Listening to Auriel Majumdar is like listening to a piece of music by Bach. Calm and contemplative, creative coach Majumdar’s technique invites you to reflect on your insecurities and examine them objectively. “It’s very easy to judge ourselves harshly,” she says. “Like, ‘I’m not trying hard enough’ or ‘I’m not working hard enough’, and that can trap us into staying in the same place.…Using reflective practice means sitting down and looking at what’s going on in your life and doing that without judgment.”
For the last two decades, creative coach, thinker and speaker, Auriel Majumdar has mentored individuals to lead rewarding, fulfilling lives. She has enabled them to tap their inner potential and take control of their life’s narrative. Majumdar opens up about the personal experiences that have helped her become who she is, while also doling out extraordinary wisdom to younger career women who are grappling to find a work-life balance. Through creative personal development techniques, she encourages them to take the reins and pursue what they truly desire. Edited excerpts:
To begin with, could you talk a bit about where were you born? What was your experience growing up?
I was born in Winchester, which is in the south of England, I have no memory of it, because my dad was, at that point, a surgeon. So, in the UK health system, you build up your experience. You move around rapidly, getting different positions until you get to wherever it is that you want to get to. So, we moved a lot. We went up to the northeast of England, and then we ended up in Yorkshire when I was about four. So, my memories of growing up are from Yorkshire, which is in the north of the UK. However, I was brought up in a town called Rotterham.
“SHE HAS ENABLED PEOPLE TO TAP THEIR INNER POTENTIAL AND TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR LIFE’S NARRATIVE”
I grew up in the mid-60s, through the 70s, and Rotterham at the time, was a coal mining and a steel town. Highly industrial, but also quite depressed. Towards the 70s and the 80s, there was a real decline in industry in the UK, particularly in the north of England. I belonged to one of the very well off families, and was one of the very few Asian families. My mum was from Wales, she’s white, my dad was from Calcutta, India. We were a bit of an anomaly. We were highly unusual and highly visual.
It was around the 70s when there was a rise of a right-wing fascist group called the National Front. Those were tough times, really. There was a lot of racism—there were racist comedies on the telly (television). It was kind of acceptable to make racist jokes and people were called – I wouldn’t even say the word – but the P-word and the N-word were used. It was pretty tough being around all of that. There was a kind of pervasive threat around in the town. One of the memories of growing up was just being different and seeing myself different, while not really mixing with other Asian families, because there wasn’t really any community. It was quite isolating to be who we were.
At home, however, life was great. I’ve got three brothers, so it was always busy, full of life. I remember my dad being away, always working, because he was by that time a very senior orthopedic surgeon. So, he wasn’t around much. However, my mom was around a lot. I also think that my parents tried to keep us safe by making us more ‘white’. My brothers, for example, have all got English names—Rob, Robin, Simon and Jeremy. I don’t know where Auriel came from. It’s not an English name. We also adopted very English habits. My mum was very young when she got married and had to live at my father’s family home in India. There she had learned how to cook fantastic curries and we grew up with that kind of food culture in our house. There were Indian things, but we weren’t brought up to speak Bengali. We weren’t really taught about our roots. So, there were family stories, but there weren’t stories about India or about Indian culture. I think my parents wanted us to be safe and not different. So, they tried to minimize the difference.
You talk about the far-right group and how racist comments were acceptable back in the day. While growing up, did you understand that this was wrong; that this is was a political thing and that it’s something needed to be done against it?
I’ve always had a very strong sense of injustice, of what is right and wrong. I remember being very young when something to do with apartheid came on the telly. And my mom said to me, “Well, if we went to South Africa, me and Jeremy would stand on one side of the fence, and you and Baba, Robin and Simon would have to stand on the other side of the fence.” I was tiny when she told me that and I remember thinking, “Well, this isn’t right.”
And I never lost that sense of wanting to fight injustice. I attended the Black Lives Matter protests and I do my best to be actively anti-racist. I’m constantly educating myself. In college, when I was 17-18, I was pretty politically active because my dad had been a communist in India, and his father had been highly politically active as well. So, it was somewhere in us.
Unfortunately, fascism is rising again and it reminds me of what it was like living in the 70s. In the UK, we’ve had Brexit, which has been an opportunity for divisive forces to come in and set people against each other. It’s kind of disappointing.
How did university life transform you into understanding yourself better?
At the university, I had this great kind of blossoming. I really enjoyed myself and wasn’t very obedient. I cut my hair – I’d had very long, beautiful hair and my dad wouldn’t let me cut it. Although he wasn’t traditional in lots of ways, he was the classic upper-middle class, intellectual kind of a person. He wasn’t an old-fashioned Indian, but because he’d come away from his Indian culture, he still had some very old-fashioned things about him. He wasn’t oppressive – he didn’t beat me at home or any of that – but there were things like hair, you know, that were really important to him. So, at home, I couldn’t cut my hair. Later on, my dad went absolutely mad; that moment was purely symbolic. You know, it’s like, I was just trying to break away.
