There are certainly a lot of credible reasons to hesitate to talk to a professional about problems and situations that have a personal, emotional piece. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than worrying that it might make things a bigger problem than they already are. So, it’s fine to be cautious, but – there comes a point when the situation is not getting the attention it merits, and things might get much worse.
In those situations, it’s becoming more common (and also turns out to be the best, least risky strategy) to talk to someone at least once, before going further with putting labels or diagnoses on the situation. Start with your own consultant to help you think through what your situation truly is, and help you decide how you can best move forward from here.
And when I reflect on my most effective experiences as that kind of “helper consultant,” there’s no escaping the reality that I’ve been most helpful to people who were already pretty strong, but who also had the confidence, self-esteem, and often the past experiences to recognize they’d benefit from a conversation with someone about what they’re dealing with now – and want to be dealing with better.
That may seem obvious and elementary, but it’s not really.
It’s always been true that all kinds of perfectly reasonable, competent people earn good livings, and appear to be doing well, while using a strategy of blatantly avoiding thinking about extraneous matters and compartmentalizing what needs to get done at work separate from other issues on the homefront. They’re wired that way. And yes, many people are wired the other way, and don’t have it in them at all to just ignore their emotions – at home or at work. But most of us are part of a fairly broad middle where we can mostly pull off separating feelings from our workplace “to do” list – but not always, and not forever.
A quick example would be a manager who (accurately) knows he or she is affected by, and on the verge of having to deal with a growing performance problem with an associate which might get messy, but his or her first, raw response is extreme exasperation at having to deal with it at all. They’d really rather not. They’re working hard, they’re busy multi-tasking, and now they’re supposed to carve out time and energy to address a personnel issue (which isn’t a strength) wherever that might go.
Of course, the problem is that those feelings – very human feelings – are also felt and experienced by osmosis in the workplace among colleagues (as well as that particular associate directly) and unless managed well, will affect the entire workplace environment.
How well problems are addressed, as well as what happens when they’re not addressed, is why “workplace culture” is talked about so much. Everyone in the workplace is watching and is affected by how well things are handled – or not.
Another quick example: a divorced couple, both of whom have solid professional careers. They’re trying to co-parent well, but a situation involving one of their children has jumped the tracks – (so often it’s a school problem, but it could be anything – substances, mental or emotional issues, social isolation – or something else.) Of course, each parent has reasonably valid criticisms of the other’s parenting skills or level of engagement, but allowing it to get away from them, to fall away from being “in sync” as co-parents to that child is a major unforced error with possibly profound consequences. Children need their parents to rise to the occasion, not get derailed by each other.
The truth is at least one of them needs to talk to somebody, in confidence, about getting on top of the situation – sooner rather than later.
And what I’ve noticed about my part of the personal consultation process is that I seldom say much of anything that people don’t already know. It’s not about new information. It’s about calming down and achieving as much clarity as is humanly possible about the various pieces of the problem – let the chips fall where they may.
So, as so often happens, when our conversation succeeds at enabling people to arrive at more expansive, generous, emotionally honest views of the situation, that’s when things start to get better. Truly.
Sure, to some extent I’m talking about emotional intelligence, but I’m also talking about a form of humility that my kind of “smart” people have. They at least sense their own emotions interfering with their judgements. They know they might be getting it wrong. They don’t have a problem talking (in confidence) about their situation, because first and foremost they want help to get it right. So – as we proceed with our conversation, they’re emotionally honest and forthcoming about how they see the problem. They listen, they think before they speak, they ask good questions, they’re not afraid to disagree – but they’re truly trying to let go of “attitude” or emotional barriers to seeing what’s there to see. They help me to help them.
It’s one of the basic truths about my personal consultant role: I help people recognize what they already really know is there, should be there – and then I help them decide how to best to move forward from there.