One of the most powerful and challenging questions I have ever been asked was actually just a single word.
It was asked, not in an incredulous, ‘yeah right, I-don’t-believe-a-word-you-are-saying’ kind of way, but in an earnest, curious way and from a position of respectful challenge. It was early on in my career and my manager at the time, a natural but unwitting employer of a coaching style, had asked about a deadline I was going to miss. I had given all my well reasoned, perfectly acceptable, mitigating excuses for the situation. In response, she smiled, took a breath and asked, ‘Really?’.
Of course, my first reaction was outrage coloured with more than a little defensiveness. Are you calling me a liar? Do you think I could have done otherwise? Could you? And yet, in the event, I didn’t say any of these things. My manager’s intention hadn’t been to rile me or to ‘call me out’. She genuinely wanted to know if the reasons I was giving for not meeting the deadline were actually what had stopped me from crossing the line.
In the space she created for us in that moment, in the respectful, patient but challenging silence that followed I realised I wasn’t misleading her in the slightest. I was simply misleading myself. And that single, powerful word had a profound effect on my narrative and the STORY I HAD TOLD MYSELF. Once I was able to accept that there were other factors at play – in this case, my not actually buying into the task at hand in the first place, together an individualist agenda to shine elsewhere in my work and to prioritise the ‘glory’ pieces – I could unpick, unpack and unlock my own personal derailers.
What resulted was an honest, warts and all discussion about the relative value of the task at hand. I was able to voice my misgivings and reservations and also to work through my insecurities as a new talent in the team, desperately wanting to prove myself.
Unlocking the stories we tell ourselves is very much to key to realising greater things. It’s at the heart of Berne’s theory of transactional analysis and the life scripts that we each create around us. We all have psychological blind spots. There is an amount of ourselves that we know to be true and we are comfortable sharing with others. There is an amount of ourselves that we know to be true, but we don’t feel comfortable sharing. Then there’s the stuff that other people know to be true about us that we ourselves don’t know and finally there is the unknown unknowns – the stuff we just haven’t even considered could be true.
So the next time someone you trust and respect raises an eyebrow and asks ‘Really?’, take a breath. Take a moment and get curious. Is there something else going on here that isn’t immediately obvious to you? And if you are brave enough to recognise that new truth, maybe you can break it down and move it out of the way of wherever you want to go.