“If you want to know someone’s mind, listen to their words. If you want to know their heart, watch their actions.” ~Luxanarach Aeokeeratikan
This may be because I whole-heartedly believe that it is important that we take responsibility for our own happiness. We often treat the idea of happiness as an outcome of external factors working toward our benefit, but I don’t necessarily agree with that.
People who don’t often engage in conflict are often terrible at handling it (reasonably so) when they encounter it. But avoidance won’t exactly equip you with the skills you need to work through these obstacles when you are (inevitably) faced with them.
1 Corinthians 15:10 reads:
“By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain . . . “
Baptist Minister, Oswald Chambers uses this scripture to reflect upon the idea of faithlessness or a lack of trust as an inherent human failing in this excerpt when he says:
The way we continually talk about our own inabilities is an insult to our Creator. To complain over our incompetence is to accuse God falsely of having overlooked us.
And to be fair, he does have a valid point. And while I do think that trust is crucial in order to be able to move beyond what we can’t understand, I’m just not sure whether I agree with it.
Case in point;
In college I was the organizational “it girl.” As a nontraditional student I came in with a lot of skills that the other students hadn’t developed yet. And I managed to differentiate myself from the other nontrads by knowing when to contribute my life experience, but also when to step back and allow others to work through their own process while I simply listened. For me, a lot of my college experience was spent learning how to recognize where to establish those boundaries, because we had so much diversity and it was necessary as a campus leader in order to be able to accommodate such a wide range of needs, often times with conflicting interests. But for the most part, people trusted my judgement. So entering into the workplace I wasn’t prepared for being perceived as a threat.
I once was hired to help out someone who didn’t have the best reputation on campus. was my role to mitigate customer complaints by working on the front-line since I had the most experience with client relations and since my position has been vacant for over 2 years, the department had to fill the position because it was more or less on the brink of implosion.
But as I began to see first-hand why so many people had grown frustrated, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. Even with my professional expertise, I could only do so much at my level. And when I had to redirect people to the person I reported to, that person just wasn’t equipped to handle it and I often found myself having to manage a very different situation. The person I reported to wasn’t very honest with themselves or with anybody else about when they needed help, but this person controlled all of the information. So I would go through the protocol of emailing to let the person know that I needed help (outlining which steps I’d gone through, because it seemed as if the person wanted to hold the reins for the decision making, but just didn’t have the skills. And would get offended if you offered support, so the person spent pretty much all of their time doing damage control and invested practically nothing on prevention.
The degree of negligence often put me in a lot of unethical positions. So I drew the line. I had been keeping everything documented, especially since I’d already tried to address my concerns both in writing and in person. But this person made it a point to make it known that they weren’t interested. They had actually gotten pretty sloppy about it.
Eventually, this person even relocated my office to (the most distraction ridden part of the building) a different floor and started dumping dead end projects onto me even though they were outside of my job description (some of which I discovered were even outside of institutional compliance).
Now I’m not used to second guessing myself, but I couldn’t tell whether this person just really just didn’t want me to be there or if they really were that blind and negligent. So I did what any good little girl would do, I fretted about it. –I found ruminating and harboring resentment way too soul crushing to take on long-term and I didn’t want to continue to punish myself for someone else’s unprofessional behavior, plus I’d already lost a lot of respect from my peers and friends in the process.
One of my colleagues finally broke down and let this person have it one day, and surprisingly enough, was able to make a breakthrough, so the rest of the staff started going to that person to act as an advocate on the rest of our behalf on issues that were particularly important. And interestingly enough, the advocate eventually got promoted. And the rest of us have taken special pains to make sure that we work to set this new person up for success.
That was the beginning of my first lessons in failure:
- If you don’t get off the fence and do something about it, nobody’s going to blame the other guy, they’re going to treat you as if you haven’t been accountable for your own contributions because you haven’t done anything about it
- You may not actually have the power to do anything about it, so you better create alliances with those who share your values so that you can adequately support someone who can
- Learn how to systematize your documentation so that you can track your progress, keep a record that you have been accountable for your behavior, and haven’t hemorraged away your time
- Understand not just how to work through resentment, but also how to manage your attitude and expectations so that you can do what you can to illustrate that you’ve done all that you could on your end to prevent it
- Signs and symptoms of fatigue, disillusionment and how to build a toolkit to help you not only weather the storm, but also how to quickly rebuild to pick yourself up
- The importance of surrounding yourself with a support system of people who share your values
- How to recognize patterns of behavior that may be enabling the situation
- When to speak up/ step back
- Learning how to re-frame your concerns so that you don’t come across as a complainer, short-sighted or ungrateful
And I made some real breakthroughs on my own. I even pressured that person in my office to be more accountable, not through threats or disruption, but with extensive documentation and through those alliances, so that this person could understand that they also had a responsibility to model professional behavior, and although I acknowledge that it will never be perfect, this person now has to at least pretend to have corrected some of these behaviors while I’m around instead of making me feel as if was being hazed or being outright disrespected in front of my staff and peers at work.
