How Right Do You Need to Be?

**A Repost from 2013. Seems like timely advice in an election year…

After a recent disagreement/misunderstanding with the hubs, I began to ponder the nature of conflict in all relationships. Of course, as with most disputes, I can’t recall the exact details or origin of this particular “discussion” the hubs and I were having. But it may have went something like this:

Me: “Did you check the website? All the information is on the website.”

Hubs: “I clicked the link. But there was no information.”

Me: “That’s impossible. I clicked the link yesterday. It was all there.”

Hubs: “I’m telling you, I clicked the link and there was no information.”

Me: “You must be doing it wrong.”

Hubs: “Of course you think I’m doing it wrong because you think I’m stupid.”

Me~clicking the link, seeing said information, carrying the laptop over to where he’s eating a bowl of cereal to show him it’s there and giving him a look that says, “If you’re not stupid, then why is everything right here where I said it would be?”

So here is the problem with the above interaction and possibly all conflicts in relationships, politics, religion, etc. Two or more people have two or more completely different experiences and believe that all other people have had or will have the exact same experiences. Those differing people insist that their experiences, reactions to those experiences and outcomes from those experiences should be the same for everybody else. If there is any pushback, we will go to almost any lengths to prove our version of reality is right. (Or worse, we’ll shrug off the dissenter as stupid or unimportant.)

So here’s the thing. I never intended to make the hubs feel as if I believed he is stupid. I only wanted to prove I was right. I didn’t want to consider that he could possibly have had a different experience than me. Because of course, in this case, computers are completely reliable devices upon which we should be able to bash our rightness over the heads of any dissenters, right?

What completely reliable “evidence” might you be using to bash your rightness over someone else’s head? This is a small example. But zoom out to big picture disagreements, and how many of them are mostly about who wins or who gets to be right?

So I encourage you to consider this New Year’s resolution. Before launching into any conflict, large or small, ask yourself, “How right do I need to be?” Is my rightness worth damaging the feelings of another person? Is my piled on rightness over time worth damaging entire relationships? Is our collective rightness worth boxing out the opinions of other people or other religious groups, political groups, social groups or family members? Maybe so. Or maybe not. And maybe, just maybe, we are not as right as we think we are.

Happy New Year!

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Is Anybody Buying What You’re Selling?

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Anyone who’s ever been in sales likely knows about the “pen test”. I failed my first “pen test” when I was 22 years old. A fresh faced college graduate with Working Girl  dreams schlepping my briefcase from brokerage house to brokerage house on the hunt for a job in the midst of a recession. Most hiring managers were impressed with my chutzpah. But a successful stockbroker is a successful sales person. And sales people must be clear about what they want and they must ask for it–something I find too many non-sales people are reluctant to do–and that’s unfortunate. Because thinking clearly about what you want and articulating clearly what you want are vital life skills. It also helps mentally compare motivations with values to check that they are in line.

The “pen test” is a good measure of a basic sales skill. For me, it went like this: one of those brokerage house managers listened intently as I prattled on about my academic accomplishments and work ethic, etc. He glanced at my resume and complimented my aptitude. But then he did something I thought a bit strange at the time. He plucked a pen from a holder on his desk and handed it to me. “Please try to sell me this pen,” he said.

Thinking this a very odd request but knowing that the first rule of improv (and desperation) is never to deny an invitation, I took the pen and began to list all of its many features and benefits.

The manager listened. And nodded. And smiled. But he never gave an indication of when I was finished selling the pen. It seemed he was waiting for me to say more. I continued with my flowery narrative: how stylish the pen was, how smooth it wrote, how it wouldn’t leak in your pocket, etc. But his face remained unchanged and seemingly underwhelmed.

I finally stopped talking about the amazing pen and asked, “How’d I do?”

He retrieved his pen from me, replaced it to its holder and said, “You did fine but you forgot the most important part.”

“What?”

“You never asked me how many pens I wanted to order.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

We can’t just talk and talk and talk when we want something to happen or someone to act. At some point, we need to clearly say what it is we want. Salespeople want a sale. But everybody wants something at some point. Are you making it clear what it is you want–when you’re having a disagreement, when you’re nagging your spouse or children, when you’re complaining at the customer service counter or to your boss or to your staff? If you’re not getting what you want, maybe it’s because you haven’t asked. Maybe you don’t even know.

