When I was a kid, my mom once bought a bag of Smarties for a treat. She would dole out a couple after dinner for my sister and me. They were, I suppose, to keep us from beating each other up while she took her shower. This worked for my sister, but I was a gobbler who finished my Smarties before the shower even started running. So I climbed up on the counter to reach the top cabinet where she hid them. Each night I would grab four or five more. The only problem to this brilliant scheme is that I failed to realize that one day the bag would be empty.
And so one day it was. And my mother was angry. And things did not turn out well for me.
Oddly, I thought about this childhood episode while talking to a friend last week. There is no doubt that he is going through a difficult time. And his friends have rallied around him. But he has failed to realize that he is close to depleting their goodwill.
If any of his friends mentions a problem, he immediately says something like, “I wish my problems were that tiny.” Every discussion has become a litany of miseries that everyone else must listen to. Even neutral topics can’t remain neutral for long as he manages to twist the subject around to how awful his life is.
It is clear that more and more friends are falling away, and this makes him even angrier as he sees this as another example of how terrible life is: he doesn’t even have decent friends.
I’ve been where he is, and it is hard to see beyond one’s own pain. But there has to be give and take. If you want to consider someone a friend, then you have to be willing to accept that their problems are legitimate, that their needs are valid, and occasionally you’re going to have to be the one who listens.
It doesn’t have to be 50/50. People will give you credit for trying. But just like my bag of Smarties, if you’re always taking from the friend account and never replenishing, then one day, there will be nothing left.
In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith talks about the habits that keep successful people from going further up the ladder. And he should know. He has made a career of conducting 360 Degree evaluations at various companies. And if you’re wondering, there are twenty-one of those habits.
As I was listening to the book on my iPhone, it seemed to me that many of these bad habits come from the simple fact that we don’t know when to stop talking. We want to appear in the know. We want to appear smart. So if someone tells us something, we say we already heard it. We have around thirty reasons why someone’s suggestion won’t work. Someone’s idea gives us an even better idea, so we tell them about our even better idea.
What struck me about Goldsmith’s book is the fact that most of those reactions are totally unnecessary. It doesn’t matter if we’ve already heard the news. It doesn’t matter if we already know how to do something. It doesn’t matter if we know thirty reasons a idea won’t work. All we have to do is say thanks and then move on. Comments beyond that usually have more to do with our egos than any sincere attempt at communication.
So I came to work today with the idea of simply thanking without making comments. I think I made it five minutes. It’s harder than you think. But probably well worth the effort.
In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams, the creator of the character ‘Dilbert,’ discusses how to avoid being boring (among other topics). Some of his suggestions include the following:
- Unless you’re talking to foodies or someone who will soon be going to the same restaurant, don’t spend a lot of time telling people about what you’ve eaten.
- Don’t go on about movie or television plots if other people haven’t seen them and can’t discuss them with you.
- And keep any discussion about your illnesses or injuries short.
I know I’ve been guilty of the second and third. And I have to admit to some others as well:
- Whenever I have a mouse in my house, I go on about it as if I am the community’s bard recounting an epic tale.
- Sometimes in meetings, I realize (too late) that a good chunk of the agenda could have been covered in an email.
Still, most of the time, I hope I’m mildly interesting. (And let me persist in ignorance if I’m not.)
I used to tell my students that there are no boring subjects. They might not find Emily Dickinson fascinating, but some people not only find her interesting but dedicate their careers to studying her poetry. Boredom says more about us than the topic. I will always find calculus boring, but I know that it’s because I’m not willing to put in the work to understand the subject.
The same is true about people. None of us is inherently boring. If we have become so, it’s often because we’ve become complacent and that can be fixed:
- We can pay attention to others’ body language and modify our behavior when we sense we’re boring them.
- We can start listening instead of talking (finding out what others are interested in).
- We can try new things.
- We can stop complaining about the things that we haven’t changed in the past five years and don’t intend to change in the next five.
Basically, if we have become a little boring, we just need to wake up and pay attention to the world around us.
Last week, I went for my annual physical. Since the appointment was for 3 p.m., I went in the morning to get my blood work done. (No one wants to be around me when I haven’t eaten.)
When I returned for the actual physical, I was greeted with all sorts of apologies. The courier had arrived that morning and taken my blood with the other samples. The problem was that my vials had not been labeled, so they were discarded at the lab. I would need to fast and return for my blood to be drawn again.
I didn’t find this to be a huge problem. The woman who draws the blood is a pro, so no pain would be involved. I work near the doctor’s office, so the inconvenience would be minor. I simply said I’d come back on Monday.
But their approach to the mistake was impressive. Both the nurse and my doctor apologized, explaining how the mistake happened but also taking full responsibility. They made sure I knew the office was closed the next day so I wouldn’t make a futile trip. And they offered me a gas card for my trouble. (I initially refused it, but then an assistant chased me down the hallway with it in her hand.)
Mistakes happen. There is no way around it. But it’s how we handle them that makes the difference. Like me, you probably know several ways my experience could have played out:
- The nurse could have blamed a colleague, or even worse, snapped at the colleague in front of me.
- They could have made me feel guilty for coming to get my blood work done early.
- They could have been so nonchalant that I felt my experience didn’t matter at all.
My visit to the doctor’s office reminded me of the way to react when the inevitable mistake does occur:
- admit it
- correct it
- and, if the mistake, can’t be corrected, try to find a way to ameliorate the situation.
A good lesson indeed.