One could almost say the heart of reflective leadership is the capacity for self-confrontation.
It is not really a skill. It is more a “psychological move,” a mental and emotional re-positioning to look very honestly at oneself and one’s situation. Without it, we have no way to accurately judge or respond to situations, especially when those situations involve complex, real-world misunderstandings and conflicts and the powerful emotions that go with them.
It’s easier to believe in self-confrontation when talking about other people. If only they would be honest with themselves, things would get better. In reality, of course, each of us must be honest about our contributions to the problems, or the problems between us surely will continue. Our mutual self-confrontations are the only way to withdraw from the persistent fantasies, assumptions, and the projections you and I make onto each other; to see things as they are. Without this process of withdrawal and understanding, how can I make the changes I need to make?
This seems straightforward enough but the truth about ourselves can be a very delicate (and slippery) thing, especially in those situations that challenge our blind belief that we’ve got a corner on what’s true. We can be absolutely certain of our experience of others only to discover, too late, how wrong we were. And then, making the discovery, we are predictably bad at balancing truth with self-care.
I recall working some years ago with a client leader who had received some very tough feedback about her style. She had days when her naturally edgy style merged into sarcasm and ridicule of her associates. One day, after sharing some difficult feedback I’d collected, I was helping her put together a personal development plan. Over coffee she read her plan to me, then looked up from what she had written and spontaneously said — with that characteristic sarcasm in her voice — “Oh my! Now I’m applying my very blind spots to writing my plan! I’m writing because I’m fully convinced other people are the only problem I have.” She turned the paper over in front of her and gazed off thoughtfully, deeply perturbed. I’d known her for awhile and it seemed to me she often used sarcasm to cover what was painful.
In it’s way, it was a beautiful moment of self-realization — this seeing the truth of how old habits put on new clothes to suit the circumstance, how with sleight-of-hand she was reinventing the very problem our coaching relationship was supposed to address. In an instant she had grasped herself — but the acid was still there.
I helped her parse what she meant and then complimented her on her discovery, but with a doubt. What she had done to others she was now doing to herself and I said as much to her.
These many years later, I still advise clients that the core of their work can depend on self-confrontation, but I guess I’ve learned (from my own experiences as much as others’) that self-confrontation only really works when it is wrapped in love. You can get to some part of the truth about yourself by pouring on the acid and watching it eat away at the metal of your own defenses. You can say you are scared about something and then criticize the heck out of yourself for it, creating even more anxiety. You can shame yourself for disrespecting another, then beat yourself up mercilessly. You can point to the mistakes you’ve made as objective truth and then use your energy to numb out the pain — as if you could. Especially if you are supposed to be tough or perfect or right all the time, the moment of self-knowledge can flatten you. But if you want the whole truth, you must open a loving, redemptive, forgiving door as well. You must acknowledge that whole truth as always bigger than whatever it was that flattened you. The love you need might come from a coach or a friend, but far better, of course, that it come from you yourself.
When it comes down to it, the capacity to confront yourself is more a part of love than the other way around.
I wish I’d reflected some of that back more definitively to my sarcastic client. Maybe it just would have been in the tone of the compliment and the observations I shared, or through some subtler aspect of presence, metaphorically passing her a candle in the midst of her dark self-critique. When you see someone finally tell themselves a truth, you know it for what it is, a hard moment. Maybe all you can do is offer sincere support (“That’s a tough place to be!”) or quietly embrace the person, if they are okay with that. Sometimes just being there is enough, unspoken love being the only kind at such a moment that can be heard.
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