Before we go any further you might ask the legitimate question,“What are your qualifications, Arjuna Ardagh, to write an article on this subject? Are you a psychologist?”
“No, sir, I am not.”
“A licensed psychotherapist, then?”
“No, also not.”
“Do you have a Ph.D. in communications?”
“Ummmmm. No, I’m afraid not.”
“So what on earth makes you qualified to write on this subject?”
I’ll tell you what. I have been upsetting people for decades. I have gotten really good at it. Through a long and varied history of upsetting people for all these years, I’ve come to some useful conclusions about what you can do under such dire circumstances, and I’m going to share them with you right here.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever found someone was mad at you, but you never planned it that way? It could be with a co-worker, with your spouse, your parents or your children. I have managed to score in all of those categories. You think everything is going along just fine and dandy, and then you find out later that this other person has been planning your assassination.
There are several instinctive reactions we have when we royally piss someone off. All of them lead to nowhere very fast.
The first is to focus all our attention on the fact that the other person is upset at us and you are not. “I’m feeling really calm right now, I’m breathing deeply and feeling really good about life. And I notice that you are feeling upset and emotional. So what’s your problem?” Abracadabra, watch the temperature rise dangerously before your very eyes.
Another is to focus on our own good intentions, hence invalidating their upset as irrational. “There was terrible traffic on the freeway, and that was after I got an urgent call, and left the house late. But come on, it’s not that big of a deal…” or “I know we all feel better when the kitchen is clean, and that’s why I like to remind you frequently.” This is an effective way to make the other person wrong and to prove that they are crazy. Who knows, we might be right, perhaps they are crazy. But watch what happens when we focus on it: they get even crazier. If getting someone even madder at us was not part of the original plan, then let’s look at some other options.
A third alternative, also instinctive and automatic, which gets us in just as much trouble is the “mea culpa” approach. This means we legitimize their upset and say, “Yeah you’re quite right, I’m so sorry. It’s completely my fault. I was unconscious. I behaved badly. Please forgive me. I promise I will never do it again.” The problem with this approach, especially if we make sincere promises to be a better person tomorrow, is that we might have dissipated today’s upset a little bit, but we set ourself up for an even bigger upset tomorrow.
Rolling over on our back and exposing our soft underbelly may well also be a green light for the other person’s vengeful dark side to come out and play. Now we are stuck in a movie where we are the bad guy and every uncomfortable feeling that other person is having is our stupid fault. We can literally stay in that game for decades.
Heres another option for how to deal with upset. Give it a test run. You might like it.
Get curious. Allow yourself to wonder, “What is really happening here?”
Let’s break it down. What is really happening when someone gets upset at you?
We might say “I don’t like that color as much on you as the one you wore yesterday.” This seemed honest, straightforward and useful feedback.
She starts to twitch in the corners of her mouth, tears the dress off, rips it and throws it in the trash, and then locks herself in the bathroom for hours.
Was it something I said?
Let me help with a shortcut here: if we really ask this question with sincerity, pretty soon we’re gonna come to the awe-inspiring conclusion: “I don’t know. I’ve really got no idea what’s happening. Was it my clumsiness and unconsciousness that caused the situation? Was it their reactivity? Their relationship with their father? Was it the full moon? Mercury in retrograde? Was it something we ate last night?”
The truth is “I don’t know.”
From that reliable foundation now we can really start to get somewhere. The next obvious step from “I don’t know” is the grace that saves the day: curiosity. When we don’t know what’s going on, it’s natural to want to find out. So we might start to ask questions, “What happened to you, when I said those things? What were you thoughts? What were your feelings?”
There are literally thousands of ways to jam on this basic riff of curiosity. When we start to tune into someone else’s experience, we realize how little we know about what it is like to be that person. Even if we’ve been married for decades, we find out how little we really know about what it’s like to be inside their skin.
Now generally speaking, but not always, when we meet another person with genuine curiosity, they feel inclined to tell us more. It is somewhat flattering when anyone is curious about us. When we ask “What kind of feelings were you having?” after a bit of yelling and screaming and so on, they might say (or yell), “I felt humiliated!”
Now we can ask ourself the interesting question, “Do I also know what that’s like?” “Have I also felt humiliated?” “Have I even felt humiliated under similar circumstances?” Once we start to find similarities in our own experience to theirs, we might like to ask again: “Tell me more. Tell me more about what’s going on for you.”
When we ask enough questions with genuine curiosity, a miracle starts to happen. No matter who it is, no matter what it is, the other person’s experience begins to appear more sane and digestible to us. (If that seems very far fetched, it just means there are still more questions to ask.) With enough curiosity we get to the point where we can say, truthfully, “Given these circumstances, I would have reacted in the same way.” By “these circumstances” we mean not only the situation between us now, but all of their past as well.
Now we can take the next tentative step to find out if that person has any interest in what was happening for us. They may not at first, but it’s worth a try. If we offer little morsels of information they might also start to say, “Tell me more about that.”
If we can generate a genuine curiosity about another person’s experience in this way, and if they start to have curiosity about us too, almost every time the upset will dissipate. We start to discover that we have shared values. For example, “I don’t want to be controlling” and “you don’t want me to be controlling either.” “I don’t want you to be upset with me” and “you don’t want to feel upset either.” “I want to remember to take out the garbage on Tuesdays” and “I know that you want me to remember that too.” We’d be amazed at how many shared values we have in terms of outcomes we’d both like to see happen.
Curiosity is a very simple habit to cultivate. It might go slowly at first, but it grows on you. It pays huge dividends, with very little risk. It’s all about asking questions, gathering more information, and realizing we do not know as much about that other person as we thought we did, no matter how many decades we have been inhabiting the same movie.
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Editorial Assistant: Sarvasmarana Ma Nithya/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives