Setting the Internal Stage

When I plan an event, I go to considerable effort to make sure I set the proper tone in terms of flow of events, the agenda, the menu, my dress, my energy level, what I will say, etc. The more important the event, the more time and effort that will go into planning that event.

In contrast, when I plan an important conversation with a loved one or colleague, I tend to plan the content but typically allow the rest to emerge spontaneously.   To the degree that the conversation is likely to be viewed positively by both parties, going-with-the-flow may be sufficient though not ideal. To the degree the conversation may be difficult or become confrontational, then this strategy is likely to be a disaster. Since the repercussions of a failed relationship are pretty high, it makes sense to put as much effort into planning a critical conversation as a dinner party, right?

In the past, I would spend all my planning time honing my argument so that I have a counter for every possible complaint or accusation.   That approach assumes the outcome of the conversation has a winner and a loser, and I worked hard to prepare because I never want to be the loser. However, in the end, the win/lose mindset creates only losers because I’m putting ego ahead of the relationship.

Instead, I want to create a win/win by making the relationship the priority.   Despite my best intentions to do so, it’s not an easy task and should not be left to chance. I wouldn’t leave the outcome of an important reception to chance, why should an important conversation be any different?

Here’s my checklist for preparing for a difficult conversation:

  • Identify the larger goal – Instead of proving someone wrong, my larger goal may be to repair the relationship, build the relationship, and/or find a solution to a sensitive issue.
  • Identify my message – Pick one or two points that I want to get across. For example, I may want her to understand that I care about her and her needs but also to communicate the limitations of the situation.
  • Identify my goal for that person – If a conversation is difficult for me then it’s likely to be difficult for my partner as well. If I can help her feel heard and understood, we are much more likely to be able to move forward constructively than if my main goal is to win or ‘be right.’
  • Enter the conversation with positive, not negative emotions – If I enter the conversation feeling fearful or defensive, I won’t be a good listener. Instead, I try to clear my emotional stage to be loving, affirming, and compassionate. I imagine that other person’s needs, wants and desires. They want to be heard, understood and appreciated. Just like me.
  • Dealing with my hot buttons – I know that I have a tendency to get defensive or shut down if I feel someone is being critical. Others may get smug, superior, or demanding. Therefore, staying in compassionate listener-mode means staying totally present with the speaker’s reality, especially when I have a tendency to get defensive. Being a reflective listener (“So when I said X, you felt I was judging you and that really hurt your feelings…”) does wonders for allowing that person to feel heard without jumping to my usual defensive or aggressive mode (“Well when you did Y, it really shows that you don’t care about me at all!”).

In other words, the success of the conversation depends on whether I take emotional leadership of the conversation to help solve the problem, or just become the lowest common emotional denominator and contribute to the problem. I may not always be successful but at least I have the best chance for success when I do my homework and set the right stage for this critical event.

Being A Problem for Others

Thought Exercise:

1. When was the last time you felt ‘put out’ by someone else? Maybe they didn’t give you the service you wanted at the store. Your friend was talking too much. A colleague won’t do his job. You kid keeps acting up.

2. Now consider when the last time you considered how you were someone else’s problem.

(crickets chirping)

Most of you probably were able to give an example of each and maybe many of you found it easier to give an example to the second question.

But for those of you who had difficulty with the second question, I ask that you consider the possibility that you may be perceived as difficult without knowing it.

Most of us are not trying to be difficult. It just comes naturally to me! We just get caught up in our own, narrow perspective and have trouble seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint. The more certain we are of our perspective, or of being right, the more likely we are to be a problem for someone else.

Wow. Say what you really think, Susanna.

I know being wrong is pretty scary for a lot of people, especially those of the perfectionist persuasion.   The problem is, everyone is wrong at some point. And even if hypothetically it’s possible to always be right, life and perspective are not black and white. That’s why eyewitness accounts vary so much – we tend to notice and interpret things differently, so our world views and realities differ. I used to have endless arguments with people about the best flavor of ice cream, or something equally subjective. You see, I hate being wrong!

However, I have also learned that by taking the approach of being less certain about my claims that I don’t have to feel like I’m wrong. In other words, if someone makes a claim that I disagree with, I try to take the tack of, “well, I don’t know for certain, but feel pretty sure that Cherry Garcia is the best flavor in the world.” That way, when I’m proven wrong (which is pretty much all the time), I hadn’t staked my ego and self-respect on the line and can concede graciously. For example, the claim “all Red Sox fans are evil” maybe could use a little room for doubt?

