In an earlier post entitled, “How I Told My Boss to F*ck Off. (Sort of)” I identified what I believe to be a crucial part of successful socialization: training people to treat you how you want to be treated. It’s not rocket science; people are basically animals and animals are pretty dumb—until you teach them something clever. Humans are no different. The average person walks around all day long and interacts with the world in habitual ways that serve some inner purpose or need for them, and sometimes, those needs require them to abuse people with their anger, setup guilt trips, or whatever. The point is, at some time or another, these people have created an emotional massacre or psychic catastrophe of their lives simply because they didn’t know any better.
But just like dogs and human children, in order for people to learn a new trick, they need solid examples of how to perform a task that meets a goal. Therefore, teaching people how to treat you is really about being an example for them. By becoming the example you wish for them to emulate, you are effectively showing them a better way to be. As people continue to act out the old cycles and habits of their familial relations well into adulthood, they get stuck; it’s like their favorite record on repeat. They really can’t imagine a better song until you swap that shit for something they’ve never heard before. Then, at that point, their experiences may have expanded enough to hopefully foster a sense of self-awareness that can lead them to make changes on their own. But. It all starts with an example.
Now, of course, being the example will benefit you in a situation where you’re trying to teach someone how you want to be treated, but you can also teach people other things as well—like how to live better in general. We’ve all heard about faithful husbands, self-made millionaires, or even people who simply choose not to drink or do drugs, but those are stories. We like stories, but they don’t do too much in the way of motivation. However, when we actually do meet these stories in real life through friends, family, or even superficial acquaintances, it’s a game changer; suddenly the example becomes more real, and thus, much more powerful.
There’s a catch though: becoming an example is tough business. The really hard part about being an example is that you really need to have resolve and be dedicated in your actions, because people will look for cracks. This is one area where people are not stupid at all; they will inspect every crack in your character and in your approach. If you slip up—even once—you won’t be seen as a desirable example to emulate and the message will be lost. This same principle is true when training a puppy or disciplining children. If you punish a child consistently for a specific action, the message gets across and the child will most likely learn. However, if you fail to punish the child even once out of laziness, or if you allow them to see you failing to punish another child for the same offense, the message becomes mixed and your power is broken. If you’re still having trouble imagining the power of examples try this:
[ Imagine for a moment that you’ve been smoking most of your adult life, just like the rest of the members in your family. You know the habit isn’t good, so secretly, you’ve been trying to figure out a way to quit. Now imagine that you meet a new coworker who reveals having a similar family life and shares his experience of quitting with you, telling you about how he’s been smoke-free for 3 years already. In that moment, you’re completely engaged by his example and are motivated by his confidence and victory to such a degree that you decide to give quitting a try. Now imagine that some time later you meet this coworker at a party and see him smoking a cigarette. Confused by the message, you casually mention his story about how he’s been smoke-free for 3 years. In response to your question he confesses that he sometimes smokes when he drinks, but that, for the most part, he doesn’t really smoke anymore. ]
You can easily see how being a good example can be extremely difficult and requires a level of commitment that has become increasingly unusual these days. I think the above story is a perfect illustration of the necessity for resolve, as often times smokers will try to find the “crack” in a recent non-smoker’s armor. They’ll ask questions like: “Yea, but you smoke when you have a drink right?” or “Okay, yea, but what about holidays or New Years Eve, you maybe have one right?” This line of questioning is trying to disprove the sincerity of the new non-smoker.
In fact, sincerity is the perfect word. You must be sincere in thev principals which carry through to your actions. Truly, the hardest part about being an example for someone is that the very person you have the opportunity to help make a change, is the very person who will try to break you. You have to be ready for it.
