How to Foster Hope When Things Aren’t Trending Toward Positive



  • Our basic human need for a positive trend (2:15)

  • Your circles of influence (3:30)

  • A circle of gratitude (9:00)

  • Expressing my gratitude for a huge win (11:15)


Here’s a question I got from two different leaders:

“How do I help my team feel okay when the work we do has so many problems that will not be solved in the span of our careers?”

This wording is actually a composite of questions from the leaders of two organizations I do consulting with. Both organizations have unique missions focused on solving some of the most long-term, complex societal challenges we face. They both deal with many outside influences that are totally out of their control.

I’m talking big things here, like: climate change, federal policy, the economy and, most importantly, what humanity values and prioritizes.

I love the depth of their question because it recognizes that something more than great benefits, higher salaries, and professional advancement is at play. The depth of the question acknowledges the human component of human resources that is required to make organizations effective and sustainable.

It’s not lost on me that both of the leaders making this inquiry are graduates of the Navigating Challenging Dialogue Leadership Certification program.


One of the key learnings from Navigating Challenging Dialogue® is that whenever an issue presents itself, it’s really a symptom. Staff burnout, drama, conflict, high turnover, and low morale are actually symptoms signaling a deeper issue.

In this instance, what’s underneath the symptom (hopelessness) is the very basic human desire to feel that as we accomplish things, there will be a trending toward a positive outcome. Yet, much of the really important work of wrangling with long-term societal problems can feel overwhelmingly negative.

Here are two radically different approaches to helping both the individuals and the collective within these two organizations – and yours – find a pathway to hope…


The first approach is a bit on the pragmatic side – a simple group activity where you list the top goals of your organization (or its mission statement could also work), and then have your staff break up into small groups and identify – in terms of achieving your organization’s top goals or mission – what is within their circle of control, what is within their circle of influence, and what is completely outside their control.


Give each group 15 minutes or so to brainstorm what’s in those three circles of influence and control, then have them present their work to the larger group. Ask a scribe to collect all the presented Within Our Control items on one large sheet and add a check mark next to items that are the same.

For example, if Group 1 states, “Hiring the best candidates is within our control,” and Group 2 says, “Talent recruitment is within our control,” then the scribe could write those down as “Recruiting and hiring the best candidates” with two check marks. This way you’ll start seeing patterns and trends of things you can control.

As each group is doing their presentation, you want those who are listening to engage in curious inquiry about how the group arrived at their decisions. This doesn’t mean a debate or a disagreement or trying to get anyone to change their mind; it’s simply a curious inquiry.

For example, if a group put Budget Constraints as totally out of their control, an inquiry of “Hm. How did you determine that?” could lead to a great discussion about which parts of the operating budget you do and don’t have control or influence over.

As you can see, the empowerment that comes through this dialogue and the sharing of cross-departmental dialogue brings hope. And I often see the list of what is totally out of your control is pretty small, and even within that list, people will begin to find moments of optimism.

One group I worked with called the line between what we control and what we can influence a permeable membrane because there was so much that could go back and forth or shift between the two.


A big Outside Your Control category for an environmental group I recently worked with was climate change.

There was a big collective sigh, a drooping of shoulders, and hopelessness ensued, as it was considered an item outside of their control.

Until one employee said, “Wait a minute. I ride public transportation to work every day. In fact, this organization subsidizes commuter passes. And I see people using reusable containers for their lunches. Individually and as an organization, we are doing many things to impact climate change.”

And suddenly others began shouting out the small ways they have an influence on this very large topic.

At the end of this activity, I asked them the final question, “So what? So what does all this mean?” The answer I heard was—

There is a great deal we have control over and even more that we can influence. Our time, our attention, and our priorities need to be on those two categories – what we can control and what we can influence – in order to trend toward positive. We may not accomplish the mission in my tenure here, but – damn! — we are making some important progress.

I felt my heart lift, I felt the energy in the room lift, and I felt a complete change for the people who, prior to this activity, were talking about how hopeless and overwhelming their work was.


The second approach is more focused on helping employees transition from their workday to their home life without carrying a feeling of helplessness.

An amazing program I work with provides transition services and support for those living houseless, and they see an endless and dire need. Many services that are required are absolutely beyond what can be met within their highly effective program, so some days it is tough for staff to go home feeling successful versus overwhelmed and disappointed.

Left to its own devices, our brain seeks evidence that our worst fears are true. So, as leaders, we sometimes need to help our staff hack their brain’s hardwiring. This is where the Gratitude Circle becomes important.

At the end of each day – either as a group or in one-to-one meetings – have each member of your staff take five minutes to share what went really well that day, as it’s empowering to speak out about their successes. Ask them to answer one or more of these questions:

  • What was a huge win today?

  • What did I accomplish that moved the dial?

  • How did I contribute to changing the trajectory of one family or one individual?

And after each person speaks out, have the group (or the one-to-one partner) express gratitude for that win.

This valuable activity can change how your employees walk out the door, what they take home with them, and what they focus on until they come back the next day.


These are just two ways you can foster hope when things don’t feel like they’re trending toward the positive.

I love that Navigating Challenging Dialogue is helping leaders ask the deeper questions about the work they do.

Almost everyone who is new to the Navigating Challenging Dialogue way of leading will say, “I don’t have time to do all that kind of stuff; there’s too much work to do,” but those who complete the NCD program and implement its teachings know that when it comes to human interaction, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, slowing down is the fastest road to speeding up.

I have so much gratitude for the Navigating Challenging Dialogue leaders who are out there in the world, doing the work, and changing the trajectory of what work looks like and feels like in government agencies, corporations, and the nonprofit world.


p.s. If you are interested in experiencing this for yourself or learning how you can be part of this movement, visit Navigating Challenging Dialogue.