Better Life: 3 Easy Techniques for Making Life Run Smoother
You call one of your employees. “Shen, I need to talk to you about something. Can you meet me at 2 in my office? OK—see you then.” You don’t know it, but Shen’s stomach just lurched like a plane that’s hit an air pocket. This is anxiety.
You run into the kitchen and hand your spouse Chris a receipt. “Look, you’ve absolutely got to pick up my dry cleaning for me! I’ll be back in 30 minutes and I need it then, okay?” As you dash out the door, the look on Chris’s face lets you know that you’ll get your suit, but you’ll have to pay for it with an apology. This is resentment.
You’ve just come back from having the family dog put to sleep, and you have to tell your daughter. “Vanessa, honey, I’m afraid I have bad news. Scooter didn’t make it.” You hug her as she cries, and the lost look in her eyes just tears you apart. For both her and you, this is helplessness.
Three different situations, each with consequences for you and the other person. (Sure, Shen is your employee, but think about it—your phone call to him has hurt, not helped, your working relationship.)
The good news is that there are three simple techniques for situations like these that will make life better for you and the other person. All you have to do is remember three simple things:
People do better:
1. when they know what to expect
2. when they understand why
3. when they have something they can do
Now I’ll show you how easy it is to put these techniques into practice.
…when they know what to expect
It’s easy to make sure that your interaction with Shen runs smoothly: just let him know what the meeting is about.
There are obviously situations where this isn’t a good idea (“Shen, the police will be here to carry you away in handcuffs” is definitely a career-limiting move). However, even some unpleasant situations can be improved if they’re handled in the right way.
These techniques will make life
better for you and the other person
For example, you might say, “Shen, there are some things I don’t understand about your department’s results last quarter. If you could come by and give me the big picture of what’s going on, I’d appreciate it.”
There’s a lot going on in this sentence. Not only does this let Shen know what to expect, it also shows respect, frames the upcoming meeting as one of collaboration instead of conflict, and treats him as an ally, not an adversary. (And if you turn out to be wrong and there’s nothing wrong with Shen’s results, then you save face because you haven’t made any accusations that turned out to be unfounded.)
You can apply this technique to yourself, too. If you’re nervous about an upcoming situation, find out more about it. If you can’t find out directly, look for someone who’s been in a similar situation and talk to them.
…when they understand why
Of course Chris resents being strong-armed into picking up your dry cleaning. This is a fundamental truth about human beings: we don’t like being arbitrarily told what to do.
To be more accurate, human beings resent being powerless. If someone can order you to do something without your consent, they have the power and you are forced to obey. Being powerless makes you feel not like a person but like an object, a thing that can be pushed around without consequences.
Martin Buber defined one’s relationships
as being either I-Thou or I-It
“Understanding why” means telling people why you want what you want. Doing this acknowledges their personhood. (You don’t, after all, tell your car why you want to go to the store.) As a result, they’re more likely to do what you want without resenting you.
The power of acknowledging personhood
Proof of this change in behavior is contained in a sentence you have undoubtedly heard, said, or thought: “Well, why didn’t you say so? I would have been glad to help if you had just told me why!”
Being told why satisfies a very important human need: to be acknowledged as a person instead of being treated as an object that is used because no acknowledgement is needed. (Philosopher Martin Buber powerfully illuminated this distinction when he defined one’s relationships as being either I-Thou or I-It.)
The phrase “I would have been glad to help…” tells us something else about human nature. There is a strong tendency in human beings to be helpful. The simple act of acknowledging the other’s personhood by telling them why is often enough to bring out their better nature. Equally important, refusing to acknowledge someone’s personhood has the opposite effect.
The technique of “understanding why” will work for you, too. If you’re having trouble getting started, remind yourself why you should do whatever it is you need to do. The best motivators remind you of an important benefit (“…because I enjoy living in a clean house”) or affirm an important value that you hold (“…because doing things together as a family is important to me”). Try different reasons and see what works for you.
…when they have something they can do
This technique may be appropriate when the present emotion is helplessness, grief, sadness, anxiety, or something similar. Using it requires both forethought and judgement, and it should take into account both the situation and the person in need.
