Monday, September 9, 2013

Benefits to being open and vulnerable - I like myself even more this way

Today I was struck by the clear difference between the old-me and the new-me. The old-me avoided strangers - I used to think it wasn't important. It was unnecessary, a hassle, a bother. It wasn't fun and I could be putting myself at risk. It was scary.

I'd walk into a room full of people and run to the empty corner, sitting quietly and sorting through my purse or reading a magazine. 

The new me does things a lot differently.


Last weekend I walked into a doctor's waiting room. I was there to get a test done, and was in kind of a bad mood because I was anticipating an uncomfortable test (the kind where they poke and prod at you until the answers come out).

Walking into the waiting room I perked up, realizing that here was another chance for me to meet someone new and hear how they are living their amazing life. So I scoped out the room and spotted a young couple with a sleeping baby, and an older man dressed shabbily and reading a magazine. I chose the man because I understand that when entering a social arena people in sets of two usually don't like to be interrupted, but people alone are more approachable.

I chose well because he was in the mood to TALK. :)

Among all of the things he shared with me (his life, his kids, his grand-kids) he told me he was going in for a knee operation soon. "Really", I said, "I know some people who went through that recently. They told me that the operation was the best thing that ever happened to them, but that the rehab was challenging." (I found myself connecting with him and thinking about his feelings.) He was worried that they would botch the operation, but was really looking forward to having a new knee. He had been in the military (apparently that's where his knee was damaged) and said that he felt confident he could handle the rehab.

But then, he took the conversation to politics.

He said he wasn't happy about our recent health care reform laws. I could tell he was looking for me to nod my head and say "yeah, I agree." but I couldn't agree with him. "Here's where the rubber hits the road", I thought, "where who I am as a person may be different from what he expects, and he'll get mad or just stop talking to me." I've seen before that conversations (among friends or among strangers) will take a nose dive into anger and fighting when either politics or religion are brought up. If I stir up his negative feelings now (or my own) I'll kill the good vibe we've got going.*

I decided to leap in anyway. I said, "Hmm, yes lots of people feel that way." I tried to turn it around to him (since he seemed to like talking about himself) and said, "What concerns you about it?"

He told me of his brother-in-law Tony,** who had a plumbing business with a few employees. "Tony is going to have to pay $10,000 more!" His face turned to worry. "He told me he's going to have to lay-off some employees!" he said. He continued that he was worried about how much HE would have to pay under the law.

Instead of talking about the particular situation or the reasons I did or didn't agree with him, I was in empathy-mode so I was able to focus on his worried feelings. I looked down and said, "You know, I think we won't really know for sure how 'bad' things are going to be (or good) until the rest of the law comes into effect. You remember when HMOs were the 'big new thing that everyone was worried about?" He nodded. "That's not a big deal for anyone these days, but at the time I remember how upset everyone was about the new change."

He agreed with that, and we were able to move on to more conversations about his nephews (also in the marines). In general he seemed to be a happy man who is looking forward to having his new knee put in.


I really liked talking to this man, and I remember so much about him. Even though we only met once I feel like if I saw him again I'd want to connect with him some more.

I do really believe that all we take with us in this life are our memories. I like myself more now because living a more empathetic life has let me build some really, really great ones.

I like new-me, I think I'll keep her around awhile.


*I'm aware that there may be folks reading this who also don't approve of the new health care law, and may get mad or angry or want to debate me after reading this post. That's cool - feel free to use the comment section to tell me your thoughts. I'll start by saying that I'm not trying to convince anyone of my point of view.

**I don't remember the brother-in-law's name and even if I did, I probably shouldn't put it on the internet. :) So Tony he will be for this story.


SP said...

The guy with the knee should be worried Knees aren't the best to replace.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Israel I heard a talk – part of it was about how saying “a lot of people feel that way” is a really nice/effective way to avoid confrontation.
You seem to have used it perfectly in this situation and it allowed you to really get to know him.

Janet said...

Thanks SP and Anonymous for your thoughts!

SP - Not having had a knee replacement myself I can't say if it's good or bad. Perhaps someone else who has had a knee replacement can comment?

Anonymous - Thanks. I did feel like it helped me to diffuse my own feelings of confrontation, and it did appear to work well for him too.


JP said...

Read The Shirt

Sometimes a person rubs me the wrong way; if they're being angry, emotional or snippy my instinctive reaction is to do the same. I feel like begets like, so someone who makes me annoyed should get 'me, annoyed' in response. It takes a conscious decision and effort to flip the 'be nice' switch. It's not easy. It's why I think I'd be a poor teacher: I'll explain something once, twice, three times, and then I'm done. Back off, you're not my problem anymore. Shoo.

Sunday I was on the way home from a family event and waiting for the express bus. A fellow came along and started talking out loud about things I felt were obvious: "7:25. It's coming at 7:25. The bus is coming at 7:25. It's 7:17." I chose to ignore him because his babbling was making me annoyed. As time passed he became more agitated and louder and more insistent. I almost started talking back at him, because at that point I was pissed. But then out of the corner of my eye I saw it. The writing on his T- shirt. It said 'autism'. Well, that's not all it said but that's all I needed to see. It was from an event for fundraising and awareness about autism. I just had a thought- maybe he's not autistic, but maybe he has some other problem, and he can't control the way he feels but I can. So I responded. I said "It will be OK". He nearly shouted 'I think that's the bus but I can't see through that building!' and I calmly replied 'neither can I, but the bus will come.' I don't think he calmed down a lot, but he stopped yelling- and then of course the bus showed up.

In this case empathy didn't help. Feeling his feelings just made me feel bad and nearly had me doing the same thing, which could have spiraled out of control. Ignoring his feelings and responding to his condition helped. Well maybe it didn't help him but it sure helped me. Just sayin.

Janet said...

Thanks for the thoughts JP!

Empathy (thinking about his feelings) didn't help in that situation. Empathy is not always the best thing to do.

And it's great to be reminded of that.