“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:
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.
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:
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]
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.
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]
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.
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?