How to speak so that others (really) hear you

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What do accountants, bankers, engineers, lawyers, marketers, project managers, and salespeople all have in common?

No, this is not the set-up of a joke! It’s a genuine question.

As a coach and facilitator, I’ve had the privilege of working with people from a diverse range of industries and disciplines (including all of the above), and I’ve noticed that we all have one thing in common. 

We all want to be heard.

Actually, we all need to be heard.

In life – and in the workplace, in particular – our ability to meet our own needs and get things done is primarily through conversations. And a critical element of an effective conversation is that you (and the other person) are heard. You can’t order your morning coffee unless the barista hears you. You can’t execute your business plan unless your team hears you. And you can’t build your reputation in your industry unless your clients and peers hear you.

And, of course, I’m not just talking about hearing as a mechanical process of converting soundwaves into brainwaves. I’m talking about the feeling we get when we know that the other person has truly understood us.

Because being heard is also a basic human need.

Author David W Augsburger said: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

While this might sound a bit intense, think back to the last time you truly felt heard. How did it feel? If you can even remember such a time, I’d say that it was probably an extremely inspiring experience. (Read more: How to inspire others to be their best)

The problem...

...is that we are living in a world in which attention is a scarce resource – perhaps even more so than time or money. We are constantly being bombarded with information – whether in the form of conversations, emails, text messages, social media posts, advertisements, and so on. The demands on our attention are increasing exponentially while our capacity to manage these demands hasn’t really changed.

In this context, your ability to be heard depends on how well you manage two basic parameters:

1.    The other person’s capacity to hear you

2.    The other person’s willingness to hear you

If you want to improve your chances of being heard in the conversations that matter, here are some tips for managing these two parameters.

1. Capacity: Can they hear you?

It’s virtually impossible to be heard by someone who doesn’t have the capacity to hear you.

Again, this is not so much about whether they can physically hear you – although this could be the case if someone has a hearing impairment or is wearing headphones (which is fairly common in some open plan offices). This is more about whether they have the mental and emotional bandwidth to take in what you’re saying.

Have you ever tried to pour water into a glass that is already full?

(If not, try it... Just be sure to clean up afterwards!)

What happens to the additional water?

It spills out of the glass, right?

The glass of water is a metaphor for the human brain.

The human brain has a finite capacity for conscious thought – a bit like the random-access memory (RAM) in a computer. This is our “working memory”. Once that capacity is full, it’s hard for us to take in new information. The only way to free up working memory is to let go of something that’s already there or move some of the items into long-term storage (which takes time, repetition and usually sleep). 

Now, let’s assume that the mind of the average person is filled to the brim with ideas, questions, musings, plans, conversations, commitments, doubts, fears, regrets, and random songs that they heard on the radio that morning. 

How do you add your idea into that full or near-full glass of water?

Here are some suggestions for creating capacity for others to hear you:

  • Choose your timing – Growing up, we had a rule in our home. Never ask Dad for anything before he’d had his dinner. Now, it was the ‘80s, and there was undoubtedly some sort of gendered double-standard in there, as both of my parents were working. But that’s not the point. The point is that it taught me about the importance of timing conversations for when people are more likely to receive them well. It’s partly strategic and also partly a matter of respect for the other person’s psychological state. By noticing how full the other person’s glass seems to be (and even asking them, if we are unsure), we can better align our conversations with their capacity to engage in them.

  • Help them to empty their glass – If a person’s cognitive capacity is full, anything you can do to reduce that will create more capacity for them to hear you, in the same way as deleting all of those cat photos from your iPhone will enable you to take more cat photos (or is that just me?!). One way to do this is by asking or allowing them to speak first. Once they have offloaded what is on their mind, they are more likely to have space to take in what you have to say.

  • Minimise external distractions – These days, most of us live in an overstimulated, even hypervigilant, state. We are incredibly prone to distractions. These distractions can have "fill the glass" even when our cognitive load is relatively low. So if you want to be heard by someone, try speaking with them at a time and in a place where distractions are minimal. (That said, some distractions seem to operate as “white noise” and can actually help people to focus – for example, the background chatter in a busy café or the external noises when taking a “walking meeting” in a park.)

2. Willingness: Do they want to hear you?

Even if someone has the capacity to hear you, they may not be willing to do so.

This unwillingness could show up directly or indirectly in the form of:

  • rejection: when they refuse or decline to speak with you (“I’m too busy to talk”)

  • avoidance: when they won’t take/return your phone calls or respond to your emails

  • resistance: when they appear to be listening but are doing so with a closed (or even oppositional) mindset

Think about some of your recent interactions with the people around you. Aside from how busy or preoccupied you were at the time of the conversation (your capacity to hear them), what else made you more or less willing to hear what they were saying?

A person’s willingness to hear you often comes down to their assumptions about how your message or request might affect their concerns. And by “concerns” I mean the things that are important to them – their needs, drivers, interests, fears, doubts, and so on.

To improve the likelihood of being heard, it can be helpful to try and anticipate some of these assumptions ahead of time by asking yourself:

  • What concerns might be getting in the way of them hearing me? (And how could you address, or at least avoid triggering, these concerns?)

  • What concerns might make them more willing to hear me? (And how could you frame your message to better align with these concerns?)

After working with hundreds of clients to unpack the concerns that are affecting their ability to be heard, the most common one would have to be trust. If you are finding it difficult to be heard by someone, you might consider whether some work needs to be done on building the trust in your relationship. I often think of trust as a bridge that needs to be constructed between two people – and the stronger the bridge, the more weight it can carry.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes the reason others aren’t willing to hear us is that we’re not really willing to hear them. When we are too single-minded (read: forceful) about our ideas, we can inadvertently trigger the other person's resistance according to the relational equivalent of Newton’s Third Law (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”). Of course, this isn't necessarily intentional and can occur simply due to an excess of enthusiasm. To manage our impact, we might need to pour something out of our own metaphorical glass of water in order to engage in a genuine and meaningful dialogue with the other person – so that we both feel heard.

A final thought…

While there’s a lot that we can do to influence others’ capacity and willingness to hear us, our ability to be heard starts with us feeling confident (and legitimate) in what we have to say. And the more we feel heard, the more we feel encouraged to express ourselves clearly and constructively, without resorting to aggression, manipulation or other potentially destructive tactics. We become a person of influence.

But it has to start somewhere – and that somewhere is with us.

As Victor Hugo said: “Not being heard is no reason for silence.”

Now, over to you... 

What are your challenges when it comes to being heard?

What strategies have you used that make it easier for others to hear you?

I'd love to hear from you!

How to stop comparison from stealing your joy

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live someone else's life?

After falling down the rabbit hole of the internet (yet again), I recently came across an advertisement featuring an Australian jazz singer whom I’d met at a jazz piano course about 15 years ago. She is currently living in Europe, singing jazz in French, and looking flawlessly beautiful in all of her photos and videos.

Even though I barely know her, I found myself comparing my life to hers. I wondered what it would be like to be that beautiful, that talented and that successful – in other words, to be that perfect. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel better for the comparison.

A few minutes later, I had to physically shake myself out of my contemplation when I noticed that my mood had dropped. I knew that the comparison was unfair (to both of us) and unhelpful (to me), so why had I allowed myself to engage in it?

