So, you’ve been trying to reach your goals. Perhaps it’s your goal to find a new job. Or to attract new clients, new sales. It might be something personal, like finding a partner or conceiving a child.
But somehow, it isn’t quite happening.
If only you could push a little harder.
You think about what action you need to take next. You identify and plan your next steps. It all seems perfectly logical. Easy even – just a half an hour here, a quick phone-call there.
Easy, yes, but somehow it isn’t quite happening.
You’re not taking the actions. Or you’re taking action but not seeing the results.
The truth is, at the same time, you know you’re exhausted. Your head is full of “shoulds” and some part of you is resisting the sense of obligation that comes with “should”. The very thing you’re doing (or planning to do) precisely to make life easier, more comfortable, more joyful, more tailored to you is leaving you feeling exhausted, unable to rest, more joyless.
You feel the weight on your shoulders and you want to put it down.
Are you listening?
Recently, this was the experience of a client of mine.
Some part of her was pushing, assiduously, forward. Some part of her was yearning for rest. She wanted to make progress towards her goals but somehow she wasn’t taking action. She was yearning for rest but never felt relaxed. “On the one hand…” she was saying, “but on the other hand…”
Is this you, too?
We took time in our coaching to listen. We wanted to connect with the needs she was trying to meet and to explore possibilities for meeting her needs. The more we listened, the more we found that it is possible both to take steps to move forward and to take time to rest.
Actually, we found it was not only possible but also essential.
And there’s more.
As we found a way forward that she could sign up to – that all of her could sign up to – something else popped up.
“Maybe,” she told me, “I need to look at a larger question… not just my next career steps but also the whole of my life.”
In her struggle to carve out her next career move, a more fundamental need was not being heard. It was time to step back from taking steps to make things happen and to ask “What is it that I really want in my life as a whole?” This was a question about every aspect of her life – career, yes, but also leisure, family, location and more – as well as a question about the the weeks, months and years to come.
It was, in short, a time to stop doing and a time to start dreaming.
But how do you dream?
It may seem strange to some, but if you’re used to planning and taking action, it can be hard to know how to dream or even to know how to connect with the dreams you already have. I’m writing this post today because I’d like to offer some simple ways to get started:
Learn from your past (or someone else’s): Has there ever been a time in your past when you had a dream that came true? If you have past experience of conceiving, pursuing and fulfilling your dreams, you already know what happened and can look for moments in the present that are similar to your experience in the past. Did you see it in your mind’s eye? Or have a feeling that something was coming your way? Different people dream in different ways, so tapping into your own experience or getting curious about other people’s can be a valuable source of information about how you dream. The suggestions below are a reflection of the ways in which different people envisage a new and different future;
Taking stock: As a coach, I often begin a coaching assignment by helping clients to take stock using two “coaching-wheels“. The coaching wheel supports self reflection and can help people get started who find dreaming difficult. How content are you, for example, with your professional life? Or your personal relationships? A mark out of ten can be easy to assign and further reflection can help you to explore what’s working in your life and what more you want;
Tracking your emotions: How are you responding to the events of your day, week, month? When do you feel most joyful and alive? When do your energies feel drained. What possibilities excite you? What ideas are joyless and laden with “shoulds” and “oughts”? When you track your emotions in the here and now – when you really pay attention – you begin the process of understanding what you really want in your life;
Listening to the small voice within: Often, when I talk with clients they already know something is off track but are pushing this message away. They may even know what they really want but, because they don’t know how to make it happen, they carry on with life as it is. Sometimes, listening to this inner voice is as simple as saying “yes, I’m ready to listen”. Sometimes, it’s about carving out the kind of unscheduled downtime that allows these messages to come through. A day with no agenda. A walk in the countryside. Time curled up in your arm chair with a notepad and pen;
Cultivating gratitude: To cultivate gratitude is to notice those moments in your life when something meets your needs. It might be something you do, or something someone else does or, simply, something that happens. At first, you may want to dedicate a time to do this, keeping a gratitude diary, for example, which you write in at the end of the day. In my experience, over time, this has morphed into a constant alertness to those things in my life which are most precious to me. I say thank you to myself. I say thank you to others. My personal Facebook Page is now littered with status updates which reflect my gratitude. (These are the ones my youngest nephew thinks are terribly long.) To cultivate gratitude is to become more aware of those things that meet our needs and this, in turn, increases awareness of what we might want more of in future;
Visualise your dreams: A notice board, a notebook or an online application can be a great place to build up a visual image of the things you dream of. What do you see that catches your eye? It may be the different aspects of your life that you are starting to represent or more detail about a particular aspect of your life, from decorating the lounge all the way through to where you want to live or work. It may be photos that catch your attention, or phrases… find a place to bring them together so you can build up a picture of the life you dream of;
Drawing inspiration from others: Who do you most admire or envy? Who – or what – inspires you? Noticing your response to others can also help you to connect with everything that is important, inspiring, joyful or simply yes, that’s it! right for you. This can be about the content of the dream (the thing they dreamt of and made happen) or about their capacity to dream (how they did the dreaming and how they realised their dream).
Why dream? Conceiving the impossible
Right now, my client may not know what she really wants, or how to make it happen. Nonetheless, realities start with a dream. So, as I close, I think of those who have dreamt and whose dreams have come true.
Some of them are clients of mine, men and women who have made radical career changes, who have found the sweet spot where work and family can coexist, who have realised the life they were leading was not for them and moved towards something that was more congruent or fitting.
Some of them have held dreams for society at large – dreams of inclusion and social cohesion, dreams of justice or peace, dreams for the environment we live in, dreams for our health, wealth or well-being.
All of them made something happen because, first, they imagined its existence.
If, like my client, your struggling to make something happen, could it be your time, also, to stop doing and start dreaming?
Last month, I started to write a post for publication before Christmas. Finally, I’m publishing it today.
At the time, it was about two weeks since I started to experience some low-level, lingering lurgy. It had the irritating quality of being not quite serious enough for me to take time out and not quite, well, not serious enough for me to perform at full strength.
It’s interesting to notice that this lurgy coincided with some very difficult world events. Friday, 13th November, brought vicious attacks on the men, women and children of Paris. And as if this were not bad enough, the French president responded by launching attacks of their own. Belgium staged a lockdown. In the UK, the House of Commons passed a vote which was swiftly followed by targeted attacks on Syria. And there was more, much more.
