How Do I Keep It All Together?

After class this week, a student stayed behind to talk to me. He asked me a question that took me aback. “Mrs. Gina, how do you keep it all together?” I’m sure I gave him a surprised look because he kept talking. “I’ve had you for multiple classes now and known you for about 2 years. You are the smiliest person I know. No matter what is going on, you come into class and act as if everything is great.”

I am currently teaching face to face upper level entrepreneurship classes at a major university. Things are different in the age of COVID-19. Everyone is wearing a mask, all students are placed at least 6’ apart, all rows are separated with plexiglass and I have a 6×6’ red tape square surrounding the area I stand to teach that is the border for how close students can get to me. I feel 100% safe in the classroom, but it is different.

My heart broke a bit when the student asked me how I keep it together because I knew this meant he was having a hard time doing it. I could tell by the tone of his voice and his eyes (which is all I can see) that he was sad. The college experience that he and his classmates had expected has been indefinitely interrupted. Their ability to go to class, chat with their peers in the hall, and have coffee or lunch together is completely different now. For incoming freshman, it is the only true college experience they have so they don’t know anything different. But for the upperclassman that have had the true college experience, it makes sense that right now they are sad.

As a coach, parent, teacher, and friend I know the most important thing I can do for anyone I have a relationship with is to listen to them. Not just hear them, but really listen to them. I call it “listening between the lines”. Everyone wants and needs to be heard. We want to be heard so that we believe the person we are talking to understands how we feel. This means that to listen between the lines, I must also practice empathy. I must take the time to think and to put myself into the other person’s shoes so that I can try to understand what they are feeling. That is easier said than done. It means I must put my personal thoughts and feelings aside for a few minutes. If I project my thoughts and feelings onto the other person I have not truly listened to them.

How many times have you tuned a person out because you do not agree with what they are saying or feeling? How many times have you assumed another person is less intelligent than you, does not care as much as you, or worse is acting with malice because you don’t agree with their words or actions? I see this playing out all around me now more than ever. I see it in discussions concerning race, sexual orientation, immigration, and covid. It has led to more division in our country than I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Division that is leading to anger and to sadness and ultimately life or death circumstances.

The lack of true listening has a downward spiral effect. If a person is trying to express a thought or feeling, either good or bad, but does not feel heard or understood, the likelihood that this person will be willing to listen to anyone else is incredibly low. The result looks like a conversation between 2 people with an invisible wall between them. Everything each says hits the invisible wall and bounces to the ground without the other person hearing a word. Each person gets louder and starts to yell, but the words bounce off the invisible wall and hit the ground. Each person gets emotional and lashes out, but the words hit the invisible wall and bounce to the ground. Ultimately, the two people walk away from the conversation with no resolution and terrible feelings about the person that didn’t hear them without realizing the invisible wall existed. More division.

The good news is that listening between the lines and having empathy are learned skills. Anyone can do it, but it takes a willingness to want to bridge gaps, time, and practice to be good at it. I have outlined 7 easy steps to help you get started with listening between the lines.

1. Be present and listen to understand, not to respond. Give the person speaking your undivided attention. Put your phone away. Make eye contact. Listen to develop questions to learn more, not to respond or have the right answer.

2. Do not interrupt. For goodness sake, let the other person speak. It is very disrespectful to interrupt people. This signals that you are more interested in what you have to say than what they have to say. Remember, if you want someone to listen to you, you must be willing to listen too.

3. Do not respond with “I” or “me” statements. How annoying is it when you tell a person something, they do not acknowledge anything you said but instead, respond with a story about themselves? It is terrible! This is another huge signal that you do not care about what the other person had to say and that you are more interested in yourself. The best responses involve acknowledging that you heard what was said and can see why the person is experiencing their thoughts and feelings. Ask questions to get the person to tell you more.

 4. Remind yourself that you do not know everything, and you might not be right. We all can agree that no one knows everything. We all have a lot to learn in life regardless of our age. It starts with a desire to learn rather than a desire to be right. Put your ego aside. The most successful people respond with “tell me more” and truly listen to learn.