A couple of years ago, a teacher said something to my son that upset him so much, he didn’t want to return to school the next day. He buried his head under his covers distraught at the possibility that his teacher disliked him. Fury vibrated in my soul and my blood boiled at the thought of someone, especially a teacher, upsetting my child to such a degree with careless words. I called the principal and requested a meeting. I remember still shaking with indignant anger while gripping the steering wheel during that drive to the school. Then, I paused and asked myself, “What exactly do I want from this meeting?”

A fair question. Always. Venting frustration and complaining about things we don’t like or believe are unfair do little to nothing to solve any problem unless we can articulate what it is we want an offending person to do.

Sometimes we just want to be heard. If so, say that. Sometimes we want an apology. If so, say that. Other times, we may want revenge or to inflict pain on those who’ve hurt us. If that’s our motivation, we need to hit the pause button and take stock of our values and behavior.

In the case with my son, I wanted him to feel safe and accepted in this particular teacher’s classroom. And once I’d figured out exactly what I wanted, I knew how to state my case and ask for it. The principal and teacher readily agreed. The teacher even hugged my son when he returned to her class and assured him that her words were not meant to be hostile. She would never be my son’s favorite teacher (and possibly he was never her favorite student) but they could co-exist with an understanding based on clear expectations that were in line with good values.

I’ve tried to ask myself this question, “What do I want?” whenever I lead a meeting, write a blog post, return an item to a department store, plan a vacation, consider a job opportunity or find myself feeling depressed or jealous or fat or unhappy. And what if I answered that question by saying, “Today, I want my actions to give glory to God.”?

Because what good is it to wallow in negativity or aspire to some vague notion of joy? Emotions come and go. They are unstable and unpredictable.

Like counting our blessings, examining what drives our thinking and thus, what it is we want, and then practicing the skill of being able to speak that truth in love can go a long way in accomplishing personal and professional goals. It can also help smooth out rough patches in relationships and dial back a tendency to simply complain when we’re unhappy.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

We can tap dance around most any issue ad nauseam. But eventually, we must offer ourselves and the world clarity of motivation and desire. Only then will we know if anyone is buying what we’re selling.

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Best Relationship Advice EVER!

Credit: Google Images

Credit: Google Images

During a lovely dinner out with a friend, she and I got to chatting about when our children were small and how difficult that stage of life could be. I joked about long days spent soothing a fussy infant and then giving the hubs a death stare if he dared return from work and ask me what I’d done all day. Sometimes I’d drag the vacuum cleaner out and just leave it in the middle of the living room floor–a ruse to convince the hubs that I’d at least attempted to tidy up. This would often blunt his insensitive inquiries. At least that’s how I always interpreted his truly innocuous attempts at making conversation. Sleep deprived, exhausted, milk stained, poop stained and hormonal–I would often assume the hubs was passing judgment on my homemaking abilities.

My friend smiled supportively. But surely she thinks my “baby days” quaint and quite compared to hers. This brave woman endured double the “fun” as her initial experience with motherhood involved having twins!

“How did you do it?” I asked.

She replied with what I believe is some of the best relationship advice EVER. She said that when her twins were babies, and she and her hubs were navigating the separate worlds of an at home parent and a working parent, they arrived at an agreement. It went something like this…

“I agree to believe that you’re doing the best that you can if you agree to believe that I am doing the best that I can.”

Now this agreement surely helped grease the skids of understanding during a difficult time. (Parents of infants and toddlers please note, things do get easier. You will sleep again one day. In the meantime, consider making a similar agreement with your spouse.)

But even though my friend’s twins are grown and my children are inching ever closer to being grown, this “agreement” is still applicable, especially during times of high stress or when life reliably throws its myriad of challenges at your marriage. So the next time you feel compelled to snark at your spouse or pass silent judgment because your expectations or needs are not being met, make an honest assessment of the situation. Chances are, given the circumstances, you’re both doing the best you can. And if not, then maybe you should chat about what you’re going through whether it be parenting challenges, pressures at work, an illness in the family, etc. Honestly discuss needs and expectations and figure out how to get closer to the “agreement” until the storm passes.

TAKE NOTE!

