Besides therapy, would a life coach help?
March 21, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

i grew up in a home where asking an innocent question such as, "why" resulted in verbal or physical abuse ("why are you so stupid", "don't ask why", and if I did, a hand or a fist would come at me). no surprise that i've also come to realize that I am SO much more insecure than I thought I was. now that I look back, I see that i've never asked the right questions at work, with doctors, or anything like that. My brain would shut down and I would just nod and agree to what I was being told only to think about what happened much later and realize that I should have asked this or that or responded in a certain way. My thought/response patterns have been pretty consistent throughout my life (sad, I know, as I'm nearing 40) and I desperately want to work on communicating better. I struggle to figure out how to say things "nicely" or in a way that's effective as opposed to what often times is more harsh/rude/ineffective.

As a mother of a two-year old and with recent issues at work which is where this realization occurred, I know if I could find some guidance in learning to change my thought process in these situations so that I think more clearly / quickly and speak up like I would with my husband and siblings and not find myself being taken advantage of over and over or just completely blown off because my slow "reflexes" lost the opportunity to speak up. I am extremely hard on myself and don't take to making mistakes well at all - I end up hating myself and struggle with myself to stop these thoughts. I desperately need guidance... a lot of it. Besides therapy, would a life coach help? I'd like to be able to have someone whom I can contact to help me with my day to day issues and concerns. Anyone btdt? have referrals / suggestions? I work in NYC. TIA!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Two easy things you can do: 1) Write down questions in advance, for situations like doctors, repairmen, etc. People frequently get intimidated or confused in situations where they aren't experts, that's very normal, and forget their questions or concerns only to remember them later on.

2) Say, "I need time to think about that." (Especially when someone is trying to take advantage of you.) Then think about it, for as long as you need, and formulate your questions. "Time" can be two minutes to process, or two days to consider. Now and then a high-pressure salesman will try to say, "But there isn't any time!" but that is rarely the case, and you say, "Okay, then my answer is no." Suddenly there will be time. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:21 AM on March 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

Invent a character that is the person you want to be more like. Let that character do the talking once in a while.

It's tough to remember with a bad background, but 'trouble' isn't so bad. If you were ten times as rude as you think you are, turns out you would not experience or cause much suffering. Go be a pill a few times, on purpose, and see what happens.

Good luck to you!
posted by eccnineten at 8:26 AM on March 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had a similar upbringing, minus the physical abuse. If I dared to ask follow-up questions, my dad would go on a tirade about how ungrateful I was or how stupid I was or how I never did anything right. So I stopped asking questions at all. It took a long time and a lot of physical distance between me and my father before I started standing up for myself. With the help of my husband, my friends, and my therapist, I started seeing that it wasn't my fault, it was his. His issues weren't/aren't my issues and I'm not stupid or ungrateful and I do plenty of stuff just fine. Once I replaced that negative thinking with more positive thoughts, it became easier to "question authority." I used to write down positive affirmations and put them in places I'd see them. It sounds cheesy but it works, especially when you're feeling particularly down about yourself. There's also something incredibly empowering with having a little kid think you're the sun and the moon and the starts. Your two-year-old thinks you're the bees knees and that's pretty cool, really.
posted by cooker girl at 9:12 AM on March 21, 2010

I have a friend a woman who works as a life coach in NYC. I'm not sure exactly what a "life coach" is, as opposed to a therapist, so I can't tell you if my friend is good at it, but she is smart and compassionate, and knows about being a mother. Feel free to send me a Memail if you'd like to be put in touch with her.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:13 AM on March 21, 2010

You don't need a life coach in addition to a therapist, because this is part of what therapists do (also applies to pretty much everything else life coaches do). If you're not already seeing a therapist, then that would be a great Step 1. It's going to be tough to change these patterns of communication without looking a little at the background for them, and counteracting the assumptions you have about yourself because of that background ("I'm so stupid, I can't believe I said that" and so forth).

It's really cool that you are comfortable speaking up with your husband and siblings, though. You have a head start on improvement, because you have a strong base to build on. :) What's different about the person you are in those relational contexts, and how do you generalize those things to other situations? That's a good place to start, maybe.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:14 AM on March 21, 2010

For dealing with professionals/officials, I nth writing questions down. Professionals often have tight schedules and want to get the information they want/give the information they are supposed to and, as a result, they can seem to be a) disinterested in you and b) unconcerned with your specific problems, which can be very intimidating. (The fact that many of them are both a) and b) does not help, of course). Having a list of topics and questions written down (and taking notes) can really take the edge off. I have had many lengthy interactions with doctors which would have gone much worse than they did if I hadn't made use of lists. Keeping a notebook can help you manage a long complex problem as well.

The tactic is less useful with family and friends, although taking notes during a discussion can help you to remember to bring up relevant points when you can speak.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try doing things designed to build your confidence in yourself. The more confident you are that your opinion is just as valid as everyone else's, the more easy it will be to speak up and let other people know about it.

