I feel sad

Posted by Doc
Jan 29 2009

Meet Pete

I had coffee with a friend this morning. We’ll call him Pete. When I originally met him, Pete was married and living with his wife and three children. During the course of our relationship, we talked about business (where we had originally connected, although we discovered we lived down the street from each other), life, relationships, the works. Several years ago he and his wife (whom we’ll call Joan) divorced in a very non-amicable fashion.

At one point, while he was still married, I gave Pete copies of three of my favorite books: The Art Of War by Sun Tzu; The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi; and The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman by Takuan Soho. I’ll talk about these books and why I think they’re valuable in another post. The importance is that my friend said to me today that the gift of those books changed his life, allowed him to discover a whole new realm, and in some ways contributed to his divorce. Wow!

He finished this by thanking me with tears in his eyes.

That’s not why I feel sad.

The Meeting

I ran into Joan a while back. She was with her new husband, whose name is also “Pete”. Once we figured out how we knew each other, we did all the small talk stuff, and she mentioned that they had five children – her three and his two.  I said I understood what a challenge that was, having four children myself, even if they were all from the same two parents. Just a bit of commiseration and fact.  Little did I know…

Later that same evening, I got an email from Joan. In that email, Joan assaulted and condemned me for having been condescending and judgmental when we spoke. “If we hadn’t been about to go into the event, I would have told you to F*** OFF right there and then. How dare you!” and so on.

Different Universes

I was stunned. She and I had apparently been in different universes. In my universe, I’d had a pleasant meeting with someone I didn’t know well, caught up just a little bit, met her present husband, and went on my way.

In her universe, someone she considers to be a friend of her anti-christ bastard of an ex-husband was rude and judgmental and condescending in totally unacceptable ways.

I read Joan’s email to my wife, who offered to get in her car, go find Joan, and begin torturing her for speaking to me the way she did.

Joan and I exchanged a few emails. I began by being conciliatory and trying to understand how she misunderstood and misjudged me. It did no good – she got meaner and more caustic with each message.  I stopped the exchange after three back-and-forths.

What I feel sad about is that she jumped right to a conclusion about my motivations and feelings that had nothing to do with my reality.

The Question

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Patterson et al suggest asking oneself what I think of as “the question”: “Why would a rational, reasonable, decent human being do that?” Frankly, it took me two readings of the book before the import and power of that question sank in. Think of it as the benefit of the doubt on steroids. Not just “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt”, but “I wonder what might be going on with that person that, if they are in fact rational and reasonable and decent, would have led them to say/do that. Maybe the story I’m telling myself isn’t what’s going on, and maybe I should think about it more.”

I was teaching a workshop on this subject in Pune, India, and told them about “the question.”

“Here’s an example: you’re sitting there, and I’m walking by, and I slap your cheek. What would you do or say?”

A lovely young Indian woman said “I’d punch you in the face!” The rest of the group, after looking shocked, started laughing.

“Can’t you think of any acceptable reason for me to slap your cheek?”

“No. I’d hit you back.”

So I turned it to the group. “Anyone?”

Silence for about two minutes. I just sat there. Then one fellow timidly raised his hand and said “Maybe there was a wasp on her cheek?”

I felt joy, because he was learning to think. Not react or even respond, but think.

And that was the problem with Joan – she did what she thought of as punching me back. Whereas there was a wasp on her cheek.

Stop and ask “the question” – even if the other person really is an unforgivable ass, it may be enough to let you apply STATE or at least respond thoughtfully.

3 Responses

  1. Hates_ says:

    I have all three books, yet have never finished them. I think it’s about time I did.

  2. […] in fact. You might find yourself having the opportunity to ask “the question” (see I feel sad) from Crucial […]

  3. […] I feel sad | Steven "Doc" List's Random Musings http://www.stevenlist.com/blog/2009/01/29/i-feel-sad – view page – cached Meet Pete I had coffee with a friend this morning. We'll call him Pete. When I originally met him, Pete was married and living with his wife and three — From the page […]

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