Archive for July, 2012

Let’s play a round of Jeopardy.  “I need to hear it every day.”  In my house a proper question to win this Jeopardy round with my wife is “How often do you need to hear praise from me?” 

I struggle with this, not from the perspective that my wife is not praiseworthy, but from the perspective than I am a man.  When my wife is feeling needy from the perspective of hearing that I love her or that she did something well, my response tends to be, “Oh!  You know I love you!” or “You know you do a good job!”  OK, all you women stop rolling your eyes and saying, “Typical man!”  Her response is listed above.

It is no secret that men and women communicate, perceive, hear and OK, basically do nearly everything differently.  It’s a wonder that somehow we all fall in love and choose to work through that quagmire, but in God’s infinite wisdom this is how he built us.  If you want to get into the psychology of the male and female mind there is no shortage of resources to satisfy your appetite and I’ll let you do that on your own.  In our house we work to make this a priority, but the fact that this exchange happens shows that we are far from perfect.

I do love my wife dearly.  I am so blessed to have her in my life.  I tend to be more talkative than your typical man, yet I still find it unnatural to say this out loud.  I’m not sure why.  In the Love & Respect book it talks about men wanting “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendship with their spouse rather than women wanting “face-to-face” friendship.  Honestly, I read this chapter and could relate, but it sounded foreign to me.  As I explained to my wife here, “I guess I’m a woman in this area”.  I like to talk more than my wife, just ask her.  Not just a little bit, a LOT more.  Yet even with this, I somehow drop the ball and become a typical man when it comes to supporting my wife’s need to hear I love her and love what she does for me and the family.

One of the reasons I love this Love & Respect book so much (yes, I just readily said I love a BOOK while I’m writing about how I struggle to verbally tell my wife I love her enough) is that it explains very simply the basic drives of both women and men.  I keep working on this every day and I know I will get better, in part because I want to badly to get better.  I know that if I give her more of what she needs, she will give me more of what I need.  For a woman that is feeling loved all the time. 

A typical male response is to bemoan how much work this is.  Really?  We love baseball, cars, and a myriad of other things.  I understand those things do not need to be told we love them, but should it really be that hard?  Like anything, I think it is just a matter of focus.  I used to forget to give my wife a kiss in the morning before I left.  She’d let me know about it.  In the beginning it was new to me.  If I had tried to kiss my ex before I left I would get slapped and told to go away because she was trying to sleep.  I can understand that and since my wife sleeps longer than I do, I figured I was being nice by just leaving her alone.  What I did not understand was that her need to be loved outweighed anything she might feel about being disturbed from her sleep and she let me know how stupid that idea was.  She wanted her kiss in the morning.  She could easily fall back asleep.  After about a month I got pretty good at it, but I still forget once in a while or have to come back upstairs or even turn around and come back to the house.  Yes, you heard me right.  I turn around and come back to the house, to give my wife her morning goodbye kiss. 

As a guy we’re also trained to not give out a lot of praise.  When was the last time you told another guy at the office, “Hey Joe, I love the way you format those columns in your reports.”  I know, every guy reading this just shook from a case of the willies.  It just feels wrong.  Yet we need to understand that our wives lap this stuff up and in her case I do think “This dinner is yummy!  She got a lot of the boxes unpacked out of her office today.  She helped me a lot by picking up my daughter from band practice.”  so why do I think it but don’t say it?  It just takes focus.  So just like my successful campaign to get better at the goodbye kiss I just need to apply the same effort to actually saying what I’m thinking (when it’s good.  I’ve got the flip side of that down). 

It does come more naturally to me, and I think most men, so focus on what needs to be fixed.  After all that’s what men do; we fix things.  I’m really good at telling my wife what she needs to improve.  That may be important, but it is unloving.  Not that those things are not to be discussed because that leads to other issues, but it should not be the majority of my input into her contribution to our lives.  I have been measured and found wanting.  Guilty as charged. 

