Karen Allen, an author, speaker and founder of 100% Human, suffered a devastating loss a decade ago. Her husband was murdered at the gym he owned. For a time it destroyed her life. Her path to recovery inspired her to write a book and tell others about the mental exercise that can help people overcome trauma. On this podcast, Allen talks about how her work applies to legislators and legislative staff, how mental strengthening can help people deal with stress on an off the job and why leaders need to take a proactive stance in helping employees avoid burnout.
Ed: Hello and welcome to “Our American States," a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. This podcast is all about legislatures, the people in them, the policies, process, and politics that shape them. I am your host, Ed Smith.
KA: I actually became a widow before I was 30 years old which you definitely never see your life panning out that way.
Ed: That was Karen Allen, a keynote speaker and author of “Stop & Shift, A Mental Exercise to Reset Your Mind.” She is also the creator of “100% Human”, a website and community that includes courses and a blog. Allen was a speaker at NCSL’s Forecast ’23 meeting in December. Allen talked about why the mental strengthening approach she's developed can help legislators and legislative staff especially during the extraordinary stress of legislative session. She also discussed employee retention, tools to avoid burnout and the importance of resilience. A key point she made was that one of the keys to being human is to accept that life is messy and uncertain.
Here is our discussion.
Karen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
KA: Thanks for having me Ed. I’m happy to be here.
Ed: So, Karen, why don’t you start by telling listeners a little bit about your background and how you came to do the work that you do today.
KA: In short, I clumsily found my way. I think that’s kind of the story for many folks is I never thought that I was going to be doing this work. However, one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is “you may not always know the direction you are going, but you can always turn back and connect those dots” and for me, I definitely see a lot of connected dots in my background. But the crucial moment that led me to diving deeper into studying the human mind was the unfortunate event of losing my husband at a very young age. I actually became a widow before I was 30 years old which you definitely never see your life panning out that way. My husband was an entrepreneur. He was actually a Cross Fit owner and unfortunately on this particular day, he was doing Cross Fit classes, and someone walked in while he was teaching his class and he was gunned down and he never saw it coming. At that time, my background was in HR, and I was a recruiter, so I wasn’t in the gym with him. I was actually home with our 2-year-old son, and I was doing interviews from home when I got the call from one of the members at the gym. And so, I just remember once I got to the gym, and I was in the parking lot, and it was chaotic. I mean it was everything that you think it would be with all the first responders there, people from the community. Even news vans and reporters were already on the scene by the time I got there. And I just had this moment that I was sitting behind a bush rocking back and forth thinking to myself this can’t be real. Like this cannot be happening. And I share that in my keynote because I found that this experience of going through challenges whether they are epic challenges you know huge life changing moments or even these small like daily disruptors that are stressful and they compound over time that at some point or another as humans, we find ourselves thinking like what do I do right now. Now what? Where do I go from here? And I’ll tell you Ed, I had many of those moments, many, several of those moments because after losing my husband I actually lost my house, my car, my job. And being a single parent, all of those things – any one of those things would be heavy to deal with but having all of them to try and manage in one year. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but again this is how I could turn back and connect the dots. But, out of desperation and wanting to not lose my life because I knew that my son. I didn’t want his story to be that he lost both parents. I decided that I was going to dig in my heels and really reframe my mindset where I could feel the pain and I could heal from it, but it wasn’t going to hold me back from living the rest of my life because my son needed me. He needed me to be a healthy and happy and whole mom so that his life could continue. And so, he was my North Star, but it was from that place and from listening to my intuition, I stumbled across a lot of learning around post traumatic growth and positive psychology.
And again, once I could see the patterns that I had established in my life to rebuild my life, I found that a lot of it was rooted in those studies of positive psychology, neuroplasticity and so on and so forth. So, because that saved my life, I just felt like man I wish we could normalize this conversation around mental strength training. I wish we could learn some of these skills around our brain and how we can rewire our brain when we go through stress or trauma. And from that point, I just continued to experience accelerated growth personally and so I decided to marry my personal and professional life by just sharing everything that had really helped me reclaim my life.
Ed: Thank you for giving us that background. I think that Steve Job’s quote is great. It’s such a wonderful observation because especially when you get to my age which is quite a bit older than you are and you look back, I think you do see how those dots connect. I think it makes you realize trying to make a plan for your life when you are 20 years old is probably a good effort, but not likely to end up turning out exactly that way.
This issue of positive psychology and post-traumatic stress growth, we did a podcast a couple of years ago for legislative staff week and that really was the topic. It was a subject I was not that familiar with, but quite interesting. I would be interested to hear a little bit more about that. Can you talk a little bit about how this is relevant for our audience which is largely legislators and legislative staff. How do these lessons you’ve learned and these techniques you’ve developed, how do they apply to them?
