This post is long and vulnerable and has a handful of F-bombs. If none of that suits your taste, feel free to continue scrolling.
A friend of mine handles all social media for my coaching company. As she was setting up the editorial calendar for the next two months, she chose the theme of ‘mistakes’ for this week.
And since the Universe likes to provide you the things you call in, it sent me a huge opportunity this week to make a mistake and process my way through it.
I’m not sure I really even believe in ‘mistakes’, because everything you do is just a tool for growth. Here in Silicon Valley you hear the work ‘iterate’ a lot. I like to think of every experience, positive or negative, as simply an iteration. We went in and tried something again in a new way…either it worked the way we’d hoped, or it didn’t.
But…before you can learn from it, you’ve got to have an understanding of what happened, and what modifications you need to make to your process, approach, or behavior going forward.
And so this is a story about that.
The other day, I woke up with some unexpected anxiety and self-doubt. I suppose I probably could have expected this wave of feelings because the day before I had shared a very vulnerable and open post on social media. It is not uncommon for this type of expansive event to be followed by some sort of emotional contraction. That said, I did not spend too much time thinking about why I was feeling the self-doubt, or what it’s origin might have been. I did my best to let it be there without judgement, to connect with my breath, and to move through my day with patience and self-compassion. I was managing all of it as well as possible, and moving through to do list with grace and softness.
Suddenly, I received an email from a client telling me that she was firing me because she didn’t like something that I said in our meeting the day before.
That tiny pilot-light of anxiety and self-doubt turned immediately into a 3-alarm house fire. I walked away from my computer and started pacing the house, while shaking out my arms and muttering ‘fuuuuuuuuck’, ‘fuuuuuuuuuuck’. My partner was working from home and he asked me what was happening. ‘I need a minute to catch my breath’, I said, and kept pacing around until I could find my breath, and then, hopefully, the words I needed to describe what I was feeling.
I don’t remember the exact first words I said to him, but the spirit of them was ‘Oh shit, oh fuck, I totally fucked up.’ He gently asked for more some more context and details. I told him everything that had happened in the meeting the day before, and what this client said in thir email, and how I felt really bad, and stupid, and ermahgodItotallysuckandmaybeIshouldntdothisjobanymore.
In the most present and non-judgement tone, he looked at me and suggested that this was nothing. Clients come and go. You can’t please everyone all the time. People will get upset about what they get upset about, and you can’t predict everything, and you just have to do your job as best you can. And if someone wants to quit, then let them roll out so you can get on to whoever and whatever is next. He then said ‘Sam, you’ve lost clients in the past and didn’t have this much of a reaction. Why is this happening in this way now?’
I had to pause and dig deep (well, actually not that deep because it has been lingering near the surface for weeks) and get honest with myself and him. ‘Because I’ve restructured my programs, and I’m offering this new service at a much higher price, and I feel really vulnerable, and raw, and even though it seems like it’s mostly working, I’m kind of confused and I’m not sure I even know what I’m doing anymore. And, if I’m being totally honest, this is a very well-connected client and I don’t want to fuck up future opportunties because of one mistake with this one person.’
Meanwhile, at some point during this emotional melee, my bestie texted me: ‘How is your breath?’ And I texted her back some verbal vomit about feeling like a piece of garbage, and gave her a brief recap of the situation to which she replied: ‘This sounds like your client’s shit, not your shit.’
Record scratch and stop. Deep inhale.
‘Yeah, but I did say that thing, and it was maybe a little off-color or inappropriate.’
‘Yeah, ok, so maybe you can tighten up the language for next time. Aaaaand, someone who is ready to drop into the work that you were doing in the exercise you were guiding them through would have connected with the context of what you said, and would have resonated with the care and positivity of the underlying sentiment. This sounds like they are projecting something else on you, that has nothing to do with you.’ She asked me a few more precise and helpful questions and helped me return to my body and see the situation a little more clearly.
Blergh. Deep inhale. Big exhale.
Later in the day, I saw my studio coordinator and I told her about what happened. Her main message to me was: ‘Do not change the way you approach your work because one person had a bad experience. You have helped sooooo many people. My biggest fear for you is that you will allow this to make you timid or tiptoe around future clients out of fear of offending them. Your people work with you because of you and because of your style. Keep doing that.’
