Monday, December 20, 2010

Authentic for the Holidays

"The biscuits are great Aunt Virginia", he lied as he felt another under-masticated brick of flower, egg and who-knows-what-else splash into the soon to be overwhelmed pool of acid in his stomach.

She turned to look over her shoulder as she marched back into the kitchen with a stack of empty plates and then paused, her eyes focused just above his head. She asked, "I'm sorry dear, what did you say?"

"I said that the biscuits are really nice", he managed through a mouthful of her latest culinary effort.

She continued focusing at the spot above his head and then smiled, saying, "C'mon Charlie, you don't really think that!", and without another word, pivoted on her toes and pushed through the kitchen door.

Charlie just sat there wondering how she'd known, the hardened chunks of fat and flour slowly soaking up everything his mouth threw at them. He looked up to see what she might have seen above his head. Hmmm...

Imagine if everything you were thinking could be viewed as a movie playing just above your head. Whatever traversed your mind would be magically and instantly transformed into rolling, HD-quality imagery.

Now, let's say that film editors cut out all the boring stuff and only showed the stuff that would be relevant to the viewer. Let's add to that the qualification that the movie would only play when your words and actions were not accurately depicting what was really going on inside.

How would that change what you say?

If you're like most, then there are probably many people with whom you're not completely honest; you don't touch certain topics; you don't state your actual opinion when asked; you nod and smile, rather than converse; you make "nice" comments and keep the others to yourself.

If you're heading to any family gatherings over the holidays, you may suddenly find yourself in a group densely populated with the people with whom you're least honest.

There are a lot of causes for stress around the holidays and I believe that one of them is the increased frequency of inauthenticity: saying things for effect, keeping it all in, or hoping that no one asks. These all have the effect of holding your breath or spending hours inside a small, stuffy room. After a while you're dying for some clean, fresh air. It's no wonder that family get-togethers become family get-away-froms.

What if you could just go and be yourself? Say what you think? Mean what you say?

What if everyone would be grateful for it? Glad to see the real you? Happy to converse authentically?

Wouldn't that be great?

It's actually all doable. The answer lies in knowing how to go about it.

Why We Lie
There are four primary reasons that we don't say what we're thinking.
  1. Not hurting someone's feelings.
  2. Avoiding attack and having to defend our opinions.
  3. Avoiding anger.
  4. We don't believe it would do any good anyway.

Hurt Feelings
Many of us avoid saying what we're really thinking because we don't want to hurt the feelings of others. At first blush, this is admirable. However, as we look at our motivations, they may be less selfless than is immediately apparent.

First, the reason that we avoid saying this or commenting on that lies not in the nature of this or that, but instead in the negative judgments that we hold regarding this or that.

For example, there's no problem with your brother Henry's soup requiring a bit more seasoning and a bit less fat and grissel. The problem arises when you transform that simple assessment into, "Gosh, this soup tastes like crap! What the hell does he think he's doing trying to cook? If he's gonna practice, why can't he practice on someone else? It's Christmas for Christ's sake!"

It's not the assessment (adding seasoning or draining fat) that gives cause for hesitation, it's the judgments that you pile onto the assessment.

The good news is that the judgments are your problem, not Henry's; they're for you to work through. In all likelihood, the straight-ahead, judgement-free assessment would be welcome. It may even open the door for new avenues of conversation and a chance to cook together.

Indeed, whenever we hesitate for fear of hurting feelings, it's a sure-fire sign that we're harboring judgments regarding the person or her actions. When we leave those judgments unattended, they grow, creating distance between us.

The key to saying what you think is to distinguish assessment from judgment, clearly state the judgment-free part, and then independently work through your judgments (alone, with the person or with someone else).

Defending Yourself
Growing up a decidedly right-brained flake with a brother and father who were decidedly left-brained engineers, I learned early that my opinions regarding problem solving were not always valued. I'd find my dad and my brother working in our basement shop repairing a radio or television, or out in the garage bent over an ailing carburetor, ask what they were doing, and then try to be helpful.

Usually, just the fact that I had to ask put me out of the running for credible source of help. Nonetheless, ask and offer I would.

It's not so much that I miss social cues (e.g., my brother looking at my dad as if to say, "Here he goes again!" or my dad looking back as if to say, "What are you gonna do?"), it's that I somehow always manage to translate them into encouragement. So, I would offer up, "Hey, that the little flappy thing on the top of the whatchamacallit seems sticky" or "I don't know what you're working on, but this circuit board over hear smells funny."

I would end up being asked why I thought the sticky flap or the smelly board had anything to do with anything and I usually had no clue other than they were the things that were out of pattern with the rest. Eventually I'd wander off leaving them to their work.

The thing that got me through it was deciding that opinions where just that. They weren't right or wrong. So, I could explain why I thought what I thought without defending why I thought it. And I think therein lies the key to being open not matter what.

Avoiding Anger
Most of us first learn to lie in efforts to avoid punishment (corporal or otherwise). We do it because it works. However, as adults, we start to avoid any sense of anger or hostility, often paving the way for even greater anger and hostility at a later date.

For me, a key to staying honest has been realizing that when you lie to avoid anger, you inadvertently make a long-term commitment to the lie. The cost of that commitment can multiply over time. For example, I've worked with lots of guys for whom the maintenance of lies regarding what happened on business trips became a full time occupation. They'd carefully scrutinize who'd been invited to what affairs to ensure that they weren't in the room at the same time with the wrong two people. You could see the maintenance costs wearing them down.

Lying to avoid anger is like signing up for a high interest mortgage on future communications. Better to pay as you go.

What's It Matter
I've gotta say that the times when I now keep things to myself are when I've come to believe that saying something won't do any good. This is usually only after I've said it ten or eleven times, but nonetheless.

Of course, you can't tell when or where someone will be ready to hear something that you have to say, but there are times that I just decide on their behalf that they're not gonna listen or hear.

And of course, this only happens when I'm hanging on to the outcome. So, lately I've begun to transform the sense of frustration that comes with "what's it matter" into an alert that says, "hey, let go of this!"

Once I let go of the outcome I can go all night saying whatever I think without a care.

Breathe In, Breathe Out
I believe that the integrity between thought and action has as strong an impact on how we feel as the quality of the air we breath. When we transform hesitation to speak honestly into indicator of harbored judgment, we clear the way to speak openly without judgment (improving our relationships) and to work through and free ourselves of the judgments (lightening our internal loads).

What's playing above you head today?

Happy Monday,

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