Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.
People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.
I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.
Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:
1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room. Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.
2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.
3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)
4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)
5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.
6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)
With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.
I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.
Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.
For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.
There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.
In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:
- When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
- If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
- Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
- Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
- The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
- Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
- When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.
This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.
After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)
- the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
- a bell
- an assortment of talking pieces
- a tablecloth
- an assortment of teas
- a candle holder and candles
- a box of tissue
- an envelope with the group’s funds
Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.
There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.
It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.
There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.
We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.
If you’re ever in Winnipeg on a Thursday evening, we’d love to have you join us!
If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:
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“But it hurts if I open it too much.”
That’s what I hear, in some form or another, every time I teach my Openhearted Writing Circle or host openhearted sharing circles.
People show up in those places hopeful and longing for openness, yet wounded and weary and unsure they have what it takes to follow through. They want to pour their hearts onto the page, to share their stories with openness and not fear, to live vulnerably and not guarded, and yet… they’re afraid. They’re afraid to be judged, to be shamed, to be told they’re not worthy, to be told they’re too big for their britches. They’ve been hurt before and they’re not sure they can face it again.
And every time, I tell them some variation of the following…
An open heart is not an unprotected heart.
You have a right, and even a responsibility, to protect yourself from being wounded. You have a right to heal your own wounds before you share them with anyone. You have a right to guard yourself from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You have a right to keep what’s tender close to your heart.
Only you can choose how exposed you want to make your tender, open heart. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.
Yes, I advocate openhearted living, because I believe that when we let ourselves be cracked open – when we risk being wounded – our lives will be bigger and more beautiful than when we remain forever guarded. As Brene Brown says, our vulnerability creates resilience.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and expose ourselves unnecessarily to wounding.
Our open hearts need protection.
Our vulnerability needs to be paired with intentionality.
We, and we alone, can decide who is worthy of our vulnerability.
We choose to live with an open heart only in those relationships that help us keep our hearts open. Some people – coming from a place of their own fear, weakness, jealousy, insecurity, projection, woundedness, etc. – cannot handle our vulnerability and so they will take it upon themselves to close our hearts or wound them or hide from them. They are not the right people. They are the people we choose to protect ourselves from.
Each of us needs to choose our own circles of trust. Here’s what that looks like:
In the inner circle, closest to our tender hearts, are those people who are worthy of high intimacy and trust. These are the select few – those who have proven themselves to be supportive enough, emotionally mature enough, and strong enough to hold our most intimate secrets. They do not back down from woundedness. They do not judge us or try to fix us. They understand what it means to hold space for us.
In the second circle, a little further from our tender hearts, are those people who are only worthy of moderate intimacy and trust. These are the people who are important to us, but who haven’t fully proven themselves worthy of our deepest vulnerability. Sometimes these are our family members – we love them and want to share our lives with them, but they may be afraid of how we’re changing or how we’ve been wounded and so they try to fix us or they judge us. We trust them with some things, but not that which is most tender.
In the third circle are those who have earned only low levels of intimacy and trust. These are our acquaintances, the people we work with or rub shoulders with regularly and who we have reasonably good relationships with, but who haven’t earned a place closer to our hearts. We can choose to be friendly with these people, but we don’t let them into the inner circles.
On the outside are those people who have earned no intimacy or trust. They may be there because we just don’t know them yet, or they may be there because we don’t feel safe with them. These are the people we protect ourselves from, particularly when we’re feeling raw and wounded.
People can move in and out of these circles of trust, but it is US and ONLY us who can choose where they belong. WE decide what boundaries to erect and who to protect ourselves from. WE decide when to allow them a little closer in or when to move them further out.
How do we make these decisions? We learn to trust our own intuition. If someone doesn’t feel safe, we ask ourselves why and we trust that gut feeling. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and sometimes people will let us down, but with time and experience, we get better at discerning who is safe and who is not.
We also have to decide what to share in each level of the circle, but that’s a longer discussion for another blog post. For now I’ll simply say…
Trust your intuition. Don’t share what is vulnerable in a situation that feels unsafe. Erect the boundaries you need to erect to keep your tender heart safe. Let people in who have your best interest at heart.
This article has been voluntarily translated into Farsi.
If you want to explore your own open heart, you’re welcome to join an Openhearted Writing Circle, or consider booking a coaching session. For a self-guided journey to your own heart, consider The Spiral Path, which remains open until the end of February.
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“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” ― William Hazlitt
The wedding I officiated on the weekend took place in a circle. The bride and groom and I stood in the centre, with the guests gathered around us.
After I had shared a few words of wisdom about marriage, I read a blessing and then passed a talking piece (a stone on which I’d printed their names) around the circle inviting each person to speak their own one-sentence blessing to the couple. If they didn’t feel comfortable speaking, they had the option to simply hold the stone for a moment and offer an unspoken blessing.
It was a beautiful and simple ritual that felt like the couple was being held in a giant container of love by their community.
As I said in this piece last November, the talking piece isn’t magic, but “what IS magic is the way that it invites us to listen in ways we don’t normally listen and speak in ways we don’t normally speak.”
When a talking piece goes around the circle, the person who holds it is invited to “speak with intention”. Everyone else is invited to “listen with attention” and not interrupt or ask questions. Everyone in the conversation is invited to “tend the well-being of the circle”. (Those are the three practices of The Circle Way.)
A talking piece conversation has a unique quality to it. There is more listening, less interrupting, more pausing, and, almost always, more vulnerability than ordinary conversations. Yes, some people get nervous about the talking piece (because it puts them on the spot and feels like pressure to say something important), but when they get used to it, (and when they realize that anyone is welcome to pass the talking piece without speaking) almost everyone acknowledges that the talking piece brought something special into the space that they’ve rarely experienced before.
The talking piece is not meant for every conversation, but I believe it should play a more significant role in many of our conversations. Here’s why:
1. The talking piece invites us to listen much more than we talk. When in a circle with a dozen people, I have to listen twelve times as much as I talk. That’s a very good practice. Listening opens our hearts to other people’s stories. It invites our over-active minds and mouths to pause and be present for people who need to be witnessed. And when it’s our turn to talk, we know that we are being listened to just as intently.
2. The talking piece encourages us to get out of “fix-it” mode. When a friend shares a problem with us, it usually feels more comfortable to jump in with a solution than to sit and really listen. But unless that friend has asked for advice, what she/he probably needs more than anything is a listening ear. The talking piece doesn’t allow us to interrupt with our version of “the truth”. Often, simply because they’ve been heard in a deeper way than they’re used to, people walk away from the circle having figured out their OWN solutions for their problems.
3. The talking piece makes every voice equal. Nobody has the podium in a circle. Nobody stands on a stage. Each voice makes a valuable contribution to the conversation and none is more important than the others. With so many race issues happening recently (especially in the U.S. and Canada), I like to imagine what might happen if more people were to sit in circle with people of different races. What if we mandated interracial circle conversations for every high school student? What if students couldn’t graduate unless they’d spent time learning to listen to stories told by people who are different from them? What if Dylan Roof, for example, had sat in a weekly circle listening to stories from the black community? Might that have changed last week’s outcome?
4. The talking piece invites us more physically into the conversation. There’s something special about holding an object in your hand that has been passed there from hand to hand around the circle. It invites us to be present in not just our heads but in our bodies. It invites us to sink physically into the conversation, engaging in a deeper way because our hands are engaged along with our hearts.
5. The talking pieces creates the silence into which open hearts dare to speak. There’s a level of vulnerability that shows up in the circle that is rarely present in other conversations. Because the talking piece invites us to slow down and be more intentional, we don’t just talk about the weather or yesterday’s shopping trip. We talk about things that are real and we show up authentically for each other.
Have you had experience with a talking piece? I’d love to hear about it.
If you haven’t experienced it yet, don’t be afraid to try. Yes, you might get some funny looks from your family or friends when you pull out a stone, a stick, or even a pen and invite them to pass it around the circle, but there’s a very good chance – if they’re openhearted and authentic – that they will be surprised at what it brings to the conversation.
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Not long ago, I taught a storytelling workshop in a corporate environment. As is the case with almost all of my workshops, we gathered the participants in circle and started by passing the talking piece and inviting each person to share one personal story. Since much of the work this organization is involved in is conservation-related, I asked them to share a story about something they enjoyed doing outdoors – either as a child or as an adult.
When the talking piece (a simple stone with the organization’s logo on it) had almost completed the circle, one of the last people to hold it said “Is this talking piece magic or something? I now know more about the people in this circle than I’ve known in all the years I’ve worked here!”
When the stone came around to me, I spoke to his comment. “No, it’s not magic in and of itself. It’s just an ordinary stone.” I said. “What IS magic, though, is the way that the talking piece invites us to listen in ways we don’t normally listen and speak in ways we don’t normally speak.”
When a talking piece goes around the circle, only the person holding it speaks. Everyone else is silent and attentive. Even though you may be tempted to interject – to offer advice, another version of the story, or your own story to top what’s been said – you must wait until the stone circles around to you before you can speak. By then, your need to interject into someone else’s story is usually silenced and you speak instead from your own story.
What results is a space where each story is heard in its entirety without crosstalk, correction, or advice.
That’s a powerful notion. It doesn’t happen often in our day-to-day conversations. Pay attention the next time you are chatting with your friend, partner, child, or parent. Do you listen to their WHOLE story without interrupting? Do you let them share sad moments without rushing to fix them? Do you honour their story with attentive listening?
Brene Brown teaches that our need to fix other people is our own “defense against vulnerability”. In other words, when you share something hard with me and I am quick to offer advice on how to resolve that hard thing, I’m doing so because I don’t want to be vulnerable, I don’t want to enter into that hard place with you, and I don’t want to admit that I don’t have all the answers.
Peter Block went even further in a talk I heard him give a few years ago. “Helping is an act of violence,” he said, and then went on to explain that our efforts to help other people are often unwelcome attempts to change or fix something they haven’t given us permission to change. By fixing a problem we haven’t been invited to fix, we are violating that person. Instead we must learn to sit with them in the problem while they work to find their way through.
“Speak with intention. Listen with attention.” That’s what The Circle Way teaches us. It doesn’t say “listen in order to fix” or “listen only until you have a chance to interject” or “speak with the purpose of outshining everyone”.
When I sit in a circle with a dozen other people, I need to be prepared to listen 12 times as much as I talk – even when I’m the teacher. And when I am listening, I need to do so in attentive silence, holding their story as sacred and valuable rather than as something that needs fixing.
The more I practice The Circle Way in my work, the more it is influencing the way I interact with people in my life. I don’t get it right all the time (just ask my daughters or husband!), but I’m a work in progress.
If you want to bring the circle into your own life, here are a few things to consider:
- The next time someone shares a story with you, whether in person or on Facebook, honour their story with intentional listening. Pretend they’re holding a talking piece and wait your turn.
- Do not offer advice unless it’s been specifically requested.
- Do not try to smooth over someone’s grief or pain with platitudes about how it will get better. Just be present in the moment with them.
- When you gather with friends or family, try passing a talking piece (anything can be used – I’ve used pens, leaves, sticks, and even a small statue in the spur of the moment) so that each person’s story can be heard.
Want to know more about The Circle Way? Ask me! I’m part of an international network involved in this work, and would be happy to talk about upcoming workshops that I and/or my colleagues are offering.
Nobody told me about the loneliness.
Nobody told me that growth can leave you feeling like you’ve stepped out onto a dock all alone and nobody’s there to reach out a hand to steady you when the waves come. Nobody mentioned that the friends who surrounded you on the shore can feel suddenly distant and unavailable.
Nobody talks about it because you’re supposed to be able to figure this stuff out. You’re supposed to know how to get your sea legs, how to walk without wobbling. You’re supposed to be independent in this new growth of yours and not need people as much as you did before.
Nobody talks about it and so you don’t talk about it either. Because you don’t want to be the only one standing out there looking lost and bewildered while everyone else stands confidently. There’s some shame in turning back to those friends on the shore and saying “Look, I’ve grown… but I’m lonely.” There’s even more shame in looking across at the other docks at the people who’ve also grown but seem so much more sure-footed and saying “Ummm… I know we’re supposed to figure this stuff out on our own, but I’m feeling a little lost. Can you come over here for awhile and hold me until I get my sea legs?”
It’s happened to me every time there’s been growth in my life.
The first time loneliness really hit me was when I became a mother. Suddenly all my single friends no longer understood what I was going through and they were still busy doing what single people do while I was fumbling my way through diapers and sleepless nights. I didn’t know how to make new friends in this foreign world of motherhood, and I was pretty sure all the other moms must have been privy to some insider knowledge about how to do this motherhood thing that I didn’t have. I was afraid to admit how lost I was. I remember tentatively reaching out to one mom and trying to admit how I was feeling and she looked at me with what I interpreted as judgement for how inept I was, but was probably a look of understanding mixed with her own fear of admitting how lost she was. I was more reluctant to reach out again after that.
The next time the loneliness hit me was only a couple of years later when I became a senior manager for the first time. Suddenly I was set apart from all of the colleagues and friends that had been my peers just days before. Suddenly I wasn’t let in on the office gossip anymore or invited to the after-work drink dates quite as often. I was a leader now – I was supposed to be self-sufficient and confident and I wasn’t supposed to admit that I was in over my head and really needed some friends to remind me what I was capable of.
Once again, I didn’t know where to turn. I tried to reach out to other managers to form a support group or conversation circle, but there was little reception. They were either too busy trying to maintain their confident leader personas or they’d found other ways of getting the support they needed.
It took a long time, but gradually I found a little support. I started having lunch dates with my friend Susan, one of the only other senior managers I could find who was willing to be vulnerable enough to admit that she didn’t have this leadership stuff all figured out. And then one day I found myself at Authentic Leadership in Action Summer Institute where the opening speaker invited our vulnerability and fear and curiosity and suddenly I realized I was among like-minded people who weren’t afraid to admit that they don’t always know what they’re doing. Suddenly I knew I’d found my tribe.
Not long after that, I went for training in The Circle Way, and the same thing happened. People sat in circle and cracked their hearts open and I knew that I had found my home.
What I realized, around the same time, is that this loneliness is not isolated to career-related growth. It can happen when you change your religious beliefs or leave a faith community or tradition. It can happen when you change your priorities or leave broken relationships. It can happen any time you take a step onto a dock that’s unfamiliar to the people who were standing with you on the shore. You leave people behind, often before you know where to find the next community.
By the time my next major growth curve came along, I was more prepared for the loneliness. When I started teaching, I knew that, once again, I’d be set apart from the other people in the room, wouldn’t be let in on the inside jokes, and would always be seen as “other”. Fortunately, I knew where to turn to when the loneliness came. I’d found my tribe. I had support. The loneliness was fleeting.
The same was true when I launched my own business. I was no longer going in to an office where I could enjoy the camaraderie of coworkers and, though I felt some isolation in that, I knew how to find support in my online circles. My friend Desiree was launching her business at the same time, stepping out onto her own dock, and so we had weekly Skype chats to help each other get our sea legs. Sometimes we cried, sometimes we gave each other tough love, and sometimes we celebrated. There were other people too. I was no longer afraid to be vulnerable and authentic. I found support and I offered it.
I haven’t forgotten the early days, though. I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be out there on the dock all alone. I haven’t forgotten how hard it was to reach out and admit that I was scared.
That’s why I now make a conscious effort to turn around and look for people who are stepping out on their own docks behind me. I watch for them and when I see them stumble I reach out a hand to steady them. I don’t want them to feel lonely. I don’t want them to feel like they can’t admit how scary this big new step is. I want them to feel supported.
I want to encourage them to give themselves permission to be vulnerable.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw
Trust me – it’s much easier to grow when you give yourself permission to admit how lost and alone you feel. It’s much easier to find your sea legs if you reach out for a hand to steady you. Sure it’s scary, but it’s worth it. And the surprising thing that I’ve discovered is that reaching out for support is actually a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness.
Several years ago, I took my daughter Maddy to see a 3D version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. She was pretty young at the time and it was her first 3D movie, so she was in awe of how the screen was coming alive. Each time something would fly at her, she’d reach out to try to grab it. It didn’t seem to bother her that she never got her hands on anything.
With a grin splitting her face, she turned to me and said “Reach out Mom! It’s way better when you reach out!” I smiled back, started reaching out, and she was right – it was WAY better.
And so I say the same to you. “Reach out friend! It’s way better when you reach out.” Reach out for support. Reach out for kindness. Reach out for someone to hold you up when your knees give out.
And then, when you’re ready, reach out for the next person behind you who needs the same support.
Also, if you are one of those people stepping out onto the dock and you’re feeling lost and alone and you’re pretty sure everyone else is more confident than you, I’ve created a coaching program just for you. I want to help.