Two talented development professionals from different backgrounds, simplifying complicated questions.
(Erika) Several years ago, I was sitting in the last session of a workshop that I was leading. I had been working as a coach for about 5 years, designing and facilitating organizational development programs. As my group went around the room thanking their fellow participants and my co-facilitators for their profound experiences over the week, I found myself getting angry. I wasn’t angry at them, but I was overwhelmed by personal and professional challenges, and not for the first time. I recognized that something was wrong and I needed help to address it. My help came from a psychoanalyst recommended to me by a former teacher. She helped me understand how my past experiences caused frustration in my present life, which was bleeding into my work. Over a year of analysis, I was able to work through many of those past events, helping me to be more effective at work and happier in my personal life.
(Laila) A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to work with a coach to help me navigate through some of the things I was facing at the time at work. While I was aware that coaching was a big part of the organization's culture, I was hesitant to say the least. I didn’t know much about coaching at the time, and while I was open to it, I was not without my concerns. Would our conversations be kept confidential, how would we build trust, would I be safe, and as an HR professional, I was concerned that the lines between coaching and therapy would be blurry and felt that therapy has no business in the workplace. That being said, it was an incredibly valuable experience. It was clear from the start that our discussions would be kept confidential, and together we defined the boundaries and objectives. Our focus was a professional one but not necessarily tied to work, and in no way crossed into the work I was doing with my therapist. Through the experience I learned many things but most importantly, the value of having that person who could help me work through immediate work challenges.
When Do I Need Help?
(Erika) This is going to sound obvious, but you need help when you can’t do something on your own. I have to say this explicitly because a lot of people (myself included) will try and address all their problems alone and in secret. You shouldn’t. First of all, you’re denying yourself a wealth of information from others who have, more than likely, been in a similar situation. You aren’t the first person to have a health crisis. You aren’t the first person to go through a divorce. You’re not the first person to be fired. You aren’t the first person to have a bad day. Opening up to the people around you is a great way to develop solutions and avoid common mistakes. Learn from the knowledge of others. Opening up to others also creates connection, while isolating from others severs you from their support, which can make you more vulnerable to negative outcomes.
(Laila) I should first state that I fully agree with what Erika said, that you need help when you can’t do something on your own. Admittedly, I struggle mightily when it comes to asking for help. However, I think it’s important to add that asking for help doesn’t always have to be as a result of a problem or be a negative thing, which at least for me are the words that come to mind when I think of “asking for help”. Instead it can be because you want to get a second opinion, need a sounding board, or maybe you are facing a major decision in your personal or professional life and having someone to talk it out with could be helpful in providing some valuable information or ideas you hadn’t considered. In addition to denying yourself a wealth of information from others, you are also denying others the value of your experience. This is an important topic and I hope you have time to read it all the way through, however, if you read nothing else, skip down to the end and read our section on finding your sustaining support system!
What Do I Need Help With?
(Erika) It begins with awareness. Something isn’t right. Look at your actions first. Maybe you’re sad lately. Maybe you’ve been snappish or passive-aggressive with coworkers. Maybe you’re belligerent and openly hostile. Maybe simply withdrawn. Whatever the manifestation, there is something happening in you that has caused you to change your behavior. We all have complex lives, the pieces of which intermingle. Take some time to figure out the major problems because that’s how you can start to address them.
(Laila) Agreed. You’re getting ready to make some big changes to your organization, you’re considering a job or career change, you want to get a divorce, you want to date PERSON X, but something’s holding you back from taking the plunge. A recent one I heard, “I’m forty, single, and am giving serious thought to having a baby on my own”. Again, I think it’s important for those of you out there who struggle like I do with words like “help” to understand that there are many positive reasons to ask for help, or simply seek out a thought partner to navigate with. Professionally, as an HR Business partner, I can tell you it’s frustrating when business leaders are contemplating making major people decisions in silos. On the personal side, making a big life decision can be both exciting and scary, but also may be difficult to discuss with friends, or hard to bring up to a loved one. Having a person you can turn to, may help sort through the many thoughts going through your head.
What Kind of Help?
(Erika) The kind of help you seek should depend on the problem you want to address. Again, a huge barrier to seeking help is a perceived lack of appropriate providers. An appropriate helper is someone who you can reach out to, and who has the necessary skills to be of service. You wouldn’t go to a plumber to set a broken leg, so don’t expect them to provide advice on dealing with a conflict at work. Yes, useful information can come from plenty of places, but best to seek out experts. It is always up to you to choose the right provider. You should be comfortable enough to share any relevant information. You should be willing to take their advice and do the work. You should feel confident that you can fire them if you don’t feel the relationship is beneficial.
