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Walking the Talk of Vertical Development: How To Keep Ourselves Honest and Avoid WTT Bypassing
I wrote this article a little while ago but came back to it after a week of honest, profound conversations, where I’ve had the privilege to sit in spaces with people who had the courage to be fully themselves and speak the unfiltered truth, even when it was hard. It reminded me how precious honesty is - both towards others and most of all towards ourselves and also how easy it is to deceive ourselves and avoid facing our shadowy parts. It also reminded me of the duty of care we have - when our profession involves holding space for others’ learning and growth - to walk the talk and do that hard introspective work ourselves, every day.
This article had been incubating in my mind for a long time. It’s now sprung forward a bit raw and unfiltered after I’ve heard a few egregious stories of bad behaviour, the type that points not at a crack, but a vast chasm between the ‘talk’ and the ‘walk’. Some have played in the public eye. Others in private conversations. But all point to this theme that I think is so foundational to us building a better society and one that I don’t think we spend enough time discussing in earnest: how to release ourselves from the trap of hypocrisy, keep ourselves honest and put our money where our mouth is when it comes to our values and the way we uphold them day-in-day-out.
Books have and can be written about this topic, so I’ll confine my small exploration to the field of coaching/leadership development/facilitation and look at it through the lens of vertical development (with a touch of personal experience), as is the core purpose of this newsletter.
Supporting others’ growth is exciting and very seductive business.
It’s easy to get a sense of power from spending time in the limelight and a sense of self-worth from the recognition you receive for your knowledge, expertise or ability to take people out of their day-to-day and into a space where new possibilities emerge and inspiration shines anew. Being a successful facilitator/coach/consultant can become an ego trap. While you’re busy showing others what they’re not seeing, it’s too easy to become blinded by your own theories, big words, sophisticated frameworks and sense of self-importance.
I’ve seen and lived through this story over and over again. Those of us who work with other people’s minds and hearts, spending our days in front of individuals or of a room full of people who gift us their attention and time, seem more vulnerable than the average person to failing the ‘radical honesty’ test when it comes to self. Just as some people use practices like mindfulness as an avoidance tactic from feeling their painful feelings or facing uncomfortable realities - a strategy often called “spiritual bypassing”, coaches and facilitators may use our conscious belief that we are on a mission to ‘better the human condition’/ ‘transform leadership’/ ‘uplift organisational cultures’ as a guise to avoid facing the dark little corners of ourselves, where all those aspects of us that we are not too proud of tend to lurk - our fear, our arrogance, our competitiveness, our smallness.
We might call this strategy ‘WTT (walking-the-talk) bypassing’ - which essentially means that we keep ourselves too busy helping (or believing we are helping) others to walk their talk to notice that we’re not doing it ourselves.
What does WTT bypassing look like in practice?
A facilitator working with people to support them in cultivating well-being and healthier work-life balance while they themselves live chaotic lives, working endlessly, never seeing their own kids and driving themselves to exhaustion chasing the next lucrative contract.
The consultant coming in to support clients in solving a business/leadership challenge, who in fact does little supporting and a lot of solving/hoarding information, which keeps disempowering the client, making them dependent on the work of the consultant to the point where they need them endlessly, which, in time, generates impotence in the client and repeat work for the consultant.
The inspiring, intelligent, ‘authentic’ leader who says all the right and beautiful words, at the right time, in the right way, exhibiting the exact amount of charisma to make them admirable and the exact amount of humbleness to make them approachable, but who never builds deep relationships, never shows up when they are truly needed, never offers real empathy when it’s required and never accepts they don’t know or admit when they’ve messed up.
The experienced coach/facilitator who espouses the values of humbleness, collaboration and co-creation, only to turn highly competitive towards peers, protecting their turf in joint projects, playing client politics and putting ‘rivals’ down so they can have full control and priority to lucrative opportunities.
The consultant turned researcher who’s completed a PhD and starts believing their small discovery is revolutionising a field and markets it aggressively as ‘the only solution’/ ‘the answer nobody has found before’/ the silver bullet to ‘transform’ whatever the object of their interest might be.
The coach without any formal coaching training presenting themselves as ‘transformative’ and ‘cutting edge’, scoffing at people who’ve taken the trouble to get trained and dismissing certifications as ‘useless pieces of paper’.
The trainer who recycles others’ theories (with and sometimes without attribution) and calls that an ‘original’ approach / a ‘revolutionary method’ / ‘a recipe for…’/ ‘the key to unlocking…’.
The relief I feel just downloading all of these examples - all of which are more than a little bit grounded in lived experience - is a testament to the mountain of work I still have to do facing and working through my own patterns of WTT bypassing which, if you were wondering, are alive and well.
A couple of personal examples among the many instances when I found myself caught up in flagrant self-deceit.
