A few years ago, I was asked to work with the board of a housing co-op who were having issues around workload equity. Resentments were brewing because a few members had become burdened with the lion’s share of the work. Before our first meeting, I was warned about the board’s ‘problem child’: a longtime member who often derailed meeting agendas with her combative style and strong opinions.
Like any ‘good’ neutral facilitator, I reserved my own impressions until going into the meeting, where I kept my mind and—slightly racing heart—open. I made a special effort to connect with this woman during introductions, and felt something in her relax.
Then a familiar dynamic surfaced. Whenever she spoke, she would look at me, and I noticed myself hasten to demonstrate that I was deeply listening. It no longer felt easy to interrupt or challenge her when she went on too long or made unfounded assertions. Aware I might be seen as taking her ‘side’, I also found myself trying to extend that same allyship with everyone in the room. Somehow I’d landed in the role of empathetic space-holder instead of providing the irritant that would help the group see itself more clearly.
On paper, I aspire towards being a fearless leader—the kind who can push a group to grow beyond habitual ways of being, who can ask the hard questions, interrupt people when needed, name the taboos, sacred cows and elephant(s) in the room, and—gasp—call out problem behaviors in the moment. Yet in the messiness of real time, that level of boldness terrifies me.
Nothing kills a facilitator’s mojo faster than the desire to be liked—that internal Censorship Board assessing and filtering every word or action before it ever sees the light of day—all in the name of appealing to the imagined sensibilities of multiple different individuals in the room, each with their own sets of preferences and hangups.
As one of my wise mentors would say, “And how’s that working for you?”
Over time, I’m starting to relate to my inner people-pleaser with more forgiveness—and a little discernment.
First of all, we all want to be liked. It’s encoded in our DNA. At one time, daring to be different or disagreeable meant much more than social death. Going one step further, (thanks to the influence of Diane Musho Hamilton), I’m also learning to ask, what’s right about this? What’s right about wanting to be liked?
What this question reveals is an important distinction. What’s right about this desire to connect is that I am building trust, rapport, and replenishing the bank account of mutual good will with groups I work with, so there is more freedom to be more challenging or fierce when the time comes.
Many times I have dismissed these aspirations as approval-seeking and therefore suspect. Granted, our higher motives and lesser impulses are often operating simultaneously to varying degrees, and they can be hard to tease apart. And that’s OK—we are all mixed bags of desires and habits, dynamically changing from moment to moment.
But by naming this distinction, I’m better able to notice when I’m in the grip of a more needy, fearful drive to ‘win’ others over, versus legitimately building rapport and trust. In one, I’m orienting from self-concern. In the other, I’m acting as an instrument of service to the group.
With this ‘problem’ board member, my initial efforts to calibrate and engage her were appropriate–what derailed me was the egoic impulse that then took over and claimed all of me in those moments. By getting to know this dynamic, I’m better able to spot it and course correct in the moment.
Related to the desire to be liked is the desire to “prove” ourselves to our clients—something I think many of us struggle with. I often used to write off this tendency to over-prepare or demonstrate competence to a group as a form of perfectionism.
However as I learned to pose that same question “What’s the intelligence in wanting to prove myself?”, I discovered an underlying desire for the group to relax and trust my capacity to hold their intentions and help drive their process forward, and to bring a sense of rigor to our collaborations.
It’s one thing to micro-manage others’ impressions of us. And it’s something else entirely to show up with a commitment to act as an instrument in service. When we dismiss the more superficial egoic concerns without taking a second look, we miss a beautiful opportunity to own, amplify and even celebrate, these deeper drives to serve with efficacy and impact.
Whether our ego catches hold of these aspirations and is using them to browbeat us to action in some way becomes less important as soon as we attune to the deeper current of integrity beneath those more fearful voices. As I’ve learned from Diane recently, naming something helps you see it more clearly.
So, my encouragement is this: the next time you find yourself in the grip of a drive or habit which seems unshakeable and probably uncomfortable, ask yourself, “What’s right about this?” Teasing apart the surface layer from the deeper impulses beneath can bring more insight, possible next steps, and an opportunity to more fully recognize your intentions in ways you might otherwise miss.
Amanda Suutari is a content developer and editor with Ten Directions.