Sharon’s story illustrates a version of this. Sharon is a divorced single mother of three and a doctor working full time in a large public hospital. She told me that up until recently, she had continuously loaded herself up with responsibilities, always putting everyone else’s needs first and her own last. As far back as she could remember, she was always responding to what she felt were the needs and expectations of those around her – even if not asked to. She did this at work, where she carried a much bigger workload than most of the other doctors. But she also did this in her personal life at home and with her friends.
Several years ago she was starting to feel exhausted, and a bit depressed and resentful – and she found herself asking the question: why do I do this to myself? Unexpectedly and quite suddenly the answer came one day when Sharon and her kid’s were visiting Sharon’s morose and moody mother. Sharon’s parents divorced when she was eight years old, and from that time on Sharon’s mother became depressed and moody. This frightened Sharon – an only child – and she began to try and anticipate her mother’s moods and needs and what she could do to make her feel better. In this way Sharon learned to ignore her own needs and increasingly focussed only on trying to help her mother. What Sharon realised at that moment was that as she grew up, she had generalised that habit into focussing almost exclusively on the needs and desires of everyone around her – and never her own!
Some time ago a woman whom I shall call Sally came to see me for a coaching session. We sat down and after a few minutes of small talk, she began the session by immediately asking me a question: “why is it”, she said, “that I often feel hurt and disappointed with the men I have been in relationships with? I have had four relationships over the past 10 years. They always seem so promising and hopeful at the beginning – and then gradually the men seem to withdraw and we finally break up, leaving me feeling very hurt and alone again.”
She told me that she met another man about 6 months ago, that she had quickly developed feelings for him and they had moved in together about six weeks ago. I then asked her how she communicated and behaved with him on a typical evening or weekend when they were home with each other. She said that she was very affectionate with him, touching stroking and kissing him a lot. And she usually said “I love you” perhaps six or eight times each evening or on a weekend day. But she said she could see that her many affectionate gestures or words seemed gradually to be making him uncomfortable, which hurt her.
The subject of this story (we will call him Mike) was a lawyer and had been a brilliant litigator for most of his law career. As a litigator he had an impressive record of wins. He was feared by other litigators because of his intellectually aggressive style – both in delivering his arguments and in picking holes in the arguments of his adversaries.
For many years Mike had dreamt of becoming his law firm’s managing partner. He had finally won the role of the firm’s managing partner because of his success in bringing in huge amounts of revenue as a litigator. The difficulty was that he attempted to lead the firm using the same intellectual style he used in litigation. For example, Mike led weekly management meetings for the firm’s management committee and monthly meetings for the firm’s fifty partners. He dominated these meetings through the shear power of his intellect.
Mike was highly intelligent and expressed this intelligence with clear, powerful and well reasoned communications. He thought through what he had to say carefully and thoroughly, because he would not just present an argument, but would also often list what he thought the counterarguments might be. He would then include his own arguments against those possible counterarguments.
Also, Mike could think well on his feet. If he was asked questions or someone disagreed with him, he could respond with quick, clear, relevant and logical answers. Through the power of his logic, Mike usually won his arguments – but often at the cost of losing the hearts, the loyalty and the commitment of the people in his firm. Equally, many people were aware that the power of a logically structured argument did not, in and of itself, guarantee that Mike had the best case.
I first met Lisa, a senior executive, when I was hired as a consultant to assist in designing and implementing a culture change programme for a large financial services company. Lisa was a member of the change management committee, who were charged with implementing the culture change programme. I sat in on the change management committee meetings and I gradually noticed that almost all of the ideas the committee decided to use were Lisa’s. Yet Lisa’s behaviour was in no way pushy or dominating – in fact she appeared quite open and diplomatic.
It gradually became clear that Lisa’s ideas “won out” largely because of her mastery of the persuasive arts. For example, Lisa seemed to have remarkable insight into other members of the committee – their moods, concerns, agendas, etc – and equally good insight into the internal dynamics within the committee (alliances, power relationships, etc). This allowed Lisa to present her ideas in ways that appealed to the interests of each individual committee member and also to use the committee’s internal dynamics to facilitate putting forth her case.
In addition, she would ask skilful questions which lead others to give answers that would help support her case. In this way she got others to do much of the talking and she did not appear to dominate the discussion. Lisa had many good ideas, yet the result was that other’s ideas were simply not being sufficiently discussed and considered.