I have always had a problem with having problems.
I try to solve them alone.
- Feeling lonely? Surf the net late at night.
- Feeling afraid? Pretend the threat doesn’t exist.
- Embarrassed? Say something profoundly stupid to a person you admire.
- Inadequate? Write reams about how you ‘should/must/will’ do better than your world-class model but don’t bother with ‘How’ you’ll do it.
I’m not alone. I help decision-makers with complex problems, and often find that hiding their problems is the one consistent strategy that derails them. If I am to help them, I have to see beyond their view of their problem and its solution. I suspend judgement of them, but see them ‘in the round’ and help them see themselves afresh.
You can’t be helped if you conceal yourself.
Coaching in depth only works when certain things are in place. Mutual trust, for one. That, and difference, are key to good executive coaching. Trust provides the workbench for crafting new action; difference provides the tools, the ideas and processes, for new action.
But even before that, if you want to find new answers, you have to let me see you. Allow me to see not just skin deep but see who you are.
I know it’s not easy. This is where I’ve often gone spectacularly wrong myself. I’ve held things too close to my chest, put up a good front, laughed in the face of despair, withdrawn to my cave. Yep, brilliant! Just when the answer lay in engaging, disclosing to someone, or just plain weeping.
So I understand why you’d want to be ‘uncoachable’. (My spell check doesn’t recognise that horrible word, but it’s what we use).
Can you be coached? Are you hiding, like I did, keeping your problems invisible? Invisible to people whose insights would be useful? Invisible to yourself?
Staying invisible cuts both ways. After a setback, full of your incompetence, weakness and lack of judgement, it’s easy to be blind to your virtues. Your problem might be the biggest catastrophe of your life, but it doesn’t destroy everything good and talented about you. A good coach, if you let others see you, can keep you clear-eyed about the whole situation, and evoke your power to resolve it.
This is strategic
When you pursue a strategy for your career, you’ll have many conversations and you’ll get the most out of them if you let others see you in the middle of your quandary. A person who sees you with empathy or ‘tough love’ is a gem. I like disillusionment. It’s part of the journey out of our illusions about life to a state I call ‘un-illusioned’ – free of our blindness about ourselves & life. Being un-illusioned is when the scales drop from your eyes, you can see reality and deal with it better. This is where you see your talents without being distracted by your obvious failings. It may not last forever, as life is a continuous process of seeing more clearly. A person who helps you get there opens the gateway to a new life.
How can you see yourself better?
You can do this for yourself. There are some processes that work:
- Write a journal without censoring it.
- Record your dreams and search for patterns over time.
- Revisit a past tough event from the perspectives of a) your older wiser self or b) the universe.
- Do an objective ‘case study’ of a crucial business project or decision and analyse it as if at Business School.
- Forgive your younger self and write out ‘if I knew then what I know now, I would have….’
- Get a kind but strong therapist (forget the stigma; it’s just common sense to get help for the complexities of life).
Why should you do all this?
In the centre of our eyes there is a ‘blind spot’ and at the edge of our vision is a fuzzy zone of ‘peripheral vision’ where our awareness is different. We don’t notice it because the brain compensates. At the centre of our self-image also there is a blind spot. It contains all the stuff we take for granted about ourselves, things we can’t see but others can and I’m not sure our brain compensates for this one. And just like with our eyes, our mental peripheral vision seems to me to be another fruitful zone to explore. It’s where aspects of ourselves are visible but out of focus. We don’t think they are important but others value them.
Your mental blind spot usually becomes evident when another person assesses your problem. The more objective view sees your spurious comparisons and is more balanced. They may even know something about the event that you don’t. This happens a lot in the imponderable process of executive recruitment – hidden frictions, personal secrets, legal constraints, all lead to strange gaps in what you’re hearing from the consultant. It’s usually a better explanation than that you’ve failed the interview.
In your mental peripheral vision there might be a small event or a skill you disregard. It’s often to do with the soul. My client might say ‘Oh, I just dabble in (something).’
It can be anything – painting, piano, jazz drumming, Lifeline counselling, cabinetry, gardening, dressmaking: I’ve heard all of these. It’s usually a personal put-down, in terms such as ’I just…’, or ‘It’s not important but…’. In this moment, if you let others see you, you can turn to what’s in your peripheral vision, and bring it into focus in the centre of the work.
Once on instinct, I blurted to a client, ‘Where’s your piano?’, because something was hovering on the edge of our conversation.
Adele sat back in surprise. ‘How did you know? I spent all weekend moving my piano from my parents’ house to my new apartment! I haven’t played since I went to Uni, but I’ve just signed up for lessons. I don’t really tell anyone as it’s just, you know, for messing around.’
This was one of the most important moments in our work. Over the next few weeks she discovered afresh, that playing the piano was her soul food. Without it, her mind had clogged up and her work suffered. Playing her favourite music was how she gave her mind a rest, so that afterwards she was able to think better. She had let go of her best recuperation strategy. By reclaiming her soul food, she improved her professional performance (and made partner the next year).
This moment only happened because Adele had become more comfortable with revealing her thoughts and feelings, getting them accepted and moving them forwards in positive ways. A piano might be peripheral to Adele’s work as a consulting engineer, but it’s vital to the effectiveness of Adele as a whole person. Without seeing this, the source of a mystery (why is this talented professional stumbling after a string of successes?) remained unavailable to work on. The answer had to do with her need to recover in a specific way.
What happens when you let others see you
Great insights lead to real decisions in the most important areas of your work and life:
- Find a firm with the right supportive culture.
- Find a role needing your sense of humour.
- Get time off to attend film school part time.
- Get sponsorship from the firm for your charity hike (or your chess Olympiad campaign, or your art show).
- Hire one member of your team who is brilliant in your weak spot.
- Fulfil your dream of running your own business, with your family’s encouragement.
As I look back over the draft of this note, I can imagine my younger self reading it with relief. If only I knew then what I know now, I would have made many of my most important changes earlier, with more joy and energy. So I hope this provokes you to let others see you, to trust the value of penetrating your blind spot and addressing the gems hidden in your peripheral vision. This will lead to embrace change with confidence and delight, to act on something you’ve kept hidden from others and yourself.
Comment below or give me a call – I’d love to hear your story of how seeing yourself more clearly helped you grow and change!