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The Pause: Taking a step back to better move forward

Over the past two years in my work as a coach for leaders in the non-profit sector, I have noticed some recurring themes that reflect the challenges of working at this level. While my clients* are passionate and effective in their roles, they are also overstretched, unnecessarily critical, and hard on themselves.

High-stress NGO jobs that deal with front line crisis situations and complex global issues on an almost daily basis are far from easy. Just about everyone is burning the candle at both ends. But there are ways to make this job easier on you. This includes learning to saying no, becoming less judgemental, and exercising self-compassion.

Putting the following three steps into practice might just make you a more mindful and effective leader.

1. Just Say No

Senior leaders in our sector are driven by passion and a sense of urgency. We feel the need to respond to every opportunity or crisis whether or not we have the financial or human resources to do so. We want to dive in, put our expertise to the grindstone, and get the job done!

But wait. A simple practice of taking a pause before saying yes to all the demands that are placed upon us is critical. In fact, consider what saying “no” can allow you to say “yes” to:

more time for another important task; badly needed space to think strategically or consult thoughtfully; or just time to catch up, take a health day, and not think about work on the weekend.

It may feel counterintuitive at first, but saying NO THANK YOU to some of the demands on our time, expertise and resources allows us to say YES to other priorities––those that we set for ourselves on our lifelong journeys. It allows us to stay on our own path, not a path defined by someone else. The first step to saying no is to think long-term: how much will this “urgent request” matter in five or ten years?

2. Don’t Judge

Activists become who they are by judging that something is wrong, and this fuels a sincere commitment to change and the hard work that goes with it. But that judgement can slip into arrogance and self-righteousness if we are not careful. Non-profit organizations are high-stress workplaces, with conflict often arising from different personalities, ego clashes, political or strategic differences, not to mention dynamics around race, gender and class inequality (which require additional strategies to redress).

When our roles (and let’s be honest, sometimes our egos) get stuck in a place of judgment without discernment, our mindset only adds to the negativity: she is incompetent; he refuses to follow the system; would it kill them to meet a deadline.

Take a pause here. When we notice we are in judgement mode, take a moment to step back and rethink what you are seeing. Move into discovery mode, a state of mind that is positive and constructive. The colleague who is incompetent at one thing might be excellent at something else that you may be overlooking. She who cannot master a spreadsheet may have another way that works better for her if you’d only listen. And your assistant who is always late might actually be overworked and is having trouble meeting all of your demands.

As soon as we notice we are in judgement mode, we need to pause and turn our gaze inwards. Why are we so critical? What standards and values are we struggling so hard to meet that we turn our negative energy outward? Are we being controlled by a notion of perfection that is working against us? What is triggering our judgemental mindset?

Try to understand not only why a colleague is behaving a certain way, but also their personal landscape: their culture, assumptions, life experiences, even their toddler’s tantrum that morning. Everything they bring to the job is unique and worth learning from. Replace judgement with curiosity. Ask, don’t tell. Seek and you will find some answers, not only about them, but about yourself.

3. Self-Compassion

Getting stuck saying yes and finding yourself in a state of judgement are negative energies that do us no good. We beat ourselves up for not doing enough; we are devastated when we get turned down for a grant; humiliated when we make a mistake; embarrassed if our presentation is not up to par. On the one hand we suffer from imposter syndrome, on the other we lack humility in our contribution to social change. We feel incompetent because we are not excellent at all the aspects of our job. We take and deliver criticism as an assault rather than a learning opportunity. We’re supposed to be saving the world but all we’re doing is burning bridges.

Here is where you pause! Being kind to others is impossible if we are not kind to ourselves. Treat yourself as you would treat your closest friend facing the same issues. Give your internal critic a name (one client called her Madame La Juge) and push back when she takes over your psyche. You spend your work life in conflict with so many challenges, do you really want to also be in conflict with yourself? You need a you you can rely on, not a you that lets you down time and again with her self-sabotaging.

You didn’t get to where you are by being incompetent or an imposter. So, give yourself a break, take a pause, and appreciate who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing! It’s enough. Not perfect, but enough.

Investing in a custom-designed coaching program that deals specifically with the issues you are facing will pay off over a lifetime––both at work as well as at home with family and friends. At DB Coaching you can choose from single-session programs, to programs that last several months, to something in between. There is a program to suit you––find out more here.

Let’s take a pause and figure this thing out together!


* My clients have been female, mostly in their 30s and 40s and 50s, from a variety of backgrounds and sectors. They have been progressive, well-educated, and highly committed to their jobs and to deep and lasting social and environmental change.


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