The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: August 2001
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Techniques for balance
- Resolve to act or forget it. Never stew. Either confront the obnoxious behavior, or put it out of your mind. They don't annoy you. You allow yourself to be annoyed.
- Don't descend into the abyss and seek out their level. If the other person remarks about your taste in clothing or kids' behavior, don't respond in kind, which puts you on their playing field. (They've obviously been thinking about this.)
- Always remain conversational. A terrific ploy is to laugh, or even smile, and say, "What makes you say something like that?" Hurtful comments are usually not prepared with backup, and you can stanch the flow right there.
- Silence works wonders, especially if the other person isn't moving away from you. Simply letting their remark release its odor without your commenting at all while retaining eye contact will cause the other person to realize exactly who soiled the carpet.
(And silence always is superior to the clever reply, "Oh yeah?!")
- Bleed on them. Say, "Ouch, that hurt. Why are you saying such a painful thing to me? I don't think I deserve that." That puts them on the defensive.
- Explain that they are obviously misinformed. When a particularly catty woman asked if my daughter was going to her "backup school" (the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse, the best in the country), I told her that she obviously was unacquainted with the elite schools. (I was also thinking about slashing her tires, but refrained.)
- Point out any one-upmanship. If the other person can better every vacation story and top every work success, ask what topic they would prefer you raise next so that they can point out a better experience. I once told a Catholic business associate who wouldn't let any of the rest of us finish a sentence that perhaps, if he had time, he could explain to me what it was like to be Jewish.
- Maintain your perspective. These people are relatively few and far between. Most friends and colleagues are pleasant and friendly. Family is, well, family.
- Avoid them. If you know where they hang out, or understand where they tend to congregate at events, simply steer clear of them. It's like someone is twisting your arm: It feels so good when they stop.
- Most painfully, watch your own behavior. You may be triggering others if you, yourself, are engaged in one-upmanship or put-downs. It happens. Ask a trusted other for some feedback.
- The Human Condition: context
Some people simply bring out the very worst in you. They may be family, people at the office, customers, or social contacts. It's tough not to want to kill them, but even tougher to simply ignore them. Here, then, some suggestions for dealing with the unbearable few:
Having earned a Ph.D. and spent a quarter century in the consulting profession, I can talk about "context." But when I was much younger, battling for my breathing space in Union City, New Jersey, we had a more pithy term: Pick your fights.
I'm astonished at the relentless pursuit of the trivial. The Romans had a nifty phrase: De minimis non curat praetor, which essentially means that the magistrate doesn't consider trifles. Not long ago a visitor to my web site contacted me and told me on no uncertain terms that I probably want to change the photo of me in a sailboat (one of my favorites, since I can't sail at all) because my "PFD wasn't zipped."
Well, this alarmed me, to say the least, since my site is quite popular and no one ever told me that my PFD was unzipped for all to see. Just to make sure I didn't repeat the error, I asked for help locating my PFD and learned that it was my "personal flotation device." Knowing what it would take to make me float, I realized that he was talking about my life vest, duly being worn but, alas, clearly unzipped.
I told him I didn't see the need to remove the photo for this small transgression, and he proceeded to tell me that I was leaving myself open to legal problems and setting a poor example for children. (Gads, what would be the reaction if I also held the rudder with the improper grip?)
Now, I'm all for boating safety, and believe in good examples. But a publicity close-up of me with a life vest unzipped on a page that children never visit is hardly a clarion call to action, demanding that the villagers ascend my driveway with torches and pitchforks. I mean, come on.
But we see this kind of behavior every day, people not knowing where to pick their fights or when to put their backs up against the wall and get bloody for a worthy cause, versus dismissing a perceived transgression as a trifle. People ought to use their directional signals, shouldn't cut a ticket line, ought not play music in public that drowns out a train wreck, and really need to clean those airplane basins after use. But, what the hey, it doesn't ruin my life when they don't.
My day is ruined, though, when someone tries to cheat me of my good name, attacks my family, threatens my career, or tries to impose a morality on me that I don't embrace. So I fight back at the voting booth, through an attorney, in a letter to the editor, or by whatever means are appropriate at the time. I find I don't need to do this very often. Basically, I'm just not threatened, at that level, very often. Nor should you be. (Where is Maslow when you need him?)
So my advice to you is not to consider trifles, and to adhere to Jefferson's great admonition: "In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." In less profound oratory, Get Some Context. And when you do sail, consider either zipping up your PFD or prohibiting photos taken with it open. There may be children watching.
The older I get, the more I realize how much I don't know and can never know. This represents a tremendous burden lifted from my shoulders. When I was younger, I thought I was supposed to know everything. I kept falling behind, and could never quite catch up.
Now I know that it's not a race.
