“Hold It Like a Feather”

October 7, 2021

By Dave Bushy

One of my favorite coaching mentors often said “hold it like a feather,” as he held his hand out and demonstrated the lightness he was describing. 

He was teaching us that our questions as coaches can often land in ways we might not have imagined.  And that our job is to assure the client that we are purposely not giving extra “mass” or “gravitas” to our thoughts or questions and giving permission to the client to let the idea just float off like a feather. 

With care and intention, it is relatively easy to give that type of permission to others.

It can be equally useful and perhaps even more powerful, though, if we as individuals make a choice and give permission to ourselves to do much the same– to hold the thoughts, ideas and questions of others “like a feather.”  In effect, to choose to give less weight to what others say or do.  Especially when working with a boss.

I have the privilege of working with a variety of clients, some of whom work for people who are challenging. 

  • Some have bosses who are so smart they can easily “own” a conversation. 
  • Other managers can appear to be dismissive of new ideas from someone else. 
  • Still others can come across as demeaning their subordinates.
  • Some can exhibit all three of these attributes.

Together, as we explore what clients are feeling, they relate stories to which we all can identify.  Having a boss yell at you can be overwhelming, for instance.  And a boss who readily shoots down an idea or insists that their way is the only way of achieving something can keep people awake at night.  We’ve all succumbed to it, that’s for sure.

In coaching, we teach that intention is the boundary of change.  This means that we can decide, by intention, that the boss – or indeed anyone else – does not hold sway over our emotions or thoughts.  We can then make a choice. 

Here are some ideas as you consider your choices:

1. Lean Into Resistance – We can lean into the resistance we feel from a boss with a candid summation back to them of what we heard and subsequently felt.  If provided with a calm and honest demeanor, it can sometimes “shift” the boss’s behavior.  Tom Rubenoff has good advice:

“Simply repeat back to him what he said and ask “Is that what you meant?” (a standard trick ripped from couples’ therapy). If he agrees to your recap, ask him to tell you more about it. When you repeat someone’s perspective back to him, you give him a chance to expound and, crucially, to feel heard.”

2. Our Vulnerability is Not an Open Invitation – We can remind ourselves that our vulnerability need not be an invitation to another to ride roughshod over us or to demean us in any way. 

Rubenoff goes on:

‘It is important, not just at work, but in every aspect of your life to realize that no one can make you feel bad with words alone without your consent. People can say whatever they want to you, but your reaction to what they say is your responsibility, and potentially your problem.”

3. The Boss Might Not Intend to Come Across that Way – It is also important to realize that the boss might not realize just how they are coming across.   The need to be the “smartest person in the room” affects many people.  Recognize that what the person says might not in any way be intentional – it could well be just their “way of being.”  Brenner notes this in How we intimidate others without realizing it:

“We dissect others with the cold scalpel of raw intellect, feeling justified because we are right, or trying to help. People who are razor-sharp and calculating, surrounding others with apparent hyperawareness, can be intimidating without meaning to be.”

4. We Have the Ability to Create Boundaries – Finally, we can choose to create boundaries for ourselves in relation to others.   It is so important to realize that no boss is omniscient, even if they come across that way. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses.   If we remind ourselves of that, we can more easily navigate and frame our daily challenges with grace, kindness – and a genuine dose of reality.  And, most importantly, we can also embrace our own self-esteem!

Jennifer Latson in Psychology Today – The Intimidation Factor notes:

“The antidote to all forms of intimidation is self-esteem … ‘Strong self-esteem doesn’t rely on external attributes; it comes from knowing that you’ve overcome challenges with strength, courage, and dignity, and that you have a moral compass that guides you. The secret is: Nobody’s better than you. We’re all human.’”

With intention we can practice these four skills: 1) Leaning into resistance; 2) Recognizing that our vulnerability is not an open invitation; 3) Appreciating that the boss might not intend to come across that way; and 4) We can indeed create boundaries.

Of course, it takes time for these ideas to become embedded in your toolbox – to learn how to hold the ideas and words from others – especially your boss – “like a feather.”  

I invite you to give it a try!

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout American industry. 

Photo by Maria Godfrida from Pixabay

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