No small amount of courage

I recently sent an email of thanks to my old therapist. She herself isn’t actually old, but you know what I mean.

I value her so highly and together, we worked through an enormous amount of change over six years of sharing her office. They were gruelling sessions and sometimes the toughest times of my life. Being able to go inwards and work on myself was a great privilege for me and a gift I will never forget.

She reminded me that the work we do on ourselves requires commitment and no small amount of courage. Let’s be honest – it’s a MASSIVE amount of courage we need – I think she understated that! Not just courage in showing up every week when at times it felt like I had nothing to talk about, but courage going to the dark places of shame and discomfort that have allowed me to move on and improve my life, my experiences and my world view.

I chose psycho-dynamic psychotherapy when I realised that not all of my relationships were going well. And I knew it was time to look inwards, to stop blaming other people and start looking at what I was doing that might not have been helping that.

We talked about over 50 years of learned behaviours, experiences, fears and aspirations and some of those days were golden moments and some of those days I would come home and cry on the couch for hours, remembering some of the things that made me who I am.

I wouldn’t trade any of them. In her words, she saw someone in our first meeting who had potential. Potential for change. Manifesting this potential as we well know, takes endurance to accept that there are parts of ourselves that need changing.  The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

It took me a long time in therapy to unravel my true self. It felt like a returning to something familiar. I think we are all born with kindness and compassion in our hearts – and things happen along the way to us that make us protect ourselves, or change who we really are. It took me a while to uncover the real, strong, flowing source of kindness and compassion I have now. And I am still – and will continue to be, a work in progress. I am now fortunate to use my skills to help others be kind to themselves. To let ourselves off the hook – to stop beating up on ourselves. That stuff gets really boring after a while.

The coaching work I do is based on self-kindness and self-compassion. It’s not therapy – it is most definitely coaching. Kindness and compassion are tools we can all use in whatever version of self improvement we choose. It won’t end well if we continue to beat ourselves up as a way of motivating ourselves towards achieving our goals.

We are attracted to kindness and compassion in others – there’s no reason why we can’t start with ourselves. When we know ourselves well enough – we can start to understand our own behaviour. We can make sense of our own reactions and our own responses not just to ourselves but to others. It’s a critical skill when leading a team – or being in any position of leadership that we first know ourselves in a way that makes us confident, consistent and caring. There is a real place for this kind of leadership. It achieves so much more than a command and control mindset – but it does take courage. This Emily McDowell image sums all of that up – our true selves are always there. We are powerful, creative, resourceful and whole exactly the way we are. We might just need a helping hand in unravelling.

This is what I mean by being kind and compassionate to ourselves.

The 10th anniversary of cycling up some big mountains in France has made me think about resilience

The lake @ the top of Alpe d'Huez

This is when the mourning starts. The Tour de France is over for another year and I can’t watch it for hours at a time, reminiscing about when I rode up some of those mountains myself.

It’s 10 years since that ride and also 10 years since I gave up alcohol – and I still can’t quite believe that I actually did it. The ride I mean – giving up booze was the easy part.

I was asked to join a friend and then she had to bail because of a knee injury. Something in me did not want to bail when I had the chance. Mentally, I had already committed to it you see – there was no backing out.

It was a total of 320km over 3 days, , and included 6 pretty tough mountains to get over. I wrote a bit about why I was doing it back then and why I was driven to achieve such an incredible goal. Of course, the more time I spend looking back on it, the more incredible it actually was. To be fair, it was without doubt the hardest thing I ever did.

I learned a bit about myself doing that ride. When you are cycling up 25km of mountain road with altitudes of up to 2600m – some 1st, 2nd and HC climbs (for the non-cyclists amongst us – HC stands for Hors Categorie – Beyond Categorisation! – They big ones!) you have a lot of time to focus on mental strength.

I told myself that getting off my bike wasn’t an option. I did get off once – just to see if it would be better and easier. Getting off on a steep gradient of 11% is NOT easier. Take it from me. How I kept going I will still never really know. At times it was reading messages of support that would occasionally pop into my phone. It was thinking of the money people spent sponsoring me, it was thinking of my best mate’s mum dying of cancer, regardless of how many kilometres I cycled. Basically it was thinking about anything other than giving up.

