What’s Behind That Mask?
A friend shared the following story with me last week. The names have been omitted to protect the innocent, but the story is so symptomatic of our culture that I could not ignore it.
Thus begins the tale: It seems my friend has a bench in his family room that conceals a storage space. The bench is covered by a cushion and his wife has further embellished it with throw pillows to make it appear less utilitarian. The problem began when my friend, frantically searching for something of importance, removed the cushion and pillows to go through the storage space. Not finding what he wanted and still in a state of mild panic, he hastily threw the cushion and pillows back atop the bench and moved on to the next target of his search. Then, he rushed out the door to work.
That evening, upon returning from a demanding day of work, my friend noticed his wife was being particularly “non-verbal”. Like the masochistic mole in a Whack-a-Mole Game, he sat down next to her on the couch and asked how her day had been. Her response: “What’s wrong with this picture?” My friend looked at his wife, looked at himself, looked at the carpet to verify that he hadn’t tracked mud into the home, and replied, “I give. What’s up?” to which his wife retorted, “Do you really not see?” Feeling himself nearing that emotional jumping-off point, my friend took two deep breaths and replied that he was very tired and lacked ESP so could she just point out his moral infraction – to which, his wife simply pointed at the disarranged throw pillows.
Now, if you’re a man reading this, you’re saying to yourself, “What the Hell is the deal with women buying pillows you’re not allowed to lay your head on and towels you’re not allowed to wipe your hands on?” or “How on Earth do you determine the right order in which those pillows should be displayed?” If you’re a woman reading this, you’re saying to yourself, “What is wrong with men that they can’t have a single nice thing without treating it like a rock to be thrown at the neighbor’s cat?” But all that will inaugurate the story for another day because this is not a drama about throw pillows or mistreatment of felines, nor was “Thus begins the tale:” actually the beginning of this story – it actually began many days earlier.
My friend was perceptive enough to realize his wife would never have employed the silent treatment just because the blue pillow was in front of the orange one or vice versa, so he pled insanity and begged for mercy. As it turns out, there was indeed more to the story. A week earlier, my friend and his wife had travelled to a local nursery where they had plunked down no small sum of cash for several potted shrubs and flowers to adorn their home’s flower beds. My friend had set the potted foliage in the agreed-upon spots around their property but, due to a busy work schedule, had not yet found time to deposit them in their Earthen habitats. More important, as he rushed from his truck to the back door of his home that evening, my friend had failed to notice that his wife had spent her entire day planting and fertilizing the wilting flora he had originally promised to imbed.
Normally, I’d say this is the point where women should be informed that if your husband promises he will do something, he WILL DO IT and there’s no need to keep reminding him every six months. But this is not just a story about husbands and wives. It’s really a story about the people we work with. When the “jerk-at-work” blows up about the post-it note we left on their computer monitor, are they really that particular about sticky residue on their work toys or is something deeper driving their ire? When a steady client ignores our repeated attempts to contact them, are they really that busy or has something impeded our relationship – maybe even something we know nothing about?
Psychotherapists call this act of assigning negative emotions based on background irritants to a specific, less important event, “Displacement” but the correct terminology is “Pissed Off” and it happens on a daily basis. The point is you and I rarely know what’s going on behind those mask so we can almost never respond appropriately by reacting to the anger rather than reciprocating with a combination of compassion and rational boundaries. Reactions always escalate whereas compassion nearly always produces genuine compromise and progress. Rational boundaries prevent compassion from becoming enabling. We live in a reaction-based society that’s crying out for people who know how to respond with compassion and understanding.
Yeah, you guessed it – this is the point where I dare you to disagree with me. I’m not really daring you; I’m inviting you because respectful disagreement is the starting point of virtually every conversation that effects understanding and change. Hit that reply button and let’s have coffee or beer or lunch along with a good discussion. I’ll buy.
“This is one of the marks of a truly safe person: they are confrontable.”
— Henry Cloud, “Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t”
Did someone forward this newsletter to you after reading it themselves? Don’t settle for that!
to get a fresh, unused copy of this
newsletter sent directly to you every Sunday morning.
If you decide it stinks, you can always unsubscribe.
Books To Consider
Resolving Conflicts at Work – Ten Strategies for Everyone on the Job
Kenneth Cloke & Joan Goldsmith
Yep, it’s pretty much as advertised. There is a lot of good meat in this book – too much to digest as late-night reading so read it (or listen to it on Audible) when you have some time to contemplate the truth of what they’re saying. If you’re smart, you might even try some of these strategies on your spouse.
The Culture Code
This book is grossly misnamed. It should more appropriately be titled, “The Repair Manual for Dysfunctional Organizational and Family Cultures.” I’m not even going to say this is the greatest book I’ve ever read because reading new books has caused me to wear that phrase out. Suffice it to say that I immediately ordered the hardback version for further study and three paperbacks to give away. Don’t be surprised if a future newsletter contains excerpts from this book.