KA: You know I think the biggest application having not been a legislator or ever served on legislative staff, but the biggest application is when you learn how to build different muscles in your brain and when you develop these different mental skills what’s happening is you are creating a strong and healthy brain that allows you to be thoughtful about the mindset that you are carrying into any given situation. And the biggest, the biggest application for anyone is really in these moments of stress. Because what happens is when we are stressed, and I imagine for anyone is the legislative branch that a couple of things that I know. Number one, you are dealing with all sorts of personalities all the time. And you never know if that person just came out of a stressful meeting and what they may be dumping on you, you may only have a few minutes to connect with somebody in passing. And not to mention, you are working at an accelerated rate because of the shortened time that you are in session to actually get these things done. And so, all of this is compounded stress. So, when I think about how this applies, it's really how can I show up with my mind clear, calm, and composed. Because when your mind is just operating from a composed state, you are more thoughtful and intentional about everything. About the words, about how the conversation is flowing so you can adapt in the midst of that conversation. And really what it does is it helps you to take this perspective that isn’t from an emotionally charged place, but really from a place of how can I best serve so that we can experience progress. And that’s a very important place for all of us to operate from because our emotions aren’t always based on truth. They are really just based on what is being heightened at that moment, so we need to be able to regroup quickly, to recover quickly and to respond to what is actually happening. And that’s where I think this is going to be like a key component especially when you are working on a short period of time. You don’t want to have to backtrack like, ah, well maybe I shouldn’t have done that or maybe I couldn’t have gone about it a different way. If you practice being present and, in the moment, then you are going to be able to and this is something I’m a little bit nerdy about. The prefrontal cortex which is the CEO of our brain that’s where all good decisions come from, but when we are emotionally charged and the cortisol which is the stress hormone is firing off in our brain, it actually takes that CEO offline. So, you need to be able to reengage your CEO when you are in the midst of a conversation that matters most.
And I would anticipate that all of these conversations especially when you are in session, they matter a lot. So wouldn’t you want to bring your best to the table.
Ed: Well, you are absolutely right about the stress situation because while these are I think stressful jobs generally when you are in session and you have a limited amount of time to get legislation through, that is complicated and difficult, so I think that’s very apt and pertains to them a great deal. Let me ask you about your books. “Stop & Shift” just came out last year offers a guide to this mental health approach and technique. And I know you’ve written a whole book about it so maybe it’s presumptuous for me to ask you to summarize it, but I’m going to ask you if you could just summarize it for listeners.
KA: Yeah, this was something that it was the exercise I started doing innately and I didn’t really know that I was doing it until my mom asked me this question one day. She said what do you think you did to start the healing journey. Like how did you get from that place of complete devastation to now and with this mindset that’s really renewed. And so, I was lying on the floor because that’s where I do my best work when I’m just lying down meditating, thinking what this is and in doing so, I noticed that I was able to visualize my thoughts and I could pull myself out of the negative thought loop just by redirecting my focus. And so that got me thinking about well really what is a thought. And a thought is just an attention. Like it really is just a focal point of our attention. Which then made me feel empowered. Well, if I don’t like a thought, that means that I can choose a new one. So, I started to play with this idea of how can I choose my thoughts in a more intentional way that serves my growth or that serves the good of the situation around me. I had to really break it down and the stop portion of this it showed me how important it is to listen to the voice in our head because a lot of times if we are not tuning in, it’s going to take us on a wild ride. So, stop is all about the voice and this part of the exercise is rooted in mindfulness because when you check in with the present moment then you can more consciously respond to what’s actually happening instead of maybe the stories we are creating in our mind. So, stop being rooted in mindfulness drops you into the present moment. You just say okay. Well, what’s actually happening here. How do I need to respond. What’s going on inside of me. What do I need to regulate. What is this other person doing. So, it really just again brings you into the present moment.
Well then shift you can drop into the present moment and let’s just say you are by yourself. There’s no one else there. You are just stuck in a thought loop that is unhealthy or unhelpful and so if you find yourself in that space, you can literally say to yourself well hold on. Stop. What’s going on here. Okay do I want to continue down this road with this thought. Do I want to lean into this or if it’s not helpful and if it is harmful then how can I redirect my thoughts to a new direction that is going to give me what I need to be productive in this moment and that’s the shift. But shift is actually rooted in positive psychology. Because what we really want to do I think this is the truest essence of all humans is we hope to show up as our best. It’s just we are human, and we are not always going to show up as our best. But when you stop and you check in with yourself and then you practice the shift, that shift is really a question of how can I show up in this moment as the person I’ve always intended to be. And then you align your choices, your words, your thoughts, your next action with being that person. With being the kind person or the patient parent or the calm voice in the room. And so when we stop and we notice what is going on, that leaves room for us to process. But then the shift is the intentional action of showing up in a way that is going to contribute good to any given scenario whether it is something you are dealing with internally or maybe it’s an external relationship in the moment.
