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Conquering People Pleasing

241

March 2024

Angry at himself for continually putting others’ needs before his own, a leader turns to his coach for tools. He learns a new way to think and a behavior to try.

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241

March 2024

Conquering People Pleasing

Tom Henschel

Not thinking much of himself

Noah was pissed at a co-worker named George. At least that’s where he started his story.

“I’ve told you about him, Tom,” he said. “All flash. No substance. Well, he and I were in a client meeting, and it was like he thought he was going to charm their business out of them. He hadn’t done any homework. I couldn’t believe it.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, I couldn’t save his part of the presentation, but mine was buttoned up. Mine always are. You know me, Tom, I always want an A. Which is part of what infuriates me about George. He doesn’t seem to care.”

“Have you talked to him about this?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, that’s what’s really pissing me off. Me! He and I had carpooled, so we were together the whole way back to the office. But did I say anything? No! Did I tell him I was worried about the client? No! Did I tell him how upset I was? No! It was all pouring through my head. But I didn’t say anything.”

He paused. I waited.

He said, “This is what we’ve been talking about, right? The people pleaser in me that just can’t speak up. I must not think very highly of myself.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“I have all these thoughts. All these things I want to say. But I don’t say any of them. If I really thought they were any good, I’d say them, right?”

“Oh!” I said, “You think your ideas aren’t passing some test? That they’re not good enough to be spoken?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Wouldn’t that make sense?”

Feels like family

“Sure, it would,” I agreed. “I’d just been thinking differently. I hadn’t been connecting your not-speaking-up to a low-self esteem issue. I was connecting it to that sense of insecurity you’ve talked about.”

He asked, “Isn’t insecurity a form of low self-esteem?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think people with low self-esteem feel they’re the problem. ‘I’m not worthy of being liked. But the insecurity you’ve talked about sounded different to me, more like, ‘I hope they like me.’ It felt different, kind of optimistic.”

“That’s certainly there,” he said. “I do hope people like me. That’s what freezes me up. I don’t want to upset people, right? Not even freaking featherweight George! And he deserves to be upset!”

“Tell me more about what happened,” I said. “So there you are in the car. Who’s driving, by the way?”

“He was.”

“Okay. So there you are in the passenger seat. All these thoughts are flying around in your head. What’re the thoughts saying?”

“A lot,” he said. “They’re listing all the things that went wrong. All his history of skating on charm. But I’m not his boss. Is it my place to say anything? But am I serving the client, or the agency, if I don’t tell him? The voices are arguing every side.”

“And you’ve been there before?” I asked. “These competing ideas swirling around each other?”

“Are you kidding? I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. Do you remember my mentioning that I think my dad is autistic? Looking back, all his fits and tantrums line up perfectly with autism. But at the time, to me and my siblings, it was just scary as hell. We did whatever we could to keep him from being scary. We were the biggest bunch of people pleasers you’ve ever seen. So all those thoughts pouring through my head? That was survival.”

“So being a people pleaser feels like family,” I said.

He laughed. “Does it ever! We all have it. It’s hilarious now we’re adults. Us trying to pick a restaurant? Oh my gosh, it could be a half-hour sitcom. No one’ll make a decision.”

I nodded. “Everyone puts everybody else’s needs first.”

A way of thinking

He nodded. “When I do it with my siblings, it’s kind of sweet, but when I do it with someone like George? Put his needs before mine? It pisses me off. I don’t want to keep doing it. But I don’t know what to do instead. Do you have tools around people pleasing?”

I said, “Well, I can tell you what made a difference for me. I used to be a world-class people pleaser. And now I’m not. I can think of two things that made a difference for me.”

“That’d be great,” he said.

I said, “One is a way of thinking, and one is a behavior.”

“Okay,” he said, organizing his mental folders.

I said, “The way of thinking is this: there is a voice inside me that knows things. This voice knows what I want. What I really want, not what I say I want. If I want to say what I really want, I’d need to let that voice speak. But so far I haven’t because it probably would not please people. But this way of thinking says that is the job. Your job in this way of thinking is to pay attention to the voice that names your wants. Focus on it. Try and hear what it’s telling you.”

