What Deep Support Looks Like

“What does deep support for onlyness look like?” a colleague emailed.

I wanted to write back, isn’t it obvious?!

But then different stories popped to mind. Between friends, and colleagues. With different bosses and companies. And the reality was, it’s never obvious. Not only is it hard to know at the beginning of any relationship if it’ll be a source of deep support, but what makes something “deeply supportive” is also deeply contextual.

One experience from 10 years back is a perfect example.

A colleague with whom I had worked with for 5 or so years were very close. We had spent many months together, including a lot of weekends redesigning an entire company’s multi-billion dollar sales model. Something about seeing your colleague in their sweats and sweating over excel spreadsheets 18 hour-a-day, day after day, is its own special kind of corporate bonding. But our relationship was based on even more than sweating strategy. During one plane ride to figure out an acquisition strategy, this colleague seemed a little melancholy. So I asked her out of curiosity: what if anything is missing from your incredible life? The next morning she said my question had kept her up all night; she had called her husband in the morning to tell him and now I was the second person to learn… she really wanted a baby. I asked, immediately, how can I support you. And, so she did a big ask. I covered her VP operations role for a few months (with her CEO’s permission) while she traveled around the world with her executive husband to get pregnant. This commitment meant I couldn’t do my own work of leading a firm, but I was so sure I wanted to support her. After all, she and I seemed to really get each other, lean on each other and trusted each other.

We had the kind of relationship that I would have described as “deep support” of each others’ onlyness.

If this were a made-for-tv drama, this is where the music soundtrack would change. Because, later, when I had to fold the tech company, Rubicon, that I had founded 10 years prior, I experienced something that really changed this take.

Like her situation with the baby, she was nearly the first person who learned I was going to close something I had built from the ground up.  I told her what was true for me. That I had no idea what I was going to do next, that I was scared at the future and mad at the circumstances, and mostly tired as all hell. (What I was telling all my friends back then is that I thought my career was over. As in, over, over. I might still do some good here and there, but I wasn’t going to have an operational role anytime soon. And, once you get off the mainline flow of tech stuff, I wouldn’t be able to come back.)

How would I earn money, she asked? The only thing I could name was that I might speak professionally since I was always being asked to use that particular gift to help leaders and companies move forward. She was deeply perplexed by this answer, which was (admittedly) full of my own doubts. I’ll never forget the disparaging tone she used when she said, ” So … you’ll become a talking head?!”

And to be 100% honest, I couldn’t really answer. I mean, what did I know then? Nothing. So, maybe I would become a talking head.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

My company had just folded, my personal life was falling apart…and I didn’t even know back then what it meant to make speaking a core part of one’s work.

But what I did know was that her comment hurt. It suggested that by leaving the role and job I had been doing, I would be losing everything I was (competent, solutions creator, outcomes-oriented), and I would become …vapid.

Seen in a positive light, she was encouraging me to keep doing what I had already done, successfully.

But seen thru the prism of onlyness, she was filtering the value of the person by the role they played… not seeing, ney valuing the distinct person.

It’s good to be seen and celebrated for any role you fill, or when you do the particular role well.
But it is profound to be seen as the person you are.

It’s clear the difference between no support and support: there are those who stand with you to support and help you be stronger. But the difference between support and deep support is more nuanced, more relational. To be deeply supported, someone must bear witness to the singularly distinct person you are, to see your onlyness.

As I’ve written before, When we are witness onlyness, we play a crucial role to experience the person, as they are, and also as they become who they will be. Because onlyness is a combination of one’s history and experience as well as one’s visions and hopes. Onlyness is not the confines of the past; it is the well from which we draw and create our future. When we do it well, we do not change a person in our witnessing, imposing or confining them by our understanding of who they are. Being supportive means letting that person know that they matter and it matters to us that they become more of whom they are meant to be. Without witnesses, we have no one watching us grow… into whom we are becoming. Without support, we cannot take the risks to become distinctly ourselves.

Those who stand with you, as you stand in that spot in the world where ONLY you can…. even as you are changing. THAT’s deep support. Deep support is what lets you be more deeply who you are. Deep support lets you be fully alive. Deep support is what then lets you figure out that — even as the situation changes — ways you can contribute that which ONLY you can to add value to the world.

2 Responses:

  1. Dan Oestreich. January 18, 2019 at 8:30 am  

    This is beautifully said. I love where you come out, in part reflecting that providing deep support also draws on the onlyness of the supporter. Different wells, same water?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 31, 2019 at 12:32 pm  

      What a lovely metaphor, Dan. I am sorry I didn’t see your note until today (how did I miss it) but I’ll never forget this visual now that you’ve placed it inside my heart. Thanks, N

      Reply

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