I have a client working with someone who is making his job very difficult. My client’s team is located around the world, so he has to manage them remotely. Not easy.
As he’s talking about this particular individual he says, “I just have to get tougher-skin to handle this person and focus on getting past this deadline.”
His use of the words “tougher-skin” caught my attention because they were out of character for him. His management style and strength as a leader draw as much from his ability to be direct, strong and clear as they do from his compassion, understanding and self-awareness. This is not a guy who looks for short cuts.
I suspected that the term tough-skin was not going to be helpful for my client as a way to manage his employee because it didn’t really fit with who he is as a person. But I didn’t know what to suggest as an alternative. Tough-skin, thick-skinned…etc – most expressions that convey strength are associated with hardness. In other words, extremely limited. What could he focus on to help him deal with this person the way he wanted to, from his best self? I thought about individuals who exemplified strength without hardness or harshness, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh. What was their metaphor?
And it clicked – focus on what you know about your highest self, that essential quality you understand through mind and heart. That quality that you sometimes feel is both your weakness and your strength. That thing that is a part of your essence.
In my client’s case, a core value for him is compassion. So I said to him, “The world is full of leaders with tough-skin…but a lot of them are a**holes. Then there are others who may not be jerks, but who shrink before real challenges that call for a deeper kind of strength. You don’t strike me as either type. So, how can you draw even more from your compassion to be stronger?”
After a long pause he said, “You’re right, that’s what I want. To lead from who I am.”
“Exactly,” I said, “If you do that, it won’t matter whether or not your skin is tough.”
My story starts a bit over two years ago when I reinserted/forced myself (with the support of a dear friend) into my dad’s life. After several decades of failed attempts and disappointing encounters, I had almost given up.
This time would be different. After showing up at his doorstep, he let me in. We visited for a short while and then I left. I began calling him once monthly. After a few months, a connection developed. Not great, but much better than past decades. Most importantly, I let go of all expectations of what a father should be. …which allowed him to be. (Funny how that works). And, new for me, I didn’t trample myself in the process. In other words, it was an empowered surrender.
We shared a few nice visits together in the next year and a half, in part thanks to my brother, John who insisted we bring Thanksgiving dinner to him in 2014. It’s quite amazing the healing that can happen in the sharing of a single meal. Having that time together was good, but actually wanting to have that time together was the real fulfillment for me…maybe for dad too. I don’t know.
And then one day, I got a call from the sheriff’s office in Northern California. Dad’s body was found in front of his house, shot in the head. He was in critical condition and was being airlifted to the hospital. An hour later, I got a call from the Coroner who told me he had died on the way and that it appeared to be suicide.
It was early afternoon on April the 28th, 2015. I live alone and the fact that it was mid-workday meant that nearby friends and neighbors were not around. But I needed human contact immediately. I went to the corner laundry mat where Lottie the laundry lady, who after numerous chats while doing my laundry over the years, has become a friend. I barely told her what happened when she stopped what she was doing and just hugged me. I went from not breathing to sobbing and gasping for air to a settled calmness while in her arms. She saved me in that moment.
I went back to my apartment and called my brother to tell him. Obviously, extremely difficult for both of us. And though difficult, I also felt a moment of relief that I’d said all I wanted to say to him from the place in my heart I wanted to say it. That is to say, from a place of love.
But the miracle of repercussions from healing a painful relationship doesn’t end here. It WIDENS.
A couple of hours after getting the terrible news of my dad, I received a call from a tissue procurement specialist….aka an individual who makes the first call to family members of individuals who’ve just died, with the goal of determining whether the recently deceased loved one qualifies to be a tissue donor. I’ll spare you the details, but will say that the roughly two hour process, spread over the course of three separate phone conversations with four different individuals was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. But I hung in there and remained on the phone, responding to questions as well as I could while at the same time, trying to be present to my own experiencing of acute grief.
The net/net is that my dad’s tissues couldn’t be used because of a time delay with the coroner…so the intake process was for not.
This didn’t work for me. I’ve got a little dictator in my head that’s always saying -“dam it, rob, make something good out of this”. It’s a bugger of a demon, but sometimes its useful. This was one of those times.
I put on my Consultant hat and wrote down all my notes from my experience with the tissue procurement specialist over the phone based on what didn’t work, but also on what did work. It resulted in a three-page spreadsheet with some basic principles. I resolved to reach out (code for: cold call) to any organ/tissue donor organization who’d listen and with whom I could share my experience and feedback. Maybe in a small way, I could make a difference from this tragedy after all.
I called at least 25 different organizations around the country – 3 of which responded, and 1 of which actually made time for a one to one conversation. (These stats are not atypical. Despite the fact that we are supposedly in a “customer – centric” era, most folks don’t actually give their time…that’s what makes the rest of this story even more amazing.)
After an hour-long conversation with Lisa Stocks, the Executive Director of Lifesharing, the donor agency for San Diego, affiliated with UCSD, we both shed some tears. She assured me that my input would be considered in their training. This was my goal: to make a positive difference. What an amazing way to complete the loop of my connection, however troubled, with my dad. To give life through helping to improve communication.
I leapt with joy inside.
Several months later, I received an email from Lisa. She asked me to come speak to her group about my experience. A couple of months later, I did so. And though my speech was quite imperfect (eg., I exploded with emotion just walking into the room with face and eyes red and full of tears), I think I conveyed to those listening, the power (and importance) of being present and being human when you’re on the phone with another human being who is going through what might be the most difficult moment in their life.
That was a couple of months ago, and since then I’ve shifted my coaching/training business from Sales Communication to one focused more on difficult/important communication or situations.
Lisa has since provided me with a wonderful testimonial, which feels good of coarse, but it’s even more fulfilling to know that something useful and hopefully beneficial to others can be the outcome of a really tragic situation.