You Are Not Alone

Posted 04.24.2009

This has been a week of contrasts for me.  On the one hand, it’s been fun and exciting as I’ve met and talked with a lot of new people during different speaking engagements I’ve had.  On the other, it’s been pensive and melancholy because of the news of the tragic passing of Freddie Mac acting CFO David Kellerman and what seems to be a continuing string of stories of deadly family tragedies that one can only assume are borne out of the difficult challenges that so many are facing these days.

This morning I made a presentation to a group of corporate learning officers on supporting leaders at the next level.  As I often do in my speeches, I began by telling my own story of a time in my career when I moved into a much higher level leadership role than I had previously held and realizing in very short order that I was in way over my head.  Fortunately, I had a boss in the CEO who recognized my situation early, called me out on it and then proceeded to support me herself (sometimes with pats on the back and other times with kicks in the butt). She also went out of her way to line up other people to help me learn the ropes. 

During a break following my presentation this morning, one of the learning executives came up to me to thank me for telling that story about my struggles in that job.  He told me that he related to it personally and thought it was important to acknowledge that everyone eventually faces a time when they feel under water. As he said to me, “It’s good to know you’re not alone.”

What I see in many organizations these days and in some of the heartbreaking stories in the news is that there are a lot of people who must feel like they’re under water and, at some deep level, must feel like they’re alone.  If you’re feeling alone, let me tell you something. You’re not.  There are people around you who have been there too and want to help.  If you don’t feel alone, that’s great.  If you’re not already doing so, please pay attention to others who might be feeling like they’re constantly rolling that big rock uphill and let them know that they are not alone.

For several years now, I’ve applied in my work as a coach some of the tools and principles developed by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman. Seligman is the originator of what is known as positive psychology and is the author of many books including two of my favorites, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. He has developed and shared some wonderful tools for staying positive and productive when things seem to be heading south.  I want to share one of them called disputation with you in the hope that is both personally useful and that you will share it with others who might benefit from it.

Disputation is the practice of redirecting that little voice inside your head that says things like, “All is lost,”  “You’re sunk,” or “There’s no way out of it.”  Just to take the edge off things a bit, let’s call this voice what it actually is – the itty bitty shitty committee. While it’s really important to recognize and acknowledge that voice, you don’t want to let it run your thinking. When you hear it speaking up, recognize it and then use the rational part of your mind to dispute what it’s saying. Inspired by Seligman’s work, here are some questions you can ask to challenge that negative monologue:

  • What’s the evidence behind the event that is prompting my negative thinking?  What’s the evidence to the contrary?
  • What are all the possible  causes for this event?  Are those causes situational or chronic?
  • What’s the worst case scenario here?  How likely is that really?
  • Even if the worst case is likely, what options are available to me to mitigate it or change the outcome?
  • Five months from now or five years from now, how much will any of this really matter?

You can use these questions for self-coaching or, better yet, talk them through with someone you trust.  If the questions aren’t something you need right now, clip and save them for a time when you will.  In the meantime, please share them with someone who might need them.