Category Archives: Emotional Intelligence

Remembrance for times ahead

Recently, I posted on Facebook to express my concerns at the changing use of the poppy, once a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World Wars I and II.  I shared an article by Harry Leslie Smith and published by the Guardian in 2013, explaining why, aged 91, he had decided to wear the poppy of remembrance for the last time.  And a blog posting, whose author calls herself “stavvers”.  My sharing was met with some resistance.  One friend responded by highlighting the emergence of the white poppy, available to buy online.

This year, two great political shocks have made me focus with fresh eyes on Remembrance Day and on how I choose to remember.  On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted by a narrow voter majority to leave the EU in an advisory referendum, unleashing a genie from the bottle whose consequences cannot yet be told.  Today, November 9th, 2016, the American people elected their 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.  To say that I was shocked by the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum is not to exaggerate.  I have been less shocked by Trump’s election – Brexit prepared me to expect the unexpected.  After Brexit, there were jokes – which had the ring of truth – that Britons would have to relinquish a favourite pass time;  that of looking down on the Americans.  Today, I suspect that pass time may well find currency again.

But what do we make of it all?  And why am I talking of the Brexit and the US election in a post about Remembrance?

Groundhog Day and the cycle of history

If you’ve never watched the film Groundhog Day, now may well be the time.  In it, the film’s main character, played by actor Bill Murray, gets caught in a time warp, repeating the same day over and over again until he learns the essential lessons he needs in order to move on.

The act of remembrance was born of a deep desire to save future generations from repeating the mistakes of the past.  In Germany, there has been a focus on education with the aim of making sure that the country’s sons and daughters would never again make the mistakes of their Nazi forebears.  The European Union was also the child of this deep desire for peace.  No wonder then, as imperfect as the EU might be, there are many in Britain who wish to retain our membership.  No wonder that colleagues in Europe have responded with shock at how easily we have shown our willingness to jump from the EU ship.

In America, Trump’s candidacy has drawn comparisons with the rise of Nazism under Hitler’s leadership.  Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” directly parallels Hitler’s 1930s vision for Germany’s return to prominence.  And both appealed – alongside Brexit – to sections of the electorate who felt despairing and down-trodden and saw little hope for the future.  Hitler, Brexit, Trump… they all gave hope to what, only today, Trump called his country’s “forgotten people”.

Perhaps our shock reflects a prevailing view, despite evidence to the contrary, that progress goes in a straight line.  It doesn’t.  The myth of progress-in-a-straight-line leads us, in business, to the view that only targets which show improvements (increased sales, improving efficiency, rises in profitability) are ever needed. The same myth of straight-line progress may well have fuelled hope in America that the first black US President might be succeeded by its first woman US President.  Instead, the presidency of the US’s first black president, widely regarded as someone who has combined dignity in office with a huge measure of compassion and humour, is followed by the coming presidency of yet one more white man of mature years and, this time, one who has been variously labelled as bigoted, misogynist, racist, xenophobic and more.  Many Americans are thrilled – but not all.  At least as many Americans are bewildered, anxious and afraid.

Is love even here?

For those people who have fought for progress over many years, it is tempting to fall into despair.  It’s hard to see how progress can come from steps which hark back to a forgotten and maybe even imagined “glorious” past.  The phrase “dark day” has graced my Facebook feed today and, more humourously, perhaps “electile dysfunction”.  For some, humour is a moment of relief when people can find no other way to find peace.

I am reminded and grateful for the question which is often asked by one of my mentors, the wonderful Mark Silver of Heart of Business:  is love even here?  It is a question which connects us to love which is, always, here.  And I think our hope of making progress – of moving beyond our political Groundhog Day – depends on it.

These are some of the things that strike me about our current circumstances (including many circumstances I have not even mentioned).

The Brexit campaign was a bitter battle as was the US election campaign.  Amongst my friends it played out with equal intensity on Facebook.

Both were characterised by lies and more lies in what some have described as a “post-truth” era.  In Brexit, the lies were clearly on both sides, with the media criticised for their light touch response to some unholy battle-bus whoppers.  In the US election campaign, pointing out Donald Trump’s personal brand of fabrication-despite-clear-evidence drew criticism of large-scale media bias.

Both were characterised – yes, both – by insulting and disparaging the opposition before, during and after the campaigns.  In Brexit, Leavers were “stupid” and “ignorant” and Remainers “just need to get over it”.  In the US election campaign Trump, together with his supporters,  was seen by opponents as an “idiot” and unworthy of anything but laughter and disdain.

But after the battle we are left both with the electoral result and with the needs – the raw, keenly felt and unmet needs – that drove people on both sides of the argument to vote as they did.  It seems to me that this is one of the deep lessons of Groundhog Day, just as it is one of the deep lessons of our current political era.  This is the lesson that we need to learn if ever we are to move beyond our current cycle of progress and resistance.

We are all one.  When we overlook the needs of one, we hinder the progress of all.

Brexit is said to have been won largely by sectors of the population whose economic needs are unmet, even by those who most benefitted from EU funding.  In the US, early analysis suggests that it is not the most economically disadvantaged who voted for Trump but the older, white, male vote that won Trump his victory.  The “disadvantaged white male” narrative clings on and perhaps there is still some truth in this – for which so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, most of the population feel keenly their disadvantages.  And because of this, there is action and reaction, momentum and resistance.

Until we find ways forward that honour and meet the needs of all, our Groundhog Day will continue.

Beyond “goodies” and “baddies”

It seems to me that one implication of this truth – I’d go so far as to call it as a universal law – is that we all need to let go of our habit of dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” and, instead, start to see each other as the human beings we all are.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about rolling over and accepting every behaviour as okay.  No.  But it does require us to see the humanity of those whose views and actions concern us and to be curious.  We need to show curiosity about those people we define, somehow, as “other”.  What is motivating this support for a different candidate or point of view?  What deeper needs are being expressed?  And we need to afford them the same respect we would afford anyone whose views we agree with.  In the US election campaign, I was inspired by this example from Van Jones, author and – amongst other things – CNN contributor.

Equally, we need to be willing and able to see ourselves as the human beings we all are.  As much, for example, as we need to understand that some of the behaviours we find most repulsive in others spring from positive intentions, we need to understand that our own positive intentions give birth, at times, to some pretty ugly behaviours. This opens up the opportunity to reflect on and adjust our approach.  We also have the opportunity to be less judgemental of others when we recognise our own limitations.  These are not small things.

Until we can recognise, with compassion, our own limitations, we are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Day.  Our blind spots become those of our children.  Worse still, they become embedded in our culture, in our systems, in our laws.  We talk with horror of the Holocaust, for example, yet turn our back to the needs of those people displaced from Syria by famine and war or even supply arms to foreign powers so that they can perpetrate atrocities in distant lands.  We invade foreign lands and treat native peoples with brutality and yet fear the invasion of immigrants even to lands to which we were, ourselves, not only immigrants but violent invaders.

Creating narratives for future generations

In the aftermath of World War I and II our continuing acts of remembrance create a narrative for future generations, offering a storyline which may or may not expand their understanding.  For this reason, I choose to reflect on the prevailing narratives of our era and to choose my own.

