What does coaching have in common with classic 80s movies? There are some amazing lessons in 80s  teen movies: not just ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ (Breakfast Club) or  ‘be true to yourself and not try to be something you’re not ‘(Some Kind of Wonderful). 

The one I’m often referring to is Dirty Dancing, and not because of its theme of self discovery. Nor because it’s a cautionary tale on the dangers of judging others or even because of the strangely hypnotic power of a young Patrick Swayze. It also has nothing to do with watermelons (sadly).  Picture the scene where Johnny is drilling Baby on her posture:

This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into your dance space and you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame’

And there is the lesson. There’s something very powerful in keeping the integrity of your dance space which boosts your resilience, helps you stay focused, and makes for a smoother day. I’ll explain:

Imagine you are going about your day and a colleague, family member, friend is not having such a good one. They, unconsciously or consciously, send their emotional ‘stuff’ to you, by being aggressive, defensive, passive aggressive, or simply just exuding negativity (which we all do sometimes).

Often, we take on this ‘stuff’ without questioning it, whether that’s absorbing the negative vibes, or fully taking on board feedback sent across the ether fuelled by emotion, not level-headedness. We do it all the time.

But, and this is the important bit, we have a choice about whether we accept that stuff, whether we welcome it into our dance space, or whether we say quite firmly, to ourselves preferably, ‘No. That’s your stuff, it stays in your dance space.’ Which means, ‘until you come to me with some well constructed feedback, delivered in an unemotional way, this is Not about me, it is about you, and it should remain owned by you.’

We can do this in a very empathetic and supportive way: ‘It sounds like you’re having a nightmare, can I get you a cup of tea?’ , ‘what do you need from me right now?’ or ‘I’m sorry you’re having a difficult time’. Notice how in none of these are you taking responsibility for the ‘stuff’ but you’re being your usual lovely, helpful self. You can be supportive and help them deal with their stuff without letting it encroach even one inch into your dance space.

Holding your frame also helpfully avoids the situation a friend used to call ‘pass the cr*p’ which is when you take on board someone else’s emotional load, then unfortunately have to discharge it somewhere, so unwittingly pass it onto someone else by being emotional, upset, aggressive, and so on. (Any parents who have come home after a hard day at work and ended up shouting at the kids will relate to this!)

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • The bus driver is grumpy, he’s having a bad day. Was this the way I boarded the bus? Is he cross because I’ve got a buggy and there’s no room?

Pause. Hold your frame. That’s his ‘stuff’ – it should stay in his dance space.

  • Your boss is clanging about the office with a face like thunder, and now she’s just disappeared into a room with another manager, OMG are they talking about me?

Pause.  Your boss’s mood is her stuff, until she tells you otherwise. Let it stay in her dance space.

  • One of your relatives makes disapproving noises about your next potential career move, and gives you some advice based on their own experience, which to your mind is quite a narrow view. Do you a) obsess about their advice, and worry that by not taking it you are somehow disrespecting them or do you b) hold your frame, acknowledge their kind contribution but let their own experience, and views, stay firmly in their dance space?

Just visualising your frame and the dance space around you when you’re in meetings with colleagues you find challenging, or in conversations you think might be hard, can help you not take on any more of the emotional baggage than you need to. Your head will be clearer, your confidence will retain its integrity and the days will be smoother.

Here are some exercises which might help:

  • Notice what happens to your when you are on the receiving end of emotional stuff? What happens in your body? Where do you feel it? Get in touch with that place and learn to recognise when one of your buttons has been pressed. You can choose to act on that or not.
  • Practice some phrases that have integrity for you, which you can use to gently bat things back into the other person’s dance space. There are a couple of examples above, but find what works for you.
  • Practice what you want to say to yourself in this situation, for example ‘I hear you, and I’m sorry you feel this way, but this is your stuff which you can keep in your space. I’m keeping
    my space full of flowing, positive energy’. Or whatever feels good to you.

Hold your frame, visualise your dance space and let me know how you get on!

I hope you find this useful, please look out for my upcoming blog on ‘receiving feedback and staying sane’, which will introduce a complementary metaphor to help you in when feedback is given, whether it was asked for or not.

I’m Jennifer McCanna, a leadership, team and career coach who works with individuals to help them perform better and feel more fulfilled.  Read more about 1-1 coaching sessions, one off workshops and longer management development programmes. Get in touch to discuss you or your organisation’s needs. You can also follow me at www.fb.com/mccannacoaching, or on Twitter @jenthecoach