In this case study, we’ll find out how considering oneself ‘always an aspect, never an entity’ is a fundamental precept of transactionalism: We are never separate from the environments (or transactions or processes) that we occupy.
Sarah Shepherd has a Degree in Philosophy and Mathematics from Saint John’s College, in Santa Fe and Postgraduate work in Philosophy of Aesthetics at the Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence, France. She currently works with her father in Denver, Colorado to provide management and other services to local governments, especially special districts. Take a second and just introduce yourself.
Sarah Shepherd: My name is Sarah Shepherd, and I’ve been studying with Influence Ecology for quite a few years now and really excited to be here today, really appreciate the opportunity.
John Patterson: Wonderful. Say where you live and what you do.
Sara: I live in Denver and in Salt lake city. I am the Principal of a Special District Management Consulting Company, called Circuit Rider of Colorado. We manage local governments in the Denver metro area but all across Colorado. We are the equivalent of a town manager for very small municipalities.
“Wake up inventors; you are not the king playing chess with all the pieces of everyone else in the transaction, you are part of this deal, you’re getting your hands dirty, you’re diving in with everyone else.”
John: How did you come across this role, this occupation?
Sarah: Well, I tell everyone that, it really started with my study in philosophy at my undergrad, actually not at all. When I moved back from college to Colorado, which is my home state, I started a business with my father in 2006. He had a lot of history in politics and community management and was going out on his own; he’s very much a performer in our vernacular.
I came home and thought, “This might be a disaster, I really love my dad, I want to help out. I’ll help him for a year or so.” 13 years later here I am, now he’s retired, and I’ve been managing the company on my own with a team, and it’s worked out really well. It’s really been a fun process to start out, begrudgingly dive in, learn the ropes and now be in a place where I’m pioneering in some ways with a lot of the projects that we provide for our clients.
John: You jokingly said it started with philosophy. I do know that you’re a big fan of philosophy. Tell me about that. Why do you love philosophy so much?
Sarah: Well, I studied that in my undergrad and I also studied the philosophy of aesthetics in masters work. To me, understanding the big picture of who I am, why the world works the way it works, and asking questions and being willing to understand, or try to understand anything that comes my way is just part of my character. I’ve always been interested in asking questions and figuring out why things are the way they are. To me, it really drives who I am and my values and what I want to give back to the world.
John: Tell me a little bit about that.
Sarah: Coming out of school, I’ve always been really kind of a young person in terms of age groups and people I work with. I have always really wanted to make an impact on the world, and naively thought that I could just think my way through that and the world would be open arms, going, “Oh, thanks for showing up Sarah, we’re really excited to have you. Come and change us.” [laughs]
“You are a part of things. You are a human. You are in this earth doing things with other people.”
Little did I understand how thousands of years of philosophy and having some cursory understanding and learning about those was just the foot in the door to opening my understanding of myself, communities, other individuals and how our society, socially, politically works and tries to meet the individuals needs also survive for its own purposes.
John: Everybody has a journey throughout their life, and throughout this education, we find that many people have a journey. We can use your journey to illuminate some of the lessons, the things you’ve learned, so that we can let other people know those things and perhaps they can learn from those, and they can perhaps better themselves, use some of what we talk about to improve their own situations and the like. You have a throughline to your journey. There’s before, during and after.
One of the things I find that I just really love that I can hear in some of your notes, you really did sometimes leave yourself out in the transactions. That’s the best way I could say it. You could say you care a great deal. So you often would, in the beginning, leave yourself out, but take care of you in the transaction. You certainly were committed to taking care of other people, or taking care of situations or making the world a better place and the like, but didn’t exactly include yourself in the transaction as we teach it. I’ve loved to know your thoughts in all that.