For my own part, I feel concerned as the Royal British Legion, who have provided poppies for our act of remembrance for many years now, begin to talk of a new generation of veterans that need my support.  It worries me to read – on, of all things, its “Our Brand” page – “We want people to understand that the poppy is not just about Remembrance; it’s also about providing hope for the Armed Forces community of all ages, throughout the year.”  This is a message which dilutes the poppy as an act of remembrance and, by supporting more recent veterans, invites my moral and financial support for the UK’s continuing engagement in armed conflict.

I am not so naive as to think no time will come when others invade our shores.  I know that my taxes have been co-opted to fund action abroad.  Let my taxes also be co-opted to give due care to those who fight in conflicts, including those I do not support.  For my part, by my act of remembrance, I want to think ahead to a time in which we choose to engage with people as our brothers and sisters rather than to demonise them and overlook their humanity.

Today, Angela Merkel extended a cautious hand of welcome to Donald Trump:

“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the USA.  Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position.  On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”

For my part, I see Merkel’s words as a reminder of just how deeply the German people have chosen to reflect on their history.  Perhaps, too, Merkel offers an invitation both to voters in America and to observers around the world, to remember the dignity of human beings of all political persuasions.  It is a time to take stock, to treat each other with love and respect or at least, if caring for each other proves to be beyond what we can achieve right now, to take time to care for ourselves.

On the road to world (and office) peace

An act of remembrance at Birkenau
An act of remembrance at Birkenau

Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns gets passed on, generation after generation after generation. Break the chain today. Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion, cruelty with kindness. Greet grimaces with smiles. Forgive and forget about finding fault. Love is the weapon of the future.

Yehuda Berg

It has been my tradition to mark Remembrance Day here on my blog. This year is no exception.

I want to start by mentioning an experience I had recently and by talking through the learning that has been unfolding for me in the days and weeks that have followed.

One Monday morning, a few weeks ago, I found a response amongst my e-mails to something I had said to a colleague.  It was clear from her response that my words had not landed well with her.

I wanted to reach out and open up the opportunity for connection, so I let her know that I was open to discussion if she wanted to talk things through.

She didn’t.

A few days later, I reached out again. I sent her a personal message and asked her how she was. We had some exchanges. I asked her if she wanted to talk things through.

She didn’t.

I wondered what to do next when the answer seemed to be nothing. I was not at peace.

On the end of a coercive style

I knew my colleague was unhappy with something I’d said and I didn’t know what.  Equally, in  the course of our conversations, my correspondent said and did a number of things that I found difficult. I experienced them as attempting to control my behaviour – to coerce.

If ever you’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s attempts to coerce you, you may know how challenging it can be.  Whereas some people make requests of you, the person who coerces does so from a place of believing he or she is right. You are told what you should do or should have done or, indeed, should not have done. Requests are made (or orders given) by implication. (Why ask “Would you mind doing…?” when you believe the other person ought to do something because it’s the right thing to do?)

You may also receive feedback from your correspondent to support his or her case. He or she uses labels, for example, to describe you or your behaviour. These are not used with the awareness that they are labels or constructs of the imagination. No, the speaker believes that they are an accurate description. Descriptions of behaviour are not neutral. The other person does not repeat the words that you said or accurately describe what you did. No, he or she tells you that you “spoke out of turn” or “deliberately crossed someone”. “You offended someone”. “You made a fool of yourself”. Anything that you did or said is lost in the midst of holding you responsible for somebody else’s response or beneath layers of judgement about whether or not you should have done what you did.

The fact that none of these descriptions accurately described what you said or did doesn’t matter to the person who is addressing you: his or her map is the territory. You may see that the other person has made assumptions and is treating them as if they were true. At the same time, the confidence of your correspondent that he or she is right is such that he or she has no reason to listen to anything you may have to say. Unless you can talk things through, it’s hard to correct misunderstandings.

How do you feel when this happens and especially when these behaviours are sustained (whether from time to time or on an ongoing basis)? For many people, they can trigger fear, anger, anxiety. Over time, they can undermine your confidence and make you question yourself. Perhaps you resist, asserting your right to choose your own behavour – and you do. You can even use some labels of your own to describe the person whose behaviour you have found so difficult.

Even so, it can be hard to feel at peace.

Good bye to bad rubbish

If you have read this far, you may think I am going to talk about the limitations of coercion. Regular readers already know I am a fan of research summed up by Daniel Goleman (in the article Leadership That Gets Results) which shows that when used inappropriately and excessively, the coercive style can have a negative impact on the way people experience their workplace and, in turn, on their productivity at work.

But no.

I promised to talk about my learnings in the midst of my experiences and this is what I am going to do.

I want to start with a path I chose not to take.

In the vernacular, there’s a phrase that is often used to describe one possible response when we are experiencing difficulties in our relationships with others: “say goodbye to bad rubbish”. This is the kind of phrase friends use to comfort loved ones after a relationship break-up, for example.

In the workplace, we may not have the option to walk away from a relationship and still, covertly, we say goodbye to bad rubbish by holding to our view that our colleague is out of line, has values that stink, is totally incompetent and more.

On a global scale, we look at our neighbours – neighbouring countries, religious groups and more – through the eyes of judgement and disbelief. This is the kind of disbelief that asks “How could they possibly do X?” without ever really seeking to know the answer. It may even be the kind of disbelief which asks this question of others whilst overlooking the times when we, too, have reacted in haste and, in doing so, have behaved in ways we would rather forget.

I am not saying that anyone should seek to make a best friend out of someone they find difficult. Men and women in abusive relationships are well advised to walk away. In organisations, we may want to work effectively with someone whose behaviour we loathe and still, to look after our own wellbeing. At the same time, as much as we want to gravitate towards and hang out with people whose company we enjoy, many times, we will encounter people whose behaviour we find difficult. Do we really want to walk away from them all?

On being human

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Just as I was grappling with my experiences, I decided to listen to a recorded conference call with Miki Kashtan (who is a trainer of some repute in the field of Nonviolent Communication) about collaboration in the workplace. I did not expect to take anything from her call which would help me with my colleague, but many things she spoke of landed with me.

Firstly, she described an instinct we have to withdraw when we encounter difficult behaviours. In this way, we protect ourselves from further harm. Even though I was only half listening to her as I did other things, I realised there was a message for me in this. I did want to withdraw and protect myself from more of the same. Yehuda Berg puts it this way: “Hurt people hurt people”. When we meet behaviours from people who are triggered, consciously or unconsciously, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt.

In her discussion, Miki pointed to something else. It can be easy, as we withdraw, to fall into judgement. It’s so easy that we do it without even realising that we are doing it. Their behaviour was difficult. It didn’t meet common professional standards. It clearly wasn’t rational. When we come from a place of wanting to protect ourselves, these judgements escalate a cycle of distance and mistrust so that the people whose behaviour we have found so difficult also want to step back and protect themselves.