More locally, my value-for-money courier company had failed to collect on the day I booked them for. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. Again. I wish I could say that I managed my inner state with grace but I didn’t. I responded by feeling frustrated and angry. Again.
Fortunately, Christmas brought rest, plenty of rest. Even so, I notice that for many people stepping into the New Year, there’s an uncomfortable gap between the way they are feeling and the pressure they feel to bounce back into the New Year full of energy and New Year’s resolutions.
What’s grinding you down?
I wonder if you, too, are feeling out of sorts as you read this. You’re not alone.
Perhaps Christmas was stressful for you, highlighting stresses in your family and personal relationships or the need to “go public” about your pending (or recent) divorce. Perhaps you have experienced major life events, such as bereavement or redundancy. Perhaps, like me, you are deeply affected by major world events.
Perhaps you reached the end of the year exhausted after working intensely on a number of fronts. Christmas was far from enough to restore you. What’s more, you still face the need to balance your work with your commitments to friends and family, to organisations you belong to outside of work, even to maintain and manage your home.
Perhaps you face uncertainties in your personal and professional life including potential reorganisations (again), health scares (for you or for members of your family), the uncertainty of challenges in your marriage or of children transitioning to the next phase.
Perhaps you find yourself bumping up against the same problem, again and again, in some corner of your life. This could be the repeated conversations with your noisy neighbour or the demands of a difficult boss or the misunderstandings with colleagues in department X.
It may even be that you feel weary as you face the same issues again and again and again… and not just one but all of the issues that create a cumulative cocktail of challenges.
It may be that even reading this list leaves you feeling yet more out of sorts.
Favourite ways to stay out of sorts
If you are feeling out of sorts, it may be worth asking yourself how you’re keeping yourself in a state of imbalance. Here are some of my favourite ways to do this – do you recognise any of them as yours, too?
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I keep pushing through. I keep doing the things that need to be done. I keep telling myself I will get better soon… things will get better soon. I keep thinking that if I just keep doing what I’m doing, something will change;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming others for ongoing problems. I look at what other people are doing that is causing the problem and I feel frustrated. I analyse what other people should do differently. I look to other people to make changes;
Sometimes, I keep myself in a state of imbalance by blaming myself. Perhaps I blame myself for the difficult things that are happening in my life (the misunderstandings must be my fault, right?). Perhaps I blame myself for my failure to rise above the experiences I am having;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I imagine a future that may or may not happen and treat it as if it were true. When I think about what could go wrong in a conversation or generalise from current difficulties to all the other difficult experiences I have had I am creating a false reality rather than connecting with what really is true;
I keep myself out of balance when I take responsibility that’s not mine to take, putting time and effort into sorting out problems that belong elsewhere;
I keep myself in a state of imbalance when I fail to face the truth of the issues affecting me. The biggest failure is my failure to look the truth squarely in the face and recognise that something I want to change just isn’t going to change so that I continue to behave as though this change is both desirable and possible.
And whilst I’m doing these three things there’s one thing I am failing to do. I am failing to acknowledge and bring care to my own experience. And because I am failing to notice just what’s going on for me, the experience continues.
Bringing care and restoring our equilibrium
In the midst of writing this posting, more than one conversation I had with clients made me reflect on what we can do to bring care and restore our sense of balance.
One conversation was rooted in the recognition that our sense of imbalance comes largely from the way we are reacting to events. Restoring balance is as much about shaping a more effective inner response as it is about choosing what actions to take out in the world.
Here are just some of the things that help me and my clients to bring care to our experiences and restore equilibrium:
Whether we are experiencing ongoing exhaustion or a sudden surge of emotion, it’s so easy to let our emotions “run the show” or to push back with self-blame or -judgement. Instead, it’s good to check in with ourselves – to notice what feelings are coming up and ask what we need right now. When I take time to do this with love, I feel calmer, more settled as heightened feelings subside;
One of my dearest friends responds in challenging times by reminding himself that they are only temporary. Somehow, knowing that intense feelings or ongoing exhaustion will, ultimately, go away helps him to “hang in there” when times are tough;
I find it helpful to notice what thoughts I am having and to ask myself “Is this really true?” Is it really true that I have to keep ploughing on, for example? Is it true that I am on my own in dealing with a person or situation? This kind of curiosity helps me to separate what I know, objectively, to be true from the hidden beliefs and assumptions which sometimes guide my approach;
Sometimes, the process of asking questions reveals something that is true and that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps, for example, you need to acknowledge the real pressure you are under to deliver more than you can possibly achieve in your contracted work hours. Perhaps you need to acknowledge that, no, you don’t have any support from your line manager. Facing and acknowledging difficult truths opens up the possibility of taking action based on knowing what is rather than knowing what “should be”. Taking action from a place of awareness is an important way to restore balance;
As you connect with your feelings and needs and as you acknowledge the truth of your experience, it becomes easier to identify and take practical actions to move things forward. If you’ve identified an assumption that you need to do something “right now”, for example, you can check it out. It’s always wonderful to me to discover that the thing that’s being asked for is not needed until next week. Equally, when you’ve faced up to the lack of real support from your boss you can make requests for the support you need or find other ways to meet your needs, such as looking for a mentor or coach or starting the process of looking for a job which affords you the support you long for;
When you’re exhausted and overwhelmed or triggered in the moment, the solution may seem enormous. In practice, maintaining or restoring balance often depends on identifying small practical steps. Far too much work on your plate? This may be a sign that you need to delegate more rather than a sign you need to work harder, for example. One colleague often asks “What’s the smallest and easiest step I can take right now to move things forward?”
Sometimes, examining our thoughts also reveals a disconnect between what we know is objectively true and what we experience when exhausted, triggered or overwhelmed. Think you don’t have what it takes? Objectively, you know of your successes and yet, somehow, this knowing goes out of the window when your emotions are high or your energy levels are low. Over time, it’s possible to design a practice that helps you to feel the truth of your successes (or whatever you need to know) even in times of stress. Taking time to write, for example, can help you to capture your successes – what happened, how you felt, what feedback you received and more.
I hope you find something in this posting that helps you to restore your sense of balance. Equally, if you’re wondering if and how coaching might help you to restore balance, please contact me directly to arrange to talk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I thought of Carrie again recently. I’ll come back to the “why”. First though, I want to touch on something that coaches, and their clients, constantly grapple with:
Pondering what return you’ll get from your investment in coaching?
