Meet Beneath The Boardroom Table

“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sam is an extraordinarily gifted facilitator and coach. His specialty is helping corporations have hard conversations. Let’s face it, people in organizations are no better than people in other forms of relationship at having difficult conversations. Like the rest of us they don’t want to feel uncomfortable so, when discomfort looms, they chatter, that is to say, they avoid, deny, pretend and ignore their distress. When their dis-ease swells to the point of silence, they call Sam.

One day Sam was working with an executive team at a multi-national corporation: people in power suits seated in high-back genuine leather chairs around a larger-than-life, acres-long, mahogany and oak boardroom table. And, although the coffee was served in china cups, the fruit plate was fresh and aesthetic, his clients paid no attention, employing every avoidance strategy in their arsenal: blackberries were clacking and cell phones were binging, assistants were beckoning; status toys are fantastic tools for avoidance. Sam tried everything in his arsenal to crack their citadel of “professionalism.” “Professionalism” is a favorite ruse of businesses to avoid meaningful contact:  under the guise of “professionalism” business folk posture and pretend that they are not comprised of people in relationship; they will, if pushed, cop to being ‘people’ as long as the definition of ‘people’ includes 1) compartmentalizing themselves so that their feelings do not interfere with their powers of reason (thereby rendering themselves less than human), and 2) pretending that they believe #1 is actually plausible; you know, “business is business,” “nothing personal,” and so on. With relationship comes responsibility and responsibility is the last thing most businesses want (the legal department has cautioned against it). To have a meaningful conversation, especially a difficult one, even “professionals” must first entertain the possibility of entering into a relationship. Do you see Sam’s dilemma?

After a morning of extreme executive evasion, in exasperation, Sam did the unthinkable. While the team yammered on about anything other than what they needed to discuss, Sam ever so slowly slid out of his leather power chair until he disappeared from view beneath the table. In the shocked silence that followed, Sam watched all the executive legs fidget until finally one curious face peaked beneath the table. Sam waved and motioned for that person to join him. Then another face, looked. Sam and his new ally waved and motioned and that person slid under the table, too. One by one, all of the power suits slid under the table and joined Sam, leaving their status toys behind. When they were all “under the table,” Sam whispered, “Now that we’re under the table, can we finally begin talking about what’s really going on in this organization?” They laughed together and began a very difficult and honest conversation that addressed the real issues impeding their growth, a conversation that included their feelings.  They left behind their individual stories of blame and victimization and began the process of creating a new narrative together, a narrative that included the possibility of feeling discomfort.

When Sam slid under the table, he cracked their masks of professionalism, neutralized all the roles being played, and removed for a while the status games being waged so that his clients, a group of people in relationship, could reach beyond their compartmentalization and grasp what was personal and relevant about their challenges and their lives. He made them aware of the destructive story they were playing and helped them imagine themselves playing a different story, one that included support and collaboration along with competition and success. I imagine the old story was lonely to play so the new story must have come as somewhat of a relief.

I think of Sam slowly sliding beneath the boardroom table every time my courage fails me and I think I “should do” something “because that’s what is expected” or “it’s the way things are done.” I think of Sam every time I cast a group I am about to engage in the role of “enemy” or convince myself that “they” will meet me with resistance. Any time I stereotype a person or diminish another’s point of view (or my own), I imagine myself sliding down my high-backed red leather chair, surrendering my status, and slipping into the unknown beneath the power table because that’s where the shoes can come off, the collars unbuttoned, and the humans – uncompartmentalized, vulnerable, and responsible to each other – can see beyond their dramas and find each other again.

One Response

  1. I love this 🙂

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