HELPING LEADERS TRANSFORM DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS.
I am a workplace mediator and leadership coach. However, I don’t offer “classic” workplace mediation anymore, because I want to support people at a far earlier stage before conflicts escalate. With my business Lead and Connect, I help leaders (re-) connect people through transforming difficult conversations into a structured, more courageous and compassionate dialogue. Most of my clients are managers or managers to be. All of them are conscious leaders: corporate, community, faith or non-profit leaders.
I had freedom in abundance and spent long hours in the endless forest surrounding our village
With British-German nationality, I work in the UK and internationally – with clients in Europe, the US and Canada. I grew up, went to University and first worked in Germany. My husband’s work as a research scientist led to two years in Belgium before we moved to Cambridge, UK in 2002, where we still live with our teenage daughter. I grew up in a little village, surrounded by a caring family and many friends, influenced by a combination of the famous Protestant Work Ethic, the Lutheran Church, Scouts and my parents’ rather open-minded and optimistic view of life. They let me experience first-hand, what unconditional love looks like in a practical sense, modelling – and enabling – trust, courage and confidence.
I had freedom in abundance and spent long hours in the endless forest surrounding our village, together with my friends, all year round (yes, I know, health and safety…). In particular climbing trees and reading books in trees became a major source of inspiration, comfort and peace.
All this was setting the course for the future and my understanding of what is actually important in life: spiritual growth, loving relationships and social engagement. Even today, forests and trees remain essential to my sense of balance and wellbeing – although these days with less climbing!
However, there was also a dark cloud hanging over my early years, indeed almost my whole life until recently. An ongoing conflict between two relatives affected our whole family. Too old to be settled easily, fuelled again and again through new incidents and misunderstandings. This conflict was one of the main motivations for me to become a mediator.
After my time at university, I had a wonderfully varied corporate career with fabulous five years in qualitative market research, then more than fifteen years’ work as a freelance consultant, recruiter, mediator and coach.
However, despite the experience, success and great relationships with customers, I started to feel unfulfilled and increasingly frustrated. My work didn’t make a real difference. Too often I was called in as a mediator when it was too late, for example when conflicts were already highly escalated or legal battles were in full swing. All I could do was help “mop up” the mess. Moreover, as a generalist, I couldn’t play to my strengths. I was locked in a specialist box and not supposed to leave it. My clients loved my courses but were too tired and overwhelmed to implement what they had learned. Also, back at work, many neither had support with feedback nor a place where they could practice in a safe way. Also, new developments, in general, asked for a different approach:
Due to social media, remote work and tech-based communication, we all have less and less face to face conversations altogether. We don’t train our conversational “muscles” enough.
Increasingly, we don’t have difficult conversations at all, because we try to avoid them. The overall tone can quickly become rude and rough. Work-related stress, addiction and conflicts are at an all-time high. There is a growing “elbow mentality” and culture of mutual blaming and shaming in many organisations.
I wanted to address all this with a new business: Practical strategies or tools supporting my future clients in a way that they could deal much better with those tough situations – without the need of facilitators or even mediators, before difficult conversations turned into escalated conflicts or ‘wars of attrition’.
When I launched “Lead and Connect”, I totally underestimated what it means to run your own business. Also, in my private life, unexpected obstacles repeatedly popped up, like massive speed bumps on a road.
Suddenly, I had to deal myself with so many difficult conversations: How do I talk to a beloved one with a fatal brain tumour? – Or to relatives and dear friends, facing confrontations and bullying at work for years? How do I deal with this ongoing conflict in my family which I can’t help settle – even with all my expertise as a mediator? Difficult conversations contribute so much to our suffering.
I learned a lot about dealing with chronic pain, patience and asking for help
Then, I hit rock bottom. I was diagnosed with a food intolerance and needed surgery after a spine injury. Bound to the sofa and unable to walk for months, I sometimes lost confidence that I would ever be without pain and able to walk normally again.
On my long way to full recovery, I learned a lot about dealing with chronic pain, patience and asking for help. Most important: about living in the moment and trusting in a loving, divine power, which I call God.
