How to damage a valuable professional relationship in 25 minutes or less

Shattering GlassSometimes I semi-jokingly describe my job as sharing about all the fuck-ups and blunders I made in my life. There is some truth to that: I try to be as honest as possible and not paint a nicer picture of myself. I don’t want to present myself with a mask because I have learned that masks are a product of fear. By hiding ourselves behind a so-called acceptable self-image we disconnect from what is real and present ourself in a less than authentic fashion, creating unfreedom for ourselves and deluding others. Also, especially in the case of writing about it on my blog, I have found that sharing a terrible or embarrassing personal situation can bring some other person somewhere on the planet some relief because he or she can relate and doesn’t feel so alone anymore. And it would be nice if at least somebody benefits from the mess I created.


I feel so awful; I can barely make my fingers type up the words. I feel nauseous and ashamed. I feel part apathic, part devastated and scared. On top of that, I am mildly hung-over. I wish I could just crawl under a rock.


The thing is: I didn’t see it coming. Until 2 hours ago I was pretty fine. In my mind there were perhaps 1 or 2 moments that were slightly uncomfortable or awkward on a pretty good day, a pretty successful day even. Actually, it could have been one of the best days of 2014 for me. I am talking about yesterday, Friday 29th of August.


This year has been about learning about how to become a bit more commercially savvy. I have been trying to become better at marketing and sales and tried different strategies and options. I received help from a former participant of one of my mindfulness courses who owns a company that generates sales leads. In return I would coach him and his business partner.  As with pretty much any coaching relationship it has been a rewarding experience. Basically any coaching or workshop situation is just human beings acting like human beings, trying to uncover more of their humanity. In a way you inevitably become friends. Which makes my work awesome of course.


This year these two business partners are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their company, an obvious milestone in their company history. To highlight this moment in time they have decided to create some festivities and celebrations. One of their ideas was to invite one of their most precious clients to a special and unusual day. I was put in charge of the unusual part and was asked to prepare a workshop for 6 people. I was supposed to offer a 3 hour introspective experience. I helped picking out the location, a luxurious penthouse with a view over the local harbour. I hardly received a briefing and didn’t know much about my audience, only that they were typically successful entrepreneurs with a lot of bravado and not necessarily big fans of fluffy bunny stuff like meditation, vulnerability and introspection. It could go either way, I was told. They could laugh off the workshop and start drinking beer, or they might actually enjoy it. It was quite an honorable assignment, if you think of it. It takes courage to expose a valuable relation of yours to a process that potentially can put him in a vulnerable position. You need to really trust the guy who will take care of the process. But I wasn’t too worried. Most of us like the idea of growth and self-improvement. In my experience people like to cooperate, on the condition that the facilitator is trustworthy and capable. I decided I would use their perceived image of being successful entrepreneurs as my hook and theme. I dubbed the workshop “The Quest for Successful Living”.


Yesterday morning started with an early meeting in the center of Amsterdam. That meeting took a little longer than anticipated so I decided to go to the station directly. My workshop was in The Hague. I decided to bring my bike with me on the train and because the weather was nice and I was a little early in The Hague I looked up the address on Google Maps and decided to cycle. Somewhere along the way a girl with a yoga mat strapped to the back of her bike cut me off. Coincidently we met again later. We chatted a bit about yoga and I tell her about the workshop I was about to give. Seemed we had some things in common. In the morning and the day before I had tried to set up a meeting with friends from The Hague as I knew I would quite likely want to chill out a bit after my work was done. Everybody seemed to be quite busy. Long story short: I ask this girl if she had time for a drink at 5 pm. She said yes. I thought: the universe must be smiling at me.


The penthouse looks really nice. My friends are happy with my suggestion because it offered them the opportunity to have their guests also sleep there. Although the place is stylish and luxurious it also carries some ambivalence: is it a home or a workspace? It caters primarily to business people who use the place for presentations and meetings and what not but it has bedrooms too. There is a bit of formality in the air that I will have to live with. I set up a circle of conference chairs in the living room.


It is still windy when I arrive. But as we are waiting on the roof terrace magically the sun comes out. Our guests are delayed but when they arrive the weather has become quite comfortable and the atmosphere is great. Apparently everybody is looking forward to spend a nice time together. I immediately like the two guys who just came in: great sense of humor, firm hand shakes and they just came from the gym. My type of guys.


Lunch is served on the roof terrace. We laugh a lot. Some sort of circle has created itself, everybody is comfortable in his seats and the vibe is informal. I decide we can do the workshop on the roof terrace: accidently we had created the perfect setting. The transition from lunch to workshop is smooth, everybody seems to like it and although I didn’t cover as much terrain as I had planned I am very happy with the insights and openness of my participants. When we are on ¾ of the workshop we have a break and we decide to have a beer (and for the first time ever I have a drink while working). I feel this is appropriate because the event is meant to be informal. The vibe is open, honest, cooperative, relaxed but still concentrated. In other words: perfect. I felt very grateful.


