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React fast or respond slow?

This is an archived blog post from Green Alder Coaching

Well, Happy New Year to you all!

I pondered today whilst wandering the streets, looking and stepping over the wake of fallen Christmas trees that sporadically decorated the pavements, cast out in a 2013 blitz. The trees have served their purpose, forgotten, and yesterday's news…What a waste!

I have had an interesting Christmas —mostly nice—but also challenging at times. I am particularly curious to reflect on the New Year's Eve murder mystery event I was invited to, along with eight other people. There were four complete strangers, three new acquaintances, and one close friend.

Only a week before, the host X asked me to pick any character from a list. At the time, she appeared unphased at who she or her family might play act on the night. In fact, as a partnership, we collaborated and carefully selected which character would suit which individual. X was the expert on who her guests were. I quickly scanned and chose a Lady Diana Willard who was English and wore a black dress —easy I thought, as others were requiring safari suits and American accents etc. I felt relief that I could more or less go as myself and ease myself into getting to know a bunch of strangers. No fancy dress purchases!

The murder mystery evening arrived.  I was excited, but I was quickly overwhelmed by greetings at Host X’s door from an array of people dressed in character. With hindsight, I can see it was great fun but I panicked. I had not even had an opportunity to glance at my script to get a sense of who I was playing.  Who were these strangers? I was impressed but intimidated by the wonderful drawl of thick accents required for the parts.

Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. I quickly became acutely aware of not being in an environment where I felt safe to play a character or be myself. I became easily tongue-tied and monotone. For some reason, host X repeatedly put me down in front of her guests by commenting with a sneer at how I had chosen the best part (all dressed up nice) whilst they all sat in sheets. I let the comments ride—the first, second, third, and fourth time, but by the fifth, I went on the attack and announced that she should not have given me the unrestricted choice in the first place! I could not look her in the eyes as I felt so humiliated yet childish.

During most of the evening, my wine glass was empty so I did not have the alcoholic courage of wine soaring through my veins to let things ride and become uninhibited. I found it impossible to act out a posh ‘Lady’ character whilst the rest of the table oozed wonderful German, American, and Egyptian accents. I felt crumpled and self-conscious and wished to be with a  familiar circle of friends or family. But some of it was immensely funny and a welcome distraction.

All was not lost. The evening concluded with a quick hike up Parliament Hill to see a wonderful array of fireworks! I was grinning from ear to ear with my sparkler and finally at ease in my jeans and woolly sweater.

With awareness and reflection, I have learned a few things about people and about what makes a comfortable social environment (my analytical skills have gone overboard since New Year, as I have not felt this anxious for over a year).

I am a professional coach and building up my networking skills etc. Why did I feel like I was twelve again on this occasion? What can I learn from this experience?

I reflected on the importance of a comfortable environment for people to meet and share information, get to know each other, and build rapport before an event or a meeting.

It clarified to me the importance of creating a safe and collaborative relationship for coaching clients to feel at ease and open to questions and challenges within a coaching session. It reminded me of the passive-aggressive nature of some people, and the need for me to develop a ‘backbone’ and assert myself without reciprocating passive-aggressive behaviour back.

It reminded me of how it feels to be at the sharp end of snide remarks and truths masked as jokes. Many coaching clients I see have confidence concerns when faced with aggressive or passive-aggressive people. I must remember how it feels. It reminded me how important it is to bring moment-to-moment awareness to any given situation and choose to respond differently when there can be an impulsive instinct to react (the difference between fast and slow thinking).

After all, I could have said from the start that I would struggle with acting out a part and that I hoped they did not mind me just reading the dialogue until I warmed up. Instead, I said nothing but mentally tortured myself with an awareness that I was behaving differently from the others. I expected them to be mind readers perhaps?

I could have asked for a continual top-up on my New Year drink to help give me a little courage and I certainly could have made light of and joked about the black dress comments. However, there is nothing wrong with being real. But, was there a need to take things so personally?

So my reflection is that we can make a situation worse by our thoughts on top of thoughts and our limited perspectives when in anxious states. I hope to be aware and respond differently in the future to such a situation, and also not to be affected so much by external events beyond my control. I have a choice on how to respond, but I also have the compassion to know that I did the best I could at the time in the situation that presented itself.

The main thing is, I have reflected and can let it go and move on. Onwards and upwards and safe in the knowledge that my positive and negative experiences can only have a rewarding effect on my ability to work as an effective coach. It’s yesterday's news, just like the cast-out Christmas trees on the pavements of London. On the whole, the night was good, but it could have been fantastic if I approached the event differently.

Have you ever had difficult situations to deal with that you wished you had handled better? I would like to hear your thoughts. Be mindful and Happy New Year!


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