Recently I coached Annie (to protect confidentiality, a different name is used) on an issue that she had been wrestling with for years. When she began to talk, she rapidly burst into tears. But after a short while I was thrilled when she walked out of the session with a big sense of release, feeling positive and appreciative.
As I reflected on our coaching conversation, one particular moment stood out for me. As Annie described her situation, I noticed she was torn between her competing needs. On the one hand, she wished she could see changes happen in her extended family members so that they could manage conflicts with one another in a more peaceful manner. On the other hand, she loved her family so much that she wanted to accept as they were. She was anxious, as she thought these needs could not co-exist and as though she had to make a choice of which one to address. I asked her to swap seats with me. When she sat in my seat, I asked her to talk to the part of her that was desperate for a change in her family members. After that, I asked her to swap back and talk to the other part of her, the one that wanted to hold unconditional positive regard for her family. As she spoke, she slowed down and looked as if she was talking to another person. As I was about to ask a question, she stood up, walked over to the wall, leant against it, and started talking to “both parts of herself”. This time she was calmer. It seemed as if the physical distance she had secured by leaving her seat had given her a completely new perspective. She seemed less engrossed in her own problems, but was able to contemplate them “from the outside”. As she finished, I noticed an emerging smile on her face; she seemed content and peaceful. She shared later that it was from that moment she felt she was in control of her situation.
This experience reminded me of a leadership concept introduced by Ronald Heifetz – “balcony and dance floor”. As a leader, your effectiveness depends on your ability to observe and synthesize a complex set of signs and data that are often conflicting. You must be attuned to what is most important, what is at stake, what your team really needs, and what is emerging. An important strategy to stay on top of those undercurrents is to periodically step back from your need to do something and assess your attachment to results. Instead, picture yourself leaving the “dance floor” where you are busy with action, and “getting on the balcony”, so that you can observe the action, your team and yourself. Just as in the coaching example: getting on the balcony helped Annie gain perspective in the midst of her competing needs. Achieving some distance from her struggle and engaging with the two different parts of her allowed new insights and solutions to emerge. Your ability as a leader to gain perspective on a challenging situation allows you to connect with the root cause with greater ease.
However, as a leader, not only do you need to get on the balcony yourself, you also need to help your team do it, from time to time. You may say that this might be easier if you were a professional coach. It actually does not require you to be an expert in coaching. Success hinges in preparation, and you can prepare in four simple ways.