Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nothing Personal

If you're looking for just one thing you could do to improve every single one of your relationships, here it is: take nothing personally.

To take something personally simply means taking whatever someone else is saying or doing, making it mean something about you, and then allowing that to affect your emotions and happiness. It might be criticism received from your boss. It might be acts of defiance from your children. It might be anger expressed by your partner.

Whatever it is, whenever you take things that others say and do personally, you cloud your vision, compromise your objectivity, and ultimately, become somewhat useless in your capacity to help and facilitate. You might get defensive. You might take offense. Everything you hear passes through layers of filters that drop into place blast doors in a bomb shelter.

Why Make It Personal
As humans, we have the capacity to make pretty much anything personal. I know people who take the weather personally getting upset when a day that they anticipated to be sunny clouds over. Nonetheless, there are some common themes that lead to taking things personally.

I once worked for a guy who prided himself on his capacity for empathy often saying, "You know me, I can't be happy until everyone else is happy."

Many of us believe that empathy is important and, to some degree, many of us make our own happiness dependent upon the happiness of those around us. We're taught as children to feel badly for others who are struggling or suffering. We comfort those in grief by expressing our own grief.

It all seems reasonable and normal. However, our feeling badly doesn't do a lot for the other person. I've often found myself comforting the people who came to comfort me. Further, we can get to the point where our feeling badly is the extent of what we do to help. In my experience, most of the people who take positive, useful steps to help someone who is challenged are those who don't feel badly, but simply want to be useful.

One of the easiest things to make personal is criticism. When someone criticizes you, it can be hard to take it objectively or to see that what they are expressing is just as much a statement about them as it is about you. Yet, as soon as someone begins criticizing our defenses go up. Even before we've fully heard or understood what they have to say, we begin thinking about whether or not it's true, how to explain it, or how to deny it. We may even go into tit-for-tat mode, looking for similar faults in the person offering the critique.

All this is not to say that the criticism isn't valid. It's just to say that we don't have to feel badly about it.

Many of us are immune to taking things personally unless they come from parents, partners, siblings or children. For whatever reasons, we tend to respond much more strongly to our own children acting out than we do to others. We tend to feel a greater sense of responsibility for our partner's happiness than we do for others generally. I know people in their seventies who are still carrying around the effects of criticism received from their parents when they were children.

I think this may be a guy thing, but when we listen to someone who is unhappy (especially a child or partner), many of us jump into fix-it mode. We just want them to get to the point so we can remedy the situation. We feel more than responsible for the unhappiness of the other person; we feel responsible for making them happy again.

They Made It Personal
Of course, there are times when people do things that they mean to be taken personally. They may lash out in anger; they may hammer on sensitivities; they may want to see you upset. Nonetheless, even when someone means for you to take something personally, when they want you to feel it, it's still all about him. They may give it personally, but only you can take it personally.

What to Do?
Now, it may seem that it's inevitable that you'll take things personally. However, there are some simple steps that you can do to avoid it. The next time your partner says, "We have to talk!" or your child walks into the room upset with a decisions you've made, try some or all of the following.
  1. Just Listen: The easiest thing to do is to not do anything. Don't explain. Don't deny. Don't defend. Don't react. Don't fix. Don't even think about explanation, denial, defense, reaction or fixing. Just listen to what is being said and hear them out.
  2. You're Not Responsible: Although you may decide to help or to reverse a decision or even to apologize, you can't make someone else happy. So, don't try.
  3. Unresolved is OK: When taking things personally, we often feel compelled to push for resolution. We feel uncomfortable until things are resolved. However, forcing resolution typically leads to anything but resolution, or at least lasting resolution. Be comfortable with things left unresolved.
  4. No Fixing: When we take things personally, we often scramble to find a solution to the other person's unhappiness. However, fixing things so that others can be happy typically reinforces their using unhappiness to get what they want. Eventually, the fixer begins to feel burdened by the fixee.

    If you decide to fix, then don't fix for, fix with.
  5. Be a Third Party: This one is especially useful when talking with someone whose issue is with you: listen as though they were complaining about someone else. Treat the situation as though you were listening to a friend complain about her husband or her boss or her parents.
  6. Dive into Criticism: When we insulate ourselves from criticism and don't react, we're often only feigning not taking it personally. To really not take criticism personally, dive into it as you would any interesting topic. If someone says, "You suck!" ask questions about it. What do you mean by You suck? How would you like me to change that?
  7. Set the Time: Why is it that so many of us have partners who like to get it all out, just when we're ready to pack it all in? Invariably, one partner feels compelled to talk about pressing matters just before turning off the lights, while the other prefers doing it over breakfast. If you're someone who's a fixer and who feels responsible for your partners happiness, allowing them to launch into a long-winded complaint just before bed can be excruciating.

    As a rule of thumb, it's great to allow the listener to determine the time to talk. Pick a time when you're fresh and ready to listen.
In my experience, not taking things personally makes it easy to resolve conflicts and to build relationships. The beauty is that you can do it at any time. Even in the midst of a situation where things have completely run off the rails and you've made everything personal, you can stop and reset. You can say, "I'm sorry, I've really been taking this personally and I don't want to do that. Can we start over?"

Happy Tuesday,

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Mark. Such a wonderful reminder. I've been taking everything personally from a really small subset of people!


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