When you make an investment in coaching – time, money and more – you want to know that it will be worthwhile. This is true whether you are seeking coaching for yourself or sponsoring coaching for someone in your team.
Will coaching help you with the immediate issues that have made you consider coaching as an option in the first place? You want to know.
Will coaching lead to benefits in the long-term that make the investment worthwhile? You want to know.
At the same time, coaching holds no guarantees. There’s no guarantee that coaching will deliver the solutions you are hoping for. There’s no guarantee that coaching will deliver any solutions. Coaching, as an “act of faith” remains an expensive option.
What proof is there of the long-term benefits of coaching?
Coaches, too, grapple with this issue.
We look for studies which demonstrate the impact of coaching. They’re out there but they’re not always easy to find and, quite quickly, they can look out of date.
Sometimes, I prefer to let clients speak about the results over time from their investment in coaching. Carrie told me at the time what benefits she had from her investment in coaching with me. In recent days, she’s been kind enough to add a few words about the long term impact of coaching.
This is what she had to say:
When I first started working with you, I was working flat out and trying to make myself available to everyone – clients, team members and others – all the time. Paradoxically, the more I tried to make myself available to people, the more I was starting to resent people for stealing my time. Also, I was riding the roller-coaster of other people’s emotions. A client would be unhappy (or just express something in a way that brought us all down) and I would dive down. A project would go well and the world was a sunny happy place. I was feeling exhausted and I knew the approach I was taking wasn’t sustainable.
Like many people, I’m a bundle of sharp contrasts – they conflict all the time which causes wasted energy/effort or even pain. With Dorothy, I learnt to unpick these. They all want something good for me. If I can identify how each is trying to serve me, I can end the conflict. Now I understand, for example, what dangers my desire to be available and my concern to protect my time are warning me against and how they’re trying to help me. And I can set and communicate boundaries that don’t cause inconvenience for me or anyone else.
Another massive lesson for me was to take responsibility for myself only – one I share with other people all the time. Clearly defining what I’m responsible for and what I’m not (you need to keep doing this ALL the time!) changes the energy completely and removes the emotional weight of running a service business. Dorothy enabled me to disentangle myself from all of this and establish what I am responsible for which helps me focus effort on what I can actually change and lift the weight from my shoulders of other people’s responses which are their choice.
I didn’t think it was possible to learn something completely new or to massively grow in an area of little experience. For me that was coaching and developing others. I had limited beliefs about what others were capable of so I neither thought they could transform nor that I could help them do it. I learnt by doing that actually, I could change/develop/grow/learn and that opened up a new world. All these people in my extended team could also develop amazing new talents and I could help them do it! And that’s exactly what happened.
The work we did together had a massive impact on me at the time. Learning to coach members of my team meant that they were able to fulfil their potential more fully and I could delegate to them. My role changed quite quickly. I went from being key to the provision of services to take on a leadership role and, quite quickly, to become CEO. This opened up opportunities to do other things, such as lecturing for the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and founding 50th Generation, an incubator for meaningful, growing businesses.
It’s easy to say that, as a result of our work together (and other learning with other learning partners), I became a different person. I think it’s more truthful, though, to say that our work together helped me to become a more effective, fun and joyful version of myself.
Entrepreneur, business grower, investor, communications specialist, guest lecturer
Investing in your life and career
I thought of Carrie because I am currently putting together information about a coaching group I will be offering in the next few days for people who want to make their next career move – people who are seeking promotion within their current organisation or seeking to move from one organisation and another. If you want to find out more, about this, click here.
Carrie’s experience demonstrates the kind of progress people make as a result of investing in their personal development. Her testimonial exemplifies the kind of things people learn in coaching. It also exemplifies the kind of results people can look forward to in the short-, medium- and long-term.
There’s a curious thing, too, about coaching.
Carrie’s testimonial is a reflection of just how extraordinary she is.
At the same time, in my experience, successful coaching demonstrates just how ordinary it is to be extraordinary.
I have been somewhat parochial in the last couple of weeks in my approach to the news. On 10th February, the news reached me of the death of someone whose work has enriched my life immeasurably: Marshall Rosenberg. Marshall was the creator of an approach to communication which he called Compassionate or Nonviolent Communication, a passionate advocate for social change, a great teacher and author of a number of books, including his core text Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
Then, too, there has been a flurry of commentary about Sir Simon Rattle. Journalists have been speculating for months now that Rattle, whose tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is due to come to an end in 2018, will take up the post of Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. (This matters to me because, in my spare time, I sing with the London Symphony Chorus.) Rattle has spoken openly about his belief that London lacks a world-class concert hall and some have speculated that he is holding out for a commitment to build this hall as a condition of taking up the post with the LSO. It seems the politicians have been listening: in recent days, there have been public statements from various politicians.
There has been wider news. There was an attack on a café in Copenhagen, which was hosting a discussion about free speech. Three teenage girls left the UK, apparently to travel to Syria, raising concerns about their safety. British football fans were caught on camera in Paris, chanting their love of racism. There have been discussions about the Greeks in Europe. In the UK, election fever is starting to build.
In the UK, talk of deflation has been carefully framed and, largely, played down. Still, talking to friends and family, and to clients in the privacy of my offices in Harley Street, I am repeatedly reminded of just how different the business environment is right now compared to ten years ago. The possibility of a round of deflation is one more nail in the coffin of hope for many businesses.
Is your organisation struggling to weather difficult times?
Businesses continue to struggle: yours, too, may be struggling. It can be hard to lead in an organisation that’s grappling with change.
As a leader, you have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, when many things you used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted, such as year on year improvements in sales and in what you can charge your clients.
The decisions you make have an impact on large numbers of people, from staff in your own organisation, suppliers, their friends, family and communities. This can leave you feeling torn, uncertain, though you try hard to maintain the calm authority your staff expect of you.
What’s more, you know your own employment is at risk and your prospects of career advancement are diminished. At no other time have you given more, been more tested, with less opportunity for any kind of reward.
How do you weather such difficult times?
Turning the screw on under-performance
It can be easy to think, in difficult times, that you need to use more force to achieve results.
This was the approach that Sheldon took.
Sheldon was a sales manager in a time when sales were sluggish. Under pressure from his own line manager, Sheldon shared targets with members of the sales team and spelled out the consequences of not achieving those targets. The consequences for the company were significant, he said, and everyone’s jobs were at risk.
Sheldon piled the pressure on individual team members, too. One team member was new and struggling. This team member, Ash, had made a flying start on joining the team but his results had been patchy following a down-turn in the economy. What’s more, he was finding it hard to balance his core work with his contribution to a new initiative in the team.
Sheldon kept a close eye on Ash, giving detailed feedback on every failing he could find. Ash was frustrated and devastated when he was copied in to an e-mail from Sheldon to the company’s MD, highlighting a particular problem and attributing it to Ash. If only his manager had checked the facts, he would have known the problem lay elsewhere.
The thing is, the more Sheldon gave feedback, the more Ash’s performance deteriorated.
In his article, Goleman lays out research which identifies six different leadership styles and explains their impact on the performance of those being led. This research suggests that the most effective leaders use a range of styles when managing their employees. It also shows how the most effective leaders do this consciously, because they understand that they need to do what’s most effective in a given situation.
Goleman’s article (which he develops more fully in his book The New Leaders) shows that, over time, the use of four styles in particular is more likely to build a climate in which team members can perform.
There’s one thing that Goleman doesn’t mention in his article and that Sheldon didn’t know either. Sheldon’s choice of leadership style was largely driven by fear.
Sheldon’s senior management were driven by fear of the consequences for the company of a whole if the sales team did not perform. They passed their fear right on to Sheldon, together with the responsibility to find a way to increase sales.
Their approach intensified Sheldon’s fear and Sheldon lacked the skills to turn down the dial on his emotions in order to reflect on how best to handle the situation. Like his own managers, Sheldon passed his fear right on.
Ash was already anxious when his performance started to drop and he didn’t know how to respond. What’s more, he could see that an initiative in the sales team, designed to give better service to some of the company’s smaller client organisations, was asking members of the sales team, repeatedly, to be in two places at once. He’d tried to give feedback to Sheldon but Sheldon seemed to be on a mission to prove to Ash that he was not up to much.
Ash was struggling to maintain his confidence and self esteem.
So was Sheldon.
So, too, were members of the senior management team.
About Marshall Rosenberg
On the day I heard that Marshall Rosenberg had died, I noticed my heart opening and the sensations in my body. I knew it was not a day to bypass my experience but a day to take time out to be with everything that was in my heart, including the great sense of gratitude and the feelings of love.
Following the announcement of his death, colleagues at the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) set up a call for people to share their memories, to celebrate and mourn together. Intended to last a few hours it went on for seven days. A group set up on Facebook has become a living memorial to this towering giant of a man.
Early in his life, Rosenberg was struck by the various forms of violence he encountered growing up in Detroit. He went on to study psychiatry and obtained a doctorate before going on to develop the approach to communication which has become known as Nonviolent Communication, with the aim of widely disseminating much-need communication skills. During his life he worked widely around the world, bringing healing to many individual people and to troubled, often war-torn, communities.
It’s a testament to Rosenberg’s leadership that he set up a Center for Nonviolent Communication as a way to spread his approach and worked with many people around the world to share his skills. He leaves behind many people who are themselves experienced in training others in NVC and in mediating conflict.
At the heart of his work, Rosenberg emphasised paying attention to feelings and needs so that we can find ways to meet our own needs whilst also respecting and contributing to the needs of others. The disciplines of NVC – the process he described for communication – are especially powerful when they are rooted in love and in an intention, where there is fear, to find our way back to love.
I owe much to Marshall Rosenberg and to the approach he developed. I am particularly grateful to the clarity of intention I have, as a result of studying with him and with others in the community, to live my life from a place of love.
Leadership with heart
This posting is, for now, my own testimonial to Marshall Rosenberg and an expression of my own love for and gratitude to him.
At the same time, I am aware of the power of love as an underpin to the kind of leadership Goleman describes in his article, Leadership That Gets Results.
Marshall advocated separating our observations from our judgements and Goleman highlights the need to step back and assess what is needed in each situation we face as a leader.
As a leader, Sheldon’s experience started to change when he learnt to notice his emotion and to bring care to his fears before choosing how to respond to each situation he faced.
The experience of his staff was also changed by this.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed selling things on eBay.
In recent days, however, I’ve been grappling with a fair degree of frustration. On Tuesday, I booked a courier to collect a parcel on Wednesday.
The courier didn’t come.
On Thursday I was out and left it with my neighbours. I checked in with them on Thursday evening.
The courier hadn’t come.
Friday? I was at home in the morning.
The courier didn’t come.
I had a meeting in the afternoon and left the parcel with my neighbours. (Again.) I collected the parcel from my neighbours on my way home. The courier made his first attempt to collect soon after. “Everybody’s complaining today,” he told me. I knew I was not alone.
I was all the more frustrated because this has happened a number of times in recent weeks and my attempts to engage the company concerned have generally been met with an apology and a request that I deliver the parcel to them.
Are you working for your worst boss ever?
Working for a difficult boss is a subject that comes up repeatedly. If you’re working for your worst boss ever, you may already recognise some parallels with my courier experience.
Your boss is the boss, right? You expect him or her to do the things bosses do.
You expect your boss to clearly define what he or she wants of you. He doesn’t.
You expect your boss to support you in shaping an agenda for your part of the business and to help you to gain support for important initiatives. But you can’t get time in your boss’s diary or you face a wall when you put your ideas forward.
You expect your boss to organise herself to be effective. You expect leadership from your boss. But the last thing you get from your boss is good, sound leadership.
You expect the boss to provide support and coaching to help you become more effective in your current role or prepare for your next role. But all you get is criticism when you don’t do things his way. (And how the hell are you supposed to know what his way is? He certainly doesn’t tell you.)
Perhaps you try making requests of your boss or giving feedback. He may agree with your assessment of the situation but nothing changes. She may take offence at your feedback.
Over time, you feel more and more frustrated. Perhaps you feel anxious. Maybe, if your boss is super critical of you, you lose confidence. Your performance starts to slide. Or maybe you find yourself increasingly filling the gap. Others approach you rather than seeking help from your manager. Or you start to shape the agenda, to do the influencing, to make things happen.
What Ben knew
Recently, I met someone who had made quite an art out of working for difficult bosses. I was intrigued to learn more.
The first thing he told me intrigued me most of all.
It hadn’t always been that way.