In full understanding, he said, “Which could feel so selfish. ‘How dare you put your needs first?’”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It is hard to put your needs first. It means your ideas count. Your opinions matter. That’s hard for people pleasers.”

He said, “So this way of thinking you’re talking about starts with the premise that the voice is there. And my job is to learn how to dial into it.”

“That’s it exactly,” I said.

“How would I know if it happens?” he asked.

‘What do I want in this situation?’

“That’s a good question,” I answered. “I know one thing that shifted when I could actually hear that voice of mine: conflict. When I’m in a situation that feels like conflict, I ask myself, ‘What do I really want in this situation?’ I dial into that voice and listen to my wants. That voice becomes my guide, so the conflict is pretty easy. I know what I want and I’m either going to get it or I’m not. My feelings might be hurt, or I may be disappointed, but I don’t feel diminished. I don’t shrink because I didn’t get what I want. There’s another want right behind that one, so I just ask the question again. ‘What do I really want in this situation?’ Keep on plugging away.”

I could see him thinking. He said, “I don’t know if that question would help me. I overthink things so badly. I can argue an idea’s brilliant one second and stupid the next. It happens with people, too. I get influenced by different people on different sides of a situation. I can make the case for any of them. It’s exhausting.”

“But what’s the case for you?” I asked. “What happens when you focus on your case instead of theirs?”

He said, “That would be asking that question, right? What do I really want? I don’t know what happens. I’ve never done it. I’ll try it and let you know. Thanks. But there was something else, too, right?”

“Right, a second thing that helped me shed my people pleasing. This one is a behavior. At least, that’s how I thought of it. It’s the act of saying ‘no.’”

He said, “Really? Are you serious? My wife pushed me so hard about saying ‘no’ with the kids. I knew she was right, but, man, it was hard. It was hard having little girls be mad at me. But I understood why saying ‘no’ sometimes is the right thing to do. Now, I do it pretty easily, most of the time. My girls are teenagers now so it’s more complicated but saying ‘no’ is still at the heart of it.”

“It’s the opposite of people pleasing, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Right! I am not a people pleaser with my girls. Not anymore. Well, that’s not a hundred percent true. But, no, mostly I can hold my position with them.”

Saying ‘no’

“Good for you, Noah. So here’s a question. If you can say ‘no’ with your daughters and not collapse into people pleasing, what stops you from saying ‘no’ with someone like George?”

“Other than a basic fear of conflict? I’m not sure.”

“But that’s a good answer,” I said. “You don’t like conflict, you don’t say ‘no.’ Makes sense. So this suggestion, this behavior of saying ‘no’ might be really uncomfortable for you.”

“Like it was at first with the girls,” he said.

“At first. Right,” I agreed. “You built the strength a little at a time. I think that’s how any of us develop any of these muscles. I saw a guy do it not that long ago. This poor guy. He’s so overworked and he never says no to anything. Then one day he decided he wasn’t going to do any email before 9:00 in the morning. He said ‘no.’ And he worried it was going to make trouble, but nothing happened. And he was like, “Huh! Maybe I could say ‘no’ to more things!’ His little experiment worked. And the people pleaser in him relaxed a little. From saying ‘no.’”

He smiled and said, “I did something sort of like that a couple weeks ago. I declined a meeting. I was expecting blowback but nothing happened.”

“Which doesn’t mean no one noticed,” I observed.

“Oh, thanks! Are you saying I should have been a people pleaser and shown up?”

“No, I’m saying that when we start saying ‘no,’ people often notice. I’m not saying they’d be angry. They might say, ‘It’s about time!’ I don’t know. But if you change how you show up, I hope people do notice!”

Noah struggled to hear his inner voice. He was not always sure what he really wanted. But he found himself able to say ‘no’ to a lot of things, which felt, to him, like The Look & Sound of Leadership.

Core Concepts:
  • People pleasers have trouble speaking up for themselves.
  • People pleasers often feel uncertain about what they want.
  • People pleasers may need to learn to hear the voice that names their wants.
  • Knowing what you want can change how you approach conflict.
  • Setting limits (saying ‘no’) can be uncomfortable for people pleasers.

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