Then I realised that I had just experienced an attack of “comparisonitis”. (Ironically, this happened while I was in the process of writing this article - thank you, Universe!)

If you have ever had a similar experience and would like to learn how to manage it more effectively, please read on...

What is "comparisonitis"?

Comparisonitis is that feeling you experience when you receive news of someone else’s achievement or success and, instead of (or despite) feeling happy for them, you end up comparing yourself to them – usually unfavourably.

It presents as a sense of resistance and can range from mild resentment to full-blown envy, jealousy or even shame. It’s usually accompanied by a generous side-serving of self-doubt.

While commonly attributed to social media, it can also arise in other social situations such as networking events, family gatherings, and high school reunions – any time when people tend to share brief “status updates” about their lives.

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

Humans are social animals.

We are hardwired to engage in certain behaviours that promote social cohesion, which includes comparing ourselves to others in order to monitor and manage our place in the social hierarchy. So it is normal to compare ourselves to others.

The problem is that it’s rarely a fair comparison. It tends to overlook the complete and unique circumstances of both people and, in doing so, erode our individuality.

Comparisonitis often highlights an insecurity in the person making the comparison – a sense of not being “good enough” – and can exacerbate that insecurity with the guilt of not feeling generous enough to celebrate the other person’s success. It can also drive a wedge between friends, colleagues and family members when heartfelt congratulations are withheld or tempered as a result of this insecurity.

As Theodore Roosevelt put it: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

And I would add: “…on so many levels.”

So, with all of that said, would it surprise you to learn that comparisonitis also bears a gift?

As with so many so-called “negative” experiences in life, I have discovered that you can use comparison for your benefit. Here's how.

What is the gift of comparisonitis?

The gift of comparisonitis is that it tells us what is important to us. It is a marker of our needs, values and priorities. It is like a signal being sent up from the depths of our subconscious mind to remind us that something we care about is at stake.

But in order to fully explore and embrace this gift, we must choose to be curious.

Curiosity creates the opportunity for us to learn from the comparison rather than using it as a form of self-flagellation.

For example:

What if you’re feeling unsettled by a friend’s recent promotion?

Upon noticing your discomfort, you can use it as a prompt to shift into curiosity and ask yourself: "Why is this bothering me?" Perhaps it is highlighting your own discontent in your current role and could instead motivate you to apply for that job you’ve always wanted. In other words, use the comparisonitis to find out what you really want and invest your energy in moving towards that rather allowing it to damage your friendship.

At a deeper and even more powerful level, comparisonitis is an opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. By accepting yourself as you are, you can unlock considerable energy to become the person you wish to be.

On the other hand, have you ever found yourself wondering whether there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want what others have?

Sometimes comparisonitis can be triggered when we see others making choices that are different to our own – especially when their choices represent the “norm” in your country, culture or community. I have experienced this form of comparisonitis quite a bit over the past few years as my commitment to being true to myself has led me to take the "road less travelled" in certain areas of my life. And yet that doesn't mean I don't occasionally compare my life to what "might have been".

In this case, the comparison could simply reveal a need to feel accepted in your society and is another opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. It is also an opportunity to affirm your own priorities and step forward in courage to live and enjoy them.

These are just a few examples of the gifts of comparisonitis.

Next time you find yourself experiencing an "attack of comparisonitis", here are some questions that might help you to unearth its gift:

1. To whom are you comparing yourself?

First of all, get specific about the comparison so you know what you’re dealing with.

2. Is this a fair comparison?

Consider whether you’re taking into account your complete circumstances and the other person’s complete circumstances.

We often compare our “insides” (our internal experience, with all its messiness) with others’ “outsides” (the edited, maybe even Photoshopped, veneer that others present to the outside world). As pastor Steven Furtick puts it: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” This is clearly an unfair and even damaging comparison.

I'm not suggesting that you perform an inventory of your life every time you feel triggered by someone else’s success. On the contrary, this is about reminding yourself that no two individuals are exactly the same and so any comparison is ultimately futile.

3. Is this a helpful comparison?

As mentioned earlier, comparisonitis can highlight a need, value or priority that wants to get your attention. But sometimes it flares up out of habit – based on something that used to be, but is no longer, important to you.

In the latter case, the comparison is probably not that helpful. So are you willing to let it go?

4. What is the gift in this comparison?

If this comparison relates to something that is important to you, how could you use it to move forward in your own life?

What could it inspire you to do or be?

How could you use it as a learning opportunity?

And if the comparison were trying to teach you something, what would it be?

“Every minute you spend wishing you had someone else's life is a minute spent wasting yours.” (Unknown)

Where does comparisonitis show up in your life? And how do you deal with it?

Now I'm off to go and enjoy some jazz...

What "The Lion King" can teach us about leadership

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Warning: This article contains spoilers. LOTS of spoilers.

In three weeks’ time (that’s 21 sleeps!), the remake of The Lion King will be released in Australia.

I am VERY excited about this.

Not just because it features the voices of two of my personal heroes (Beyoncé and John Oliver), and not just because it’s based on one of the most spectacular nature documentaries of all time (!), but also because I recently discovered that it’s a film about leadership.

When the original film was released in 1994, I was in Year 12. I saw it three times at the cinema and was so obsessed with it that my classmates bestowed upon me the title of “Lion Queen” at our valedictory dinner. (Seriously!)

Twenty-five years later, I realised that what I thought was a fairly simple tale about loss, love and adventure also contains some powerful lessons about stepping up and being the leader you were born to be.

Here are some of them:

1. Real leaders LEAD

One of the most fundamental leadership lessons in The Lion King is that leadership is less about title (positional power) and more about action (personal power).

While Mufasa makes a point of informing young Simba about the order of succession and his birthright as king, the story demonstrates that simply holding a title doesn’t necessarily make them a leader. When Scar manipulates young Simba into fleeing the kingdom so that he (Scar, as second-in-line to the throne) can take over, he assumes the leadership position but does not take any leadership action. This results in the degradation of the savannah and the near-starvation of his “people”.

Ultimately, Scar is rejected as a leader and betrayed by his closest allies (the hyenas). Simba, on the other hand, demonstrates his leadership through action rather than relying on his royal pedigree, and the kingdom is restored.

2. Real leaders are courageous (when it matters)

Early on, Simba gets himself (and Nala) into a dangerous situation with the hyenas. His father, King Mufasa, comes to their rescue at the last minute.

After the incident, Mufasa sees an opportunity for a “teachable moment” and gives Simba a firm (yet compassionate) lecture about the importance of obedience. When Simba explains that he was only trying to be brave like his father, Mufasa says, “I’m only brave when I have to be.”

This scene highlights an important distinction between fearlessness and courage. As as lion, and as the King, Mufasa is assumed to be fearless. But, as he explains to Simba, “Even kings get scared”.

Mufasa demonstrates that being a leader is not so much about having a large comfort zone - it’s about having the courage to take action outside that zone when the occasion calls for it. (He adds that it’s not about looking for trouble, as Simba had done.)

The theme of courage returns later in the movie when Simba prepares to return to Pride Rock after a period of exile.

