What the heck just happened? The impact of unseen forces at work

Blog | November 2, 2021

Have you been in a conversation like this before?

You’re talking with your stakeholder Susan about a project that’s falling further and further behind.

You ask for more details about Susan’s team’s input—and suddenly, Susan starts shifting from side to side, looking away and giving vague, non-answers—when usually, she’s as frank and to the point as you are. 

You are baffled but even more confused by your own reaction: Susan’s vagueness has inexplicably enraged you. Jaw clenched and heart pounding in her chest, you fight the urge to yell. 

Before things escalate any further, Susan mumbles a quick excuse and jumps off the call.

You close your screen in a daze, feeling like you have whiplash:

What the heck just happened??

Why was Susan suddenly so weird? 

How did that conversation go so bad, why am I so freaking angry right now? 

Whether you were Sam or Susan in this conversation is irrelevant. The point is, it’s not just you

Your shadows are dancing

The term “shadow” was first introduced to Western psychology by Carl Jung, who defined it as the unconscious and disowned parts of our personalities that we fail to see, acknowledge, and accept.

And when our unconscious and disowned parts bump up against someone else’s—that’s when our shadows “dance.” (If your curiosity is piqued, you can learn more here.) 

These types of inexplicable interactions happen more often than you think, as each person’s unconscious parts are deeply present in the room and—most critically—inform behavior.

Let’s take the situation above. And let’s assume, as would be expected for most of our coworkers, we have no idea WHAT Susan’s previous history includes. (All we know is that we ALL have them.)

What we CAN see is that this conversation triggered responses that had nothing to do with the issue at hand and everything to do with prior events that still carried an emotional imprint. 

Simply being aware that unconscious patterns drive behavior reminds us that we have more power than we think we do. 

We do NOT have to remain helpless in the face of past histories and triggers. We don’t have to buy into the story. We have a choice as to how we respond.

When you notice that you’re feeling off-kilter, or like a situation or conversation just gave you whiplash (all signs that your unconscious is getting in the driver’s seat), here are some things you can ask yourself:

What about that interaction bothered me? What really upset me?

Then, really listen to your inner dialogue. Like: I didn’t feel heard. I felt like my voice didn’t matter.

Start to pay attention to any themes. Is this a thought or feeling you have often?

This is part of building self-awareness. 

Then take it next level, putting yourself in the shoes of the other person in this triggering interaction: 

What if they felt the same way? 

What would you want to do for them, to help them feel differently, and more at ease?

What would you have wanted them to do to put you at ease?

This is not something that comes overnight. These are practices to begin incorporating; this is just the starting point. So don’t worry about knowing the right thing to do or having all the answers. (In fact, it’s best if you don’t.) 

As a leader, recognizing when “dancing shadows” is happening is a critical tool for success. It allows you to realize when your own stories and patterns may be in the driver’s seat, how not to take someone’s reaction personally, and quickly defuse a situation before it escalates.

This is where a relationship with a coach is helpful, especially a coach well-versed in awareness, interpersonal dynamics, and the EQ required to be an impactful leader. Want to learn more? Schedule a complimentary discovery call today.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant