The Fine Line Between Oversharing and Undersharing As a Leader

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This is a guest post written by Toni Nieuwhof.  Toni and Carey Nieuwhof met in law school and have been married for three decades. Toni is the author of Before You Split: Find What You Really Want For The Future Of Your Marriage (available for pre-order).

How much of your personal story should you share with your audience or congregation?

It’s a great question and a tough one. Some leaders overshare. Others hardly ever share anything personal. Both are traps.

There are a few things that you and I have discovered are true about emotional pain:

  • Pain is self-absorbed or selfish.
  • Pain is urgent; it demands your attention.
  • Pain is an effective teacher (way more effective than comfort or pleasure).

Sharing the learnings that your journey through emotional pain taught you may be so helpful for others. We all need guides who are a few steps ahead.

But, the self-focus and the sense of urgency associated with emotional pain can mislead you into thinking that you have a message for your followers, or the public, that needs to get out there NOW.

Your motives are good: you want to be real. You know that suffering in isolation is unhealthy. Maybe you want to let others know that they’re not alone in the ways they’re suffering when no one else is looking.

Perhaps this isn’t your problem, but you’re seeing it in someone close to you. You haven’t stopped to articulate why this is bothering you so much.

Recognize These?

Let’s look at a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

Tania is a friend of a friend on social media. She’s had years of tension and distress in her marriage, and every once and a while she posts about it in a moment of crisis. For example, she wrote “I don’t understand why he’s always ‘my way or the highway.’ I don’t get how he can be so mean to me. What did I do to deserve this?” While venting may serve a purpose, venting on social media doesn’t make it through the filter of ‘will what I’m posting be helpful for others?’ This kind of venting is more likely to lead to confusion, a sense of betrayal and divisiveness.

Jake is a leader who’s gained a profile and he guests on podcasts. He recently said on an interview, “Our CEO decided not to close our operations to the public during this local crisis in the pandemic, and personally I think he made a big mistake. He didn’t take into account how critical it is to our company’s goodwill to be seen to be community- minded…”. While pushing back on the senior leader’s decision is critical to an organization’s success overall, doing so in public does more harm than good. Public disloyalty is a problem of character.

Your character as a leader will make or break you, much more so than your skills or competency.

The problem is not that you, or your friend, is poorly motivated, or lacks good intentions. The problem is one of timing and wisdom. Personal pain needs to be processed before you can gain perspective.

You need time to wrestle through the source of your pain, your responses to it and the impacts on your relationships with others before the redemptive aspects of the story emerge.

Just as an unmatured wine leaves a bad taste in your mouth, so does oversharing pain in public too early.

Three Clarifying Questions

Okay, so how low is low enough? When do you know you’ve worked through your pain to the point where you have something valuable to offer your audience?

Three questions to ask:

  1. Have you reached the point of perspective? Can you both recognize and articulate a redemptive aspect of your crisis, issue or problem?
  2. Have you made the decision to forgive, and moved a significant way along the forgiveness journey? Are bitterness, resentment and contempt dealt with? In regard to the person or people who hurt you, are you reconciled, or if you’ve had to release them, can you sincerely wish them well?
  3. Have you tested out your message on a small (but representative of your audience) group of people? (note here: I’m not asking whether you’ve tested out your message only on the cheerleaders around you. Present your message to some people who are not invested in you or your community’s success) Did your message resonate? In what ways did they find it helpful?

Here’s Our Example:

I’ve recently written a book about marriage in which I share stories about the painful season of my marriage with Carey. I also share some perspectives I gained through my work as a divorce attorney. Here’s a short excerpt from Before You Split:

This day’s argument followed the same old pattern. I got upset over something Carey said and shut down. Carey responded by trying, progressively more insistently, to provoke a response from me. The more he tried, the more upset I became. The angrier I felt, the more I withdrew into my silent and zoned-out world. And then at some point, I would break the silence and explode into either anger or tears. It was as though this pattern had worn a rut so deep, neither of us could steer us out of it. We were stuck.

This day I gave up holding them back. Once again, more tears. Head tilted toward the passenger window, I watched as drops patterned the sleeve of my navy suit. I looked at my hands clenched in my lap. Gripped with despair, I pulled at my wedding ring and forced it off my finger.

“There,” I said, throwing the ring on the floor at Carey’s feet. “You have it. I don’t want it anymore.”

So, how does this public sharing of our marriage struggles meet the above tests? Well, first, this story in the excerpt happened about 15 years ago. Since then, we took the long, slow journey to uncover the root causes of our angst and our mutual grievances.

When we were in the midst of our rough days, we didn’t share about it from the platform. We also didn’t talk about it in mid-size groups, because at that point, all we had to share was the intense pain we were both in. Only our few closest friends and our counsellors knew what was going on.

Gratefully, we agree that after all these years our marriage has gone from that bad to this good.

In regard to the second, it took us time to authentically forgive each other for the hurts of the past, but also to learn to consistently practice forgiveness. If we’d tried to share our learnings about marriage before reconciling in a heartfelt way, our unresolved resentment or bitterness would have leaked out.

And to address the third test, there’s a group of about 30 people who read Before You Split and provided detailed feedback before the book was typeset.

We’re all being touched by broad sweeps of communicating like never before. In this context, you have a choice. We’re all seeing that there’s a lot of pain in this world. You can add to the burden of it. Or you can add to pain’s redemption. Let’s choose the latter.

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