Ep 100: Working with the Breakdown

When you become a leader, you also step into the pressures that come with the role. Along that journey, you will have to face moments of breakdown. While this may be an inevitable aspect of being in a leadership position, it doesn’t mean that you have to continue to just live and stay there. Adam Quiney helps you work with breakdowns, guiding you to deal with them and become powerful leaders. He tackles the kinds of breakdowns many leaders face and how you can skillfully navigate them. Join Adam as you learn how to take back the ownership and power from these breakdowns in this episode.

Listen to the Episode Here:

Working With The Breakdown

We’re going to be talking about working with the breakdown. Here’s our roadmap. First, if you’re leading. you will be creating breakdowns. That should not be a surprise at this point in our conversations. Leaders need to be skilled at the art of working through the breakdown. We’re going to first distinguish and speak to that. Second, we’ll talk about what doesn’t work and the typical responses to breakdowns. Third, we’ll talk about how to powerfully lead through a breakdown.

What is a breakdown? A breakdown is whatever it is, our existing paradigm is set up to avoid having happened. On a personal level, you can think of this a little bit like, let’s say you have a story that approaching strangers are intrusive and rude. The breakdown would be you trying to break up the story, going to someone saying, “My name is Adam. How are you?” They go, “That is incredibly rude.” It’s that thing, that your whole story, paradigm, or whatever is set up to avoid having happened.

If you’re supporting someone that has an ongoing story about beautiful people rejecting them, then their paradigm probably includes actions like only ever asked people for which they feel a 7 out of 10 of their own desire to be with. If you were to support this person to step beyond their existing paradigm, maybe they date someone they feel at 10 to 10 of their own desire with. The breakdown would be the point when they start asking people out that they feel this way around and get horribly rejected, or even mediumly rejected.

In business contexts, we may be talking about shifting a publishing model from one format to the other. As you do so, seeing a whole bunch of your customers jump ship should go to those companies that are still doing things the old-fashioned way. Whatever it is, the breakdown is that part that we don’t want to have shown up. It’s ultimately what we’re afraid of. It’s rare that we’re afraid of the breakthrough. “I’m so scared that I could have twice the amount of money and half the amount of work to do.”

It’s rare that that’s the case. It’s the breakdown that lies in front of it. You can think of the breakthrough like being a pot of gold and the breakdown is the brick wall. What people do is they get scared by that brick wall that they have to climb over to get at it. Why is this a challenge? The first thing is that in this episode, we’re going to specifically talk about breakdowns that occur in the midst of developing the leadership of other people.

More specifically, breakdowns that you have had a hand in creating. This will apply to the broader context. This is going to be like relationship breakdowns and breakdowns and you’re showing up as a leader. Maybe you’re supporting someone who has a story that people don’t want to hear what they have to say and you’re supporting them to step out of that context. You’re first inviting them to notice like, “Can you see that’s a story you’ve made up?”

A breakdown is whatever it is our existing paradigm is set up to avoid happening. Share on X

We could create a different story and like any story that we make up, we have created evidence for it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made that story up. A lens has us look through that lens to see what that lens allows us to see. If that sounded like a fancy riddle, what we’re saying here is your story has you look for certain things in the world. That will then have you see those certain things in the world, which will then reinforce your story.

Let’s imagine we’ve got someone who’s got this story. “People don’t want to hear what I have to say.” You’re supporting them to step out of that and into a new paradigm of possibility. Let’s imagine that this is a salesperson. This shift, you as a leader is clear like, “This going to make a difference.” Their sales will probably blow up. As they practice, it’s possible that they do so by talking way too much and taking up way too much space.

This is often how our initial attempts to shift a paradigm go. We’re like, “I’m not too much. Great. I’ll veer way out to the other end of the scale.” You might tell these people. You might interrupt them and say, “Could you please bring it to a close?” It’s a simple example of how this might unfold. Since these people are still operating inside their old paradigm, which they haven’t broken up yet, it’s predictable that they’re going to receive your feedback through the lens of that paradigm.

Here you are asking them to step into a new paradigm and a new possibility. You, the leader, is perpetuating the old one. You’re proving that people don’t want to hear them talk. You’re proving the thing you claim to be trying to help them work through. Does that breakdown? Let’s talk about what doesn’t work in these situations. Typically, there’s usually 1 of 2 places that people operate from. One is they come back over the top, or two is they collapse underneath.

