Do you care (too much) about other people’s opinions? Then read this.

A couple of years ago, I started pondering about changing my career. Because I simply realized that I was far more interested in people than IT, which had been “my” business for a good 30 years.

I hatched a plan rather quickly. It would still take me more than a year to finally come out telling the world what I was doing now. And another 2 years to let go of the “old” business.

So why the heck was that?

I had done my research, my trainings, combined all of that with my decades of experience and had a great offer in my hands. I had tested the service, got consistent results, built a website, and still, I hesitated telling people in my network that I was now focusing on being an Activator for Personal Leadership instead of a Sales Director for an online magazine.

What would people think?

Obviously I asked myself WHY I was so hesitant?

  • Was there a lack of confidence in what I was offering – nope.
  • Did I have doubts that I could deliver results? Well, in the beginning sometimes, eventually not anymore.
  • Was I afraid the service was not good enough? Nope. Not that one either.

Eventually I realized what it was: I was worried about what people would think!

And there was a lot of potential feedback bouncing around in my head at the time:

“Has she lost her mind, leaving a business that she’s done for so long?”.

“Oh – another coach, really?”.

“Who does she think she is, switching from IT publishing to coaching?”

What if someone considered this a step back in my career? No fancy title anymore, what if someone would ridicule me for doing what I was doing or making fun of me? What if someone was gossiping behind my back and believed that it was silly what I was pursuing now?

In short: I was massively worried about other people’s opinions about me and my new career. To the degree that I held back in spreading the message or talking to my previous network about it.

People pleasing is an epidemic

During my work with my clients I realized that I’m definitely not the only one who’s got those fears.

Almost EVERY person told me stories about NOT saying what they really think to other people, particularly when they assumed that their own opinion would be different from the one of the other person. I also heard stories about not expressing their real thoughts and putting their own requirements last and not doing what they really wanted.

The main reason why so many of us follow this path is fairly simple:

We are worried (or even fear) to be rejected or laughed about. Or we assume that others might get angry about our opinion or shut us down and many of us avoid conflict like the plague.

Deep down though the REAL reason is that we’d like to be liked. Or loved. Nothing’s more grave than not belonging, not being seen, heard and acknowledged for who we are and what we do.

This comes at an eventually high price: If we don’t express our thoughts or opinion this can easily lead to doing a lot of stuff that we don’t really want: the hiking holiday instead of the beach one (my spouse would be unhappy if I told her what I really want), staying in a job we hate (what would the people say, if I leave a well-paid job), dancing like nobody is watching (or sing karaoke….or whatever it is you’d love doing yet are paralysed through the fear of the judgement of others) or simply do not express our frustration, anger or feelings generally at home or in the office.

With the result that we get more and more torn inside and worst case develop a huge portion of resentment - against ourselves and others.

The negativity bias

The interesting part is, that we fear critique and judgement generally. Well, most of us. We might have a good idea at work and might have been brave enough to come out with it. Lots of people think it is great – then one comes along and criticises us and bang – we suddenly feel it’s been the worst idea ever.

This is what we call negativity bias – and we all fall for that. In these cases it does not matter where the criticism comes from – cheap seats or not.

Antidote #1: The “Square Squad”*

 *thanks to Brené Brown (Book: Daring greatly)

Instead of being guided and impressed by EVERYBODY’S opinion, we better get clear on whose opinion of us really counts. It’s comparably easy to sit on the side lines and criticize others for what they are saying or doing. I call it the “cheap seats”. Often people who never take a risk opening their mouth to voice anything which might be slightly controversial, creative or disruptive.

So, do they really have a right to an opinion that you would consider or take on board?

One of my favourite authors, Brené Brown, came up with an idea which I’ve adopted for myself and I’m going to share with you here: Get a little piece of paper, let’s say 3x3 cm and write down the names of the people whose opinion about you really matters. That small, because it forces us to edit, to become very clear.

The people on the list could be people who love and respect you not despite your imperfections, but BECAUSE of them. Be careful not to go for the yes people – the idea is not that people suck-up to you, but love you enough to be honest and real with you. THAT is the kind of feedback that is valuable and that you can work with, regardless of what you’ve said or done.

If the 3 -5 people on your list believe it’s a terrible idea to start your own business as a gardener (or whatever floats your boat) at least listen to them and hear them out  - then you can still decide what you do.

And forget about the rest. Well, definitely easier said than done, I know. Because it can still hurt to be attacked or criticized – even by people we don’t really care about, or who are not on the list. It still stings. And it’s a matter of practice to react less– the more often you do it, the better it works.

Antidote #2: Courage

Right, this is a topic that fills whole books. I’ll keep it short here.

Courage is what gives us the capability of speaking up, of doing what is important for us. To express ourselves.

And it’s one of the toughest things to learn, because of all the stuff mentioned before: the fear of the potential consequences, of not being liked or being rejected.

Courage is only required if there is fear.

So there are only two choices, to be driven by our fear in our thinking or behaviour or being courageous, despite the fear. And as most of us intuitively know that the latter can make us feel vulnerable, quite a few people avoid this feeling at all cost. This can then cost us living and behaving in a way that is aligned with our values.

 Courage is having the guts to be who you are, to speak your truth and to act accordingly.

Not as an inconsiderate prick, but as a vulnerable human being – and being vulnerable is one of the strongest things you can do and has nothing to do with weakness. Brown (yes, her again) defines vulnerability as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”.

So, yes, vulnerability will be a part of the conversation when you bring up a completely new idea how to work in your team or when you ask for the raise that you believe you’ve deserved for a while, or to tell your spouse that you really rather want the beach holiday than climbing up mountains or when you tell your family and friends that you plan to start a cattery after 20 years in leading positions in the Finance industry.

Only if you do vulnerability, will you be able to master the courage to be you. This will make such a difference in being able to deal with the opinions of others (provided they are part of your Square Squad. Screw the others :-)).

 ©Claudia Hesse

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