On a recent business trip, a colleague introduced me to an old college friend she hadn’t seen in 20 years. While we stood talking at the rooftop bar overlooking the city skyline, I listened intently as my colleague’s friend shared his struggle finding purpose and meaning in his work.
I offered a few insights and he suddenly turned to me and said. “I just want to lay my head on your chest and tell you everything.”
While some people might have been offended, I took his impulsive reaction as a compliment. Clearly, he felt safe with me, like I was someone with whom he could rest his world-weary soul and unburden his troubles.
I’ve been coaching men for over 20 years now, and, although not exactly said in those words, I know this is what many of my clients are desperately seeking: A loving and unconditional safe harbor where they can lower their defenses, metaphorically rest in my arms, and talk about whatever is causing pain in their hearts without fear of ridicule, retribution or rebuke.
In the last 20 years, I’ve heard a lot. Some days I imagine myself as a priest sitting in a virtual confessional as I sit in my office on the phone and coach my clients around the world.
I’ve listened to the deep dark fears men hate to admit.
This morning I listened empathetically to a client who is struggling with his new boss (an additional layer added between him and his previous boss, which was threatening to his ego as it is) who accused him of being defensive, which of course caused him to be defensive, and only served to affirm the new boss’s beliefs.
I’ve listened patiently when a European client called at midnight from his hotel room in Dubai to tell me he’d found out his wife was cheating on him. I’ve listened to another client struggle over whether or not to leave his lover as the pain of lying to his children about his frequent out of town trips outweighed the pleasure of the affair. And I’ve sat across the desk of a CEO for hours over glasses of Scotch and a box of tissues, listening to his despair as his marriage and company were simultaneously dissolving.
I’ve listened to the deep dark fears men hate to admit – the fear of failing, of no longer feeling sexually attracted to their wife, of being fired, being found out a fraud. The fear of being seen as needy, weak, vulnerable, irrelevant, a pushover or, on the flip side, an arrogant asshole who everyone is waiting to see fall flat on his face.
Can you imagine the loneliness and isolation of being the most powerful person in the room and feeling completely powerless?
I’ve witnessed the pain of their stories of loved ones suffering and feeling powerless to fix it – children becoming drug addicts or diagnosed bi-polar or terminally ill, teenagers getting pregnant, aging parents who can no longer remember their name.
Can you imagine the loneliness and isolation of being the most powerful person in the room and feeling completely powerless? Of being unable to trust a single soul around you to have your back at the Monday morning staff meeting and yet being utterly dependent on them for your success?
It is a tremendous gift when we are able to be fully present for another human being in times of pain and suffering without moving to fix or solve or push away the emotion. Our culture is so emotionally averse, we deny those moments when actually diving into them can produce a depth of connection and healing that’s transformational for the soul.
We all deserve someone we can talk to who is not expecting a result or demanding a return on investment. Someone who won’t judge us or use what we say against us in a board meeting, or admonish us for missing yet another Little League game.
I cherish those sacred moments when trust has been established with another human being. When a true and honest connection is made. And it can be in an instant. Saying that trust takes time to build is, in my experience, ridiculous.
I live for the moments when the façade drops, pretense falls away and someone says to me in a low voice, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” This is when I know a sacred bond of confidentiality has been formed, and we shift into a different experience of time and space. Breathing slows, the heart opens and my senses are tuned to “Listen Only” mode.
I imagine myself an empty vessel, a channel of divine love, a listening ear of the Universe. I can practically feel the person’s ancestors leaning in saying “Yes, he’s getting it, he’s ready to release this painful story and heal generations of pain and suffering.”
Like the time I was delayed at LAX several years ago and a delightful young man sat next to me at the bar. We struck up a conversation about a book he was reading. He bought me a beer and told me he’d recently returned from Afghanistan.
“What was that like?” I asked, holding my breath, unsure if I really wanted to know at all what it was like to be on the ground, in a war in the Middle East.
I wanted to know what it was like to kill someone,” he admitted.
“I wanted to go,” he said, lowering his eyes, his sun-bleached hair falling into his face. “I wanted that experience.”
“Oh, really? Why?” I tried not to appear intrusive.
“I enlisted in the Army because I wanted to know what it was like to kill someone,” he admitted.
The air left my lungs and I felt suspended in time. This young man in front of me looked like your typical California surfer dude. The words did not match the image in my mind of a killer. But I was in this far, I couldn’t turn back now.
“And, so did you, you know… kill anyone?” I asked.
He nodded slowly. I assumed this meant it was probably many someones.
“And what was that like?” I pressed. “Not at all what I expected.” He seemed relieved to be able to talk about it.
“There wasn’t the satisfaction I was looking for. I was very angry after 9-11. I wanted payback. I wanted to go to Iraq and get revenge. But by the time I got through boot camp, we were pulling out of Iraq and I got sent to Afghanistan instead. Things weren’t really what I imagined.”
We spoke some more about his desire now to heal himself and heal others, the memories that haunt his dreams and the pictures he can’t get out of his head. And eventually our planes were called and we went our separate ways.
I feel we are engaging in a soul retrieval of sorts, a reclamation of the bits and pieces scattered along the road that got left behind.
But for that brief period of time, I knew my job was to simply bear witness. To hold space, be a loving, unconditional witness to this young man’s pain. And the funny thing is, although I’m not a fan of war and killing people, I had no judgment of him. None. It was like his story and his logic made perfect sense to me, and that his journey was exactly what he’d signed up for in this lifetime for the spiritual lessons his soul needed to learn to evolve. All I could feel towards him was loving compassion.
With each person who invites me in, bestows their trust upon me and shares vulnerably, my heart grows a little bigger. And instead of taking on the burden of their pain, I feel we are engaging in a soul retrieval of sorts, a reclamation of the bits and pieces scattered along the road that got left behind.
As they share their stories, we gather up the pieces, gluing back the fragmented shards of shattered glass until they are once again whole and ready to take on the next set of life challenges awaiting them. And I have the satisfaction of walking away feeling that my soul has also been healed, that in the witnessing of others pain, I am fulfilling part of my destiny in this lifetime as well.
This is a Featured Article from The Good Men Project originally published 1/2014
About Laura Gates, PCC
Founder of Gates Group LLC, Laura Gates is an ICF PCC Certified Executive Coach/Facilitator with over 30 years coaching and business leadership experience. Her background includes team facilitation, leadership training and culture change work globally. Laura is a speaker on the topic of Leading with Purpose, a subject she’s passionate about.
Current clients include Silicon Valley tech, VC-backed tech and bio-med start-up C-suite executives and their teams, and executives in transition. Previously she was a founding member and key driver in the growth of Learning as Leadership where she provided leadership training, coaching and facilitation for 22 years to clients ranging from corporate executives to NASA astronauts, nuclear physicists and Navy jet fighter pilots. Laura began her career at Citibank on Wall Street later founding a marketing firm in the San Francisco dot com start-up era.
Laura is trained in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Crucial Conversations, Marshall Goldsmith’s Stakeholder Centered Coaching, Non-Violent Communications, Rational Behavior Theory, brain science, mindfulness, EQ360, and MBTI. She is currently developing a model for enhancing innovation and creativity to help her clients make a greater impact.
You can connect with her on Linkedin.