I had already immediately sent the client a reply email apologizing for what I’d said. I didn’t try to justify what I’d said. I simply apologized. I wanted to own the fact that I could have been more careful with my language. (I did throw in a line to explain the underlying point I had been trying to make, but still without justifying the inappropriate comment itself.) I also wanted to try to open the dialogue back up to either salvage the relationship, or end it with grace and intention. I also wanted to model conflict management, boundaries, and navigating negative emotions and situations.
Over the course of the rest of the day and night I became very comfortable with and grounded in the acceptance of any possible outcome. I was showing up for the situation using all my tools with the utmost integrity and to the best of my ability. The rest would play out however it would play out.
I didn’t hear back, so I sent another email the following day, once again accepting my share of the responsibility, and extending another invitation to open the dialogue back up at any time, and I included some information about the amount of the refund they would be receiving. Right after I hit ‘send’ to this email I received a reply to my first email. The client thanked me for, and accepted my first apology, told me they still wanted to stop the work because they are ‘too busy’ and wished me well. Whether or not they have any residual hard feelings I will never know, and at least we closed our relationship with professionalism and thoughtfulness on both sides.
Coaching people is not for the faint of heart. You know you have to be willing to watch people flail around in their own shit. You know that as they flail around in their shit in front of you, it’s going to bring up all of your shit, too. It’s your job to create and hold the container for them to flail around in their shit feeling freaked, even when you yourself are flailing around in your shit feeling totally freaked.
It’s also your job to lovingly and carefully shine a light on their shit so they can have the opportunity to flail around in it, and ultimately figure out what they want to do with it. And this is where it gets really, really sticky sometimes.
Every coach, healer, minister, or professional helper/carer will tell you that there are times when you literally think you’ve just ruined someone’s life, and you get an email from them the next day saying that their life was forever positively changed and what an inspiration you are. And there are times like the one I just had, when you have a really expansive and empowering (and seemingly well-paced) growth session with someone, and the next day they email you telling you that you suck and they want their money back.
By the time I went to bed at the end of that day, I was really looking at this entire experience as a massive gift of growth and learning, and leveling up my skills as a leader. It was like the Universe was handing me a massive house fire of self-doubt to force me to look at my own shit that I’ve been slowly chipping away at, in a quicker and more expedient manner. Ultimately, I’m grateful for all of this.
Here are some re-learnings from this whole experience. I say re-learnings because not one of these things is new information, we just maybe went a little deeper a little faster this time:
1) I need to be a tiny bit (not a lot, but a little) more mindful of my stories, metaphors and comments. I also stand fully behind the underlying sentiment of what I was trying to convey. I apologized in integrity. I also don’t feel like what I said was ultimately that wrong. The client needed something to place their overall discomfort on, and this was what they chose. If it hadn’t been this comment, it probably would have been something else. That’s totally fine. I can handle all that, while also being more thoughtful.
2) This was a blazing reminder of something that comes up in my work every day…the fact that people can get really, really spooked by:
– Stillness and breath – because they create space for all the personal shit they’ve been avoiding to bubble up to be addressed. It’s a beautiful thing, but when you’re new to it, it’s very, very scary and very, very uncomfortable.
– Personal power – because when you’ve spent a lifetime of living behind your doubt, shame, shyness, or trauma, it’s almost completely unreal on every possible level to think or feel like you can take the reins of your own life. For some people it is absolutely terrifying. And there isn’t really any way to know how terrified someone is about this until they experience it.
3) As a coach, healer, minister, professional helper, you really have to trust yourself, your experience, your intuition, and your tools. And when all of those fail you, and don’t worry because at some point they will, you’ve got to have a solid team in place to hold you up.
4) It’s also important to be honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t know…but not to the point of questioning your every move. If you need a certain new tool or piece of knowledge, go get it. But the fact that you don’t yet have it doesn’t undermine or discount all the tools, skills and knowledge you DO already have.
5) Don’t place extra importance on any one client because of who they are, who you think they are, or who they think they are, who they know, who you think they know, how cool it is, or anything else. Show up for each client with the same open-heart, and the same trust that no matter who it is, you found each other for a reason.
6) This is deep soul work for you and your clients. If an issue arises, take as long as you need to, and have as many conversations as it takes to get clear on what part is your responsibility and what you need to immediately let go of. Build your fresh boundaries and interactions from here.
By the way, while all of this was happening, I received three emails from other clients that were all glowing and positive and excited for their next meeting, as well as one from a potential new client who is super excited about his trial session on Friday. So, like, literally everything is all fine and good. I’m excited for what new clients and experiences I draw in next because I was able to move through this.