This “agreement” only applies to healthy relationships during periods of temporary challenges. It is not an excuse to let long-term bad behavior slide. I’ve seen your type before. Hell, I’ve been your type before! So if you’re one of those overly-accommodating and overly-sympathetic types who make excuses for someone who is lazy or rude or is otherwise unsuitable life partner material, don’t even begin to nod along with this particular relationship advice. It doesn’t apply to you. And here’s why…

There are plenty of folks in the world who struggle with addiction or dabble in adultery or chatterbox from the couch about their dream job while you pay the bills. These people are likely “doing the best they can” but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough for you. So if you’re setting the bar too low, you may have relationship issues that no blogger (nor any amount of wishful thinking) can help resolve. Seek professional help. Or if you’re not already married to or have kids with this person, maybe consider moving on and finding someone whose “best” more often than not delights and surpasses your expectations. Someone about whom you don’t have to frequently tell your parents or girlfriends, “he’s doing the best he can.”

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I Have Questions

photo from Google images

photo from Google images

It occurs to me that when you avoid a “taboo” topic of conversation and I dive face first into one, that maybe, we are trying to convey the same message–compassion.

This is a new revelation to me as I’ve been historically puzzled by those who don’t ask questions. I’ve always found it particularly odd when family members and supposedly close friends dance daintily around elephants plopped smack in the middle of the room.

Examples:

  • You meet a friend for coffee. You know she’s been struggling with something personal because she’s either previously told you or you heard about it from a mutual friend. You avoid the topic. But I say, “So I heard you’re having a rough go. Wanna talk about it?”
  • Your teenage son’s buddy comes over. You remember something about his having a girlfriend. You offer the kids pizza rolls and return to loading the dishwasher. But I say, “Still have that girlfriend? How are things going? Is she smart? Is she funny? Do her parents like you? Do your parents like her?”
  • A relative or college friend is getting married. You know her fiancé has a child from a previous relationship. You attend all the pre-wedding festivities and behave as if you’ve known the child its whole life. (Which is good btw. Always be kind to children.) But I ask the bride-to-be, “Was your fiancé married before? Does the child have a relationship with the mother? Do you? I honor your commitment to becoming a step-parent. But it must be challenging in some ways. Tell me about that.”

So, to be clear, I don’t necessarily pour out all of my questions in the sequential style of an interrogator. I understand the dance of discussion. And I’m talking about people we have relationships with. (Or maybe not. I do tend to ask strangers questions too.) But the fact is, I do ask questions. Questions other people seem too afraid or too indifferent to ask. I suppose I’m just curious about people. I don’t want to guess or assume or conjure up my own ideas about how things are going with you. I’d rather hear it from you. And how better to know what’s really going on than to ask questions?

Before you begin to think I have no boundaries, let me share a few examples of topics I’ll most likely ask you about that others might not:

  • Your relationships
  • Your work/education/career status, goals, hopes and dreams
  • Your faith/spiritual life
  • Your physical and mental health
  • Your kids (But mostly if your kids are over 5 years old and are capable of doing more interesting things than making poop in the potty. Cause, eventually we can all do that. So although you’re excited, it’s not that impressive.)

And some topics I probably won’t ask you about because I do have boundaries or they don’t really help me know you in any meaningful way or I don’t really care all that much:

  • Your finances
  • Your sex life (Gross.)
  • Your fitness routine (Gah! Shut up already. You’re fit or really want to be. Good for you.)
  • Your politics (I can already tell from talking to you.)

I ask questions because I’m interested in you. I care about you. I want to know you better. And I’ve always believed that others avoided asking questions because they’re either too bashful or too self-involved or think they already know all the answers or don’t really care all that much. But I may be wrong about the non-questioners in some instances. We just may be trying to convey the same message of sensitivity and care; you by keeping silent on some matters, me by speaking up.

I think this is most relevant when it comes to people’s personal lives. Even though the media makes huge efforts to convince us that all personal things are fit for public consumption, many still believe personal relationships and problems are off limits. Which is funny since most people have no problem dishing about the serial mating habits of some insecure and drug-addled movie star but won’t dare ask a friend if they’re lonely.

My revelation has been that some believe asking such questions is intrusive and judgmental. People say nothing not because they don’t care, but because they don’t wish to offend or open old wounds. And sometimes the silent types, the non-questioners believe I’m being needlessly nosey or rude.

But I believe we’ve misjudged each other. You’re trying to show compassion by keeping silent. I’m trying to show compassion by being inquisitive. Is one way better than the other? Should you speak up? Should I shut up?