This is the escalating cycle of pain to which Yehuda Berg refers and which is present in our most intimate relationships. And because I write this posting on Remembrance Day, I think it worth adding that the same pattern that causes us difficulty in our relationships with friends and family is also present in our relationships with our colleagues. And as much as it’s present in our relationships with colleagues, it is also present on a much larger scale in the relationships between nations or religious groups. If we follow this pattern, take the “goodbye to bad rubbish” approach, we can only look forward to conflict at the local and the global level.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Small change

It happened that, a little while before I had the experience I have described above, my friend and colleague, Tamara Laporte, had a hot date (okay, conducted an interview) with Byron Katie, author of the book Loving What Is. I’d been meaning to watch this interview and I knew that now was the time.

Part way through this interview, Tamara asked Byron Katie about an incident that had taken place in her life, when she found herself face to face with a young man with a gun. Her response in the moment blew me away: she was able to connect with what might be going on for this young man, without in any way losing her composure.

Byron Katie was able to respond with composure because she has worked extensively to catch her own thoughts, to question them and to turn them round. By transforming her thoughts – her “story”, if you like – she is able to transform her emotional experience both in the moment and across her life as a whole. She calls this process of enquiry “the work”.

You could say that Byron Katie’s work is the manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi’s often-repeated invitation to “be the change you want to see in the world”. This small change of focus can bring huge results. It was as a result of her extensive work prior to this experience and of her ability, in the moment, to do her own work that she came away from this experience alive.

The mother of all things I want to learn to do differently

Sometimes, lessons are humbling. Not least because, at times, we have to learn them again and again until they become second nature to us – or perhaps return us to our primary nature. As I sit here and reflect, I wonder what three things I would most like to do going forward.

Rupture and repair

The first thing I take from this experience is a reminder that, in any successful relationship, there is a process which another friend and colleague, Melanya Helene, calls “rupture and repair”.

This is not just what happens in our most difficult relationships.

No.

Rupture and repair is what happens in our most intimate relationships. We experience some misunderstanding and draw away. But we also value the relationship enough to want to reconnect.  It is this desire to reconnect that motivates us to do what we need to do to overcome misunderstanding and repair our relationships.

Bringing this desire to overcome difficulties is also what allows us to transform our most difficult relationships into relationships of trust. In her densely-packed teleconference call, Miki Kashtan talks of spreading around goodwill when you most feel distrust. On a much greater scale, the process of truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa came from this intention to repair what was broken.

When rupture happens, in whatever form, on whatever scale, I choose to be open to repair.

You can’t change the others

My experience with my colleague reminded me of another essential truth: the work of repairing difficult relationships begins at home.

It begins at home because we can’t change the others, we can only change ourselves.

It begins at home because our instinct to pull away from difficult relationships, our lack of trust, is itself a barrier to creating positive and healthy relationships, because it causes us to behave in ways which compound the problem.

As long as our focus is on how things should be, for example, we will struggle to deal effectively with how things are. In her conference call, Miki Kashtan describes one thing as under-rated in our society, and I agree: that thing is mourning. She talks about how much we need to experience our grief, our sadness, our disappointment, that this is how the world is – to feel this crushing disappointment all the way. All the thinking we do about how things should be leads us to harden our hearts as a protection from everything we know, deep down, to be true. Mourning helps us to maintain an open heart and it is this open-hearted softness that keeps us open to the other, even when we find their behaviour most difficult.

Both Miki Kashtan and Byron Katie invite us to examine our thinking about the other person. Indeed, Byron Katie’s work is all about examining our thinking. How are we thinking of this other person? (Our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours at local or global level). The biggest story we have to catch is that because there is something we find difficult about this other person, they are somehow, fundamentally, not okay.

The more we can catch ourselves in the midst of this story and question the thoughts we are having, the more we open up new possibilities in our relationships with others. We begin to see that whilst we find some behaviours difficult, other behaviours support us in meeting our needs. This means we can express our appreciation for those behaviours that nurture us and this, in turn, begins to change our experience and the experience of the other.

So, my second choice is this.  I want to examine the stories I tell myself about myself and about others, especially when my attachment to that story is strong.

The healing power of empathy

The more we can catch our story, examine and transcend it, the more we can come to a story that opens up the possibility of a different forward path. This requires us to understand that, no matter how others behaved, they acted with positive intentions. Kashtan points to this: that the fact that someone behaved in ways we found difficult probably means that there is something we did or habitually do that they perceive as standing in the way of them fulfilling their needs. Empathy helps us to understand this and to connect with the other person and this opens up the possibility of a dialogue which, in turn, helps us to build a cycle of increasing empathy and mutual understanding.

It’s possible, too, that we need to meet our own experience with great empathy and understanding. Beneath the judgement of the other, for example, there is often a judgement of ourself or, at least, the fear that self-judgement may be justified. For yes, we, too, are human and react, at times, in ways we abhor. When we can bring self-empathy we can hold our positive intentions with great care and mourn, rather than condemn, our own behaviour. This leads us to greater honesty with ourselves, opens up the possibility of transforming our approach over time and, in addition, makes us more forgiving of others.

So, my third commitment is to recognise both my own and others’ need for empathy.  I want to bring empathy even to the most difficult of relationships.

Implications for world (and office) peace

Why does any of this matter?

There are those in my life who have encouraged me to step away from any relationships which might be described as abusive, toxic or bullying and I certainly do not seek them out. I’m sure Byron Katie didn’t go looking for the young man with the gun.

At the same time, there are times in our lives when we do have regular contact with someone whose behaviour we don’t enjoy. Perhaps their emotions are frequently triggered. Perhaps their behaviours are unpleasant. He may be a colleague. She may be a family member.

We can, of course, move jobs, change friends, walk away from family. But new jobs bring new people who may also behave at times in ways we don’t enjoy. And it’s my experience that people yearn for a sense of connection with their family members even whilst walking away from situations where they can find no possibility for that connection to occur.

On a much more global scale, condemning “the other”, whether we are talking about men and women of a different political persuasion, national identify or religious group brings us no closer to finding ways forward which support everyone in meeting their needs.

Our relationships at work require us to find ways to connect with the people we most fear or despise, to move beyond our fear and hatred and to come to a place of empathy and understanding.

From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.
From Hiroshima, an invitation to reflect on what we have done, as well as on what has been done to us.

On Remembrance Day I want to add that this, too, is what is required of us.  This requires us to understand that, in war, the most appalling acts are carried out with good intentions.  This requires us to recognise that “appalling acts” are not the unique preserve of enemy forces.  Looking into our own history, even our recent history, we find that our own countrymen and women have committed appalling acts.  We need to recognise that we, too, are capable – as much today as we ever were – of committing appalling acts.  Only when we can face this truth can we begin the long walk towards peace.

Hurt people hurt people.

I want to be one of the people who is no longer hurt. And when I feel hurt, I want to respond rather than react.

I offer thanks to my colleague, to Miki Kashtan, to Tamara Laporte and Byron Katie, to Melanya Helene and to many others who have provided the inspiration to write this posting and whose thinking has also informed the content.

Beyond struggle: doing what works

It’s widely held that the English, when some hapless foreigner doesn’t understand them, speak louder.  This is the cause of merriment because, quite clearly, it’s a strategy that doesn’t work.  The person who doesn’t understand English is unlikely to understand it any better for being shouted at.

Apparently, this strategy is not the sole preserve of the English.  I was recently talking to someone who, in China, had experienced something very similar as she travelled through more remote areas of the country.

