Thursday, January 29, 2009

Putting the Shovel Down

There's a great aphorism about the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole you'd rather not be in: stop digging.

And while this advice makes eminent sense, it's not so easily done in the moment. Let me give you an example. Yesterday morning I was lying in bed with my wife, Ma'ikwe, engaged in one of our favorite pastimes—no, not sex, though that was a good guess—discussing interpersonal dynamics. In particular, I gave a reflection about a thing that came out in the form, "I may be stupid about X, but my view is Y." [For purposes of this topic, it makes no difference what values are assigned X and Y.]

Things immediately went downhill from there.

By way of background, Ma'ikwe has a standing issue with a tendency I have—it hurts to admit this—to make an exaggerated, self-deprecating statement for the purpose of putting the other person off stride ("No, no, that's not what I said!") and gaining a tempo in the conversation. She's asked me expressly to stop trotting out this verbal ploy. While it's embarrassing to be caught at it, I think she's right and I'm trying to comply. In general, the thing she doesn't like manifests in my saying something in the form, "Maybe I'm just stupid, but… "

Now if you're keeping score at home, you can see that this is perilously close to what I think I actually said yesterday morning—though not exactly the same. While Ma'ikwe is accurate in claiming that I offer up the hyperbolic and insincere straw man of my general stupidity (insincere because she knows I don't think of myself as stupid and no one is claiming that I am), in this instance I was saying that I may be stupid—that is, not very smart—about X. And I meant that as a serious assessment. While I had an opinion (in this case, Y), I was unsure of my footing and wanted to admit it. To Ma'ikwe this sounded like the same old bullshit, and I was loathe to put my manure fork down.

For the next 15 minutes or so, we engaged in what I call "going around the mulberry bush," where we each diligently attempted to point why we were reasoned in our statements and the other was missing the boat. This accomplished exactly nothing, and boy was it familiar.

Finally, I put the shovel down. That is, I ceased trying to explain myself. While Ma'ikwe and I disagreed about what happened (and who held the moral high ground), there was no "winner." We both felt raw, frustrated, and misheard. This is all the more ambarrassing in that, as a process consultant, I know that the right thing to do in such moments is to focus first on accurately understanding the other person (to their satisfaction) before asking for the same thing in return. Unfortunately, my repitlian brain was only interested in the vigorous application of the shovel (I'd either dig my way out of trouble, or brain her in the process). Even though I know it doesn't work (when was the last time you heard someone say, "Oh my goodness, now that you've said it for the fifth time, and with a condescending tone, I see your point"?), I still do it.
Luckily, Ma'ikwe loves me anyway—though it's something of a mystery why.

Sigh. Why is enlightenment so damn hard?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why IS enlightenment so damn hard, indeed! Mere days after we (at DR) participated in your excellent Conflict Resolution seminar and (supposedly) learned how to handle escalating emotions we were all flummoxed on Sunday as emotions raised and tempers flared. It wasn't until Monday night that Juan finally said "hey, didn't Laird just teach us what to do in that same exact situation?" Yes, of course you had. And NOW, when it no longer mattered, we knew what to do. Sigh. Not only is it hard, it is too damn slow!