Let’s draw this out a little bit. Let’s imagine you interrupt that person and you’re in a meeting. You’re like, “I’m going to help them calibrate. Reginald, we’re going to need to stop talking there. Maybe you just wrap it up.” Reginal does, but notice he’s fuming. He’s not going to make a scene in the middle of the meeting, but he shuts down from there. You see this and it’s now time to go and talk to Reginald to continue the conversation, continue him developing his leadership, and perhaps to clean up whatever there is.

Coming back over the top would be if you imagine Reginald saying, “You told me that people don’t care, and then you interrupted me. I don’t know what you want. I’m upset about that and you don’t want to hear what I have to say.” Coming over the top would be us explaining why we didn’t do what was claimed and trying to make Reggie see otherwise. Reginald is in this coming over the top approach. Reginald never is left feeling gotten or even validated in how he feels.

GL 100 | Breakdown

Breakdown: The art of dealing with the breakdown is probably one of the most important areas of mastery for a transformational leader.


He can’t be because you’re coming over the top. You’re disputing what he feels. You’re explaining why that’s not true, and then you’re trying to help him see it differently. Because he can’t fully feel gotten, he can’t release his position. At best, he may agree with us and he may even drop it, but you’re not going to have him create something new from this place because on some level, he’s still holding on to what he’s holding on to.

You’re going to leave them defending their old story. This is the nature of what happens when we don’t leave people feeling gotten. They clench tighter. You may have had this experience in loved ones or partners where you’re in an argument and you’re arguing back and forth, and neither of you is being left feeling heard. Consequently, it’s impossible for you to let go of your position. Letting go of our position is an important thing as a leader. It’s challenging.

When we collapse under the breakdown, what that looks like is apologizing profusely, remedying the person’s upset feelings, but failing to create anything new. In fact, we’re validating the old context like, “You interrupted me and you clearly don’t care what I have to say.” “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. Is there anything you need?” “I need you to do this.” “I’ll totally do that. I’m sorry.” You don’t keep forging ahead and you haven’t helped Reggie see anything. All you’ve done is validate that story and fallen under it.

Neither of these approaches creates the difference needed to keep moving forward through the breakdown and into the breakthrough on the other side. Ironically, even though these seem like two different approaches, they have the exact same impact, which is that they reinforce the old context, the old paradigm. That person is left defending it even further and more entrenched than ever. This is the same reason that every time you try and resolve some problem on your own, it’s like being a fish trying to pull yourself out of the water and trying to get outside of your paradigm.

You reinforced the paradigm for yourself. That decreases the likelihood of you creating the breakthrough you’re hoping for and increases your resignation to it. “We get evidence that’s not going to work. I’m just going to keep doing this.” What’s the point? What is there to do? What do we do with this? The art of dealing with the breakdown is probably one of the most important areas of mastery for a transformational leader.

These are some steps to skillfully navigate this particular flavor of breakdown. The first thing you have to do is truly get this person’s complaint. That means hearing and listening to them in such a way that they’re left feeling like you truly understand their world. This is a different way of listening than holding on to your position that they’re wrong, and then nodding your head and being like, “I can totally see why you feel that way,” and then thinking in your head, given that you’ve got this totally wrong perspective.

To be a leader, we have to be responsible for our intention and our impact. Share on X

“I can totally see how you feel this way, given that you’re an uneducated donkey,” or whatever the voice in your head or whatever your position is. As opposed to like, “That makes complete sense.” Not just to say those words, but to have it truly make complete sense to you. That’s where many leaders fall short. They’ll say these words and they’ll hear what I’m saying here and be like, “I got to say that makes complete sense. It’s a great strategy. I’ll just do that all the time.” They won’t bring the being of it making complete sense. You have to let go and release your position temporarily so you can get over there. For more on developing the ability to truly get people, check out episode 78. We talk about that as the foundation for your speaking, which is your listening.

Once we’ve gotten them, the second thing is you got to take ownership of what you can take ownership of. Many people get caught up in their intention here. Defending what they intended without being responsible for the fact that their impact was something different. To be a leader, we have to be responsible for both our intention as well as our impact. What we wanted to have happened, whether it was malicious or not, and the impact it had, regardless of what we wanted to have happened. Just because you didn’t intend to have the impact you did, doesn’t mean you can get away with not cleaning it up. A transformational leader takes ownership of all that they are creating, even the bits that aren’t intended. You want to apologize for the impact that you have had, even if it wasn’t intended. It doesn’t mean you’re telling them they’re right and you don’t want to hear what they had to say.

Instead, you want to be apologizing for the fact that your impact was that they were left feeling that way. It’s not, “You’re right. I don’t want to hear what you have to say and I’m so sorry for that.” Instead of it sounding something like, “Reggie, I get the impact you were left in was that it felt like I didn’t want to hear what you had to say. I’d set you up. I’d said, ‘We want to hear what you have to say. We value your voice, and then here I am proving it.’ Is that impact?” Reggie said, “Totally.” “I’m so sorry. I get that. It’s not my intention to leave you feeling that way and I get that’s how it landed.”

