“If people misunderstand you, do not worry…
It is your voice that they hear, but it is their own thoughts that go through their head.”
I have had so many run-ins with this very concept in recent months. If I were not secure in the knowledge that I am responsible for myself alone, then I might have interpreted these encounters as messages to pipe-down.
I went through a particularly rough period for about three years where I received near-constant push-back on the things I said and frankly was required to say. I don’t mean required in a “I just *have* to say this” sort of way. It was my job to say them. Everyone knew it was my job. Everyone knew all the different entities to which I was accountable if I did not say them. And still with the pushback. (i’m not bitter!)
It. Was. Exhausting.
I had never experienced anything like that before and I’m not itching to repeat it ever again.
I remember having talks with myself during this time along the lines of trying to figure out a different way to say things that perhaps they would be better received by others. All this served to do was to give birth to a good deal of internal neuroses and lack of trust in my own ability. Additionally, it fueled others’ lack of responsibility for their own part in things. Never helpful!
Then I started to notice something. I was working with two different groups at the same time. Let’s call Group A the Sharks. And just for originality’s sake, let’s call Group B the Jets. The Sharks struggled constantly with what I was saying and pushed back on a regular basis. The Jets did too, but only at first. They were largely following the lead of the Sharks. Mercifully, not for long. As I started building relationships with both groups, the Jets warmed-up and started to see not just the measure of my words, but the worth of them. They could see past the unfamiliar and at times unwelcome information to my intent. They recognized relatively quickly that I truly did have everyone’s safety as my primary motivator, regardless of where these rules initiated.
The process was much, much slower with the Sharks. Glacial even, with certain individuals. Even now, there is a concept that I still find myself having to explain over and over again with one person in particular. That is a trying position to find oneself in repeatedly no matter how patient a person you are. I have certainly never claimed to be an exceedingly patient person.
I started to examine these disparate interactions and reactions to explore why I was having two different experiences around the same topics. It was especially mystifying when you consider that the Jets were more directly impacted by the rules and expectations than the Sharks. I tried to look at my delivery, my mood, my word choice, you name it. Nothing was off the table as a possible explanation. Surely, some days, those were indeed factors.
I think it is really important to examine one’s own contributions to any exchange, no matter what. Nothing will change my perspective on that. In some cases, there truly is a better way to have said something.
But not always.
I decided to try shifting my focus outside of my self and examine the more obvious reactions of each group and its members.
With the Jets who responded well to me, I was just a new person in a role that was mostly familiar to them. The execution had changed a bit, but did not exceed the scope of what the position was intended to do. So, *I* was a new person, but the relationship structure and boundaries were not new. The Jets rolled with it basically because it wasn’t wildly unfamiliar territory for them.
With the Sharks group, it was different. I was a new person, yes, but the role I assumed with them had also changed, or at least how it played-out in their midst had changed. I now had authority over some of their most crucial decisions. My predecessor had never had the benefit nor the burden of that.
(side note: my predecessor was nothing but a light of graciousness in the middle of all of this. i am forever grateful to her for that. she could commit murder and I’d still think she was the bee’s knees. big love!)
The Jets did not lose any power when I came on the scene. The Sharks did.
The blame for this loss of power did not belong to any of us that were actually involved in the every day dealings. Other people were behind this decision and we were just players in their drama. (and boy do I mean drama!)
So, the point of this story is to illustrate that communication problems can arise not because of the individuals or even groups in the story, but more due to the circumstances that surround them. Those circumstances often pre-date us and our roles. They involve tales that people begin inside their heads and then repeat them to others who take those stories as fact. It happens all of the time, everywhere. We’ve all been a part of these stories at one time or another.
No matter how I chose to approach things, the Sharks could only hear it through a filter of disempowerment. I could have had the greatest idea in the history of great ideas and they would not have liked it one bit. It’s easy to blame them and say that they could have been more mature about it. They could have. That’s true. It’s also true that I could have been more compassionate for where they found themselves. That is not how things went down. At least not until I started to take a step back and look at things as an observer, instead of one of the participants.
