Evolving the Misfit Into A Hero

"Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)"

“Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)”

Every office has one. You know, that person that just doesn’t fit in. They always seem to have their head in the clouds, or they’re off on their own. Folks have pretty much given up trying to understand where they’re coming from.   They march to their own drummer and no one seems to know how to get them in line. To make matters worse, that poor misfit consequently is often the subject of jokes and snide comments. Maybe occasionally you’ve even participated in that gossip.

I have observed a number of these misfits over the years. In one setting, they may be unproductive and/or misunderstood and/or difficult to get along with; an enigma. But funny thing is if you take that Fish Out of Water (FOW) and put them in, well, water, then they can really sparkle.

Organizational culture is a strong but unseen force that we old-timers tend to take for granted. This is how things are, except they are not that way everywhere. New employees may have a tough time transitioning to a new organization, especially if it has a strong culture and orientation and onboarding are minimal. Even with a strong orientation, some just may never feel at home in an organization if the priorities, values, and tendencies are afar from their own. For example, I will probably never feel at home at a financial institution since money is the last thing I want to think about.

Tendencies are also important in a culture. The Gallup organizations defines our strengths are our natural patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. Like-minded people tend to have similar strengths. Therefore, having an office with many like-minded individuals tends to result in smooth interpersonal dynamics. Using the Meyers-Briggs personality as an example, an office full of introverts will make the sole extravert feel out of place, and visa versa. Introverts gain energy from being alone; extraverts gain energy from interacting with others. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.

While personality homogeneity may tend to create a smooth cultural dynamic, the potential downside is group-think and over-relying on a narrow range of skills. In contrast, a successful team accesses a wide range of strengths and uses them effectively. For instance, the office may need an office advocate. That FOW extrovert may be a good choice for this social role since they will be energized by meetings with others.   The extrovert will also be saving the rest of the team from doing a task that is effortful for them.

Now who’s the office hero?

In sum, the FOW actually represents an opportunity to make your team stronger and round out the team skill set.   Else, the FOW just quits in disgust, leaving the others in their group-think mode. Managers have a responsibility to help the FOW find the tasks and roles that best suit their skills and tendencies, and to value the unique role they play in the group setting the example by role modeling.

Remember, we’re all genius at something. Focusing on the shortcomings and struggles of another is not only unfair and unkind, but also unproductive. Challenge yourself to discover the genius and glory of the person you don’t understand. Seeing them in a new light may also help you to see yourself differently. You’re a gazelle, have you ever felt like you were suddenly under water?

It may also be true that the FOW may need to find a pond, and the gazelle a dry stretch of land.  But in the meantime, we’re a delicate ecosystem that is full of God’s creatures that are all interdependent. Help that FOW find a little water, and you may find that she can evolve and grow lungs.

Toxic, Disruptive People

My inner toddler

My inner toddler

When working or living with toxic, difficult people, our tendency seems to be to use labels (b*tch, pr*ck, evil, toxic, etc.) as a shortcut to understanding them. Though convenient and expeditious, not unlike a handful of trail mix for dinner, the problem with labels is that we stop seeing the other as a complex person who is struggling, just like we are. Instead, the label tends to homogenize and minimize their essence to nothing but negative. The extreme ‘evil’ label implies that the other is irredeemable and is deserving of whatever ill fate that may befall them, intentional or otherwise.

I haven’t had enough coffee this morning to debate whether evil exists, or whether evil is more appropriately viewed through a mental illness lens. Most people that we encounter in our daily lives fall far short of that diagnosis, though it is often tempting to box someone in with that label.

Here’s what I do know about difficult people. Remembering these concepts helps me to deal with them and my reaction to them more constructively.

  • Difficult people are our teachers. We learn patience and perspective by being in their midst.
  • No matter how sure you are that they are to blame, we always have some responsibility in a failed relationship.   Explore flipping your story to gain some useful perspective. For starters, we are often blind to our own need to be right or lack of forgiveness which tends to invite bad behavior in others.
  • Everyone has a valid perspective, even if you disagree with or can’t understand it. Remember, disagreements often stem from different ethical priorities, not from an absence of values or a moral compass. Learning anothers’ perspective will help you understand and forgive while also making it more likely that they will be motivated to understand yours.
  • We often confuse being lenient or soft on others with doing the right thing. Martyring ourselves or our team to accommodate the perceived needs or demands of a toxic person is not doing anyone any favors in the long run and is not likely to keep the peace for long.   Behavioral issues should be dealt with early, firmly and with compassion.   For example, despite repeated interventions, some students continue to have performance or behavioral issues.   They are not unintelligent or lazy; instead, they are often a poor fit for the program. Helping these students to find the right academic environment will allow them to grow and shine. In contrast, enabling them to persist in a program that does not match their strengths or interests only prolongs the issue for them. Avoiding the problem for extended durations can result in incalculable losses of time, money, energy, productivity, and peace of mind for both the student and those around them.
  • A therapist I know once said that everyone is always trying their best. I did not believe her at the time, but I believe this statement to be 100 % true. Laziness is synonymous for lack of engagement. In the work environment, lack of engagement is strongly associated with being ignored or getting negative attention. Conventional wisdom concurs with respect to children that act out at home because they are being ignored. It’s easy to blame the child or lazy employee but the root cause is usually the parent or manager (see bullet #2 above).