I love Byron Katie’s technique of flipping the assumption to create room for doubt and other perspectives. To flip my previous assertion, “all Red Sox fans are evil”, I can flip it and say “all Red Sox fans are good” and examine the truth in that statement. Even better, I can explore the grain truth of the statement “I am evil,” referring of course to how I’m judging strangers based on the flimsiest of rationales.

When I can see the grain of truth in the “I am evil” statement, I can now see how I am creating a problem for others. If I practice this exercise whenever I get stuck in the blame game, I can see my role in the problem and move to fix it.

After all, my actions, assumptions and feelings are all I ever have any control over. And by being able to shift my views and habits to be more balanced, I will be less likely to be stuck in a victim or blaming mindset, and more likely to feel empowered and ironically, in control.

Now that I feel better, let’s go watch baseball!

Love/Hate Dynamic in Relationships

You know that thing in your partner that you first loved, now hate (or something in between)?  You’ve probably suspected if not known that the love/hate dynamic is very common and real.  Relationship expert Harville Hendrix describes this phenomenon as the imago.

Imago refers to our tendency to seek partners that reproduce our childhood wounds.  On some level, we find comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the behavior we find hurtful.  We seem to be experts in using our Spidey Sense (we usually call it ‘chemistry’) to know who will be able to reproduce those wounds for us.  That person makes us feel complete and whole because we yearn to be with someone who has learned to curb their wounding tendencies.

That is, until we discover that they haven’t curbed their wounding tendencies.  They still open those same wounds, but maybe in a different or somewhat improved way.  In addition, these are old wounds they’re opening up, and so we continue to have a visceral response to them.

The good news is that you can ditch that partner that causes you to curl up into a fetal position.  The bad news is that you’re going to keep being attracted to the same type of person after you’ve sent your old partner packing.  Then you’re back to square one, just several years and maybe several partners later.    The good news (#2) is that nature intends for you to learn how to deal with these issues (thus the multiple chances).  The good news (#3) is that your partner is the perfect foil for you to rise to the challenge of dealing with those wounds because as you rise to meet the needs of your partner, you simultaneously heal yourself.  That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?

For example, if my wound has to do with me feeling unlovable, I will be very sensitive and reactive when someone is not affirming.  Maybe they don’t notice I went to a lot of trouble to cook dinner or plan a vacation, but oddly I will be attracted to that type of person.   But I may have a tendency to not put forth effort to avoid the risk of being rejected or criticized.  Notice this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because I am unlikely to be loved if I am not exerting myself in the relationship

On the other hand, he may have his own issues – he is used to feeling deprived, so will tend to notice deprivation not generosity, and thus tends to be critical rather than complimentary.  I can help him heal his wounds but being proactive and calm about meeting his needs instead of withdrawing even if I am not complimented or thanked.  By being able to take the risk of giving without expectation heals my own unlovability while helping him manage his deprivation.  His job would be to see the love and contribution without criticism and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for.  In so doing, he would be healing his wounds and also helping me to do better with my unlovability.  Thus, the imago is potentially a healing partnership where both parties collaborate to heal themselves and each other.

More good news (#4) is that by finally dealing with these issues, you’re likely to give your kids a better chance of dealing with their own childhood wounds.

The bad news (#2) is that this is not easy work.  As discussed in many previous blogs, that self-awareness and inner work is scary and hard.  We have to be willing to accept responsibility for our unhealthy perspectives and behaviors and be willing to make changes.  Those of us who are (recovering) perfectionists, this means accepting our humanity and flaws.  Those who are considering embarking on this path of self-discovery might be comforted to know that they are not alone with regard to their flaws.  I felt an odd sort of comfort knowing that these books that were written describe thousands of people just like me.  We’re all on the same path of discovery; we’re just in different places of the journey.

The alternative is living for years with strained relationships where we are constantly in a  love/hate, blame/self-justifying cycle.  When I’m in blame/self-justifying—mode, I just feel like I’m building a wall around my heart and it’s difficult to let anyone in.  As Dr. Phil says, “would you rather be right, or happy?”  I would go so far as to say, “would you rather be right/alone or happy/healed/nurturing/loving/supportive?”  You have nothing to lose (though it may feel like you do) and everything to gain by opening your heart up to love, acceptance and forgiveness.   Be brave. You’re not alone.