With the passage of time, I am grateful for the experience now. It is important to have those encounters where all of our genuine, well-intended efforts avail to nothing. That is when we learn. We rarely learn by things going according to plan and people being nice to us. This experience taught me to look deeper for what’s underneath a person’s actions and reactions.
Context matters. It could have saved us all a lot of heartache if I had been given a wider perspective beforehand on what had happened from both sides of the issue. I was getting information from mostly one side, and it was not accurate or kind.
Major clue: when someone gives you information about another person or group and it is couched in unkindness, you can bet they are not telling an objective version of events. I’m talking about when people are just plain being mean about other people, saying things that do not even need to be said and ultimately account for nothing. I promise you that you can disregard every word they speak about that person or group. Promise.
So, did things change? Eventually, yes. Taking that step back and being an observer made all of the difference. I decided to stop playing my “part” in the drama. I had to get back in touch with who I am and stop believing the story that others had told to me about myself and also about themselves and others. The fallout of this was that I became free to be myself. Why does that matter? Because it enabled me to relax. Why does that matter? Once I relaxed and no longer believed the stories, I was able to meet each person on newer, better footing. They didn’t adjust right away because I was no longer part of the story. Eventually, they responded to it and started relating to me in a healthier way. It was not easy, but it worked, not because I adopted some new-fangled, trendy approach. It worked because I simply accessed what was natural to me. Our greatest strengths usually lie in what comes naturally to us.
Like I said, it is very important to first examine one’s own actions and words in all situations. By all means, always, always, always start there. Once you’ve made a sincere effort with that, and you come up with nothing or at least nothing significant, it might be time to look outside of yourself. Sometimes things really are coming from across the table.
If what you have said is not untrue and it is not intended to be unkind and did not involve any name-calling…well, you have done all you can do.
Here’s where it gets dicey though… People don’t always understand that someone who speaks in a direct manner is not being unkind. Direct people, especially direct women, get a lot of messages about “softening” what they say. Indirect people are rarely challenged on their communication style when it too causes long-lasting negative relationship dynamics. Yes, I have a bias, but I have seen way more relationships unravel due to indirect communication than direct communication.
No one is out here trying to be an a$$hole just by telling the truth. That’s not an a$$hole. Sure, the truth hurts sometimes, but that is a characteristic of truth, not a motive of the one who dared to speak it. What if we could look at these exchanges as an opportunity instead to speak our own truth? A real truth-teller can take as much as they dish-out.
To be clear, there are real bullies in the world. (putting it mildly) That said, a bully is not the same thing as a direct communicator. A bully will use the truth to harm you, humiliate you, or manipulate you, intentionally or out of habit. Their motive is to make you feel bad or make others feel bad about you. Direct communicators are telling you the truth because it needs to be said and they are either not thinking about you at all (and that’s actually okay) or they are trying to help you. (not always okay, but well-intentioned for sure)
It is imperative to know the big difference between a bully and a direct communicator. Otherwise, we will think a direct communicator is trying to hurt or control us while we cheer-on a bully who targets the weakest member of the herd, someone we usually do not resonate with very much for some reason or another. Bullies know this. They don’t pick on well-liked people for a reason. How many times have you taken up the cause of someone you don’t like? Not everyone has the stones for that.
Nonetheless, a direct style is not correct and an indirect style incorrect. Hardly. I hold that everyone must be true to themselves. An indirect style might be “correct” for you, while a direct style feels “correct” for me. Neither is wrong or right as an absolute value across all time and space and people.
The problem comes in when as a direct communicator I make assumptions about what you do not say and when you as an indirect communicator makes assumptions about what I do say.
The naked truth (my favorite kind!) is that no matter what you are talking about, it is utter anxiety-provoking lunacy to try to take ownership of another person’s reactions to our words or our actions. It is also lunacy to expect them to take ownership of our reactions.
That’s what I believe Rumi was getting at 800 years ago. We are each the curator of our actions and reactions. Curate the living daylights out of it! Own it. But know it is yours. Carry your own bags. When someone else tries to get you to carry their bags, do not accept those bags. Hand them right back with a polite but firm, “I believe these are yours.”
Love and light,
Photo Credit: © Mccarthystudio | Dreamstime.com
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Thank you! 😘