Ed: Let me ask you as this new legislative session begins, the issue of employee retention in legislatures. Now this is a big issue everywhere. This is I believe the number one policy issue that was discussed at the meeting that NCSL just had. I think you’ve written about this a little bit about how to work with people. How to hold onto your talented staff. Could you just talk about that a little bit. I think people would be very interested in hearing your approach.
KA: Yeah. Well you know, I’ve always believed in human centric leadership and creating these work places that are really focused on their people. Again my background is HR so even when I entered HR, I had that mindset. But was quickly shocked at how much it is about policy and not just about people in the HR world. But my heart stayed true. I not only did I know this years ago, but there is so much evidence that just shows that when you create workplaces where people feel valued for who they are. And I don’t mean like how they are identified or the relationships that they have or anything like that, but like just the basic level human being. When you can connect in that space, so many things grow. Trust, respect. It even accelerates creativity and innovation because what happens is when you talk about creating human centric workplaces, that’s what people want to feel because then they feel safe. And when you talk about feeling safe, part of what we have to consider in the conversation is that we are imperfect humans. So when we talk about a human centric workplace and we talk about one that is safe, it leaves room for imperfection. The problem is that somewhere along the line, I think somebody spiked our juice boxes when we were younger because we have all in some way, shape or form, created this thought in our mind that we can create a perfect, problem free life if we do the right things. If we check the right boxes. And that’s not true. I mean if anything, this global pandemic that we lived through a couple of years ago was a huge shock to our systems that you can do everything that you think is in your power and things are still going to turnout in ways that you would not be able to imagine. But that is true in ourself as well that we can try our best and maybe a mistake happens. In a safe environment, a mistake is not a failure. It’s an opportunity to grow.
Or in an environment where we accept diverse perspectives. It may be a messy and a clumsy conversation to get to the end goal, but are all voices welcomed at the table as we problem solve. And that is what it really means to have this human centric workforce. So, going back to your question is what do people want? They want permission to be human. I really truly believe when people were talking about this great resignation that was happening and how much people are leaving you know the traditional workforce to find their own. It wasn’t that and I believe this was Simon Sinek who said it. He said people are no longer accepting sub-par cultures. That was it. That was the biggest change is that now people say hey listen I’m willing to do hard work. I just want to do it in a more human way. And that is how we not only attract, but retain top talent is we really give space, and we celebrate the human element of work.
Ed: Thanks Karen. We will be right back with the rest of our discussion after this short break.
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The term burnout. The concept of people just coming to their end of their rope at working and I think that people who work in the legislative world particularly legislative staff we certainly heard a lot of that particularly at certain times of year when people are in session. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that as an individual? And maybe how do you deal with that as a leader trying to help people avoid that?
KA: Yeah. Well, this is another component of being human. Surprise. We cannot just keep going and going and going like the Energizer bunny. In fact, we need to rest. We need to recover. Our brains are literally wired to need recovery. It’s something called the BRAC, our BRAC, which is the basic rest activity cycle. And this is the cycle that our brain goes through where we can work from anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes in concentrated flow, but after that time our brain literally drops down into low power mode. And the CEO of our brain, the prefrontal cortex isn’t able to keep going with all the good decisions or the problem solving or even willpower. Those things and focus, they call come from this space. So, if our brain is wired to take a rest then why do we keep pushing forward. Well, that’s where burnout comes in. Because we haven’t honored the natural rhythm of our body and our brain to recover and then come back with renewed energy which increases your capacity to learn, to be more agile and problem solving. And you know who actually has this like really done well elite athletes. Elite athletes are trained to not just go hard in the weight room or on the field or in the pool or what have you. They are also in that training regimen, they also build in days and multiple times through not just days in their weeks, but multiple times throughout the day where that is designated rest and recovery time. And actually, the chief people officer from Hub Spot she actually said this really well. They made a huge shift in their culture where they made rest a part of their operations. And I think any organization or workspace that gives their people permission again permission to be human means that they are also giving them permission to build and rest and recovery because while we think that’s stepping away is unproductive, it’s incredibly productive. Because it helps us to then reenter our workspace with new clarity with new energy. Maybe even a new zest or zeal for this work that we are doing. And so, in order to combat burnout, it really is a proactive approach, and that approach is making sure that as individuals and also as leaders that we set the example for our people, but we encourage it. We build it in, to build in that time for recovery. It’s essential for our growth and for sustainable success.
