The Art of Strengths Coaching

P is for Helping A Person To Protect Themselves In A Problematic Situation    

During the past 50 years I have worked with many people who have felt vulnerable in difficult situations. The circumstances may have varied, but all have felt distressed.

Some have felt physically or psychologically threatened. Some have feared the repercussions of telling the truth. Some have felt that, no matter what they did, they were bound to lose.

There are many ways to help a person who feels vulnerable. Sometimes this may call for making an intervention that removes them from danger. Sometimes it is more appropriate to provide practical and psychological support.

Let’s consider how you might help a person to deal with such a situation. We will then explore how you can use some of these in your own life and work. Here are several ways you can help a person to protect themselves and begin to shape their future.

Let’s explore how this works in practice. Donna was somebody who asked for help in a difficult situation. Recently promoted to become operations manager, she reported that the Managing Director had begun confiding in her in a way that caused problems.

Donna felt uncomfortable about both his style and the information he was giving. She explained this in the following way.

My Managing Director asked me to help him with a special project. Sometimes this involves working late with him in the office.

He has also begun giving confidential information about my manager, the operations director, and other colleagues. The MD plans to use this information to put people through disciplinary procedures. He has also said that my manager is at risk.

He plans to make changes in the leadership team, but he has asked me to keep this information to myself. At the same time, he has praised my efforts. He says that he trusts me and I can go far in the organisation.

I feel uncomfortable in the situation because I respect my colleagues, especially my manager. At the same time, I am enjoying the rest of my job. The operations role is one that I have wanted for a long time. Have you any suggestions about how to manage the situation?

Donna was in a classic double bind. This is a situation in which – no matter what you do – you seem bound to lose.

Double binds cause great pain in the family and at work. A child used as a pawn between rowing parents, for example, will feel they cannot win. Here is a potential scenario in a divorce.

The mother says to the child: “If you love me more than your father, come to me.”

The father says: “If you love me more than your mother, come to me.”

The child has an impossible choice. Showing favour to one parent will incur the wrath of the other. Both options are painful. Retreating into their private world is often their only salvation.

Double binds also occur in our relationships at work. A strong signal that you are entering such territory is when you feel a knot in your stomach.

Something has happened – either between you and a manager, in a meeting, or elsewhere – which makes you feel uneasy. Examining the situation in detail, you find that you have been placed in a position where, whatever you do, you are bound to lose.

Donna was in a situation where she had been put in a series of double binds by the Managing Director. She had been told that her manager and colleagues were at risk, but had also been told to keep the information to herself.

Sharing the information would mean betraying the confidence, even though the MD had been unprofessional. Not sharing it would lead to her feeling bad and complicit in his plan to oust the people.

Donna was not naïve. She recognised the MD’s style of praising her whilst demeaning other people. His behaviour would not improve and created a toxic atmosphere.

She was also uneasy about spending time working late with him in the office. So far there had been no suggestion that he had other motives, but she was unsure about his agenda.

Donna also had other demands on her time. Being a single parent she devoted many hours to helping her son who was having difficulties in school. Her mother was also undergoing treatment for a threatening illness. Donna explained her dilemma in the following way.

I don’t want to lose my job, but the situation at work is worrying. I am beginning to feel sick and losing my energy. I need to do something to solve the problem and feel happy again.

Donna needed to protect herself. Bearing this in mind, we began to explore the possible ways forward. This involved helping her to go through the steps mentioned earlier in the article.

Helping the person to clarify what is
actually happening in the situation 

Imagine that a person has asked for your help to deal with a difficult situation. You may start by showing that you recognise and respect the emotions they are experiencing. It is then vital to understand what is actually happening in the situation.

It is important to understand:

The specific things that the various people are doing – in behavioural terms – in the situation.

The specific consequences – such as how the various people are feeling – as a result of people behaving in these ways.

The specific things that people could do – or would need to do – to produce different consequences.

People sometimes go out of their way to try to understand difficult individuals who cause problems. They may also try to interpret the causes of the person’s behaviour. This is not always helpful.

The key is to focus on a person’s behaviour, however, because this has consequences. If appropriate, it is then to consider how they could behave to get more positive consequences.

Several years ago I worked with a leader who asked how to understand and motivate a talented but difficult individual. They explained this in the following way.

We have a talented person in the management team, but he is very aggressive. I think that it is because, deep down, he is insecure.  

He also has a great need for status. He wants to keep being promoted and wants to stay ahead of the peers in his professional network.  

Last week things came to a head when he upset several members of his team. How you any suggestions?

Bearing in mind what the leader had said, I asked him to describe what the person actually did – in behaviour terms – that caused difficulties. The leader repeated what he had said earlier.

He is very aggressive. I think it is because he is insecure and he wants to be seen as the smartest person in the room.

The leader again said that the person was ‘aggressive’. This is a blank cheque word, however, and can be interpreted in many ways. It was important to know what the person actually did – how they actually behaved – that caused the problems.

Bearing this in mind, I asked the leader to give me an example of the aggressive behaviour. He answered this in the following way.

