No One Cares About Your Shit Day

We’ve all had days that we wish that we could do over. Days where the traffic is terrible, we spill coffee all over ourselves, and every little thing seems to conspire against us. These little problems then snowball into a huge problem and goals that seemed more than reasonable at the beginning of the day become absolutely impossible by the end of the day.

These are real problems. Often, we dismiss them individually as trivial and beat ourselves up for being defeated by them instead of showing ourselves the amount of self-compassion that we deserve. We need to accept that the challenges that we face in life are real and that we need to address them seriously.

But when it comes to dealing with others, the roles that these problems play change a great deal. While we often seem incapable of giving ourselves enough slack for the challenges that we face, we have no problem using these setbacks in an attempt to gain empathy from others when we don’t meet their expectations.

Making Excuses or Making Progress

How often do we say sentences like this?

I’m sorry that I was late; there was a lot of construction.

If you’re anything like me, the answer is more often than we think. It’s such a natural thing to say that we never stop to think about why we say things like this. Whether you call these statements “excuses” or “context,” the purpose of these statements are to give additional information to someone else to help them empathize with your situation and be less upset at you.

There are many legitimate reasons for giving this additional information. I am not interested in discussing the moral implications of making excuses or determining the difference between making an excuse and giving context.

Ultimately, these issues don’t matter because giving this additional information is not serving the needs of your audience. They don’t care why you didn’t meet their expectations. There’s nothing that can be done about what has already happened. What your audience really cares about is how you can move forward.

Bridging the Gap

What can we do to change our statements to address the needs of those that we’ve disappointed? Should we stop trying to gain their empathy in these situations?

Not at all. Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool that helps us to work together more effectively. However, empathy needs to be a two-way street. Asking someone to empathize with you because of problems outside of your control does not take into consideration that you not meeting their expectations has just added to the snowball of problems that is outside of their control.

What you need to do it to take a moment to step into their shoes. How does this situation affect them? Because of this situation, are they going to have trouble meeting the expectations of others? What can you do to help prevent this from being a bigger problem?

In general, there are three strategies that you can employ to show that you are more interested in solving the problem than you are in the problem itself.

  1. Readjust Expectations: Sometimes all that is needed to get back on the same page with someone after expectations have not been met is to work with them to set new expectations. This may mean changing deadlines, changing roles and responsibilities, changing schedules, or even changing budgets.
  2. Change your Behavior or Habits: If you can do something differently to address the ramifications of your current situation, this can be a great way to make sure that the problems you are having now don’t become bigger issues. This may mean staying late to finish a task, helping out when you otherwise wouldn’t, or coming up with a creative solution to solve the problem. If you are habitually making excuses for the same things, consider making changes to your habits.
  3. Reassure Others: If this problem was a one-time experience and will not affect things in the future, it can be enough to express this fact to the person affected. However, this is a dangerous technique to use without addressing the problem in a different way because you are essentially borrowing trust. If this problem continues to be a problem after you say that it won’t, you will have lost an amount of trust that you may never get back.

It is often a good idea to use these techniques in conjunction with one another. Let’s take another crack at our excuse from earlier and see if we can make it better without being too wordy.

I’m sorry that I was late; there was a lot of construction today. I know this impacts our project timeline and I’m willing to stay late today to make up for lost time. Could I get your help for a half hour over lunch today to catch up?
Also, I think the construction is almost done, but I’m going to leave earlier for the rest of this week to make sure that it doesn’t impact our timeline further.

Here you can see that we are still asking for empathy from the other party, but we’re also showing some empathy of our own by acknowledging how this problem affects them and coming up with ways to deal with that issue.

No One Cares About Your Day… Unless You Care About Theirs

It isn’t really true that no one cares what happens to you. As humans, we’re pre-disposed to having empathy for those who are closest to us since the success of our friends is almost as good for us as our own success.

But when you are preoccupied with avoiding embarrassment or criticism from others, you lose sight of how your actions influence others. Only by taking a step back and having empathy for others when you feel like you need it the most can you truly benefit from your relationships with others.

So the next time that you are in a situation where you feel like you are not meeting the expectations of others, take a moment to communicate your understanding of the situation, address how it affects others, and offer a suggestion for how to mitigate the problems created by the situation. You don’t have to know all of the answers, but people will appreciate your consideration and be much more willing to work with you in the future.

Pat East is the Customer Support Team Lead for Pixo, a custom software consulting firm in Urbana, IL. If you’re interested in talking with him about this subject or anything else related to personal and professional development, hit him up on Twitter.