The first bit of laughter I had today was just now. I hit “send” on my first Forum post to the Martha Beck site. To be frank, I was sick and tired of everyone posting the same things about being so happy, so excited, so peaceful, so everything flowery about “starting this journey together”.

I was ready to dive in and do some work. I guess I’ve had little patience for the platitudes of welcoming circles, in which there always seems to be one person who monopolizes the time, treating it like a personal session instead of being conscious of the presence of others. This did not happen at Silvia’s class, and I’m studying why. Maybe it was because she started with experience. She opened with chanting and vocalizing, which required both listening and synchronous participation. There was no opportunity for anyone to monopolize, except for perhaps my neighbor Todd’s attempts to make his voice louder than anyone else’s. But the attempt failed, because the collective sound was still greater than his single voice.

But today was a conference call. It’s an inherently more challenging medium to work in, because you can’t see anyone, and in order to ask a question, you just have to butt right in. This plays to the strengths of certain types of people – namely, chatters. You know the kind. Even if they are sitting in a large auditorium, they feel like the speaker on the stage is only there to interact with them. It’s a personal coaching session, or a conversation in their living room. No one else in the room exists. So when they ask questions, they are personal. Relevant only to their situation. Usually directed at solving their very specific, very detailed, very personal problem. And then, when the speaker – sensing the impending danger of sliding down the slippery slope of a too-personal interaction held in front of a bored and impatient group of too-nice-to-say-anything-rude-to-the-person-asking audience members – tries to put an end to the talk track by summarizing, or directing the person politely to speak to them afterwards, it’s only a cue for that person to say more. When all we want that person to do is shut their trap. Listen more, speak less.

The thing about these kinds of people is that they don’t understand the number of people who are politely listening to them as they go on and on about all of their problems. “I got a babysitter for my puppy that I purchased last week. I’m half paralyzed, so I wondered if I could do it, but I decided I could. And then I couldn’t figure out the call-waiting, and it was taking so long, so I just said to myself, Call already!”

And on and on and on. This woman – Alice was her name; how could we forget?? –  had a witty rejoinder for every single thing that poor Bridgette, our course director and a Master Coach herself, had to say. After about four or five of these interruptions – yes, they were interruptions because Alice had a way of jumping in RIGHT after a sentence was finished, leaving no silence or time for anyone else to reflect – Bridgette said she should look up the answer on the website. That’s what was annoying about her questions too. MOST of them were direct questions of facts that were listed on the website in plain view. Like, “When is our next class?” Or, “When does Martha teach us again?” Or, “How many people are in the class?” What a waste of live interaction time, when we could have been thinking about more substantive issues related to the process, or coaching, or the model. Instead we were babysitting post-menopausal “helping” women while they figured out how to use the internet.

Literally 50 minutes of the call were used to address Alice’s quirky asides and personal anecdotes about everything that has “come up” for her in doing the pre-work for the class, and navigating the website. This left 10 minutes for personal introductions by 25 people on the call, some from as far away as Sweden, Germany, and Canada. I was more interested in who these people were, and how we were going to work together as a “village”. I wanted an overview for how to “show up” at the classes. Bridgette had the chance to share two little pearls about this in between all of Alice’s incessant chattering. She said, “Notice how you’re feeling about the assignments, and about the process of the class, and ask what is the thought that causes you to feel this way? That thought may be a limiting belief.”

THAT was thought-provoking. And useful, in my opinion.

At several points during the call, I felt like being the one to step in and say, “Bridgette, I think it would be helpful for you to direct people to the website or talk to you offline with their personal questions, and for us to agree that the time on the phone is best spent on issues that concern everyone in the class.”

But I didn’t. I thought and felt these things, but didn’t say anything. Just listened and stewed, and occasionally rolled my eyes at Alice once again piping in her knee-jerk reactions to each idea.

