Lessons from Within, the leadership retreat for women in design

4 min read
Emma Gasson
  •  May 4, 2018
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Within is a leadership retreat for women in design. I was lucky enough to attend it a few weeks ago, April 2–6 in Palm Springs, California.

I knew that I was in for a few days of great conversation and fun in the sun with a group of talented women in tech, but I left Palm Springs with a clear view of my entire life—everything I’ve ever worked for and wanted and how to get there. Not only that, I had the recipe for living each day purposefully with courage, grace, and determination.

Fellow Within attendee Christina Chae summed things up beautifully in her recent Medium post: “To me, this retreat wasn’t about walking away with answers, but rather the right set of questions to explore on my own or with the help of wonderful women I connected with.”

Over four days, we learned about ourselves through a process of introspection, seeing yourself in other’s stories, and sharing experiences. Looking back on the experience, I want to share some of what we did during the retreat as well as my personal biggest takeaways.

Be authentic

On the first night after dinner, “Quiet” musician MILCK joined us for an intimate performance and discussion. She told us how she had struggled to figure out who she was in order to present that to the world. She said, “I was like a blank check—I let anyone write what they liked on me.”

“Find a way to break through social pressure and be yourself.”

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She told a story about how she’d auditioned for The Voice. Her coaches told her to wear Stilettos and a wig, even though that’s not who she is, and when it was her turn to perform none of the judges turned their chairs. They said she had an amazing voice but they couldn’t get a sense of who she really was.

MILCK’s story resonated with many of us. Finding a way to break through social pressure and be yourself—especially as a leader—is not an easy journey. Here’s how to help with that:

  • If what you think, do, and say aren’t in alignment, you will rarely be convincing—especially as a leader
  • Any story told with honesty is compelling.Twitter Logo Say what you really experience and you’ll be surprised how it gives permission for others who feel the same to share their experience.

Be present

With so much going on in our work lives and our personal lives, it can be next to impossible to really listen. Whether we’re talking to our teammates, our friends, or our loved ones, if we’re not able to quiet our minds and only hear the words they’re speaking, we’re not actually listening. And that means we’re not present, and we’re not giving others our full attention.

During Within, we started each day with yoga and meditation and learned techniques for mindful breathing and how to quiet our minds when we’re talking with others. Surprisingly, it tested all the mental muscle I have to quiet my thoughts as I talked with others.

Yoga at Within. Photo by Greyson MacAlpine.

Next time you have a conversation with someone, are you only hearing what they say in your head, or are you thinking about other stuff? Be present. Some ways to do that:

  • Focus your attention on your breathing or the sensation in your body to gently remove it from being caught up in your mind
  • Experiment with being present while you’re in a conversation. Focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it and not on what you’re thinking. It’s scary at first but exhilarating!

Approach conflict with kindness and compassion

The principles of Aikido teach that the key to succeeding in an adversarial situation is using your opponent’s force to defeat them. So during the Aikido session at Within, the group learned how to handle direct confrontation and attack without just fighting harder with more aggression—and then how to apply that to conflicts they experienced at work.

Instead of getting defensive or angry because of a conflict at work, here’s what to do:

  • Remember that conflict isn’t about winning or losing.Twitter Logo Focus on making your opponent your partner in a shared goal.
  • Once you’ve shifted your position from adversarial, start guiding your partner with full control
  • This type of resolution is far easier and takes less effort

Ask for help

Each night, we gathered outside with blankets and hot chocolate for a fireside chat. Each night’s theme was a different topic, and my favorite was the night on resilience.

A panel of women shared some of their most difficult experiences and what they had learned. We heard about being bullied, being unfairly pushed out of a job, and facing cancer. Women who publicly have incredibly successful and inspiring careers shared how they cope with failure and facing their worst fear.

“Success does not mean going it alone.”

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The message from the panel was that as women in leadership positions, we need to find a way to ask for help when we’re faced with something difficult. Success does not mean going it alone.

A massive thank you to Mia Blume and her team for creating a special and thoughtful space where work and personal lives meet. Every detail was considered, from goodie bags to cocktails. I’ve never experienced such a profound and meaningful time at a professional retreat. Thank you!

The Within retreat was sponsored by InVision, Google, Shopify, and Facebook. InVision’s support enabled an attendee from a non-profit organization to join the event. Emma Gasson leads the design team at Code for America, a non-profit working to improve government services with design and technology. Find out more and apply to be part of this fall’s event at @gowithinco.

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