It was a Tuesday at 1pm and I was crying on a Zoom call – a thing I vowed not to do, under any circumstance.
But the tears were part of my work that day. The task: to feel my emotions, rather than suppress them.
“It’s okay, let the tears out,” my leadership coach said encouragingly. I’d started to cry in the middle of an exercise she was leading me through, to trace the origins of a feeling of insecurity so I could release it and move forward.
Crying on Zoom was not only counter to my typical strategy for dealing with stress at work, but also to my ideas of how leaders behave. Sure, intellectually I know great leaders feel comfortable expressing the whole spectrum of human emotion. There are now countless HBR articles and TED Talks that command leaders to lead with authenticity and vulnerability. But somehow it has never felt okay for me to be one of those leaders. Though outside of work I’m goofy, emotional, and open, inside of work I put pressure on myself to be serious, stoic and cautious with what I share.
In April 2022, this began to change. As I started leadership coaching for the first time, the experience helped me reimagine the way I could show up as a leader – in part by helping me see some of the behavioral patterns that were previously invisible to me.
As someone who studies behavioral science and has spent years in therapy, I thought I had a pretty good handle on those maladaptive patterns. But therapy and coaching are very different and allow you to see very different parts of yourself.
I decided to keep a diary of my experience, documenting ten of my coaching sessions on LinkedIn. Below, I’m distilling three of the science-based leadership lessons my coach taught me, all with actionable takeaways for anyone who wants to address these challenges in their own lives.
Lesson #1: Listening is Harder Than it Looks
I used to think of myself as a good listener, but my colleagues and coach helped me to see a pattern in how I was showing up – as someone who would answer compulsively and reactively, rather than actively listening and responding.
I needed to learn how to really listen.
Active listening “requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view,” Carl Rogers, the godfather of modern psychotherapy, wrote in his 1957 book Active Listening. More recently, researchers used Rogers’ insights to develop a scale for measuring active listening, which includes avoiding interruption, showing and maintaining interest, postponing judgment or evaluation, and organizing information.
One simple way of practicing this: pausing and repeating back what you think someone has said, or asked you, before responding.
Lesson #2: Time Traveling Makes the Present Easier
Since I was little, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of time travel. But as I’ve gotten older, my relationship to time travel, and specifically, to the future, has become more complicated. Fear has eclipsed some of the excitement and hope I once felt as a kid, and I often avoid thinking too far ahead.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my reaction to one coaching assignment – a future visioning exercise – was complicated. Designed to help me imagine my future work life, it prompted me to answer questions like: How did I want to spend my time? What would be most important to me in the future? The purpose was to help me better plan, set goals, and take actions to intentionally work towards them.
Exploring these questions surfaced concerns I often prefer to suppress. Like: Do I really have what it takes to be a senior leader? When I raised this concern with my coach, she encouraged me to get to the root of it by encouraging me to imagine I was in a senior role, and experiencing my nightmare scenario – how I worried I might fail. With my eyes closed, I walked through what I feared might happen, and how I would respond. Once I’d thought this through and discovered my own resourcefulness in the process, the future felt much less scary.
This kind of exercise is based on the science of episodic future thinking, or EFT. In the game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal’s new book Imaginable, she describes EFT as “the ability to transport yourself forward in time and pre-experience a future event…simulating the future in your mind.”
Though EFT has many benefits – it supports behavior change long-term thinking, adherence to healthy habits – one of its most powerful impacts can be teaching us the concept of learned helpfulness. According to McGonigal, this is the act of “building our own confidence and sense of control when it comes to solving problems for ourselves and others.”
If you want to try mental time travel yourself, you can check out Jane McGonigal’s guide here.
Lesson #3: Self-Compassion is a Hard Skill
How do you respond to yourself when you make a mistake? My answer to that question used to be simple: I’d tell myself things that I would never tell a good friend – you’re worthless, you’re an idiot, how could you have messed up again?
And then I read social scientist Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion, which marshals overwhelming evidence that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be more resilient, and able to see themselves more clearly so they can make the changes necessary to grow. In other words, self-compassion, far more than self-criticism, is a better strategy for high-performers and achievers.
Neff, who is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, defines self-compassion as having three components: a) self-kindness b) a common sense of humanity and c) mindfulness. At its core, her research on self-compassion encourages us to be “caring and understanding” with ourselves “rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.”
Research suggests that the kind of people who struggle with self-compassion also tend to identify as women. But maybe that’s partly because we live in a society that tells women – in implicit and explicit ways – that others’ needs trump theirs.
Though I try to practice self-compassion, my coach helped me see places where it was still missing – prioritizing the needs of others over my own. This pattern is rooted in a basic fear that if I assert myself too forcefully, offend someone, or appear as if I’m putting myself before others, I’ll be abandoned. This means I tend to be a people-pleaser.
How to address this instinct and begin to weave the practice of self-compassion more rigorously into my work life? The first step, my coach told me, was becoming more aware of when I was taking action from a place of fear instead of a place of power. Am I saying yes to something because I’m worried that if I don’t, I’ll lose something? Or am I saying yes because I genuinely want to do it? Making powerful, compassionate decisions requires daily check-ins with yourself, and can entail asking questions like, “am I doing what I know to do? Am I in integrity with myself? Have I done what I can control?”
So many of our behavioral patterns connect back to our childhood experiences, and to the messages that we get in society about our rights and our worth. But there’s another important force in changing those patterns – self-awareness. And that’s what can emerge from coaching.
Whether or not you decide to get a coach, why not consider how you can become more self-aware of how your behavior patterns might be holding you back from what you could accomplish, or the person who you could become?