The goofy thing is I love my wife and have no issue with her knowing it.  I just make the dumb mental leap that she knows it.  Needing to hear it often does not make her needy, it makes her a woman.  If only every man understood that, there would be so many fewer problems in relationships than there are now.  Can I get an Amen from the ladies!?  J

So I’ve just about got the goodbye kiss thing licked (I only had to circle back once this week), so my next focus will be on making sure she hears something great every day.    I know it will feel strange, but I think it will be better over time.  I know she will be getting more of what she wants and I love to see her happy.  Finally, it’s not like I’m making it up, she really is awesome (now if I could only remember to say it).

My wife and I had a really interesting conversation recently.  It began while we were discussing the Love & Respect book by Emerson Eggerichs that I had talked about before, but it was really an off shoot from the general topics we were exploring in the workbook. 

In our case the root cause was that we both came out of long marriages, so it would appear to be related to divorce, but I think it can easily translate to anyone who was in a long term relationship.  We had talked about this early in our dating time, but we knew there were going to be issues that just could not be worked through as a single person.  I made that observation during our conversation, that even if I had been single for a decade or longer after my divorce, these challenges would have still surfaced, and my wife very quickly agreed. 

The challenge is that like it or not, people are creatures of habit.  We fall back into patterns and look for them to identify if what we are experiencing now is the same as what we experienced yesterday, last week, last year or ten years before.  I became programmed to respond to certain stimuli in a relationship in certain ways because of my ex.  My wife has the same challenge.  The true challenge is that we need to realize that we are not with those people and to allow ourselves to learn new ways of interacting.  Luckily I’d say we are doing very well in this regard, as simply evidenced by the fact that we can talk about it.

One example we talked about that triggered an old response in me to some degree was with regards to my wife working on her computer.  She works from home, and so is often on the computer for one of her jobs.  Originally, I would pop my head in her office and ask what she was doing but she might be in the middle of something and I would interrupt her.  Trying to be courteous, I decided I would just take a peek at her screen before I interrupted her.  If it was work things, which it usually was, I’d just smile and move on but if not I would feel more open to see if she was willing to join me for some time together.  It seemed perfectly logical to me, but as so many things often go, what I had anticipated as helpful to both of us, turned out to not be.  You see when I tried this, my wife was unsure what I was doing and would give me a strange look.  Even when we talked about it, she used the term “you don’t have to spy on me”.  I explained to her that with my ex whenever I asked what she was doing she was always evasive and in many cases it was because what she was doing was inappropriate.  This was the training I had received in interacting with another.   Hopefully you can make the mental leap to understand how something like this cannot ever be fully resolved as a single person no matter how much time you give it.  It takes being with someone to bring out that interaction again. 

This example led us to each talk about many others where we were doing that.  Even though my wife believes very strongly in the Ephesians 5:22 principle that the husband is the head of the family and decision and authority rests with me, she struggles with feeling comfortable with that because when she let her ex have authority every decision he made turned out to be a disaster for the family.  As we talked this was an example of actions being needed to get her to a level of comfort, meaning, once again, no matter how comfortable she was with the concept in her mind, until we go through enough actual decision points where she begins to see that it is different with me, her mind will still take her back to that old set of feelings of unease.  Only by teaching ourselves new tricks, to react differently, can we get past these things.

Neither of us looks at this as a bad thing or a sign that we missed something in the process of agreeing to get married and share our lives together.  Instead we know that there was only so far we could go until we were married again and working these issues out.  Just as a pilot can only go so far in a flight simulator and then needs to get in a real plane.  There are sensations one cannot simulate, and thoughts one cannot make evoke the same set of feelings when we initiate them.  What I mean by that last statement is that even if I sat there and thought through the example of seeing what my wife was doing and then thinking how I would react to that, the exercise of me thinking all that versus just experiencing it would mean my feelings about it would not be the same.  The best example I can think of is thinking about how you would feel if you walked into your bedroom and found someone roasting marshmallows in your dresser  versus actually walking into the room and experiencing it without thinking of it.  The surprise, if you will, has been removed.  The act of imagining gives your mind time to prepare for the feelings, versus just having them hit you smack in between the eyes.

