When to Back Off

I have a good friend whose demeanor has so much gravitas that, even in a crowded room, when he has a thought he wants to share, he just lifts one finger and takes a breath, and a silence falls as all look to him for his wisdom. When I first met him, it irritated me. Now it just amuses me. I don’t know if he does it on purpose, or if he started doing it on purpose to get taken seriously back when he was a young African-American man just starting out in HR for a bank where, perhaps, he risked the OWGs dismissing his ideas. (I can imagine all sorts of scenarios like this.) In any case, it seems to have become habit.

I am part of a coaching group right now, a group led by a coach who is modeling behavior for coaches that are just embarking on their coaching journeys. This week’s assignment was to reflect on our core values. One of my core values is to be the yogi on the mountaintop, the one that gives advice when people seek her out; not the one that wanders around the village, dispensing advice to everyone she meets. I will say that I sometimes struggle to live with this value. I get interested in things and my mind makes leaps and bounds; so if you are telling me about something you’re working on and it captures my imagination, my mind may leap forward and come up with idea after idea on where to take it next. (I once asked that same friend if he thought I was obsessive-compulsive – I don’t know what I was thinking that day – he paused thoughtfully, then said with deep wisdom, that No, I was not compulsive, I just obsessed about things; ah, no, wait, correction – let me say about everything. And I’m afraid he was right.) So I will say that this is an aspirational value, one I have to work to achieve, not one that comes naturally.

The coaching calls always start with a quick round robin, what is new and positive in our lives. I didn’t have much to share, but one positive thing in my life this week has been a huge lifting of responsibility off my shoulders: I took care of two big tasks that always seem to linger far longer than I’d like: gathering all of my tax paperwork to send to the tax accountant – this is the earliest I’ve finished this task in years – and completing all the prep work for meeting with the financial planner. I felt like I had finished spring cleaning for my finances.

Completing these two tasks made me feel especially lighter because I can’t do them alone – they depend on my husband providing me with documentation (a W-2, a paystub) that I can’t get for myself. I can pull all of the other documents and numbers together for my own accounts and the ones we share, but all I can do is try to influence him into giving me these documents. And, on the Myers-Briggs scale, he’s equally far on the P side of things as I am on the J side; and in my J mind, P does not stand for Perceiver, it stands for Procrastinator, because P’s are very comfortable letting things percolate until the last possible moment – an irritant to us J’s, who crave the dopamine hit of checking things off the list. (The letter J even looks like a little checkmark.)

As you can imagine, I felt particularly good about getting those two things done.

And then the coach started trying to coach me on getting these things done sooner.

WTF?

She demonstrated some of the coaching skills you would use to help a client think through what they could do to take the weight of a problem off their shoulders: how could you set this up for success in the future? How could you prevent these last things from dangling? Could you delegate anything so that you don’t feel like these are a burden? Why do you think you procrastinate about these things?

Perhaps I set this up wrong with her, saying that I felt good about wrapping up the last little bits and getting these big tasks done. Perhaps I could have said something more like, “It’s just a little thing, but I’m proud that I finished pulling together these documents.” and said it in a dismissive tone.

But wow, all I wanted to say was, Back off! I feel great that I finished these as early as I have – this is practically a new record for me! I’m proud of how organized I already am and it feels like you are trying to tell me that my organization and my success in getting everything done early is not good enough! Instead, I told myself that she was probably trying to demonstrate a coaching skill for the group, so I played along until I couldn’t stand it anymore, then adopted my mom’s technique – which drives me nuts – of pleasantly agreeing with everything she said until she went into lecture mode and then I tuning her out. Eventually she moved on to another victim.

Prior to last night, her coaching style had worked for me. And, once we moved off the opening segment, I re-engaged and actually got a lot out of the evening and received some good feedback from her.

But boy, did the opening segment reinforce my guru on the mountaintop value: I hadn’t asked for her advice, her advice wasn’t appropriate, it wasn’t welcome, and I refused to accept her wisdom.

This is what happens when you tell people how to live their lives.

We seem to be at a maximum of this right now. Social media offers everyone – even me – an opportunity to share our thoughts and opinions with the world. Blogs are okay, people choose to read them or not – in which case, they have invited your opinion – but social media seems often to be people pushing their opinions on you as wisdom, bolstered by their credibility of being a perfect person, with a perfect job and a perfect life. And 24-hour news has turned news – the sharing of new information – into a bunch of talking heads pretending to be authorities when they are really just sharing opinions. No wonder we all feel so overwhelmed right now.

In the dark ages, wise men doled out their advice from the pulpit or the confessional, or maybe on a broadsheet posted on the door of the church, or reserved it for the pub where everyone had enough to drink to just throw things at them when it got to be too much; and, if you wanted advice from a wise woman, you had to seek her out by the dead of night for she risked being burned as a witch or being put in stocks as a gossip.

Now I am reflecting on opportunities in my own life to live according to my mountaintop value: clearly I am telling my mom how to live her life and my sister and my husband. I catch myself doing it at work, in certain situations, acting like I am the smartest one in the room, when I’m not.

So I am glad that I had this uncomfortable experience last night: it reminded me to reaffirm a value that’s important to me.

And which can only improve my relationships.

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