It was also about not caring. I genuinely didn’t care that other people were passing me. I didn’t care that one man at 75 years of age passed me on one of my worst days. I wished him “bonne journée” and stayed focused on my own challenge. It didn’t matter to me what was going on around me. I was in a group of 34 other cyclists and some of them were absolute champions. Some of them ascended Alpe d’Huez in just over 20 minutes. I lost count of how long it took me.

The lake at the top of Alpe d’Huez

The things that brought me extreme joy on those incredibly tough days were things like seeing Mont Blanc from the descent of the Col des Saisies en route to the Col des Aravis. The massive and rewarding descent off of the Col de Madeleine after a bloody tough ascent; sheep on the road that we had to navigate around, the sense of camaraderie between everyone on that ride, being helped up Alpe d’Huez by a bunch of other riders – all doing it together when I am fairly sure they could have done it faster without me dragging them behind, the friendships I have made, and the absolute sheer exhilarating experience of it. I look back now and am so proud of my achievements. It was worth all of that self-talk to take this experience away as mine.

As well as the joys – there were some utterly awful experiences too: I usually came in last on most stages – one day having spent 11 hours on the bike because I got lost going into the evening’s hotel; the cold, the rubbish food (as a coeliac) and gels, the frozen hands, the wet cycling kit…the list goes on. Then to top it all off, getting news about Rose dying as I was cycling up Alpe d’Huez. I stopped briefly for a cry then got back on my bike and kept going.

I had never thought of myself as resilient until then. Much like the Inner Critic, there is a voice in my head which tells me to keep going. I had plenty of opportunity to listen to the Inner Critic – because, make no mistake – it was having a field day about how rubbish I was, how unfit I was, how old I was… and yet – during this time I chose to listen to the one that told me it was only another 23km to go or, it was only 4 more hours on the bike, or I’m 44 and apart from the 75 year old man, I was kinda up there in age! I told myself out of the 34 people on that ride, only 3 of us were women – and that also helped. Those women were at least 20 years younger than me, and whilst I couldn’t quite keep up with them, I was still a girl – doing it for the girls!

Resilience is about how quickly we can recover to be able to front up again and again. On an endurance ride like that one, I had to give myself small goals to enable me to achieve the big ones. I had to countdown, I had to envisage getting to the end of that monumental climb having achieved that incredible feat. When I fast-forwarded that image into my head, I felt able to cope.

Sometimes we need a REALLY good reason to achieve our goals and sometimes we just need to know that “This too shall pass” and that the discomfort or pain or hurt, anger, whatever – will soon be ended. We will not only be back to our prior state, but we might just be richer for it.

It certainly holds some weight when I’m watching Le Tour!

Resilience is another way we can be kind and compassionate to ourselves.

Are you OK? – I mean, ARE YOU? REALLY?

How to Ask.....

It’s RUOK day in Australia, (11 Sept) a brilliant initiative around suicide prevention. I say in Australia, because it doesn’t seem to reach here in the UK, except via the Facebook posts of the Aussie friends and relatives I have.

I absolutely applaud the initiative and I am sure it has made inroads into the public recognition of things like depression and bullying that lead to suicide.

If we only ask this one day per year then it is a start.

How to Ask.....
Are you really?

It takes a brave person to say that they aren’t OK actually. People who are depressed or leading a terrible life fighting their own demons, or other people’s demons, sometimes won’t say what is really going on for them. Are you OK is a great start. But what if they say yes and they aren’t?

How many times do we get asked Are you OK and we answer, “yes, fine thanks”? In fact there is a plethora of “funny” jokes all over the interwebs about how women are asked this often and they send a chilly “I’m fine” response back! Oh yes, I laugh until I stop when I see these and that’s a short journey…..anyhow I digress.

The thing is – we aren’t usually OK all the time. And that’s OK. The more we get used to hearing that people are not OK – that they might be struggling a bit, that they are tired, or run down, or they have had an emotional day crying on the couch, the more we will realise that life is actually like that.

I think what we could all do with some more of is learning what to do when people do actually say, No – I’m not OK. We can’t always know what people are going through. Sometimes, we don’t even know how much people mean to us until we lose them. That’s what happens in a world where we feel like we can’t get too close to other people, where making friends is hard, where just wanting some “me” time comes before being with friends and family.