It’s not easy turning the lens from the difficult person back on oneself. When tired or stressed, this task seems pointless or nearly impossible.   But here are your options: allow someone else to make you feel frustrated and emotionally out of control or by take constructive action that will help improve yourself, your family or you organization.   The latter may seem harder, but consider how uncontrolled emotion is the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum, even if you think you’re controlling it externally.

Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. However, finding someone else who agrees with your or is in the same boat is not a good excuse to avoid dealing constructively with that difficult person in you.

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 Thy Enemy and Other People You Can’t Stand

love-your-enemy-probably-doesnt-mean_

We all have that person/people we just can’t stand to be around.  They wronged us.  They’re selfish, demanding, controlling, mean-spirited, and/or negative.  When we’re around them, they make our blood boil and we just want to bolt or wallow in a chocolate binge.

I was never sure which was more upsetting – being near someone I couldn’t stand, or the fact that I couldn’t stand being near them.  I mean, why should their presence upset me?  Ruin an otherwise lovely event or meeting?  (I realize “lovely meeting” is an oxymoron but you know what I mean.)  It just makes it worse when that person seems completely oblivious to their effect on others.

The problem with this scenario of allowing someone else to rock my boat – justified or not – is that I’m giving away my power.  In other words, I’m allowing someone else to control how I feel.  If I spend five minutes, no  – one minute, feeling any less peaceful, content or happy with my life because of someone else, then I’ve let that someone “win.”

Illegitimi non carborundum” (translation:  don’t let the bastards get you down) – World War II British army intelligence

The solution is to avoid going there in the first place.  I realize that’s easier said than done, but I feel like it’s well worth the effort.

First, realize that by treating that person as a problem, obstacle or a happiness/joy black hole, I am objectifying  them.  Dehumanizing them.  I am treating them like an object, a thing, not a person with feelings, dreams, and (this may be a stretch here sometimes) good intentions.  Sounds like I’m the person with the problem.

Second, view that person instead with compassion and empathy.  Usually if someone is acting so unreasonably, selfishly or negatively it must mean that they are struggling with their fear, control issues, confidence or ability to see the world as a loving place.  I imagine them as a scared child, and see that their actions are being driven by their hot buttons, not their better angels.  He who has never acted or spoken based upon their hot buttons can probably never understand this concept, but I would hazard a guess that we’ve all been there, done that.

In addition, remember that the characteristic in someone else that drives you nuts is the thing you hate/fear about yourself.   A friend recently said, “but I hate lazy, ineffective people, and I don’t think I’m lazy or ineffective.”  This would fall into the latter category of something you may fear you may find in yourself.  For example, people who are driven to work hard and excel may have an underlying belief that tells them they are not worthy/lovable/valuable/a good person unless they demonstrate their competence and productivity.  Such people may work very hard to avoid their feelings of incompetence – a feeling they hate in themselves.

Third, forgive that person.  It’s easy to forgive them when I see their scared child.  I’ve said in this blog many times that “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself” (Suzanne Somers) and I truly believe that. Forgiveness lightens the spirit and opens the heart, regardless of whether I think they deserve it.  It’s for me, not for them.  Plus, I’ve  just identified that quality in the person that I fear that I may share with them.  So, I can forgive yourself, while I’m at it.

Finally, approach that person now with love, compassion, and empathy. Once I do the above three steps, the last step is surprisingly easy, because I am no longer judging either of us, and now I can bring my best self to the dynamic.  You may be surprised how healing, powerful and affirming it is to approach difficult people with love and empathy, not only for you but also for the person you are no longer treating like something you found on the bottom of your shoe.  They may also just find that you’re not being as difficult as they once thought and forgive you too.

My assistant’s tag line on her email has been “I choose love.”  And she does.  And so should we all, especially when it’s hardest to do.

De-Stress in One (Sort of) Easy Step

Stress relief

Stress relief

I don’t believe in stress anymore.  I think it’s highly overrated so I suggest you just dispense with it.

I’m not talking about the low amounts of stress that cause you to be productive, meet deadlines and do a good job.  I’m talking about anything beyond that, because then, by definition, the stress is counterproductive.  Don’t wait until you feel your life is out of control and your health and happiness are suffering to fix this.  Or maybe you’re reading this because it already is.

I used to do stress to the nines, complete with stress-related pain conditions and being grouchy and irritable.  All that stress was standing in the way of enjoying my life and feeling good each day.  I’m sure being with me was no Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte (this is how I imagine communal serenity).

Sunday afternoon

So I gave up stress for Lent.

Well.  Actually, I gave up stress for me.  To benefit me.   Giving up stress for Lent just sounds better.