5. Realize that you do not have to agree with someone to listen to them and put yourself in their shoes to understand them. This is a big realization for most people. We can intellectually understand why a person feels a particular way without agreeing with the reasons that cause the feelings. Specifically, I do not agree with violent response to #blacklivesmatter but I do understand why some black people feel angry enough to behave that way. They have built up frustration and anger from years of not feeling heard. We do not have to condone it to understand it. Listening with a pragmatic ear takes practice. It takes self-control to put our values aside to try to understand the values of other people. This skill is a gamechanger. It is like a Jedi Mind Trick.

6. Never give unsolicited advice. Another hard one! For some reason, we feel as if we need to fix things when someone decides to talk to us or confide in us. That is rarely true. Most times, we just want someone to listen so that we can either vent or get our thoughts out into the open to sort them out. The next time someone vents to you, rather than trying to give unsolicited advice try asking something along the lines of “what steps have you taken?” This opens the door for the person to either tell you it is solved or to ask you for help.

7. DO NOT TELL PEOPLE TO TOUGH IT OUT, GET OVER IT, OR THINGS COULD BE WORSE! Yes, I yelled this at you. It is that important. We’ve all done it. We are trying to be helpful and shift the energy to something more positive. However, what we have done is to tell the person that their feelings do not matter. All feelings are ok and justified. We need to feel all of them to be better able to process them and move on. Pushing feelings aside or stifling them is never successful long term.

Listening between the lines is not impossible and is not always easy, but it is always helpful. We must facilitate conversations and listen to instigate the change we all want to see. Learning to truly listen with empathy is the first step to closing the divides we see in the world. It is also the first step for leaders needing to get followers to work towards a common goal. Listening is the key for developing relationships and getting desired results. Too many times individuals in leadership positions do not take the time to listen to followers while developing a plan, only to have the plan fail. Listening is my key to holding it all together.

After my student asked me how I held it all together, I took a deep breath to think and to process what I was hearing between the lines. He needed an answer that he could use, not an answer that worked for me. He needed to know someone cared about him and had his back. He needed to know that his feelings of sadness were ok and were normal. That is the type of answer I gave him. He was still sad when he left class, but now he knows someone heard him and cares.

I do not have it all together, not even close. I am not the smiliest person on the inside. I am sad, scared, and frustrated just like everyone else. However, I have taken the time to listen to my students and to hear what they need. I show up for them in the way they need me, not the way I want things to be. It gives them a sense of calm and normalcy and the results I get from my students are outstanding. I am proud of them and love my college kiddos a ton. We will get through all of this together.

If you want to learn more about listening between the lines, reach out to me at gina@solunastrategies.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

I am NOT a Fish Out of Water!

Most of my life I have felt like a fish out of water. I don’t really fit in where most other women do. I don’t really fit in with the men either. I have tried to figure out why I don’t have the stereotypical “female tribe” I see around me. Why am I not invited to do some of the things those female types do? Never mind that I don’t enjoy most of what they are doing and don’t really want to go. I still want to be invited. Don’t get me wrong, I have a ton of friends and some really good close friends. I’m not living life alone. But I don’t live it like most other women. I never have. I have always been able to make friends with boys easier than with girls. I feel more comfortable hanging out with guys and there is nothing sexual about it. But that can seem awkward for others, so I keep hanging out with the guys to a minimum. I have beat myself up for not fitting in, wondering what is wrong with me. Wondering am I not good enough? Am I not fun enough? Am I not nice enough? I could go on and on.

Over the years I have tried repeatedly to diagnose what I perceived was a problem with me. As a coach, I help people through issues such as this quite frequently. Why couldn’t I figure it out for myself? Turns out it is easier to help others than it is to help yourself. Helping yourself to truly become self-aware and to then make changes is hard. Really hard. Thankfully there are some truly self-aware and gifted people in the world that give nuggets of their wisdom and experiences to help inspire us. I love to listen to podcasts and run. This is my time to be alone and consume the information that fills my fuel tank.