The joy of the conversation was that we each got to understand what was triggering the reaction in the other person.  My wife had not even thought of how my ex had influenced my thinking to something she viewed as ordinary, but which my training had taught me was everything but.  My past had taught me when someone was not just forthright with what they were doing that it meant something bad.  Her training, on the other hand had taught her that it was rude for me not to ask but to instead “peek” or “spy” as she called it.  My training had taught me that if I ask the other person has time to think and hide and evade.  I understand my wife is not my ex and so my reaction was not automatic, but the underlying currents were there, kind of like a siren’s call to approach something I was familiar with.  But just like the sirens of myth, if I heed that call I will end up dashed on the rocks.  Placing the shoe on the other foot, my wife has those feelings of discomfort when she trusts me to make a decision.  I on the other hand find it confusing that she says she wants me to make the decision but then seems uneasy.  When she explained what she was feeling, it all clicked.  It goes back to what I spoke about a few posts back about making sure we have the perspective of the other person, especially when it might be so foreign to us that we would not even think of it in our wildest dreams.  Just as if I asked my wife to tell me the most outrageous thing she could thing of happening in our bedroom she would probably never give you the roasting marshmallow scenario I provided, she could also not make the leap that it was strange for me to ask my wife what she is doing rather than just looking.  It was never in her experience so she never learned that reality, but I lived it for over two decades. 

We acknowledged that we both have made steps in areas to begin that retraining.  We are both confident it will work out great because we work together to that same goal.  Not every couple will have that same result.  It takes a comfort and trust that is not always easy to come by, but the fact that both of us, whose trust was so violated in our previous marriages can come back and trust another hopefully provides tangible proof that it is never impossible.  God made being human a lot of work.  Those who choose not to put in the work may find it easier, but I am pretty sure they do not find it as fun.  We are both good willed and want to improve every day and this lets us support each other in learning to retrain our subconscious to react differently.  It is a lot of work, but it is work that is critical to having a strong couple at the helm of our blended family to provide a solid example to the children God has entrusted to our care so that they can hopefully avoid attaching themselves to people who teach them bad patterns that they will need to work themselves out of later.  I know not everyone will be able to do this.  Family literature is full of examples where people repeat the same destructive behavior because it is all they know.  We will continue to work and move forward.  This old dog is hard at working learning some new tricks.

Taking responsibility

Posted: July 24, 2012 in Kids, Responsibility

When I was younger I guess I would say I had it pretty good as a kid.  I had a place to live, I had a school I could go to, food on the table and I have survived into adulthood.  For many people that would be a pretty good childhood.  Looking at the world today, I did not have anyone shooting at me when I went to the movie theater, sat at home, or went to school.  I got picked on for the clothes I wore, but never had anyone try to kill me over a pair of sneakers.  I could do something stupid with my friends and it might get spread around the school, but it was limited to word-of-mouth, not able to be posted on the internet and viewed around the world just seconds after it happened.

I had to get a job as soon as I could, or not do what I wanted with my friends because I would have no money.  I was not given hundreds of dollars a week like some of my kids friends over the years were to just go to the mall or hang with the homies.  If I wanted a car, I had to buy one.  My parents never gave me one, it was my responsibility.  If I wanted to drive, they would add me to their policy to avoid the ridiculous price tag of my own insurance, but I had to pay the difference, otherwise the car sat in the driveway and I could go back to my bike.  No whining and moaning; I was taught responsibility in spades.  Maybe that’s why I find the new trend so confusing, especially when those in my age demographic embrace it.

With all this added pressure the world has tossed into the mix, one would think that taking responsibility would be on the increase since the stakes are so much higher, but instead it seems to be receding.  This weekend I got another reminder of that in the mail.  The home I had sold nearly a year ago was too big for us after the divorce and certainly too expensive.  In my effort to take responsibility I decided to sell it and select something less extravagant in the square footage and acreage department; something more manageable on financial and physical levels.  Like any house, especially one getting up to forty years of age, it needed some TLC and it seems that that continues, as I received in the mail from a local law firm a letter and accompanying photographs of all the issues that seem to have surfaced with this house since it left my possession.  Problem is this was not some weird informational exchange by the buyers of this house, they want me to pay for things that have broken; they want to pass off their responsibility as home owners onto some else.  While I just paid to have my own roof replaced, because as the owner of my house it is my responsibility to do that, they feel it is somehow my fault that their house suddenly leaks and has an old roof. 