One of the things that really bought me some time and gave me leverage to figure out my next step… and possibly helped the other person get promoted was this tracking system I implemented to monitor my interactions with this person at work to make sure that the concerns I raised with them were valid, and couldn’t be marginalized or discredited since they were based upon real, measurable data. I had initially modified an old appointment book template to track my staff’s daily progress to see whether I could gauge whether our positive reinforcement approaches provided any real measurable impact in task completion, retention, quality work and policy compliance. And it was easy to convert into a multi-grid scantron style matrix to monitor whether my interactions with my co worker were positive, negative, neutral, and which topics needed were a higher source of contention so that I could come up with solutions for how they could be more amicably addressed.
What I discovered from the data was that it wasn’t the topics that were the problem, but rather the communication style as a whole. So when I finally pulled this co-worker aside, I had something concrete and constructive to discuss, with real evidence of the interactions and my responses so that I could finally advocate on my own behalf. While the co-worker was initially defensive, and even somewhat critical that I had undertaken these measures, I explained that while I really was on their side and wanted to see them succeed, that I needed them to be able to really see and understand their own behavior and how their contributions impacted my work and of the organization as a whole. And that I had no interest in being a whistle blower, but that my concerns were not unwarranted and that given the information we gathered that I needed them to make a decision about whether they wanted to work together to resolve the issues, so that I could make a decision about whether or not I wanted to continue on.
And that all of the information I had collected had already been sent to this person prior to this discussion but after they indicated that they had no time or interest to use those resources, I finally had to tell the person that their attitude and behavior toward did not communicate that they respected my contributions, and that I had been very careful to document my attempts to try to resolve these concerns before they escalated because it wasn’t my intention to add to the disruptive behavior by playing the squeaky wheel. They frankly just weren’t taking advantage, despite the direct invitation of the opportunities to make the best of it. But maybe they just weren’t accustomed to people making things that easy for them, and perhaps this failure of recognition is what made it difficult for them to de-escalate many of the other problems we contend with before they escalated into a bigger crisis.
It sucked to have to lay all of the cards out on the table like that, but I knew that I also had a responsibility to ask for what I needed, whether the person I asked felt compelled to respond well or not.
But more importantly, this experience gave me the opportunity to understand the importance of working with people who share your values and also helped me to be able to reclaim a little bit of personal power that I’ve lost. And not the ego kind where you feel satiated for finally sticking it to the man. To be honest, that part actually made me feel physically sick to be taking on. The empowerment that I felt came from the feeling that I had done what I could to maintain my integrity throughout this process. I treated someone who had bullied me with loving-kindness, but also set very clear boundaries and expectations that I wasn’t going to continue to give the ammo they needed to hang themselves, when this person, through their outright arrogance and negligence literally handed me everything I needed to take them down.
It’s kind of like what would have happened had Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo done all of the bad-ass things he did, but shamed his persecutors into doing the right thing at the moment when he had the opportunity for the take down.
My biggest fear throughout this process is that I’ve begun to pattern some passive behaviors to subsist for the time being and the longer I stick around the more they become habit and a reflection of how poorly I perceive myself. But I entered this role in good faith and I believe that this experience has taught me how to understand where the line between patience and complacency exists, and what I’ve taken for granted.
I’ve had a lot of great employers, who were very supportive and nurturing mentors, and I look forward to being able to find more people to work with who understand the importance of investing in building those kinds of relationships.
Cause despite the fact that I just broke the cardinal rule of job interviews, professionally I have proven that I’m a really good catch. I’m actually pretty disappointed that that experience didn’t work out. But I’m also very excited to be working with someone who I don’t always have to feel compelled to feel sorry for, because it’s much more energizing to be able to work with people who get really excited about the work they do and can rekindle that spark within you so that you remember all of the reasons you believed you could make contributions in that role to begin with.
