A few years ago I walked into a classroom. An ordinary classroom on an ordinary first day of class. As I took a seat, however, my attention was pulled towards the chalkboard, where the professor had left these words:
- Show up and choose to be present
- Pay attention to what has heart and meaning
- Tell the truth without blame or judgment
- Be open rather than attached to the outcome
Immediately I knew that this class was going to be different. This instructor would demand more. No zoning out. No eyes averted when asked a question. None of it.
By choosing these particular words, in fact, I imagined that the teacher was erecting a fortress to keep out those habitual tricks that all students are familiar with. And in doing so, she was asking us to move out of comfortable complacency.
To move toward full engagement.
I was hooked. The words charmed me, as she spoke them aloud. Not only were they a fine way to begin a class, I reasoned, but a fine way to live a life as well.
As it turned out, the words came from cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien. And they stuck. Clung to me, really, as words sometimes can. They’re still with me, actually, unexpectedly asserting themselves (as you’ll see in a second).
But first, let me give you some history: in my travels around blogland lately, I’ve happened upon a heap of articles about how to deal with difficult, negative, challenging people. And there seems to be two reverberating themes.
Or turn the other cheek and rise above them.
And here’s where Angeles Arrien’s words come in. They’ve been inquiring: What about us? I think they feel left out, and they’re pining for a more cooperative approach. An approach that might unfold like this:
Meet the difficult person right where they are (be present); practice empathy for them (pay attention to heart); tell the person, kindly, how you experience them (tell the truth without blame/judgment); and have no expectations about the result (be open to outcome).
Honestly, we (the words and I) are a bit surprised that we haven’t encountered such advice yet. And personally, it’s not because I’m in some dreamy altered state that’s rattled my brain and made me think it’s easy to deal with difficult people. Nope, I’ve been around the block a few times. So let’s go straight to the questions that keep bubbling up for me.
Who among us is not at times difficult?
Here and there negative?
With spells of acting out?
Of course, I’m not talking about bona fide toxic people here. The kind that are dangerous to our well-being. When we encounter them, the best strategy is often to run like the wind. Get as much distance as possible.
No, for our purposes today I’m talking about garden-variety challenging people.
You know, like your sister who’s in a period of high drama. Your friend who’s depressed by the state of the world. Your co-worker who gets defensive when you ask a question. Your mother who constantly nit-picks. Your boss who believes you have all the time in the world.
How often do we honestly share our feelings with these people, and tell the truth, without judgment or blame?
Not often enough, I’m thinking. Oh, sometimes we can be present and pay attention to heart. Maybe even detach from the outcome. But the part about telling the truth? Not so much.
It can feel risky to speak the truth to a difficult person. But when we do step up and gently engage with them, a miraculous thing can happen: we allow ourselves, and our needs, to be known. As a result, defenses begin to crumble on both sides. And all that drama and negativity find a safe space in which to transform.
But yes, the truth does sometimes hurt.
In spite of that, though, I’ll be forever grateful to those people in my life who have cared enough to tell me the truth about my scowls and sulks. Just as I’ll be forever admiring of those clients who have stepped up to tell the truth to people in their lives.
Because when truth is approached lovingly, its potential to move us away from complacency, and in turn deepen our relationships, simply can’t be beat.
So what do you think? Am I hopelessly naive to think we need to tell each other the truth more often, even when it hurts? Have you had an experience where truth-telling went well? Or the opposite? Jump in and join the conversation, and let’s get a dialogue going.
WHY NOT START NOW?