Of course, it’s easy to laugh when someone else is doggedly pursuing  a strategy that doesn’t work.  It’s even easy to see when someone else is pursuing a strategy that doesn’t work.

It’s not so easy to notice our own worst endeavours.

The clue is in the struggle

Is there something you’re struggling with right now?  Something you’ve been struggling with for a while?  If there is, you’ll know how hard it can be.

Maybe you’ve taken action to address a situation that isn’t working for you.  You feel confident that the action you’ve taken is constructive, purposeful action and yet you feel no further forward.  You couldn’t believe the response you got, for example, and you don’t quite know where to go from here.

What sort of situations are we talking about here?

Perhaps you’re managing a member of staff who isn’t responding to your clear guidance about what’s expected, to your attempts to coach, even to the formal process you have recently put in place.

Perhaps you’ve made what you see as a compelling business case to the Board for a new venture, IT programme, HR initiative… whatever.  But you’ve come away without the approval you wanted and you don’t begin to know what to do next.  How could they turn down such a clear case and with such clear benefits for the business?

Perhaps your struggle is with yourself.  You know that your sedentary work lifestyle is not working for you.  You can see how you’re piling on the pounds.  You meant to go to the gym, to walk to work, to go running.  Maybe you even set yourself some clear ‘SMART’ targets… and still, you’re snacking on burgers or chocolate, drinking too much alcohol, and failing to do what you planned.

Whatever the area of struggle, you keep trying to move it forward… without success.  In whatever way you “shout at the foreigner”, you keep shouting louder.  You’re struggling and the struggle is not moving you forward.

Groundhog Day… and why we continue to do the things that don’t work

If ever you’ve watched the film Groundhog Day, you know what it is to struggle.  In this comedy, weatherman Phil Connors is assigned to cover a small-town assignment which he positively detests… Groundhog Day.  Trapped in a blizzard he has to stay in the very place he detests so much and wakes up the next morning to discover that it’s Groundhog Day all over again… and again… and again…

Groundhog Day is a comedy with a message – if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results.  But there are reasons why we continue to do the thing that’s not working.  In my work with clients, three things seem to be most common:

…We think it ought to work.  John thought the figures in his business proposal were persuasive so, when his proposal was not met with approval by the board, he gave them more figures.  What John didn’t understand was that other people don’t all think the way he does – he failed to adjust his approach to meet the needs of his audience.

…We think it’s who we are.  This is one of the most common reasons why we continue to do what doesn’t work rather than to adjust our approach in order to do what works.  Frances, for example, was renowned in her workplace for her spiky manner.  She frequently met feedback by giving feedback of her own or by making a comment that seemed irrelevant to her colleagues.  “You’re not my slave?  No.  I know that.  I never said you were!”  Whenever her colleagues requested a change in her approach, Francis was quick to say, “Why should I change?  It’s just who I am.”

(I want to add that yes, sometimes it really isn’t who we are and yet… we are all subject to programming in childhood by our parents, teachers and other figures of authority.  Examining who we really are opens up opportunities to let go of redundant ideas and to find new and more effective ways of getting things done).

…We worry about how people might respond.  Ahmed had worked for ten years for the same boss when, quite suddenly, his boss’s behaviour towards him started to change.  His boss was losing his temper unexpectedly and with little or no explanation.  Ahmed felt uneasy about this dramatic shift in their relationship.  What he didn’t know was that his boss, for the first time in their history, was unhappy with Ahmed’s work.  At the same time, he was struggling to give Ahmed feedback for fear of offending him.

Doing what works

There’s a debate that comes up again and again and which, I confess, irritates me just a little – it’s the “are leaders born or made?” debate.  Who would ask of a world class violin player “is a virtuoso violinist born or made?”  Few people, if any, achieve excellence in their field without some combination of natural talent, learning and practice.

Leaders are no different.

Smart leaders constantly ask themselves what’s working and what’s not.  They beg, borrow and steal ideas – most tell stories of people they have learnt from.  Over time they come to understand the need to choose an approach that works in a given situation.  They get smart about what works – how to influence the board, how to engage staff, how to nurture potential in their highest performers… and their lowest.  The list goes on.

And you?  I invite you to check in with yourself – to what extent are you making choices based on your understanding of what actually works?  You can do this, for example, by giving yourself a mark out of ten against the following:

O equals “I don’t think at all about how well my approach is actually working and when I don’t get the response I want I get frustrated with people and wish they would change.”

5 equals “Sometimes I think about how best to approach a situation and sometimes I forget and just do what I’ve always done.”

10 equals “I make a habit of thinking about what works and what doesn’t.  When I don’t get the response I want I get excited – I like to think about what I can do differently based on the response I get from others.”

From the school of doing what works

In case you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, two stories have fallen into my lap recently from the school of doing what works.

One friend, frustrated by her teenage son’s refusal to put his socks into the wash, stopped picking them up.  He was quick to admonish her – “It takes no time at all to pick them up.”  She let the message sink in… if you want clean socks, you put them in the laundry basket.

Another friend became aware that a member of his team thought him lazy, because he always left promptly at the end of the day.  The same staff member was completely unaware that, most days, he arrived in the office at least an hour before any of  his colleagues.  Rather than face the issue head on, he started to make a habit of assigning her work as soon as he arrived in the morning.  He would drop an e-mail to her at 6.30 am saying “I’ll catch you when you reach the office but first, I want to give you the heads up…”  He would ask her to get things done by midday.  He asked one of his peers to keep her ears open – quite quickly, this particular team member stopped complaining about how lazy her manager was.

These friends both let go of what ought to be true and asked themselves what might just work in practice.

What strategies have you found that work?  I’d love to hear your stories.

 

Meditations on a butternut squash

Photo: Just eying up my supper in the garden. ..
Yesterday I harvested this butternut squash from my garden before going to my local supermarket to buy chorizo and red pepper.
My plan was to make risotto for supper and to enjoy my “free” butternut squash (the truth is, I grew the plant from the seeds of a squash I bought a few months back) but somehow, by the time I got to the checkout, I knew I wasn’t going to make risotto.  Instead, I consigned my prize crop (in my mind at least) to the fridge for another day and ate soup.

Stretching the elastic to breaking point

Five weeks ago, my friend Sarah went to hospital and I went with her.  I went with her once.  I went with her twice.  I went with her a third time.  Finally, she was admitted.  That first week, I made it my priority to support her at a time of crisis knowing that, with her family living several hours away, I was the person who was best placed to help her.  Once she was admitted, I continued to make a priority of visiting her.

I visited Sarah because I wanted to support her and without knowing how long she would be in hospital.  It was a high priority for me and, at the same time, I knew I was stretching the elastic about as far as it would stretch and still ping back.  I kept up a regime of visiting most days until Sarah moved on Monday to receive specialist treatment some distance away…

…and I confess, that once she’d moved to get the treatment she really needed, I discovered just how exhausted I was.

Feeling exhausted?