Early in his career, he had set out to change a difficult boss. He was confident that his perceptions of his manager were correct and felt sure that if he only raised his concerns at more senior levels, something would be done to address the boss’s behaviour.
In a way, he told me, he got lucky. His boss’s boss was sympathetic to his concerns. At the same time, she also highlighted the risks of taking on someone who was so powerful within the organisation. “You can’t change the others,” she told him. “You can only change yourself.”
Ben (let’s call him Ben) became curious about the possibilities of what he could achieve by focusing on what he could do rather than focussing on how his boss should be different.
In his first experience, for example, he recognised that his manager had a lot of power in the organisation and a strong desire to look good. Ben learned to make the most of his boss’s powerful position by working with him to develop initiatives that moved the organisation forward. “Whatever his limitations” he told me, “I always treated him with the utmost respect. I shared ideas with him and explored the implications with him. Quite quickly, I realised I had to start small if I wanted to get him on board. The effect was to create a pathway towards the next small initiative and the next one and the next one. I gave credit to my boss whenever I could and, quite quickly, he started to take the credit for the way he had encouraged me. Once this happened, he started to sing my praises around the organisation so that we both looked good.”
I asked him if this kind of strategy had always worked for him.
“No,” he told me. “There are times when I look at a situation and ask myself what I can achieve by adjusting my own behaviour and what changes I can make. In one job, I gave feedback to my boss and he acknowledged all the issues I raised with him – and then did nothing at all to address them. After I’d had this conversation with him several times I thought hard about my next steps and decided that I needed to accept the situation or, if I couldn’t accept the situation, I needed to accept that I couldn’t accept the situation. At that stage, I knew it was time for me to move on.”
Ben had learnt something I still find difficult. Eckhart Tolle summed it up like this: “When you complain you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
You could also put it this way: “When you expect your boss to manage you, you make yourself a victim. You need to start managing your boss. Accept that your boss is the way s/he is, do what you can to transform your relationship with your boss, or leave your boss. All else is madness.”
What struck me about Ben was not that he turned a blind eye to the weaknesses and failings of his line managers. No. He was curious about his bosses’ strengths and weaknesses.
He did, though, give up the word “should”: he stopped telling himself that his line manager should be doing all the things that good bosses do.
My experience with my courier was a reminder that, whatever views I might have about my courier and what they should be doing, they were not.
Making your peace with working for the worst boss ever
The courier should have turned up on Wednesday but it didn’t.
I have already tried to attract attention and get the help I needed.
I’ve used the on-line chat facility and talked to people in Mumbai.
I’ve tried tweeting the UK team.
I tried writing to the courier’s Head of Customer Service.
I got no reply.
Because the issues with this courier’s service have been repeated, I spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
And then I looked hard at my courier’s standard Terms and Conditions.
I was surprised to discover that, as far as the courier is concerned, the service starts once their courier has collected the parcel. (How weird is that?!) What’s more, they take no responsibility for events beyond their control, including mechanical failure. (In short, if the courier’s vehicle breaks down, they won’t collect.)
The thing is, I realised that my courier isn’t going to change.
I thought about the reasons I use this particular courier and I knew they still stand. At their best, this courier provides a good standard of service at a price that suits my customers on eBay.
I decided to add a few words to my listings on eBay – my own Terms and Conditions – to alert my clients to the possibility of delay.
And, having done this, I felt at peace.
If you’re still waiting for your boss to change you’re doing what I do when I get cross when the courier doesn’t come. Of course it’s logical to expect my courier to come on the day scheduled. It’s what couriers do.
But all couriers are not equal and neither are all bosses.
Instead, you will be at your most effective – and peaceful – when you take a long hard look at the boss you have and ask yourself, “Where do I go from here?”
There’s been a bit of a theme recently amongst my coaching clients. Come to that, there’s been a bit of a theme amongst friends, too. People are on the move… looking for a new job.
A client has taken redundancy from his employer of some twenty years and is wondering whether to seek a similar job elsewhere and, if not, what else might beckon.
A young friend is looking for a job that matches her skills and preferences. She’s not sure where it exists. She’s not sure where to find it.
A friend is aware that he’s done what he came to do in his current role and wants to find his next challenge. He can see it’s not easily available in his current organisation .
Are you looking for your next job – and struggling?
Maybe you love your current job but struggle with the quality of leadership from above. You’d like it to change. It’s not changing. Slowly you’re realising that you need to put up and shut up – or pack your bags and move on.
Maybe you have done everything you came to do in your current job and can see that there isn’t an opportunity in your current organisation that matches your skills or leaves you with a glad heart and ready to go.
Maybe you feel a tension in your current role between those things that really excite you and those things that are most important to your boss. You want to be doing work that fulfils you as well as doing a good job for your employer.
Maybe you’ve closed a door and want to open a new one. You know you could find the same job again in another organisation. You’re wondering if you can find something, at this stage in your life, that draws on more of who you are.
Before you start applying for jobs
Peter was disappointed at the poor response when he started to apply for jobs. He had taken care to write a CV that he thought would appeal to potential employers. It was clear he was a seasoned professional with a string of achievements scattered throughout his career.
Peter was also assiduous in looking for jobs, signing up to job boards, scanning papers, talking with recruitment agents in his field. His search for his next job was starting to take so much of his time it felt like a second job.
He was getting some response and had been called to interviews. However, despite his significant investment in applying for jobs and attending interviews, he wasn’t making the second cut.
What’s more, although he’d been to a number of interviews, he had yet to feel really excited about any of the jobs he’d applied for.
What was going wrong? Peter was spending too much of his time trying to appeal to potential employers and not enough time thinking about what he needed in a job to make it something he could gladly sink his teeth into.
He needed to know more about his ideal job. He needed to find out where his ideal job might exist. Only then could he start to make his investment in applying for jobs really count.
First steps to finding the job that’s right for you
Working with clients at my coaching clinic in Harley Street, I have enjoyed helping people to identify next steps that are uniquely tailored to each person. I thought I’d share some of them with you. As you read, I invite you to ask yourself if any of these actions is right for you as a next step to finding the job that’s right for you:
Jaspar had a broad idea of the field he wanted to work in and also what he thought he could contribute in his chosen field. However, he didn’t know what organisations might offer the kind of job he wanted and his description of what he wanted was so vague that people were struggling to help him. I invited him to write a single statement which crystallised – for himself and others – what he really wanted. Initially, he asked friends for feedback about how clear his statement was. Quite soon, he was able to use it to ask people where he might find the kind of job he most wanted.