Being gentle is a good idea,
as are having a conversation,
asking questions, and making suggestions
Using the example of the parent whose daughter has just lost a beloved dog (and simplifying by leaving out the action of encouraging her to talk about her feelings, which is usually a good idea), here are some examples of how this technique might work:
If your daughter is six years old and artistic, you might ask her, “Would you like to do something for Scooter, maybe a funeral? [She says yes.] Would you like to write a poem? You could read it at the funeral. [No.] Would you like to do something else? [I’d like to draw something.] That would be nice. Think about what you’d like to draw.”
If she is a teenager who is into helping others, you might suggest that she organize collecting donations for a local animal shelter.
If she is an adult who likes quiet activities, she might accept your invitation to go on a nature walk and share memories of Scooter.
(I just noticed that all these examples involve two things: first, interacting with one or more people; and second, engaging in activities that relate meaningfully to the situation that caused the helplessness. When you are trying to think of an action to suggest, these are good things to keep in mind.)
However you approach this process, being gentle is a good idea, as are having a conversation, asking questions, and making suggestions. And, always, the person in need should be in control of the final result.
Having something to do helps because it reminds us that we are not entirely helpless, that we can control some small corner of the world.
You can also apply this to yourself. When you are struggling with helplessness, find a place where you can make some small contribution. If it answers some aspect of the situation that is causing the helplessness, that can be even better. But how it feels to you is what’s important.
It’s very human not to want to change. I know—I have trouble with changing, too. So don’t be surprised if you see yourself in some of the responses below. And that’s okay—it just means you’re a member of the human race in good standing. Just read my response, think about it, and decide what you want to do.
Objection 1: “This is more complicated than leaving things the way they are….”
It’s true—these techniques do make life more complicated, because you’re thinking about other people as well as yourself:
Could Shen take what I’m planning on saying the wrong way?
Or: I know I’m in a hurry, but things will go better if I let Chris know what’s going on.
Or: Losing the dog has me feeling down, too, but Vanessa’s hurting and I think I can help.
Keep in mind that these techniques are for your benefit, too. Human beings are social creatures, and having positive connections to others brings subtle but powerful benefits.
The benefits are real, and they
will affect how you feel every day
You could compare it to the difference between breathing polluted air versus clean air. It may be hard to describe the benefits of living where the air is cleaner, but those benefits are real, and they will affect how you feel every day.
Objection 2: “Why should I have to do all this extra work?”
Why indeed? This gets into the territory of the response, “Why is life unfair?”, which is one of the Big Questions of Life that every person must grapple with in the privacy of her own mind.
For the question at hand, I will only offer a practical observation: You are the only person who you can (sometimes) force to do something. Therefore, if you want your life to get better, the person most likely to make that happen is…you.
Objection 3: “I’ll do it wrong and make a mess of things, so why bother?”
It’s true, the techniques I’ve described here aren’t guaranteed, but they do have a good track record. Yes, at first you may do them “wrong” (I would say, instead, “unskillfully”). But here’s the good news: They are skills, and the more you practice them, the more they will (like clean air) improve your life.
Do not doubt that you can improve your life. The fact that you are reading this means that you have a marvelously functioning brain that is capable of amazing feats of change and learning. This is true no matter what you think of yourself or your abilities.
Do not doubt that
you can improve your life
Think of all the things you have already learned how to do and how they have improved your life. This is no different.
I invite you to choose one of these techniques and try it out. Then evaluate the results, adjust accordingly, and repeat the process until you notice a change.
In summary, people do better when they know what to expect, when they understand why, when they have something they can do—and so do you.
It has been proven time and time again: Having and repeating positive interactions with other people will increase your satisfaction with life. And that’s what these techniques will deliver.
These techniques are powerful. They are easy to learn. If they don’t work for you, that’s okay, but the odds are that they will. I invite you to try them.
Thank you for listening.
This post contains information, not advice. It’s up to you to decide whether or not trying the technique described here is a good idea for you. If you feel “stuck” or your problems feel serious, consider seeking counseling (see “What Is Therapy? FAQ”).
In addition to neuroscience, life hacking, lifelong learning, computer programming, and other pursuits, Gregg Williams is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Silicon Valley CA. He sends messages occasionally on Twitter and app.net as @Therapy4Change.
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