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Ramona, a senior engineer in a midsize software company, was talking with João, her coach.

“I’m feeling pretty stressed these days,” Ramona said. “Everything seems to be going haywire at once.”

João smiled sympathetically. “I hear you,” he said. “I hear that from many of my clients. Tell me more.”

Golly, that’s a lot to deal with

Ramona sat back, considering how to explain everything filling her mind. “First, my project’s deadline has been moved up. A whole release. Functionality has been cut to compensate, but still. Now everything we thought we had months to finish must be ready in just a few weeks.”

“That’s a lot to deal with,” João empathized. “What else is happening?”

“Well, my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. Happily, my sister is planning the whole thing—she’s an event planner and does this sort of thing all the time. Still, she’s continually pinging me to ask my opinion about this question or that.”

“That does seem like it could be stressful,” João agreed. “Anything else in the mix?”

“Two more things,” Ramona answered. “My best friend’s kids are struggling to adjust to their new school. They’re still pretty depressed about having to move to a new city and leave all their old friends behind. My friend’s a single mom. These struggles plus all the normal teenager stuff is wearing her down.”

“What is your involvement with her?” João inquired.

“We talk on the phone every night,” Ramona said. “And, I’m considering asking whether her kids would like to stay with me over break.”

“Wow,” João said. “No wonder you’re feeling stressed. And you said there is one more thing?”

“Yeah,” Ramona replied. “I can’t keep doing all of this. I need to let some of this go. Or I’m going to break and not be able to do any of it.”

“You’re in a really tough place,” João commiserated. “I don’t know anyone who could stand up to all that.”

Ramona nodded miserably.

“Fortunately,” João continued, “you only have three responsibilities.”

Ramona looked up with a bit of hope in her eyes. “Really?”

João nodded. “Really. First, you must let everyone know what’s going on.”

You must let people know

“I can’t do that,” Ramona objected. “I’d feel mortified. Everyone else at work is already stressed enough with the schedule change. I could never let my sister—or my parents—know how hard it is for me to focus on helping plan their anniversary. And, my friend and I always help each other out, no matter what.”

“Are you saying you’d rather break yourself?” João asked.

“No,” Ramona asserted. “That’s why I feel so stuck.”

“Do you suppose any of these people suspect what you’re going through?” João probed softly.

“At work, no,” Ramona answered immediately. “Well, maybe my manager. He’s pretty perceptive.”

“And your mom, dad, and sister?” João inquired.

“Not my parents,” Ramona said confidently. “Nor my sister.”

“OK,” João said. “And your best friend?”

“She knows work and the party planning are overloading me,” Ramona said. “I’ve been hiding the full extent from her, though. I don’t want her to feel guilty about asking for help.”

 João nodded understandingly. “So, maybe a few people know. A few others might suspect. And, you don’t know any of this for sure,” he summarized.

“That’s right,” Ramona confirmed.

“Can any of them help you if they don’t know what you’re dealing with?” João asked.

“They can’t help anyway,” Ramona stated morosely.

“Can any of them help you if they don’t know what you’re dealing with?” João repeated gently.

“No,” Ramona said.

“Do you want them to help?” João asked.

“I…I don’t know,” Ramona said hesitantly. “I don’t know what will help.”

“Would you like their help, if they have any to offer?” João asked.

“Yes,” Ramona said without hesitation.

“So,” João gently prompted, “what do you need to do?”

“I need to let them know what I’m dealing with,” Ramona sighed. “How do I do that without hurting their feelings?”

“I’ve found three approaches to help,” João answered.

Approach 1: “I need you to know what I’m dealing with”

“The first approach,” João started, “is to simply say, ‘I need you to know what’s I’m dealing with.’”

“That would work with my best friend,” Ramona declared. “I’d say it a little bit differently, though: ‘I know you have a lot going on right now. We’ve always been upfront with each other. I need you to know what’s going on for me.’”

“Perfect,” João celebrated.

Approach 2: “All I need you to do is listen”

“The second approach,” João continued, “is to let them know you don’t need them to do anything except listen.”

“That would work with my sister. And, maybe, my parents,” Ramona said musingly.

“How would you say it to your parents?” João asked.

“’ Mom, Dad, I’m feeling pretty stressed these days. I want to tell you about it. All I need you to do is to listen.’” Ramona proposed. “How does that sound?”

“Simple and clear,” João reinforcingly. “You might consider leaving out  ‘feeling stressed.’ If you lead with that, they may start thinking of solutions. If you leave it out, they’re more likely to start out listening.”

“OK,” Ramona replied, thinking about how to do that. “How about, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to tell you something. All I need you to do is to listen.’”

“That sounds great,” João confirmed. “Nicely put.”

“Thanks,” Ramona glowed.

Approach 3: “Are you open to listening to what’s going on for me?”

“The third approach is to inquire whether they’re open to hearing what you want to say,” João finished.

“But, I thought the whole point here is that I need them to hear?” Ramona asked confusedly.

“It is,” João agreed. “And, if they can’t hear you right now, you may want to wait until they can.”

“What if they never can?” Ramona demanded.

“That can happen,” João allowed.

“How do I know?” Ramona wondered.

“How do you think?” João asked smilingly.

“Ask them,” Ramona said with a bit of a laugh.

“This might work with my manager and with my team,” Ramona suggested. “Let me think….”

Ramona pondered how which words to use.

“I have it,” Ramona said after a minute. “’Do you have time to listen to what’s going on for me?’”

“That’s a good start,” João encouraged. “Would you like a slight tweak?”

“Sure,” Ramona affirmed.

“Try this,” João suggested. “‘Are you open to listening to what’s going on for me?’”

“I’m not sure I understand the difference,” Ramona said questioningly.

“Starting with ‘are you open’ puts them in control,” João explained. “You’re explicitly giving them a choice.”

“Whereas ‘do you have time’ assumes they want to listen,” Ramona continued. “It implies they don’t have a choice.”

“That’s exactly it,” João applauded.

“Cool,” Ramona said.

Feel free to mix and match

“So, that’s your best friend, family, and manager,” João counted off on his fingers. “What about your team?”

“I have an idea for them to run past you,” Ramona said confidently.

“We have unstructured time at the end of our daily sync meetings. I can use that time to say, ‘I’d like to let you all know what’s been going on for me. I don’t need anything from you but your listening. If you’re open to that, stick around. And, if you’re not, you won’t hurt my feelings by leaving.’”

“Combining all three options into one,” João said with a laugh. “I like it. I look forward to hearing how it goes.”

You must let people know

“I still feel pretty stressed about everything,” Ramona said. “I feel much happier, though, now that I have a way to talk about it with everybody.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” João said. “Letting people know is your first responsibility.”

“You said I have two other responsibilities?” Ramona remembered.

“That’s right,” João confirmed. “How about we leave those for next time?”

“Yes, please,” Ramona said relievedly. “I don’t have energy left for anything more today.”

“I’m talking with my sister tonight,” Ramona said, “and then with my friend. I’ll bring this up at my daily team meeting tomorrow, too. So that’ll be three of the four conversations at least started. Thank you for helping make that happen.”

“You’re most welcome,” João replied with a smile. “I look forward to hearing how your conversations go.”

This is part one of a series:

Part 1: Your first responsibility: Tell people what’s going on for you

Part 2: Your second responsibility: Ask for help

Part 3: Your third responsibility: Fulfill your responsibilities

Part 4: Your fourth responsibility: Do what feels right

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