A friend of mine recently lost a friend to suicide. She feels eternally guilty that she didn’t see what was coming. Of course she asked if she was OK – and the response she got back was, yes. It’s tough, but I am OK.

We don’t always know when we aren’t OK, as weird as that sounds. Sometimes it takes someone to nudge us a bit and not only ask if we are OK, but to ask some more questions. Perhaps remind them on some behaviour we may have noticed.

This world sees most of other people’s lives through social media eyes, via our computers and mostly through our phones (wankers flashlights as I heard them recently referred to). Am I going to post on Facebook that I am not OK? No way. I don’t want sympathy, or I don’t want platitudes from people who say they are “here for you” and who aren’t. I probably want to be alone with my demons. As awful as they are, they are mine and parting ways with them takes time and guts and courage. I am fortunate enough to have people close to me who do recognise when I am not OK, but not all of us do.

Perhaps what we can say to friends is to not just ask the question Are you OK, but to tell them it’s OK to not be OK just for now. That things will change and life can get better, or we can work on changing our thoughts to make the most of a shitty situation. And then as the website suggests, start a conversation. Ask, Listen, Encourage, Follow Up. Simple steps that could make a difference.

It takes a brave person to say they are not OK, and it takes a true friend and an even braver person to keep that conversation going.

Disclaimer: I’m not a pyschotherapist, nor a mental health professional. I’m just a normal person who is sometimes not OK. (And thank the gods, this isn’t one of those times if you are wondering – I am perfectly OK and I mean it! 🙂

Do People Resist Change?

Or is it change thrust upon them that they resist? This is one of my favourite topics to understand and convey, so I surprised myself when I realised I hadn’t written about it yet.

One of my new favourite mantras is “I am that which is constant” which just serves to remind me to get back to my core, despite what is going on around me. In a world full of change, I am the only constant. The me I know and trust. I used to think that I was unusual because I enjoy change. Then I realised that people change many things about themselves all the time. We create change in ourselves throughout our lives. We change our marital status, our professional status, our educational status (as Facebook reminds us!). We move, have babies, take on sporting challenges, get a promotion or even get sick parents, partners or children – it’s all change. Some of it is our choice and some is thrust upon us. What makes us accept the changes we decided upon and resist the ones we don’t?

I have been in many professional situations where managing resistance to change was the thing I spent most of my day doing – until I realised I was doing it all wrong! It can be exhausting if you think about it in a negative way – like “resisting change”. When you master it, and think positively about how to work with people to achieve the same outcome, regardless of the process – it becomes the most rewarding thing.

As leaders, we must do what is best for the business, it’s our job. Does it really matter what journey we take to achieve it? If we propose the outcome then work together to create the solution, resistance to change is minimalised. Sometimes it takes a while for people to be clear that they don’t like the change. We all need time to think things through, so if offered some time to digest, it’s easier to swallow.

There are of course business decisions made where not only the outcome is determined, but the process is too. These are the most unfortunate of experiences, because people are affected the most; resistance is at its highest and the results might be achieved but at the cost of people’s happiness, faith in the company and enormous stress levels on all sides. I’m not naïve and I have been involved in many business decisions where the people were going to suffer, regardless of how we created the solution! These are terrible situations to be in, but as an HR Professional and Leader, these are the jobs we do.  We must either find a way or make one, as Hannibal said. (True, he was leading elephants through the desert, but some days that’s how it feels!)

Enforced change hits people personally. When we deal with resistance to change, it all stems from personal values. People may not like the proposed change because it impacts them directly in a negative way. In a personal situation, change can be managed more easily. We can speak out and talk about what we don’t like. In a professional situation, this can be interpreted as resistance.

I encourage people to speak out about the changes they don’t like, in a constructive way. I also encourage them to propose an alternative solution. If we provide people with a reason to change and the chance to come up with their own solution, this ‘resistance’ can be addressed. It’s important to make clear that although we invite a solution, if it doesn’t ultimately meet the needs of the business, we will have to keep working until we find one that does!

Resistance takes many forms: individual or organised, active or passive, aggressive or timid, overt or covert.