I understand why people do this.  After all, in the ensuing decades since I was a child and was taught responsibility, the American culture has made it in vogue to shirk it as quickly as you can find someone to blame.  Kids no longer struggle in school because they are lazy and stupid, it’s because they have bad teachers.  No one can burn themselves with coffee (who knew it was hot), listen to the radio (it never told me I could not use it in the bathtub) or cut themselves with a knife (they should have safety blades) and just admit they got injured because they were idiots and take responsibility.  Thank God this was not around when the Founding Fathers were at work creating this country.  George Washington might have sued the ax maker after the cherry tree he cut down nearly hit him.  Ben Franklin would have sued the kite maker for making it able to be struck by lightning when he attached a piece of metal to it.  Thomas Jefferson would have sued the landlord of the building he wrote the Declaration in for not providing proper ventilation in the hot Philadelphia summer.  We could have spent all our time figuring out who to blame rather than doing something.

I know when I was a kid I did the same thing my kids do, which is try to shirk responsibility.  My parents did not let me and we do not let ours, but my parents had the added benefit of all the other parents operating the same way.  I already mentioned the academic issues, but parents threaten schools and park districts with law suits if their kid does not play, does not make the team, or does not win enough.  I was filling out a form for the school district for my daughter to play in the marching band and next to the fee amount there was fine print that stated “paying the fee does not guarantee participation in all band events”.  I’m OK with that, but some idiot obviously sued the school one time at least and the district’s lawyers made them put this disclaimer on the form.  I’m waiting for the lunch fee web site to tell me “paying for a lunch does not guarantee your child will eat it, will not give the vegetables away, or will not otherwise misuse the lunch in a way you deem inappropriate.  The school, the employees of the district, the tile workers union that laid the floor in the cafeteria, and the general public are not liable for any such misunderstanding of the use of the lunch for which this fee is rendered”.  Teach your child to do the right thing with the lunch, the school books, the opportunities provided them and if things do not work out, first make sure it was not their fault and have them take responsibility before you train them to find someone else to blame for their lack of capability.  I get so frustrated with parents at school functions complaining about everything and not taking responsibility.

As a kid I would have certainly let someone else take the fall if my parents gave me life lessons to show that’s how it works.  Our whole legal system lets frivolous lawsuits proceed.  Sure we all grumble about it, but when was the last time you saw a judge slap a hefty fine on the bringer of that suit?  I’ve never seen it.  We have this notion that we all need to be heard, but at some basic level there needs to be a limit.  If you were smoking in bed and fell asleep with a lit cigarette and burned your house down, it’s not the cigarette makers fault for getting you to start smoking, the mattress manufacturer’s fault for not making the mattress more flame retardant or the fire department’s fault that they did not get there in time to save your house.  Take responsibility for being an idiot and smoking in bed.  The amount of time and money wasted for all this blame is something I would love to see a study on.

As I was growing up, if someone damaged a car mirror in a parking lot for example, they’d leave a note and take care of it.  Shows like “What Would You Do?” are popular because of exactly this type of thing.  It is so rare to see someone take responsibility these days that it makes for good television. 

It is important to make sure our kids understand that they are ultimately responsible for how their life turns out.  Even with a strong grounding in God, they are making the choices by being guided in their hearts with what to do.  If we could channel all that time and energy that is used in affixing blame into solving the problem and moving forward it would make use so much more productive.  Teaching them to not blame the lousy teacher, but instead take it upon themselves to figure out how to learn the material.  When they missed the bus, it is not the bus driver’s fault but their own for not giving themselves enough time to be at the bus stop.  As they grow older if the cultural trends continue they will stand out as responsible citizens, employees and business owners.  I still feel this helps equip them to be leaders rather than followers waiting around for someone to take the fall.

I honestly can’t recall the exact date on the calendar, but I know it was late December 2009 (after Christmas).  It was the day I tried to talk to my nine year old daughter and she backed away from me in fear.  This was not some childish emotion.  I could look into her eyes and see the fear in them and it ripped me apart.

