I was walking to my meeting. One that I had asked to have and had been scheduled for a couple of months. One of those meetings that was going to be hard. One of those meetings that needed to happen because some changes needed to be made. Changes in and for myself.
On the way I was still debating “Wouldn’t it be better to just cancel the meeting, keep my mouth shut and just say ‘no thank you’, the next time they ask me to be a part of what they do?” Offering no reasons or excuses or explanations, except for, perhaps, the ubiquitous “I just want to spend more time with my family” line (which, by the way, wouldn’t be a lie, it would just not be the whole truth). The problem with that approach, is that they wouldn’t have a chance to at least know what I had experienced working with them. Don’t they deserve to know? If I were in their position (and I have been) I would like to know. Also I felt like I would be being dishonest with them and myself about some very important things.
Wouldn’t it be better to confront the situation, say, “Look, I am quitting. I can’t continue to be associated with what is going on here, and here is a list the list of things that I believe you have done, or not done, to create an environment that I can’t be a part of anymore?” At least they will know the truth. But would I want people to come in and go at me like that?
I had wrestled with this, going back and forth between these two extremes for weeks. I had talked with trusted advisors and still couldn’t find a place to land that felt comfortable and right. Trying all along to find out what I should do, why I wanted to do it, what my part in all this was.
As I approached the office building, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. Then it came to me (thankfully). Saying nothing wasn’t the “right” thing to do; and confronting them wasn’t the “right” thing to do. Saying nothing would leave me feeling dishonest and confronting them would be using what the research strongly suggests is one of the most ineffective ways to try to effect long-term change in another. Another person and/or system. And guaranteed to create resistance and conflict.
A classic study was done a number of years ago highlighting various factors involved in in trying to get people to change their problematic alcohol use. What the study (and subsequent studies have confirmed) was that there was one significant factor in determining whether a person would be using alcohol a year later or not. That factor? The more that confrontation and criticism was used in the attempt to help people change, the more likely the person was to not have changed their problematic behavior one year later. In other words, extrinsic (coming from an outside source) confrontation and criticism have a negative impact on change. Problem is that our culture believes that extrinsic confrontation and something called “constructive criticism” are THE tools that work best regardless of the data. This approach is the equivalent to “breaking” a horse.
Confrontation and criticism do positively effect change if it is INTRINSIC coming from the inside of the person themselves. The art in helping people (or systems) comes from the helper being able to skillfully guide or lead the person or system into confronting themselves. There are, by the way, very effective researched tools and approaches for doing this. If you are familiar with the “Horse Whisperer” movie, it represents a perfect example of shaping behavior using these kinds of tools.
So, knowing and believing this, how was I going to say what I needed to say without extrinsically criticizing, complaining, or confronting the person I was going to be talking to? So what magic answer suddenly appeared?
Although there was no actual transcript of the meeting, this is how I remember I opened the conversation:
“Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I have a problem, a problem that I am aware of that is of my own making, and I want to assure you that I am not asking you to fix, but I did want to tell you about, rather than for me to just disappear.
The problem I have is, that I care too much about what happens here and I have too little power to change the things that distress and embarrass me. I can’t seem to quit caring enough to feel ok to continue being involved in the ways that I am currently involved. I feel out of integrity with myself by doing so. I wanted you to know that. I am aware that it is a problem unique to me because many others experience the same things as I do here and it is not a problem for them. I know that I have a special sensitivity to these things, always have and always will have.”
I was fully prepared for the person I was talking to, to say “thanks for letting me know” and the meeting would have ended. That would have been fine with me. I had no need to let them know the details of my experience. I really had nothing new to say to them, I had told them these things as they came up over the last few years. I felt like I had done the right thing by letting them know in this way what was happening for me.
To my surprise, they asked if I would be willing to tell them what I had experienced and witnessed that had caused me to come to this place. We talked for more than an hour. At the end of the meeting, the person I was talking to said how much they appreciated our time together and especially the approach I used in talking about all this.
Were they internally confronted? Will things change there? I don’t know. Maybe nothing needs changing. It seems to be working just fine. Even if they were intrinsically confronted, people and systems are difficult to change. Until they have to, until it becomes an intrinsic need, most don’t. Most can’t.
What I DO know is that I felt that I had respected both the other person and the institution that they represented, and myself. And I was reminded there is no such thing as EXTRINSIC CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Criticism, complaints, confrontation, defensiveness, and stonewalling (See John Gottman’s work on couples) all work as an acid drip on very fragile relationship bonds. Research suggests that for a relationship to flourish there needs to be a ratio of five positive interactions for every one negative one. It also suggests that in the average intimate relationship (marriage partners, parents and children, friends, even professional relationships) in America, the ratio is exactly reversed. Somehow we have gotten the idea that if we truly love someone it is our job to set them straight by using complaining, criticism and confrontation, rather than go to school and learn how to be with them in ways that foster and support their own internal, intrinsic desire to set themselves straight.
There are those who would claim that they need to be criticized, constructively of course, to change. My experience is that they haven’t been exposed to the more sophisticated tools that build intrinsic change behaviors.