Ed: Well, I wanted to ask you what you meant by being human and I think you’ve given us some of that. Some of it is accepting uncertainty, I guess. It’s allowing us to be imperfect. What other things would you point out. What are other aspects just as we think about this notion of being human. I guess part of it is not being too hard on ourselves.
KA: Absolutely. And really first starting with just accepting that life is imperfect and so are we. And that’s okay. This is something that I mention in my keynote so if a listener is hearing this and you were at the conference, you will remember this. You know the question. The acceptance I’ll say is that life is messy. We need to just accept that life is messy. But then the question becomes well how can I make life beautiful in the mess. And when I think about humanity, I think about just how different we all are. You know we are taught and told is that common knowledge at all of our fingerprints are different. Everybody. Even identical twins. Our fingerprints are different. Everything is different about us. Our brain print is different. The way that I would respond from a creative space is going to be different than my next counterpart right. So all of this is so unique which actually is our strength. So, when I think about how we can be more human in the workplace and how can we connect more human-to-human heart to heart. Yes, it is about the messiness, but it’s also about giving ourselves grace because we are embracing that. But the other part that I think is really important to just note is that when it comes to being human, we have this unique opportunity to invest in ourselves in a way that creates a ripple effect around us. Like when people are focused on their personal growth, it changes the way they show up in rooms. It changes the way that they contribute to spaces. And that encourages and inspires others to tap into their personal strength or to not be limited maybe by their mindset or their current circumstance.
So, one of the ways that I like to really encourage leaders to consider this is when you are thinking about creating this human centric workplace don’t think about the person as the job title that they hold. Don’t think about them in just the role that they play, and the responsibilities listed in their job description because they are so much more. As humans, I think there are infinite possibilities when we tap into a healthy and a strong mindset. And again, going back to the fact that we are all so different, I can’t imagine, or I would love to imagine I should say a world where we are not limited, but instead we are celebrated for our uniqueness, for our differences because I just see us growing and evolving at a completely new rate. And to me, that’s exciting.
Ed: The word resilience has come up a lot when I’ve interviewed people over the years about the kind of critical tools people need to be successful. But I’m not sure that everyone means the same thing when they say resilience and I wonder how you think of that issue that term.
KA: I remember thinking I’m going to back up to not my work, but my personal story. I remember thinking am I going to run out of resilience. When I was going through all those different hardships you know at that time and when I wasn’t studying positive psychology, I thought I was going to tap out and I felt times where I was running on E absolutely. But what I found was resilience commonly is thought to be something that we would run out of just like joy or peace. But we usually think that in the midst of stressful situations. So, I was very happy to learn that resilience is actually a mental muscle that we can build. And I think of it more from the space of mental strength training. That’s how I think actually of mental health is one area of mental well-being. Mental strength training is another area, and the third area or pillar would be mental performance. And so when I think about those three areas resilience falls underneath the mental strength training because there are things that we can proactively do that will build our resilience which will help us persevere through those tough times.
You know one thing that I love to do. The audience can’t see this, but you see that I have a guitar in the back. And so, trying new things by the way I don’t play the guitar. I just strum a little bit. And I know how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” but I intentionally picked up something that I knew that I couldn’t do. I picked up something that was going to be difficult to learn because I have no idea where to put my hands or my fingers, but by doing that I presented a challenge in my life that would allow my brain to respond to it in a way that I had complete control over. That’s a proactive approach to saying hey let me try to put myself in a situation that feels uncomfortable that I really, I don’t have any knowledge about this so I’m just kind of winging it here unless you go on YouTube which is what I do. But in doing so, you are showing yourself that I can do hard things. That if something completely new is in front of me that I will be able to adapt and respond. And more than anything and I think this is something that we again learned during the challenging two years is that I can embrace uncertainty and I don’t have to feel afraid of it. Because when you are faced with uncertainty, and you really don’t know what curveball is going to throw you off the path what you have to lean into is trusting yourself that even if you don’t have everything you need in the moment that you have the capacity to get through this hardship and that’s resilience. That’s perseverance right. And so, I like to introduce it in a way in my life and I do this with my 11-year-old son. It’s like let’s do something hard or let’s do something different. It doesn’t always have to be hard. And in doing so, I think those are little you know small exercises that help to build our resilience because it just shows us that I can get through this even if I have no idea where to start.
Ed: Well Karen this has been a fascinating conversation and I think a lot of good things for people to think about as they go into what is probably going to be a stressful few months for them in the legislature. I thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Take care.
KA: You are so welcome. Thank you Ed.
Ed: I’ve been talking with Karen Allen author of Stop & Shift a mental exercise to reset your mind about mental strengthening tools that can help you deal with stress and build resilience.
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