Henry was quite clear about the kind of job she wanted and wanted to know if her CV was selling her as the right candidate for her ideal job. I invited her to write a summary statement at the start of her CV that would make it clear to a potential employer what problems, in their organisation, she most wanted to solve. Her revised CV started to attract more interest from headhunters and potential employers. More than ever before, she found that she was finding her way to the right kind of conversations about opportunities which matched her ideal.
When Navim wanted to explore new directions I borrowed from a friend who had trodden the same uncertain path. I asked Navim to write down all the the things that he most enjoyed doing – the things he would love to spend his time doing if only he could find a way to make them pay. His list provided a basis for exploration into options that would give him financial ease and security whilst also gladdening his heart.
After roughly six years of blogging I am writing today for the first time in seven weeks – so much for writing at least one blog posting per week!
It’s been an intensive period. I hope it means that our difficult economic climate is picking up a bit. In my business, this means “delivery” – juggling client assignments, moving from one area of activity to another (coaching, leadership assessment, executive development…), travel (Stockholm, Munich, London…)
I am reminded of the insistent beat that underpins the song by Queen, Under Pressure. It is powerful precisely because it mimics the heart under pressure, adrenalin-laden, without pause. It’s a song that has often been in my mind in recent weeks.
Are you feeling the pressure?
If you’re taking time to read this article, you probably aren’t, right now, “under the cosh”. At the same time, you’re probably all too familiar with feeling under pressure.
You know, too, that when times are tough – demanding or difficult, frantic or frightening, irritating or intense – you’re probably not at your best. Whilst some people may claim to thrive under pressure, we all face kinds of pressure that we find hard.
You may even be thinking this: that pressure is a way of life for you rather than a temporary event. Or perhaps the pressure has been going on for so long that you’ve stopped noticing and you’re just getting on with it.
If it is, if you are, you may well be placing your health, your well-being and your performance (yes, your performance) at work at risk.
Coming off the rails
As it happens, one of the things that has kept me busy in recent weeks has been working with a colleague to help upwards of 60 leaders understand their personal motives, values and behaviours – including the way they behave under pressure – using the Hogan suite of psychometric tests.
The thing is, we all have our own ways of feeling the pressure.
We all have our own ways of responding to the pressures we feel.
One of the reasons Hogan has established such a strong reputation at senior leadership levels is because these tests recognise that, under pressure, some of the behaviours that fuel our success can become strengths overplayed.
Suddenly, we’re at risk of derailment.
This is valuable information for organisations at the point of recruitment. It’s also valuable for you to know in your role as a leader. Wouldn’t you want to know if you’re at risk of derailment as a leader?
Have you noticed how, under pressure, you have a particular way of responding? Have you even wondered why you respond in that way? (And why others don’t?)
We feel the pressure most when we face situations that are like those we struggled with when we were very young. And when we do, we are most likely to use strategies, quite unconsciously, that we adopted at a very early stage in our lives.
Arthur, for example, lost his job as a senior manager because he failed to manage his own patterns of behaviour when he followed his old boss to a new organisation. Arthur respected his boss highly and they had worked well together. In his new organisation, though, he reported indirectly to his old boss via a new line manager whom he found difficult and for whom he had little respect. His old boss urged him to treat his line manager with respect and to recognise his long-standing contribution to the organisation and his power – however ill-founded – within it.
Arthur’s resentment started to build. He quietly gave priority to assignments from his old boss over the tasks delegated to him by his new line manager. Others, including his line manager, noticed the delays. One day, without warning, his line manager called him into the office and told him that his services were no longer required.
It didn’t have to be that way for Arthur. It doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Bringing a mindful approach when you’re under pressure
More than anything else, two things trigger our sense of feeling under pressure.
Firstly, we feel the pressure when something we experience is at odds with our most deeply held values.
Take a moment to think about this. When was the last time you felt deep, deep emotion – be it anger, or love, irritation, or gratitude? What happened to trigger the emotion? What need was met? Or violated?
Secondly, we feel the pressure when our own underlying confidence or self esteem is such that we worry about our performance.
Notice how you felt when you last made a mistake, for example, or when you feared you might make a mistake. How did you feel, too, about the possibility, under pressure, that your staff might make mistakes?
How did you respond to your feelings?
It’s easy to buy the story you have in such moments, the thoughts that are triggered when we feel under pressure and all the feelings that come with them. This is, after all, what Daniel Goleman has called the Amygdala hijack, when the pressure of the situation triggers all sorts of responses in one of the oldest parts of our brain.
It’s harder, much harder, to simply say hello to our thoughts and feelings… to notice what’s kicking off inside us and to give empathy to those parts of ourselves that are triggered and active at a particular moment in time. To do this, is to begin to develop our emotional intelligence as leaders.
It’s harder still to notice how, in some situations, we are not alone in feeling the pressure. Two people, feeling the pressure, can both behave from a place of stress rather than from a place of mindfulness.
Paying attention to how you respond when you’re under pressure and noticing what things are most likely to trigger this response opens up the possibility of managing your response, avoiding a derailment and becoming more effective in your role as a leader.
(Oh! And yes, life becomes less stressful and more enjoyable, too.)
After the storm
Arthur, frustrated by his new line manager, confused the map with the territory. He thought his view of his new boss was objective and indisputable and maybe he was even right.
What he failed to notice was his own pattern of thinking and his habitual responses. What he also missed was the opportunity to choose a different – and more effective – response.
As I sit and write, I can feel huge empathy for Arthur. Most people, at senior level, are at risk of derailment as a leader, though the form this can take varies from person to person. What’s more, the strategies we develop in childhood, as ineffective as they are, can be hard to spot and harder still to change.
We do, though, get to choose. Do we want to be aware? To catch our patterns in action and begin the process of changing them? Or to we prefer to say “It’s just who I am”?
This, though, opens up a whole new area for exploration…
I was on my way home last Thursday evening when a headline in the Evening Standard caught my eye: “Recovery takes time, says PM”. A short article spoke of how the closure of two of the last three deep coal mines overshadowed a tour by Prime Minister David Cameron of the regions. The article did not state which regions, though in present-day UK “regions” is often code for “outside London”.