On a run this week I was gifted with a beautiful story that has led to one of the most powerful epiphanies of my life! Brene Brown was interviewing Glennon Doyle about her new book, Untamed.  I have now listened to this podcast 3 times and I am reading the book. Thank goodness for the forced slowdown and quarantine because I can indulge myself over and over in this fabulous gift of information.  As I listened to Glennon talk about herself and life, I felt like it was me talking. It was within a different context, but the feelings were the same. Glennon tells the story of a cheetah in a zoo she was visiting with her children. The cheetah had been trained alongside a Labrador to help tame her. I don’t want to steal Glennon’s thunder, go get the book, but the gist of the story is this:

The cheetah was born into captivity and trained to act like a dog. It is the only way of life that she has ever known. But deep inside, the cheetah feels that life should be more than this and that she is not meant to act the way she was trained. When she is alone in her zoo exhibit, she is different and wild again. She dreams of wide-open savannahs and freedom, of a life more beautiful than the one she has even if the one she has is good enough. But how can she dream of this if she has never seen or experienced it? Why can’t she just be grateful for how good her current life is? It is because she is a cheetah!  

In Untamed, Glennon uses the cheetah story as a metaphor for the way women are tamed or trained to act. We are taught to “be good”, “speak correctly”, “know our place”, “be perfect wives/mothers/friends”, “not complain (i.e. bitch)”, “be thin”, “be beautiful”, “be sexy, but only at the right time”, and most of all “be grateful”.  If we do not live up to the expectations society has placed on us, we feel like we are not enough. If we are not grateful in our “good enough” lives, we feel guilty.  But what if deep inside we feel like the cheetah? Like life is supposed to be different and more beautiful than this?

 I have let my inner Glitch tell me a ton of lies over the years and I have believed them. Lies like, I don’t fit in because I am not enough; I am not pretty enough; I am not smart enough to contribute, I am not polished enough to be effective. The cumulative effect of believing these lies is that I distance myself from work and personal obligations and goals to avoid failing at them. After all, I’m not enough.  I have told myself I am not valuable enough to contribute and kept quiet even though my gut told me I was right. I have told myself I must have some type of defect because I don’t act or want to act like most women. I perceived that this was true because when I do act on my instinct, the reactions I would receive were mixed reviews. I have questioned all of this over and over and over and over. Ultimately, I asked myself if I was crazy.

 As I ran listening to the podcast with Brene and Glennon and I heard the cheetah story and the questions being posed, I stopped running dead in my tracks. I immediately began to cry. Not sad tears but tears of relief and joy! For the first time in my life I KNEW what I had been trying to figure out about myself. Inside I am like the cheetah! I want a life more beautiful and different than what I think society has said I am supposed to have. I AM NOT CRAZY! And most importantly, I AM ENOUGH!

 Turns out I am not a fish out of water!! I have been in the wrong water. It is time to jump out of the small, tame pond and to jump into the ocean where I belong! It’s no wonder I have a fascination with the ocean and mermaids. It is where I know deep down that I belong!!

This is a scary and thrilling revelation for me. It is very freeing as well. I can be exactly who I feel inside I should be. I know I am a SMART, BEAUTIFUL woman with a lot of wisdom to contribute to the world. My optimism is contagious. I value authenticity and humility. Ambitious, altruistic people are my people.  I am intimidating to some and my bluntness can be cutting. But I LOVE BIG and care more about humanity than myself. I deserve BIG LOVE in return and won’t ever settle for less; even if what I have is good enough. I am grateful for what I have but am more grateful for what will be. I won’t temper my feelings, actions or words anymore because society says that is not how a woman should behave. I have a lot to give to the world that I have been holding back because I have feared what others might think. I did not trust myself enough that I could stand in my true self and be successful.

 Look out! I’m not a cheetah, but I am Gina. It’s time to really let her shine!

We Empower Women!

Most of my professional life has been in male dominated industries and I’ve never thought, “I can’t do that because I am a woman.”