Sarah: I love that and the distinction that we started diving into a conference about, “Wake up inventors, you are not the king playing chess with all the pieces of everyone else in the transaction, you are part of this deal, you’re getting your hands dirty, you’re diving in with everyone else.” But for me, it even hit deeper because of what you just said. That I wanted to be of service so much and had in my mind a lot to offer and people recognized and mirrored that back to me.
I would get swept up in over committing and commit through the long haul, through the arc of what I saw in the future to complete, or get an offer, or transaction from start to finish, and found myself without my own health and my own aims or goals involved in what I was doing. That can take you down a path really quickly and last a long, long time. You suddenly realize, “Oh my gosh, look at where I am? Have I been doing all this work in service of me to continue my ability to do that? Or has that really depleted my ability to be of service in the future to myself and others?” It really turned that back on me to say; it’s not an exercise of selfishness to know your own aims. It’s actually in service of everything else you do to get in touch with what your aims are, at the base level and if you’re going to achieve anything in the higher tiers of aims, which in my mind was where I wanted to start.
I confuse that with, “Oh no, these are higher aims, more important,” but you have to get down to basics and worrying yourself that you’re a person. You need to eat. You need to sleep. You’re going to age. You only have a short time on this earth, relatively speaking. If you want to reach all those big, high aims, goals, work with others, make a difference. It’s in service of that to reflect on yourself and serve yourself too.
John: That’s well said. I didn’t plan on this. I’m going to grab the quote that you’re referring to, because it’s relevant. I have the quote, “Frames”, because it’s one of those things that we point to quite frequently. As I was reading through your notes, this is perfect. So I want to read this, if you don’t mind. This is from the book Transactionalism: An historical and Interpretive Study by Trevor J. Phillips.
In it, this is a quote that says, “Transaction denotes a reciprocal relationship, both become united for the moment in a mutual transition or transaction. It is a process in which both are reciprocally transformed. The nature of the change each undergoes is affected by the presence and influence of the other. A transaction then is a creative act engaged in by one who by virtue of his participation in the act of which he is always an aspect, never an entity. Together with the other participants, be they human or otherwise environmental becomes in the process modified.” Any comment about that?
Sarah: I love that quote. It really harkens back the aspect that was illuminated at the conference as well this past January. You are a part of things. You are a human. You are in this earth doing things with other people. The visual to me, which I am a very visual person in many ways, is you become this binary. You aren’t one little person bouncing around, who bumps into another little person.
You are joined in some way with them when you are transacting, or a group of you are transacting with others, you become this new entity. If one person is part A and the other person is part B, you are not A and B. You are C now. You are not just existing and holding that out; you are acting together. You were doing the function of this new entity which hasn’t been done before. It’s almost like it becomes a verbal new entity, seeing things and that’s wonderful to me to encapsulate what that quote means.
John: Absolutely. I’d love to get your thoughts on a few things, because it’s my experience. As we work with people to come to understand the transactionalism, one of the first things that people often think when they think of transacting, is a kind of tit for tat approach to getting what I want. Sometimes, people think of transaction as the cold, contractual aspect of the, “Here’s my money. Give me the coffee. Here’s my contract, now it’s signed.” It’s very– people say transactional.
However, the word and the philosophy both point to something much, much broader. That is simply that transaction denotes a whole. W-H-O-L-E. A whole. I have to say that carefully for all the different languages throughout the world. When you say in your own notes that you didn’t have much thought or concern for yourself in transaction, we can all observe people who perhaps don’t take care of their own aims in a transaction. But we can also observe others who only care for themselves in a transaction.
In both cases, whether or not they leave themselves out, or they could care less about you. [laughs] In both cases, they’re not responsible for the transactional whole. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that or if you’ve ever had any thoughts about that. Because I just think that’s a fascinating thing to consider, that transactional does, in fact, allow people to go, “Wait a second. I’m not thinking of the whole thing.” Any thoughts about all that?