I can give you an example of what he does. Yesterday morning he was upset about a piece of work done by somebody in his team.

He walked across to the person’s desk and shouted at him. He publicly humiliated the person by calling him hopeless.

This is a common pattern. If he is upset with somebody, he raises his voice and criticises them.

We now had some evidence about how the person actually behaved. The next step was to explore with the leader:

How they would like the person to behave in the future.  

How they could put this message in a way the person could accept and use.  

How to show the person the positive benefits – both for themselves and other people – of behaving in a different way.

How to give the person the chance to reflect and decide if they wanted to behave in a different way. 

How to behave if the person chose not to behave in a different way in the future.

Donna felt troubled by the behaviour of her Managing Director. Looking at the specific situation, we saw that the following things were happening.

The MD was asking her to stay late in the office and work alone with him on a particular project.

The MD was expressing critical views about her colleagues and said they were at risk. At the same time, he told her to keep this information to herself. 

The MD was praising her – saying she could go far in the organisation – whilst criticising her manager.

These were the facts of the situation. There was no need to interpret the MD’s motives or to predict his future actions. His present behaviour was putting her in a double bind.

Sometimes simply putting a name to what is happening can help people. This is a phenomenon that happens when groups of survivors tell their stories.

People realise that their feelings are authentic and they are not crazy. Other people have experienced similar feelings and been on a similar journey. Individuals can then move on to begin shaping their futures.

Donna recognised what was happening. She may have contributed to maintaining the situation, but now it was time to move on to finding solutions. 

Helping the person to clarify what they
can and can’t control in the situation

Donna focused on how she could control the controllables in the situation. This is a phrase that is often used by athletes, but many people also apply the philosophy in their daily lives.

Individuals often cross an emotional threshold when they take this step. They choose to build on what they can control rather than worry about what they can’t. Here is an exercise they use to make this happen.

Donna and I clarified what she could and could not control in the situation. Here are some things that emerged from the discussion.

Can Control

I can control my attitude and professionalism. 

I can control the quality of work I do as the operations manager.

I can control whether or not I want to help the MD on the project and how I respond to what the MD say about people.  

I can control how I divide my time between caring for my son, caring for my mother and, within parameters, the time I spend at work.  

I can control my future job search by looking for roles elsewhere in case the MD asks me to leave the organisation.

Can’t Control

I can’t control the MD, the way he operates and the things he says. 

I can’t control whether or not the MD fires me if I do not want to work with him on the project.

I can’t control whether or not I find another role elsewhere that pays an equivalent salary.  

Donna clarified how to build on what she could control and manage what she couldn’t. This involved taking the next step.

Helping the person to clarify what they
are prepared to do and what they
are not prepared to do in the situation

There are many ways to help a person to control the controllables. The approach Donna and I took was to explore what she was and was not prepared to do in the situation.

Donna felt vulnerable but wanted to be true to herself. She wanted to follow her values and be able to live with herself afterwards. At the same time, she wanted to be able to earn a salary and do satisfying work.

She actually began by describing what she was not prepared to do. This helped to define what she was prepared to do in the situation. She settled on the following points.

I am not prepared:

To be a victim and stay in the double bind. 

To work with the MD on the project because I do not believe he will change.

To be complicit in being given information that could be used against my colleagues.

I am prepared:

To keep being professional in my role as operations manager. 

To say that, because I have personal commitments to my son and mother, I am not able to give everything to the MD’s project.  

To, if necessary, find another job because continuing as things are is not worth the price.

It was then time to translate these intentions into action. This involved moving on to the next step.

Helping the person to decide what they want
to do and providing practical tools they
can use to translate their plans into action

There are many practical tools that can be used to help a person. These can range from helping them to regain their positive energy, manage difficult situations, make decisions, find satisfying work or take charge of shaping their future.

Donna and I started by looking at her long-term future. We then moved on to the steps she could take in her present situation.

She needed to get out of the toxic environment and into a place where she felt at ease. Bearing this in mind, I asked her the following questions.

Looking around, are there any leaders you know who you could think of working with in the future? You may have worked with them before and they have moved to other organisations. 

They may not have an immediate role, but it could be worth contacting them. They may have projects they need completing or there may be roles that come up because of maternity cover. These people may also have contacts who are looking for help inside their organisations.  

Let’s put it another way, imagine that your company closed down tomorrow. Who would be the three people you would contact straight away to see if they had any opportunities? 

Donna thought for a few moments. She then replied in the following way. 

I am not good at keeping in touch with people. If the company did close down, however, I would probably contact some of my old managers.

One called me two months ago because they had a project that needed running. I had just settled into my new role, however, so it did not seem appropriate to take the conversation further.

There are probably two other bosses I would contact. Both are quite visionary people but need an ops person who gets things done. They would certainly be worth contacting.

Donna listed the people she would feel comfortable contacting. We also constructed the phrasing she would use when emailing these people. During the meetings she could explore the challenges they were facing, particularly in terms of implementation.