After years of a marriage that was not working, and years of trying to control the mood in the house by demanding my children be perfect because I felt this was what my wife wanted to keep the marriage together (I would learn the nuances of this as I talked it through in marriage counseling in a month), it had come to this.  My child thought of me as a tyrant and was mortally afraid of me.  The two other kids just hated me.

This was a few days after the latest time my wife had said she wanted a divorce.  This had gone on for a few years and we talked it through before but this time she was so adamant and we had sat the kids down and told them.  Before we did that I had asked, as I had many times before, if she wanted to go to counseling but as before she refused saying she knew counseling didn’t work.  She had had experience as a child when her mother and she had gone to a counselor for their anger issues and she felt it was a waste of time.  I had never gone but was willing, but I also understood that unless both parties wanted to work at it it really would not do much good.

I was then trying to talk to my daughter and she would not come near me and told me she was scared of me.  There was nothing I could do then and I understood.  My behavior over the preceding years was to discipline by yelling at them, a stupid decision that got results the fastest way and therefore calmed my wife down but left me feeling terrible.  I look back on it now after having the benefit of counseling that did help me and am ashamed and extremely sad whenever I think about.  I will never have those years back with my kids.  To this day my oldest daughter when angry will still vehemently yell that she felt during those years “I had no idea what was going on in the house and didn’t care about them”.  I was letting my stay at home wife handle things and listened to her version of the story.  That might have been excusable.  When my kids acted up in the slightest I would launch into a fit to get them to behave.  As the years progressed I became hyper sensitive and began doing this when I thought they might act up.  It created an environment for them that had to be so stressful.  That is not excusable, but in my convoluted way of thinking in the moment I thought it was what I needed to do to keep the family together.  I understood why my kids felt that way and I was devastated.  I have never felt lower in my life than I did at that point.  If things had not changed I could easily see how it may have progressed to take me to a very, very dark place.

For whatever reason, but I thank God for it often, my wife rethought getting divorced and wanted to go to counseling.  I am certain had we proceeded at that point, with my kids hating and/or fearing me the outcome would have been so very different.  I would have not been able to see my kids much as no judge could have listened to their stories and felt there was any real value in me being heavily involved.  What they knew of me was the father who always yelled at them.  I had no leg to stand on.  The court would have looked at me the same was the counselor did the day I told him that if I did not have to behave this way for my marriage, as I had been led to believe for years that I did, then I would just stop.  The counselor told me that was admirable but highly unlikely to make that drastic a change that fast.  The counselor was not me.  I did not doubt I could because I knew that I hated acting that way to begin with.  I was the one who time and time again had disciplined my kids to the point of tears only to retire to my room in tears myself.  The counselor never demanded, asked or did anything to get me to change.  It went like this.  I said I disciplined the kids that way because I felt that was what she wanted me to do.  She said that was not the case.  I simply said fine now that I know that then I won’t do it anymore.  The counselor expressed his doubts that it could be like flipping a switch.  I had no doubts.

So was I crazy in my belief that I could flip that switch?  I’ll let you be the judge.  Less than eight months later we were back in the same place, meaning my wife once again wanted a divorce.  In the proceeding short time I had been able to observe her interaction with the kids without the influence of me jumping in with a hair trigger.  She continued to get upset, yell at them, and tell them she wished she never had them, but I did not play my part, yet strangely she played hers.  When her request to leave came I quickly agreed because I could see the effect on the kids.  And at that time in December of 2010 I had that same daughter, who had backed away from me with fear in her eyes a year ago when I had wanted to talk to her, approach me on her own and ask me if they got to choose who they lived with because she wanted to live with me and not mom. 

My lessons learned in the years since this are complex and multi-faceted.  You must be true to yourself and to God in how you behave or it will tear you apart.  It was not my responsibility for how my wife behaved and what I did to try to address that was wrong and obviously pointless as her continued behavior showed.  Once I changed these behaviors things improved quickly.  I learned that counseling can be helpful as it opened a door to change in me that I could not find a way to open on my own, and when the divorce finally came I was able to get my kids into counseling and get them help, and ignore my exes ranting that they did not need it.

