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I have no words

I don’t know what to say, I have said it countless times and have in the past month heard it as many times, and I have discovered it is seldom true. Many of us when we say this have words, we have words that are authentic, real, unpolished and true.

I also know now that for those of us receiving the words, or the silent presence in those few cases where there are truly no words, they are more valuable and meaningful than you can ever imagine.

And I am truly grateful for all the messages from people who say they have no words, yet have such precious things to say. And what I think I’m seeing as I am typing this, is that it is exactly the vulnerability of sharing your shock, anxiety or powerlessness in the face of my illness that makes these messages so powerful, such a gift.

There really are very few exceptions to this. In fact I have only encountered two in the past month. Those happen to be from doctors. One was the doctor who on the day I was diagnosed with a tumour in my skull found it helpful to tell the story of the man in his practice who also had a tumour in his skull and who died within months of diagnosis. I can not for the life of me fathom why on that day, when I did not even know what was in my head, I would find it useful to hear the story of someone who died so quickly of a tumour in his head. I can see that if as a doctor you are shocked that the patient whom you referred with just a lump on her head turns out to have a rather large tumour, it is hard to find a way to respond, I have no idea how it feels and I guess it feels terrible and yet … that is something for you to deal with not for the patient.

The second doctor had a communication that overall did not gel with me and the one thing I find hard to forgive him is when he questioned my understanding of the situation. He said: “this will be a very invasive operation”, I replied that I was aware of that to which he responded: “I very much doubt that you understand”. As it turned out a few minutes later when he called my surgeon he was actually talking about himself having no idea of the exact operation, or his role in it. And while he is no doubt also right that I cannot quite grasp the invasiveness of this operation, that is in many ways quite beside the point; since it is simply a choice between a chance to live a long(er) life or being killed by a tumour. And at 80 I might make a different choice, at 49 I will take that chance. And yes I am as prepared as I can be for the fact that this may be my last blog, while fully intending it to be my latest.

While I find writing helps me make sense of what is happening, I am especially interested in what I can learn from this for life and leadership. So here is my hypothesis. All those people who communicate in ways which give comfort seem to exude a deep trust in their message, some trust I will make it, others trust that whatever happens I and my family can make it through, some trust that they themselves can deal with my pain and yet others may trust that whether we understand it or not the universe is unfolding exactly as it should (this is in fact the text of a magnet on my fridge). In the way I receive it, it doesn’t really seem to make a difference what people trust in, yet somehow when people trust in something, I can hear them, and I can feel their support. People do seem to feel some anxiety about whether what they give me with their words or presence is enough, and that anxiety is not pervasive and by acknowledging they are worried they don’t have the right words they already managed their anxiety.

The two instances where I received such a different response were so jarring, because all of a sudden I had to deal with the anxiety of others, and it was the anxiety from those who in this case I would expect to actually help me manage mine.. While both doctors will no doubt have had reasons to be anxious about my case, as the patient I feel little responsibility to help them deal with that…

And that is the lesson I have seen so often in organisations, as leaders it is our role to deal first with our own anxiety and then to support those we lead with their anxiety. That doesn’t mean we may not be anxious, it just means we need to see and own it, perhaps paradoxically even, we need to share it. My hunch is that what the first doctor was really saying was, “I didn’t see what you had earlier, I’m worried that now because treatment is coming later your chances of survival may have been impacted, and I’ve been here before with another patient”. Now as as student of life, I fully understand that would be a burden to carry, I have empathy. Had he shared something like this, I would have been happy to tell him that he is only human and I don’t blame him. It is however not my place to do the work for him, nor is it my job to manage his anxiety as well as mine.

My suggestion is that as professionals and especially when we have a place in leaderhsip, we can allow people to see our vulnerability, our not knowing and invite them to work with us in resolving it. I have found that when leaders are willing to lay bare the truth and share what they don’t know as well as what they do know, together departments, teams, organisations even countries can find answers to tricky problems. Often saying I don’t know what to say is exactly what needs to be said, because just as in life the solution isn’t typically in words, it is in being present, in listening and tuning in.

I have been most impressed by the leaders who have dared to say they didn’t know, who dared to say it felt impossible to decide, who have dared to recognise and own their anxiety. Just like horses don’t mind if we are anxious as long as we own it so people too can deal with our anxiety, it is the denial of anxiety that is so clearly present that we find hard to deal with. I have no words may be the most important words you can say.

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