It's only the beginning...
I found myself in a confrontational position with my daughter (pre-teen) on Sunday. I am quite confident that any mistake I could have made; I did make. It is so difficult to keep your leadership principles in mind when there is such a large investment, so much at stake. The problem was finally resolved - but it took all day, forced the cancellation of events that would have been fun and bonding for us and left me simply exhausted and wondering if she "got the message."
For me, that is exactly what talking to an authority figure can be like. It is as if step one is always an attempt to negotiate through a maze of assumptions the other person has made about you - assumptions that label you and "mark" you in some way as a dissenter, complainer, rogue who is unable/unwilling to be a team player, lazy, disobedient or simply sloppy in your work ethic. Through all of those assumptions, I find it extremely challenging to move to stage two: bringing the truth, and to have faith that the other person can hear it through all of the noisy assumptions, in the spirit it is given.
One of the things that makes me crazy in conversations like this with my daughter is her instant flight to defensiveness. I ask myself if I am attacking. I don’t feel as if I am, but I am not in her shoes and there must be some reason for her to feel the need to defend. But even in situations that don't involve me, she quickly rushes to blame someone else or justifies her actions based on someone else's behavior. This puzzles me since I really try to teach my children accountability, and as time has gone on, I begin to see this as her “winning strategy.” It’s worked for her in the past, so she continues to use it, to refine it, and I am only now starting to hear it.
I have observed individuals who are far more educated, older, more experienced, rush to defensiveness also. People who should know better also will often dive into the conversation and bypass "resolution" for "defensiveness" of whatever the issue is. Again I ask myself if I am attacking. But I also ask myself how it is possible to relay a difficult situation, a destructive situation, without seeming to attack. I want to be a problem solver in my organization. I want people to feel empowered by their positions and to see how much more they can do when we say “yes” to them, rather than boxing them up with our assumptions. I want all of the puzzle pieces to “fit” well. That’s not always possible and when something is not working,
I try to relay things that I would want to know if I were the “boss” - not the trite "so-and-so showed up late and has taken 3 bathroom breaks" kind of stuff, but the tough, "our integrity is coming into question" stuff. And I am responded to in what I like to refer to as "Playground Justice," having my own shortcomings pointed out to me in a “physician, heal thyself,” manner that says, “when you’re done fixing you – then, we’ll look at these other things.”
I have short comings – I know that. I went into the conversation knowing that. So ignoring or rerouting the topic does not help resolve things, it only leaves me thinking, "yeah, who am I to point this stuff out?" It sounds very much like when my daughter says, "well, he started it."
Responding in that way seems to me a simple attempt to shift blame. It is not examination, it is not introspection, it does not lead to resolution or evolution and you can leave conversations like that feeling as if you’ve never been heard. That type of environment automatically puts people on guard and makes it feel unsafe for honest communication to happen. I wonder how I cultivated that with my daughter? I wonder if there will come a time when she and I will both learn to gauge each other’s intent when we speak of things that the other needs to hear but doesn’t necessarily want to hear.
I don't believe we ever "outgrow" our "person-hood" and each of us still wants certain attributes in the life portrait we are painting. For as much of our “ego selves” that we try to shed, our person-hood still has many unvoiced needs; the need to be right, the need to be valued, the need to stretch beyond boundaries that others place on us, the need to be heard.
In college, my friends and I played a game that we actually called, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The question was asked from person to person in a group of raucous students who were simply in love with living from day to day - a world in which anything truly was possible. It was all about potential then. I remember one young man clearly, generally the "odd ball", (but he was our oddball), listened patiently, smiling and excited about being included in the group, as people gave their answers: I want to be rich, I want to be famous, I want to be the CEO of a major corporation that eats smaller businesses for breakfast! Finally, it was his turn. And the question was asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And he smiled shyly, actually blushed, before saying, "understood." It was as if a bell rang in my head, that's exactly what I wanted. And looking around the circle, it was clear that everyone else wanted this too.
Humans are such complicated beings, but one simple truth can resonate through a difficult conversation, through a life - I believe that. Maybe it's tone, maybe it's something else, but I believe that at some core level, we know the truth when we hear it and it resonates through us and becomes part of everything we touch. We must respond to it when we hear it, truth demands action. I suppose the only solution is that you keep trying – learning the different languages (resonances) of other people's truths, until you "get through" and until what they're really saying can "get through" to you. You keep listening and asking questions until you are sure you have heard correctly. For me, the primary thing is to remember to use the tools that I have when I need them the most, and not allow myself to be carried away by an already tumultuous flow of words! Above all, I need to keep in mind that all any of us really want, is to be "understood."
Easier said than done.