People can be clever about the way they resist change, or their actions can be subconscious. It just means we have to be on our game. We have to understand why the resistance is there, what are the personal issues for the people involved and how do we address them. We need empathy for why people don’t want to change. It may be that they have never had to before (it’s possible!); or they don’t agree with the way the business is changing and the direction it is headed in.

Ultimately it’s about choice.

The thing is that sometimes the direction might not be right, sometimes business has to do things people don’t like. At the point of discourse though, it is our choice to decide if we agree and go with it or if we don’t. So either bow out if you don’t like the change, or find a way to make it work for you.

I could bang on about the ways people resist change and tell you some wonderful stories – but, this is about how to deal with it, in the way I try to and from my own experience. Change needs to be based on inspired collaboration. We need to find the common ground between different needs and motivators. We need to address both the positives and negatives of changing and of not changing. Once we communicate all of those things and take the time and personal interest to understand why people are resisting, we will have a much better understanding of not only our goal, but hopefully of what drives the people who work for us.

Go to the edge and jump, you never know you just might fly…

T.S Eliot said: Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

It’s a funny thing, this risk business. You’re either into it or you aren’t, no fence sitting where risk is concerned. It makes you either grin ridiculously or panic spectacularly. I’m the grinning type and so are hundreds of others I know. They’re all around us these risk-takers. Know anyone who has left a relationship, started a new business, changed jobs, moved house, got married, had kids…..they all took risks. We don’t always see ourselves as risk takers – and let’s be honest, we all know people in our lives who have never risked. Some stay in the job they hate, the marriage that darkens their soul, the house that makes them ill or unhappy. I’ve had a bit of risk in my life and I really encourage it, even though it may be one of the most difficult things you will ever do! I was one of the early adopters if you like a risk taker before my time. As a kid, I was the one always getting into trouble, having accidents, being found out….some things never change.

What is it that makes some of us take risks and others’ not? Is it confidence and belief in ourselves? Is it out of necessity? Is it learned – did our parents risk? Or, do we risk new things in spite of what we learned growing up? I think it must be a combination of all them – or some of them at different times.

I had parents who took risks. Sometimes they turned out and sometimes they didn’t. We moved a bit as kids, some moves bigger than others. Always those moves meant new schools where we adjusted to life and made new friends. I know we weren’t always happy about it, but those choices were never our decisions to make, so we went along with it, coached and supported by strong parents, committed to their decisions. I remember being very happy to move to the Gold Coast – beach, sand, sun etc – but not necessarily all that happy to leave 5 years later! Did my parent’s cautious risk taking affect me? Yes, absolutely, what great role models! They decided to move because of job prospects, better education for my brother, sister and I and to be closer to (or further away!) from family. My Dad took the biggest and bravest risk of his life, changing profession as an older guy – from construction to this new-fangled computer business. What a tough few months for my family, and what a proud daughter I am to think back on that now he isn’t here.

I risked so much when I chose the Unhusband. Friends and family were surprised when my marriage fractured (or was smashed with a hammer as one of my friends likes to put it!). So was I by the way – but that’s another story. The phone call and message that stuck in my mind was from a gorgeous friend who told me how brave I was! I never thought I was brave, I just did what I felt was the “right” thing to do – for my soul to sing. Brave wasn’t something I set out to be – and it certainly wasn’t top of my feelings list.

You do become brave, you do grow, you do feel like you are much better than you ever thought you were, because you took a risk.

Things don’t always turn out, I’m not Pollyanna (she was blonde and American…) Sometimes life is tough and sometimes it sucks like a Hoover. It’s about making those new circumstances work for you. Accepting the status quo, just for now, until things can be better. The Unhusband and I took the biggest risk together when we moved from Australia to the UK. Sheltered little naïve things, not quite entertaining the impact of this little thing called the GFC. Wow – what a shock that was. It took a long few months to get work for Unhusband, but thankfully he is an uber-god in the geek world and London needed his skills. I wasn’t in such high demand. As an HR professional, falling into an enormous pool of HR professionals who had been made redundant, I wasn’t needed so much! And they all had UK employment law experience, which I didn’t have. So, no-one was quite falling over themselves to employ me I can assure you. I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. I had come from a high powered job, complete with a post-graduate degree to being unemployed for the first time in my life. (Although I never saw myself as that, maybe it helped.)