Simba is weighed down by the guilt and shame of believing that he is responsible for his father’s death. (It isn’t until the end of the film that Simba learns that Mufasa was actually murdered by his jealous, power-hungry brother, Scar.) He tells Rafiki (the royal knowledge-keeper with the bright blue butt), “Going back means that I’ll have to face my past.”

Rafiki helps shift Simba’s perspective on his past by demonstrating to him that it can be an important source of learning. He says, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But, the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

This enables Simba to step into his true power as leader - not by virtue of his lineage but through his willingness to overcome his fears.

3. Real leaders step up and take responsibility

I hate to break it to you, but Hakuna Matata is a cop-out.

For several years, I enjoyed Hakuna Matata as an uplifting interlude after the seriously heart-breaking death of Mufasa. I didn’t realise that this “problem-free philosophy” was (at least partly) holding Simba back from being a leader.

When Timon and Pumbaa first meet young Simba, he is broken from the experience of seeing his father killed by a herd of running wildebeest. In Hakuna Matata (it means, “no worries”), Timon and Pumbaa create a safe space for Simba to heal from the traumatic experience that sent him fleeing from his family and community. It’s light and fun, and it’s exactly what Simba needs at that time.

But later, when (as adults) Nala encounters Simba and challenges him on why he stayed away from Pride Rock for so long, “hakuna matata” becomes a weak excuse. “Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Simba says, “so why worry?”

Nala quickly calls him out on this and reminds him that it is his responsibility, prompting Simba to reflect on where his priorities lie.

4. Real leaders are authentic

One of the most powerful and poignant scenes is when Simba is grappling with the decision about whether to return to fight his uncle Scar and claim his rightful place as King of Pride Rock. Mufasa appears to Simba as an apparition and tells him, “You are more than what you have become”, before reminding him that he is Mufasa’s son and therefore “the one true king”.

As the apparition disappears, Mufasa’s parting words are: “Remember who you are…”

On the surface, this could be interpreted as a simple reminder of Simba’s royal heritage and birthright as a leader. But perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to consider.

In a world where leadership is no longer based on lineage (except in some limited circumstances), “Remember who you are” could be interpreted as a call to exercise authentic leadership. It could be a reminder to tap into our true selves (not the masks that we might be inclined to put on in professional or social situations) and lead in a way that is aligned with our values and sense of personal integrity.

5. Real leaders serve their people

One of the most important leadership themes in The Lion King is less explicit than those mentioned above – the theme of service.

When Simba is a cub, Mufasa tries to impart upon him that they are all part of the circle of life. He says, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures - from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”

Later, Simba’s journey culminates with the realisation that he must return to Pride Rock in order to serve (and save) his community, which has been suffering under Scar's ego-driven rule.

As Mufasa put it: “There’s more to being a king than getting your way all the time.” 

***

Who would have thought that a “children’s film” could pack such a powerful punch?

Now, I’m curious…

What other films have inspired you as a leader?

How to inspire others to be their best

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“You got this!”

Have I inspired you yet?

I didn’t think so. But judging by how often I hear this phrase, you’ll forgive me for thinking that it might actually be effective.

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time on social media, but it seems like the “inspiration industry” is everywhere. Every day, we are bombarded with books, movies, podcasts, blogs, events, memes, videos, quotes, articles, and so on that urge us to be our “best selves” and live our “best lives”. And some of this is nice and makes us feel good, temporarily. But is it really having any lasting impact? Or is it just entertainment?

If we have virtually unlimited access to “inspiration”, then why are so many of us feeling worn down, burned out, stressed, anxious, and depressed? Why aren't we climbing more metaphorical mountains? Why aren’t we more inspired?

Inspiration is an inside job

My theory is that our concept of inspiration is flawed – or, at the very least, incomplete.

The inspiration industry has conditioned us to look for inspiration outside ourselves, when real inspiration comes from within. Our job - as leaders, coaches, parents, and decent human beings - is not to force someone to accept our inspiration as a substitute for their own; it is to provide the conditions that enable their own spark to ignite.

Ready for the good news? (“Are you really ready? Rah-rah!” Just kidding.)

The key to inspiring someone (including yourself) is simpler than you think.

To inspire others to be their best, we must first accept them as they are. In doing so, we create a space of psychological safety that, in itself, can be profoundly inspiring.

If that sounds counterintuitive, let me explain…

My search for inspiration 

A few weeks ago, I was feeling stuck; really stuck. I’d been struggling with a personal issue for months and finally agreed to meet with a family friend (a “wise elder” type) for a cup of tea and a chat. Confused and frustrated, I was doubtful that our conversation would change anything. After all, I'd been grappling with this situation for months, so what difference could she possibly make in an hour?

We met in her kitchen. Throughout our conversation, she (let’s call her Irene) did not offer me any advice. She did not try to challenge my thinking. She did not attempt to persuade me of anything. And yet, within no more than five or ten minutes, I started to feel calm and centred. Somehow the confused, teary, constricted “me” who drove to that appointment transformed into the strong, insightful, courageous “me”, and I started to see my problem in a new light. Although my circumstances had not changed, my perspective certainly had.

I felt inspired!

This wasn’t just the temporary emotional high that you might get when someone tells you they believe in you. This was a deep sense of clarity and trust that told me that I was in the perfect place to take the next step, whatever that might be.

So how did this turnaround occur?

Well, maybe Irene slipped something into my tea while I wasn’t looking. Or maybe – as I believe – she had tapped into the power of acceptance. 

Acceptance is a powerful state

In my work as an ontological coach, we talk about acceptance as a mood that occurs when we accept the things that we cannot change. We may not necessarily like what’s happening, but we choose to be at peace with how things are in the moment. This mood is captured by the saying, “It is what it is.”

So why is acceptance so powerful?

Well, first, it’s important to recognise that humans are fundamentally emotional beings. We’d like to think that we are entirely rational, but science (in particular, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio) tells us that this is not the whole story.

All moods are powerful because they operate like presets for our behaviour. When we’re angry (or hangry!), we’re more likely to engage in certain behaviours than when we’re sad. We can override those presets, but it can take considerable self-awareness and effort. So if we want to inspire someone, we need to shift their mood.

The reason acceptance is such a powerful mood is that:

  1. When we’re in a mood of acceptance, we not fighting against things that we can’t change (whether physically or psychologically). This frees up a lot of energy that would otherwise be pouring into the black hole of our frustration, anger, and resentment.

  2. When we free up this energy – especially in the form of attention (mental energy) – we access a space of neutrality that enables us to be open to new possibilities.

Now, some people find the mood of acceptance a little hard to – um, accept!

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as agreement. For example, you may not like the fact that a certain person or political party has been elected into office. But if you don’t accept it, then you’re battling against reality – and that’s a battle you’re going to lose.

The power of acceptance lies in its ability to eliminate unnecessary distractions (things we can’t change) and redirect our attention to what really matters (things we can change).

How to create a mood of acceptance in others

While we can’t control another person’s mood, we can certainly influence it.

Emotions are highly contagious. When we are in a mood of acceptance, we can trigger this state in others through a mechanism that involves their “mirror neurons”. (We are doing this all the time, unconsciously. The trick is to do it deliberately.) 

During my conversation with Irene, her state of acceptance towards me triggered a deep level of self-acceptance in me that freed up my attention to look for possibilities rather than rally against my present circumstances.

