Telling better stories

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Many parents look forward to story time with their children at the end of the day. More than simply an opportunity to connect, storytelling is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It offers us a way to join together, empathise and make meaning in our lives.

In the workplace – too – leaders are often encouraged to tell inspiring, visionary stories that will motivate their people. And, as Brené Brown says in her most recent book – Rising Strong – we’re all very good at making up stories. Unfortunately they often hook us into the negative meaning we’re making about events and circumstances in our lives.

As we walk the Balanced Leader journey we’re likely to face three types of stories.

First are the stories that define our employer’s corporate culture. The ones that talk about “the way we do things around here” and the organisational heroes. About what will bring rewards, what’s needed to succeed and what’s not possible here. Stories like: “the best managers are the ones that work long hours – that’s how they show commitment.” These stories are often so deeply embedded in the corporate psyche they become the water in which we swim. We need to remain alert to our stories of limitation. In an earlier blog I wrote about Appreciative Inquiry which is a powerful tool for delving into stories.

Secondly, there are the stories we make up about the people around us. Stories like: “my manager is unsympathetic to my need for a flexible arrangement so there’s no point in asking.” “My employer doesn’t value my skills and won’t accommodate me – I either put up with the pressure or leave” and “if I work flexibly my co-workers will resent me”.

Finally there are the stories we make up about ourselves. “I’m happy to take a demotion to work flexibly while my kids are small. It keeps me on the career ladder and I want to be a good mother.” “I’m powerless to negotiate a more flexible arrangement in my current job.” “I don’t want others to judge me as a typical working mother – not committed to her job and struggling to manage her childcare.”

Many of the stories we buy into disempower us. They’re often based on untested assumptions, fear and outmoded thinking. The thing is: until we take a bold step we cannot be sure which of these stories are true. And just as the stories we read to our children grow and develop with them so our corporate stories need to do the same. Sometimes it comes down to us as Balanced Leaders to rewrite the story.

For our own benefit and that of our children let’s own our stories, recognising them for what they are. Let’s explore new possibilities for living more balanced lives. And let’s turn our existing stories of limitation into what Brené Brown calls:

“a story of great possibility, of what could be if our best selves showed up”.

Going deeper with our self-care

The received wisdom is that women tend to be poor at self-care – putting the needs of others ahead of their own. And much of the advice about rectifying this centres around suggestions such as finding some “me time”, having a regular massage or pamper treatment and making time for fun activities and friends.

These are all laudable pursuits but if we’re going to rise to the challenges of Balanced Leadership we need to go much deeper with our self-care. Specifically we need to cultivate self-compassion, healthy breathing (yes, you read that right) and control of our boundaries.

According to world leading self-compassion expert Dr Kristin Neff:

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.

Many of us are very bad at doing that. A wealth of research suggests working women have a tendency to be perfectionists. And we’re very quick to beat ourselves up when we think we’ve screwed up. The truth is: sometimes you will screw up –  we all do. And if you’re a working mother people will lay the blame on the fact that you’re not focused enough on your career. Should you be working a flexible arrangement they’ll be keen to point out it’s clearly unworkable.

The point of my Balanced Leader coaching and training is to support working mothers to feel confident they’ll screw up less. To develop skills and to be prepared for contingencies. But we’re all human and it’s an uncertain and imperfect world. To regain our composure and focus on being Balanced Leaders in those moments we need to practice self-compassion.

Many of us also need to develop better breathing habits. We spend our days hunched over devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops which compresses our lungs and leads to shallow breathing. When the going gets tough and we’re concentrating hard we may even have a habit of holding our breath. It’s no wonder we end up feeling tired much of the time.

According to Max Strom – one of my favourite yoga teachers – in Chinese medicine the lungs contain, store and express grief and inspiration. How can we fully open ourselves up to these emotions if we don’t fully open our lungs? Those of us who are parents know how joyfully babies breathe. And how quickly that joy can become suppressed with hours and hours spent sitting at a school desk.

Developing the regular habit of checking our breathing and of having moments of self-compassion will ensure we remain more mindful as we go through our busy days. Those moments of mindfulness will make us more aware of where we’re losing control of our boundaries and more likely to make adjustments. In this way we become focused on deeper self-care, nurturing ourselves on the Balanced Leader journey.