I once struggled with a client, let’s call him Corey, who became easily upset—or so I thought. I never actually experienced it, but I did notice that he became slightly agitated when the conversation wasn’t entirely positive, and he would quickly change the subject. I found myself giving him a wide berth.
But I needed to bring something to Corey about his relationship to money that I was sure he wasn’t going to like, and I couldn’t seem to “find” the right opportunity. That was unlike me, so I reached out to Roger, a friend and colleague, for help.
“I’m afraid if I really tell Corey what I see, he’ll get upset,” I said.
“Have you told him that?”
“Wow, that’s brilliant. Duh. Thank you.”
“That’s unlike you, Josef. What do you think is happening here?”
“Oh, man… My client is making me walk on eggshells, and that’s exactly what my mother did.”
So now I could confront not only Corey, but the unhealthy conditioning from my mother. That’s what I call an “opportunity I can’t refuse.”
Roger helped me see the larger issue with Corey wasn’t the content piece about money—it was about his ability to receive feedback. So I brought it up the next time we talked.
“Corey, there’s been something I’ve been wanting to bring to you for a while, and I noticed I’ve been avoiding it. I’ve been afraid of upsetting you.”
“Really? What is it?”
“Well, before we get to that, I want to talk about the context. I get that you’re a very positive person. It’s one of your greatest strengths, for sure. But what I notice is that when I get near talking about things that don’t feel good, you get agitated.”
“Really? I haven’t noticed that.” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“I believe you. It’s so subtle that I didn’t notice it for a while either, but it has caused me not to be completely direct with you, and that’s not good. So let’s both be on the lookout for how you might be unconsciously steering conversations away from what doesn’t feel good.”
“Okay, I’ll definitely look for that. Thanks.”
“Now, all of this being said, are you ready to hear the hard thing?” I asked him.
“I’m ready,” he affirmed.
“Okay, this may be hard for you to hear, but in the realm of money, you’re not operating in reality. I’ve seen your reports, and I’ve talked to your CFO. You’re taking more out of the business than it can handle. If you don’t put yourself on a strict budget, I’m afraid things could get very bad.”
His long silence said a lot to me.
Finally, he spoke again. “I’m noticing a really strong anger reaction.”
“That’s good,” I said. “You don’t have to become that anger. You can just keep noticing it.”
“There’s a big part of me that wants to deny and argue with you right now.”
“Yup, and that part of you is totally entitled to his reaction. And you’re here, too, noticing that.”
Sighing heavily, he admitted, “I think I already knew this was true. I just didn’t want to believe it. And there’s a big fear of losing my freedom.”
“I totally get it. That’s an understandable fear, and now we can talk about the difference between freedom within boundaries and freedom without them, which is going to be a profound distinction for you. But first, congratulations on not becoming that anger that you felt. That’s a big step.”
Most entrepreneurs start their businesses in part because of a love of freedom, which they define as being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The tragic irony is that, despite how they imagined it, inevitably owning a business is far more responsibility than working for someone else—a notion that makes most entrepreneurs shudder.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the solution to most small business problems is the owner taking more responsibility and limiting their freedom in the short-term, to gain freedom in the long-term. In Corey’s case, the issue was living on a budget—inside the reality of financial boundaries.
It took some time, but he did it, and his business narrowly averted financial disaster. But there was even more to it. Following the coaching adage, “How you do anything is how you do everything,” I assumed his employees also walked on eggshells around him, and I interviewed each one of them to find out.
Unsurprisingly, it was true.
Employees, in their own (perceived) self-preservation, had been keeping information from management because the culture (starting from the top) had become one of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Vendors were paid criminally late. Customers were upset and threatening to leave. Key employees were looking for jobs. It was bad. And it all stemmed from Corey’s relationship to difficult feedback and an over-reliance on positive thinking.
It took about six months to change the culture and turn the ship around, but we did it. I helped Corey with the roots of his aversion to emotional discomfort, and he learned to love the truth, no matter how bad it felt. The truth after all, shall set you free, right? Did you ever notice Jesus never said it would always feel good?
The way to handle The Hair Trigger excuse is to gently point out the lack of coachability in a moment where they don’t have to process anything else. To give someone content feedback and in addition go on to criticize their inability to receive feedback is too much. They need a calm, safe environment where they are most likely not to feel attacked. Sometimes you need to calmly but firmly provide evidence and give the excuse-maker room to process it.
Taking offense is always a defensive measure. Someone who becomes emotionally upset and rash when exposed to a picture of reality that doesn’t fit theirs, communicates their own fear and insecurity. (Click to Tweet)
A mature person has room to question their picture of reality. An immature person must fight with it, because somewhere in them they already have a sense that they’re missing something.
It’s the same dynamic that allows the enormous bouncer at a bar to reason kindly with the patron he’s ejecting, because he has nothing to prove. Also, notice how the best police are kind, generous, and soft-spoken, because they know they have the power; it’s the insecure and fearful ones who use their power immaturely and abuse it, because they don’t feel powerful enough on the inside.
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