It is difficult now to know if what the kids say is reality or dramatic embellishment to some degree.  In counseling they shared that my exes behavior was much worse than even I thought and that is what fuels my oldest daughters flare ups us anger and hatred.  I am her father and I am supposed to protect her.  I failed.  I can never fix that and I have to live with that burden the rest of my life.  She had to parent her siblings while my ex ignored them for long periods and I was listening to my ex tell me that was not the case when my kids would get fed up enough and courageous enough to tell me something and I confronted her with it.  Friends have told me I cannot be faulted for trusting my wife, as that is what I should do.  My soul does not let me off that easy.  Does this make me susceptible to some manipulation by my kids now?  I think so, but I try to be aware of that and my wife helps me.  They can play on that guilt at times and I really do not know when that will go away, if it ever will.  My take on it is dark and difficult.  I know now my kids were being treated poorly by a mother who was telling me otherwise.  When they needed my support instead they received my wrath for years.  During that time they had two shitty parents.  I could not control my wife, but I could control me and for that I am guilty.  I do not buy into the psychobabble that would allow me to absolve myself of that time.  I just thank God that with His help I was able to see my sins and correct them and get to where I am today.  People who know me now might be shocked to hear this story but I think it is an important part to understanding how hard I have worked to get to the point I am at today in facing the demons of a bad marriage and coming out the other side to help others find their way forward too.  It is too easy to read the simple dissolution story and think my path was not as dark and twisted as those who go through a “traditional” messy, dirty divorce.  People who knew me during all this time, like the best man at my wedding, have commented on the differences.  They were unaware of the impact on me and the kids, and truthfully so were we.  Until you get out of the situation it is hard to realize what it really is like.

I see now that God understood my true heart and kept the divorce from happening until it was revealed clearly to my children.  He brought me to our counselor, even after my wife did not initially want to go, to help me see that which I could not see myself.  He gave me the courage to know that we would be OK and to decisively make the decision to accept the final divorce request and not drag the kids through more. 

The work to get from that day to today has been substantial.  Keeping other areas of my life together so that my career and other things were not severely impacted is also a blessing.  Some have told me it speaks to the strength of my character, but I cannot claim that credit.  The credit goes to God for making me the way I am.  I have my flaws, as I think you much better understand after this post, but I also have the desire to work on them and so I will continue onward to better things every day.

To be another

Posted: July 14, 2012 in Anger, Communication

Pulling from the bag of clichés, I bring you things like “see through another’s eyes” and “walk a mile in their shoes”. These types of phrases are meant to remind us that there are different ways of perceiving the world, different points of view. A recent movie “Vantage Point” did a great job of using this premise to show how the same event could be engaged in so differently.

As a parent, as a husband, and as a citizen of the world I work ceaselessly to keep this mindset front and center and it frustrates me to no end when my family and what I perceive (isn’t that ironic) to be a wide majority of the population do not do it as tirelessly.  While those clichés are just phrases they actions behind them unlock a lot of power in human relationships.  As a dad I strive this to be one of the enduring legacies I leave behind with my children.

Too often in the middle of an argument, it is easiest to simply try to force others to our will.  After all our way is the best way because we thought of it, right?  Arrogant?  Surely, but be honest.  Don’t you almost always argue that way?  When our kids do not want to go to church on Wednesday nights, the easiest response is to simply make them.  In my view it is however, not the best.  This enters a whole land of conflict resolution and how collaborative decisions are best.  These are the ones that everyone buys in to.  The trade off, as you will learn if you study conflict resolution as I have, is that this is also the most time consuming way to go.  Think about a meeting you had recently, at work or with your family deciding what to do on Saturday, where your goal was to get everyone to agree on the same result.  What words would you use to describe it?  Something like tedious, tiring, long, and frustrating might come to mind.  It is unlikely that the words were pleasurable, fun, and wonderful, but if in the end you did get lucky enough to achieve the result, I would say they would be.  There lies the enticing nugget, the Holy Grail, of collaboration.  While you are in it, it sucks, but if you get the elusive agreement, it rocks.