The other day I got into a huge blow-out fight with my boss. Obviously frustrated by something else, she decided to act like a child and take her anger out on me by making some passive aggressive comment to the effect of, “you just don’t want to try and help your students”. Now, for the record, she’s been under a lot of pressure lately, as I’ll be leaving the company in a month and good teachers are hard to find. However, while I can sympathize with such circumstances to a degree, I will not tolerate being disrespected and treated like I’m some 4 year-old that can’t defend myself. After making her comment, she began ignoring me in the way my sister used to—right before I punched her. I can’t punch my boss, so I got loud and direct with my words. Upon observing her continued ignorance of my presence, I raised my voice to a level appropriate for delivering a speech to a somewhat large audience and said,
“Excuse me? I always do my best when it comes to my students, and the fact that you would even imply that I don’t try to help my students is extremely offensive. Sensei, you look at me when I’m speaking to you…(at this point she finally had the courage to look me in the eye) Do you understand me?”
After commanding me out into the hallway for a “chat”, I proceeded to tell her respectfully, but honestly, that her behavior was unacceptable and that no employee should ever be treated that way. To my surprise, she quickly submitted and apologized before briskly walking back into the office.
Now, at first glance, this may not seem like too big of a deal—but that’s not the end of the story. It’s what happened the next day that really exemplifies my point.
Okay, so, let’s just get this out of the way. Humans have a tough time with the idea of transience. Somehow, someway, we got it in outr heads that things spell certain doom, things never change, and most importantly, when someone is angry at you they are angry at you forever. The last item on the previous list is most important, as within human socialization we have this terrible fear of anger that never dies. Invincible and indestructible. Anger forever. It’s actually a real drag. Most people can’t wrap their head around the concept that anger fades, but most importantly, people themselves have trouble allowing their own anger to fade. This presents a problem as people tend to use themselves as an example: I’d still be angry after that blowout fight, so they must be too. The truth is that, often times, even after anger has passed, we continue to punish the person who had offended us. We don’t allow them to win with us anymore, and in turn, this perception of “angry once, angry forever” is perpetuated.
So what did I do the next day? I set a better example for her. When the next day came, I made sure not to punish her prior submission with an atmosphere of rejection and silence, as people often do (this is the “walking on eggshells” kind of scenario people often play). (Even after people submit to our will, we tend to continue punishing them with cold shoulder tactics and curt conversation). Anyway, I purposely engaged her in a cheerful conversation about how I’ve never been to Canada. From there, she took my queue and steered the conversation to a few other subjects before the workday was through. And then, after cleaning up, as I turned to leave, she stopped me. I can tell you right now, I wasn’t prepared for what she said next.
She told me she was sincerely sorry for the way she treated me on the previous day. She told me she really valued my work in the company and considered me a great teacher, and that she was upset that I would be leaving. She told me that she had trouble sleeping the night before because she felt horrible about the way she had acted.
[ This juncture is critical; it’s the one that people often miss and end up repeating cycles of anger and a lack of understanding. This was a hardcore woman with a serious shell that I had cracked the day before, and here she was, wide open and allowing herself to be completely vulnerable in my presence. It’s common for people to stay angry at a prior incident and shrug off the kind of brave demonstration that my boss was exhibiting. We relish in the person’s weakness and remain held up behind our own walls, laughing in their faces. We punish their demonstrations of weakness and strike them down when they offer their surrender. I wasn’t going to do that. You don’t do that to people. You reward people for that kind of demonstration, because truly, it is the bravest of all acts ]
In response, I told her that I understood her position as a boss requires her to take on a lot of pressure. I told her how much my time here in Japan has meant to me and thanked her for helping my dreams of international travel become a reality. I thanked her for her compassion and bravery. I told her that her comments on my performance meant a lot to me. And finally, I told her that this demonstration of her sincere feelings was exactly what made her a great boss.
THE BOTTOM LINE
People want to be better human beings; they want to love better, work better, and fear less—but so often people get stuck in bad habits left over from bad examples. But, by opening our hearts and minds, letting go of anger, and trying to see people for who they really are, we can become just the example they need to make big changes in their lives that will ultimately lead them to happiness.