Have you ever felt totally exhausted at the end of a project, or after handling a crisis, or simply, because you just are?  The minute your project, or crisis, is over you look at the spaces opening up in your diary and think of all the things you’ve been putting on hold.  Now you can catch up!
Somehow, though, when the time comes, your body refuses to cooperate.  At least, you could push through (isn’t that what you’ve been doing so successfully for the last few weeks, months or even years?) but only if you ignore the signals that your body is giving you… signals that are getting louder and louder and louder…
There is an alternative to “pushing through”
Janice Chapman, the distinguished Australian-born soprano and voice coach, teaches a method of breathing she calls “splat”.  The essence of the method is this:  before you take in a new breath, you need to release what remains of the breath you have just taken.  When I learnt this method, it seemed rather counter-intuitive – isn’t it more efficient to top up the breath before singing again?
Topping up the breath is a good metaphor for what we do when we push through, ignoring the body’s signals to rest before getting stuck into whatever comes next.  Releasing the breath allows us to fill up our lungs with oxygen, rather than seeking to extract the last bit of oxygen from our depleted lungs.
The same principle applies when we take a rest – be it a day or a week or even a “power nap” before we continue.  If we don’t rest and instead push through, we’re into the law of diminishing returns.  For the want of rest, we risk taking our elastic to the point at which it won’t ping back.  We start the next thing exhausted.
We need to remember this for ourselves.  We need to remember it for those we lead.
Taking a moment to check in
If you’ve read this far you may be wondering, “how should I respond to this posting?”  My message to you is…
Breathe.  Take five minutes just to breathe.  Breathe in gently and release the breath, trusting your body’s natural rhythms.
And as you breathe, notice what stage you are at in the various cycles of your life.  Where are you resting?  Where are you pushing through?  What is your body asking of you right now?  Notice, in particular, any messages you’re giving yourself about the need to push through… really?  Sometimes, it helps to recognise your need for rest and to adjust your schedule, knowing that there will be a time – but it doesn’t always need to be now – for you galvanise your energy and to get stuck in.
Everything’s working perfectly
 Yesterday, it wasn’t only that I failed to make the butternut squash and chorizo risotto.  In truth, I pretty much took the day off.  Yes, I got up with the intention of working.  I checked my e-mails.  I had my first (and only) appointment.  Soon, though, I realised that I had a choice and I decided to rest.
Sarah is in hospital now, and getting the care she needs.  I’ll be sharing more of her journey in a future posting, and I’ll be providing support when she comes back to her home nearby.  I have work to do in the meantime – lots of work, as it happens.  But it didn’t need to be done yesterday.
Yesterday I felt exhausted, torn between the need to rest and the awareness of just how much catching up I need to do.  Still, I chose rest and notice how much more energy I have today.  The morning has already been productive.  I’m looking forward to making risotto.  Everything’s working perfectly. 

Spinning your wheels in your life or career?

Recently, I spoke with a client who told me just how much he was spinning his wheels – wanting to move forward in his career but not quite sure in what direction.

Successful in his job, he nonetheless noticed, from time to time, how little it rocked his boat.  Watching colleagues discuss a new development in his field, for example, he could see how their eyes sparkled with excitement.

His didn’t.

Maybe you understand Nick’s frustration.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  You’re successful in your job.  It brings you a great deal that you value – kudos, maybe, a comfortable salary, the knowledge that you’re doing something well and seen to do something well.

At the same time, you are not getting out of bed with a spring in your step.

Stuck on the M25

Nick was like a man stuck on the M25 of his career.

From time to time, he would notice how little he was enjoying his job and notice how much he yearned for greater contentment.  He would inch forward a step or two – think about changing his career, maybe even look into the requirements for one or two of his options.

Quickly, though, the wealth of traffic would bring him to a halt.  One car in front of him would say “but think of all the people who are depending on you, right now”.  Another would say, “what about all the things you have got in your career”.  Another, (quite a juggernaut, this one), would say “who are you, anyway, to expect to live a life of full contentment?”

Stopping, starting.  Stopping, starting.  And all the while, Nick was going round in circles.
It’s not that he didn’t think about changing jobs.  He did.  But he didn’t know which job would suit him and he didn’t know how to find out.

A hero’s journey

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has made a lifetime study of myth from around the world.  Apollo, the Frog King, Wotan, the Buddha… Campbell has looked at the main protagonists of both folklore and religion and discovered a remarkable similarity in the underlying structure of their stories.  He calls this structure, the “hero’s journey”.

The hero’s journey begins when the hero hears a call to adventure.  At this stage, the main protagonist faces a crisis or some calling.  His (or her) ways are no longer fitting, but the way forward has yet to appear.  Nick’s experience is typical of this stage of the hero’s journey – and perhaps yours is, too.  From time to time, he would notice his discontentment without knowing what to do about it.  His response was to wait for an answer, but the answer didn’t come.

Making the journey:  you need to commit

Campbell’s research suggests that, at the beginning of the hero’s journey, the hero hears a calling and stands on a threshold.  Responding to the calling means stepping over the threshold and embarking on the journey.  The challenge is this:  when you step over the threshold, you don’t know where the journey will take you.  What’s more, the help you need to make your journey won’t appear until you’ve actually crossed the threshold.

What does this mean for Nick?  As long as Nick sits and waits for the right answer to appear, it won’t.  He needs to commit to the what – to making his journey – and then to work out how to reach his desired destination.

There’s something else, too.  A common mistake that people make is to think their desired destination is one thing when actually, it’s another.  Nick may think his destination is “the perfect job” but actually, it’s a greater level of contentment.  For Nick, this makes the difference between “How do I plan the route to my perfect job when I don’t know what that job is?” and “How do I achieve a greater level of contentment in my life?”

How about you?

Are you, too, stuck on the M25 of your life or career?  If you are, you can begin to find a clear sense of direction by uncovering what it is you really want to achieve.  Here’s a quick way to get you started:

Step 1:  Write down what it is you want that you haven’t yet achieved.  This is probably the easy bit and it’s probably quite concrete – something like “a job I really love” or “a better relationship with my partner”.

Step 2:  Ask yourself this:  what would it do for you if you had what you want?  Keep asking yourself this question and notice your emotions and the sensations in your body.  You know you’ve got the right answer when you feel a sense of connection with an answer which just keeps coming back.  The answer that really matters will be an underlying need, with no sense of the form this might take – for example, “greater contentment in my work” or “more love and intimacy”.  When you’ve found your underlying need pause for a few moments before moving to Step 3.

Step 3:  Ask yourself if you’re ready to commit to meeting your unmet need.  Notice the answer – whatever it is.  It could be that recognising what it is you reallywant is enough for you to commit to making it happen.  Perhaps, though, you’ll meet some inner resistance.  Either way, you’re closer to identifying your next steps.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks “Where should I go?”  The Cheshire cat responds, “That depends on where you want to end up.”  If, like Nick, you’re stuck on the M25 of your life or career, it helps to get under the surface of your aspirations to understand what it is you really want.

You also need to commit to making the journey.

When asking for feedback fills you with fear

There’s no failure, only feedback

Recently, I found myself talking with a friend about my life as a singer.  Specifically, I was remembering a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which I had made a very lusty entry – in the wrong place.

In my early days as a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I would never have made such a mistake.  The fear of making a mistake made me hold back;  my singing was (largely) correct but it lacked gusto.  With time, I have learnt that a mistake is just a mistake so that when I came in (with the men, as I recall) in the wrong place in Belshazzar’s Feast I found myself celebrating it as a sign of a growing sense of ease and self acceptance.

