I’m also beginning to see how much I assume as a listener. I assume I understand what the person is trying to communicate. So I don’t ask follow up questions. I assume they know that I know what they are talking about and therefore feel heard. But that assumption is pretty arrogant. It is pretty arrogant to think that I understand what they are trying to communicate without being clear about it. And even if I am right about what they are trying to communicate, it is pretty unkind if I don’t show them that I hear them. This is an area that I have been working on. I have really been trying to understand people. My need for ongoing growth really shows up when I vibrate (get anxious). In one of the spontaneous conversations I had this week I vibrated and went right back to old habits. I got competitive which means that I listened to attack and defend.Even in all that, I can honestly say that I am a better listener. Just a couple weeks ago my wife and I had a couple over to our house. They had a matter they needed help sorting out and my wife and I were helping them through it. After the couple left, my wife and I sat in our living room and “debriefed” the conversation. At the end of our conversation I asked her, “What did you notice about how you and I worked together?” Her response is still something I am proud of. She said, “I notice that you ask more questions than before.”
This week the new RCA Today magazine came out. In it is a short article I wrote about generating and sustaining creative tension. All of this comes from the Ridder Transformational Process that I have been a part of for the last three and half years.
This takes courage. It takes courage to purposefully create tension. It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat. It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it. For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked. If I don’t face these fears, they will dominate what I do or don’t do. My actions will be driven not by my pursuit of Christ, but by my pursuit of protecting myself. I’m serving me.
Last night I found myself enjoying a glass of wine and reruns of Seinfeld. Why? Because Seinfeld episodes are prolific…and spectacular. So why not? The episode I was watching was entitled “The Opposite”. Near the beginning of the show George enters the coffee shop and claims,
Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.
Who hasn’t felt this way? Who hasn’t looked back over their life and wished that something could have turned out differently? While many may not go to the extreme of saying their “life is the opposite of everything I want it to be,” it is safe to assume there is some part of our life that isn’t what we hoped for. We may look over our life and wish we had contributed more to the well being of other people. We wish we had a more positive influence on others in our lives. Maybe we look at our relationships and, when we are honest, they are more shallow than we would like them to be. We may look at who we project to be and who we are deep down and see two different people and long for the authenticity and courage to make those two people one and the same.
I believe the reason this happens is because we live in a world where pain is inevitable. All of us have been hurt in life. No one is immune.
And no one likes pain.
In response to a world where there is pain we develop self-protections to minimize pain. We keep people at an arm’s length so there is less pain if the relationship breaks down. We don’t say what we are actually feeling so as to avoid potential conflict. We use humor to try and defuse pain. We get aggressive when we feel threatened by a person or situation. We withdraw from relationships when we first begin to sense pain. We never try anything new or take risks because the thought of failure is too much to bear. All of these (and there are many more) are self-protections used by us to avoid pain in a painful world.
While these self-protections keep us from pain, they also keep us from experiencing life. Keeping people at arm’s length (or another way to say it would be keeping the relationships shallow) does protect you from pain. But it also keeps you from enjoying an authentic relationship where you are truly known by another person and accepted for who you are.
Our self-protections are so ingrained in us they become instinctual. When a potentially painful situation arises, we react out of instinct and we do what it is we do whenever a painful situation arises. And because we react the same way every time, we get the same results. So when George Costanza exclaimed, “Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat…It’s all been wrong” he was on to something very profound.
The instinct that tells you not to let people get to close to others is all wrong. The instinct that screams your not good enough is all wrong. The instinct that says you are defined by what you do is all wrong. These wrong instincts lead us to a life that we never wanted.
If we want something different out of life then we have to stop listening to our instincts.
George comes to the following conclusion which drives the events of the rest of the episode.
Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!
Maybe this is what we need to do. So for example, if I wish I had more authentic relationships where I known, when my instinct tells me not to be vulnerable because it might be painful, maybe the best thing I can do is the exact opposite and be vulnerable. Maybe then I will experience relationships where I am known. If my instinct is to disengage from the relationship, I do the opposite and engage. If my instinct is to become angry, I become quiet. If it is to play it safe, I take a risk. Doing the opposite of our instinct is doing something different, and doing something different will lead to something different.
A friend once gave me some great leadership advice. Leaders need to spend time trying to understand how the world occurs to a person in order to make sense of their actions. Why? Because no one ever wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “Today I am going to act in a way everyone else would think was irrational.” Rather, people act in a manner that is completely rational to how they view the world. If leaders understand how others view the world, then they can understand their actions.
I think this is great advice. Its insight is brilliant because of it’s simplicity. But it has me wondering…is there a singular rational way to live?
We live in culture that loves irrationality. Chance, collage, anarchy and deconstruction are things we adore. These are so ingrained in us as a culture we have no problems swimming in the incongruity enabled by them. For example, Lady GaGa could easily be considered the poster-child for post-modernity and irrationality. She crosses gender, sexuality and race boundaries seamlessly. The art of her performances seeks to display the role culture plays in constructing our identities. At the same time she sings, “I was born this way…” This seems completely irrational and paradoxical. How can one claim that gender, for example, is a social constructed label while singing that the way one is established at the time of birth long before society has a chance to construct something?
Back to my friend’s statement.
How do people view the world? If they see the world as paradoxical in nature and devoid of any absolutes then perhaps, the irrationality makes complete sense. Who is to say whether we are socially constructed or if we are born a certain way? What if it is a combination of the two? Perhaps it just arises out of living in a world that seems full of contradiction and irrationality. We live in a world that is beautiful and ugly, complex and simple, full and empty, hopeful and despairing, blessed and tragic. A world where at times all events seemed to be threaded together by a single narrative, and other times is seemingly individual events occurring in chaotic randomness. Surrounded by all that, how does one keep themselves from becoming irrational?
In light of this, I believe the advice my friend gave me is spot on. Admittedly, I often judge the behavior of others to be irrational. But it irrational to me. Which is simply to say that based on how I perceive the world I have determined there to be a singularly rational way to operate irregardless of the circumstances and forces impacting another persons perception of the world.
As a leader, taking time to listen and understand why they do what they do provides many opportunities to lead. Listening communicates a concern for the person and builds relational capital. It allows the leader to learn and gain a broader understanding of the world and how it impacts those around them. Finally, it provides a place for the leader to facilitate greater change. If a leader can understand how one acts based on how the perceive the world, they can help change, not only the action, but the perception of the world. Which is absolutely transformational. It is the type of change that affects the whole life of the person. It changes how they think, how they act, their attitudes, and their relationships.
And as a leader, it changes me.