All meaningful and lasting change begins on the inside.
– Martin Luther
I've been reading the first book I wrote in 2006, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict, looking for a story to help you regain power in difficult situations. I'd forgotten that the book is peppered with anecdotes from students who tell their own stories about managing difficult situations. It was fun to rediscover this feature of Unlikely Teachers, because that's what the book is about--the teacher hidden in the difficulty. The difficulty is the teacher.
So...instead of sharing one, I'd like to share four student stories that struck a chord for me. The chord is one I play often and that you're probably familiar with--and one we all forget all the time:
The day before my thirty-fifth birthday, I decided to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work. On the way out of the parking lot, my red sports car was hit by a large old van pulling in. My immediate reaction was to jump out of my car and begin yelling. I shouted, “Don’t you have enough room in your own lane?”--along with a few other choice words--while the woman in the van was getting out, stammering her apologies, and trying to explain through my shouting that it was truly an accident.
At that moment, my brain registered what I had just learned the day before in a seminar at work. We were taught to center ourselves before reacting in anger, and to try and take a different perspective on the conflict. Normally I would have kept on fighting, insisting on me being right and her being wrong. Instead I chose to stop, center, and listen to what the other person was saying.
In my anger at my precious car being damaged, I may never have heard that she was on her way to be with one of her fourteen adopted children who was undergoing surgery that morning at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Because I did listen, suddenly my repairable car meant very little, and I met an incredible human being who gives enormously to others and who touched my life by helping me realize how insignificant the little things are. If all I remember from those classes is to center, that alone will change my life and the kind of energy I send out to others daily.
Some time ago, one of my associates was very angry about a provision in our company policy. He asked for a private meeting and began to tell me what it was that bothered him. I couldn’t hear anything he was saying because I was resisting his view. Physically, I could feel my body clenching, and mentally, I was preoccupied with what I was going to say when it was my turn to speak.
Fortunately, I thought of the aikido metaphor of blending with the energy of the attack. Almost immediately, I felt my physical tension drain away, and I found myself listening for the first time since he'd started talking. I began to ask questions to find out more of what lay behind the outburst. I became curious, wanting to know as much as I could. The more I listened, the more I felt I was reclaiming my power.
What I heard was that he was concerned about fairness, clarity of communication, and the reputation of the company. So was I. We were on the same side. From this common ground of wanting what was best for all of us, I explained my view of how the company policy supported that vision and also helped him. I was able to stay open to some positive changes based on our discussion and, in the end, to reassert my role as a leader in the company. We solved the problem, and the conflict became an opportunity to reinforce our ability to handle other challenging situations.
During my morning commute into Boston, I was stuck in traffic. I was not particularly upset about the traffic because I expected it. I was at a red light and wanted to merge into the right lane. Hoping that someone would let me in, I started to inch over. A guy in a pickup passed me, not letting me into the lane. As he passed, he waved his arms at me, probably swearing angrily that I had the nerve to merge in front of him. I merged into the lane directly behind him.
I began to react to his reaction and was angry with him for being angry with me. I almost yelled back. But then I thought, “It’s a beautiful summer day. I’m not in a rush, and why should he ruin my morning?” So instead, I looked at him in his rear-view mirror. I smiled peacefully and thought things like, “Good morning. I hope you have a great day, because it is too beautiful to have a bad day.”
I think he got a little uncomfortable. He was not expecting pleasantness after his outburst. I felt a little strange continuing to smile, but by the time the light turned green, he was waving at me as if to say, “Bye, have a nice day.” Or maybe it was his way of apologizing! I thought to myself, “That was fun!”
I'll end with Jack's Story, which sums it all up. The next time you find yourself wishing, hoping, or trying to change something or someone external to you, remember where your true power lies. You have a great deal of power, more than you think. Because...when you change, everything changes.
An issue that keeps coming up for me is how I resist certain behaviors in other people, only to find out--somewhere down the road--that I’m doing the very same thing. I realize how much time and energy I’m wasting wishing “they” would change.
P.S. There are more conflict and communication skills like this one in my new book: Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.