We’re considering the overwhelming power of the meanings we give to the experiences of life.

I assert that it’s not the events of your life, but the meaning you attach to those events that influences you so greatly – and creates such mischief in life.

Here’s an example.  A client who is a highly competent executive confided that, as a child, a parent had nicknamed her “grace” because, in her assessment, she was “anything but”.  She carried this hypothesis into adulthood as if it were true.

Unsurprisingly, her attention was drawn to any time she was less than graceful. Just as naturally, she’s spent decades overlooking her every demonstration of poise and elegance.

Predisposed to the assumption of clumsiness, when under the spotlight she’d naturally be less natural and more self-conscious than at other times. Such hyper-vigilance would undermine her confidence, just as it would yours or mine.

The difference is, for my client, each misstep solidified the meaning she’d given herself—decades after the parent set the interpretation in still-wet cement.

A few years ago I received a lucrative consulting contract with a wonderful church in a denominational tradition that was new to me and to my CRM team. The prospect of breaking into this stream and serving them well was thrilling. And it was exciting to contextualize our cultural change process for them—until a weekend retreat when everything went wrong.

At the outset, I managed to offend the most influential in the group.

By Saturday, the room had “locked down” opposing me and our process. The charge: I didn’t understand them, their culture, and their unique traditions.

Within a few hours, I’d been fired.

The intensity and steadfastness of the resistance was striking. My efforts to reframe, renegotiate, and debrief the fallout were resolutely thwarted. I worked hard to assess what contributed to the breakdown.  And I worked just as hard not to make up a meaning as to why it happened. If I had, it’ve sounded like: “Something’s very wrong with me, it, or them!”

Two years ago, I had another opportunity to work with a church from the same tradition. I was aware that I was aware of the debacle from before. I committed myself to be with this church and with this board in this moment.  Where it served us, I described what happened years before—careful not to inject meanings that could doom our budding relationship.

Had I concocted a meaning—beyond the events that occurred—to explain the “miss” with the other church, it would’ve undermined what’s been a deeply satisfying and fruitful process that’s still going strong.

 

Coaching Distinctions #25