Several years ago, I was teaching one of my most beloved courses, Interpersonal Conflict, which I wrote about in a series of posts earlier this summer. In the course, my mediation grad students are asked to confront and improve their own “conflict stuff” as part of learning to be better mediators.
One day that particular term, about midway through, Jay raised his hand at the start of class. “You’re ruining my life,” he said.
He doesn’t look too upset, I thought, but that sounds bad. “Want to say some more about that, Jay?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I’m trying to do this conflict stuff better. I’m taking what I’m learning here and trying to apply it at home. And I’m pretty proud of how I’ve improved.” Ok, so far so good, I thought. But…
“But I’m driving people around me nuts. I’m not being the Jay they expect me to be. I’m reacting differently. And even though it’s a better reaction, it’s throwing them off. My girlfriend, my parents, everyone’s noticing. I don’t think they know they should like the new Jay.”
Jay always managed to bring some terrific new insights into class with him. Since that day, I’ve made a point of telling my students, at the start of the course, that as they learn to engage conflict differently and more effectively, they should anticipate that…
- Those closest to them probably won’t notice right away. They’re so expecting the old behaviors that they filter what they see and hear through outdated lenses.
- When they do notice, it’s going to throw them off balance for a while. They have to learn how to adapt their own conflict behaviors to the students’ new ones.
- And they may not really trust the new behavior right away. They may think they’re being manipulated or that their grad student is just trying a “new thing” that’ll eventually get dropped.
I found myself thinking about Jay yesterday as I read a post on Seth Godin’s blog. In What’s Expected, Seth wrote that when faced with expectations, we’ve got three options. He’s talking about selling products and services, but I think his point has relevance to expectations about behavior, too.
Option 1: Embrace the expectations. Not a great option if you’re trying to engage conflict with greater courage, less of a rough edge, or with better negotiation skill. Embracing the expectation is doing the same old thing, falling into the same old behavioral traps.
Option 2: Change the expectations. Seth said, “Changing an expectation builds a huge barrier to those that might follow. Change is time consuming…and rarely happens on schedule.” Ain’t that the truth. Jay sure saw that.
Option 3: Defy the expectations. Seth said, “Do the unexpected. This is tempting but often leads to nothing but noise.” In conflict, doing the unexpected is noise if you’re doing it as a ploy to throw them off balance and steal the advantage. If you’re doing it because you really want a better relationship with others in your life, then defying expectations repeatedly will lead you to #2.
That’s what Jay decided to do. Stick with it and give everyone else around him a chance to catch up. I’ll always remember Jay fondly.
How’s your stick-to-it-ness?