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I was talking with a friend who was trying to decide how to handle a situation with a passive-aggressive family member. She wanted to take that first step of saying, very simply, “We need to change this conflict between us,” but she (understandably) feared what would happen, next.
So often, we hesitate to take any action, because we can’t predict how the next steps are going to roll out. What if it doesn’t work out, despite our best intentions? What will we tell people? How will we explain ourselves? What if we fail? What if we’re laughed at? What if it’s all a colossal mistake?
I was talking with another friend, a colleague, about how hard it had been when we first started out as coaches. A decade ago, I took the first (very difficult) step that lead me to the career that I have, today. My fears:
What if I’m no good?
What am I going to tell people?
If I do this, does this mean I’ll quit my job?
How will I make money?
What if I fail?
To make it easier to take that step, I reminded myself that the first step is the hardest, and that I didn’t need to know, necessarily, how it was all going to unfold. I decided that I would just start by getting training–and not put pressure on myself to suddenly quit my existing job or figure out every other piece of the puzzle.
* * *
Here’s what I understand, today: the more choices you make, the more courageous your life is.
And really, no one is waiting for us to have it all mapped out.
We want that kind of a safety net, but if we had the safety net, then whatever the big dream is probably wouldn’t matter as much, anyway.
We don’t really need to have it all figured out.
We just need to be willing to take one step. (And then another, and then another).
* * *
In the weeks since the election, I’ve been asking myself how to take that first step towards more activism and using my voice for something other than exclusively telling people to follow their dreams. While I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a liberal-leaning intersectional feminist who believes that #BlackLivesMatter and who supports the LGBTQ community, the discussions of courage that I’ve brought to YourCourageousLife.com have always centered around the personal, rather than the political.
If I am honest, then I will say this: I think my wheelhouse in this lifetime is the personal. How women in particular, suffer in their private lives, because they don’t believe that they are enough and because they fear taking steps in the direction of their dreams? That’s where my compass has always been pointed.
I have been that woman. I feel for those women. The individual who suffers is where I’m drawn, just as much as someone else is drawn to community organizing.
I don’t think that having a particular interest in helping individuals with individual problems is absolutely counter to helping the collective. As I share in this piece, when I was (individually) depressed, I was of no use to anyone.
But here is also what I reconcile: In immersing myself in raising up individual women, so that they’d feel more courageous and resilient in their lives, I stopped talking as much (and thinking as much) about the collective. Yes, I continued to volunteer and donate to causes I believe in. Yes, I dutifully read the BBC online to be as conscious as possible about what was happening in the world.
But I stopped being as vocal. I told myself I’d do more, later–when I had time, when my health improved, when I didn’t feel so weighted down from being a new mother. Later.
* * *
So here is what I’m asking of myself, and of my colleagues, and of anyone else who is willing to be courageous enough to care:
Let’s ask ourselves how we got complacent. Ask yourself where you tune out. Ask yourself where presence is needed.
Let’s ask ourselves how we can contribute to the collective. Don’t assume that money and time are the only ways, though these are needed. You can contribute to the collective by speaking up when you hear someone invoking stereotypes, by staying informed, by taking some small action, by actively seeking to befriend people who occupy different social circles and to understand their experiences.
When you talk to anyone, see the entire person, and ask yourself about the intersections of the different roles and groups in their lives–of being a woman or man, of her class or ethnic background, of sexual orientation or gender identification, of the micro-aggressions she might confront in any given day.
Let’s notice those moments where it’s easy to assume that someone has the problems that they have, because they just haven’t tried hard enough. Women don’t complain about the patriarchy, just for kicks. People living at the poverty line aren’t doing that, because hey, why not, it’s fun! Black people aren’t protesting being shot during routine traffic stops, because it’s just no big deal. Migrant workers aren’t asking to be paid fairly and treated humanely because they’re “lazy” after hours spent doing backbreaking labor so that all of us can eat. This just isn’t how people, or social causes, operate.
“Call a thing, a thing!” — Iyanla VanZant. By this, I mean: let’s call things what they are. Trump is not just a politician. It’s not that simple. The way he treats women, minorities, people with disabilities, people of different religions…the disasters he’s created within his own businesses…his failure to pay taxes…these collective facts add up to a character so decidedly un-presidential that it’s appalling. (Yes, yes, I know. Hillary used the wrong email server. Noted. Bush’s White House lost 22 million emails.) My point is this: every politician might be crooked, and every politician might make mistakes, but not every politican is a racist-sexist-homophobe-Islamaphobe-tax-evader who runs businesses into the ground and then profits off of that. Let’s call things what they are.