Do you know why these electronic label makers sell so well? Because we actually believe that by labeling things we're in control. Absolutely. Visit your doctor's office and you'll see a medical filing system utilizing five colors and three types of folder, indicating type of patient, frequency of visits, demographics, referral source, and favorite ice cream. But you know what? When I'm actually there, they still can't find my records.
Life is about ambiguity, not clarity. No matter what your belief system, we happen to be sitting on a rock hurtling around an exploding star at about 70,000 miles per hour. I don't know about you, but that creates just a tad of ambiguity for me. If I try to order that, I break out into some pretty serious perspiration.
We drop people into our little labeled boxes and categories. He's a Republican. She's a baby boomer. They are financial people. We are liberal. These labels stymie communication and reduce understanding.
That's one of the reasons I hate these "personality tests" which brand you a High D, an amiable expressive, an INTJ, or a Pisces on the cusp of San Francisco. We are far too complex and pluralistic for such anticipation, prediction, and prophesizing about our behaviors. Personality labels tend to explain away our uniqueness ("What do you expect from an JTNI?") rather than assist in our understanding of the diversity amongst us. Why do we get so upset when someone says "What do you expect from a woman?" or "What do you expect from someone his age?" but not when someone says, "Well, he's a low D and will never take the initiative." The statements are all equally obnoxious and offensive.
We have ratings for movies, and now for music. There are categories for recycling. But when we assign so many labels to people, we create self-fulfilling prophesies. When I was in grammar school, we actually had, in sixth grade (and all other grades), a 6G1 (the smart group) and a 6G2 (the dumb group). That's what everyone short of the teachers called the groups, and for all I know they did, too. Guess whose test grades and progress were always slower? Were they really slower, or just expected to live up to their label?
Life is properly ambiguous, and too random to expect that we can bring control to it with the proper set of labels. Architect Max Frisch said once that technology is just a way for man to order the universe so that he won't have to experience it.
I relish the ambiguity. I like the excitement of dealing with the unexpected, unpredictable, and unlabelable. No one wins this race in the end. The point is to get the most out of the ride.
The following was received in response to my article last month on piloting the Goodyear Blimp and a B-24 bomber:
I have just finished reading the July issue of Balancing Act and I am writing to you for the first time. The article on your flights in the B-24 Bomber attracted my attention. My husband was a nose turret gunner on the B-24 Liberator in World War II. Bob flew twenty-nine missions with his original crew and actually was a replacement nose turret gunner on his thirtieth mission, the one on which the plane was shot down on June 13, 1944. His crew never knew if he had survived or was taken prisoner.
His plane was shot down over Germany, he was shot twice, through the back and the arm, and taken prisoner by the Germans. He was in Stalag Luft 4, a POW camp for Army Air Force personnel. After eight months in the camp, as the Allied troops began to come in from the east and the west, the prisoners were marched all around various areas of Germany until they were liberated at the end of May 1945.
He has quite a story to tell, historically and geographically accurate and filled with facts and the humor of survival. Yes, he has made an audio tape for our children and grandchildren. We, too, saw the last B-24 in Kansas City, Missouri at one of Bob's Squadron Reunions. In fact, he was able to climb back into the nose turret where I took a picture of him. There was a sign on the plane that read, "Jets are for kids!" Often, although not a "speaker" he is asked to share his experiences to school groups which have studied World War II.
The other thing that caught my attention was the part about humor. Since I speak on Therapeutic Humor and Stress Management, I was particularly interested in that section of the Newsletter. As I often do, I printed out this month's Newsletter so I can go back and read it again. Thank you for sharing your feelings on this subject with us.
I met you when you spoke to my local National Speakers Association Chapter, the Gateway Chapter in St. Louis, Missouri. We are now the NSA St. Louis Chapter. I will be attending the NSA Convention in Dallas next month and am looking forward to hearing you speak again.
- Mary R. Garvey, RN
(And we were together in Dallas—AW)
There is no need to read this piece if you don't know me.
For those of you who know something about me, it's with heartbreaking sadness that I inform you of the passing of my dog, Trotsky, on July 30. He was 14 years and 7 months old, rather impressive for a Shepherd/Husky crossbreed.
Trotsky was the source of many of my stories and articles and, in fact, appears in a dozen of my books from eight different publishers, something of a record, no doubt. He died with great dignity, possessing all of his senses, faculties, and sense of humor to the end. He simply shut down from his advanced age.
He took me through parts of three decades, and was a constant companion and source of inspiration. He refused to do tricks and sometimes to even listen, but was rather great at being a dog. I have never approached such mastery myself among my own species.
In addition to the human family, he is survived by Phoebe, the terrier who arrived six years ago to keep him active and who is responsible for his lengthy life.
I talked about ambiguity above, and I don't know what will become of me. But I do know that all dogs go to heaven.
Where, no doubt, Trotsky is stealing someone's food.