Looking back, it paid off to struggle through all this. Today, I am equipped to empathise with the situations that my clients face. It also helped me to find my “mission”, a cause that serves as the basis for my business and the purpose for my life.
Better conversations are about Courage and Choice.
We all suffer so much in difficult conversations. It can be so daunting to have them in the first place, and, if we dare to have them, it takes a lot of courage to lower our defences, showing up with our authentic voice and communication style. However, we always have a choice about how we act and react in conversations. Even in a very hostile work environment, where others don’t change or engage, and we seem to hit a wall, we can address our issues with integrity, even when others are not interested in a solution. A great healer recently re-introduced me to a quote of Victor Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist, who survived Auschwitz concentration camp:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Victor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning
We need to show more leadership qualities in conversations whether we have a formal position as a “leader” or not. Leadership mainly happens through conversations. However, we can’t “make” others do things. We often try to push through our favourite solution, steamrollering others instead of convincing them. We need a combination of power and humility. If we want to get commitment, we need to take responsibility for the way we communicate. As business owners and managers, we need results ~and~ a connection with the people we lead.
Everybody wants to be valued, to be understood and to make a positive contribution. Yet, we tend to be our own worst enemies when it comes to difficult conversations. In order to address our fears and defence mechanisms more effectively, we need to get to know ourselves better. We need to (re-)connect with our mind, body, emotions, intuition, needs, dreams…. and – most importantly for many – with our fundamental values and, if we have it, our sense of connection with or guidance from a higher power.
Often, conversations we would deem to be unsuccessful or even a fiasco, turn out to be more transformative and helpful than we could have ever imagined. One “unsuccessful” conversation even saved my life. If we meet in the future, be sure to ask me and I will happily tell you the story.
The essence of my work is the “Team Tree”, a model I developed based on scientific evidence and personal experience (…and yeah, it’s a tree!). With this model, I am on a mission: I want us to change how we think about difficult conversations, how we have them, and how they transform us.
It is practical, easy to learn and adaptable to an international context, across many cultures. It provides a set of time- and energy-saving habits, skills and principles as well as a shared language to help us navigate difficult conversations skilfully. Working with this model, people become more courageous, more at ease and peace. They have more clarity and freedom of choice
The “Team Tree” is a fantastic metaphor for my work. In many cultures around the globe, big trees in communities are a place where people gather and connect. In medieval Europe, courts were held regularly in their shade. Relationships are like trees. We need to “water” and “feed” them regularly and this ‘tending’ above all, happens through conversations. All branches, the trunk and the roots of trees are interconnected.
It is the same with conversations. If we screw up a conversation and lose trust, the whole relationship / the whole “tree” is affected. In the same way, the whole forest is a social network, so when we improve our conversations in one area, all other areas improve as well. We need to work more with those synergy effects and think in terms of systems.
“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.”
David George Haskell – The songs of trees
The object I want to show you is a marble, it is handmade and unique. It reminds me of the coaching mantra, that my clients are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. They don’t need to be “fixed” and already have what is needed within them – it’s a question of creating the safety, trust and courage to bring it out. I also give these marbles to clients to help them remember, that we are all “one of a kind”, like those unique marbles, precious and special. There is no one like us and each of us is needed with our unique gifts and talents, to make a positive difference. Marbles are also a symbol of happy childhood memories, of playfulness and creativity… two qualities which can transform how we approach difficult conversations. The marble becomes a reminder and an invitation to be in the moment and live life to the full.
-I want to inspire and encourage you to Lead and connect, whether you have a formal leadership position or not.
-See challenging conversations as an inescapable fact of life an essential pre-condition for our change and growth.
-Increase your impact and your influence with more authentic and meaningful conversations.
-Take a stand against unacceptable behaviour and foul play, and offer a positive alternative to mutual shaming and blaming.
-Create a safe space for your team to have courageous conversations.
-Create a ripple effect which has a positive effect throughout your organisation.
In closing, I want to say that difficult conversations are great opportunities, not catastrophes. Just imagine, what you could do if you successfully had all those difficult conversations you try to avoid or worry you will mess up?
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