So I did what any woman in her early forties would do. I panicked. Then I re-invented myself. I can assure you the story was not as wonderfully romantic as it sounds, but I got through. I started my own business walking customers through the mire that was social media (it was early days). I was fascinated with social media in the HR arena (still am) and thought I could help some people out. I took a massive risk. I also had amazing people supporting me. Would I have done it otherwise? Probably – I would have had to!

Is it the best thing I ever did? In many ways yes. There was an awful lot of pain – not the least financially! But on the back of that came a new-found confidence, pride in myself and an ability to appreciate that I was a risk-taker; that I would put myself on the line to make something new work. In a lot of ways there was choice. I could have chosen to remain defeated. I honestly did try being the un-housewife for about 2 weeks. Unhusband came home one day to find me quite literally bored rigid, frozen on the terrace.

With risk there comes change  and if you don’t like change, this risk thing is going to be a bit of a malarkey!

I have watched people come in and out of my life, some I really care for who don’t have enough personal power to take a risk that will change their lives forever. It makes me sad and I wish I could bottle my risk taking and give it to them. As my Mum says, it would be a boring old place if we were all the same, but don’t you just wish you could gift the things you know you’re good at?

I have other people in my life who have taken risks that I admire. Three of whom stand out right now. Interestingly, they are all women (this is not a gender assessment, simply a comment). I admire them for their courage, for their determination and for their belief that whatever they are doing now, there has to be something else better. My sister is one of my current risk-heroines. She chose to be alone with her 3 amazing children rather than be in a marriage that was failing to live up to all she had created. All my family at one time or another have taken risks that I admire them for. An Adelaide friend is another. She is about to launch her own business. She has two young boys who are far more important to her than her next career move and this enables her to focus more on the life bit of that balancing thing. Her values are so strong; she knows she can take her unique style of professionalism and turn it into something people want. Brave women.

The last one is my cousin. She had risk thrust upon her. Well, actually she had change thrust upon her when the love of her life, and father of their gorgeous boy Will, died suddenly with cancer at 38. So there’s a risk no-one planned for. She is an amazing woman. Brave and strong and tough – and emotional and fragile and doubtful. But they took a bigger risk too. Before he died, her husband started his own business. She is keeping it going. It is so far out of her field it’s almost funny! Incredible. Would I have the courage to do that – who knows? I have the blessing at this time to not have to find out like she did. These women all have something in common. They are mothers. How fortunate are the kids they have, to be shown these brave role models. I don’t have kids, I don’t think that affects whether you are a risk taker or not, but I do think they have much more to lose than me!

Bottom line: At the risk of alienating half the world, I like the risk-takers. I respect them. That’s not to say I won’t be friends with you if you aren’t one, but I think there is something fundamentally different about people who take risk. We believe in ourselves, we are optimistic, we are prepared for either the worst or the best of times, we plan ahead and we adapt.

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Can you manage it? Short of death, I bet you could!

My favourite quote must be this from Bertrand Russell. “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps most fatal to true happiness”.

Incremental Change, in life, HR and Social Media

When I arrived in London in November last year, I walked into the coldest winter and the hardest recession to hit the world in 20 years. Not quite the welcome I was expecting. It took me some time, months in fact to adapt to not only the weather and the media hype about the recession, but to the changes that had occurred to me physiologically and psychologically.

I come from a country that doesn’t take things too seriously, except getting an early morning surf in before work, over-indulging our children and eating too much. Most Australians are pretty laid back and although they will always give you a piece of their mind, they won’t act on much at all, not even a worldwide recession!

In spite of this environment, I still thought I was prepared for whatever this country could throw at me, the winter being the biggest issue or so I thought. Having lived in London 20 years earlier, I thought I would cope perfectly well. I refused to believe the media “beat-up” about the recession. I certainly enjoyed the change in climate it, it was a novelty all this cold weather business. Where I’m from, the coldest it gets is either inside the 5-below-zero Vodka bar, or occasionally at The Valley pool when you’re swimming in the middle of winter. No need to worry there though, a warm shower, trip to Merlo for coffee and walk to work will get you well sorted.