The headline had a resonance for me which was probably not intended by the author at a time when I feel particularly tired. I have been all too aware that, just as some of the challenges of recent months are over and just as it’s time to get back on track… just, even, as some juicy new opportunities are opening up, the weariness and the emotion I feel are close to the surface.
The thing is, I know I am not alone.
When the weariness of times past collides with opportunities to step into a new future
The recession, long and deep – biting, even – has brought with it many hardships. We’re told the economy is looking up though you may not be convinced – yet. You know, though, that it’s time to put your best foot forward… even at the same time as you yearn for rest.
Perhaps you’ve struggled to maintain your sense of perspective as you’ve sought to maintain a job in the midst of repeated rounds of redundancies. As a leader, you’ve probably had to play a role in reshaping activities, designing out valued jobs and even breaking the bad news to equally valued people. You’ve survived what looks like the last round and it’s time to prove to your bosses that you are worth keeping. At the same time, you are physically and emotionally drained.
Maybe you’ve secured a job after a period of redundancy. You may even have secured a job at a level to match the job you lost (though this is not guaranteed). You’ve noticed how the people who called when you were in a job stopped calling when you lost your job (though you’ve not let that stop you from seeking out and pursuing new opportunities.) Now you’ve succeeded and it’s time to put your best foot forward and show what you can bring. At the same time, now you’ve got a job, your body is screaming at you – you need to rest.
Perhaps you are recovering from illness. Maybe a short, sharp burst of something not-too-serious or a long and painful bout of something you could not ignore. You’ve had the time off work and everyone’s waiting for you to make up for lost time. Except that, in truth, you’re still recovering. You still need to take things gently.
Maybe you have experienced something that is completely independent of our global economic woes. You have lost a loved one – a parent, a partner or even a much-loved child. You have taken compassionate leave and said goodbye to the person you loved (maybe, even, hated) so much. The thing is, your colleagues are expecting you to get back to work but you know that you are only just beginning the process of grieving.
I wonder if you are experiencing anything similar – when the need to rest assaults you just as you feel the pressure to put your best foot forward.
Personal lessons in how not to
I can’t claim superior insight when it comes to looking after myself.
When my friend Sarah (let’s call her Sarah) was in crisis last year I did what I could to support her. (I wrote about the experience here on my blog under the heading Preventing employee suicide.) I have no regrets about the role I played… and still, I under-estimated the emotional and physical toll that such an experience would have on me.
When, soon after, I found myself on the receiving end of some heavy-handed action in a context I won’t name, I did what I felt was best both for me and for my colleagues in that context. I have no regrets about making a stand for an approach in which everyone’s needs mattered… and still, it happened just as I needed to recover from my first experience and added to my physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
At Christmas, when I needed to rest, I said yes to a few things too many and no to a few things too few.
If you’re self-employed, anything you take on away from your work can easily eat into your work. As the year started, I was acutely aware of the need to re-focus and I’m glad of the opportunities that are opening up for me as a result. At the same time, I notice how much I am – even now – in need of rest.
Learning some lessons from my clients in how to move towards recovery
When I trained as a coach my trainers (the wonderful Ian McDermott and Jan Elfline) counselled against seeking to be perfect before coaching others. “Your clients”, they said, “will bring issues to work on that you will recognise as your own”.
In recent days, I’ve been reflecting on the things I can see so easily when working with clients and which have eluded me in my own situation. These are some things I notice:
People struggle most when they resist the truth of how things are: Lost your job and still trying to live the life you could afford as an employee? Grieving the loss of a loved-one and yet believing you should be working at your old rate of 120%? Whereas we struggle when we resist the bare truth of our situation, we can be infinitely adaptable once we notice and accept the way things are. One truth that can nurture and support us is this – whatever your situation, you’re not the only one.
We are most attached to doing things in a particular way when we lack awareness of what needs we’re trying to meet: Want to prove your worth by landing the next big job? Want to meet your need for acceptance by bringing in the best sales results ever? I’ve noticed how people can be most attached to the goals they have set themselves when they are least honest or aware about why they want to meet them. Even if grabbing the monthly sales trophy does bring a measure of acceptance, your life might be less stressful when you know it’s not the only way. Understanding why it’s important to us to achieve goals x, y and z opens up new possibilities in terms of how we achieve those outcomes we most desire.
Self-care is an essential part of recovery: Sometimes, the body gives us clear signals that we need to rest. We know that. What’s more, if we don’t attend to our need for self care, the body will probably give us louder signals – or more painful. We know that, too. But there’s more. What if the part of your job you enjoyed the most is the part that was designed out, for example? What if the source of your struggle is not in the place you thought it was but somewhere you hardly dare acknowledge? Oftentimes, it’s precisely when we step away from the things we’re struggling with that we find a new perspective – a place from which we can find a way forward towards a full recovery.
We have all the resources we need: In challenging times, we often find ourselves looking around us and longing for something to change. Surely it’s obvious to our boss that s/he needs to adopt a more reasoned approach? If only the business would let one reorganisation work its magic before embarking on the next one! As long as we’re looking outside of ourselves for something to change, we can end up feeling powerless, frustrated, exhausted. Once, though, we face the truth of our situation, we discover we have the resources we need – the inner resources as well as the outer ones – to find a way forward.
What is it we recover?
If you’ve read this far, you might want to reflect on what you want to recover. Is your answer “the big-shot job”, “the six-figure (and some) salary” or some other external manifestation? If it is, I invite you to ask yourself what it would do for you to achieve your goal? Because it’s not the goal, it’s what your desired outcome would do for you that really counts.
For my part, I know there are things I want to attend to out in the world. I’m excited about work that’s just around the corner, for example, when I shall be travelling around Europe as well as working in the City and with clients at my Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street. I love contributing to others’ learning and well-being as well as meeting my own need for fulfilment and self-expression.
At the same time, right now, I need time to recover.
If you don’t see or hear much from me next week, don’t be surprised.