So when it came time to go down the list of people on the call and for each of us to say one “fun fact” about ourselves, I felt uncertain. I listened attentively as each person spoke, about loving the outdoors, swimming in the ocean, being a mom, a poet, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, a holistic nutritional consultant…. Everyone was so upbeat and happy! I tried to remain calm and cheerful, even though I felt strong urges to point out all the ways I was different from these people. I toyed with the idea of saying I was the only Asian or ethnic minority on the call. True, they are all white. And there is just one man on the call. He shared that he has just started a raw food diet five days ago. Thanks for that! It prompted Alice to share that she used to live with someone who did that diet, and she thought it was tough. She had to admit to everyone on the call that she was wasn’t able to do it. Thanks, Alice!

By the time I had to speak (I was one of three Lisa’s on the call), I choked out a joke about not expecting to be with three other Lisa’s, and then started with, “I live in northern California. The first part of my life led me to finish medical school, but now I am the founder of my own violin school for children ages 3 and up. I am trying to pass on tools of learning to young people, and trying to learn to deal with their parents as well. So that’s why I’m here on this exploration.”

I wonder what my voice exuded. Arrogance? Fear? Uncertainty? Defensiveness? Not knowing how to identify myself? Because all of the above were true. I couldn’t think of something “identifying” about me that included what I like to do. All of the identifying characteristics I could think of had to do with social self labels – daughter of immigrants, Harvard graduate, medical school graduate, former investment manager, founder of my own business, violin teacher, works with young kids and their parents. But none of these things said anything about who I am, what I like, what makes me crazy, or what makes me happy. Together they hint at some kind of identity that has yet to be patched together into a coherent narrative.

As the call came to a close, I jotted down three names of people I found intriguing from their introductions on the call. I was listening for some groundedness and authenticity. I was in desperate need for a dose of pragmatism, after the heavy pile of Alice dumped on me for the past hour. I wrote a note to Lori B from Oregon, who said she was a sales manager in a car dealership, which is a male-dominated field. Something in her voice sounded real. Confident but also questioning. Solid but permeable. I wanted to speak more to people like her. So I wrote her a note to tell her what I appreciated about her introduction, and asked if she was interested in being my buddy.

Then, immediately after the call disbanded, I started writing the following post to the Student Forum. There is a foundational coaching principle that Martha refers to as T.A.O. It refers to the Lao Tzu philosophy from the Tao Te Ching, but also stands for Transparency, Authenticity, and Openness. I thought about it for about a second, but then all hesitation was blasted away as I realized that if I didn’t put out there who I am, what I am going through, what I experience, then I would be shortchanging myself in terms of the value I could gain from this program. To hell with all the la-la nice people and whether I might alienate myself on the first day of school! Alice didn’t seem to care what I thought when she monopolized the call this morning! It was time for me to put the REAL me out there, and allow it to take me, for the first time in my life, toward whatever might be in store for the real me.

by Lisa Chu – Monday, September 14, 2009, 01:32 PM (EDT)
OK, I’m not usually the one to speak out this openly about my true feelings, but part of this program is confronting all of that.

So was anyone else on the call this morning driven completely crazy by the few people who seemed to treat this as a personal opportunity to interact one-on-one with Bridgette? It brought up my feelings of impatience with people who can’t figure things out, or don’t listen, or who seem to forget that there are many other people “in the room” (or on the call, in this case) who are not benefitting from the personal interchange they are having with the instructor.

Because of this, I also confronted feelings of “not fitting in”. When it was time to give my one sentence description of myself, I didn’t know what to say that would sound upbeat, since I was swirling with all the feelings of being annoyed with the monopolizing of conversation that seemed to be happening so often on the call. At several points during the call, I wanted to ask Bridgette if she could direct people to an offline conversation to resolve the many basic issues that were being raised. But I was too afraid of interrupting the “welcoming” atmosphere that Bridgette was so graciously trying to cultivate.

I’m sure that a large part of coaching, and being in any helping profession, is learning how to deal both honestly and respectfully with difficult clients and situations. So in the spirit of being T, A, and O, I’m putting this out there. I’d love to hear from Bridgette or others if you have strategies for dealing with these feelings, or dealing with the type of people who monopolize time, while trying to lead and manage a lively group interaction.