Julian was struggling. I had asked him a question to which he had no answer. He tried to diffuse my attention by changing reframing my question to one he could answer. Changing my question slightly I came back to it, to which he reacted by asking me for the answer. I didn’t want to add pressure and shared a suggestion. Taking it up he started explaining how he was implementing this in some of his work.
Julian was demonstrating how difficult it is for him not to know. Finding himself in a situation in which he doesn’t know the answer generates a sense of being out of control. He has been taught that a sign of excellence is to know the answer, anytime he doesn’t he feels like failing on his own expectations.
In such situations of uncertainty, it is hard for him to deal with the pressure of expectations of self or others. He routinely will prepare himself extensively to avoid experiencing this uncertainty. In situations in which he is confronted with his lack of knowing he will, if possible, avoid asking questions.
By sharing with me, how my suggestion was already part of his routine, Julian would be connecting the dots by taking my point and searching for similar situations. At the same time, in doing so, Julian was avoiding to experience not knowing and disabling himself from seeing that he could have come up himself with an answer to my question.
Learning to see that he can come up with an answer by himself will require that he accepts to feel his expectation. Instead of waiting for someone else to provide him with an answer, he will need to contain his uncertainty. Doing so will help give him a new mental and emotional space, in which a new approach to his habitual methods may emerge. He may then recognize that it t doesn’t need to be the answer, but that it can also be a question or some other place from which to expand his thinking.
Whenever he does, he will be adding a new way to think to his repertoire.
For Julian, it is not knowing. For leaders, it might be the pressure to act. It always means to deal with a situation characterized by lack. The choice we have in such moments is to allow ourselves to experience the lack or to divert our energy to solutions we know or experience we have. The latter tend to distract us. The former is there to explore what it might be that we need to learn.
Both may work. However, by reverting to habits there also is a good chance that we miss seeing how our past experience doesn’t fit the situation at hand.