Complaining for Peace

Here’s a thought that’s going to sound very strange: The way to have harmony with others is not to reason ourselves out of being offended.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? Somebody does something to annoy you and it’s so natural to think, “It’s not worth making a fuss about such a small thing, so I’ll be the bigger person and will just put up with it.” But you put up with it for years and suddenly when you do mention it, out it pours in a heated tone nothing like what you intended, and now it is a fuss.

It’s tempting, too, to praise ourselves for patience. “I didn’t complain for so long!” But what has that actually gained?

And how often have we refrained from saying the difficult thing to someone about their own behavior because we’re afraid of offending them? It’s right to be concerned about their feelings, of course. But is it right to be so concerned about their immediate feelings that we doom them to stay in patterns that may well hold them back in life, or lead to less happiness in the long term?

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism of my behavior, but it is a greater favor to me to force me to hear it than to say years later, “I have noticed this bad trait you have for a long time, but haven’t given you the chance to do anything about it.” Does more peace result from grudgingly putting up with, say, a harsh and condescending tone, or from helping the person see and change it?

Granted, there are some – perhaps many – people who don’t accept this reasoning and don’t allow others to offer them correction. But they’re not doing themselves any favors. Everyone has at least one failing. Right? Anybody disagree with that? I didn’t think so. Here’s another poll: anybody happy that they have flaws? Anybody not want to be the best person they can be? Yeah, there are a few, like my old boss who told me he’d “earned the right to be a jerk.” But most people want to think of themselves as good people, rational people capable of acting in their own best interests. Isn’t it in your best interests to hear and consider what others have to say about you?

And it’s true, not every criticism is accurate. But most have a grain of truth that can be used. For instance, an acquaintance recently told someone something about me which, when repeated to any number of people who actually know me, was greeted by shouts of laughter and the comment, “You are the last person who would do that.” But on reflection, I could see why someone who didn’t know me would think that, and consider whether some aspects of my behavior could be improved.

As the sage says, “If one man calls you a fool, ignore it. If a second man calls you a fool, consider it. If a third man calls you a fool, believe it.” So if you are someone who doesn’t like to listen to criticism, consider: you can ignore it! But listen, so you’ll know if you hear the same thing again.

A final thought for those special readers who really don’t have any failings: please take pity on those of us who do. Most people are afraid of offering even the gentlest criticism because of the large minority (majority?) who don’t take it well. That is the direct cause of Well-it’s-not-worth-making-a-fuss syndrome. So the next time someone approaches you with an obviously wrong criticism, please, listen calmly. Hear them out. You’re still free to disagree. But respect the courage it took to approach you – even if you wish they hadn’t. That way, those of us who actually view constructive criticism as an act of friendship can have more friends – and maybe one day we’ll be as perfect as you.


Know Your Audience

As I approached the first-floor coffee-station a conversation between a man and a woman was interrupted by a third person who had a question for the man. The woman is sweet and fun and she and I had a brief exchange of pleasantries which ended with her saying, laughing, “I agree.” Just then the man she had been talking to rejoined us and said, “Huh?”

You know how it is when someone enters the end of a conversation and then wants to know what’s going on, and the whole thing gets repeated.

“I was just agreeing with Ashley.”

“Agreeing with what?”

“That the world would be a better place if everyone understood the importance of having the right tea.”

A blank look from him.

“Well, we were talking about tea.”

“Why would you talk about tea?”

“It’s something I would never talk about with you,” she acknowledged, “but it is a perfectly normal conversation for me to have with Ashley.”

He didn’t exactly back away in terror, but he might as well have, considering the look he gave us.

“Now look what you’ve done!” I teased her, when he was gone. “He thinks I am completely crazy.”

And, laughing, she apologized, “I am so, so sorry. He certainly does.”

Yep. Knowing your audience isn’t just for speeches and persuasion papers.

The Secret Weapon

I finally watched all the Lord of the Rings films for the first time over Thanksgiving weekend. For those few of you more stubborn than I am, the story is a good vs. evil epic set in a fantasy world based vaguely on medieval Europe, and as you might expect, there are lots of battles complete with swords, bows, and horses charging into lines of lowered spears.

Somewhere around the 30th of these battles I began to wonder, “How did anybody ever survive in the days of hand-to-hand combat? No matter how great a fighter you are, there’s no way to maintain a 360° view of what’s going on around you and defend yourself from multiple attacks from every angle.”

But if you pay attention the question answers itself. The answer is, quite simply: have a lot of friends.

I don’t know how accurate these fight scenes are, but in almost every one, one of the main characters is saved from imminent unsuspected death by a friend who has conveniently just killed their assailant and is able to run to the rescue. And this does tie in with various historical records of great enemies fighting their way across the battlefield towards each other – in the sense that the good fighters were not only absorbed by their own immediate fight, but were keeping an eye on other people of importance to them. So the more friends you have, the more close-knit you are, the more likely you are to escape alive from battle.

“Oh, very useful,” you’re saying. “I’ll keep that in mind the next time I run into an angry band of Visigoths and Huns.”

But of course battle can be anything: for instance, the political maneuverings at a company, when the victor is usually determined by how many impressively-titled fans they have. In a lesser and looser sense, it could simply be those times you need a favor. It’s nice to have a close group of friends to choose to ask it of.

Nor is this advice as self-centered as it sounds. Aragorn, arguably the most popular guy on the battlefields of Middle Earth, earned that loyalty by taking up a fight that was not his own, fighting at the front line of every battle, and offering support, rescue or encouragement to others many more times than he received it. You have to be a friend to have friends – advice most often given to teens looking for someone to hang out with, but which actually has a much wider application.

You Just Don’t Get It!… and it’s my fault

The agency relationship I inherited from my very talented boss is a challenge on the best of days. On a day when a multitude of final decisions had to be hammered out seemingly for the third time, I started seriously considering where I could get a recommendation for a new agency. But, thanks to the hassle that is Corporate Procurement, instead I pulled up Google and typed in:
The first result is very good and I recommend looking it up in its entirety. The first paragraph got right to the heart of the matter:

Early on in my consulting career, I remember having a hard day with clients and coming home to my wife, saying: “Those stupid clients just didn’t get it.” My wife, very gently, said “You mean that today, just today, you weren’t able to help them understand?”

Or, in one phrasing I particularly liked from the comments:
“There are no stupid questions, only points that we have failed to explain properly.”
It suggested a new and strange idea about anger and frustration. You sometimes hear stories about babies and developmentally-challenged children going through angry phases because they want to speak and convey their thoughts, but haven’t yet learned to. So perhaps when adults get frustrated in conversation, it’s because they still haven’t learned how to say what they need to say. Or, alternatively, because the adult is still being a toddler and refuses to accept that not everyone will agree with them and they won’t always get their way.
Either way, it’s one of those nice uncomfortable revelations. You mean that when the agency delivers the wrong size ad because “you never sent us the specs,” I have to take responsibility, even though I did send the specs, because I didn’t explain properly that those specs went with that project? What fun is that?!
But it does fit a piece of conventional wisdom that most people usually like to forget. As Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750, “He, who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.” Or in modern speak, the only thing you can change is yourself.
Improving one’s communication skills and learning to explain things clearly has its own obvious benefits, but there’s a side benefit, too: If you view it as your responsibility to make someone understand, then you will treat them with more patience and understanding and gentleness when they don’t. You won’t give yourself a heart attack, and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt without feeling the need to get so entrenched in their own point of view.
Is it possible that some people never will get it no matter how great a communicator you are? Seems probable. But if you do run into one of those, at least the process will be much pleasanter.