As I see it, the reason for this is you have taken the time to embrace the thoughts, emotions and feelings of another and used them to work out what is classically called a “win-win” solution.  If I force someone to do something will they make the same choice when I am not there to force them?  Ha!  I will be the first to raise my hand and say I was the poster child of parenting by berating, yelling and forcing.  What was the result?  I got what I wanted.  But guess what, while I got the result, as opposed to the exchange of bad feelings about the exchange and the interaction and most, most importantly my part in it, those did not change.  The exchange was tedious, angry, and unpleasant and when I got the result I still felt that way.  More importantly so did the kids I bullied into the decision.  As a parent is sucks to look at yourself as a bully and while you embrace that parenting style, as I did for a time, you do not see yourself that way, but having changed my style to be more collaborative I cannot describe it any other way. 

I ran most of my life that way for a long time.  At work I was taught to be stern, firm and get my people to do things.  American business succeeded that way for decades.  And it produced unions and workplace shootings and all kinds of other nonsense because people felt they were being forced not heard.  The first step in this process is learning to understand that my thoughts are not the only ones, or even the best ones, on any topic.  They are for me and me alone.  To understand if they are for anyone else, I needed to learn to be another.

In our recent decision to relocate one of our factories across the country I was talking to my father who just retired and spent his entire life in a manufacturing plant.  He came to the United States from a communist bloc country when he was in high school and carried with him all that entailed.  I was lucky enough to be born here and lived in a free, democratic nation my whole life.  My father never went to college.  I have a masters degree, read voraciously on any topic, and have other certifications.  My father began work on the factory floor as a journeyman and apprenticed for years and learned the trade, progressing through increasing levels of responsibility until he ran factories for decades in his last years for a couple employers.  I interned at a publishing company for three years, worked in retail for four, held about a dozen temp jobs in food manufacture, banking, insurance, management consulting and telecommunications.  I worked for a finance company and then have spent the rest of my career in manufacturing, but in the front office.  In both cases, our experiences, education, training and interactions made us who we are and how we think about ANYTHING.  When I explained to my father that people in the factory that was closing were being offered severance or the option to use their severance to pay for their relocation I had a way of thinking about it.  In fact I was asking to understand HIS way of thinking, because my question to him was that as a management team we felt that this would make the people feel that it was their choice if they had a job or not, not ours.  They could relocate, but if they chose not to, they did not have a job through their choices not ours.  Now before you label me as a callous management person deluded by my “ivory tower” mentality, I understand this is a very shallow argument but the organization was at least offering the option.  Many places I have worked would have simply laid everyone off and hired new in the other location.  I credit being able to see this distinction on the fact that I grew up listening to my dad and his mentality as a plant worker about the things management did, but even having that left me blind. 

His response was different than I had expected.  In fact another management team member I shared his question to me with said he would have never thought of it that way.  I totally get it.  That’s because my dad is a lifelong factory worker, and the two of us are not.  Our experiences are vastly different and therefore our concerns are different.  While I wondered how it would be perceived his focus was on the result for the employee.  His question was if the person decided to relocate and then three years later they got laid off and they were a twenty year employee, would that piece that was used for the relocation be held against them as part of their severance.  His perspective was from that of the factory worker who has had to deal with being treated poorly by management.  I had heard all my life how the factory workers are responsible for making the product and they feel unappreciated because they are viewed by the college educated workers as uninformed and such.  I understood this and it formulates my thinking as I try to be another, but I was still not fully in that mindset even though I thought I was because I could not be since all I had was the communication of what it is like but not the real experience.  In this case to be another required me to openly listen to that other person to get their perspective, not simply assume I understood it.  That is not always an easy step for people to take because they do not see the blind spot or think it is not there. 

Another set of examples has to do with dealing with people from other countries.  I have been blessed to have assignments in the workplace that allowed me to immerse myself in a different country for extended periods.  I also had the wisdom by the time this happened to know that they had something to teach me and not to go over with the attitude that many of them talked to me about of the “American who knows everything”.  I get where this comes from, after all we are constantly told how other nations want to emulate us for various reasons.  What I found though is that is not always true when you talk to people.  The governments may indicate they want to me more like the US, but the people are not always along for the ride.  In addition, our system is far from perfect.  Just as with anything, being just like the US can be damaging in many aspects. 