Notice the distinction between those two pieces. We’re honoring the impact over there as opposed to making it completely right, nodding our head, and collapsing. For more on distinguishing between your intention and your impact, check out episode 89. Here’s the third thing we want to do. We want to invite the person whose leadership is developing to take a look so that they can see something different. Before you go here, make sure you check and ensure they’ve gotten your apology and that they felt gotten. Make sure, “Is there anything else that I need to clean up before we move forward?”

Once you’ve done that, you can ask them if they’re open to taking a look here and seeing what else might be available as an opportunity to step into. Sometimes, if you’ve done a good job cleaning up, often people will have space for it. If you’re still learning your art and you’re still getting your feet under you in this thing we’re talking about, people might still be a little bruised. It might take a little bit. You want to check in like, “It’s okay.” You have to make it okay in yourself. “It’s okay if you don’t have space for it. I just want to check-in.”

If they need more time, great. Give them more time. If this becomes a pattern where every time there’s a breakdown, they need an infinite amount of time, then it might be time to bring that to them. In this case, let’s assume that they’re a yes. If they’re a yes to having a look, your job is to help them see that this reaction they’ve had without taking away any of your apology for the impact they were left in to help them see their reactions part of the same context.

GL 100 | Breakdown

Breakdown: You can’t really take someone out of breakdowns until someone has taken you through it yourself.


“If you were to set aside the belief, Reggie, that I interrupted you because I didn’t want to hear what you had to say, what other interpretations could there have been? What are the reasons might I have asked you to wrap up? What possibilities might there be available here if you adopted this different way of approaching it? How is what’s happened here a reflection of the thing you are working on breaking through?”

Hopefully, your aim is to support them in seeing the water they’re swimming in while honoring them in such a way that they feel gotten and can release their attachment to that water. It can be nuanced. This is challenging work. My invitation is to practice it. That’s the game of this. You have to step into the dance. You have to step into the arena and you have to practice. We can’t learn about this enough to then go and do it perfectly because that would be you resisting the breakdown.

First of all, the most important part of all this is that you practice being with breakdowns. Most people and consequently, most leaders try to arrange their careers and lives so as to resist and avoid the breakdown rather than aiming for the breakthrough. That’s seeing the brick wall, getting scared of it, getting fascinated by it, and talking about how tall it is. “I can’t do that.” Rather than putting their attention on the pot of gold behind it.

Aim for the breakthrough and trust that the breakdown will be created. You don’t have to force it. If you’re aiming for a goal that’s got some edge to it for you that’s scary, there will be a breakdown, as you breakthrough whatever it is in the way. Practice taking responsibility and apologizing without collapsing. Practice distinguishing your intention from your impact and being responsible for both of those. Acknowledging, get where someone is at, and then invite them into the conversation around leadership, not because they need to and you insist that they do, but because there’s something available past this point that you see available for them.

Finally, of course, most importantly, put yourself into conversations and spaces with coaches and leaders that can model this for you. A willingness to courageously lead you into the breakdown, and then take ownership and point towards leadership when it happens. So much of this work has integrity baked into it. The way that is true is that you can’t take someone through this until someone has taken you through it yourself.

Every single one of these episodes on this show is like, “That’s happened 50 million times to Adam.” I’ve made these mistakes and I’ve done it wrong. I’ve tried to bypass or come over the top. I’ve gotten supported and I’ve had it modeled for me where a coach has created some breakdown for me and I’ve been upset with them. They’ve sat me down and left me feeling gotten and invited me to take a look beyond that.

Be in places and relationships where this is practiced and this level of intimacy and creation is happening on the regular. If you do that, you’re going to start to see it modeled and you’re going to get to start modeling it and practicing it yourself. From that place, things get beautiful because you don’t have to worry about how to work stuff out. When people are upset, you start to trust yourself and them and leadership to show up. You stop needing to have rules or figure things out or sweat when you see that person’s name. All of this starts to look like a big beautiful opportunity for leadership.

That’s the game we’re here to play. That’s our episode. Thank you for reading. If you have any feedback, acknowledgment, suggestions, or anything else, we love to hear from you. You can drop an email to PR@AdamQuiney.com. If you want to send us a rating or write a review on iTunes, Spotify, or any of these places, I appreciate that. It makes such a big difference and it feels good to read. Thanks for being with us and we’ll see you next episode.


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