Discuss…

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May God Bless Your Obedience and other “Whacky” Sentiments

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This July, the hubs and I celebrate 19 years married. Not to brag since many have logged more years than us. But as the daughter of divorced parents and granddaughter of divorced grandparents, it’s kind of a big deal to me. I have no disrespect for divorced people, especially those who’ve suffered through abuse, addiction or adultery. For them, divorce can be a most welcome salve to their wounded spirit. But if I had any tip for staying married under what some might call more ideal circumstances, it would be this–the needs of the marriage must trump the wants of the self.

To illustrate, let me share a story from my first year of marriage. The hubs and I had packed up and moved west for kicks and giggles. We told folks, if we loved it, we’d stay and if we hated it, we’d leave. Trouble was, we had no plan for if one of us loved it and the other didn’t. We purchased a house in a suburb outside Seattle and spent our evenings after work going for walks around our new neighborhood. We talked about the future, promotions we hoped to attain, money we hoped to make and the number of children we planned to have. One of the hubs’ recurring dreams was returning to the Midwest. “The Twin Cities are great,” he’d say. “You’d really like it there.”

I’d roll my eyes and nod my head. Being a Michigander who’d always dreamed of living west, I had no intention of ever doing winter again. I’d joke in response, “Fine but you’ll have to get a promotion and a relocation package, help selling our house, and I’ll need a winter clothing allowance.”

Two years into our west coast adventure, I’d snagged a great promotion and was excited for more travel, more responsibility and more money. Three months after that, the hubs was also offered a promotion and a relocation package to guess where?? That’s right, the Twin Cities.

His news disappointed me to say the least. But I recalled another component of our evening walks, discussions of starting a family. I wanted a career but I also wanted to someday parent our future kiddos full-time. I’d seen enough jet-set executives to know I couldn’t do both. That meant, gulp, that his promotion meant more to our future family in the long term. I resolved to move to Minnesota and find another job.

I broke into tears when telling a friend my tale of woe. She responded by saying, “God will bless your obedience.”

My tears may have sucked back up into their ducts as I stifled a laugh. Only a religious nutcase would say such a thing, or so I believed at the time.

But 19 years later, I’ll admit that getting to raise our kids in Minnesota is one of the many blessings I’ve experienced since letting go of what I thought I wanted in favor of what my marriage needed.

Growing up with a single mother taught me self-preservation. Submission was not modeled in my mother’s home. Like her, I refuse to be anybody’s doormat. Even the term submission may stir up a feminist rant complete with finger snaps, head bobs and curse words. And yet, year after year, regular practice of submission, putting my individual wants second to the needs of others, particularly my spouse–being obedient to what I know in my heart is right–has brought me blessing. Truth!

I blow a kiss across the plains to my religious nutcase friend whose wisdom once sounded whacky to me. And if you’re trying to cobble together some good years with someone in marriage or even in friendship, consider which small sacrifices each person in the relationship could make for the good of the whole. And may God bless your obedience.

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Sip Your Drink Slowly, and Other Tips for Handling Irksome Family Members.

Large Group of Happy People standing together.Things don’t always turn out how we want. Blah Blah. Heard it all before. Right? Make lemon drop martinis out of lemons… or something like that. But what about when people don’t behave how we want them to? Yes, if we’re honest, we must admit we have certain expectations about human behavior. Not usually our own behavior, no, our harshest criticism seems especially passionate when it comes to the folks who happen to be related to us.

It’s summer and the season offers plenty of opportunity for family gatherings, or at least the expectation of some level of family togetherness. And when it comes to family, what I seem to notice most consistently is the disappointment people harbor when it comes to certain family members.

“Why doesn’t he call more often?” “She forgot my birthday.” “He’s too busy and doesn’t make enough time for me.” “She’s spoiling her children.” “He doesn’t pay enough attention to his children.” “They only call when they need something.” “She’s so critical of everything I do.”

On and on it goes, an endless lament of unmet expectations sprinkled into a simmering stew of deeply held disappointments and grudges.

Welp, here’s the deal as far as I see it. When it comes to family, we’re kind of stuck. Unless there is some really hurtful dysfunction or brutality at work, a la August Osage County, it’s difficult to have relationships if we just pick up our toys and go home when others get on our nerves. Instead, consider a handful of coping techniques I’ve found helpful when tempted to complain about someone else’s behavior.