Maybe you could think of something you're really good at and go and do more of it, or teach other people to do it. Maybe you could think of some achievement that's a little bit beyond you now, or something you're a bit scared of, and go and do it. The more you reinforce the message in your brain that you can do things, you are knowledgeable, and you are a worthwhile person, the easier you will find it to participate in conversations as if you are all of those things.

Some helpful phrases while you're working on it:

- "I'm not really certain yet what I think about that. I'll sleep on it and come back to you tomorrow".
- "I'm not sure I understood what you said there. Could you explain it again for me?"
- "". If someone says something ridiculous, look at them and just wait through the long silence. They will often get increasingly defensive and then back down all on their own.

Finally, remember that just because you're a woman, doesn't mean it's your only job to be nice all the time and make everyone in the world feel better about themselves. If people are treating you badly you are allowed to be angry, and you are allowed to express that anger by being loud or firm or rude or unpleasant.
posted by emilyw at 9:41 AM on March 21, 2010

I’m not one to normally suggest books (especially ones that seem to be “self help” or ways ot improve communication), but I think a book called Crucial Conversations could help you. Part of the premise of this book is: How do you have conversations about things that are really important to you and both parties may not feel safe (e.g. talking to a supervisor about a problem at work). In addition, this book walks you through things that everyone does when it comes to not wanting to be in a particular conversation (either react with violence or silence). It may help you to recognize things that you do and that other people do. The book also suggests ways to make people feel comfortable and safe in these conversations etc.

I’m going to nth the write it down suggestion and everything that McGee suggests. I definitely write down a series of a few to 10 questions, and make sure they are all addressed. Finally, find out if some of the people you need to communicate with (e.g. doctor, etc.) are okay with email. If they are you can send them your well thought out questions and you have a chance to reflect and make sure that it is polite.

(A friend suggested recently that I do the following to feel more comfortable in the high cost type communications) Rather than start with something that is really important to you and gives you anxiety (ie. conversation with boss or parnter), why not practice in lower cost conversations? For example, start by asking questions that seem harmless [weather] to something that you perceive as having a cost [isn’t there a better way to do this at work]). Is there a reason you can’t practice on friends or people who are close to you, or with a therapies? Or talk to friends about strategies they sometimes use? I think your friends and/or a therapist may be more helpful that a "lfe coach"
posted by Wolfster at 9:52 AM on March 21, 2010

a life coach, or at least the ones that i know personally, work with you to set goals for yourself. this may be helpful to touch base with a life coach on a less regular schedule than with your therapist to keep good track of how you are progressing in this goal of yours to communicate more effectively. i think that using both a therapist and a coach might be a great way to approach your issue. i worked with a life coach for a little while, and he helped me to come up with affirmations supporting a positive shift in issues that i had identified as problematic. his approach of taking small steps to solve big problems really worked for me and within a few months, with only three appts with the guy, i had straightened out some discipline issues between my then two-year old and my parents (we all lived together...arrgh:)), and also had cleaned out a super-messy playroom and helped remind me not to accumulate a lot of other crap once the playroom was streamlined. he also helped me in my approach to some legal/family conversations. they were small issues, easily addressed and "fixed", but solving those little problems was so crucial to my confidence that i could handle greater things, which i brought up to my therapist/counselor. so, when i say the above, it's from personal experience. a therapist will help you some things and the life coach with others. and it helps also to have a dynamic support system, and you are getting the benefit of two different approaches and points of view. this will help if you get stuck with either person. i have a recommendation for a good life coach, if you felt like you wanted to mail me. he works with folks on the phone and he splits time between my area and nyc. you could check out his website. otherwise, i'm sure you can find a good one in a short time.

if it makes you feel any better, i have the same issues with doctors and lawyers, and it has become so important to be my own advocate even though it is a lot of work and i constantly struggle with my confidence. but it's a positive thing to get a little bitchier. and the first few times (or more) that you try this out, it could feel really extreme, like you are making "trouble" but then you will find your balance. remember how you learned not to stand up for yourself and just think that you could have learned another way. there is another way!
posted by lakersfan1222 at 11:58 AM on March 21, 2010

wolfster has a good suggestion about email. just be careful not to hit send too soon. email buys you some more time to make sure everything is covered. my gp does not use email nor does my daughter's pediatrician, but a specialist that i saw used email and it was a great way to get my point across and helped to get a diagnosis. it was also a great way to follow up and send updates, which saved me a few long trips to her office.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 12:02 PM on March 21, 2010

I'm not sure inventing a new character to play is a good idea, but to each their own. Writing down questions in advance is a great idea, if only to help figure out what we really want to know and what's really important.

Remember this difference: these people work for you, they are there to help you, and at the very least, you are on an equal footing with them. They are different from your parent(s) in that you aren't stuck with them. If they give you shit, you can tell them to hit the bricks.