In general I have found that Germans and French find us to be too liberal and Brits think we are way too conservative, which is the opposite of what many Americans I spoke with thought people in these cultures would think.  They view the British as conservative and thinking we are nuts and the Germans and French as being much more open about sex, politics and the like.  A Chinese citizen in many cases does not think about what they can do differently or what other things they can get, they are happy to have gotten anything.  This was a similar mindset to my parents from their communist upbringing.  They can see the value to freedom of choice but they also have a much clearer view of the waste and indulgence it breeds and are OK with not having the latest whatchamacalllit. 

Even in our house, my perspective on the impact of having the kids continue to attend Wednesday night church with us was not the same as my wife’s.  Had I not taken the time to ask what she thought the impact would be of them not going I would have missed a key perspective.  I felt making them go would alienate them and make them less likely to want to continue to go on Sunday.  She pointed out that she thought if we gave in on our stance to go through the summer to try it out that it would show them that whining enough got something to change and then it would cause them to whine about Sunday.  Her view was very different than mine and that is OK and great.  It is when we do not seek out the perspectives of another where I think we miss a great opportunity.

Circling back to what I started this post with, it still is a tactic practiced much less often in my view than it should be.  There are certainly times, as taught in conflict resolution seminars, where there is not the time to practice collaboration.  If the kids are doing something that puts them in peril, a more authoritative stance needs to be taken for safety’s sake.  As I look back on disagreements I have with anyone I tend to find that most of the time if we had all taken the time to understand the other’s perspective the results would have been better.  This is why I strive to take the time to have more conversations with my kids and my wife, for example, than they seem to want to take.  Where possible my style is to collaborate, and I will also work hard to make as many situations as I can fall into that group of “where possible”.  This can create frustration with those in my life, but from personal experience, I have been the dictator and I have moved to collaboration, and I have done so because I see the results are better.  I will not go back.  Reiterating my earlier point, the results may be there but the interpersonal relationship damage and how I personally felt about it afterwards make it clear this is the way to go.  Not understanding that is the process can result in people looking in on the methods and thinking I am being too “easy “on the kids at times and certainly as my wife feels that way from time to time we will need to continue to work on ways to improve how we both feel about this process. 

Assuming we know the right way is a sure path to distancing many people from ourselves.  If my way (or your way) is the right way than taking a few minutes to talk through both points should prove that out.  As a parent I will not always be there to make my kids choices for them, so why is parenting that way thought to be effective?  Yet I see it every day in the store or the park. 

It takes time to understand what our girls are thinking about something, but just like the vast difference of perspective that my dad and I had on the relocation funds, it is likely that what our twelve and eleven year old are thinking about why they do or do not want to go to church on Wednesday is not even something that may have crossed our minds.  We can force the situation for a time, and they may say nothing, but that is different than them agreeing.  So if our goal is to get them to like church or something else like math, what do you think will have the most success?  Forcing them until they like it, or working with them to understand what might be changeable?  I hope you see, it is obviously a rhetorical question.  It is like me trying to force my wife’s kids to like tomato sauce.  There is nothing I can change about tomato sauce.  It will have the same consistency, flavor, color and odor.  I need to realize that or face a battle every time, and guess what, in the end they still will not like it until something that IS changeable changes, and that is their tastes. 

There are so many things, though, like math that offer many more options.  Maybe a child hates math because they do not see the purpose, so changing that with real examples that matter to THEM can help.  Maybe they do not like the teacher or their methods, so either talking with the teacher or the child to see what can be changed can improve things.  Maybe they need extra help because they do not get it.  The only way to know this is to take the time to understand their perspective and not take the route too often taken, to just tell them to suck it up and like it and do it.  Has that ever worked on you when someone treated you that way?  Then why should it work on a child?  I find it fascinating that this basic leap of understanding eludes many parents.  It is similar to how abuse counselors work with abuse victims to get them to see that they should not tolerate things.  An abused woman thinks things are fine for example, but when asked how she would feel if her daughter was to marry someone like her abusive husband, suddenly it clicks.

So next time you are in an argument with your child, your wife, your co-worker or anyone else, take the time to learn their perspective before you blurt out your thoughts and encourage them to do the same.  You might be surprised to see that you did not understand them at all.