So yes, university was great. I used to go to all sorts of lectures that weren’t on my curriculum–just exploring and trying different things, meeting new people. I was very, kind of, directionless—although, my career had already been set for me–I was expected to be a doctor. My mum had been a nurse and my dad didn’t really know what else there was out there. Although I was loving learning, I had no sense of what I was going to be, what kind of job I wanted, what my career would be, or what my what my path was really. It took me many years to find out what that was.
Your key messages to other women about making a career or a life pivot: One is don’t wait that long. But the the other is, it’s never too late. So, talk a little bit about that.
I was always quite courageous. So, it wasn’t that I wasn’t brave enough, but I was very constrained by what I thought was the right thing to do. I think those childhood habits of being obedient, made me suppress my own voice. I wasn’t really listening to myself. For me, it was like, “What’s the right thing to do?” At the time, I thought the right thing to do was work hard and look after my family. So, all those messages I’ve had in childhood, I kept with me for a long time.
What that means is that I wasn’t listening to the things that were really speaking to me. If I’d listened to myself, there would be something in me that would say, “No, there’s more, there’s more to life than hard work and diligence”. I think there’s something rewarding about listening to yourself, but also finding spaces where you can reflect. I am a highly reflective practitioner now. I spend a lot of time sitting with my own stuff and thinking about learning from it.
Reflective practice means you use your own material to decide what the learning is and what you want to do with that. It’s sitting down and looking at what’s going on in your life and doing that without judgment. We have to have a compassionate and neutral stance to our own experience, which might sound a bit mystical, but what I mean, is that it’s very easy to judge ourselves harshly. Like, “I’m not trying hard enough” or “I’m not working hard enough”. And that can trap us into staying in the same place, which might not suit us.
Why is reflective practice important and how do we exercise it?
Developing that reflective practice, even if it’s for five minutes at the end of the day, is important. Reflect on how your day went: What was good for you, what wasn’t so good? What would you like to change? What did you learn that you’d want to take forward from this experience? These reflections don’t have to be neurotic and dark, but you can constantly check in with yourself by asking: “How was that? How are things going for me? Is this bringing me joy?”
I also think, stop comparing yourself. It was a huge gift to me when I stopped seeing myself through other people’s eyes. You know, what are they thinking of me? And I actually started just thinking: Does this work for me? Does it suit me? Do I feel purposeful in this? So, judging my actions against my own intentions, rather than aligning myself to these ideas of success or growth was very important.
That’s very beautifully said, because through these reflective practices it’s almost like you’re coaching yourself. But how do you avoid the voices that come from others?
I think you have to develop a filter, like you would develop a muscle. The reflective practice becomes a muscle that builds and strengthens. For example, I was very sensitive as a young person. If somebody said something to me, it would cut right through me. And, I had no filter at all. I just assumed that anything that anybody was giving me was true, or whatever I was hearing in my own head was true. But with time, you can learn how to treat these things more neutrally and say, “Okay, so that person doesn’t like me, or they’ve criticized this piece of work. Now, what do I make of it? Do I want to own some of that and improve myself, or do I reject it?” By doing that, you can be more thoughtful about how you want to react to something.
I did a mindfulness course a few years ago and the guy who was running it was a Buddhist. He told me about the two arrows. The first arrow is the hurt that comes to you—somebody who has said something critical about you. The second arrow is the way you use that on yourself. You have the power to deflect the second arrow. I found that really helpful.
I think, it’s important to be the author of your own life. To me, that’s hugely creative. That’s why I think coaching is creative, because in my mind, coaching is making a space where people can decide on their own authorship, they can decide how they want their lives to be, the choices they want to make, the things they want to listen to and take into account.
How did your journey into as a coach begin?
When I came into coaching maybe about 10 years ago, I came to it through my own personal experience. I was coached as part of a leadership program, and had entered it quite reluctantly, because there was a perception (even just 10 years ago) that it was somehow “remedial” or for people who were “underperforming”. So, I was a bit reluctant. However, I ended up having such a positive experience. For me, it didn’t feel in the slightest remedial. I worked with a super talented coach, whom subsequently I now associate with. I do some work for her company and she does work with me and she worked in a very collaborative, empowering way. I was very fortunate really to have a role model and to be able to see how coaching could work. She would not try to force me down one path or the other.
Today, I work in a part of the coaching landscape where it’s about helping people to consider their options and to think about things like identity. I work within an approach called Gestalt which comes out of psychology and it’s a very subtle and beautiful practice. In a nutshell, it’s about raising awareness. The whole aim of coaching (of a Gestalt framework) is to raise people’s awareness and to help them take different perspectives. The theory being that you’ve got increased choice. So, if you can see more of the landscape or more of the bigger picture and take a different view on it, then you can change your mindset or make different choices.