First, I’m willing to bet that most of the time another person’s behavior isn’t about me. It’s about them. They’re trying too hard or aren’t trying at all because they’re worried about perception or making a mistake. My mind can be hard to read and yours probably can be too. Heck, the people who live in my house with me are often unsure of how to make me happy. So how can we expect others to know exactly what to do or say to please us? Or maybe that person you’re annoyed with is just plain clueless and has no real intention of being helpful or hurtful. So what? Laugh it off. Give it a pass. Don’t keep a record of wrongs.

Second, generational and cultural differences do exist. So stop measuring other people by the social mores of whatever generation, town or religious tradition you came of age in. Be gentle, not condescending. And even when it’s difficult, try to give the old folks a break–for many reasons, but mostly because our behavior toward them is teaching our children how to treat us when we’re old. Seriously. Think about it.

Lastly, stop being pissed off that your family doesn’t mirror some romanticized TV version of unconditional campfire Kumbaya. The fact is many people simply cannot live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Either because they never learned how or are emotionally unequipped to do so. So when we get anxious, angry or agitated because others are not meeting our needs, we’re being just as annoying as they are. Put yourself in their shoes and consider the source. Then consider the only true source of life, the creator and maker of all things who stands ready to meet our very real needs.

I pray blessings on all of your family gatherings this summer and hope we can be quick to forgive, offer kindness and seek a spirit of harmony. May our expectations be in line with what’s realistic and our concerns be more about how we can bless others rather than how we desire others to bless us. Oh, and if life give you lemons, be sure to sip your lemon drop slowly.

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Keeping Quiet Won’t Kill You and Not All Failure is Bad

P1040164As an MBA student, I once found myself on a “ropes course” with a couple dozen other students from a leadership class. It’s been a long time, but as I recall, this outdoor adventure was supposed to teach us something about leadership styles. We were placed into groups of five or six and assigned specific tasks that involved overcoming obstacles in a forest, much like summer camp. The caveat was that those of us who had been identified as extroverted, thinking types on a popular personality profile were required to keep silent during the exercise unless specifically called upon for input. Instead of offering suggestions, we were supposed to be good listeners and let the more introverted, feeling types have greater opportunities to discuss the challenges and devise our plans for success. You can imagine how this played out…

As an extrovert who leans toward logical vs. magical thinking, within about 30 minutes, I wanted to kill myself and some of the other more “sensitive” folks. We stood at the base of an imposing wall in the woods for what seemed like eternity while nice people politely discussed possible ways that our team could collectively scale the barrier. I witnessed various unsuccessful attempts at boosting and human pyramid building and checked my watch. Tick tock. We were going to lose this challenge and I don’t like to lose.

What really galled me was that we had a U.S. Marine on our team. But he’d been identified as an extrovert and remained silent. I could not understand why team members weren’t asking for his advice. I assumed he’d done this kind of thing before and could easily lead us to victory. But, NO! Maybe the quiet types relished holding the mute button on the loud mouths.

Finally, after many failed slides down the wall like heartbreaking kids in gym class who need a hug, somebody asked the Marine for input. And I could have fainted dead away at his response. Something like, “You’re on the right track. Keep thinking it through.” What!? Had his crew cut nicked important grey matter? Was our class about to devolve into some CSI laboratory for science majors? Or maybe we were being videotaped for a psychology course on rage. None of the above. We made it over the wall and finished the course. I can’t remember who “won.”

A decade later, I’m beginning to understand the value of this exercise. My husband, God bless him, often requires extra time to analyze any given situation before making a decision. This includes ordering lunch at McDonald’s where the menu hasn’t changed in like 30 years! How does this require analysis? I take a deep breath and calmly chant my order: chicken nuggets, small fry, diet coke.

And our son, a rather shy introvert, will agree to most anything we say. To the point where I’m actually encouraging him to contradict me, to stand his ground, to speak up and defend his opinions because I worry he’ll be trampled by tyrants (ahem, opinionated extroverts) like me in the real world.

And as for that Marine and his comment, he displayed great wisdom. He realized something I didn’t– that he wasn’t on a battlefield that day. No lives were hanging in the balance and “winning” wasn’t the goal. I’ve come to understand the importance of repeated failure as an important learning device. And that leaders won’t be leaders for long if the team hates your guts. This means everyone must be heard and sometimes it takes longer for others to assemble and articulate their thoughts. And that’s okay.

But one thing I did understand back then and teach my kiddos every day, if an expert is available, ASK FOR HELP!

 

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