A friend just shared his heart.
Over the breakfast table, he said he felt trapped, mistreated, alone and old. He’d had a sleepless night and was feeling like “butter scraped over too much bread.” He’d never discussed his inner fears, never wanting to appear weak, but he had to speak now. The emotional isolation was too much.
It was hard to help him; not because his problems were unique but because of how he spoke to me.
A power-hose of fear, circular logic and agitation blasted over my toast. It made it nearly impossible to support him. He is an accomplished and intelligent man but his obsessive cogitation about the problem had left no room for an exchange of ideas. He couldn’t hear me. The momentum of his fear only allowed for communication to flow in one direction. He was not open to comfort, alternative thinking or engaging with his circumstances. He was in a trance, his focus narrowed on the only way he could see out, which, wasn’t a way out. He knew it; hence the crisis.
We went for a walk and got our breakthrough at lunchtime. I shared some of my own worries and allowed him to help me. He softened and the conversation slowed down. Eventually he considered previously discarded solutions and a little hope dawned in his eyes. He was able to explore the reality of his circumstances and get clear about the next few steps.
He suggested I blog this.
It got me thinking. We train people how to coach but should we train people how to share? My highly accomplished friend lacked the skill to create the conversation he needed. It required me to be at the top of my game and I am an experienced coach. I wondered if an untrained listener or friend might have giving up on the conversation, which, of course, would have exacerbated his isolation.
Leaders are under pressure. Sometimes they become stressed. How do they connect with others and receive the human support they need?
Reflecting on this morning, I have five insights for inviting others into your stressful experience.
1. Think about what you want from the exchange: advice, insight, comfort, something material or an opportunity? Give your listener as clear a framework as possible for the conversation. If you have things you do not want to discuss, that is fine. Giving someone access to your feelings does not open the door for them to investigate your entire life. Keep your boundaries.
2. Watch for boosted feelings of disappointment when the listener doesn’t initially understand your situation. It can cause you to feel lonelier and tempted to withdraw. Your listener will normally pick up on it and, if you both persevere you will find a connection.
3. If emotions start to overwhelm you, stop trying to rationalise and, instead, describe the physical experience. “My heart is racing,” “I feel wobbly in my stomach” “I can feel the dark cloud/the chill coming back.” Let the wave crest then get back to the conversation.
4. Watch your timing. Don’t wait till it’s an emergency and force a conversation with someone who can only give you some of their attention. When you choose someone to share with, check in with them. Are they going through anything? How much listening and hope can they give you?
5. When something about the conversation is helpful, tell your listener. Let them know what was useful or healing and it will empower them to help you better. If they feel a connection in the conversation, you will have created an ally.
Leaders, you need support and connection with other human beings. I know that people at home cannot always understand your business pressures, so make sure you find other people who can. If your previous strategies have not resulted in a solution, you may have to be jolted out of your current way of thinking. Be open to a bit of provocation and stay in the conversation.
This week, connect with someone; do not isolate your soul.