Remember the post I wrote recently about the boss who made me cry a lot? I’ve been thinking about her more lately because of some recent feedback I got from a client.
When I moved to Seattle, I didn’t know anything about the Seattle Freeze. I just noticed that people tended to be quieter, kept to themselves, and often didn’t use their full voice when trying to get past someone in the grocery store. I attributed this then, and still do now, to the fact that Seattle is full of people who lean closer to the introverted side of the introvert/extrovert continuum. (Whole post about this to come.) As a more introverted person myself, I was happy with the lower levels of noise and the softer edges of the city.
When I started that bad job, about 2 weeks into my time there (pre-crying), my boss and I were having a discussion about an event and she said to me, “You’re very East Coast, you know that right?” I had no idea what that meant and being from the East Coast (South Florida specifically, a veritable melting pot of all aspect of the East/South), I thought this was an accurate way to describe me. My blood boils just thinking about this since I later learned that this was the first of many minor insulting ways she would express dissatisfaction with my communication style.
Turns out “East Coast” is code for “direct,” which for some is synonymous with “mean.” Not everyone uses this descriptor in a negative way, but a few do. My boss meant it as “mean.” In retrospect, I realize that I was never mean to her (she was my boss and I was fairly politically minded even at 24). What she didn’t like was someone cutting through her confusing way of talking to try and extract what she was actually after. She liked to talk in artistic jargon, and, though being an artist myself, I had no idea what she wanted most of the time. As the one tasked with executing her visions, it was vital that I knew exactly what she wanted. So often I would ask questions to get at something in super-specific detail.
Now, I have a story that she often had no clue what she was doing and rather than just fess up to wanting to wing it, she would make it my problem; that I was too rigid, not capable of change, and direct. Fun, right?
So, now, I’m highly sensitive whenever I get the feedback of being “direct.” All through graduate school, I was told that this was a good trait. In fact, the modalities of communication we learned, practiced, and were assessed on were all about specificity and clarity, hallmarks of directness.
So, I started to develop a greater skill in noticing when someone was actually pleased with it, and when someone was saying it as a way of subtly insulting me, or asking me to stop.
I have a new client who has been pointing out this particular trait a lot. He voiced how direct I was no less than six times in our first one-on-one meeting and in our most recent debrief mentioned how I freely share my opinion and have a high level of professionalism. Um…thanks?
I checked in with a mentor around this.
“I think he’s trying to get me to stop being direct, but this is a big part of my signature presence.” Signature presence is a code phrase used to describe a group of traits and characteristics that make you you. Signature presence is like my fingerprint. It’s unique to me and deeply ingrained. I have developed a deep love of my signature presence and found that it works for me, not just as a consultant, but also as a human being.
My mentor reflected back to me the characteristics of yin and yang energy.
“I imagine when you get this sort of feedback from him, it’s because you are showing up with a lot of yang energy. I also suspect that you were taught to use yang energy when you were young as a way to protect you from danger,” he said.
As a kid, my house was dominated by my dad’s big, boisterous personality. Though he himself prefers solitude, when he is with others, he is larger than life, perhaps reflecting his own need for protection, the manic side of bipolar disorder, or how he would act out when he had a few drinks in him. My mom, brother, and I had to match his energy and then rise above it in order to be seen. He was a big presence (still is), and if you were in the middle of a disagreement (as you often were with him) the only way to “win” was to shout him down. So, yeah. I’d say some yang energy was involved.
“However,” my mentor continued, “what I know about you is that you naturally fall into more yin energy. It’s like a big Mama Love energy that when it touches someone they feel nurtured and loved. And, I suspect, that they also realize there is no mischief with you.”
I told him that most of my clients talk about how they felt held, loved, met, and, yes, nurtured from time with me. I told him about how parents would ask me to play games with their children when they were going through phases of trying to cheat because I could gently re-direct their behavior.
“But I thought I was doing that,” I said, referring to Mama Love and yin energy. “I thought with this client I was sitting in more yin energy. I was reflective, compassionate, and curious. I didn’t impose myself on him or his beliefs or his processes. I only participated when asked.”
“Is there a way you can embody yin without being submissive?” He asked. “Is there a way you combine strength and love together? It seems like you, at your core, knows this, but when parts of you get scared, you revert to well-honed protection techniques that may look like a flavor of directness that is scary for this client.”
“Yes, I can think on that.” And I have.
I had more conversation with more loved ones, mentors, and colleagues. Some disagree with this assertion, stating that I might have been giving the client exactly what he needed in this particular type of directness. Almost all had a positive reaction to the Mama Love image I’m now chewing on.
I meet again with this client tomorrow and will try this on a bit more. I’ll track if I feel triggered and revert to older behavior. Before going into the meeting, I’ll do some grounding and centering meditation to remember the feeling of being Mama Love. Because, not only do I want to give that sense of mothering to my clients, I know that I feel at my best when I can embody it and reflect it back on myself as well.