use your relationships to help you. So that is the power of relationships. 

Caroline: Thank you so much, Val. This has just been inspirational.
Val: That’s good, because that was our plan, right? I’ll summarize where I started, that I believe that to choose to inspire others and to be inspired is the key to the future. That’s how we’re going to create our next new reality, our next new life. And the beauty is we can all inspire each other. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to be trained, we just need to be human. That’s enough.

Val Williams

Val Williams, MCC (Master Certified Coach) is an Executive Coach and specialist in accelerating senior executive development. She holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Boston University and is a graduate of the Wholebeing Institute’s Certificate program in Positive Psychology. Val has coached senior corporate executives for over 19 years to increase their Impact by strengthening their Influence and building a powerful Executive Presence. As a former healthcare executive herself, Val led an Operations team of over 700 people. Her work focuses on providing senior executive leaders and their teams with the tools and practices they need to achieve the most beneficial Impact.