Helena Clayton | Love + intentional practice



Love + intentional practice

01 Mar 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

We’re invited to make many choices right now.

We’re faced every day, in every moment, with what the poet David Whyte describes as ‘terrifying moments’ when we can choose to be one thing or choose to be another.

For me right now, as you might expect, it’s the choice to be loving or the choice not to be.

At a macro level, I’ve already done that. In ‘Who Do You Choose To Be?’ (reviewed in the February Newsletter) Margaret Wheatley asks a high level purpose-based question about the sort of life we want to lead, the legacy we want to leave, the difference we want to make in the face of great challenges.

I’ve already made a commitment and set an intention to be more loving and to get to know love better some years ago. That bit I’m ok on. But it’s the in-the-moment calls to action I find difficult. In this moment, do I choose love? Will I choose love? Do I even know how to? In each moment, who do I choose to be?

Do I pick up the phone to someone who needs me even when they will take up time that I am reluctant to give them? Do I respond to a jibe from my husband with something equally unclean or do I resist and wonder what might be going on for him? Do I offer a rough sleeper money or food – or walk past? Do I give or withhold an appreciative comment to a colleague because they pissed me off last week – or do I let my ego and pride take a back seat for a moment?

Choice. Easy to say, less easy to do. Because developing our capacity love requires knowledge and also effort.

Knowledge and effort

The Austrian psychotherapist Erich Fromm – as well as the Sikh activist Valarie Kaur and writer Adam Kahane – don’t see love as something that naturally arises. Instead they see love as ‘exclusively an act of will and commitment’ and ‘a choice we make over and over again’. It’s not something that suddenly strikes us but rather an intentional disposition towards another person, an orientation that we choose. A choice we make.

Fromm wonders if love is art, just as living is an art. If so, and if we want to know how to love we have to proceed in the same way as if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry or the art of medicine or engineering. And that requires knowledge and effort, he says.


Ok. And so what knowledge? First, maybe knowing what we (think we) mean by love. Richard Beck thinks love is such an overused word that we’ve lost touch with its meaning. Part of my work here, exploring the role love could and should play in leadership and organisations is to reconnect us with its meaning. Can we can separate it from its over-association with religion, romance and sex, and find a new way of seeing and talking about love so it can be a robust and pragmatic source of support for us as we navigate tough times in our organisations and beyond? Can we know what love means for a modern workplace? For modern leadership. Knowing what we mean by love does matter. Because this knowledge helps us get better at it.

In a leadership workshop at the end of February, I shared how my research respondents, from a Love and Leadership study I did in 2019, had defined love.

When asked what was meant by love, care was the word used most often by respondents, which mostly meant nurture and protection. Listening came a close second with the ability and willingness to put aside your own stuff to give undivided attention and the gift of being heard. This isn’t leadership as a performance art but as genuine interest in others. Then came empathy and compassion and the ability to see something through someone else’s eyes and experiences. Even ‘hyper empathy’, for one respondent. There was also a theme of setting high standards – holding ‘yourself accountable first’ and also holding high expectations of others. This required having the courage to hold them to that,and having the difficult conversations when necessary. This is the part of love that says no, holds boundaries and is clear, direct and challenging. Finally there was a cluster of words or phrases that equated to really seeing and accepting people for who they are, warts and all, no matter what.

I also introduced this group to other, less traditional and more conceptual ways of seeing love. We talked about the theme of this piece – that love is an attitude we choose, and frame of mind that we can develop, a decision that we make. And so what mindset could be better cultivate as leaders?

We also talked about the legitimate role that anger plays in love – that anger is often a sign that something has been taken away from us or an in justice had been done. And so how, as leaders, can we encourage people’s voice in organisations when they might feel a boundary has been crossed?

One workshop participant said how helpful that was, deconstructing love so that he had a more expanded, nuanced, detailed and specific way of understanding it and therefore a better range of options as to how to enact or demonstrate that in the workplace. That knowledge gave him more options to choose from. He could more easily make the choice to love, he said.

OK, so what other knowledge might be helpful?

If we can accept love as form of ‘turning towards people’ then turning away is not loving. Richard Beck says ‘the discipline of love begins with a deep and honest survey of all those places where we emotionally withdraw from people’. So this means knowledge about myself and who I find it difficult to love. Knowing what blocks my capacity to love. Knowing who I turn away from. Because it’s easy to love what’s loveable but it’s only when you’re asked to love the unlovable that love is tested and challenged.

This is radical and heroic work. To choose to love people you don’t naturally find loveable or have negative feelings towards.

