Sunday, November 21, 2010

What Elephant?

Do you have people in your life who are fragile? Ones who don't handle pressure well? Who take criticism personally and deeply? Who wear their emotional scars outwardly? Who attribute their current state to incidents from childhood? Who don't do well with change? Who get out of sorts when things don't go as planned?

Each of us knows or has known fragile people; each of us has been a fragile person. Fragility sometimes comes with overwork and exhaustion; it sometimes comes with long cycles of failure; it sometimes comes with buying into the beliefs and criticisms of others; it comes with tragedy and loss. Fragility can be physiological or psychological or spiritual.

When you're around fragile people, how do you behave? Do you tiptoe by hoping to not be noticed? Do you avoid "touchy" subjects? Do you try to be upbeat and encouraging? Do you go out of your way to ensure that everything you say can only be viewed as positive? Do you get finger cramps pointing out the bright side? Do you lament? Empathize? Pity?

We often change our own behaviors to accommodate the fragility of others.

Taking Out the Elephant
I had friend, Paul, who was the world's best firer. He was masterful at dealing with the elephant in the room. In the this case, the elephant would typically be someone whom everyone knows is over his head, screwing up big time, overpaid and yet thinks he's God's gift to the company. The one everyone knows needs to go and yet no one is saying anything, at least not to him.

Paul would walk right up to the unaware elephant and ask her if she wouldn't mind meeting with him for a bit. They'd depart into a conference room or office and an hour later she'd emerge happy... smiling... thanking him... fired. It was downright amazing.

Paul would then retrieve any staff members who might be experiencing survivor's guilt and one by one, they'd emerge from his office happy... smiling... thanking him... employed.

One day Paul tapped me on the shoulder and I thought, "Shit, the elephant is always the last to know. We should get him a friggin' Grim Reaper's hood just so you can see it coming."

However, I wasn't the elephant du jour (at least not that jour) and instead we spent an hour going over marketing plans. Afterwards, I asked Paul about this whole firing thing he does and how he does it.

Paul explained to me that the most important thing was to not see people as fragile. When you see people as fragile you undermine your ability to relate to them. Others will pick up quickly on your being careful around them and they'll begin to wonder what's up. They get scared. They get defensive. They stop trusting what you have to say. They keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He went on to explain that the important thing is to replace treating people as fragile with treating the with respect, and then out of respect, to be completely straight with them. No holding back. No whispers and gossip. Just look'em-in-the-eye straight-talk with deep respect.

Fragile = Disrespect
At the time, it was a lot for me to process, but as I did, it occurred to me that to do otherwise was a lack of respect, i.e., to be careful around someone is to show disrespect for him. Now, the disrespect may be merited, he may be a complete lunatic ready to go nuclear, and therefore the going nuclear part may command more respect than the person. Nonetheless, I tried on the notion that to be careful is to disrespect, and something about it resonated for me.

As I churned it around in my mind, I decided that I would add the word love:

look'em-in-the-eye straight-talk with deep love and respect.

I sometimes hesitate to use the word love because I hear Pastor Reitzel preaching, "I'm telling you this in love, y'all are going to hell!"

But yeah, let's add love to the mix.

Works in Theory
Armed with my new knowledge, I headed out of Paul's office thinking about all the people whom I'd been treating as fragile and I committed to straight-talk with respect. I grimace to think of some of my first encounters. It's one thing to decide that someone is not fragile (I think he's not fragile, I think he's not fragile, I think he's not fragile) and another to act on (uuuhhhh, what if he's fragile, what if he's fragile, what if he's fragile).

Even as I'd began speaking, doubt would stream into my mind like a water main turned on before all the pipe fittings have set. I'd find myself so flustered, that I'd hem and haw and finally go all Tourette's with the most challenging bits and pieces of straight-talk flying oblong out of my mouth in random order. I'd look up at faces that were astonished or bright red with anger or, worst of all, tearful; I'd stand up, apologize and flee.

Getting Some Respect
The problem didn't lie in not knowing what to say or not being able to articulate it; the problem lay in not knowing how to respect someone. Years of learning to pity or empathize or feel-sorry-for or be-careful-around were years learning to disrespect. It took a while to see how pity was a form of judgment, how empathy (no matter how often it seemed to be aligned) was presumptuous, how feeling sorry for someone else was actually all about me, and how being careful served no one.

So I worked to eradicate those activities from my being and began learning to respect others no matter what their situation, to see them as fundamentally strong even if they were currently in a weakened state, to see them as capable of managing their emotions and feelings, to seem them as complete in-and-of-themselves no matter how much more they may grow, to see them as deserving of honesty and straight-talk not matter how hard I perceive the message to be.

Again, I'm not talking about the I hafta be honest withchu, you suck! type of "honesty", just the heartfelt what you believe stated as belief, not truth type of honesty.

So, are there people in your life whom you treat as fragile? Do others treat you as fragile? Do you get frequent hankerings for peanuts or inclinations to suck water up your nose and spray it on your back? It may not be pretty at first, but try it out. See others as not fragile, but instead deserving straight talk delivered with deep love and respect.

Happy Sunday!

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