In my work with clients, I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable people can feel in receiving feedback.  At times, charged with giving feedback to people I have assessed for jobs, I meet strong resistance and defensiveness.  One client told me a while back that he thought I’d taken a dislike to him before the interview had even begun.  Another recently asked for chapter and verse of how I’d reached my conclusions.  Coaching clients are no different.  Recently, I invited a client to seek out feedback from three people she trusts about her core strengths.  Even though she was charged with asking for positive feedback, she found herself paralysed by the fear of what people might say.

Maybe you have your own experience of wanting to know how people see you and yet, finding it challenging to ask.  Perhaps you worry that your work falls short of the mark.  You want to know how your work is seen and still, you are afraid to ask.  You want to be seen – and seen fully – and yet you fear that you may be seen as “less than”.  Perhaps “less than” relates to your job or promotion prospects;  you fear you are not performing or lack what you need to make your next career steps.  Perhaps “less than” relates – oh, so personally! – to who you are;  you fear that in some way you are fatally flawed.  You are not alone in having such fears.

Let’s be clear, these are the kind of fears that hold you back.  This is true at any number of levels.  One client, for example, was investing a great deal of energy in guessing where his colleagues might be coming from and seeking to put himself beyond reproach, until he started to test his assumptions and realised that his fears were unwarranted.  Another client kept missing out on a promotion that was easily within her reach because she was not open to hearing feedback and adjusting her approach in one key area.

It can help to realise that your behaviour is not who you are.  We are all so much more than the sum of our behaviours.  Yes, our behaviours reflect who we are – our values and intentions, our feelings and needs.  Still, there are many ways in which they don’t reflect our essential self.  Perhaps, for example, you simply lack skill in a certain area.  Perhaps you have followed a poor example or even been taught to behave in a certain way and are doing so unconsciously.

Once you start to strip away old and unhelpful beliefs or to develop new skills your behaviour comes closer to reflecting who you are and may even leave you with an enriched sense of yourself.  Once you start to understand that you are not your behaviour, asking for feedback becomes easier.  In the discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) this is reflected in a presupposition:  there’s no failure, only feedback.

Let me return to my client – the one I asked to seek out feedback about her core strengths.  If you’re anything like her, you may be wondering what steps you can take before asking for feedback to build your sense of ease.  Here’s just one thing you can do to begin to understand what stands in the way (which I learnt from Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator):

Step 1:  Identify a recent conversation in which you could have asked for feedback (and may even have wanted to) but didn’t.

Step 2:  Take some paper or open a document and create two columns.  In the right hand column, capture as much as you can of the actual conversation – what you said and what the other person said.

Step 3:  Write down any additional thoughts and feelings you had during the conversation in the left hand column alongside details of the actual conversation.

Capturing your thoughts in this way offers the opportunity to reflect on what beliefs and emotions you have about receiving feedback and opens up awareness and new possibilities.

When you can’t change the others

Recently my niece, Dr Rebecca Nesbit, was interviewed by the BBC and quoted in an article entitled Smart approach to house spider survey.  Rebecca has been working with her colleagues at the Society of Biology to design and launch a new recording scheme to capture information about the UK’s house spider population.  I am getting used to Rebecca’s presence in the media – interviews on the radio, visits to the House of Commons and so on.  These are moments of quiet celebration for me – I love it that Rebecca is doing work which reflects her passion for all things natural and environmental…

…Except that Ella Davies and her fellow journalists at the BBC misspelt Rebecca’s name throughout the article (***sigh***).  Let me tell you, if your name is Nesbit (with one ‘t’) this is a familiar and wearisome mistake.  I try not to judge and still, isn’t the first rule of journalism that you check your facts?  It seemed to me to be a sloppy mistake.

It soon became clear to me that I was caught in a pattern of thinking that I see from time to time in my clients, especially in relation to the boss or “powers that be”.  It’s a pattern that’s stimulated when my clients, as employees, have something on their agenda and are not getting the response they hope for from their boss.  The pattern goes something like this:

*An employee wants something that is deeply personal to them and related to their work;
*The employee has an expectation and may or may not make a request of their boss with the aim of realising their hopes;
*When the boss doesn’t do what the employee expects, the employee invests time and energy in thinking about what the boss should do and how much the boss has failed them – but this doesn’t bring them any closer to realising their dreams.

I wonder, do you recognise yourself in this at all?  Perhaps you are seeking a promotion or a pay-rise and you feel frustrated that it hasn’t been forthcoming.  Perhaps you’d like your boss to take account of your preferences – to better understand how you like to work – and you are outraged by your boss’s lack of sensory acuity;  his or her complete failure to read the signals you are giving that the way you’re being treated isn’t working for you.  Perhaps there’s a key project coming up in the business and you hope you’ll be nominated to take part because you know you have the skills and it’s something to do and your boss ought to know to put your name forward.

Reflecting on the many examples I see of this pattern, I was also reminded of a colleague (let’s call him John), years ago, who wanted a promotion which was slow to materialise.  His response was the opposite of this wait-and-grumble approach.  John started by asking for a meeting with his boss, and used the meeting to express his desire for a promotion and to ask what he would need to do to be eligible for the promotion.  When he listened to everything that his boss told him he realised that the boss was essentially saying, “you need to become more like me”.  John was quiet, thoughtful, purposeful and methodical – unlikely to become the kind of outgoing, alpha male he saw in his boss.

This is the kind of meeting that can stimulate the pattern of thinking described above;  John could have fallen into the pattern of quietly grumbling about how his boss should be different.  He didn’t.  He started to gather information about the way promotions happened inside his organisation and about those people whom his boss had promoted in recent years.  This confirmed his view that he was unlikely to get his desired promotion in his current job and maybe even his current organisation.  He took the view that whilst his boss’s feedback suggested he didn’t have it in him to reach the level of seniority he aspired to, he had faith in his potential to succeed in his own way.  He set out to find an organisation which was better able to recognise his skills and he did, rising steadily in line with his aspirations.

John succeeded because he was willing to examine the realities of his employing organisation rather than to get stuck in a pattern of thinking that things ought to be different and doing nothing himself.  In doing so, he stood firmly in the energy of his own needs and allowed that his original strategy for meeting his needs might not work.  Rather than looking to his boss for the solution, he took responsibility himself.  As one of my coaching colleagues often puts it, you can’t change the others, you can only change yourself.

And in case you’re wondering, the photo of the spider is my own, from my recent stay in the beautiful Oxon Hoath.  Oh!  And I’ve just dropped a line to the BBC via their ‘contact us’ form and highlighted the spelling error in their article and asked if they would be willing to correct it.  If they change it, that’s all for the good.  If they don’t, I will leave their mistake with them – sloppy or not!

Up against conflict? Graceful ways to ease your path

Do you really want it to come to this?

I am back now from a wonderful time at Oxon Hoath in Kent.  My break was deeply restful though I have come back to a busy time, including coaching on Sunday in Harley Street.  It is early days for the Sunday Coaching Clinic and still, I notice how I have been scanning for patterns in what my clients are bringing to our sessions.  I have been wondering what clients will bring that is different from those clients whose coaching is funded by their employing organisations and there are indeed differences as well as similarities.  One theme has popped up which spans both our personal and professional lives – conflict.