Let’s use our privilege to help, but let’s start by asking how those who don’t have the same privilege would like us to use that privilege, rather than assuming that we know. We’ve got to start with how we listen. Let the people who have been at the forefront of trying to enact social change inform us as to how we can help them to fill in the gaps, rather than crusading in with assumptions that we know what’s best and what should happen next.
My husband and I have been together for nearly twelve years, now, and we used to argue—like, a lot. We loved deeply in between the arguments and were relentless about cleaning them up, but the arguments punctuated our life together and created scar tissue, again and again.
I didn’t know how to listen. What changed everything was when we both started to (really) listen (better).
Now, understand this—I thought I was a great listener. He did, too. So when he’d open his mouth to speak, I’d think that I was listening because I was hearing and comprehending his words, and when I spoke, he thought he was doing the same.
But for a long time, neither of us was listening from the perspective of how the other person felt, so much as we were simply taking in a message. I was not putting myself in my husband’s shoes and imagining what it might be like, for him. I was simply listening to his words and reflecting back to him that, yeah-yeah, I understood that he didn’t like it when I did XYZ, I’ll try to work on that.
This cycle frustrated us to no end. I remember thinking, angrily, that I just didn’t get how I could be listening so closely and so hard, and still have him say that he didn’t think I understood. And I remember trying to tell him, over and over, why I was upset by this or that thing, and feeling angry and despairing when it was clear to me by how he responded that he wasn’t really “getting” me.
And then, through the magic of couples counseling and two people doing the work and who knows how many lucky breaks, something clicked. I began to understand that what I thought was “listening” was in fact just comprehending, and that what I wanted from him was not comprehending but rather, empathy.
I wanted him to “get” me.
I wanted him to imagine how it felt to be me, on “my side” of the argument.
I wanted empathy.
I wanted to tell my husband why I was frustrated, and not have him just say “I’m sorry.” I wanted to tell him how I felt, and have him practice empathy by imagining what it would be like to be me, the woman he loved, frustrated. I wanted him to “get” where I was “coming from.”
And that was what he wanted from me, too.
He wanted to tell me how he felt, and he didn’t just want me to say, “Ah, I see—I snapped at you when we were in the car and I’m sorry.”
He wanted me to understand the impact of when I snapped at him.
He wanted me to understand what it felt like, to be on his side of that experience.
He wanted empathy.
* * *
During this post-election week, I have been doing my damndest to (really) listen (better).
I understand that we live in a country where two parties have different belief systems and values. I grew up in the Midwest, and a large number of my extended family is staunchly conservative. When we’re talking about differing opinions about gun control or economic policy, I think, “Okay, we have different politics.”
When we’re talking about Trump, someone who has been openly hostile towards people with disabilities, minorities, different religions, immigrants, and women, I think, “Okay, this person (Trump) has a different slant on humanity, and it’s not one that is even remotely rooted in kindness.”
And yet millions of people have just voted him into office. I have felt devastated by this, not necessarily because of liberal vs. conservative politics, but because of the bigotry and hatred that Trump represents.
So I find myself trying to (really) listen (better).
I am trying to (really) listen (better) to the groups that have been disenfranchised for so long that they don’t even trust the sudden upsurge in protest and activism and desires to help (“Where have you been, all this time?” is the refrain I’ve heard).
I am trying to (really) listen (better) to what exactly it is a Trump supporter wants to get under this presidency, and what they feel they aren’t getting, now. Because I’d rather try to find ways to work towards compromises in economic policy across the parties, than allow someone who has no problem with openly airing his bigotry into a position of leadership.
I am trying to (really) listen (better) when someone tells me all the ways that I currently live in a privileged bubble. I’m trying to listen because of how many times I haven’t understood my privilege until it has been pointed out to me, over and over.
* * *
I think it takes courage to listen, especially when people are angry and frightened and sometimes mud-slinging before fact-checking. We all (every human) does this when angry and frightened. Most of us don’t even know how to listen . We think we do, but we don’t.
I think it takes more courage to really listen than it does to quickly move into strategy and to-do lists. Until you (really) listen (better), a problem can’t be understood or disentangled.
I didn’t wake up this week and suddenly decide that I was upset, or that I was finally going to listen—I woke up this week and noticed that the divisiveness in this country felt a lot like those tired, ongoing arguments. And maybe I thought I had been listening, this entire time, but maybe in fact I’d been elitist and dismissive with the political party that I wasn’t affiliated with, and not clear enough to the groups who will be hit the hardest by a Trump presidency that I care, that I’m willing to fight alongside you and under your direction as you work towards a better life; that I’ve never been unaware or unwilling and that I’m sorry that this wasn’t apparent, sooner.