Sarah: Yes, I think both sides of the coin are incredibly important. I look at people who are only in it for themselves and make not care a speck for another. It may be profitable or more of that zero-sum philosophy, where I can get what is out there, and I can’t share it. We aren’t going to rise with all tides, but they don’t recognize that they’re part of this whole. That they’re actually damaging and not being aware of that fact.
“One of the phrases I love is that we’re in a journey of successive approximation. We’re aiming for something on this arc but then we realize there’s a new layer to peel away and more small pieces to make it better and do better and become better for myself and others.”
If I damage the others who I need and we’ll need some day and need right now, but I’m not aware of it, I also haven’t done the work in identifying my aims. I may only be in touch with one aim in particular. It might be money, which is often the one we talk about that money overrides everything. It may damage your legacy; it may damage your social status or a number of other things. It also may damage your health, because you’re not thinking of yourself in a holistic perspective with the W-H-O-L-E. That you have limited scope and span.
Then on my side, where I was working myself to the bone for causes that I loved and not thinking that it might perhaps be useful not only to me, but to the transactions that I’m building. If I don’t leave them in a rut, if I were to fall over because I just overdid it with my health or have no time and I’m stressed and frustrated and not fun to work with or what if some day, which is the reality, I’m not around anymore. I don’t want this to go away because we in the group or the offer do see that it’s valuable for the world. We want to design it with the expectation we will not be around someday, and we think it’s worth keeping.
John: It’s a little bit like whether or not you are self-less or self-ish, not the whole. In other words, where you’re only selfish or only selfless in both cases, there’s damage being done. There are conditions of life not being satisfied, and both are unsustainable, wholly unsustainable.
So I just think it’s a beautiful thing to point out, because it struck me in some of your notes that it is likely, there are people listening who recognize themselves and can identify with, “I’m selfless, gosh, therefore I don’t take care of my own aims.” Or for those listening and thinking, “I’m selfish. I’m also not taking care of my aims.” We can all think of people who are self-less or self-ish, who may suffer in similar or different ways but certainly again, both unsustainable.
Sarah: I just love that because, on an arc journey in studying and practicing with this, there’s always more to dive into, where you see those moments where, “I just was really high cost.” It used to always be that way, but now I’m realizing a very nuanced place, where I could make an improvement and I could benefit myself and the other people I’m working with right now.
Whatever it might be, but you just get to peel away over and over again, more nuanced pieces. One of the phrases I love is that we’re in a journey of successive approximation. We’re aiming for something on this arc but then we realize there’s a new layer to peel away and more small pieces to make it better and do better and become better for myself and others.
John: Well said. What else should we know about your journey here over the last many years? What else have you learned that you think is of note?
Sarah: In terms of aims that’s been so clear because in getting expert help after realizing the not so– Well, it’s a very obvious fact that as a young person I didn’t have a grasp on. That I needed a lot of help and I wasn’t an expert in everything that I will come across as I get older and have more needs and some surplus and conditions I never thought I would.
John: Imagine living until you are 45 or 50. Then realizing that. [laughs]
Sarah: Yes, that’s great.
John: It’s not a young person’s thing by the way. It’s a disease of all ages. [laughs] Just so you know.
Sarah: We keep peeling away at it and the more help we get, the more we realize we need. I really enjoyed getting great help and being valuable to others. One other things I’m really trying to work on is becoming more valuable. How can I hone in on that more and more. Then with my aims, I realized that they’re a snapshot in time. When I do them, I look, “Did I achieve them, did I not? What practices worked, what didn’t?”
Now it begins again. It’s not like I get to say, “Well, look at that great successful thing I did. I’ll put that on the shelf, and it will just stay there. It now will require maintenance and a new snapshot to review and revisit and go out and keep moving. Then I get the excitement of another team. More work and that’s actually fed into some of that ego I talked about in my notes where as an inventor you think you have it all figured out but then you get bored in the practice of it.
