Saturday, April 9, 2011

Nothing Personal

"You don't understand!", he said indignantly, "What if she actually meant it to be personal? How else am I supposed to respond?"

I paused for a moment wondering whether to address his stated void of creativity or the fact that he had absolutely no clue as to what we were talking about. Misreading my hesitation, his lips began forming a smile of triumph as I determined to go with the latter.

"You're completely missing the point", I responded. "It doesn't matter whether or not she means it personally. All that is required is for you not to take it personally."

He sputtered and then went quiet.

I continued, "Even if she says something insulting to you or something that you might consider to be 'hurtful', it's still all about her. It could be that she had a really bad day. It could be that time of the month. It could be that she's upset with you coming home late for dinner. Her reasons are her reasons and they ultimately have nothing to do with you."

Silence, then, "I don't get it. If she's upset with me, then it's about me, right?"

I shake my head slowly left, right, left, right, my eyes focused on his. Then I ask, "Look, have you ever been upset about something and then taken it out on whoever happened to be in your line of fire? You know, you get cut off by someone driving and you take it out on your passenger who's supposed to be giving you directions. You find out one afternoon that you've been passed up for a promotion you thought was a sure thing and later that night everything your kids do seems to annoy you."

"Well, yeah, maybe. OK sure, I've done things like that. The old 'kick the dog' bit."

"On the other hand, have you ever had a really great day and found that the things that normally annoy you don't?"

"Sure, like when I landed that big contract with Goodrich and the CEO brought me up on stage at the annual meeting to hand me an additional bonus check. I know what you're talking about. Susie could have wrecked the BMW that day and it wouldn't have bothered me a bit."

"Right, but if she'd wrecked the BMW on a day that trains were running two hours late, it'd be a different story."


"So, you have the same stimulus, Susie wrecking the BMW, and completely different responses. On one day, you couldn't care less about the car and you're all about Susie being alright. On another day, losing the car is the end of the world and you lose it with her. You start saying things like, 'How many times have I told you…' or 'I knew I shouldn't have let you drive that thing'. You get really personal. The question is this: Is your response about Susie or is it about you?"

"Well, I guess it's about me. But, what if I say something that is really personal to Susie, something that really hits her in the gut. Even if it's just because I'm upset, doesn't that hurt her?"

"That, my friend, would be up to Susie. She also has the option of taking things personally or not."

"So even if Susie tells me that I'm a terrible father or that I'm awful in bed or that she wishes she'd married her old boyfriend instead of me, that has nothing to do with me? It's all about what's going on for her?"


"But, how do you do process all that? I mean, there must be some truth to what she's saying; otherwise, she wouldn't say it."

"Wether or not what she's saying is true and how you handle it are separate issues. When Iris is really upset with me, I've found the best way to handle it is to listen to her as though I were a friend listening to another friend vent about her husband. If I just let her vent without taking it personally, without getting defensive, without even responding, she has the opportunity to get out all that emotion.

Lots of times, even as she hears what she's saying, she'll recognize it as not being true or not really representing what's going on for her. She gets it out and then, if there's something we need to talk about or change, we look at it, all without taking it personally."

"So, you really do that, like all the time?"

"Not all the time, but I'm getting better and better at it. You know why? Because it works a hell of a lot better than the alternative."

"Hmmm… So, take nothing personally huh? Sounds a bit crazy, but it can't work any worse than what I've been doing."

Happy Saturday,

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