Pearl Mattenson: Lead transparently.

October 28, 2011

“I believe good leaders are willing to express the full range of their emotions, including hesitation and anxiety.”

Fear is a good thing. it's one of those human emotions that we are meant to contend with. it's an important piece of who we are in the world. A lot of my work with clients is about answering this one question: Am I going to let fear control me, or am I going to control it?

I'ma big believer in helping people welcome whatever comes up. So an emotion like fear is not something to reject; that rejection is wasted energy that distances us from something real inside. Acknowledge it. It helps me to practice welcoming the fear by tapping into concrete experiences in my past that have less resonance now.

A “Protective” Bubble

My first memory of fear is from when I was a toddler, as it turns out, that experience revealed a survival strategy that I would use for many years. As an adult, it was not so helpful.

I was in our apartment, playing with toys on the floor. I saw my father sleeping on the couch and something intrigued me so I approached him. Just then, my mother came out of the kitchen, yelling at me not to wake my father, not loudly enough to wake him herself, but loudly enough for me to sense that she was really angry.

I felt a glass bubble around me. I could see my mother moving and sense the fear inside me, but it is as though I hear nothing. I was untouchable. So for years I held onto this strategy of shutting fear out totally. It seemed incredibly useful initially. Over time it became less so. We all develop strategies early on and as adults we have to decide whether we need to let go of these old ways of handling fear.

Eventually, I realized my “bubble was keeping me from connecting with people. If I became anxious around other people s anger and volatility, only a piece of me would show up. Grown-up relationships need to be whole relationships.

The honest truth is that the epiphany about my own need to face my fears didn't really land until about six years ago, when I started my coach training. My capacity to support my clients in their own growth is totally dependent on my ability to see them as ”naturally creative, resourceful and whole . So I needed to learn to be there for people in all of their humanity, fears and anxieties included, but still as an unbroken human being. The great gift of this work was my ability to start taking this approach toward myself. I was able to see that I didn't necessarily need protection anymore, what I needed was courage and compassion to face my own humanity. And can I tell you? The more I am able to give myself permission to be human and compassionately embrace the me that is struggling, the more I can do that for others.

The Power of Transparency

Honestly, the incredible thing is that I became a coach to help others. And I remain a coach because the work has enabled me to become more of who I am meant to be in the world. If compassion was lesson one, transparency is lesson two. If I begin to sense that I'mafraid, I let people know. It is really almost a magic bullet.

I recently was asked to coach a group of colleagues a team of coaches working together who needed a coach to process some of their own issues. I was a little intimidated to be helping people who, theoretically, could be helping me.

I started by saying just that. Listen guys, I said. I just want you to know that this is a little daunting to be coaching you because I have so much respect for you. Just by saying that, my blood pressure went down. Naming and acknowledging the fear gave me permission to be myself. They were generous about it and said Yeah, of course. That s normal! We're just so grateful that you re willing to do this.

I've never had a bad response to this. If you have a lot of difficult conversations, let people know you re anxious. Just speak the truth and move on.

I believe good leaders are willing to express the full range of their emotions, including hesitation and anxiety. I've never had any leader I've coached say Look what you did! I'mhonest, I'mopen, and now this whole thing s going to hell in a handbasket!

Lesson three: Embrace my own complexity. Even before I became a coach, I have always talked to myself. Crazy but true. I cheerlead in fearful situations. You can do this. You can get through this. it's not that bad! As a coach, I now understand that we have multiple selves to some degree, and talking to the fearful part of myself is reassuring even as it creates distance from it. If I am talking to my fearful self- then I am not only my fearful self. I am also the Pearl who can calm the fears. I have clients do this all the time negotiate an alliance with different parts of themselves by saying Look, I need to do this. I can't have you showing up now when I need to perform.

The Divine Element

When all else fails there is the soul. I was in a dark place when my family moved out of Massachusetts for my husband s work. I had quit my own work and had two little kids, and I didn't know what I was doing. Self-worth felt very scarce. It looked a lot like depression.

What pulled me out of it is a deep-rooted belief that I reconnected to in my desperation. As a Jew I believe that G-d created us in his image. It is understood that there is a divine element in all of us; G-d breathed into us the breath of life. Tapping into my deepest self is tapping into a strength that comes from G-d. So I realized my despair was running counter to this belief. Who was I to deny the divine in me? In some ways, my most profound moments of prayer, are about giving voice that part of me.

Untouchable Feelings

Part of what I do in coaching is help people to approach untouchable feelings. As soon as you re willing to be with fear, it starts to shift and change and you can move through it. It is the great paradox and it is hard. I find that metaphors can be a doorway in. I remember a client who on a dark day was trying to describe how she felt, claustrophobic and confined. I said, Like a cocoon ? And we worked with what it felt like in that cocoon and ultimately she was able to say that she was ready to emerge. The metaphor made it safe to explore the fear. And she was able to see that she could turn into something else and that the dark confinement was not a permanent state. Fear is not a permanent state.

Pearl Mattenson is a leadership and a relationship coach, but she s also been a teacher, teacher developer, non-profit program developer, school principal, education consultant. She s always believed in the possibility of change, and she takes the responsibility of helping and teaching people very seriously. And we love that.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Fonceca October 28, 2011 at 11:31 am

Fantastic article Pearl! I love what you’re about. I’ve felt all those things and reached similar conclusions :)

Thank you so much for this!

I did find it a bit funny that the word God was not expressed in a traditional way, but I guess that’s part of your complexity ;)


Pearl Mattenson, CPCC, PCC, ORSCC October 28, 2011 at 11:42 am

Thanks for your comments. I told Matt that my spelling of G-d reminds me that there is something ineffable here. The definitions of ineffable that I refer to are:
Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
Too sacred to be uttered.

Read your story on your site. Wow. And wanted more about what spirit means to you….


L'Tanya October 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Hey Pearl,
I was so excited to read this piece. Good to “see” you again.


Michelle Pepi November 15, 2011 at 5:52 am

Hello Pearl,
what a pearl of an article, thankyou! I too, am a teacher and my dream is to teach young people about ‘Universal Laws’ ! I would love to start with my local community and build from there but have absolutely no idea where to start…..


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