I owe my parents a great deal of credit. Growing up it never occurred to me that women were treated differently in the workforce. I have known always that I have every right to choose my life and career path. I must thank my parents profusely for always supporting me, never trying to hold me back, to over-protect me, or judge me as I made career choices. They were my first empowerment coaches and they made all the difference for me. From construction sales, to entrepreneurship in construction and cycling, to consulting/investing, and now teaching entrepreneurship in a large university, I have been surrounded by mostly men at work. I have had many wonderful experiences and have had fantastic co-workers/bosses, but I have also seen the ugly side of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. This week I realized that every professional woman I have ever met has a story about gender discrimination and/or sexual harassment. The strength my parents instilled in me in my formative years helped me to be resilient and move past the unpleasant times and people to keep striving for my goals. Unfortunately, there are many women that were not empowered early in their lives and careers. A wonderful friend of mine and fellow entrepreneur, Charli Matthews, saw the need to empower ALL  women and launched a fantastic organization, Empowering Women in Industry. The inaugural annual conference just occurred in Chicago and I was humbled to be part of the fantastic program.

The need to empower women is REAL. I heard story after story after story from very successful women about times that men had treated them unfairly. I believe every one of them because I have several stories of my own. The narratives all have similar themes and can be narrowed down to two categories. They either fit into gender discrimination or sexual harassment. Within each of the categories the stories can be grouped generally based upon the behaviors that occurred.

Gender discrimination stories:

  1. You don’t belong here because you’re a girl. This is not a woman’s job.
  2. SHE won’t be able to do ….
  3. You’re not paid as much as him because…
  4. Completely being ignored, no eye contact, or trivializing comments.
  5. Not being considered for jobs and/or being passed over for promotion.

The sexual harassment stories are disturbing because true and lasting harm has come to many women. I’m purposely excluding stories about sexual assault from this blog for many reasons and only including narratives of verbal sexual harassment.

Verbal sexual harassment stories:

  1. You’re too pretty to have a job like this.
  2. Back-handed comments (i.e. I thought you were just another pretty face but you know what you’re doing.)
  3. Blunt statements about our looks and/or clothing.
  4. Sexual innuendo.
  5. Assumptions that women were successful because of who they have or were going to have sex with.

As I said earlier, EVERY professional woman I have met has at least one story that fits into one of the above categories. This above list is not meant to be all inclusive but does represent the numerous stories I heard in a short 8-hour time period. It is time that women have a voice that is valued for its contribution. Until recently, there has been no safe place for women to congregate to talk about these issues, to support each other, and to develop tools and strategies to persevere. In the last several years we have seen the birth of fantastic organizations such as Lean In, Dress for Success, Girl Up, Pink Petro, and Empowering Women in Industry that are handling the issues women face in a productive and empowering manner. The increase in the number of supporting organizations and movements such as #metoo indicate that indeed women are feeling more empowered.

The energy I experienced this week at the Empowering Women in Industry conference and gala was electrifying! There was no whining or complaining. The conversation was pragmatic and matter of fact, acknowledging that woman had been treated unfairly. It was as if you could see the weight lift from the women’s shoulders as they were given a safe place to have a voice. But I didn’t hear #metoo. Rather I heard, “what can we do to help you?” It was so refreshing! This is the first time I’ve been in an environment surrounded by only professional women. Every attendee wanted to help and empower every person around them. We felt free to dress and feel beautiful because we knew there would be no repercussions. Charli was so smart to have hair and make-up artists there for free for any attendee wanting to indulge. We discussed how to develop our personal brands, overcome limiting beliefs, and learned to do the Rosie Shuffle! Ultimately, we made new, life-long, soul sister friendships! (Pics below to show you a few of my new, beautiful friends!)

It is time that all women find a group that helps to empower them in a productive manner that lends support, teaches effective tools, and provides encouragement so that everyone feels free to reach for their goals.

I am full of gratitude that I have found my tribe, but I am left with a haunting question. Who is helping to encourage and educate men to understand and accept the new role of women in the workplace? True woman empowerment won’t occur until that is addressed as well.

-Gina Simpson is a certified professional coach and founder of Soluna Strategies. If you are interested in working with Gina to reach your full potential and find SERENE SUCCESS, email her at gina@solunastrategies.com.

WE EMPOWER WOMEN!!!!!!! LOVE ALL OF YOU BEAUTIFUL, LADIES!