Maybe you have some experience of conflict.  It could be the kind of nitty gritty conflict that is part of the day-to-day experience of living together.  (“When will you actually get round to doing the thing you promised to do – moving the lawn/clearing the garage/fixing the shelf etc.?”).  It can be the kind of interpersonal conflict that bedevils both our intimate and our professional relationships (“I wish you’d show some appreciation for the things I do for you!”).  For one client, recently, it was the kind of conflict that can arise at work when two people who both have a role in a project have different ideas about how it should be run (“I thought you had agreed to wait until our meeting so that we could make a decision together, but you’ve gone right ahead and I think what you’ve done is a big mistake!”).

Equally, you may also recognise the roller-coaster of emotions that can come when you are in conflict rather than collaboration.  Perhaps you feel anxious about the consequences of speaking up – worried about how you might be seen, about rocking an already unsteady boat, about fuelling the fire…  Perhaps you feel frustrated by the actions of your partner or colleague – you know you’re on a short fuse and your anger is easily triggered.  Perhaps you feel resentment when you think of the role this other person has played or of the actions you have taken that just aren’t being taken into account.  There’s a risk of conflict and an unproductive conflict at that.

Over the years, I have observed people who manage conflict well and notice how many of them head off conflict a long time in advance.  Today, I thought I’d share just some of the things I have seen them do, in case for you, too, they offer some graceful ways to ease your path:

  • Focus on who wants what:  Some people talk of “needs” and others of “interests”.  This is about getting under the skin of strategies (the “how to” of getting things done) and understanding why a particular approach is important.  This is about empathy and applies as much to you as it does to the other person.  Why do you want to move faster or to slow down?  Why does your colleague want to invite views from John and Gerhardt when you would prefer to seek input from Chris and Faisal?  If you can understand your own needs and the needs of others, you can start to generate ways forward in which everyone’s needs will be met;
  • Reach clear agreements about roles and who will do what:  Conflict can arise when roles or decision-making are unclear.  It can help to agree roles, how you will work together and who will do what.  This can be true in your personal relationships as much as it is at work.  If you’re unhappy that you’re always the person who handles the household bills, for example, then you need to say so – and to make a request of your partner or spouse that would meet your needs more fully.  If you don’t like it that your colleague keeps taking unilateral actions, then it can help to discuss what decisions need to be taken jointly so that you can both feel confident about the progress of a project or initiative;
  • Explain your reasoning and test your assumptions:  It’s easy to assume that your own logic is an example of some universal truth and to assume others will naturally understand your thinking.  It’s also easy to interpret what others say based on your own way of thinking.  This is where misunderstandings occur.  Over the years, I’ve observed how explaining your reasoning and testing your understanding of others’ reasoning helps to head off misunderstandings before they’ve even happened and to smooth a path to a solution that works all round.  “Want to recruit more people like James?  I’m concerned that if we do that without any way of knowing who is bringing in most sales, we may recruit people who are not the most effective – that’s why I want to introduce more effective monitoring before using James (and others like him) as the basis for modelling the behaviours we want to recruit to”.  “When you say ‘stop badgering me’, I’m wondering if you want to know that I’m making a request rather than giving you an order.  Is that right?”
  • Tailor your approach based on what you know of the other person:  I’ve seen people’s effectiveness in influencing others and heading off conflict improve dramatically when they start to speak the language of the person they’re talking to.  You may want to secure a quality of work that will meet the goals for your process improvement but if your boss wants speed, you need to talk the language of speed.  If your colleague wants value for money… you get the gist.  This is about framing a problem or issue in language you know the other person can actually hear;
  • Influence indirectly:  If your conflict – or potential conflict – is with Graham, the answer may be to step back and look at the wider picture.  Who does Graham listen to and why?  These are people you need to get on board.  Which other stakeholders are important?  Talk to them all.  I have seen many skilful influencers go into meetings knowing precisely who thinks what and how likely it is that their proposal will be accepted.  This gives them the opportunity to shape their proposal and present it to gain maximum support.  At home, the same people think about what their spouse or partner really needs and how to engage others to support their partner in meeting their needs without placing themselves in the role of saviour;
  • Take time over important issues – and know the limitations of what’s possible:  Sometimes, you need to know what’s possible now and what might be possible later.  That way you won’t try to force an issue ahead of others’ readiness to hear you.  Equally, for as long as someone is immoveable in adopting a particular position, trying to force them along another route may exacerbate conflict and increase stress.  In this latter case, your question may be “Given that X is true, what’s the right decision for me to take right now?”  X could be anything from a statement from your partner that she’s just not willing to move so that you can take on another new job to the recognition that your boss, because he isn’t yet up to speed with social media, is not going to fund a project to increase your company’s presence in places (Twitter etc.) where your core customer base hangs out.  In this case, recognising what is frees energy up and allows you to take informed decisions.

If you’re trying to navigate conflict right now, I invite you to reflect on these strategies and to try just one or two that might work for you in your current situation.

Please let me know how you get on.

Seven steps towards taming your inner critic (and one sure fire way not to)

Have you noticed how, just when you’re trying to muster a bit of confidence, your inner critic steps in and pulls the rug right out from under your feet?

Perhaps you’ve just started a new job – you’ve had a promotion or moved to a new company.  You’re doing your best to focus on how to succeed in the job and all the while, your inner critic is telling you that you don’t have what it takes, with full and vivid detail of the reasons you’re unlikely to succeed.

Or maybe you’ve taken on new responsibilities at work – they’re everything you’ve been campaigning for and you know you have everything you need to deliver and still, your inner critic is ready to wade in the minute you get what you want with objections and concerns.

It seems there’s no end to the situations in which your inner critic can find fault.  Some are in your professional life and some are in your personal life.  What’s worse, it seems that the closer you come to realising your goals, the more the voice of your inner critic is amplified.  At times, it’s so overwhelming that you’re paralysed with fear and you wonder if you’ve made the right decision.  Maybe you’ve already started to look for the sign marked “exit”.

One common approach to taming your inner critic… and why it doesn’t work

Over the years of dancing with my own inner critic and of working with clients, I have found that the most common approach to taming your inner critic simply doesn’t work.

What’s the approach?  Put simply, it’s to dismiss the concerns of your inner critic – and maybe your inner critic him- or herself – using every means at your disposal.  One way is to use rational persuasion (“You say I can’t do X but I did X last week and it worked really well”).  One way is to dismiss your inner critic with anger, hatred and disdain (“Why won’t you leave me alone?  I’m not listening to you!  You talk such rubbish!”*)  When I ask clients how well these strategies are working for them they tell me, without exception, that they’re not.

Why not?  The answer is simple.  Your inner critic is a guardian for you of particular needs.  The more you ignore your inner critic, the more he or she fears that your needs will not be met… and the more s/he turns up the volume to make sure s/he gets heard.

If you can’t go to battle with your inner critic and win, you may find that the only alternative you can find is a sense of inner collapse.  In this state, you wonder if you really should have taken on the job, you tell yourself you’re bound to fail, you find no way forward.

There is though, a way forward.  You simply need to take a different approach.