Change is one of those things that you sometimes don’t notice until it has happened – and sometimes even then, not until someone has pointed it out to you! An interesting thought for me, given I have spent the past 10 years managing and instigating change as my job, career and life.

Funny then, how change can just sneak up on you, tap you on the shoulder and shout obscenities in your face.

When I decided to emigrate to the UK, I thought myself very fortunate and blessed and still do. Not once did I imagine it would be a tough gig! They speak English there…, I’m employable – it can’t be that different!  Well, yes as true as all of those things are, there are some variations. Yes, they do speak English here. It may take a while to determine, but once you get your ear in, you can almost make out, that it is in fact English. Certainly a few words like “wot-eva” and innit”, repeated at 30 second intervals helped clear up my doubts. Teenage speak is similar the world over.

We all know language is interesting wherever you go. Having heard the type of English here and trying to get my ear in, I found even when I thought I was speaking English, I was asked to repeat myself. Not only the impact of my Australian twang (which of course I thought I didn’t have!) but my constant mistaken use of words and phrases. For example when walking in the summer I tended to take my “thongs” in my bag with me as my feet always tended to get too hot and too sore in heels. I gathered quite a few strange looks and offended more than one person when I felt the need to share my strange underwear fetish with them (thong here is used in the same way the Americans do, not what I wear on my feet to the beach).

I still can’t bring myself to call them flip flops……

I learned whole new names for vegetables – courgettes, peppers and aubergines instead of zucchini, capsicum and eggplant. That an Oyster was not necessarily found in rivers and Nectar not necessarily something derived from flowers! I became very intimate with a whole bunch of people I would not normally meet, usually on the tube or bus but sometimes the Tesco delivery guys and the people who came to read the electric and gas meter, inside your house, at 7am on a Saturday, (meters are only ever outside in Oz).

I missed not being able to order a long black or a flat white, with soy (not soya) and no, thank you I don’t want milk with my Americano (Does that not defeat the purpose of a black coffee??).

I have learned to avoid the post office at any time; Tesco on a Friday night, the tube in rush hour, riding anywhere on the route to Heathrow, wearing stiletto heels, and ever leaving home without my portable “Do Not Disturb” sign (iPod).

Even after my years of experience instigating and implementing change, it took me a while to understand that this incremental change was having an impact on me.

Incremental change can affect people as much as if the change happened all at once. I went from driving everywhere to catching public transport whilst reading a map. From a place where 35 degrees on Christmas day can be a little bit too uncomfortable, to a place where 4 degrees is the best it will ever get for Christmas lunch.

I have coped by realising that I have been undergoing incremental change (not without help I will admit!) and by learning to respect and appreciate that these changes abound and are sometimes sent to challenge us. We grow from them, learn from them and understand that one is not better than the other – just different.

I know I am not unique in this experience nor even in sharing it.  I have done my share of major change as well, changing careers, homes and family situations. What I learned is that change of any nature, can be challenging to say the least, even when you instigate it. I sincerely feel for those who never seek out change and then when it happens to them, are grossly affected by it, to the point where they no longer feel able to cope with life.

The two links I want to make about incremental change are around two of my passions, HR and Social Media. Change in HR is inevitable and is usually driven by us, the HR team! We enforce it as part of our strategic business plans in line with what is best for the business. We then try and steer the people in the right direction with as many tools for learning how to cope as possible. Sometimes we fail miserably, sometimes we succeed astonishingly.

Change in the form of new technology, including Social Media can be even more threatening. Something else we don’t understand, another thing we don’t have time for, something we don’t know how to use, something that we aren’t even sure is going to be of any benefit at all to staff and the business as a whole.

If you approach the use of Social Media in your life, be it for business or pleasure, then think about how it will change you and your routine, incrementally. It has the potential to change the way you do things, change the way you receive information, change the way you react to information, change your business processes and procedures and change the way your staff listen and react to you. It can be welcoming or it can be destructive, and like all change, it is how you react to it that determines how powerful it will be in either being part of another tool that you use to help you, or a distracting nuisance.

Whatever the impact, I hope you learn as I have, that it isn’t all bad, just different.