Civil War Post-Traumatic Growth

Recently I visited the Tredegar National Civil War museum on the banks of the James River.  My homework assignment was to visit and cultural museum and write about what the museum said about well-being.  The museum is housed in a beautiful old ironworks building that I have never visited even though it is adjacent to my favorite spot in all of Richmond.  The facility originally manufactured railroad and locomotive parts beginning in 1830, but during the Civil War the facility made blankets and stored patterns for casting munitions.

Once I entered the museum, I realized with dismay that a museum about the bloody and acrimonious Civil War would not be an easy study in well-being.  The park ranger that chatted with us did not help with my assignment as he focused on the political tension and negative emotions that fueled the start of the conflict.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the exhibits, presented in as neutral a political tone as possible, was about post-traumatic growth enabled by focusing on the positive aspects of this bloody and divisive conflict.  For example, the exhibits avoided mention of the impact of brother fighting brother, the number of casualties, and the economic devastation of the South.  Instead, it showed the brave blacks that fought for the cause, the abolitionists that helped slaves, the hospitals with a high success rate, the artistry of the photos taken at the time, the success of the region prior to the war, the hopes and dreams of each side, and the traditions of the region.

To me, I felt there was much pride displayed regarding the identity of Richmond during this era.  I believe the positive explanatory style on display helps us to accept and psychologically manage what was our horrible history, and allows us to move forward and grow from the experience.  Indeed, today Richmond is a beautiful and thriving city that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.  We still have racial and ethnic tension – we were the capital of the Confederacy after all – but Richmond has largely made peace with our chequered past and managed to retain Southern pride without the angry overtones that accompany the defeated.

Despite having ended more than a century ago, I know the echoes of that terrible conflict still resonate in our region.  The symbols of the war are a source of pride for some but a continued source of pain for others.  What more can we do to heal those old wounds?  How can we find the best route going forward  incorporating, not ignoring, the lessons of the past?  How do we do so honoring all sides involved?

Changing A Difficult Person

We have all had times in our lives where we are confronted on a regular basis with a difficult person who is making our lives miserable.   Perhaps you are doing so right now.  The situation is especially trying if that person is unavoidable and/or impacts our future.   Maybe you feel trapped and can’t escape that person without unacceptable consequences.  If so, here are some suggestions for how to deal with that person.

–          Consider their scared inner child – First, let’s give this person the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not evil.  If you cannot do that, then skip the list and go straight to the conclusion.  Next, know that most obnoxious behavior is the result of fear or insecurity.  They fear being invisible, not good enough, not lovable, not worthy, unimportant, and so forth.  Imagine them as a scared child with these feelings and try to find your compassion and empathy for that scared child within.  You likely have some of the same kind of fears, so while you’re at it, be gentle, compassionate and loving with your inner child.

–          Projection – Have you ever heard the saying that the thing that bothers you most about someone else is the trait you hate in yourself?  Hate that control freak because they won’t allow you to control your own environment?  Hate the vain person because they look better than you?  Hate the competitive person because they’re always trying to get one step ahead of you?  It sounds obvious when I state the concept in this manner, but take a step back and listen to your complaints about others and ask yourself how that is true in you.  Which brings us to….

–          Hypocrisy –   Don’t feel bad.  We are ALL hypocrites.  It’s hard wired in us.  Read more about it here.

–          Examine your behavior – Consider the following:  how are you likely to treat someone if you view them as a problem?  Like you trust them, communicate proactively with them, inquire about and wish for their well-being, ask their advice, share the credit, say positive things about them when they’re not there?  Yeah.  Right.  The very belief that they are a problem means that you are likely being a problem for them too.  “Well they started it” works on the playground, but you’re an adult. It’s your choice as to whether to perpetuate or fix this problem.  After all, it’s your future and serenity that’s on the table, not theirs.  Right?

If you do all of the above, then you will have changed the problem person.

How do I know that?  Because the problem person is you.

Hear me out before you close this window out.

I’m not saying the other person has no fault or responsibility.  Au contraire.  Rather, I’m saying that you each have 50% fault and responsibility (approximately) in this situation but you have 100% control over your own thoughts and actions.  You can’t change him, but you can remove yourself from the equation as a problem in a real way, and invite him to do the same.

What do you have to lose?  You have only peace of mind, serenity, and possibly a new ally to gain.

