Am I really about to do this?
I didn’t need to. It wasn’t actually necessary to embarrass myself.
Or was it?
Quick. Decision time. In a split second, I had to decide whether to keep going with the-show-must-go-on strategy that I had just put into play, or to stop and shine a big flashlight on my goof.
Deep breath. Even deeper dig down into why I was there – to serve, to help, to learn.
And boy did I just learn a big lesson. What I didn’t realize was that there was an even bigger one to come.
Ok, I’m doing it. Flashlight time.
“What did you guys think of that issue processing session I just led?”
“Controlled the process beautifully.”
“Thanks. Now how about some constructive feedback? Where did I fall short? What could I have done better?”
Oh man, this is going to be even harder than I thought. They didn’t see it. Now I know that I could have gotten away with it!
So I walked over to Jack, put my hand on his shoulder, and said, “how was it for you when I didn’t immediately write your proposed solution on the flipchart, as I did with the others, and instead asked someone else to summarize your point?”
“Well, now that you ask, it didn’t feel great. I started doubting myself and thinking, ‘did I go on too long?’ or ‘did she not like my idea as much as the other ones?’… I don’t know – it just didn’t feel great.”
“You were absolutely right to not feel great, and I’m so sorry. It was completely my fault. Please let me to share why needed to ask someone else to summarize your point before writing it on the flipchart…”
Silence. All eyes on me. Big bright light.
I can do this. I’m brave (or so I have to believe in this moment).
“Here’s actually what happened: I left the building. My body was here, but my mind wasn’t. I caught myself make a mistake – I skipped a small step in the process I was leading – and went into a whole story in my head about it. Here’s what my internal dialogue sounded like: You’ve done this process so many times. You should know it cold by now! How could you mess it up like this?! To stand in front of people and lead is a privilege. They deserve perfect execution, not this mess. Terrible. And what about all the other mistakes you make? Remember that email last week where you meant to write “sneak peek” at an agenda, and instead you wrote “sneak peak?” What is that? A mountain? Enough with the typo’s! Enough with the mistakes! In emails, in articles. And now even in front of an audience?! Unacceptable.”
What followed was laughter, empathy, and words of understanding and encouragement.
And then two really great questions:
#1. How did you bring yourself back from all of that negative self-talk and manage to make sure that no one even knew you made a mistake, let alone that you left the building?
#2. Why/how did you decide to share your mistake with us, when you clearly didn’t have to?
For #1: I think since I meditate, I’m very accustomed to “watching” my thoughts pass through my mind. Sometimes they glide, sometimes they violently run, sometimes they happily skip, but mostly they whirl around like a tornado – a whirlwind of thoughts/ideas/feelings. So that’s what I was doing in the 30 seconds that Jack was talking. I was watching my tornado. And then realizing that I needed to stop watching my mind, and step back into the room – ASAP! – and come up with a creative/effective way to figure out what was said in my “absence.”
But even if I had zero experience with meditation, I think I’d quickly recognize the very human and universal act of getting lost in my thoughts. We can all catch ourselves.
For #2, I decided to share it for a few reasons:
– I wanted to make sure that Jack knew that the reason his idea didn’t immediately go on the wall like everyone else’s did was my fault, not his.
– I wanted to make sure that we all knew/understood the step that I missed. Because while it was small, and probably inconsequential in that particular process, it could be very important at another time.
– I wanted to make it ok to be imperfect (I needed to make it ok to be imperfect!) and still be effective.
– I wanted us all to learn something from this.
– And most of all, I wanted to make the point that you can’t be in two places at once.
You can’t be in two places at once.
When our thoughts turn inward (as they often do), we can’t be of service to others. Whether we’re running a meeting, delivering a presentation or simply having a conversation.
When you catch yourself (and you will – trust me) watching/listening/analyzing your own thoughts, you’ll know that you’ve left the building. You’re no longer with the people in front of you.
You’re not connected.
You’re not listening.
You’re not serving.
You’re not really there.
So then what?
If we know this is going to happen from time to time, let’s be prepared and not surprised. Let’s equip ourselves with some tools to handle the leaving, as well as the coming back.
Let’s try not to leave! Even if we know that we won’t reach 100% on this, let’s try. There are a few things we can do to stay in the room and be fully present.
– Be mindful. Notice the color of someone’s shirt, the weight of the pen your hand, people’s body language. Blue, red, light, weighty, calm, engaged, etc. All of these observations will keep you in the room.
– Pretend you’re a reporter. What if you had a write an article on what was happening and being said? How carefully would you be paying attention?
– Care. Care deeply for the people you’re with. They deserve your presence, your listening, your attention and your help.
You did your best. Tools, techniques, best intentions, and yet you still left the room. Here’s how to come back.
– Quickly. Catch yourself as soon as possible, and take a breath. Ok, you’re human. It happened. Next…
– Dance in the moment. You’re smart and creative. You can figure out a way catch up on what you missed. Ask someone to summarize. Ask for it to be said in a different way. Even a simple, “that’s interesting – please say more…” will buy you some time and understanding of what you missed. Or…
– Be brave, take out your flashlight and shine a light on the momentary departure and return. You can do it with humor – “Wow, I just took a quick flight back home to Philly because the Atlanta heat was getting to me. But I’m back!” or you can do it with sincerity – “I’m sincerely sorry – my mind went somewhere else for a moment, completely my fault, but I’m back – please say that again.” And/or…
– Use it as a teachable moment. As the Disney folks say, “take a tragic moment and make it into a magic moment.”
Without even meaning to do so, that’s exactly what happened with my embarrassing story. I got to teach something I didn’t intend to teach. I got to learn something I didn’t intend to learn. I got closer , as a result of being more human and real, with everyone in the room. For the rest of the day, my group felt more connected, more engaged, more warm and helpful with each other, than they had been before my mistake.
My lesson-beyond-the-lesson: being human trumps being creative. Yes, the show could have gone on. I had pulled it off. No one caught my mistake. I could have easily kept going without missing a beat. But pausing to be human, be brave/vulnerable, and be helpful held gifts for everyone in the room. Including me.
Take this for a spin. Both the staying, and the coming back if/when you leave. Start small and safe. Maybe in a conversation with a close friend or your spouse.
Try some strategies to stay really present, and see what happens to the conversations. See how your experience shifts.
And then try some dancing, some courage, some light and some learning when you momentarily leave and come back. See what gifts may come.