Last week I enjoyed working alongside Graham Ogilvie at a one-day event with leaders in the NHS to reflect on their learning from some of the NHS’s core leadership programmes. Graham is someone whose career is almost bound to raise eyebrows. (“How on earth did you come to do that?”) Graham has made a great career out of turning the verbal into the pictorial – taking the key messages from training events, conferences and more and turning them into cartoons. It seems unlikely that anybody ever said to him, “Son, what you need to do with your career is this…”
Always interesting to me, it happens that I’ve been reflecting on career directions quite intensely recently. One client organisation has asked me to put together an outline programme to help members to identify next steps in their career. Coaching clients are raising questions, from “What can I do to move towards greater fulfilment and peace of mind?” to “How can I create fulfilment in my forthcoming retirement and give something back?” (Yes, the age-range of my clients is broad). Another client has asked me to help create clarity for leaders across the organisation about their forward career paths. As the French say, “Jamais deux sans trois.”
Struggling to identify next steps in your career?
Graham, and others like him, epitomises an aspiration many people have – most of us want to find fulfilment in our lives and careers. Somehow, he’s managed to create a job for which there was no Job Description and to turn it into a career that is fun, profitable and fulfilling. But if you’re unsure of your own next steps, you know it’s not always so easy. Sometimes, it’s hard to see which way to go.
Perhaps you have an expensive education in Speciality X but are finding that jobs are scarce in your field. Or perhaps you’ve been successful so far but don’t much like the speciality you’ve chosen. Or you face stark choices and don’t know which way to go.
Perhaps you’ve achieved some – all, even – of the goals you set yourself a few years ago. The trouble is, you’re not having as much fun as you thought you would. Or you don’t know where to go next.
Maybe you’re loving what you’re doing and still, you face a choice. Do you carry on as the “person who does” or step into the unknown territory of leadership? Perhaps you’re already in a leadership role but something’s not working for you or you’re wondering “What next?”
Perhaps your greatest joy is on the side. Perhaps it comes from the project you are involved in at work rather from the areas of your work that your employer is most concerned to monitor, manage and reward. Perhaps it really is on the side – coming from a hobby that no-one pays you for.
Perhaps you’re one of the many people who have been affected by our deep global recession… young and unable to practice the profession you trained for, mid career and finding your way forward after redundancy, ambitious and wanting to catch up after setbacks.
The thing is, you know that you’re not emotionally fulfilled and you know you have more to give. At the same time, you don’t know where to go next.
Life at Malt House Farm
You may not know that I grew up on a farm. My father started farming in the 1920s and my mother met him when she came to Berkshire to work. They married in 1957 and farmed until they retired in 1980. I have a photo of my mother, at hay-making time, which hangs on my office wall. The stray bits of hay in her hair are a reminder of a time of year we all enjoyed and I also notice a certain steely glint in my mother’s eyes which remains to this day.
I’ve noticed how many of my clients have views about their careers which reflect the views and experience of past generations of parents and grandparents. Things like “I need to get a steady job that will provide for me and my family until I retire”, “If I don’t get on the right ladder at the beginning of my career I won’t be successful” and “I need to have clear career goals from the beginning of my career in order to make the right choices in the here and now.” There are even some more recent concerns that can go unseen because they are so widely held. “I need to show I can earn at least as much as my (partner, peers, parents etc.) otherwise people will think less of me”, for example, and “I am what I do – I need to do something impressive if I want people to like me or admire me.”
The thing is, these beliefs – and others like them – come from our need to feel safe and secure and yet, at the same time, they fuel the very anxieties we seek to avoid. They make us wonder if we’re on the right ladder, and worry that if we’re not, we’ve missed our chance to have a fulfilling career. They make us try to plan for a future which may be radically different from anything we can imagine right now – and worry when we don’t have the answers. They make us make job choices to meet needs we can meet more easily in different ways; which may even have been met already if we only dare to notice how much we are already loved and admired.
In writing this posting I want to bring care to the parts of us that seek security, acceptance and more. These needs are both primal and primitive. We are here because we have given priority to our need for safety and because we continue to do so. What’s more, career or no career, each one of us has a need for love and acceptance. Many people, early in their career, focus on adapting to the roles they find themselves in in order to secure a living and to achieve some measure of acceptance from their employer.
But this is only part of what we desire.
As much as we’re hard-wired to worry about our most fundamental needs for security, nourishment and more, we also have needs for fulfilment, for self-expression, to make a difference by what we do. If we listen only to our worries, we may feel empty and unfulfilled. Over time, our lack of fulfilment or our desire for something more motivates us to seek new avenues.
Your perfect career is about who you are
As much as we spend our education acquiring knowledge and skills, our success at work is driven by far more than any book learning.
At work, employers are often concerned with our behaviour – do we demonstrate the behaviours we need to be successful in our current job? A great deal of research has shown that whilst our knowledge and technical skills are important, especially early in our career, there’s a great deal more that fuels our behaviour.
More fundamentally, our behaviours reflect a set of values that we hold about what’s important to us. They reflect all sorts of hidden (and sometimes limiting) beliefs – what some thinkers call our “world view”. They reflect our sense of who we are and what we’re here to do – our identity and purpose.
There is bad news.
Sometimes, for example, we don’t know what values we hold and this makes it hard to seek out opportunities which really meet our need for fulfilment. Sometimes we have a sense of identity which is frozen in time and out of kilter with who we really are. Sometimes we are held back by limiting beliefs which remain out of view.
There is good news, too.
The good news is that we are most likely to be successful in our careers by being ourselves. The good news is that the more we understand ourselves – our underlying values, our natural strengths, our core purpose – the more we can seek out and move towards opportunities that fulfil us. These are jobs in which, moreover, we find greater ease.
The good news is, too, that we get to explore who we are and examine old beliefs about ourselves and about the world at large and, in doing so, we increase the likelihood that we will find both career success and personal fulfilment.
Following your bliss
Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls this process “following your bliss”. I shared this phrase with Graham Ogilvie when we met last week, because it seemed to me that his description of his personal journey was a perfect example. Graham told me that, each time he faced a choice, he chose the option that was most appealing to him at the time.
In truth, as much as many people tell their children to choose wisely, past generations are littered with people whose lives have been touched be serendipity, synchronicity and more… and it all worked out in the end.
My father, for example, became a farmer because he was told, for the sake of his health, to leave his office job and to work outside. He was already lodging at Malt House Farm and was able to take up a job because his friend Harry, the landlady’s nephew, wanted to leave farming. Years later my mother became a farmer because she fell in love.
Perhaps you have stories, too, of people of whom you could ask, “How did they get from there to here?” If you do, please share them using the comment box below so that they can be an inspiration for us all.
And as I close, I want to ask you, what choices are beckoning you at this time? And how is your heart responding? Your head? Your gut?