I work in organizations, I work with teams, I do coaching and supervision, so I really like coaching education. I teach, I used to run. In fact, the Masters I ended up doing if you fast forward a few years, I ended up being the course leader. So, I had a couple years working in the university. And now I teach as a visitor, which I absolutely adore. That whole kind of cluster of helping other people have the journey that I had is super fulfilling.
Could you give an example of someone that you have coached who perhaps just had a similar sort of revelation?
Often organizations will bring me in to work with high flyers or people who are not quite fulfilling their potential. For example, I’m working with a woman in a big charitable sector organization. She’s young, tough and very talented. She’s been given this huge program management responsibility and her boss was someone I’d worked with in the past.
He said, “We really want to support this young woman, because we think she’s a superstar within, she’s going to do an amazing job. She’s just seems to get very stressed. Can you have a talk to her?” We arranged to have four sessions. We’ve had three of them and it’s interesting because what I’m doing is just holding reflective space for her. At the beginning, I asked her, “What do you think you’re going to get out of this?” And she said, “I can’t delegate”. She was all about perfectionism. She couldn’t delegate because nobody could do it to her standards. She couldn’t take her foot off the gas, because the standards would drop.
Also, she’s got no boundaries. She can’t say no to things. She can’t switch off from work at the end of the day, especially during Covid-19. She’s built this cage for herself in which her talent then is suffocated, because she’s so constrained by all these things and she’s exhausted. She’s got some limiting assumptions or limiting beliefs. The process involves her having to dismantle these beliefs, not me telling her. So, it’s not me saying, “Come on, don’t be daft. You don’t have to take all this on yourself”. She has to do it on her own.
This process involved doing little experiments. After each session, she’d commit. I’d say, “Let’s try these things, you know, try delegating. If you don’t like it, you can always go back to how you were.” Then she comes back and we look at the data and she decides what she wants to do. So, rather than she being at the mercy of all these beliefs and ideas she’s got about herself, she’s actually now in the driver’s seat. She can think, “Okay, do I want to be like that? Is this how I want it to be, or should I reshape it?” So, this is where the creativity comes in, because she can be the author of our own life. It’s very empowering in that sense.
Now, she’s starting to see the untruth of some of the things that she was assuming were true, and because she’s a super smart woman, she can do that logically with someone patient alongside her. And what happens is, you see the penny drop. So, it all comes from the work she’s doing herself.
It’s interesting because women often have a hard time asking, especially male bosses or even female bosses, for a raise or for time off. They feel somehow that they’re letting people down. And in this particular example, I think that it’s similar where they’re not delegating, because if the quality of the product is not good, the boss is going to hold them accountable, and therefore they can never let go.
Absolutely. There’s a particular theory that talks about drivers. We develop internal voices that we developed from childhood or from educators who’ve been around us or primary caregivers, and some of the drivers are things like, work harder or be the best. And, I think, to have someone like a coach or a mentor working alongside you and encouraging you and supporting you, while you’re doing that can really help, because it can be very scary to do that on your own, especially early on in your career. And let’s face it, women are under more scrutiny, black people are under more scrutiny—so, there are high standards expected. And I’m really believe in this whole idea of self-authorship, where you start to be in charge of your own destiny.
You talked a bit about resilience, especially during times like Covid-19. How do you coach people about resilience? I’m thinking about Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, who wrote the book called ‘Option B’.
It’s called ‘Option B’ where you can actually choose a different option, rather than the option that you are focused on. How can we be resilient, not just during Covid-19, but throughout life? During Covid times, it has been especially difficult for people, because things have not been in control.
I think control is one of the major issues. We’ve seen a spiraling uncertainty and anxiety in the UK, because people feel powerless. There’s a whole heap of stuff out there to be worried about. And I know that all of this is easier said than done, but I’m thinking about Stephen Covey who wrote, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It talks about circles of control and circles of concern. For me, there is a self-awareness and the self-authorship comes into it again. So, I need to take time out to reflect, or do a practice in the morning to just kind of look at what’s been going on and think about, “So, what’s in my circle of concern? What are all the things I’m worried about? Of those things, what can I influence or what can I control?” And the rest, you know, you just put on a watching brief.
It’s also a lot about setting boundaries, really. Boundaries are really important for resilience, especially during Covid. So, for me, zoom and stuff are great, but they’re really intense and direct. You’re basically asking someone come into your room, and I think that it’s then that we have to be really thoughtful about physical boundaries.
What would you say to your younger self or to the younger career women?
I’d say let go of perfection. Let go in increments and see where that point is where you feel okay. Just try to stretch yourself a little bit. That loosening up is required. And stop comparing yourself. Don’t look at what anybody else is doing and keep your eyes on your own goals. Comparison is the thief of joy.
If you are going to look at what other people are doing, then do it in a learning way. Like, who’s doing the work that you admire? What can you learn from that and weave into your own way of doing things? I think, listening is important, too. It took me years to learn how to listen, because I like talking. But now I’m a really good listener too. I think most people should go on a listening training. And I don’t mean active listening where you listen to repeat, but I mean deep-focused attentive listening, because you will learn so much.