I’m wasn’t sure what stresses other people so I did a little web surfing and found some causes of stress:

  • Problems – health, financial, unemployment, emotional, social/relationship
  • Unhappiness with situation – social (such as loneliness), career
  • Major life changes
  • Conflict between belief/values and life choices/situations

You may wish to add a bullet or ten to the list yourself.   But to me, it boils down to a simple bit of wisdom, from my man The Bard:

“Expectation is the root of all heartache” – William Shakespeare

Perhaps that sounds simplistic, but I believe most of human grief is self-generated and based on unrealistic or unfair expectations of self, others and the world.  Often these expectations are subconscious drivers of our behavior and feelings until they are brought to light, examined, questioned and even challenged.

Let’s re-categorize the above stressors into types of expectations:

Now that you’ve boiled your stress list down to one factor that you probably didn’t even realize was controlling your life, you can now deal with the stress in your life in a constructive fashion.

Find the balance between being accepting, but willing to change your perspective and the circumstances of your life.   In other words, if I don’t like my job, it’s because I’m having unrealistic expectations about myself, others, or my circumstances.

It doesn’t mean I should be passive about the status quo.  I can work to improve my situation there or to find a new job.  I can negotiate new salary, duties, space.  I can ask for and create changes that I think will improve the work environment.  However, until circumstances improve, I do not allow myself to get stressed or upset about what I cannot or have not yet changed.  If I feel taken for granted at work, I focus on ways that I am appreciated.   If I feel underpaid, I focus on ways that I am rewarded well.  (See (Uncover Your) Truth or (Suffer the) ConsequencesThe struggle itself is a gift and much can be learned from that endeavor.

The same is true with the difficult people in your life.    Accept them as they are, because like you, they are trying their best.   They, like you, deserve your forgiveness and compassion for being human.  Focus on how they are meeting your needs instead of how they are not.  It’s OK to try to influence people, but don’t tie your peace of mind to the outcome.

You can give up stress because you don’t need it.  You don’t want it.  Just do one thing:  Change your perspective.

Don’t you feel better already?

How Difficult People Are a Blessing. Part I – Those Closest To You (AKA: How I Create Difficulty For People)

There are certain people that have brought out the worst in me.  After many years,  I believe I now have a much healthier approach to dealing with such difficult people and the conflict-ridden relationships that seem to inevitably accompany them.

For me, first I had to learn to deal with the difficult people that were closest to me. In either case, whether in a close or casual relationship, difficult people do not do what I want them to do – either in their actions, their words or their attitudes.  Behavior that really pushes my buttons are cruelty, hypocrisy, disrespect, treating others unfairly or narcissism, a list that  may differ from yours.    To make matters worse, when these difficult folks are close to you, such behavior has a much larger impact on how you feel, what you think, and the choices you make; therefore, being objective is all the more difficult, and their behavior all the more trying.

Ironically, the answer for me crystallized when I looked at myself for my role in the unhappy dynamic.  In other words, until I had taken ownership of my role in the conflict, I was going to be forever stuck in blaming someone else and unable to improve.   Granted, this was a difficult step, but was critical for me to make any positive change.  My big mistake in the dysfunctional dance?  Having unrealistic expectations.

My role, thus my responsibility.   They were not the “difficult people”, I was the difficult person – and the common denominator.  I was a perfectionist, i.e. I had ridiculously high standards for myself, meaning that I was not accepting myself and my imperfect humanity.  My subconscious belief was that if I was not always smart, talented, cute, right, then I just wouldn’t be safe, accepted, loved, or approved of.  I had to realize, finally, that perfection is not a virtue, it’s a cruel illusion that fosters lack of both authenticity and opportunity for improvement.  Importantly, I had to forgive myself for being, well, human.  Imperfect.  Ripe for growth and development.   “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself” (Suzanne Somers) is really true, and the benefits of self-forgiveness are vast, pervasive and unexpected.

Forgiveness of myself for being imperfect also allowed me to forgive others for their humanity and all the times they have disappointed me.    Since I have learned to forgive myself for being insensitive, ignorant, selfish, undiplomatic, not loving, argumentative, defensive, I was able to forgive my loved ones for when they were being overly sensitive, know-it-all, demanding, needy, judgmental, hypocritical and critical.   I was able to forgive them, since I had already forgiven myself.

Finally, a wise friend (ok, it was my therapist) once told me that I may never have the relationship I want with my loved ones.  Wow, that was an epiphany:  accepting the person and relationship as it is.  In other words, I should release my expectations, not only of myself and my loved ones, but of the relationship too.  The lesson of 9/11 also reinforced this notion that control is an illusion.  The more we invest in illusions such as control or perfection, the more frustrated, angry, resentful, and exhausted we become when we fail to meet expectation.  I’m never going to be perfect, my loved ones will never be perfect, and it’s OK if our relationship is just – OK.  Paradoxically the relationship improves when I don’t expect too much of it or my loved one.

Therefore, in the end, I was the source of my own dissatisfaction. I was the difficult person.  The problem was my lack of forgiveness, my failure to accept the reality of what was possible or even desirable for myself, others, or my relationships, and my insistence that it was someone else’s responsibility to fix the conflict and my own frustration.  I was the only person I could change and I did not have to continue employing an unforgiving, judgmental, and blaming lens to view myself or my relationships.  Accepting and forgiving myself and others for what is, rather than what should be, was a relief to my loved ones, but a transformative and loving gift to myself.