And remember this: when you ask questions of professionals like this, remember why you are asking: you want to know how something works, or on what basis they made some determination. You aren't challenging their authority, you just want to know how the decision process works. I often see people in high anxiety customer service situations (customers and clerks alike) who are so afraid of screwing up or offending, that they end up doing far worse than if they would have just said what they are feeling. Especially in the tone of their questions- they are so charged up that they almost can't help sounding accusatory with the simplest of questions. So, my advice is to spend your mental efforts at NOT trying to asses the situation or reading their minds or trying to fit into their expectations, but rather, just work on being able to ask the question that you are trying to answer. Try to communicate on a human/social level, rather than on a role-level.

Nip things in the bud- when beginning an interaction, state what you want. "Hello, I'd like a plumber to come out and tell me what's wrong with my dishwasher and give me an estimate for repairs" sets a much more egalitarian tone for the encounter than "my washer is broken and when can someone be here?" You are saying "I need a professional to give me their advice" rather than "come and help me".

or "boss, Jenkins in accounting is being a jerk, what are you going to do about it" is a lot different from "boss, I'm having a problem with Jenkins, can we talk about it".

Finally, remember that just because you're a woman, doesn't mean it's your only job to be nice all the time and make everyone in the world feel better about themselves. If people are treating you badly you are allowed to be angry, and you are allowed to express that anger by being loud or firm or rude or unpleasant.

I'm not sure what gender has to do with it. It is nobody's responsibility to be nice all the time and make everyone in the world feel better about themselves, or to not express anger when they choose to. But going into an interaction with that in mind rarely ends up working out. Sure, some people are [something]-ists. Far too many, and they probably don't deserve to be treated nicely. But we don't treat people nicely because *they* deserve it, but because that's how *we* decide to treat people. Anger is usually a placeholder emotion for some other sort of frustration- a situation or person has not behaved the way we expect it to. Maybe that's because they are a jerk, or maybe that's because we didn't lay out our expectations for the encounter clearly enough, or both.

In other words, don't be emotionally invested in something or someone that isn't sharing that with you.

Also- be wary of the low-cost versus high-cost communication thing. It is good advice to become comfortable with different communications, like learning to be comfortable with ordering cable tv before being comfortable buying a car. But it is rarely good advice in the same encounter. Don't raise the stakes in the middle, it puts the other person on the defensive. "Hello doctor, I'm here to talk about a few different things..." is much more productive than making an appointment for a sinus infection, getting that taken care of, and then adding "by the way, I'm also having chest pains sometimes" at the end.
posted by gjc at 12:42 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure what gender has to do with it.

It has to do with it, because girls are often taught (explicitly, like the OP, or implicitly), that it's really more important for the other person in any conversation to be comfortable than it is for both parties to get what they need from the interaction. The role of a woman in a household is that of the peacemaker. An assertive woman is easily referred to as a bitch. And so on and so on. If you haven't been subject to this kind of thing it's difficult to imagine how disempowering it really is. Conversely, it can be very difficult to see out from the inside and see just how much of this is cultural conditioning rather than just the Way Things Are.

It is nobody's responsibility to be nice all the time and make everyone in the world feel better about themselves, or to not express anger when they choose to. But going into an interaction with that in mind rarely ends up working out.

If you're a confident person, then of course it's not helpful to go into an interaction thinking "Never mind their feelings! I'll make sure I get what I want".

But if you're uncomfortable asking the doctor vital questions, because you're worried that he might feel uncomfortable or criticised; or you're one of these people who can't deal firmly with sexual harassment, because you can't think of a way to be nice about it: in these cases, it's really better to start off considering what you want more and what other people feel about it, less.
posted by emilyw at 1:30 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Practice will make perfect. I used to have a painful flinchy reaction to a boss saying "I need to talk to you for a minute" or "We need to talk," because those phrases only happened in my family when I was In Trouble.

Years of experience have taught me that those words do not mean any more than they say to anybody else. I don't have anxiety anymore when I hear them, although I do have the switch-flip reaction that reminds me that I don't have the anxiety anymore.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:13 PM on March 21, 2010

Simply by asking this question, you are well on your way to being a good questioner! I would also suggest seeing if you have a friend you can trust to be a role player, insofar as you can utilize their help for prep sessions when you can spend as much time articulating and asking questions as you need to feel comfortable. While 'practice makes perfect' seems like a trite saying, there's some truth to it. Practice asking questions when you are in a safe environment, and soon you'll see that you'll feel more confident asking questions when the heat is on.
posted by kuppajava at 8:32 AM on March 22, 2010

Yes, btdt. I've been working through it with a therapist with surprisingly quick results.

My therapist uses EMDR, which some people love and some people think is quackery. Because of the quick results, I'm on the "love" side of the equation. YMMV.

Feel free to memail me if I can answer any questions.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:28 PM on March 22, 2010

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