Seven steps towards taming your inner critic

Even when the voice of your inner critic is overwhelming, there are ways to move beyond fear to achieve an inner calm.  These are seven steps towards “taming your inner critic”:

  • Step 1, step outside and say hello:  Have you ever noticed how, when your inner critic is active, his thoughts are your thoughts?  His fears are yours?  Especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can help to step out of being the inner critic.  Step out of your inner critic – stand up and shake yourself down, for example, leaving your inner critic behind on the chair.  Or hold out your hand and look at your inner critic – and take a moment to say hello.  Your hello is a way of recognising your inner critic and engaging in dialogue;
  • Step 2, get curious:  Far too often, when you do battle with your inner critic, you lose sight of an important principle – that she loves you and wants to do you good.  Your relationship with your inner critic starts to transform when you start to really understand what she wants for you, so ask her!  Keep asking (“what is it that you really want for me?”) until you get under the skin of particular strategies (“I want you to say no to the job”) to the baseline need she is trying to protect.  This is usually about safety, security… she wants to keep you safe;
  • Step 3, acknowledge your needs:  When you dismiss your inner critic, you arouse his fear that you don’t care about your needs for safety and security so that he redoubles his efforts to protect you.  It helps to let him know that you, too, want to be safe.  No ifs or buts – just let him know that for you, too, safety matters;
  • Step 4, say thank you:  Take time to thank your inner critic for her good intentions.  Thank her for being the guardian of your safety and security throughout your life.  If this sticks in your throat it may help to separate in your mind her good intentions and her ways of trying to meet your needs – there’s no harm in saying that you’ve really struggled with her way of supporting you and still, you’re beginning to understand how much she has always meant well;
  • Step 5, notice his skills:  Your inner critic brings a great deal of skill to the task of taking care of you.  When you try to dismiss him, you’re likely to dismiss his skills… his ability to think ahead and to see all the potential pitfalls, his imagination in conjuring safe alternatives.  The more you notice and acknowledge these skills, the more you can begin to see how it might be helpful to have these skills on your team and to collaborate with your inner critic;
  • Step 6, share with her your other needs:  Your inner critic may be the guardian of your safety and security but you also have other needs – the kind of needs you meet when you take on a promotion, or new responsibilities or, in your personal life, embark on a new relationship or take on a bigger mortgage.  It’s never your needs that are in conflict – only the strategies by which you seek to meet them.  So, when your inner critic has been heard, she may be ready to hear you.  Let her know what other needs you want to meet – over the years, clients have talked about freedom, autonomy, self-fulfilment, intimacy and many more;
  • Step 7, invite collaboration:  When you are confident that you have heard your inner critic’s need for security and that your inner critic has also heard your wider needs, ask him if he would be willing to collaborate so that you find ways to meet all your needs.  When you hear a yes, you have reached a point of departure – a moment where creativity begins.  At this point, you have moved from struggle into a creative embrace of “how can we collaborate to make sure all our needs are met?”

In truth, these steps are not so much about “taming your inner critic” as about building a different relationship with the guardian of your safety and security.  And it is a relationship rather than a once-and-for-all way to rid yourself of fear.  One implication is this – that the more you learn to engage in constructive dialogue with your inner critic, the more you can work with him or her to balance your need for safety with other needs.

(*And in case you’re reading this and looking over your shoulder – pretending you don’t talk to yourself in this way – well, I want to let you know that in my experience, we all do.  Healthy people have a rich inner community of parts, including their inner critic.)

When does your inner critic shout the loudest?  And what has worked best to help you to move out of overwhelm and into inner calm?

Essential lessons from The Apprentice

Neil Clough
Fans of the BBC’s Apprentice were glued to the television last night for the interviews.  The gears were shifted from the fun and games of various tasks (a bit like the kind of assessment days I have been involved in over the years in corporate GB) to close scrutiny of candidates and their business plans.
It soon became clear that it wasn’t looking good for the men.  It was hard to see a way out for Jordan Poulton, whose business plan, it emerged, was for a business owned by someone else with whom he had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.  He was the first to go.  Next, it was Neil Clough, who continued to maintain that his business plan could work despite clear feedback to the contrary from Lord Sugar’s advisers.  Finally, it was Francesca MacDuff-Varley whose spirited performance could not disguise her lack of business savvy.
Of the three candidates to leave this week, none was as hard to let go as Neil Clough, who has looked like a potential winner from the beginning.  As he sometimes does, Lord Sugar expressed his regret at having to say goodbye to him.  On The Apprentice‘s sister (or should I say brother..?) programme, The Apprentice:  You’re Fired, he said that “Neil’s greatest flaw is his inability to listen to sound advice”.  In a way, it doesn’t even matter whether or not the advice was sound – Neil was unable to adjust his approach for any reason.  It could be that listening to sound advice was indeed where it was at.  Equally, it could be that recognising that the people with the power and the ear of Lord Sugar had a view which was different from his own should have been enough to have Neil thinking about how to adapt.
For me, the important issue was not that Neil was unable to listen to sound advice.  No.  The important issue was this:  why was Neil unable to listen to sound advice?  We already knew, before last night’s episode, that Neil saw the death of his father when he was just 18 years old as a defining experience – this is something he shared in an impassioned speech on the business away-day task.  What struck me last night, though, was Neil’s need to succeed in order not to let his father down – or his wife and children, come to that.  To put it another way, Neil’s personal need to succeed – linked to his experience of losing his father – was such that he couldn’t let go of his faith in his business plan, for who would he be then?  There was, simply, too much at stake.  And maybe to put it yet another way, Neil had conflated separate issues (the death of his father, his desire to live up to his father’s expectations, his success on The Apprentice and no doubt more besides).  If you can’t separate your feelings about a past event from what’s happening today you will, at times, act in ways which are not good for you or your business.
Now, please don’t get me wrong.  Our most personal experiences can be a great force for good.  How many charities are borne out of grief and loss which successfully address injustices or provide much-needed support?  How many great leaders are fuelled by the desire to right some wrong or heal some injustice?  To bring this right up to date, I think of Andy Murray’s recent Wimbledon win and its potential to heal the deep sense of loss and emotional scars of the community of Dunblane.  Perhaps the word ‘heal’ is the important word here.  The desire for healing can be a force for good both for an individual and for those whose lives they touch, within business or without.  At the same time, the failure to bring healing where it’s needed can lead to behaviours in the workplace which are dysfunctional both for the individual and for the business.  For me, more than anything else, last night’s episode of The Apprentice shone a light on Neil’s deep need for healing from the painful, early loss of his father.
Neil, in case you’re reading this, I want to express my wish for you.  I hope that you come to understand one day that, no matter what your father wished for you when he was alive, you do not have to be better than anyone else or to succeed every time in order to do your loved ones justice… nor indeed, in order to be loved.  I hope you find self-acceptance such that you can see yourself more fully, knowing that the occasional failures that will beset you take nothing away from who you are.  Indeed, I trust that by developing a deep sense of self-acceptance you will uncover the fullness of your strengths as much as you are able to see and embrace your weaknesses and your failures.
And to others who read this posting I would like to add that  if you see something of Neil in yourself I want to reach out to you, too.  Let your experiences be a force for healing for you and for others – a force for good in the world.