My job is done now. The guys are preparing for a next event. I text the yoga girl I met in the morning. She lives around the corner but has to come from town and needs a bit of time. The guys leave. I rearrange the furniture, putting back the living room in it’s original state and make the room look more organized by moving luggage and shoes of the guests to the side. In the conference room I find some sort of Bose station that can play iTunes and charges your iPhone at the same time. I feel all proud and technical about myself that I am able to get some music out of the speakers. I read for a couple of minutes on my Kindle, feeling pretty happy. Meanwhile staff have arrived, cleaning up the kitchen. Then yoga girl arrives and there is some confusion with the door and the elevator. But one of the kitchen crew helps me opening the door. I show her the apartment and explain on the roof terrace what we had done that day.


About 10 minutes into the conversation I hear my name. The guys have come back from their little powerboat trip. I feel somewhat embarrassed about still being there but we have a drink, say good bye and yoga girl and I go find a nice place to eat. I am still in some kind of victorious mood and want to celebrate my success. Although I am a moderate drinker I even order a whole bottle of more than decent wine. All in all a great day and a great night.


In the morning I try to text my friend. I left my Kindle in de penthouse, I think. Also I wanted to offer my apologies for still being in the apartment, it was not my intention and I don’t want to leave it unsaid. As I am typing he calls me. I am happy to hear him and am relieved I can apologize. But his voice is cold. I ruined their night and I ruined their event, he said. Everybody is angry with me and lost their confidence in me. I am shocked.


This is what they saw when they came back: a rearranged living room, somebody moved their luggage, a woman’s bag and jacket on floor or chair, music playing, my bag on the floor. First thought that came up: is this guy seriously fucking some random girl in our apartment? Second thought, of those who met me for the first time that day: who the hell is this imbecile and why did our hosts hire this freak? Then they find me and her on the roof terrace, oblivious to their thoughts and assumptions. Obviously, this is a pretty devastating and intolerable impression that now has been made. My clients find themselves deeply embarrassed before their guests, all the trust and goodwill I built up during the day and the last months completely evaporated. My reputation is damaged and I possibly even damaged the relationship between my friends and their guests. Instead of leaving people behind with a good and wholesome experience I gave the impression of a guy who can perhaps talk smoothly but acts completely inappropriate and intrusive when you turn your back on him. Being somebody who can’t be trusted: it is my worst nightmare and the biggest sin I can think of in my line of work: breaching the trust of those who confided in you. I feel deeply ashamed for having created the conditions that made such an impression possible and I am very, very sorry for the anger, sadness and disappointment I caused on a day that was supposed to be special.


Now this is horrible but it get’s worse. Here is the really sad part: this didn’t happen to me for the first time! Not exactly this situation but a situation where I cross a line is a reoccurring thing in my life. Not only did it happen to me before, it was exactly this pattern that started my search inwards somewhere in 2002. During that time I had finally gotten the memo that others experienced me as somebody who wasn’t conscious of boundaries. It was very painful to find out I had been hurting people’s feelings without even knowing. Many, many times I must have crossed lines without being aware of it. To find out that yesterday I made the same mistake that I have been working on for the last 14 years floors me. I feel so defeated by my own ego patterns.


There is more: I should have known it could happen. Although I have gotten A LOT better at being sensitive and respecting boundaries I screw up in similar situations: it happens when I am happy and feel completely at ease. Then I can go into ‘carefree mode’ and ‘everything is perfect’. The work is done, I let go of my role as facilitator and I honestly feel like being among old friends. Still, everything is fine. But here is where I go wrong: my ego sneakily blends with my experience of freedom and all of a sudden I grant myself a couple of liberties that I should know not to take by now. These are the moments I can take a beer out of your fridge without asking or make a joke that is just a bit too inappropriate. Or put my feet on the table. It happens rarely nowadays but I have done it all. I should have been warned; my feet are covered with scars from all the self-inflicted gun shot wounds. When I was inviting yoga girl to come inside I knew I was violating my professional integrity. I heard the voice in my head say “ah, a couple of minutes can’t hurt”. That voice was deceptive. As always. It was only a couple of minutes. But it did cause hurt.


I deeply regret violating unspoken rules of privacy, trust and professionalism. What was intended as making a friendly and hospitable impression on a woman became making an intrusive, untrustworthy and inappropriate impression on 5 men I respect and who had put their trust in me. I am very sorry for the damage done and offer my sincerest apologies.


On top of that I think I was friendzoned. Or something.


EDIT: It is now 24 hours later and I slept on the situation. Although I am still very much behind my apologies, wished it had never happened and felt plenty awful about the whole situation for a full day I now also feel it was a ridiculously unlikely chain of coincidences that created this very weird and unfortunate impression. What are the odds that I meet a cute girl on my way to a workshop? What are the odds I actually speak to her and she gives her number? What if she wasn’t late? What if there was no kitchen crew to open the door for her? What if I didn’t play music (and I hardly ever play music)? What if my participants had come in 10 minutes later, right after we had left the space in spic and span shape? On all those occasions the day would have been labeled as ‘successful’ but now it is a ‘failure’. Apparently the Universe conspired in such a way that we all got mingled up in this weird set of coincidences. Apparently some of us/ all of us/ I need this stroke of insane bad luck or perhaps something good will come out of this. Long story short: no murder was committed. I would have preferred to not be the epicenter of such a clusterfuck but c’mon, you gotta admit: it is kinda funny too.

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