Reflecting on our conversation, I identified five things that Irene did that you might consider adopting as practices for promoting a mood of acceptance in your conversations:

  1. Being present – You can’t control your mood (or influence others' moods) if your mind is elsewhere. To use a computing analogy, presence is having only one window open on your screen at a time. In a world where attention is a scarcer resource than money or even time, presence can be a game-changer in your ability to inspire others. [More: How to cultivate authentic presence]

  2. Resisting the temptation to judge – When you feel like someone is judging you or analysing what you’re saying with a critical lens, it can unconsciously influence you to edit your words (and even your thoughts). In this case, Irene came to the conversation without any apparent agenda, opinions, judgments, or otherwise. This helped me to feel safe to think freely and clearly in a way that I hadn’t been able to with others. It enabled me to access the best version of myself and my own wisdom.

  3. Being curious – Despite having the advantage of a few decades of life experience beyond mine, Irene didn't try to impose her own life experience on me. She had the humility to stay curious, asking occasional questions to help me explore and expand my perceptions. I didn’t feel like I had to justify myself or impress her or seek her approval in any way (which is my Achilles heel, going back a loooong way). I could be completely open with her and myself. [More: How to kick your addiction to certainty]

  4. Avoiding unsolicited advice – Humans are natural problem-solvers. When someone’s in trouble, it’s all too easy to dish out advice (as I’m doing here – irony duly noted!) without considering the longer-term impact of this approach. Of course, in some contexts, advice can be appropriate and even necessary – for example, when the other person has no relevant experience or in an emergency. But giving advice, especially when someone hasn't asked for it, can unintentionally undermine them and erode their confidence to make wise decisions for themselves. Instead, it can be helpful to ask questions that enable them to connect with their own resourcefulness.

  5. Seeing the best in others – Sometimes, it can be hard to inspire others when we lose sight of their ability to learn and grow. We take a "fixed mindset" approach, believing that who they are now is who they'll always be. If that’s the case, then reminding yourself of their capacity to learn could make all the difference. By adopting a growth mindset, you can acknowledge where they are and choose to trust in their ability to get to where you'd like them to be (with guidance and support).

A client once told me, "People don't change!" But they can and they do. And, paradoxically, change is much more likely and easier when we start by accepting people as they are.

To quote the great philosopher, Katy Perry:

“Acceptance is the key to be truly free.”

***

In my work as a coach, I often refer to the chrysalis as a metaphor for the space and protection we need when we were undergoing a process of transformation. When we hold a space of acceptance for others, we are providing them with a sort of psychological cocoon that keeps them safe while they are transforming themselves – their perspective, their mindset, their way of being. For me, this is what it really means to inspire someone.

Who needs your inspiration – and acceptance – right now?

How to live a more creative life

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People talk about “life imitating art” -- and it really does.

Last week, the abundance of public holidays inspired me to pull out my treasure chest of art supplies and start playing. My mother is a talented artist, so I grew up painting and drawing. I was quite prolific until Year 9, when one of my art teachers told me that my work was “not creative enough”. (Can you relate to this?) Since then, I’ve dabbled here and there but rarely allowed myself to immerse myself in it completely -- until a few days ago.

As I reacquainted myself with my paints and brushes, I noticed how the process of creating art is similar to most creative activities -- including creating a business (which I’m also doing) and, more broadly, creating a life that we are proud to live. That led me to consider how adopting a "creative mindset" could help us to live more authentic, meaningful and colourful lives.

From the canvas to the keyboard, here are some insights on being an artist in your own life:

1. The hardest part is starting

Staring at a blank canvas can be terrifying. Why? My theory is that it’s because that first mark is a form of commitment -- and many people are afraid of making commitments because they think they're permanent and can't be changed (even though they don’t always act on them in the same way!). They judge their first attempt as if it should be their best work. In other words, they approach art with a fixed mindset.

Art is a constant process of learning. By giving ourselves permission to be a learner -- regardless of our level of experience or assumptions about our innate talent -- we free ourselves to experiment and learn/improve as we go.

2. You can't really fail because you can (almost) always build on your mistakes

The other day, I painted what I intended to be an abstract representation of the Sun. (I like the Sun.) It ended up looking more like a pepperoni pizza. (I love pizza, but not on my wall.)

I was tempted to throw it out, but then my mother encouraged me to paint over it. It turns out that "real" artists are constantly tweaking their work -- shaping it and changing it over weeks, months and even years. And when the "mistakes" are more substantial, you can usually paint over them. This isn’t about obliterating your mistakes -- it’s about building on them. The “failed” layer underneath is what gives texture and nuance to the new layer above. (And it's much better for the environment!)

3. The key to great art is "differences"

Although we might disagree on what constitutes great art, we can probably agree that great art is interesting. And the key to making interesting art (as I learned from a YouTube tutorial) is “differences”.

Art that is composed of elements that are too similar tends to be -- well, boring. Professional artists use differences in the elements -- that is, differences in size, shape, colour, value (tone), texture, etc -- to create contrast and tension. They also take care to balance these differences to avoid visual chaos. So if you want your art to be impactful and memorable, mix it up a little!

4. Art encourages us to be mindful

It is very difficult to paint (or draw or sculpt, etc) unless you are fully present. So, in a way, art is meditation in action -- which is great news for those of us who find it hard to sit still for more than two minutes.

And like more traditional forms of mindfulness, it changes the way you see. You notice details, nuances, subtleties that you would otherwise miss in the busyness of life. It makes you a better observer -- and the better (more accurate) your observations, the more choices you have about how you respond to them.

5.  Art is messy!

And that’s part of the fun. What doesn’t wash out becomes a testament to your creativity.

6.   The best art comes from the heart

In the end, my high school art teacher was probably right -- I wasn’t particularly creative back then because I wasn’t coming from my heart. Having experienced a fair bit of bullying/racism growing up, I learned to compartmentalise my emotions rather than express them freely. Only relatively recently have I learned to really feel my emotions again -- and this is bringing greater clarity, authenticity and originality to both my art and my life.

7. Art takes courage

French post-Impressionist painter Henri Matisse made this observation -- and he's right.

Art involves a journey into the unknown. When we're young, we're taught to "colour inside the lines". But great art -- art that moves people and inspires change -- takes risks for the purpose of communicating an idea. To do this, we have to accept that not everyone will like or appreciate our work. Great art tends to polarise people (for example, I love Salvador Dalí's work but some find it offensive) -- but that's why it's so powerful. It forces us into our emotions and those emotions aren't always comfortable -- but they are what make us human.

Now, here's a call to action:

If you're dissatisfied with any aspect of your life, consider how these insights might apply to it -- whether it's your career, your business, your side-hustle, your work project, your client meetings, or... Well, you get the picture (pun intended!).

How can you bring more creativity into your own life?

Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.

~Leonardo da Vinci

How to strengthen your most important relationship

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Love it or loathe it, Valentine’s Day has managed to stand the test of time (for over 1,500 years!) and has become a permanent fixture on calendars around the world.

For those who are single or have a healthy disdain for “Hallmark holidays”, it’s tempting to roll our eyes in frustration.

But what if we could repurpose Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to take stock of and celebrate our most important relationship – the one we have with ourselves? 