I hardly have all of the answers. No one does. The issues are far more complex and nuanced than what I describe, here, and racism and sexism and social justice issues are absolutely part of this. But I at least want to start with (really) listening (better), and I invite others to do the same.
We start online businesses, in part, because we want to throw out the rule book. We’re sick of policies, dress codes, and memos. We’re tired of someone who isn’t even on the front lines, most of the time, dictating how we’re supposed to be doing things on a daily basis.
We start working for ourselves because we want to shake up the limitations, and in my own business life, I’ve been no exception.
My wish has been to be human.
My wish has been to be real.
These are wishes that we cast when we’re thinking about how great it’s all going to be when not only have a positive impact on others, but when we’re also able to sail our own ship. Policy books and dress codes feel neither human nor real.
We’re not usually thinking, when we’re wishing to be human or real, about the parts of humanity or realness that are messy and imperfect and a total flub.
And that, my friends, is how I arrived at my worst leadership mistake.
Super simple: not setting up appropriate boundaries.
For years, I had been aware that my worst leadership mistake was not setting up appropriate boundaries, and I’d kinda-sorta, mayyyybe in the back of my mind thought that I should do more about that. Over and over, the opportunity presented itself, and over and over, I would kind of flub my way through asserting boundaries and then I’d analyze the situation and what I could have done differently and think, “I’ll do better, next time.”
This is a legitimate way to learn, and sometimes the only way that we can. In my case, the next best step would have been to take action on what I’d learned in terms that were distinctly uncomfortable, for me: buttoning up contracts, being clearer about policy and procedure, etc.
But ugh, setting up boundaries and getting all legal? That so didn’t jive with the free spirit, “now I get to do it my way” stuff that I was enjoying behind the scenes.
I wanted to have fun, and to me, setting boundaries wasn’t, like, fun.
Also, if I was getting honest? I was afraid to set boundaries. Sure, there were some places where it was no problem, but in others, I struggled with wanting to be liked and caring what others think. These are very human things to struggle with, and these places aren’t necessarily where I lived, emotionally, 100% of the time.
Nonetheless, whenever a boundary most needed to be asserted, these fears were behind why I didn’t assert them.
The price of fear is that we want sovereignty, but we fear making the hard decisions, and then the fear ends up being our master more than the old boss and his dress code and policy manual ever did.
The price of fear is that we can hide out from dealing with it for as long as we want, but it will always keep on coming back, upping the ante and raising the stakes.
That’s exactly what happened, with me. My worst leadership mistake was public. Someone had been communicating with me in ways that were disrespectful for awhile, and I was trying to address them but without actually stating very directly, the necessary boundary: “The way that you’re talking to me (and others in our community) doesn’t feel good, and I need you to communicate respectfully.”
I would walk right up to that line, and say every other thing except that sentence.
So of course, things amplified from there. It was big and messy and stressful, and most of all, sad, because once that tipping point was reached it was basically impossible to go back and untangle for the other person, “Here’s why this snowballed. I actually don’t dislike you or wish anything negative for you, whatsoever. I think that I’m being misunderstood. I bet you are feeling misunderstood by me, too. Let’s work it out.”
You know–the human, real stuff that I’d been wishing for.
My more playful side has needed to reconcile this fact: boundaries are not fun, but they are courageous.
Boundaries let people know where they stand because you’ve defined where you stand.
Boundaries let bullies know that you won’t kowtow to them.
Boundaries let people know that you’ve considered all aspects of a situation.
Boundaries are a kindness, the neutral third party that can be turned to when there’s disagreement in a relationship.
I’ve come to see boundaries as being less about rules, and more about sharing values.
The value is that respectful communication is a necessary part of loving interactions, so my boundary is that communication must be respectful.
The value is that we will practice behaviors that are healthy for every member of this community, so the boundary is that if you disrespect members of this community, you can’t stay in it.
The value is professionalism, so the boundary is that if we don’t agree on what ‘professionalism’ looks like, then we shouldn’t work together.
Want to learn from my worst leadership mistake? Super-simple:
1.) Ask yourself what situations you’d be most afraid of, in your own business, as they pertain to leadership.
2.) Ask yourself why you’re afraid. (“If that happened, what would I be afraid of? And then what would I be afraid of? And then what else would I be afraid of?”).
3.) Ask yourself how you’re setting up the conditions for that leadership mistake to happen, right now, through avoiding dealing with the problem.
When you’re willing to look at it with clarity and love, you’re empowered to change the stakes. Raise your vibration. Up the ante in the game. Play to your own courageous edge.