What’s Holding Us Back?

As a society I believe that we are too slow to ask for help. The vast majority of us are brought up to believe that we need to know all of the answers, find solutions independently and look good. The rise of social media and the Instagram and Snapchat-fuelled selfie culture has compounded that belief, driving an obsession with creating the perfect look and the perfect life for our online followers.

It’s not just about online interactions with relative strangers though. How often do you truly open up and be honest with your friends and family when asked how you are? 

A decade or two ago we were overwhelmed by self-help gurus telling us to stop responding to the question ‘How are you?’ by simply saying ‘I’m OK’ or ‘Fine thanks’. Instead, they told us to be positive. Suddenly everyone was saying ‘I’m brilliant’, ‘I’m fantastic’, ‘I’m great’, with a broad toothy grin that often hid a very different truth

I noticed something similar within the professional community. I’ve been lucky enough to be a member of the Professional Speaking Association (PSA) in the UK since 2003. The people I have met through the PSA are more than competitors, associates and colleagues; many of them are my friends. We call each other ‘our tribe’ and we mean it.

Yet even though we identify as friends, we are still not honest enough with each other. When we meet and catch up at regional meetings and conferences, behind the pleasure of seeing our friends we still want to shine. The same drive to look good is prevalent within a community of people who enjoy supporting each other.

So, when people ask us ‘How’s business?’ we reply ‘It’s fantastic’, ‘It’s great’, ‘I’m so busy’.

But we don’t always mean it.

I remember attending a regional PSA event a few years ago. One of the speakers was Steven Houghton-Burnett, who made a fortune by starting, growing and selling one of the UK’s first internet service providers and went on to be an excellent business and motivational speaker.

Steven was running a workshop that day and handed every delegate a questionnaire to complete at the beginning of his session.

One of the questions was: ‘What stage is your business at in its development?’

A. Brand new (less than six months old) 

B. Young (less than two years old)

C. Mature and stable

D. Growing

E. In decline

Not one person in the group was prepared to admit that their business was in decline. Everybody had a business that was either in its early stages, mature and stable or growing.

There were liars in that room. I know that there were liars in that room. I was lying! At that stage my business was in the middle of a slump. It was definitely ‘in decline’. But I didn’t feel comfortable owning up to that fact at that time and with that group. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in that room pretending that their business was stronger than it really was.

The need to look good can often stop us from sharing, even with our closest family, friends and colleagues. We want them to think the best of us and that need overrides the possibility of getting support or advice that might change our situation, or at least make it more bearable.

Prince William and Prince Harry have spoken out a lot about the ‘toxic masculinity’ that prevents people from sharing, particularly young men. In a 2017 interview, The Duke of Cambridge said, “For too long there has been a taboo about talking about some important issues. If you were anxious, it’s because you were weak. If you couldn’t cope with whatever life threw at you, it’s because you were failing. Successful, strong people don’t suffer like that, do they? But of course, we all do. It’s just that few of us speak about it”.

Myth Busting

I believe that people are now ready to see these myths busted and create a new world view. One where it is not only OK to be open, honest and vulnerable but also where it’s positively encouraged. The success of Brené Brown’s books and TED Talks on the power of vulnerability and the willingness of big business to embrace the message suggests that we’re more receptive to the need to change our approach than ever before.

It’s important for individuals to know that it’s OK to acknowledge what we feel, what challenges us and what is holding us back. You don’t need to be positive all of the time. 

Hippo Time

It’s OK to be negative occasionally too. In Paul McGee’s excellent book S.U.M.O. (Shut Up Move On) he talks about the importance of ‘Hippo Time’. McGee explains that one of his friends told him that he didn’t want to ‘move on’, as the book encourages when something goes wrong, he just wanted to wallow.

“None of us want to hear some well-meaning person telling us to cheer up when we’ve just experienced a major setback or disappointment,” said his friend. “Telling someone to SUMO might in some circumstances be both insensitive and unhelpful, particularly if what they have experienced is serious and significant.”

McGee explained, “When Steve used the term wallow, a picture of a hippopotamus wallowing in mud immediately sprang to mind. It was then that I realised that on occasions, before people can SUMO they may need to wallow – to have, as I call it, some Hippo Time.”

I love this concept of ‘Hippo Time’ and confess to wallowing myself on occasion. My objective in this book is to encourage you to be more open with your network. But timing is key and if you need time out first in order to process your feelings, move through the stages of frustration or grief and clear your head, then that’s fine. The important thing is not to wallow for too long, otherwise the negative feelings will start to take over and control your actions and responses.

I want you to feel that it’s OK to share. To recognise that constantly being independent and self-sufficient is counterproductive. Pretending that you know all the answers doesn’t serve anyone. It damages your morale and confidence; it means you repeat mistakes that others have already made and learned from; and it leads to inefficiency that costs you and the people around you.

Vulnerability doesn’t need to be framed as a sign of weakness. Saying ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t mean you’re not a star performer, high achiever or ambitious. Changing your mind or admitting your mistakes shouldn’t indicate weakness. It’s a strength and, in fact, humility is becoming increasingly important as a business skill.

People do want to help you. We enjoy helping people we care about.

Like everything there is ‘a time and a place’. It has become clear in the interviews I’ve carried out for the book that there are times when it’s definitely not appropriate to share. For the Premiership footballer, voicing doubts and a lack of confidence can mean the loss of their place in the team and their livelihood. For the New Zealand marine it can be the difference between the rest of their squad relying on them and feeling secure in combat or not.

You can, however, create a strategy for sharing:

  • Build a strong network of trusted contacts in whom you are comfortable confiding and with whom you are happy sharing.
  • Have clarity about where in your life or career you need support and the people you’d be happy to turn to.
  • Develop deep relationships with key people who will meet with you regularly, listen to your challenges, explore them with you, help you find solutions and hold you accountable for your actions.

When we hide in the shadows hoping that our anonymity will preserve our reputation, we don’t allow that help to flourish. Without the support of others we’re far more likely to fail. Help and support are all around us: all we need to do is ask. 

An extract from the “About the Book” section of “Just Ask: Why Seeking Support Is Your Greatest Strength” by Andy Lopata