Over the years and in one way or another, I have frequently been asked questions about how we manage challenging realities of the heart like the interior voice of judgement, feeling wounded or defensive, the tendency to say the wrong thing, being impatient with those we find challenging, the way we transfer pain from one part of our lives to another part of our lives, injuring those around us along the way. There are so many ways we can “get it wrong” – whether with colleagues, congregants, friends, family, or even with just ourselves.
At their core, most examples of “getting it wrong” involve our emotional selves, alongside any logic that may be helping us to sort out the situations in front of us. Of course, our emotional selves are also involved in “getting it right.” Too often, however, I hear people say something like, “If only I (or they) could keep emotions out of it.” Sadly, we have a long history of denying the value of emotions. Whether in the Boardroom, at the pulpit, around a coffee table or at dinner, our society has preferenced logical conversation over emotions, except perhaps when emotion is used in ways to draw us closer to another person.
In my experience, however, it is the denial of our emotions that is the problem. As I often say in workshops that I lead: “What we resist, we entrench.” By this, I do not mean that we should accept injustice. What do I mean is that if we resist the emotion we are feeling, we are more likely to become trapped by that emotion, limiting our ability to think creatively and thoughtfully about what our next step should be.
Consider, for example, a pastor who called me with a list of complaints regarding his congregants: one is perpetually critical; another is longwinded; a third is too controlling; yet another keeps making big mistakes yet is determined to be on every committee. After listing the challenges he is facing, the leader asks with exasperation: “How do I work with these people?” Working with complex people is not easy. Rallying a challenging team is even harder. In my experience, however, the answer to how one works with challenging people always goes first through the self before any skills can be applied to the people one is leading.
Years ago, I learned a mission-setting exercise that involved always asking “why” of one’s answers until no further “why” could be asked. In some ways, the same principle applies here. When we are frustrated with challenges at work, we can ask ourselves, “Why?” until no further why can be asked. When we ask ourselves why long enough, the answer to our frustration almost always lands somewhere in our own being, with feelings of anxiety, defensiveness, inadequacy, impatience, ego, frustration, or despair. In other words, a key barrier to leadership (and the other’s success!) lies within us and not the other.
What do we do with the barriers that lie within us? After all, most of us are pulled almost unthinkingly into our tough emotions – even as we may deny the power these emotions are having over us. To channel our emotions well, we must begin by allowing ourselves to actually sense our emotions. We sense our emotions in our bodies before our minds interpret and put words to our emotions. Most of us want to move quickly to letting our emotions go in order to get back to the work of leadership. Our hardest – and most important – struggle, however, appears to be staying with our body sensations and the feelings that they reveal, honouring and accepting the message our bodies are sending us. We must stay with our emotions for as long as it takes to practice tender care to our wounded selves. Where in your body are you sensing emotion? Allow the feeling. Hold the feeling tenderly. Hold yourself with care.
So often I encounter leaders who plough through their pain and frustration, working hard to be effective, all the while being sabotaged by the burnout associated with feelings of anxiety, defensiveness, inadequacy, impatience, ego, frustration, or despair. In other words, when our interior condition becomes hooked in some way by the situations we are managing or by the people we lead, our best efforts are as much about protecting ourselves as they are about true and wise leadership. Our leadership becomes entangled with our own interior material, limiting our effectiveness.
Instead (remembering that what we resist we entrench), when we genuinely allow and accept our inner state and the feelings that drive us, we are freed to release our emotions, rest in self-compassion and begin considering what our next steps should be. (For easy recall, I refer to this as the ARC process (A: allow and accept; R: release and rest; C: consider next steps.)
Years ago, I worked with a leader who was profoundly frustrated with her colleagues to the degree that her frustration had boiled over so often, she was at risk of losing her job. Her homework assignment after our first coaching session was to repeat the mantra, “It’s ok to be frustrated” whenever she became annoyed with her colleagues. She was baffled by the guidance but agreed to give it a try. One month later, when we met again, she blurted out: “Why did it work?” It worked because when she stopped resisting her frustration, her frustration no longer had power over her. She was able to release her irritation and to think more clearly again about the leadership tasks in front of her.
Allow & accept. Release & rest. Consider next steps. These words are not a magic formula, but they can help us to become centered again when our interior voice of judgement begins galloping away with us. Allow and accept feelings as they arise. Having allowed, release these feelings, taking a moment to be tender with yourself. Now consider your next steps.