Aren’t people in positions of leadership and authority supposed to be more knowledgeable, wiser, more capable, more aware? When they aren’t (and oh so frequently they just aren’t), it’s disappointing and even confusing. Especially if they are willing to criticize us from their lofty position.
Over the last few years I’ve been developing a practice of noticing my own defensiveness when it gets triggered (which can be pretty darned often!) and let that be a flag for me to try thinking about the person in authority in a different way. It’s been slow to develop, but it has started with a practice of mindfulness meditation, which helps me to use my breathing (deep belly breaths) to relax, and helps me to become aware of my thinking.
So now, instead of defending myself, I take a few deep belly breaths and then start becoming aware of my thinking.
I’ve used this a lot with an old friend–let’s call her Darlene–in the last couple of years. We take a vacation together just about every year, but she has these habits that are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. She has always driven me crazy, but it’s hard sometimes to describe just what she’s done that has been so nervewracking. So one year I figured I would just make notes for myself–write down the stories of what Darlene was doing so I could see it and tell people about it. Makes sense, right?
Ugh! That was about the worst thing I could have done. All that got me to do was to really focus all my energies on what she was doing that I hated. Eventually I just had to call my husband and get him to talk me off the ledge, because I wasn’t going to make it like that.
1. Notice your thinking
Over the next year, I started a mindfulness meditation practice and realized (slowly) that I could use that practice when I was with Darlene. So, the next year when we met again, any time she did something that triggered a spike in my personal sense of alarm, I just practiced noticing it, taking a deep breath, and letting it go, telling myself, “Huh! Look at that. I really reacted to that. I wonder what she’s doing now?” LOL! It may sound silly, and sometimes it felt silly, but it made SUCH a difference. I reacted to a lot of different things Darlene said and did, but I let go of each one and just refocused my attention on the present moment with curiosity and interest.
I can still get hooked–but I’ve been training myself just to notice the “hookedness” and take that as an opportunity to let go of whatever has hooked me.
2. Manage your mood
Sometimes, I really have to do something intentional to get to a point where I can see straight, or otherwise I’m likely to do something that’ll lose me my job or a friend or land me in jail… This might mean spending some time with Hubby, who really knows how to listen and affirm me, or just thinking about people in my life whom I’m grateful for. It’s good to have a handful of strategies I can turn to in a pinch that can help me back away from the ledge.
3. Take more into account
More recently, I’ve been adding to my practice (both with leaders and with Darlene), asking myself questions about that person. Questions like, “What does this person need? What are their fears? What kinds of things could have happened in their history that I don’t even know about? What burdens might they have now that I’m not even aware of yet?” (This is something I can do only after I’ve let go of the immediate defensiveness and am managing my mood.)
Questions like this do two things for me. First, they can help me remember that I don’t have all the facts. Everybody is dealing with things they don’t talk to others about. Second, they help me start to remember that, despite my incredible wisdom and gentleness and milk-of-human-kindness-by-the-quartness, I have at times lashed out against people who really didn’t deserve it, just because I was having a bad day. When I remember that, I’m more willing to try to work with this person who’s offended me so much, rather than against them.
4. Look for how you can help
And so, finally, I start to try to focus on the influence I have, which might be big or might be small. And the question I ask myself to think about that is something like this: “What support could I offer them so they are less likely to feel the need to act out in this troubling way?” I just start looking for ways to help. Sometimes I’ll even ask them directly, “How can I support you?” and let them tell me what they most want or need. Sometimes have to ask a few times before they take me seriously. And when I hear something from them (or from within myself) that resonates, then I know what to do for them.
That has tended to make things better for my own experience with these folks. They don’t change, necessarily, or I might invite them into a healthier relationship with me, but I change. And that’s when things get better.