Monday, July 12, 2010

The Tale of Two Stories

In the last two weeks I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster as I’ve tried to work through dynamics with a pair of people upset with me. The two don’t know each other and their only point of commonality is that they were in email dialog with me in the last seven days.

Story #1—Mr. Inside

I’m in the midst of a struggle with a co-worker about how we function together, trying to sort out how things became a mess. After a couple months of low-level contact, I asked this person to do a job with me that required traveling out of state and being together for about a week, which was way more contact than we’d had together previously.

In the run-up to departure, this person was showing increasing signs of distress about travel arrangements. Where I thought I was being responsive to whatever was asked, the story I got back was that I wasn’t coming through promptly enough and I was disrespectful.

Once on site after the outbound trip, my co-worker wasn’t feeling well, and was not able to answer the bell for half of the work we’d come to do. We were staying at separate locations and midway through the visit, right as I was dropping my compatriot off at their digs, I was given a handwritten note which laid out some of the distress they were going through.

The next morning I asked to discuss the note and was told that they’d gotten considerable relief just from having written it and didn’t need to discuss it further while we were on the job.

When we started our long drive home I brought the subject up again, and listened to a litany about why the job was being hard and they didn’t feel they had enough available time or energy to undertake the extra effort the job seemed to require.

I accepted that, and conversation petered out. Though this person had told me in the note that one of the motivations for agreeing to the trip was the opportunity to get to know me, I had not experienced their asking me a single question about how I was doing or how I was relating to their struggles with me. Though I wasn’t sure how to interpret this (I was willing to put it down mainly to their health issues), in the absence of any sense of invitation, I left my convalescing partner alone the remainder of the drive.

While the two of us didn’t have a great time together, we were able to accomplish the work that we’d traveled to do. Having witnessed: a) this person’s struggles in relation to my work style; b) their inflexibility around embracing the work needed from their position; and c) their apparent lack of interest in how their choices and mood were affecting others, it seemed best to accept this person’s resignation and try to find a replacement who’d be a better fit. I was ready to move on.

However, I discovered two weeks later that we weren’t done. Through a mutual acquaintance—who was in dialog with this person about a completely different topic—this co-worker complained about me, claiming that they’d tried to initiate conversation with me about our dynamic and couldn’t get anywhere. Their story was that they’d put in the effort and I hadn't responded. When this was passed along to me (with permission), I was flabbergasted.

Now I was pissed. I did not like getting this second-hand, I did not like that their version of reality was completely at odds with mine, and I did not like being so little seen for all I did to try to make things work.

The point of all this preamble is to relate how worked up I got about the story I had about my being mistreated. While I knew intellectually that this other person would have a different story (in which they were justified in their upset with me), I was on vacation and not in a position to do much with this except through email, which wasn’t providing any relief.

Once tensions are running high and trust is running low, email can be a spectacularly ineffective mode of communication, and such was the case here, where the response I got back to the communication in which I first expressed my frustrations was loaded with the assignment of bad intent to what I’d written. At that point, I knew to stop using email and asked instead for a time to get together live to try to work this out. (Finding myself in a hole, I knew to put the shovel down.)

Thankfully—and I want to give full credit here to my erstwhile antagonist—that offer was accepted, and we are now out of the main turbulence electronically and working on logistics for how best to set that up. Immediately upon getting the conciliatory email (which was only a willingness to meet as I'd requested; it was not a mea culpa or an abnegation of her own story), I noticed the emotional release.

What a ride! I’m reading Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves right now in which he explores the incredible depth of the unconscious mind, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t watching it in action right there—both in how amped up I got with the story I’d created, and in how much instant relief I got when I was able to find a graceful exit from the trap I’d set for myself. Shit, who needs drugs or a wide-screen high-def TV? I’m my own self-contained entertainment center.

Story #2—Mr. Outside

Parallel to the track above, I was in another complicated email string that I became enmeshed in by virtue of being a spokesperson for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC). Someone had complained about the conclusions reached by a college student who posted a winter term paper on the topic of why there aren’t more people of color living in intentional communities. FIC provides an online forum for topics relating to intentional community and this one had been up there since 2001.

The respondent was a person of color and found the student's comments stereotypic and offensive. In a classic case of guilt by association, FIC was tarred with the same brush, and the complaint ended with the all-purpose condemnation, “You guys suck.”

Fools Rush In

While it often doesn’t work out that well when a communication starts with a shotgun blast, we nonetheless have an organizational commitment to work with critical feedback—regardless of how raw it’s presented—and I accepted the challenge. I explained that we are committed to providing a forum and that the views of the author do not necessarily represent those of FIC. I further agreed with many of the respondent’s views about the lack of racial diversity among communities and what might be effective strategies for remedying that.

In all, we had four exchanges that took place over the course of five days.

In each of my communications, I made a point to join this person where I could, and point out ways in which we disagreed, both on points of fact (about FIC and about intentional communities) and on points of communication.

Let me give you a specific example of the latter. This person was angry and repeatedly launched into a rant about how white people can’t handle the emotional honesty of people of color. While this is admittedly a gross generalization, I tend to agree that white culture is dominated by damped down emotions and that that is generally not a good thing.

Over the years I’ve learned the importance of being able to work emotionally, and believe it's important to express on-topic feelings, just as it's important to express on-topic thoughts. At the same time however, I distinguish between that and commingling the expression of feelings with aggression. Thus, "I'm really pissed that you published this poorly-reasoned piece on racial diversity" lands quite differently than "You guys suck."

After a number of unsuccessful tries to make this point, I wearied of receiving repeated complaints from the correspondent about how fixated I was on the their having expressed strong feelings, and then continued to interlard their emails with yet more strong feelings, aggressively expressed in the form of taunts and sarcasm. Ufda. These were hard emails ls to work with.

It's exhausting to take these hits, and resist the temptation to respond in kind. Each time I'd need to breathe through the anger I felt at being misunderstood, at the injustice I felt at being racially pigeon-holed (as another stupid white person who hasn't done their homework on racism), at the disrespect of bathing a fellow human being in a steady stream of slurs. This person was obviously intelligent (I agreed with much of their thinking about how racism presents and what it will take to turn it around), and I invited them to post their own thoughts about racism and diversity on our forum. What I got back was more anger, about how they're sick of educating whites and it wasn't their responsibility to handle that. (How did an invitation become an assignment of responsibility?)

In the end, the correspondent simply opted out of the conversation, stating that they were wasting their time responding to a secretary (my FIC title is Executive Secretary). Having found my responses offensive (no matter how hard I tried to be both constructive and non-inflammatory) they took a potshot at how I close most correspondence, "In cooperation," claiming it was disingenuous and admonishing me to "get over it." One satisfying thing I got out of an otherwise wholly unsatisfying series of communication is the chance to compose a reply:

"Actually, I won't. I have an abiding commitment to trying to live cooperatively, and think that nothing less will do.

"I have no illusions about having any control over your responses. And I have no judgment about your being angry. You wrote an angry letter to my organization and I gave you a response that wasn't angry in return. While I'm baffled why you respond with continued provocation and school yard put downs, I've persevered in an effort to engage on the topic of racism in community."

While I didn't get a response to this, it did give me some relief articulating why I hung in there in the attempt.

This exchange ended with no connection and little sense of any progress having been made. Just as with Story #1, I went through the same surge of upset and outrage (different circumstances, same feelings), and can marvel at the unconscious work I do to process the experience. Consciously (if slowly), I get the chance to search for signs about my own patterns of prejudice, and glean a few more clues about the clever ways I contribute to misunderstanding—all the while claiming to be the champion of clarity and compassion. Man, this work is hard!

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