by Jennifer Sellers
I felt the grip as I rounded the first corner. I was on one of my usual routes in our desert-scape neighborhood, accompanied by my walking buddy, Tia, a rather reactive but usually smiling black-coated retriever mix. Was there a coyote, a javelina, a bobcat…as is often the case these sunrise mornings? No, the subtle feeling came from inside me.
I had a thought, and then there was the grip. The thought was about a conversation later in the day with a potential client. I had completed a Phase I project for this group and was to talk with one of the leads about whether and what Phase II is. On the one hand, I was looking forward to the conversation, to connecting, and to seeing if there is a way in which I can be of service. On the other hand, my fight-flight-freeze nervous system felt threatened, perhaps for no good reason other than that’s what it does.
Everyone experiences the grip. A friend told me he feels a slight discomfort whenever he opens his email or the phone rings at work. He doesn’t want to react this way; it just happens. I’ve never met anyone who likes to feel vulnerable, but the grip doesn’t just pack up and leave because we ask it to.
Rounding that corner, as soon as I noticed the slight constriction in my gut, I laughed a little and relaxed. My amygdala might try to convince me otherwise, but the afternoon’s conversation was not really a threat to my well-being. And the paradox is that welcoming the sensation is the trick to gaining from it. It does have something to say, after all, and in this case jotting down what I’m curious about for the meeting was a good idea.
The natural instinct is to reject the apprehension and push it away with another – maybe happier – thought, but that’s not as helpful as it seems. Denying it doesn’t make it go away. The counter-intuitive move to “lean into the sharp point,” as some Tibetan teachers put it, is the move that allows you to work with the experience, and opens the next moment up so that you can respond rather than react.
Everyone can practice relaxing into the grip, looking at what is troubling, and making a conscious choice about how to proceed. If it’s super-sized, it may take more time. In some cases, one breath is enough to help you turn toward it rather than away from it. The trick is to recognize the grip then create a gap. A pause allows you to take that energy and turn it into positive action.
If you’re a leader in a new role or are about to become one, you are likely experiencing more unease than normal. Knowing that and giving yourself the permission to mind the grip and create the gap will help you smooth the inevitable rough spots. It will help you read new situations. It will help you form valuable relationships. It will serve you well as a walking buddy on your path to next-level leadership.