If you have an eye to your aim being the reinvention and the way you can activate your creativity and your insightfulness, you will always have new things to do, even if you’re sticking with a business, working on your business, working with the team. Their aims change, your aims change. It’s a moving target, and that’s what really makes it fun. Knowing what all your actions are leading to, or you’re attempting them to have them lead to becomes really inspiring work.
John: I’m curious about your soapbox moment. You say, in terms of your own soapbox, talk about it in experience and practice. I could say a great deal about experience and practice, because it’s quite easy to get off by a mere understanding. What about that is a soapbox for you?
Sarah: Well, experience is not something you can sit down and read about and think about. It’s something you do, and that’s that embodiment. Today I was writing some notes, where I was thinking about aims as the embodiment activity. Because when you create aims and you actively practice the actions to meet those aims, mindfulness is a really big phrase today. Mindfulness is watching your brain, and your body do what you do and assessing that in the moment.
If you have done the work which it’s a lot of work to really go through and assess your aims and articulate them, write them down. Look at them and then say, “Here’s how I’m going to get there. I don’t know how many get there; I need some help.” I’ll start by this bar or this activity or this short goal. Then I’ll move to the big goals that I have laid out. You are able to watch yourself doing that, and if you aren’t experiencing and doing it, you don’t have the opportunity to be in communication or mirroring to yourself.
Then when you add other people and invite them in they will invite you in and then reflect back to you who you are and what you’re doing, and is it working or is it not working. To me those are what brings us up to higher points, in terms of we’re now catalyzing different practices, different people working together and you can’t just do that on your own, you can’t think your way through that.
John: I was thinking about during the last conference one of the little phrases we said often are people started to say, they would say, “Don’t be an ass hat.” They used that word in replace of some others. “They’ll be an ass hat be an aspect,” referring of course to the quote that I read a little earlier.
Do you have any thoughts about how one might practice the recognition– and this is just you and I perhaps noodling on this. Thoughts about how someone might practice the recognition of being an aspect of the transaction instead of overlord of the transaction, or a victim of the transaction. You know that I am a part of an integral part of this transaction. Any thoughts about how one might embody or practice or experience that?
Sarah: Yes, while working in a team is critical, having people who are honest and ethically engaging with you as well, and thinking on that have they assessed their aims, can they be working with me? Have I assessed my aims, can I work with them? In some of the work, I did at the non-profit that I was running before and moved and whittled it down to one offer, which is huge part of my journey with Influence Ecology is focus and stop diluting myself.
We talked about what an influence ecology uses as accepts decline or counter. How can you expect decline or counter something if you don’t know if it aligns with your aims authentically? Authentically if you assess that someone else in a complex transaction, likely if you’re buying the burger it’s probably okay if they don’t have their aims totally lined out. If you’re engaging with them in a commercial offer, or something more deep and complex ethically speaking, usually it’s probably in no way that I could assess for them if they’re in overwhelm or despair.
It’s my job. Thank goodness having done this work to say it’s probably a no for you and I’m going to say that and that’s actually a gift to both of us. Because we would get knocked up for who knows how long if we didn’t have that information. When you have people who have done that work together you can achieve so much, because you can have that authentic dialogue together and say yes, say no, or say the maybe, which really is going to get us to clarify and then say yes or no.
When you truly have a choice to say yes or no, then it makes sense, and you are ethically engaging with people. If there is no option then saying yes doesn’t necessarily mean yes it might mean maybe it might mean no or I don’t know. That’s a really empowering moment for people when they get to experience that level, and to me, that’s been a huge part of the journey. That’s my soapboxes. Studying with Influence Ecology. The people who really engage with it and the leadership will guide you through to become empowered in that way to really know if you can say yes or no to something. Sounds so simple. [chuckles]
John: [laughs] It is. I just had a conversation with a judge, we came up with a new term that we’re going to refer to as a “Forensic witch hunt for one’s aims.” Because sometimes when I’m asking someone something, I’m trying to just ascertain what their aims are and it’s a little bit like a forensic witch hunt. Well, and oftentimes I find I don’t know. I’m on a witch hunt for their aims but they don’t have any, or they haven’t actually concluded that, to begin with.
