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Out of Your Depth…Now What

Updated: Jun 10, 2021

I read a story about two divers who were invited to go on a dive that was at a further depth than they had experienced. In spite of their inexperience, they trusted the dive instructor to keep them safe. The result of the dive was tragic: one diver lost their life while another suffered physical disorientation but no long-term effects. According to the, the phrase "out of your depth" is defined:

“If you say that someone is out of their depth, you mean that they are in a situation that is much too difficult for them to be able to cope with it.”

The dictionary goes on to explain: “If you are out of your depth, you are in water that is deeper than you are tall, with the result that you cannot stand up with your head above water.”

Recently as I considered a friend’s work situation I was reminded of the phrase, “out of one’s depth.” Have you ever felt like you could not get your head above water at work, at home, or inside? Whether the feeling is internal (you feel overwhelmed) or external (you are juggling several assignments at work), getting help for being out of your depth is simple, but may not be easy. Here are three things you can do to get back to a safe footing for your experience, disposition and abilities:

· Accept that you are responsible for knowing the depth that is safe for you. In the example of the divers above, they trusted the dive instructor to keep them safe. When tragedy struck, the most the dive instructor could do was send one diver to the surface quickly. The other diver was never found. Likewise, we can trust the opinions of others that we are “up to a task,” so much that we depend on them to know better than we do about our own capabilities. Part of coaching as a leader is helping those you lead to stretch and develop additional skills. However, you cannot coach a person to a depth they are not ready to “dive.”

· You need more than enthusiasm and curiosity to go into unexplored depths. You need accountability and experience. Actual divers must be aware of nitrogen narcosis, a condition that affects divers by impairing their ability to make decisions while making them feel on top of the world. What you have learned through experience has prepared you for a certain depth. Find someone that you can trust and let them know that you are out of your depth, overwhelmed, unprepared, or whatever language is comfortable for you. Explore new depths under the accountable eyes of somebody who can identify when your decision making is off, even if you feel “great” about how things are going. Is your feeling on top of the world a result of reality, or a delusion similar to what divers experience in nitrogen narcosis? Your accountability person needs to have a strong baloney detector; if you can convince them you’re on top of the world as you drown, they aren’t able to keep you accountable.

·Learn from the mistakes of others. If you want to explore “deeper depths” at work, pay attention to the wisdom of others who have been where you want to go, AND the folly of those who dove too deep before being adequately prepared. Here's an example of the right way to proceed: I spoke with a leader some years back about a marketing discussion I was hosting. I was excited about the idea of working with her and pitched the subject I wanted her to speak on. She did a rare thing: she told me that subject was outside her area of expertise. She didn’t suggest another more comfortable subject; she simply acknowledged that the area was out of her depth. You can be expert in one area, and out of your depth in another. Potential opportunities to brand yourself can be exciting, but don’t harm your credibility by going out of your depth.

Your experience and the strength of what you have accomplished is valuable because of the hard work you did to attain both. By all means, open your arms and seek new opportunities to grow. As you consider those opportunities, though, don’t let naïveté cause you to get out of your depth. If you are already out of your depth, get some accountability to check that your decision-making and readiness are suited to your current depth. With help and accountability, you can learn to thrive in your current depth, or find the right situation for your goals, experience, and yearnings.

Michele Aikens is CEO & Lead Coach of Sepia Prime Communications and Coaching. If you need accountability for your own growth, e-mail her with the subject "Out of my depth" here:

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