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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.
(Here’s an excerpt from my book, Your Most Courageous Self: the definitive guide to unparalleled bad-assery. Your Courageous Life email subscribers will get access to the audio of the introduction. Sign up, here: YourCourageousLife.com/begin).
Good gravy, the number of times someone has told me that don’t follow through with things, because they get excited but…then they lose their motivation or inspiration.
It stops feeling pleasurable and fun, so they stop moving forward.
Where are people learning the idea that the things you want in life, the things that are most important to you, are always going to be endless journeys of inspiration? Where are people picking up the line that motivation is easy, or that people who succeed in doing things always feel motivated?
Hard truth: You won’t always feel inspired. You won’t always feel motivated.
You’ve got to get out of the delusional thinking that motivation and inspiration will always be present on the way to the life that you really want. (I pose these thoughts not to put anyone down, but rather to really get people to look and see that the start-stop-start-stop stuff perpetuates more suffering, and keeps them from the life they really want).
No one who is improving her marriage feels “inspired” by tough conversations that so easily turn into arguments. But what’s the alternative? Not having the conversations, which equals nothing changing.
No one who builds her own business always feels “motivated” to finish what she starts. But she sits her arse down in the chair and gets the work done, because the bigger picture of what she’s trying to create is more important to her than the smaller picture of a day, week, or month where she feels less motivated.
No one who decides that they want to start expressing a creative desire—painting, dance, or something else—always feels “motivated” to do it. In fact, you’ll often feel inadequate, wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, or commit something to paper and later think, “I wasted time.” But those moments aren’t the whole picture. Something within you has to know that all of these efforts, even if they were shitty first drafts or rough sketches or flailing in dance class, are all going into the whole: the whole that is you, living more joyfully and fully alive.
Usually, we lose motivation and inspiration when we’re either afraid (fear throws down “I will zap you of inspiration!” to get you to stop) or when you haven’t had any fun and you’ve made the thing you’re trying to create into a (ugh) chore.
I’ve seen so many people do this with their businesses. They stop having fun because they’ve convinced themselves that they have to spend all day sitting in front of a computer watching Facebook ads results, if they want to succeed in business. They stop tapping into the craft of coaching and get hung up in the business of coaching, and then even the business of coaching is something they can turn into drudgery.
Yes, you’re going to have to spend some time doing the boring stuff. The grunt work. It’s not always fun (though you can make it more fun, the less you complain), but it’s necessary.
Sometimes, the stuff you “gotta do” even downright sucks. You’ll ask yourself, “Is this worth it?”
Well, it also sucks to live a life where you keep ending up right back at the same place, over and over. That’s what happens when people continually buy into fear and don’t step forward into their Most Courageous Self.
If you stop thinking that motivation and inspiration must be a prerequisite at all times for you to be happy, you’ll unhook yourself from the start-stop-start-stop cycle.
When people never find their way through, and their answer to discomfort is to quit, or to change locations, or to leave that relationship for someone else, or to otherwise move around the external variables in search of happiness and endless fun, they always end up right back at the same place–at some point, the job or the relationship or the whatever? It stops being fun, inspiring, motivating.
Instead of seeing the loss of inspiration or motivation as an automatic sign that something is wrong, see it as a sign that there’s a skill-set that you might need to learn–a skill-set for finding the magic in the mundane, recognizing your triggers for losing motivation and where you set yourself up for that, tapping into the bigger picture of what you’re creating so that a few rough weeks or months don’t sway you.
There is magic to be found everywhere, even in the mundane (if that’s what you choose, and it absolutely has to be a mindset and a choice).
There are more easeful ways to find your way through that don’t involve that exhausting hustle-push-pull-gritted-teeth stuff. Learn how to find and create those ways, before you quit anything else.