A hotel conference room. San Paulo, 2014. On one side of a table – a tall, Asian man, late 50’s, hugely successful business owner, raised as a Muslim. On the other side a small, Irish woman, early 40’s, successful facilitator & executive coach, raised as a Catholic (that would be me).
These are two very different people.
There is a deadly silence in the room. The man (we’ll call him Anu*) is staring at me in what looks like total fury. He and his brother recently sold their business to my client – a global health-care firm – and have been invited to take part in a leadership workshop that I’m facilitating. Both men will be staying in their CEO and COO roles, so it makes sense to have them here.
(*Names and all other identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)
I’ve delivered many of these workshops around the world for this firm, and have been coaching their top leaders for years. It’s my most successful client relationship. I do not want to screw it up.
So why is he so mad at me?
To understand what’s happening, let’s go back to a different room, the day before. I’m with Anu and a few other executives doing a small-group exercise. We’ve been working as a group now for 2 days. It’s going well. At one point, I turn to ask Anu a question and by mistake, call him by his brother’s name – Tanu. Very similar names. Easy mistake. I apologise, he laughs, waves it off, happens all the time. Nothing to see here.
Except…..except…. two things are unusual about this. One is… I don’t often get names wrong when I’m working. I make an OCD level point of it – it really matters to people that you remember who they are, and people really matter to me. So that’s weird.
The second is – for a fraction of a second, so quick I almost missed it – I think he flinched; not physically, more a look in his eye – just before he laughed it off.
I don’t think much more about it. Just log it at the back of my mind. I’m not even sure it happened. Maybe I’m just jet-lagged.
The next day I have a coaching session with him. One to one. We’re ostensibly talking about his future role. He is genial, charming and brushing me off at every turn. Every question is met with a smooth, business-jargon response. I’m not adding any value and the session is looking like a grand waste of both our time. I suggest we wrap up early, but that I have one more question before we do. I’m suddenly scared – what if I imagined his reaction yesterday? Should I really ask about this? He’ll think I’m crazy, or I’ll somehow insult him. But I’m committed to a deeper dialogue, so I take my heart in my hands, and ask:
“Why did you flinch when I called you by your brother’s name yesterday?”
Silence. All the air seems sucked out of the room. He denies it. I say nothing. He glares at me for what feels like several minutes. I expect him to yell at me for some cultural transgression about family, or getting his name wrong, or any number of other ways I could have offended him. Instead, what he eventually says, slowly and carefully, as he leans towards me, is:
“He has bullied me, every day of my life, since we were children. He has made my life a complete misery, despite how it all looks to everyone else…
……and I have never told another living soul, not one person, until now.”
He leans back, shoulders sagging. I can hardly breathe.
We both sit in stunned silence, this Muslim and Catholic, this man and woman, our brown and white skin, years apart in age. We come from such different worlds. And yet – he has chosen to tell me the deepest of secrets. We sit quietly as he composes himself. I’m barely holding back tears. He notices, and I can see relief beginning to spread across his face.
I spend the next hour listening, as he begins to tell me his story, and we talk about what he needs to do to stop the bullying, and begin the work to heal himself and his family.
He confronted his brother that night, and told him the bullying was over, he would never tolerate mistreatment again. There were denials at first, then tears, then promises. There was a lot more work to do, a lifetime of emotional abuse to reckon with, and a hard road ahead. But it had started.
So why did he tell me? Of all people? After so many years, and so much unspoken suffering?
I’d love to claim magical ninja coaching skills. I believe that I’m good at what I do – but I think a couple of things made the difference; one was the simple act of paying attention. I noticed. And I didn’t dismiss what I’d thought I’d seen. He’d had a couple of days prior to see me in action, and I’m sure he made some assessment about whether he could trust me. That helped – his move from outrage to honesty was a move from head to heart – and we don’t open our hearts unless we feel safe enough to do so.
But when I asked him at a later point, he told me that it was also because I asked, and then stayed with the discomfort of his initial reaction – that’s what gave him faith that I was on his side. I was willing to sit in the fire with him.
I have been consistently amazed by the life transforming power of curiosity combined with care. Our lives, our conversations move so quickly and our attention is fractured in so many ways that we can often miss what’s actually being communicated. It would serve us all to remember a couple of things:
- That the most important things are often the most difficult to say. We don’t say them unless we feel safe.
- Listening deeply can move us beyond all our differences, to a place of connection, understanding & new possibilities.
- Paying attention is the currency of care. There is no relationship – with people, place or thing – that can be maintained without it.
So be curious. Pay attention. Ask the questions you’re scared to ask. Most importantly – care deeply. It will transform your relationships.