What to do when it is a matter of life and death?

I will always remember the training where I first realized that what I teach is sometimes a matter of life and death. One of the participants was a young soldier preparing for deployment to a war zone. His ability to anticipate the actions of others and to control his own state would, quite literally, be a matter of life or death. It's rare to think of self-development, self-reflection or communication in this way. Maybe it should be much less rare.

Yesterday we held our annual NLP retreat, in which a small group gathers in a wonderfully inspiring location to reflect, share and practice. Our theme yesterday was "Finding Your Voice" and in many ways it looked like we were working on how to speak more effectively in conversation or presentations. While knowing yourself is a requirement for speaking with power and presence, we didn't seem to be doing any change work or tackling any major life issues.

Except that there were some really big back stories in the room (and I only knew a few of them). The brave and wonderful people who come to these events bring the whole of themselves, including their biggest challenges and most troubling life issues. And they work quietly on those issues in the background while they go through the same exercises as everyone else. They even laugh as much as everyone else (and everyone laughs a lot).

I have become much less confident over the years that what I do is not a matter of life and death. In fact, I have become convinced that what I do is a core matter of life. It's not always a matter of choosing your own path. Sometimes it's about the choices you make on a path you would never have chosen for yourself. While you will encounter some steep challenges that are not of your making, you get to choose who you will be as you face them and what your choice will mean to the people you lead or influence.

There are many people who think that the kind of work I do is flaky and that my clients must be easily led. They have that backwards. My clients are easy leaders: they have the natural commitment to finding a better way that makes others want to follow them. They do not come so that life will be easy: they are preparing for the parts of life that will not be easy, the challenges and painful choices and hard times they know come into all lives.

And what I have learned is that I do not need to be wise enough to lead them through this. I only need to be respectful and present and curious about how their strength and courage and determination will carry them through whatever they are facing.  I only need to know that the will to connect better with yourself and with others is the force of life itself, a power strong enough to show you the next step on a difficult path.

Nothing can keep you stuck if you can take just one more step.


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