Yes, I know. This week’s personal growth exercise was scheduled to discuss implementing your new standard of public conduct. However, something came to my attention yesterday that you might want to consider as you develop your new standards for yourself. I would like you to consider how you unintentionally impact others!
Please allow me to share a story with you from my own life. I have spoken at the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s mandated parent education program for the past seven years. My lecture is designed to help people become better co-parents after their relationship ends. I talk about how to develop conflict resolution strategies and emphasize that parents need to focus on their children rather than on each other. Some people who attend the program take the opportunity to learn new ideas, but every group has a handful of people who are very angry about being forced to attend the lecture. Everyone who attends the program is required to complete an evaluation form. I must say that I have always thought that the form is more of a popularity contest (i.e., how well did you like each speaker) than a tool to measure what the person has learned.
I have noticed that the tenor of the comments on the evaluation forms have slowly changed over time. When I first began lecturing for the program (known as the Parents And Children Together program), the parents provided comments and criticism that were given in a fairly courteous manner. As time has passed, however, the comments have changed from being constructive to almost mean-spirited. It may come as no surprise to you that I am a very upbeat speaker who tries to put a positive spin on most situations. Comments made about me, and my lecture, in the past tended to describe me as being “overly optimistic” about what people could accomplish, and that my suggestions were not applicable if an ex-spouse or ex-partner was unwilling to be cooperative. More recent comments referred to me as a “Pollyanna” or “Miss Happy-Face” and described my lecture as “What a joke”. Let me assure you that I have thick skin, and I learned long ago that angry people say angry things. However, this is not true of everyone.
The person who presents her material after I finish my portion of the program is a lovely woman. She is a skilled mediator. Her soft-spoken style is very therapeutic. She builds rapport with the audience by leaning against the lectern and telling non-threatening stories about her own adventures as a parent. Unfortunately for her, she presents immediately after “Miss Happy-Face.” In the past, people have commented that it was difficult to hear her. They also felt that there seemed to be some overlap in our presentations. Recently, someone wrote that if she leaned on the lectern any harder, she and the lectern would fall over. But last night was the straw that broke the camel’s back! That poor woman read comments including that she was dull, and that her stories were mind-numbing and irrelevant. My heart broke as I saw tears form in her eyes as she talked about what people had said about her.
As I drove home, I pondered why people might be making such rude and mean-spirited comments. My explanations included: the parents resented being forced to attend the program, they were too angry to hear our ideas, and that people in our society generally seem to have an over-riding sense of entitlement these days. Then, it hit me. The participants were indeed using the evaluation form as a tool to vent the anger that they had for a wide variety of reasons. However, the underlying reasons for their comments were unimportant. What was important was their lack of empathy for the people who would review what they wrote. Not only had the authors not considered how their words would impact the people they evaluated, they did not care!
Why was my epiphany so important? Research regarding the treatment of domestic violence perpetrators indicates that one of the key ingredients which allows someone to behave violently with others is a lack of empathy. While I am not saying that these comments were “abusive”, they clearly demonstrated the writers’ lack of empathy. These people did not know or care that my colleague is a loving wife, good friend, and doting grandmother. They had no interest in listening to her sage advice that is based on 16 years of experience. I doubt that it would have impacted their responses if they knew she has been struggling with a life threatening illness for several years. They were only concerned with their own feelings, their anger toward the system, and their belief that they were entitled to so much more than they were receiving.
As I began to understand what enabled these people to make such heinous comments, I began to think about my own behavior and how it might unintentionally impact others. How many times had I said something without thinking how it might impact the person that I was talking to? How often had I been in such a hurry that I had not taken the time to thank the person I was interacting with for their help? How many times had I been in such a rush to get my son to school on time that I had forgotten to kiss him and make him feel special? How often had I not considered the impact of my behavior on those around me? I also thought about the recent question from a subscriber asking if it was really necessary to say hello to someone that she repeatedly passed in the hall throughout her workday. My response had not addressed a critical point. She could positively impact that man’s day by always acknowledging his presence, but she could also alienate (or even deeply hurt) that man by inconsistently acknowledging him.
Ask yourself these questions when considering how you unintentionally impact those around you?
1. Do I treat people who I do not interact with directly (e.g., telemarketers) with less respect simply because I cannot see their reaction?
- Would I treat those people differently if I knew that I would be sitting in the same room with them for 30 minutes after they heard what I had to say?
- Have I sent a callous letter to someone without thinking about how they will feel as they read the letter?
- How often has my rush to get through my day caused me to treat people abruptly?
- Have I rationalized my rude behavior toward others as being what is socially acceptable in our society?
- Do I dismiss my critical comments toward and about others as my way of “telling them the truth”?
- How do I react when other people treat me poorly?
- Do I have empathy for my acquaintances, friends, colleagues, and family members?
- Do I treat people around me in the warm, kind, compassionate, and courteous manner that I would like to be treated?
10. What can I do to have a positive direct and indirect impact on others?
Take time today to choose to have a positive impact on someone’s life! We’ll talk more about empathy building next week.
P.S. I will eventually address the issue of implementing a new standard of conduct, but there are a few other issues that I would like you to first consider in the upcoming weeks.