***

For most of my life, the idea of having a relationship with myself was completely unfathomable. It reminded me of that Sex & The City episode in which Carrie pretends to marry herself so that she can get her friend to buy her a pair of expensive shoes to replace the ones she’d lost at that friend’s party. Yeah – I wasn’t buying it (pardon the pun).

But then I broke up with my inner critic.

As I learned to distance myself from my inner critic and (gradually) amplify and connect with my inner coach, I began to see how the way we relate to ourselves is analogous to how we relate to others. And, perhaps more importantly, how the way we treat others is often a reflection of how we treat ourselves.

For example, as I became less critical of myself, I also became less critical of others. As I became more compassionate towards myself, I began to feel more heartfelt compassion towards others. And, in reverse, as I became better at establishing boundaries with others, the better I became (and am becoming!) at establishing boundaries with myself.

Having been brought up to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, I realised that the reverse might also be helpful: “Do unto yourself what you would do unto others.”

Since then, I've discovered a whole range of strategies for proactively building a stronger relationship with myself - the result being greater confidence, productivity and wellbeing.

Here are some of the highlights that I'd love to share with you:

1. Know who you are (SELF-AWARENESS)

The first stage of any healthy relationship involves getting to know the other person (even though certain reality TV shows would have you believe otherwise!). Similarly, a healthy relationship with yourself requires you to know who you really are.

At a practical level, this is about having a clear understanding of your own psychological wiring. What are your strengths? What are your triggers? What excites you? What are you afraid of? What is your potential?

Self-awareness is not something you “set and forget”; it’s a life-long practice that involves becoming better observers of our own behaviour, the mindset (way of being) that generates it, and the impact we have on others and our environment.

2. Accept yourself as you are (SELF-ACCEPTANCE)

You’re a work in progress and always will be. And that’s not just okay – it’s wonderful!

Self-acceptance gives you the freedom to explore new possibilities (for example, I would like to become more patient) without condemning yourself for what you might otherwise regard as your flaws or shortcomings. And when you accept yourself as you are, there’s no need to pretend to be anything you’re not. This leads to greater authenticity, clearer communication (because you’re not afraid to say what you mean), and the ability to build trust (both with yourself and others) more effectively.

3. Recognise your own legitimacy (SELF-RESPECT)

Self-respect is an overused term that is often thrown around with scant appreciation for what it really means or involves. That’s why the concept of “legitimacy” is so valuable.

In ontological coaching, “legitimate self” and “legitimate other” are terms used to describe the idea that, as individuals, we are equally valid – neither better nor worse. While this is notoriously challenging to apply in practice (our society is rife with standards that we use to delegitimise ourselves and others), it is worth considering how you might be holding yourself as “less than” or “not enough”.

How are you eroding your own legitimacy? What impact is this having on you, your relationships and your life? What would be different in your life if you could recognise yourself as legitimate?

The starting point for self-empowerment is self-respect.

4. Establish healthy boundaries with yourself (SELF-DISCIPLINE)

Having a great relationship is not all sunshine and roses. There are times when it’s hard work! And just as our interpersonal relationships benefit from commitment and accountability, so too does your relationship with yourself.

What commitments are you not making to yourself? How might you be letting yourself down by not holding yourself accountable to the commitments you have made?

If you have trouble keeping your commitments to yourself, it may be helpful to distinguish between your current self and your future self. What might your future self experience as a result of your current self doing or not doing something that has longer-term implications? For example, when I'm tempted to sleep in instead of get out of bed for an early morning yoga class, I remind myself that “future me” will feel the benefits of me going (not to mention the ill-effects if I don’t go). It may also be worth exploring your motivational style.

5. Be kind to yourself (SELF-COMPASSION)

A common trait I’ve observed in high-achievers (especially women, it would seem) is that they are incredibly hard on themselves. When I ask them whether they would talk to their child or a good friend the way they talk to themselves, they are appalled. “Of course not!” Which begs the questions: “Then why are you treating yourself that way?”

What makes you any less deserving of the decency and compassion you extend to others? (See SELF-RESPECT)

6. Take care of your own needs (SELF-CARE)

This is also a natural extension of self-respect, but if that’s not enough to convince you… consider the oxygen mask analogy. (Put your own mask on before you help others, because how can you help others if you’ve passed out?)

For some, self-care has become associated with massages and bubble baths, but it’s much more than that. It’s about being in tune with your own needs and taking care of them as best you can. This includes prioritising your physical, emotional and mental health – for example, getting enough rest, eating well, exercising, and so on. It also extends to the way you interact with the world – honouring your boundaries, treating yourself with kindness and generosity, and avoiding toxic relationships and situations.

7. Love yourself unconditionally (SELF-LOVE)

Ah, finally – the big one: self-love. This is one of the hardest aspects of any relationship. How can you love someone when they’re not exactly who you want them to be?

For many, many years, I thought that self-love came from racking up a list of achievements that I could refer to as proof of my own worthiness. It was only when that list got to a considerable length that I realised how little it mattered. The bar kept getting higher; the list would never be long enough. And so I discovered that real self-love is when you love yourself regardless of the list – and despite the sometimes longer list of all the mistakes you’ve made, the people you’ve hurt, and the times you’ve failed. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

***

Ultimately, the cumulative effect of these improvements is that you are more in alignment with yourself. There's no gap between the private “you” and the public “you”. This frees up a significant amount of energy that you can then invest in being a better leader, colleague, parent, daughter/son, friend, and citizen. And, if that’s not enough, IT FEELS GOOD!

Over to you...

Which aspect of your relationship with yourself would you like to celebrate?

Which aspect would you like to strengthen?

What would be different in your life if you had a better relationship with yourself? 

***

Want to learn more?

I'm looking forward to running some half-day workshops that will explore some of these concepts in more depth and bring them to life in a way that you can apply immediately. The first pair of workshops are as follows:

While each workshop is designed to stand alone, they also complement each other. You are encouraged to join both workshops but are welcome to choose one or the other.

Please click the links above for details and to register for the workshops.

I hope to see you there!

Chyonne Kreltszheim is an ontological coach and facilitator who helps people to transform their “way of being” in the context of their leadership, career and life. She is the founder of Being: the Change.

 Change Your Mind ~ Change Your Life ~ Change Your World

How to protect your most valuable asset (hint: it’s about time)

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How do you protect your home from intruders and thieves (and nosy neighbours)?

Does your home have walls? Is there a lock on the front door? A doorbell? Maybe a fence of some description? Have you got a security system (electronic alarm, scary dog, etc)?

If you’re like most people reading this article, you probably take at least some basic measures to safeguard the privacy and security of your home.

So why don’t you do this with your time? (And if you do, why are you reading this article?)

I was coaching a client last year when we unexpectedly stumbled upon the idea of protecting your time the way you protect your physical property.

Like so many others, my client was struggling to juggle the competing demands on her time, which had multiplied since taking on a senior leadership role. She had recently been away on a family holiday, and her frustration was plainly evident as she recounted how her precious time had been interrupted by calls and emails about matters that weren’t (in her view) urgent.

As an ontological coach, I am trained to explore a client’s “way of being” — rather than just what they are doing — to improve their effectiveness as leaders and influencers. After all, most of us know how to do time management — from the Urgent/Important matrix, to Getting Things Done, to (more recently) Bullet Journalling, we are not short on methodologies for managing our time. And yet many people aren’t applying what they know, which suggests that the issue is in their way of being.