If appropriate, she could offer ideas regarding how to translate their plans into action. She could then follow up with a more detailed email outlining the practical steps that could be taken to deliver the goods.

Donna began to warm to the task and felt good about taking positive steps forward. It was October at the time, so she needed to get moving quickly. She aimed to get three meetings in the diary before Christmas.

We then moved on to tackling the present situation. Donna had several options going forwards. Each option had both pluses and minuses.

Option A

She could continue working on the project with the MD and stay silent when he talked about her colleagues. 

Option B

She could continue working on the project and, when he began talking about others, explain that she would prefer to focus on the project.

Option C

She could ask the HR department for advice about what to do, though she did not think this would be the appropriate route.

Option D

She could find a way to tell the MD that she wanted to focus on her operations role and did not have the capacity to also work on the project.

Option E

She could resign from the organisation and look for another job.

Donna considered pursuing Option B because she wanted to tell the MD that she wasn’t comfortable with him talking about her colleagues. Looking at the bigger picture, however, it made more sense to buy time.

Removing herself from the project was vital, but so was keeping her job. She therefore decided to go for Option D together with exploring other possible roles outside the organisation.

Donna wanted to be truthful but also not put herself at risk. She wanted to refocus back on her role as operations manager and free herself up to support both her son and mother. At the same time, she wanted to regain her positive energy.

Looking ahead, she planned the conversation with her MD. Good communicators clarify the results they want to achieve from a conversation. They then focus on how they can do their best to achieve this picture of success.

Such communicators rehearse giving the key messages. They then anticipate the potential reactions and plan how to deal with the various scenarios.

Donna took this approach when planning the conversation with her Managing Director. Some people may balk at the idea of preparing a script, but there are advantages.

The script provides a framework that the person can follow to get across their key messages. They can then use their personality to give the messages in their own way. Finally, the person can return to the framework if things go awry or if others try to fight dirty during the conversation.

Here is one framework that people use to clarify their script before going into a challenging situation.

Donna crafted what she wanted to say to the Managing Director. Here is an overview of the key messages she wanted to give.

The Positioning

I would like to have a chat with you about how I can make my best contribution to the organisation in the future. 

The Key Messages

To give some background, there has been a change in my personal circumstances. My mother is recovering from an illness and this means I need to spend more time with her in the future.

I love my job as the operations manager. It is a role that plays to my strengths and in which I want to deliver success for the organisation.

Going back to my personal circumstances, these mean that I do not have time to keep working on the extra project. There is one outstanding piece of work, however, that I want to finish. I can complete this within the next 3 weeks. 

The Summary 

Bearing in mind what I have mentioned, I would like to just focus on my work as the operations manager and deliver the key targets. I hope this will be okay. 

Donna anticipated the potential reactions from the MD. These included him showing understanding, saying he felt let down or questioning whether she could continue as operations manager.

We explored how to deal with each scenario. Sometimes this might involve buying time rather than reacting straight away. She then felt ready to move on to the next step.

Helping the person to protect themselves
and take charge of shaping their future

Protecting yourself sometimes calls for changing the physical things. It calls for putting yourself in a safe place, regaining your energy and taking charge of your future.

Donna took these steps in her own way. Despite being nervous, she had the conversation with the Managing Director. He was taken aback but said he understood the different demands on her time.

She finished the outstanding piece of work on the project and presented it to the MD. He was quite distant and even cold towards her. She then threw herself back into the operations role to ensure she hit her targets. It was paramount that nobody could put her on a disciplinary for under performance.

Donna started doing more things that gave her positive energy. In addition to spending time with her mother and son, she signed up to do a half marathon.

During her teenage years she had been an outstanding athlete, but then things got in the way of doing exercise. She decided to join a running club.

This helped her to feel more alive and restore her positive spirit. She found the running time also helped to clear her head and make decisions about her future.

The job search also went well. She met three former managers, one of whom offered her the chance to take a similar role to that which she currently held. After some thought she decided to take it and moved on.

Six months later she heard that her former Managing Director had been asked to leave. Several well-regarded people had complained about his bullying approach.

His behaviour had also been highlighted in the exit interviews – including Donna’s – that had been conducted by HR. The mounting evidence eventually led to action by the Board.

Different people choose different ways to protect themselves when faced by difficult situations. Some clarify what they are prepared and are not prepared to do. They then follow their action plan for dealing with the difficulty.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Can you think of a potentially difficult situation you may face in the future? You may face a conflict, a double bind or a difficult choice.

What can you do to protect yourself? What are you prepared to do in the situation? What are you not prepared to do? How can you explore the possible options for going forwards?

Looking at these options, which is the route you want to take? What will be the pluses of following this route? What will be the potential minuses? How can you build on the pluses and manage the consequences of any minuses?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to describe a potential difficult situation you may face in the future. It then invites you to do the following things.

Describe what you are prepared to do in the difficult situation.

Describe what you are not prepared to do in the difficult situation.

Describe your specific action plan for protecting yourself in the difficult situation.

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