April 2016

My desk holds a funny gadget: the British Queen, who starts dancing when light falls on the sensor in the base, a true “Dancing Queen”. A few days ago our tomcat Binkie was stretched out and dozing on my papers – as he does occasionally – in a total zen state of mind. But then he detected a movement from the corner of his eye (how he managed this with his eyes closed is a mystery to me). His curiosity was immediately aroused and he went on inspection. He carefully crept closer, wary but clearly with a burning desire to know if there was some kind of opportunity. He sniffed the swaying Queen and then kept staring at it for minutes, totally mesmerised.

Animals, like children, can be so disarmingly curious. I find it a beautiful quality, it shows a genuine interest, a wish to know, a desire to understand. Nevertheless, from an early age we learn that it is not polite to be curious or to ask too many questions. But curiosity is natural. We do not learn to be curious – we learn not to.

As a coach it is one of the most powerful ways of working with your client. You ask about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ in order to dig deeper. You start from a situation of ‘not knowing’, of opening up yourself and being completely unprejudiced; from a fascination by who that other person is. It is a precious gift for the other to be genuinely curious about him or her and to listen to their thoughts, what is important to them, what their deepest wishes and desires are. Curiosity is a fixed given within a coaching relationship, but imagine how much richer, warmer and more fascinating our lives would be if we would also embrace this in everyday life? Curiosity is the opposite of assumption and judgment – and I wrote in the previous Inspiration what assumption can do to relationships.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the great importance of curiosity. Research with fMRI scans shows an increase in brain activity in those zones associated with learning and behavioural change when a person is approached with openness and compassion. That activity does not show when the focus is on someone’s imperfections and when he or she is not given the chance to come up with solutions. And this is exactly the way we usually treat each other, our children and colleagues.

For the next two weeks try to ask genuinely curious questions to the persons you often deal with. Ask what is on their mind, what they find important in life, what makes them happy. These are not questions you normally ask and at first it may be difficult or awkward. Refrain from giving your opinion or telling your stories. Observe what happens, how it makes you feel. Realise it is not only a gift to the person you are talking to, but also to yourself.

Albert Einstein said: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious“, and we all know where that got him and what it has brought the world. You know what to do!

Today is a special day, also for me, because I welcome my first guest-blogger. It is with great pleasure that I introduce my friend and colleague Mary Heneghan Cardoen. Mary is also a Co-Active coach and an organisational development consultant. Her academic background is in health science, psychology and communication. Enjoy her story!  

I never thought I would ever go to a gym since I love the outdoors. But if I’m honest, there ‘s also a part of me, which says ‘oh I would like to be more toned, beautiful or have longer legs before going to a gym’!  Scrutiny from others would surely be too high for a reforming perfectionist, would-be ‘good-enoughist’ like me! So what was different this week?

My teenage son wants to get fit so that he can perform better in football. When I suggested the new gym down the road, he agreed – which amazed me, as he is quite shy. I was delighted, knowing that it would grow his confidence, develop healthy habits for later, and reduce screen-time! But what did it mean for me?

Well, since he must be accompanied, this meant I would have to set aside my own feelings and just go. I decided to do it – not because I was suddenly kinder to myself, suddenly feeling more toned, fit, young or beautiful! Not at all, I did it because his happiness always comes before my own vulnerability.

In the carpark outside the gym, he told me he was feeling nervous and worried that he didn’t know how to use the machines, and everyone would see.  I knew exactly how he felt. I recognized, very well, the feelings, which can keep our biggest dreams and broadest selves in a box. I want my son to discover all that he can be and I don’t want him to wait as long as I did, to try! So, we reasoned that these places were designed for people like us, and agreed with a nervous laugh, to ‘give it a go, exactly as we are.’

The whole experience was a hit! What joy, in that hour, to see so much of his brilliant smile, his enthusiasm, his dynamism – to see him shine so brightly, and to hear us laugh together out loud. Then to hear him say with a wry smile, “thanks for dragging me here today Mum.” I could see him ‘seeing’ that he could connect to his dreams, one fierce little step at a time.

Such moments of brilliant happiness are special and precious – and sometimes missed if good ideas are sacrificed to old habits like self-criticism, or feelings of fear, inadequacy or shame.

Brené Brown, researcher and author of The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly explains how vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation and creativity. She explains that when we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.

When we see others daring to be vulnerable we admire their courage. We can experience the vulnerability of others but don’t want to be vulnerable ourselves. In more than a decade of research she heard one clear message over and over: “The most valuable and important things in my life came to me when I cultivated the courage to be vulnerable, imperfect and self-compassionate.” Perfectionism sets us up to feel judgement and shame: ‘I’m not good enough’. If we want to get away from perfectionism we have to make the journey from ‘what will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’

Writing this blog for example, is part of daring to live my dream – writing to inspire others. It is me – daring to discover more of who I am.

Is there something you would love to do but are afraid to fail? What would you do if you knew you could not fail?  What if the question is rather deeper – what is worth doing even if I fail? And, what if you really accepted that your “good and bad, your ugly and your beautiful, your wise and your less wise …..” is enough?

The imperfect is part of the perfect, and oh what an art to be compassionate with ourselves.

I wish us joy on our journeys to living fully who we are.