So my wife and I are having a conversation with our grown kids the other day. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. I do remember that I was in the middle of giving what was obviously some sage advice on something important and my wife chimes in – and what she said just struck me the wrong way – I actually can’t remember even what she said – but I remember how I felt. I felt like she was trying to muscle in on my sage advice. I thought – I’m not going to let her take credit for my sage advice so I spoke up and said something that I’m sure was in the maturity category of “That’s my toy, you can’t have it!”. Whatever I said – I can tell you that, at that moment, I felt very justified in my tone and choice of words (which were harsh) and was very confident that she had it coming to her. It feels kind of hollow to say that I accomplished what I wanted – but I did. I wanted her to let me have the stage – she did. She got quiet – and as I remember it – so did everyone else. I finished the proclamation of my sage advice and the world was a better place – right?
It took me some time on the backside of that event to get far enough away from it to process it a bit – but when I did – these are some of the questions I began to ask myself…
- So how do you feel about how that went?
- What do you think your wife really meant by the words she shared? It is possible that she was not meaning them the way you thought they were meant? How can you find out?
- What are you teaching your kids about how they should treat their spouse? How did this event affirm that?
- What were you feeling at the moment you responded harshly? Where do you think those feelings came from?
- As much as you would like for this to be about your wife…how much of this is really about you? Your insecurities? Your need to be right? Other things that you haven’t even discovered yet?
Now – before you say “Wow – this guy needs therapy” (and I won’t argue with that) I’m convinced that this stuff is everywhere. It’s in every home, every business, every church, every community, and every life. I just believe that it feels awkward to look at it because it demands that we ask questions of ourselves that make us very uncomfortable. Let’s just say it – the challenges we face in life are easier to take if we can blame them on someone else. Even the challenge of our own behavior. “You make me so mad.” “I wouldn’t act this way if you would behave yourself.” “They drove me to it!”
I was never a great reader of comic books but back in the 70’s there was a television show based off of the Incredible Hulk comic. For those who may not know – the entire story line revolves around Dr. Bruce Banner who, when he gets angry, turns into a green Lou Ferrigno – extremely muscular and destructive. I still remember the quote that Bruce would use on people when he suspicioned he was about to get triggered, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Let’s face it – sometimes people do behave in ways that stir us up and this little writing is in no way an attempt to let everyone off the hook for their choice of words and actions. But todays rant isn’t about them – it’s about us – you and me.
Several years ago I was invited into the idea that a significant part of healthy leadership was the ability to “manage self.”* And the person who was most responsible for that work was me. Other people are going to be what they are going to be. I can’t fix that. There will always be challenging personalities around me who are inviting me to join in their emotions and justifications. That doesn’t mean that I have to join them. As a matter of fact – it is my premise that those who are growing in the act of leadership are building the tools to not only recognize when others are “making us crazy” but to also recognize when my reactions to that “craziness” are actually making me a part of the mess myself.
Some might say – “well some situations call for someone to get good and angry.” Maybe. But if you are determining that sharp words or edgy actions are your best response to a situation – then take responsibility for what you choose to bring to the moment because they are yours and yours alone. I call it “owning your business.”
I’ve seen, more than once, a basketball coach lose their cool on the court because they felt that something important needed to happen to impact the game. Some of those coaches have gotten technical fouls. Some were even ejected from the game. Is that good or bad? There are all kinds of interpretations for each of those moments I’m sure. But one thing is for sure – there is a byproduct to their actions. In some cases their players may get inspired. In others they may be branded as a “hot head”. And amazingly, both may be the result. Bottom line – there is a residual to our choices.
So how do we better manage these choices? How do we make progress? Here are some tools I use…
- Start recognizing and owning your triggers. Triggers are things that set you and me off. I may not know exactly why I’m being triggered but I usually know when I am. My heart rate goes up, I begin to feel warm/hot, my thinking gets myopic and I begin to judge others declaring them and their actions as bad (and my actions as noble and good). Again, I’m not saying that the other person isn’t part of the problem – they may be. But if we are getting triggered by their choice– it seems like it would be important to recognize that.
- Stay curious. If you recognize yourself as being triggered – ask yourself “why?” What is it about what is going on right now that is making me feel this way? I may be justified in my feelings – but the work of leadership always invites me to be informed – especially about myself. One tool that has been offered to me is called “getting on the balcony.” When you notice triggers happening in yourself – try to get distant from the moment – up high – and ask what is happening from a higher perspective. Trust me – this is counter intuitive stuff. For me – the default is to laser in – and to laser in quickly. My advice is to resist that as a first response. Only laser in when you feel that your response is founded in some bit of solid data. (We can talk more about data at another time).
- Resist the need to hurry up with a response. In my world – I was always impressed by the quick witted. Those who were able to pop in with a zinger and kind of put people in their place. But what if the goal of good leadership isn’t necessarily to “put people in their place?” What if it is to discover what is at play (seen and unseen) and to invite others to own their business as we work together to make progress on it?
The work I’m inviting us in to here is a lifelong work. Just about the time I feel that I have this figured out I find myself in a situation where I get that “triggered” feeling again – and I fall back into those old behaviors – “I’ll show you!!” When that happens it usually isn’t long, if I am smart, that I will get distant from the situation and begin wondering “Where did that come from?” “Is that really who I want to be?” “Did I screw up?” And “Even though I feel that someone else has some issues they may need to take care of – am I a part of the problem too?”
Let the learning continue.
*This and several of the ideas in this blog post are built from the curriculum of the Kansas Leadership Center, Wichita, KS. Thank you KLC.