(Laila) I concur, I want to add a few things to know when you look for an appropriate provider. Be aware of payment, some help providers are covered by insurance, some by work, and others you will have to pay for yourself. Be mindful of the relationship. Your provider works for you. Do not be afraid to fire them. Be ready to do the work. The development work is challenging and to do it successfully it requires space, and willingness. I have seen so many people give up on finding help because of cost, not being ready to do the work, or because they had a bad experience. Don’t give up! Don’t limit yourself!
(Erika) A mentor is someone who gives advice based on their own experience. A mentor can be a great help if you’ve identified a specific challenge or goal that only lived experience can help you navigate. There are professional mentors who have achieved a career goal that you aspire to, and personal mentors who have overcome similar obstacles to your own. Mentors aren’t always trained to mentor, and they’re not obligated to keep confidentiality. They can also have biases, so take that into consideration as you’re evaluating their advice.
(Laila) For me, Mentor’s are those people who have an abundance of experience whether it be a specific skill or a job you seek, they can provide you some guidance based on their own experiences. Mentor’s are great people to help when you’re faced with a specific challenge or goal, or even someone to talk to when you have recently promoted to a new job for example. If you seek out a mentor at work or in your personal life, have clear and reasonable expectations of that relationship.
(Erika) A coach provides a process that helps you develop the skills you need to address your problems and achieve your goals. Think of them as a personal trainer for your mind. As a coach, I will be honest and say that the field is almost completely unregulated, so here are a few guidelines to help you find the right coach for you. Some are certified by organizations like the International Coach Federation, or other coach training programs. These programs provide training and some monitoring of coaches, but almost no oversight. A coach who is not certified may be just as experienced or skilled, but you should ask about their training. Some coaches deal with professional challenges, some with personal, and some take a full-person approach. All coaches have different styles, different methods, and different tools. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to walk away from a coaching engagement that isn’t working for you. Coaches should always keep confidentiality, and a good coach will never try to treat mental health issues and will immediately refer you to a mental health professional.
(Laila) The coaching field is one that is growing rapidly and while for some (or many) it may be hard to distinguish between coaching and therapy, coaching is typically short term, goal driven, focused on the now and sometimes on the future. I often like to say, coaching is good when facing an immediate problem. It should not be a substitute for therapy and, as Erika said, a good coach will never try to treat mental health issues and will immediately refer you to a mental health professional. Coaching however, can be done at the same time as therapy.
Mental Health Professionals
(Erika) These are therapists, analysts, counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists. If you find yourself struggling with deeper issues that your friends and coworkers don’t have the experience to help with, you may want to try working with a trained mental health professional. This is where the lines of mental wellness get a little blurry, so use your best judgement. This is helpful when the challenges you’re experiencing go beyond your work, but aren’t impacting your ability to function daily. For me, any time I experience a challenge that bridges my work and personal life, I take it to my analyst. As a coach, I will refer clients to a mental wellness professional when we can’t make lasting change because they need to work through deeper challenges. If you find yourself dealing with challenges like trauma-induced stress, depression, addiction, or thoughts of self-harm or harming others, you should reach out to a mental health professional. If the challenges you face are negatively impacting your ability to work, maintain relationships with others, or care for yourself, it’s time to see a mental health professional.
(Laila) There are so many titles that fall under this category. There are many reasons to seek out this kind of support and no wrong ones. If what you are experiencing is impacting your life personally or professionally, then it might be a good idea to seek out help from a mental health professional.
Sustaining Support System
(Erika) You should develop a community of people around you to help tackle challenges and continue to your growth. Here are my rules. Find two or three people. One is too few, mostly because that's a lot of responsibility to place on one person. Four can be too many to keep in touch with. Two or three is a great place to start. Everyone in your sustaining support system MUST have three qualities. 1) Trustworthiness: you must trust them enough to be vulnerable with them. 2) Candidness: they have to be able to tell you the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. 3) Objectivity: their advice should be in your best interests, not their just own. We should all be so lucky to surround ourselves with these kinds of people all the time, but it’s ok to have friends, acquaintances, and even significant others who don’t always follow these rules. The point is to have a support system of a few people who do, so you can get the best advice in any situation.
(Laila) When I first started coaching, we focused on creating very specific support systems. For example, a group of people who were in the same profession but who did not work with me who I could reach out to and talk through HR related issues with and so on, I found this to be incredibly helpful as I navigated through that time in my career. Recently, I adopted Erika’s rule
for creating a new support system. Having a couple of people I can trust and rely on for my support system has provided me with a new sense of safety and security. I find that with these rules I feel more empowered to reach out for help.
Laila Kahkeshani has 15 years of human resource, talent, and organizational development experience and a masters degree in education and human development, with a concentration in Organizational Leadership and Learning. She owns Irenic. Her goal is to simplify the way organizations approach human capital.
Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate in human and organizational learning with a focus on leadership, and 10 years of coaching, talent development, and organizational systems experience. She owns Ascendry. Her goal is to amplify individual expertise.