Late last week I had a very good session with my coach. Her opening sentence set the tone for our meeting. She told me about a recent incident in her life that was extremely personal citing it as a low point in her career. She appeared visibly shaken and perturbed – uncharacteristically so. I was curious but also wanted to help her “clear” herself and asked if she wanted to share and she did. I did not realise then how this would set me on a path of making myself more vulnerable. I just knew I felt more comfortable talking to her about a difficult problem I have on my hands.
In March I am scheduled to attend a meeting with a room full of people who do not like the direction in which my organization is headed as a social enterprise. They view me as a competitor who is not playing nice, given the contracts we are bidding on in their regions, albeit, through an open bid process. They would have me do nothing or conduct business in what they perceive as being more collaborative. I believe I have acted with integrity and have been open and transparent, although I may not have been proactive enough in reaching out to them. A recent incident confirmed their distrust and all I knew to do was to take a defensive stance. I realized then this would further entrench them in their position and me in mine and only worsen the status quo. I had to approach this meeting differently. I have to find common ground by communicating creatively or make peace with the direction we were taking and not act and feel defensive. But how?
My coach started out by exploring what I wanted to change. “Well”, I said, “I want to build greater trust”. “What values of yours do you want them to experience?”, she asked. “Well, my honesty, passion and commitment to the greater good that these differences should transcend”, I replied. She then asked that I connect with those values with my heart while we role played, with her taking on the role of one of agencies that was going to give me the cold shoulder at minimum or be downright confrontational. It was the most difficult half hour I have spent in a long time, since I could not connect with my values sufficiently to stop taking a defensive stance, which she was quick to point out. After much struggle, I intellectually ( and not experientially) hit upon the approach that was going to work. Connect with the heart without the need to prove anything. State factually without offering an opinion as to what happened and then ask questions remaining curious and in the present without wanted to “solve” anything. Just this approach would change the tone of the conversation and bring about changes that were not planned or intended. In a sense I would make myself completely vulnerable. So, as homework, I decided to try this in my everyday interactions.
My first experience was an utter failure. Here’s what happened. We drove down to Pittsburgh this weekend. After visiting the temple there, we decided to have dinner at a local grill known for its Pizza. A belated valentine’s day celebration of sorts. I entered the restaurant with expectation of a nice evening. We were greeted by a very unfriendly hostess who then handed us over to an equally bland faced waitress. When I changed my drink order she was visibly annoyed and for the rest of the evening she did not make eye contact with me. I was put off. I noticed then that we were the only Indians in a room full of white folks and so I was quick to jump to conclusions and mumbled to my husband “such racism”. If I had practised what I have set out to, I could have talked to the waitress, shared my experience of not feeling welcome and asked her if there was something I had done to offend and even apologized for changing my order and causing her inconvenience. Instead, I remained outraged leaving without a glance in her direction or a thank you. Making oneself vulnerable is easier said than done – even in a situation where I had more power than the person I was interacting with.
Interestingly, Bloomberg has an article in a recent issue on a young tech entrepreneur wannabe who has embarked on a social experiment to face a hundred rejections in a variety of social settings to gain a thicker hide when approaching VCs for funding. An example is one situation where he approaches a professor at his Alma mater, the University of Texas, Austin, and asks if he could teach his class, only to be promptly turned down. As a collateral gain to posting his rejections on YouTube he has become a sensation with quarter million hits and growing, and a Bloomberg article. Hats off to this young man! I don’t have his courage. However, I am prepared to begin with baby steps. Just to be present in every situation, authentic and truthful. Today I did better when I noticed a trigger, when interacting with my husband. I checked my impulse to act defensively and just remained curious and present. The ensuing conversation was open, interesting and fun-filled.