A few years ago my own (and only) sister, who is one of the most patient and tolerant people I’ve ever met, looked me in the eye and said - “Alis, do you realise that you make more time for and listen more deeply to each of your coaching clients or workshop participants than you ever do to me?”. How did she know that? She happened to be a participant in an open workshop I was facilitating and she got to see first-hand the ‘Wise Alis’ - that part of me I happily bring into my work, but which I rarely ever brought into my relationship with her. The guilty feeling of ‘punch in the stomach’ I got from her calmly and lovingly placing this mirror in front of me and having me face the ugly image within, has haunted me for a long time afterwards. It has, hopefully, made me a slightly more conscious sister and better dialogue partner for my closest ones, but it has not cured my WTT-bypassing tendencies.
Another example came a few years ago when I left behind a successful leadership development and coaching business in my home country to move to Australia, get into a PhD (and learn to do research from scratch) and start life over in the process. It was a very well-thought and much-discussed decision - one surely not taken lightly. I was in such a good place in my life that I convinced myself that losing all my income, clients, business and network would be at most a challenging setback that I would navigate wisely, as it would not rattle my sense of self-esteem. I naively told myself that my value did not rest in the validation I got from my clients and the support I had had from my network. I had done the inner work, or so I believed - and was ready to stand on my own two feet with or without others backing me up.
No need to tell you how that story unfolded (I did write about it here). Suffice it to say I found myself in the deepest darkest hole I had ever been in, humbly realising that without my outer scaffold of supportive people, I was not at all as self-confident and grounded in my self-worth as I had imagined. Adding to the turmoil, I found myself in the full-on pain of stepping into my zone of incompetence as I tried to figure out what being a researcher meant. It was hard to accept I was so bad at something I’d never done before, while being good at the thing I’d done for a decade didn’t matter anymore, to anyone.
In-midst of all of this I found myself trying to impress people I would meet in my new country and heard myself get into self-promoting talk like I’d never done before (in exactly the same jarring way I had seen others do before and judged them for it). All in the hopes of showing how much I had to offer (or perhaps of convincing myself I did). In the process, I managed to come off as arrogant and in need of attention in those early days of my new life and lost more than a few potential friends to my insecurities.
This whole inner (and outer storm) taught me that the capacity to walk the talk is often a result of both conscious effort to stay awake to the traps of ego, but also of our state of inner balance, genuine self-confidence and healthy anchoring in a network of people who see us, support us and speak the truths we don’t want to hear. If anything, I’ve come out of that hole more humble, more grateful for the unexpected help and trust I received along the way and way more conscious that success is never just a matter of personal effort, but also a matter of a lot of luck (and others’ generosity) - so attributing it all to yourself is self-delusional.
What does WTT bypassing have to do with Vertical Development?
Adult development theorists suggest that self-awareness increases with vertical development and with it, the capacity to monitor our walking of the talk (or not). Acknowledging the pain one feels when one notices that their actions are not aligning with their espoused values (and the ability to cultivate that alignment) is often considered a reliable indicator of late-stage maturity.
Another indicator of developmental maturity is being able to face - and later integrate - your shadow. The very act of facing your selfish/annoying/hypocritical parts without shame or rejection, learning from them and ultimately embracing them as valid aspects of yourself, characters on the stage of your life - as researcher Valerie Livesay likes to call them - then gives you choice in not allowing these characters to rule the stage.
Bravely facing our smallness, it turns out, actually helps us grow.
So what is there to learn from all of this for us, coaches, facilitators or for leaders, consultants, parents, teachers or any other human who gets to teach/guide/support others’ growth in any capacity?
Perhaps one invitation is to notice the ways others trigger us and stay curious as to how their perceived flaws are reflections of our unacknowledged ones. How might we surround ourselves with people willing to be clear mirrors, who can lovingly have us face our ugly parts without running away from them (or from us) - as my sister did for me?
If you are a coach, facilitator or leader - who are your truth tellers? Are you seeking supervision and mentoring from experienced and objective guides, who can help keep you sane (and true to yourself)? Do you have a self-reflective practice- such as journalling- to help you download, and examine your thoughts, motivations and actions in an honest, non-judgemental way?
I believe that we cannot earnestly work on others’ development unless we work on our own - constantly, never-endingly. Vertical development is not something you do to to others, it’s something you live through yourself every single day. It’s painful, scary, discombobulating. It’s forcing you to confront the fact that you are messy, complex, and full of rough edges. At the end of the day, I believe the danger lies not in the edges themselves, but in our refusal to see, acknowledge them and then DO something about them.
So what is for you, right now, an area where your values are not aligned with your actions? What’s the radical honesty talk you need to be having with yourself? And what is one step you’ll take to keep your WTT bypassing tendencies in check?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you are curious to dive more deeply into learning about Vertical Development and how it might impact your work and life, check out our online library of webinars and courses accredited by the International Coaching Federation. Until the 30th of November 2023, use the code 'DEVELOPMENTALNOVEMBER’ for a 250$ discount on our flagship program “Vertical Development Practices for Coaches”
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