Brett Wood explores the relationship between inner work, performance and wellbeing.
Me and my Shadow
A few years back I was working in a leadership role in an Educational Institution. I had to address a difficult issue with one of my staff. She had been accused of bullying by one of her students.
I sat down with her to have a preliminary discussion. Outwardly I was saying all the right things; “my objective is to address the situation with respect for you and the for the students. I propose that we…“
And then she interrupted me and she began to defend her position. Outwardly I nodded with my best ‘I’m listening’ face whilst internally I fumed and my inner commentary went nuts (“wow, she really is a bully. My god, she’s not even willing to consider she might be out of line- blimey, I’m being so respectful and she’s walking all over me”).
And so, subtly at first and then more overtly, I tried to make her see how wrong she was and how right I was. We started to interrupt each other (how else was I to get a word in with such a bully?). And so together we parried and wrestled our way toward hell.
If I were to put my inner life into formulae of energy expenditure it would be something like this:
60% self-righteousness + 30% repression of emotion + 9.9% ‘calmness’ mask maintanence = 99.9% exhausting state of being.
And then something marvellous happened. That little .1% remaining energy focussed itself into a quiet little inner voice that spoke to me saying;
“Brett, you’re pretending you’re committed to a positive respectful resolution, but you’re full of s&#t- all you’re really trying to do is win.”
And then, spontaneously I found myself speaking out loud;
“Can we just pause for a moment here. I’ve just realised something. I’m pretending to be committed to a positive respectful outcome but you know if I’m to be honest, I think I’ve just become obsessed with being right and making you wrong… and that’s not respectful to anyone and it’s not working. And I’m sorry….”
And then it was like this yawning void opened up. She didn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I think ‘terror’ would probably best describe what I felt, along with a sense of falling into an abyss. And then, just when I thought I couldn’t bare the silence, she spoke, in a tone so soft and vulnerable that it was like an entirely different person had showed up. She said “yeah, well, it’s a difficult conversation to have”. And after a pause I said “yeah, it is”.
And then the whole tone and trajectory of the conversation changed. She actually listened to me and I to her. Within 15 minutes we’d come to agreements about how to proceed. A positive, respectful outcome was indeed achieved. No heroes and villains. No good guys and bad guys. Just human beings with blind spots talking respectfully and courageously about a situation that wasn’t working and called for some change. I’m not going to pretend it was all hummingbirds and rainbows after that. Her blind spots and habits continued but they were easier to discuss in the future. The problem remained but it no longer dominated everyone’s experience. It never went back to the level of dysfunction that existed before the conversation.
So what happened? My inner life was determining my outer results. At first my inner world was driven by my shadow i.e. righteousness and the need to win at all costs. All the ‘best practice’ communication techniques didn’t stand a snowballs chance in hell of getting us anywhere. All the best ‘rapport building’ and ‘active listening‘ techniques won’t matter a jot if the inner life is out of sorts. Even the sharpest techniques become blunt weapons in the hands of an ego running wild.
What really pops my navel though, is how integrity is restored the very moment we come clean about our lack of integrity! I have come to realise that the goal is not to be perfectly virtuous! What a burden! How inflated and full of peril lies that crazy endeavour! The goal is to simply be watchful for habits of attitude that may get in the road of the results you want to create. And then, when you notice them, name them without wasting too much time trying to justify them or condemn them.
It’s this recognition that creates space for new commitments. How wonderful that we can cultivate that self-awareness. And the good news is, it only takes .1% of awareness to tip the balance, to come clean with yourself and others about what’s really driving you, as a first step to recalibrate your attitude and generate better outcomes.
Since then I’ve had many similar turning points with great results in my outer world. For those of you who love a good process, here it is:
I recognise and confess my inner shadow and then declare a new commitment.
With some sheepishness I must also admit that I’ve since tried to use the process itself as weapon! (“I’ll apologise and that’ll soften them up and make it easier for me to win!”). Oh that tricky ego eh? But when I genuinely recognise my shadow and feel the cost of this on my relationships and results, and when I’m brave enough to admit this, then generally wonderful things happen; stuck situations become unstuck. Withering relationships blossom. Solutions emerge where problems lay.
Our inner state is constantly creating very real and tangible results. Rather than scramble around the surface trying to figure out what to do, why don’t we stop and reflect on this inner state that is defining and constructing our reality. It just takes the willingness to stop and look. Great things will often follow.
Happy Inner Work,
P.S. A really great book that’s informed my thinking and practice in this area is “The Three Laws of Performance” by Zaffron and Logan
If you like this post; You may also enjoy reading Inner Life…Outer Results (First Edition)