One of the ways that a person’s “way of being” might be revealed is through their use of metaphors. Metaphors are powerful linguistic devices that are laden with meaning and can reveal layers of latent assumptions and beliefs about a person or situation.

In this case, my client’s metaphor came to the surface when, thoroughly exasperated, she said: “I’m so sick of people stealing my time!”

This offhand comment opened up a juicy discussion — not least of all about what my client could do to protect her time from being stolen in the future. And, you can too, if you choose to adopt some of the insights below.

If time is “property”, how do we protect it?

If we extend the metaphor of “time theft”, it seems that we can protect our time the same way (metaphorically speaking) that we would protect our physical property — by installing and maintaining a psychological security system.

Here are some of the insights that emerged from our discussion about what this might involve (with thanks to my client for her permission to share this):

  1. Taking OWNERSHIP of your time: Before you can protect your time, you have to realise that you “own” it. People often give their time away without thinking about it because they assume that others are automatically entitled to it or because they are afraid of rocking the boat. But you — and only you — can choose what you do with your time. Of course, most of us are in relationships (with employers, colleagues, clients, partners, family, friends, etc) that involve an expectation that we will spend certain amounts of time in certain ways. The key is to negotiate those expectations consciously and from a position of power (ownership) over your own time. More on that below.

  2. Installing appropriate BOUNDARIES: Dr Henry Cloud describes boundaries as “a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible”. In this context, it’s about choosing to be responsible for your time and how you prioritise (and balance) requests for that time. For example: Do you carve out time each day to focus on your high priority projects or are you constantly available to “drop-ins” and other interruptions? Are you available for phone calls and emails during meetings/after business hours/while you’re on holiday — or do you set conditions or limits? When someone asks for your help with a problem, do you immediately assume responsibility for solving it or or do you support the other person to discover their own solution? Do you even know what your priorities are? (If your answer is “no”, you’re not alone — but you can do something about this!)

  3. Creating GATES in your boundaries: Now you might be wondering how this strategy fits with being accessible and responsive to clients and customers, not to mention in the context of open plan offices and open door policies. Well, that’s where gates come in! A “gate” is essentially an opportunity to treat what might previously have been seen as a demand or obligation and turn it into a request instead. The difference between “demands and obligations” and “requests” is important, because the latter tends to imply that you have more choice in how you respond — and you do.

  4. Learning the LANGUAGE of negotiating your boundaries: Richard Bransonfamously encouraged us to “say yes — then learn how to do it later”. But this doesn’t mean we should always say yes! It can be tempting to treat “yes” as your default response, especially if you identify as a “people pleaser” or are in a role that requires you to be helpful and accommodating. But this can be a fast track to feeling overwhelmed — and ultimately unproductive — so it’s important to avail yourself of other responses from time to time, such as “no”, “not now”, or even “not that, but how about this”. And once you’ve negotiated a boundary, it’s important to stand by it — even though you might feel guilty or uncomfortable in some cases.

  5. Employing a SENTRY: There’s no point in having a 10 metre high security fence if you constantly leave the front gate open! Boundaries only work if you remember to use them. In psychological terms, this is about being mindful enough to realise when someone is knocking at your door and present enough to respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. This is difficult when you’re operating on autopilot, so (again) mindfulness is the key. When faced with a request, take a pause and give your conscious mind (your sentry) time to catch up and consider before responding.

  6. Noticing when the ALARM goes off — and responding accordingly:You’re not always going to get it ‘right”, and others are going to commit trespass from time to time (just as you will with them). And like the flashing light or high-pitched alarm of an electronic security system, your psychological security system uses your emotions (typically, resentment, frustration and anger) to tell you that your boundaries have been breached. The problem is that many of us have learned to ignore the signal. We swallow our irritation and complain to others about how so-and-so is imposing on our time, when we could be using our emotions to signal the need for a more constructive conversation with that person. With increased awareness of how your alarm system operates, you can expand your range of choices for responding more effectively.

It takes courage to create boundaries and mindfulness to maintain them.

It’s not necessarily easy, but the benefits of productivity, progress and peace of mind — not to mention the clarity and confidence that comes with taking ownership of your most valuable assets — are, well, invaluable.

The key is to cultivate an underlying “way of being” of feeling legitimate enough to make choices about how you use your time, so that your psychological security system becomes a natural extension of who you are and how you show up in your world.

Would you like to learn more? Are you wondering how to apply these strategies to your own circumstances? Please get in touch and/or subscribe to my blog to be notified about new posts and get access to other valuable resources.

How to motivate yourself without resolutions or goals

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I wasn’t going to write a new year-themed post this year.

Let’s face it – the whole “new year, new you” thing is so overdone these days that it’s tempting to dismiss it as a marketing gimmick, much like Valentine's Day.

But then something happened on New Year’s Day that changed my mind…

I did my first parkrun.

If you’re a seasoned runner, that might not sound like much of an achievement. After all, it’s just a 5km community run that occurs in numerous locations around the world every Saturday morning – and, in this case, on New Year’s Day. No big deal.

But, for me, it was a pretty big deal.

Not just because it involved waking up early-ish on New Year’s Day. Not just because I was one of the least athletic people at my school (the whole school!) and did not discover the benefits of running until my thirties. And not just because it had been over seven years since my last organised run.

It was a big deal because I motivated myself to do it without using resolutions or goals.

This might sound slightly blasphemous coming from a coach, but I’m not particularly motivated by goals. I find traditional goal-setting to be quite tedious – it kills my natural enthusiasm and turns my big dreams into dreary obligations (more on that below).

So how did I motivate myself to go running at 8am on New Year's with a bunch of strangers without using a resolution or goal?

I used a story.

The power of stories

In the business world, people are learning to harness the power of stories to influence others. For leaders, stories are a powerful way to inspire and engage their teams, while companies are using storytelling to build brand recognition.

One of the reasons that stories are so powerful is that they allow us to infuse data and logic with emotions. While we might like to think of ourselves as rational beings, it turns out that emotions play a critical role in our decision-making – so much so that people who have lost their neurological capacity for emotion find it difficult (if not impossible) to make decisions.

So clearly stories are powerful when it comes to influencing others. But have you ever thought about how you could use stories to influence yourself?

Our lives are made up of stories. For example: 

  • Life stories: the way we make sense of the significant events in our lives and communicate this to others

  • Cultural narratives: the stories we have been born into, or absorbed, based on our ethnicity and/or nationality, as well as our gender, generation, profession, and so on

  • Opinions: the micro-stories that we tell ourselves and others, often unconsciously, about how we perceive the events, people and circumstances around us

While many of us are not consciously aware of these stories, they are playing out every day - in our self-talk. That’s right – we are constantly telling ourselves stories.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I’m not a morning person.”

  • “I’m not creative.”

  • “I’m an introvert.”

Now these stories are not in themselves problematic until you consider how you are using them. For example:

  • “I can’t exercise before work because I’m not a morning person.”

  • “I won’t share my ideas with my colleagues because I’m not creative.”

  • “I don't do networking because I’m an introvert.”