The Family Jewels – Our Strengths

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Despite becoming a  StrengthsFinders coach in June, and learning about the character value strengths (VIA; authentichappiness.com) this fall, I admit I have not really thought of my family of origin much in strength terms until now.   Observing and noticing strengths is something I tend to do when I’m with someone, as opposed to reflecting back on their actions and behaviors retrospectively.

Since Mom passed away, the only way to assess her strengths is in hindsight.  The family went through old documents and photos, and shared memories of her.   During this memorial, I listened for the strength themes that emerged.  They are so obvious in hindsight, but I never really stopped to think about them before that point.  Instead, I have had a tendency to be more aware of how our similarities would often come between us.  For example, we’re both so stubborn and fireworks can happen when two people are not flexible in their life view or approach.  Thinking of Mom through a strengths perspective makes me realize how much she really gave to me.

  • Zest – my crazy energy and drive comes from her.  The character strength zest apparently increases the likelihood that I will sense my calling – to help others be the best possible versions of themselves.  Possibly I would not even be here pursuing my calling if it were not for her.
  • Perseverance/focus – this is the stubbornness I mentioned above.  We’re gritty.  We don’t give up, sometimes even long past when we should.
  • Input – going through Mom’s stuff, I realized she collected tidbits of information on endless pads of paper.  She probably had every phone number she’s ever written down.  Most of the information is in Chinese so I can’t understand it.  I have endless pads of paper too but keep my information on paper lists and hundreds of Word documents.
  • Ability to love and be loved – I couldn’t always see it as such, but Mom was always trying to help others grow and to be better people.  This is my personal mission as well, though our styles are very different.
  • Ideation – Mom was an extremely creative cook.  I didn’t acquire that as much as I would’ve liked, but my interest in trying new things comes from her.

Thanks Mom.  There is more of you in me than I realized, and they are shared traits that I treasure even more.

Benefits of Being Wrong

Admitting fault

Admitting fault

It just sucks to be wrong and eating crow.  You lose face.  The other gloats and you are embarrassed for being inadequate, stupid, incompetent.  And that’s just when you’re mistaken.  If I thought the play started at 8 pm but it started at 7 pm, then I’m mistaken.  This kind of mistake is fairly irrefutable and black-and-white.  We might’ve argued about it before we missed the play, but likely not after.

Then there’s the type of wrong where you did something that was hurtful, offensive, insensitive, humiliating or rude.  Classic Susanna is to assume someone else in the house misplaced something, left trash on the countertop, or left the milk out of the fridge.  Couldn’t be me.  It’s then hurtful when I accuse someone else of losing something that I didn’t put away.  But even worse  – this one hasn’t happened for a while – is to accuse someone of unloving or selfish motives only to find out I was completely wrong (“you forgot my birthday!” when an elaborate party was in the works for example).

These scenarios, though greyer than simply being mistaken about an easily proven fact, are still relatively cut-and-dry compared to the really subjective missteps we all make on occasion.   For example, I could engage in the same obnoxious behavior accusing someone of being selfish or unloving, but now based on a he said-she said scenario.  We cannot necessarily prove either of us right or wrong, one way or another.  Yet we may engage in an escalating conflict until we have World War III in the middle of Home Depot.    Given that the vast majority of conflicts take two (even the so-called victim or martyr in an argument has culpability too), the entire dynamic is simply harmful and counter-productive to the relationship.

In addition to the strong likelihood that we both have fault, being able and willing to acknowledge one’s own role in the dynamic can have surprisingly positive outcomes.   If I’m willing to acknowledge that I got upset prematurely (sensitive people can sense this even if I say nothing), used a judgmental or harsh tone, chose a wounding word, picked an argued about something inconsequential, then I am taking responsibility for my actions.  Paradoxically, when I acknowledge my role, even if it’s slight, I then develop a sense of honor from my actions, especially if I acknowledge my role to my sparring partner.

Honor is not the only benefit from finding my own culpability. I also am diminishing my hypocrisy and judgment, both tendencies of human nature.  Perhaps most importantly, I am also mitigating the damage to the relationship in which I have carefully invested in until the moment that I just lost it.  Finally, because it is also human nature to reciprocate, most people are subsequently willing to find their own fault in the argument.  Both parties can walk away feeling like they were treated fairly.

Honor.  Avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.  Restoring a relationship.  Reciprocity.  Sounds like a win-win-win-win to me.