Your Future Self and the Sirens’ Song
Take a new look at a very old story (0:55)
Before you set sail, prepare for your future self (3:10)
Case study: The missing piece in making commitments (4:15)
The keys to stretching yourself without snapping (6:15)
Your Future Self and the Sirens’ Song
I have a question for you…
Why do people so easily make commitments to behavioral change and then have such a struggle practicing and fulfilling those commitments?
Well, it’s a pretty simple answer, and to illustrate it, here’s a story. Now, this is not one of my favorite stories – there are flaws in it and parts of it I really don’t care for – but it’s about the Sirens and Ulysses. Have you ever heard the story?
LET’S TAKE A NEW LOOK AT A VERY OLD STORY
There’s a scene in Homer’s Odyssey where Ulysses expects to encounter the Sirens – women who live on an island and sing a beautiful song to attract sailors, who then wreck their ships on the island’s rocky coast.
Ulysses’ ship is going to sail around that bend, and he knows the Sirens’ song will be really challenging for him to pass by and that it will most likely overwhelm him. And he does something we frequently don’t think to do: He puts things in place to support his future self in carrying out the commitment made in the present moment.
He has his crew members lash him to the ship’s mast so he cannot move or speak to command them to go toward the hazardous island shore. He also demands they fill their ears with beeswax so they won’t be able to hear the Sirens’ song, either.
As their ship rounds the bend and approaches the island, the Sirens sing their bewitching song, but Ulysses is tied and gagged, incapable of giving the command to steer for the shore, to surrender to the destructive allure of the Sirens’ song. And as his crew can’t hear either him or the Sirens’ song, they aren’t tempted into taking that deadly detour on their own.
And so, immobilized, silenced, and deaf to the Sirens’ allure, Ulysses and his crew avoid the enchantment that led to the legendary destruction of other ships, and they successfully sail past the island to continue on their journey.
BEFORE YOU SET SAIL: PREPARE FOR YOUR FUTURE SELF
Now, there are a lot of flaws in that story, but the mythology of it is interesting from the perspective that Ulysses took action based on what he knew about his future self’s tendency toward weakness and the common behavior pattern his future self would likely take if it didn’t have support when it met with challenges.
And that’s the piece where we – as managers, leaders, or staff – make commitments to behavioral change, but we don’t follow through. We haven’t prepared for the support or the modifications we need to help our future self satisfy the commitment that we’re making in the present moment.
So here’s an example from real life...
CASE STUDY: THE MISSING PIECE IN MAKING COMMITMENTS
I do executive coaching with a woman who has lost trust in her manager’s commitment to clear communication. In our coaching session, she says, “I have lost trust in my manager because she repeatedly says that she’s going to change her behavior, and then she repeatedly falls down.”
In the past, whenever her manager received feedback that their communication and decisions aren’t clear, and people are leaving meetings with ambiguity, the manager would make a commitment to the team that, in the future, they would turn that around; they absolutely would take the time to communicate with more clarity so people would be less confused.
And the manager will do it – for a week or two. But when things get stressful and deadlines get tight, they slip back into their familiar pattern of not enough clear communication and, once again, the team finds themselves not knowing what is a decision and what’s just an idea or thought, as well as not understanding who is responsible for which task, and it all becomes challenging (again).
The manager’s commitment to the incremental behavioral change is there, but what’s missing are the intentional action items that will allow them to practice the new behavior. And along with their commitment, they’ll want to get feedback when they start to slip and fall, and also have safety measures in place to support their commitment when work gets stressful, deadlines get tight, and things get confusing.
They need to establish how, when, and where they’re going to get the support they need to stay the course.
THE KEYS TO STRETCHING YOURSELF WITHOUT SNAPPING
Picture a rubber band. You can stretch it out, stretch it out, streeeeeetch it out, but only until it reaches its point of maximum stress, where it either snaps back into place or snaps completely in two.
Trying on new behaviors is also a stretch. As we’re practicing and trying on new behaviors, we become like the rubber band. We may encounter stressful circumstances or add our insecurities and a lack of confidence to the picture. As we’re stretched by these additional demands or challenges, we can either go back to our original shape or just snap completely, throwing the new behavior out the window because it’s just way too uncomfortable.
So while the commitment to behaving in a new way is the critical first step in making a behavioral change, you also need an action plan and support for when your future self meets with challenges, discomfort, stress, or confusion. Ask yourself: “How will I support my future self to make the right choice?”
Now, Ulysses’ choice to be lashed to the mast and gagged, as well as put beeswax in the ears of everybody around him, is really not the way to go. In my mind, it kinda reeks of zero self-control.
But the powerful lesson from Ulysses is he knew what would trip him up, and he prepared to overcome it.
He looked at his old patterns of behavior, and he understood that the Sirens’ song would be incredibly difficult for him to pass by, despite his plans and intentions. Fortitude and decision-making and a continued commitment to going past the island without falling prey to the Sirens’ song would be really challenging for him, as it had for many others.
So, as you anticipate making a behavioral change, consider these two key actions that will support that change—
1. Think about it. What is your siren song? What is your weakness? Where do you repeatedly fall down on your commitments? Look to the past for the behavior patterns that help create your future.
2. Then, ask your staff to support you. Invite them to let you know when you’re falling down. Ask them to be kind and to understand that trying on new behaviors is a practice, and when we practice new skills, it can sometimes be a little bit sloppy. Sometimes, our resolve weakens, and we drift back into the old behavior, even though it doesn’t work out that well for us. Be vulnerable enough to say, “This is something new I’m trying on, and I need your feedback. I need your support. I need your honesty.”
Tip: It’s important to invite people. The woman I’m coaching doesn’t feel comfortable with giving her manager the heads-up: “Uh-oh, you’re sliding back to the behavior you said you weren’t going to do anymore.” She doesn’t feel like her feedback would be welcome. In fact, she feels like she would be penalized or get in trouble for speaking up.
Remember: Understanding where you could fall down in the process of change and gathering support from others will help you fulfill your commitment, and being vulnerable in your invitation for feedback creates connection and builds trust.
YOUR TURN: WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN US?
These are all components of leadership and followership that we talk about, explore, and delve into in my Navigating Challenging Dialogue® workshops. These are the nuances and the soft skills, the social and emotional intelligence components of the mission of Navigating Challenging Dialogue: To improve how we show up, how we walk through change, and how we understand the patterns of pitfalls that lead to failures.
If you’ve been asking yourself: “How can I be more effective, more successful, more connected, build trust, and increase collaboration with my team, my coworkers, my leadership?” then join us!
Check out NavigatingChallengingDialogue.com to learn more about how you, too, can take steps that will increase collaboration, communication, effective problem solving, satisfaction, ease, and happiness – both at work and at home.
Until next time, be aware of siren songs and also your response to them, and make plans to support yourself – not only today’s you but also your future self.