So, if you remember, last week, I wrote about a not-super-nice guy who came up to me after I had just finished speaking and criticized my web site. (The post is here, in case you missed it.) I wrote: “Sometimes the people who just want to hear themselves talk offer you a gift, especially if they are people you don’t resonate with. The fact that they are criticizing you—specifically, a choice you’ve made about your message or your brand or your voice—lets you know that you are on the right track.”
I still stand behind the idea that you don’t have to resonate with everyone—and that turning some people off is how you know that you are turning other people on. And I got lots of great responses from you, on the blog and via email. So, thank you! But, I also got a really interesting response from my colleague, Peter (A.K.A., The Well-Fed Writer). I respect Peter fiercely (he’s sort of a rock star in the freelance world), so I paid close attention to what he said.
He pointed out that part of what I value in my brand is direct communication. Yet, I was immediately turned off by someone who was being direct with me, for reasons that had less to do with his directness and more to do with his method. “I think you did a very human thing (heaven knows, I’ve done it plenty of times, we all have): you let HOW he delivered his message shut off any acknowledgement that WHAT he was saying possibly had merit, which, I believe it did,” Peter commented.
Peter and I disagree slightly about what this guy represents and the value of his advice, but I do believe Peter is on to something: I let the tone of what a detractor was saying color my interpretation of it. If someone had told me their point of view in a really respectful and polite way, I may have listened more closely. I still may not agree, but I may not have taken it as either an indictment or an endorsement of my brand message. I’m not correcting what I said last week: I’m just offering some follow-up thoughts. Because I still don’t want to work with this guy—but perhaps for reasons that are less about my message and more about his personality (and mine).
That was a good realization to have. But what I’m really grateful to Peter for is trapping me in my own thinking. That is an even better gift than insults, because it’s how growth happens.
A few years ago, a husband of an acquaintance wanted to hire me to give feedback on his book manuscript. He was an evangelical Christian motivational speaker, and his book was aimed at teens: basically about the lies the world is telling them and how Christianity could provide the answers. “Um, I don’t think I’m really the right person for this,” I told him. “I’m respectful, but not religious like that,” I said. That was perfect, he assured me, because he wanted the non-religious viewpoint (since he wanted to aim the book at non-evangelicals). Basically, he was hiring me to argue with him. How could I turn that down?
So, I read the manuscript, and offered my very candid thoughts. First of all, the guy was a GREAT writer, so I enjoyed it. But I also enjoyed pointing out all of the places where he was losing me—and would probably lose these non-evangelical teens. It was so full of heaven and hell and scary-sounding absolutes about belief. In my critique, I wrote: “If you want people to follow you on this journey, you’re going to need to offer more than absolutes. I’ll hold my values up against any Christian’s. But you know what? I hate absolutes, and I don’t live by them.”
In his response back to me, he asked if I had thought about the fact that in making that statement, I was, in fact, making an absolute statement. Ugh, I thought. Busted.
He had trapped me—which was . . . how can I say it? . . . absolutely perfect.
So, I know we value winning arguments and changing minds. I mean, I write in large part to change minds. But getting trapped in your own argument is also pretty valuable. Because it forces you to drop the oars back in, and paddle through the eddy in your brain where ideas swirl and rejoin and separate.
Our big ideas about stuff often become like scripts in our head: This is like this all of the time. That is like that all of the time. A is A; B is B; C is C. And I am D. We just say versions of the same stuff over and over again, and think that we believe it. We do it in personal relationships (definitely in marriages), in the workplace, and even in our creative endeavors. We have all kinds of scripts that cancel themselves out, stop the flow of thinking, keep us from seeing something hard to see about ourselves, or reiterate what we want to be true at that moment, instead of what is true.
So when a person points it out to you, THAT is also a tremendous gift. It’s easier to see if it’s within a respectful context (like Peter or my client). But even if it comes from a less polite place, it’s still valid. It doesn’t mean you suddenly agree with their point of view. It means that you have to examine yours more closely.
My answer back to my evangelical client became: Yes, you are right. Of course I live by absolutes. I just don’t like yours because what’s behind them doesn’t speak to me right now. But let me think about my system and my absolutes and what’s behind them.
My life has been richer in the two years since for being prodded to think about this, instead of clinging to a script that just closed off thinking. I thanked him for trapping me, and we agreed to disagree about the rest (well, I agreed; I know that part of what makes him tick is that he really can’t agree to that).
And what I’m forced to look at now, with this more current situation, is how much I decide things based on people’s tone. I see this over and over again in different areas of my life (for better or worse). I cling to lofty-sounding beliefs—when really, it’s about the feeling their words create. There are things surrounding this that would serve me well to examine. I sense growth ahead!
It’s not a bad thing to be caught. Humbling? Perhaps. But it doesn’t have that much to do with being right or being wrong or agreeing or disagreeing. I think it’s about examining what’s really in the scripts.
So, go ahead. Get trapped. And then take notice of the ways you are forced to think to extricate yourself—because it’s the new thoughts you formulate that really determine the value.