I was once climbing the Eiffel Tower and this guy near to me froze three-quarters of the way up. He stood like a human statue poised to make his next step. But he couldn’t make that next step because he’d just found out that he was scared of heights. Everyone was looking at him silently urging him on but he was paralysed by fear.
I found myself telling this story to a CEO-level coachee of mine this week. It popped into my head intuitively when my client was brutally berating himself for not taking the obvious, simple next step because he was nervous about the possible outcomes. ‘What voice do you hear in your head when you think about being nervous?’ I asked him. ‘You’re pathetic!’ he replied ‘It’s obvious what to do so why don’t you do it?’ So I put him in that scenario on the Eiffel Tower and I asked him to imagine the impact of going up to the guy who was scared of heights and saying ‘You’re pathetic! It’s obvious what to do so why don’t you do it?’ He laughed, immediately sensing the absurdity of the behaviour.
‘So what behaviour do you think would be effective in that situation?’ I challenged him. ‘Well, I suppose you could empathise and be kind to the guy’ he ventured. ‘Let’s have a go at that then’ I continued. ‘Imagine going up to that guy on the Eiffel Tower and saying something empathetic and kind. What would you say?’. ‘Well, I imagine,,,’ ‘No’ I stopped him mid-sentence ‘I don’t want you to imagine, I want you to do it. What would you say?’ At this point he stared into the distance for what seemed like an age whilst I doodled on my notepad to help me stay patient and silent. In challenging coaching terms, the tension in the conversation had suddenly jumped up a notch. We had entered the zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD).
Eventually, he said ‘I don’t know’. The tension jumped another notch and I said ‘That’s fine’ and kept doodling on my pad. After a further round of excruciating silence he slowly and tentatively said ‘Don’t beat yourself up. ….There’s a reason why you’re feeling like this…..These things happen. …….What can I do to help?’ At this, the tension released itself in an instant like air rushing out of a balloon. What a relief for both him and I! I looked up from my pad and said ‘Well done. That was great work’.
My client left the session a step closer to understanding the importance of using empathy and kindness to build trust and influence in the boardroom. He came to this understanding not through a rigorous left brain analysis of the situation but through a spontaneous right brain experience of the reality of his internal dialogue and how this was being projected onto the world around him. I left the session having been reminded of the ‘T’ for tension in the FACTS coaching model and how tension can be used to enter the ZOUD in pursuit of transformation. Where can you use this dynamic management of tension to catalyse your own coaching and leadership conversations?