As you said, it’s quite ethical to say, “Look, I don’t think you know your aims here. Let’s just stop where we are. Let’s not move forward in this transaction,” which is great. It’s also a beautiful thing, when like you said when two parties actually are quite clear of their aims to be able to say, “Hey, what’s your aim here? Mine is this. What’s your aim here? Mines that,” great. “Given our aims then let’s not do this,” or, “Given our aims, it sounds like we have some ways in which we might be able to construct something here together.” It’s an amazing, amazing opportunity.
Sarah: It opens up the world to you to say, “That’s a positive boundary or a positive offer I want to create.” Or, “That’s a negative one, where I would like to complete or conclude or not engage.” A lot of the discussions out there regarding just intimate relationships and sexual harassment and things like that in the news. A lot of that ethical ability to say yes and no hasn’t been out there. To me, it’s an indicator of a lot of those dichotomies of power.
Also, because when I get to that spot where I don’t know my yes or no answer, it’s an indicator and that’s that mindfulness practice again where, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not clear on my aims, so I can’t say yes or no.” Well, that means I need to do work, yes. That’s an embodiment piece that’s huge when you slow down and say, “Because I don’t know I can do some assessment and do some work, then I’ll get back to you.”
John: I’ll tell you, one of the things that’s really helped me over the course of many, many years in my transactional competence. Where I experienced the embodiment of myself as an aspect is listening. Listening carefully, listening keenly. Taking the time to understand both sides. Oftentimes, when I observe people listening, they listen until what the other person says registers in some way.
The person listening goes, “Yes, I get what you’re trying to tell me. Yes, I understand what you mean,” often wrongly assuming that they’ve heard anything at all. “I get what you’re trying to tell me. Yes, yes, yes,” and then they think or assume that they’ve listened when in fact, they haven’t heard much at all. To practice the ability to listen until I can empathize with the other person’s experience, their journey.
That they see and view the world in wholly different ways than I do. That they have aims that I don’t have and they’re as valid as mine, that they have beliefs, I would never consider for myself to be valid or true yet, they are for them. I can’t argue with the nature of belief for another person. It is what it is until it isn’t. So I’ll just say too as a practice for the embodiment and the experience of being an aspect rather than an ass hat [chuckles] all off for listening.
Sarah: That reminds me so much of in David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work. Those higher levels of reframing where it doesn’t do any good, especially for us subjective head in the clouds thinkers, to assume and know what the outcome or consequence will be even if we’re right sometimes. Getting there is the big part of the journey in your transactional group or binary or coupling. Just like you said, you don’t know how that person can or wants to get there.
So when David Rock says, “Ask the question of the person with the problem, and it keeps them in a toward experience versus an away experience.” You have much more opportunity to understand them, and even if you do have opposing ideas, you can usually peel down again to a layer of, “Well, we have a common value there.” It could be a common aim, or need whether it’s biological, or financial, or some type of security and we’re just meeting it in different way.
But that’s fine as long as they aren’t conflicting or hurting each other. To me, that’s where the work of Influence Ecology with these teams and discovering that you’re an aspect and you can’t take yourself out of the world and out of these moments. Kirkland and I were talking about that. I think the work here is highly progressive technology. We also think of technology in terms of my computer and software and phones and gadgets, but technology is the application of science and reasoning.
This is an amazing opportunity for people to dig down and get things done, raise each other up, and do it in a way that moves away from a lot of the baser means and methods that we have. It’s almost a technology of transactionalism. I love it. I see the huge opportunity for the more people who become competent practitioners and value it, the better off the world will be.
John: I couldn’t agree more. All right, well with that, Sarah Shepherd, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
Sarah: Thanks, John. I really appreciate being here as well.
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