Our stories are important because they represent our beliefs about what is possible for us and subtly (or not so subtly) influence our behaviour – that is, the actions we’re willing to take to create the life that we want. Thankfully, stories are not set in stone and can be changed using a process known as self-authoring.

(Side note: One of the most debilitating stories I hear as a leadership coach is "I am not a leader." This too is a story that can be changed. It's a huge topic that deserves a separate post, so please subscribe to my blog if you'd like to learn more about this.)

So what was the story that motivated me to run?

You might expect that it had something to do with improving my fitness or losing weight. But it wasn’t – I’d been trying to motivate myself to get back into running for months and those stories hadn’t worked for me.

Instead, it was this: “I like trying new and unusual things.” 

Whaaaaat?

If you're surprised that this story could be so effective, well – so was I! But it ties into a key element of my identity - my story - which relates to curiosity and adventure.

I love learning new things, I love taking on new challenges, and I love doing things that are slightly differently from the norm. While running 5km was not a new experience for me, running first thing on New Year’s Day had enough novelty in it to align with my identity as someone who enjoys trying new and unusual things. (On the other hand, fitness and weight loss are not central to my identity, and didn't motivate me at all.)

Once I saw the alignment between the action of running and my story, I felt a sense of determination that I rarely feel when I set goals. It became a matter of honour!

The importance of knowing what motivates you

I subsequently connected my experience with the motivation styles model developed by Gretchen Rubin and described in her book, The Four Tendencies.

This model suggests that some people are more motivated by outer expectations (their commitments to others) while others are more motivated by inner expectations (their commitments to themselves). On the other hand, some people - referred to as “Rebels” - generally aren’t motivated by expectations, whether outer or inner. For these people (and apparently I am one of them), they are most motivated when something is aligned with their identity. Then the action becomes a matter of self-expression - of being true to themselves.

Now, you may or may not identify as a “Rebel”. But if you are struggling to stick to your resolutions or goals – or if you avoid them altogether – it may be worth trying this strategy.

(By the way, my initial story was only good for the first parkrun. The following Saturday, I used a different story - “I am a creature of habit” - to motivate myself to run again.)

So what is it about a story that makes it effective?

I’ve identified four elements that make a story effective as a motivational tool.

Your story needs to be:

  1. Simple: Unlike the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves require no embellishment. A simple story that begins with the words “I am…” will be more memorable than one that is long and complicated.

  2. Credible: Your story must be believable to you, even if it isn’t “true” (in the sense of being objectively provable). When we use our past achievements as a yardstick for what is possible in the future, there's a risk that we may limit ourselves to what we've done before. One of the most powerful ways to craft a credible story that inspires us beyond our past achievements is to use a learning-oriented story. For example, "I am willing to learn how to run again and accept that it will be uncomfortable to begin with" would be more credible to a new or lapsed runner than "I am a fit and healthy runner". This is all about using a growth mindset to stretch the boundaries of possibility.

  3. Aligned: If your story is not aligned with your values, it could create an internal conflict that leads to indecision and self-sabotage. The key here is to be really honest with yourself about what your values are – not what you think they should be. And be aware that your values can change over time, shaped by your significant life experiences.

  4. Action-oriented: Stories that don’t inspire action are merely entertainment (which is why I don't have Netflix!). Does your story inspire you to do something different or is it simply justifying an old pattern of behaviour? It may take some investigation and creativity to find a story that works for you.

Now so far I’ve been assuming that you can connect your desired action to an existing story. But what if you want to do something that you currently believe is “impossible”? Something that isn't grounded in your current reality? Something you are not immediately capable of?

You can write a new story.

It takes courage to write a new story and a degree of effort to practise it into your way of being so that it becomes habitual, but it is also a sign of maturity that you are willing to do so. This is where coaching can be incredibly useful - to help you to challenge your existing stories and create new ones that are aligned with your ideal future, and then provide the accountability and support needed to integrate the new story into your way of being.

The C-B-As of this strategy

  1. Clarity: Identify what motivates YOU. If goals and resolutions work for you, fantastic - keep working with them. If not, it doesn't mean you're a flawed human being - you're just motivated differently. Either way, become more observant about what motivates you to take action and be creative in applying those strategies in new and different contexts.

  2. Belief: Align your desired change with a personal story that inspires you and that you feel is credible. But don't limit yourself to what you've done before. If your new behaviour is not supported by an existing story, write a new one!

  3. Action: Transformation happens when we do something different. While the story strategy is intended to shift your way of being, it's important to translate this from your imagination into action so that your mind can expand its sense of what is possible.

"If you're going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all." ~Joseph Campbell

Chyonne Kreltszheim is an ontological coach and facilitator who helps people to align their "way of being" to unlock their energy, leadership and creativity. She is the founder of Being: the Change.

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Change Your Mind ~ Change Your Life ~ Change Your World

Intregity isn't something you have - it's something you do.

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I was preparing to deliver a session on Integrity in Project Delivery this week and was looking for some inspiration… So of course life threw me my very own 'integrity challenge'.

Arriving at a client’s office for an all-day meeting, I pulled into the visitors’ car park and was greeted by a smiling security guard who informed me that there was a two-hour time limit in place. Parking is scarce in the area, and the all-day parking was full, so I told him I’d be back in two hours (which would see me through until morning tea).

When I mentioned this to my client, she said, “Don’t worry about moving your car. You’ll get a note on your windscreen, but there’s no penalty.”

A couple of hours later, I still had a nagging feeling that I was doing something wrong. Even though I wasn’t going to get into “trouble”, I felt really uncomfortable, so I decided to move my car.

On the way out to the car park, I wondered whether the friendly security guard had been a deliberate strategy. (Yes, I do tend to overthink things, but I prefer to think of it as being an astute observer of life!) Rather than intimidating people into compliance, the moment of human connection I'd experienced in that 30-second conversation had created a social contract that I was loathe to break.

When I got out to the car park, the security guard had gone, so I considered leaving my car where it was. But I still felt uncomfortable. What if he came back?

And then I remembered... Integrity!

Integrity is one of those lofty concepts that we can lose sight of in the day-to-day minutiae of life. But, for me in that moment, it came down to this: Am I going to do what I said I would do? Am I going to keep my word? 

I’m not trying to paint myself out to be some kind of saint. Far from it. I make dozens of 'minor compromises' every day - most in the name of convenience and all at the expense of my integrity. But that’s the thing about integrity. It’s not something you have – it’s something you do.

It’s a moment-to-moment choice: Am I going to keep my word or not?

The literal meaning of integrity is to be whole or undivided.

When you don't keep your word, you are divided into the 'you' who says one thing and the 'you' who does another. When you keep your word - regardless of whether anyone's looking or what the consequences might be - you keep yourself whole.

Integrity is a big concept with huge implications, but it is constructed in small moments.

I'm not going to spell out the many ways in which this might apply to you or your team or your organisation. You already know...

(And I moved my car. Just in case you were wondering!)

Finding a cure for imposter syndrome

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In every workplace, there lurks a silent killer.

It may not be life-threatening, but it may be killing your productivity, your wellbeing and your confidence.