And although there have been times when I certainly didn’t understand the bigger picture or trust that I’d been adequately taken care of, it was kind of hard to trust that God was looking out for me, when something that I wanted to view as a blessing was obviously changing my heart toward it. So I’m really glad that I didn’t quit… I’m beginning to believe that I might be hard wired not to, which can really test your faith at times when you begin to doubt whether your efforts are really making a difference.
But, to be fair, let’s consider the following:
Author Dan Zadra believes that worry is often “a misuse of imagination” and cognitive science is beginning to show that chronic fear and stress retards our ability to come up with constructive solutions and it often takes empathy, a good support network and creativity to rebuild trust so that solutions can be found.
In the grand scheme of things, we may not have the faith or the balance of mind to see beyond the blind spots that make it hard to work with a difficult person, but running into the same brick wall over and over again isn’t necessarily constructive, unless you’re equipped with the tools you need to break down those barriers and recreate a door to something more productive.
Columnist Judith Glaser from Entrepreneur.com acknowledges how occasionally there are blind spots we encounter while working with others, particularly when we don’t feel as if we are being appreciated or understood. This can be exacerbated when we find ourselves offended or dreading future actions with those we find difficult to work with and we’re not sure how to respond to it. She describes the brain chemistry of this reaction well:
Shutting Down Out of Fear. Being afraid is a realistic response to uncertainty. When fear dominates, the primitive brain takes over, releasing cortisol and catecholamines, a hormone that’s released during emotional or physical stress. These chemicals shut down the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or executive functions, which allow for sophisticated strategies. Instead of responding intelligently and creatively to investors, banks or customers, entrepreneurs could freeze, coming across as dumb, defensive or unstable for partnership.
Needless to say, like in any family, there are deeply ingrained patterns and ways of relating, old wounds and misunderstandings. One by one I listen to the stories of each family member’s current life experiences; their joys and sorrows. Or I notice how other family members are disengaged, unable to reach out, or stuck in their own ideas. Sometimes judgment fills the air, but no one in the room seems to know how to see beyond their personal point of view to find common ground. And even more saddening still is to see those family members who feel they have failed in some way; that nothing they do is good enough to take away the pain of those they “love” the most. I often wonder what my place is in such situations and what my responsibility is to these relationships?
And you see evidence throughout the story, through all of the grumbling and complaining that happens before Moses attends to their concerns through God’s miracles. The Torah even makes sure to create a semantic distinction between being “led” out of Egypt and blindly “wandering” through the desert. When we don’t trust where we’re going, we can’t see the bigger picture, even when we know which direction we shouldn’t be going.Fear and uncertainly can sometimes be like that. Especially when we lose faith in those we trusted to lead. So we have to make decisions about who or what set of ideals we’re going to follow. What differentiated Moses from the rest of the Israelites was not just divine intervention, but that Moses understood that he needed to take action, and his belief that his failings did not cut him off from God’s grace and redemption. And Moses did not believe in his path blindly, but he opened his heart and mind to receive God’s gifts even though he knew that at some level that both he and the Israelites would need evidence before they would to follow his direction.
… to acknowledge the fear. That frees you up to change the channel. Instead of becoming defensive you can then pay attention to what is going on in others and manifest empathy. The people you’re speaking with will feel that positive neural connection and cooperate. Researchers in Italy, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, found that human beings are wired with mirror neurons which pick up everything going on in others’ brains. When we approach people with empathy, the mirror neurons in their brains synch with our own, and they feel understood and open to our influence.
Empathy is one of quite a few resources in the cognitive toolbox that makes us more resilient and able to get the ball rolling again. And learning how to be patient with ourselves as we build more constructive habits is a critical component in that process.
Regardless of what your belief system is, often times in any faith, the way that we display grace, empathy and compassion toward those we don’t believe deserve it reveals a greater reflection of our character than when we extend an open hand to those who more obviously need it.
And besides there’s nothing more startling to someone who is behaving very badly or unreasonably than to respond with, “…well you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I’ll be sure to keep you in my prayers…” and then be able to walk away with your dignity in tact. Which is so much more preferable than to wasting your emotional well-being beating yourself up with resentment.