It’s also radical and courageous to name this stuff, even to yourself. This level of honesty is hard. Being honest about who I try to avoid. Noticing when I feel scornful or superior. Owning up even to myself about the types of people who annoy and irritate me – and specifically naming them. I realise that it takes some courage to do that but this level of self knowledge seems essential to me if I really want to be able to choose love more often.

So that’s something on knowledge. What about the effort part?


There are plenty of voices to support Fromm when he says that ‘to love one’s flesh and blood is no achievement’. In his view it is ‘only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose that love begins to unfold’. When I say that to groups they usually say ‘uh, but you should see MY family 😊. But I get the point. Because ‘of necessity, we first love what is near to us’. We are predisposed to love those who are close to us.

Fromm again: ‘people think that to love is simple and that it’s only a matter of finding the right object to love’. But it takes work. It takes practice. Beck again: ‘Love is hard. It’s often not natural. We don’t just fall out of bed in the morning as loving people. Love takes attention and intention’.

So what sort of effort and practice is being asked for here?

‘Intentional practice’

The term intentional practice comes from the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson who says in relation to high and expert performance, talent is not as important as hard work, effort and deliberate practice. Being ‘born that way’ plays a very small role.

And intentional practice is different from practice. Practice is racking up the hours in an attempt to develop expertise, accumulate skill. But deliberate or intentional brings in focused and consistent practice and often for short periods of time.

Ok, so that might work with learning coding, or a musical instrument. But what about something more ephemeral, less tangible, more abstract or personal? Something like love? Can we apply these principles to learning to be more loving?

I think so, and there’s some evidence for this from my work. I’m Faculty on the Roffey Park MSc in People and Organisational Development (P&OD). A unique MSc, it’s based on the principles of self managed learning which means that participants get to decide what syllabus of learning they want to study within the field of P&OD. In Year 2, they work on a Skills Development piece, identifying a skill that would be useful to them in their practice and spending 9 months developing that. Some people choose something practical like coaching or graphic facilitation. But others decide that a more abstract skill is what’s needed. Over the years, I have seen participants work on ‘not knowing’. Or ‘getting in touch with my emotions’. And so this is territory that’s closer to developing a capacity for love – which could very easily make its way into a Year 2 syllabus. But however loose and ephemeral the ‘skill’, in all my years of working on the programme, all are able to find ways to learn to do it better and to evidence the growth. And it’s worth adding that those who choose the more ‘nailing jelly to the wall’ skills often report the greatest personal learning.

Intentional practice and love

But most of us don’t get to develop a skill or capacity within the framework of an MSc. We have to add it to our daily list of things to do. And there we have a problem because most of us are exhausted, managing an over-full schedule, trying to keep our relationship intact, bouncing from one thing to another and feeling like we do none of it well. The thought of trying harder to love people, putting in intentional practice, of doing the work that love asks of us is exhausting. We are already at our carrying capacity – we have no margin – and this seems to add more to our daily load.

But I found a powerful place to start in the work of Richard Beck. His approach has fundamentally shifted how I show up in the world over the last few months since reading his work. Drawing on the writing of St Therese of Lisieix from the 16th century, he suggests we start by taking the smallest things and doing them with great love. A ‘million boring little things ‘ he says. But done with love.

A million little boring things. Like waiting in patiently in a queue, being patient with your kids, truly listening to your partner, being a dependable friend. Try dealing with an irritating office colleague with great love. Try sitting in a budget meeting with great love. Try dealing with your screaming toddler with great love. Try reading your social media feeds with great love.

These million boring little things become your intentional practice. Experiment with them. See what happens.

I’ve been practicing. I’ve been practicing letting myself be interrupted. I’ve been practicing slowing down and being more present. Practicing having more human connections with people I come into contact with in the course of my day but might not stop and talk with. Actively seeking out people I would tend to not to chat to in a meeting and doing that.

I feel different as a result. I can’t quite say why but I have a greater sense of peace and ease. I feel a greater connection with life. I smile more. I feel more alive.

It feels like a virtuous circle – the more I do these ‘million boring little things’ in a different way them, the more enjoyment I get out of it and the more I want to do. It seems that choosing to choose love makes it easier to choose love. 😊

• In which of the ‘million boring things’ in your life could you practice love?
• What intentional practice do you feeling willing to commit to in your life, and leadership?
• What would you hope choosing love might bring you?

Let’s close with David Whyte poem, a favourite of mine, who seems to be in similar territory:

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.
Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.
Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
To hear
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes an
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Thanks for reading – and until the next time.

Helena x

  • Julian Summerhayes


    Thank you for a wonderful post. So much to think about. So much.

    I loved the David Whyte poem. perfect this Monday morning.



    • Helena Clayton

      Thank you, Ju 🙂


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