It affects about 70% of people – usually high achievers – and consumes significant amounts of mental and emotional energy. While not a disorder in the clinical sense, it is associated with anxiety and depression. And, because it seems to disproportionately affect women, there's a good chance that it's contributing to the woeful lack of women in leadership roles.

I’m talking about “imposter syndrome”.

What is imposter syndrome?

If you haven't heard of imposter syndrome before, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's something that happens when a person of dubious intent hacks into your computer and steals your credit card details. But imposter syndrome isn't identity theft (although it can feel a bit like your true identity has been hijacked).

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that is usually described as the experience of feeling like an intellectual fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. qualifications, achievements and recognition). For some, it is accompanied by an irrational fear of being "found out".

Since when is this a "thing"?

The condition itself isn't anything new. It was identified as "imposter phenomenon" almost 40 years ago by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, after they noticed a pattern in the thinking and behaviour of 150 highly successful women that they worked with over a five-year period.

Its resurgence in the organisational context seems to be associated with the focus on women in leadership.

You’ve heard the statistics. As I write this:

Studies suggest that imposter syndrome occurs more frequently - and more intensely - in women than it does in men (although this could be because men are less likely to talk about it). And the further women move up the corporate ladder, the more likely they are to question themselves and their abilities.

Having spent most of my career working in and around the construction industry, I’m well-accustomed to being the only female in meetings and feeling like I don’t belong (or, sadly, feeling “privileged” to be there). Throw imposter syndrome into the mix and it's no wonder there are so few females in key leadership roles.

That said, this is not about gender.

But hang on... I'm not a fraud!

I get it. The word "fraud" doesn't resonate with me either.

It seems to me that imposter syndrome is suffering from a marketing problem. Even in 2017, I've talked to several people who still hadn’t heard of it. And, of those who had, only a few were willing to admit that they’d experienced it. I mean, who wants to admit to feeling like a fraud?

But when you look at the common symptoms, it really resonates. We're talking "generalised anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to the inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement". Sound familiar, anyone?

What I've realised though is that the reason I don't identify with the textbook experience of feeling like a fraud is that I've gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

For example, have you ever:

  1. felt an almost compulsive need to work harder, put in longer hours and contribute more to prove that you're pulling your weight? (Nothing's ever "good enough".)
  2. downplayed your accomplishments because you’re focusing on how imperfect it felt on the inside rather than how impressive it looked to others from the outside? (Not surprisingly, imposter syndrome has been linked to perfectionism.)
  3. proactively declared your shortcomings so that no one could call you out on them later? (“I told you I was not as good as you thought I was!”)
  4. held yourself back from opportunities, and made excuses about not being qualified enough or skilled enough or experienced enough, because you don’t feel like you deserve them ("I'll ask for that promotion or pay rise when I achieve X...")?
  5. doubted the judgment of people who praised you? (Or even questioned their sincerity?)

It’s exhausting.

And the more you achieve, the worse it seems to get. It's a vicious cycle - feel inadequate, work hard, achieve things, feel even more inadequate. Rinse and repeat.

While a bit of self-doubt can provide a valuable check and balance against the excesses of vanity and ego, the problem with imposter syndrome is that most people get caught up in it and believe that it's true. It's a bit like being shrouded in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak without even knowing that it’s there, let alone how to take it off.

So what's the good news?

The good news is that imposter syndrome doesn't have to be a way of life. Once you become aware of it, you've taken a huge step towards the "cure".

Personally, I've found it useful to think of imposter syndrome as a "way of being".

Your "way of being" is essentially your mindset. By becoming more mindful of your "way of being", you have the opportunity to notice when imposter syndrome is showing up in your life - e.g. in high-stakes meetings, presentations or other circumstances - and the possibility of choosing a different way of being that is more empowering for you.

What does this mean in practice?

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

The three domains of our "way of being" - Language, Moods and Body

Google "imposter syndrome", and you'll find numerous articles listing strategies for dealing with it. No doubt, many of those strategies are helpful, but they are almost entirely focused on one aspect of our way of being - our thoughts (Language).

The thing is - we are not just our thoughts. Our thoughts are connected to our moods and physiology, and these three elements interact and reinforce each other to create our "way of being" in the way that sleep, nutrition and exercise contribute to our physical health.

So a purely cognitive approach to imposter syndrome is a bit like giving a diabetic a list of foods to avoid but not telling them about the need for exercise.

A more holistic approach would encompass our whole “way of being”.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Language: Notice (and shift) your self-talk

Imposter syndrome is largely embedded in the conversations we have with ourselves - in other words, the negative self-talk that we engage in, largely out of habit.

By becoming more aware of your own internal narrative, you have the opportunity to change it to something more constructive.

For example, a person who is experiencing textbook imposter syndrome might be telling themselves, “Who are you to be applying for this role? You don’t have enough experience. They’re going to laugh at you!” On the other hand, a more supportive dialogue might be: “Good on you for challenging yourself! How can you best prepare yourself for the process?”

Next time you notice those old familiar feelings of self-doubt, ask yourself this: "What would I say to encourage someone I was coaching or mentoring?"

For more: How to break up with your inner critic

2. Moods: Cultivate curiosity

As we advance in our careers, the pressure to demonstrate our competence can sometimes come at the expense of our openness to learning. This can lead to a mood of anxiety, which occurs when we are attached to knowing the outcome of a situation (i.e. getting it “right”) and refuse to tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing.

For example: What if someone asks me a question I can't answer? Will they question my competence?

The antidote to anxiety is curiosity.

You can cultivate curiosity by adopting a learning or growth mindset. Being willing to be a learner requires humility and the courage to say "I don't know", but the payoff is the freedom to discover new ways of looking at old problems.

For more: How to kick your addiction to certainty

3. Physiology: Breathe!

A powerful but often neglected aspect of our "way of being" is our physiology. My working theory is that imposter syndrome occurs when you know intellectually that you are successful, but your body hasn't quite caught up.

By making subtle shifts in our posture and breathing, we can generate significant changes in our thinking and moods.

A simple experiment: Think of a tough problem you've been struggling to solve. Really focus on it and notice where you feel it in your body. Now go for a short walk (even just 5-10 minutes) and focus on breathing into that space. What do you notice? What new insights arise?

For those who have developed strongly engrained habits of thought and/or moods, a physiological approach can be a refreshing alternative to more cognitively-based approaches. People have been telling me to "get out of my head" for years - but until I discovered how to be in my body, I didn't know where else to go!

For more: How to cultivate authentic presence

Where to from here?

If this article resonated with you, I can help.

I'm not a psychologist and I don't have all of the answers, but I have accumulated a substantial toolkit of strategies and techniques that can help you to manage your self-doubt and improve your productivity, wellbeing and confidence.

Some of these strategies are better experienced in person than explained on paper, so I’ve developed a workshop that will equip you with a range of approaches towards curing imposter syndrome in whatever form you might be experiencing it.

The workshop will be held in Melbourne on Wednesday 1 November 2017 and is open to all, regardless of gender. The only prerequisites are an open mind, a courageous heart and a sense of humour! Further details will be released soon, so please get in touch if you'd like to learn more.

By applying these strategies in my own life, I am learning to manage my experience of my self-doubt so that it comes in waves rather than floods, punctuated by periods of joyful creativity, productivity and optimism that are becoming longer and more stable.

And so can you.