Last week when I was driving to Milwaukee to teach Taking It Lightly at the Center for Creative Learning, I listened to podcasts. I so rarely take the time to listen in my daily life, so driving trips are a treat for me in this way. I heard an episode of the Get-It-Done Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More. Stever Robbins (yes, Stever) does a fantastic job of sharing truly valuable tips for being more productive, especially with work and technology.
In this episode he focused on saying "no" to difficult requests, say from a boss or a teenager. I was blown away that he interviewed Byron Katie! She's the author of Loving What Is, which is a fantastic book about questioning our beliefs, accepting reality, and letting go of a lot of the painful and troublesome thoughts that we live with on a daily basis. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Here's a brief excerpt of one of the role plays that Stever and Katie did:
Finally, a teenager who wants the car.
S: I'm a teenager and you're a mother.
S: Hey Mom! Can I use your car to go to the movies?
K: No, actually, no.
S: All the other kids' parents let them use the car.
K: Oh, my goodness, it's true, isn't it? You know, we really have different lives.
S: If you loved me, you'd let me use the car.
K: You know, it's so interesting you would say that. You know, I love you with all my heart, and I'm not letting you use the car.
S: Mom, I hate you! I hate you! Everything in my life that's wrong is wrong because of you.
K: Oh, honey. I'm so sorry you feel that way. I adore you.
Did you catch that? No matter what message she received that would normally be considered disrespectful, hurtful or hateful, she responded with love. It was almost as if she didn't hear anything but love. And this leads to my thought experiment:
Thought Experiment: What if we only attended to the Love in all incoming messages?
This doesn't mean that we wouldn't hear the words of messages if they weren't loving; it means that listening to each word we would only hear Love (or perhaps a request for it). When Stever in the role play said "Mom, I hate you!" she didn't respond by hurting back, punishing or judging, she simply expressed sadness, then said she adored the teenager.
It's easiest for me to do this experiment when thinking about a small child who is upset: wouldn't it be easier to understand the child doesn't believe it when she says she hates you? She's lashing out because of some kind of pain. I imagine having compassion for the child, holding her and telling her I'm sorry she's upset, and that I love her anyway.
Well, now apply that to anyone. Let's say I bump into someone in a store and they say something that would normally be thought of as unkind. If I knew that five minutes earlier they had learned someone very close to them had died, wouldn't I be able to have compassion for them, and let the less-than-kind words go right by? Would I instead be able to simply recognize they are hurting, and understand it wasn't about me, so that I didn't need to take it personally?
If compassion is possible in that situation, why not in every situation? Why should I ever take unkind messages personally? How could they ever truly be about me? Even if it's someone I know, even if it's someone who's very close to me, isn't everything they say still about them? What is the benefit of taking anything personally that anyone says? Is there one? What is the benefit of NOT taking things personally? I can't even count them.
I had an experience in this vein while teaching a few years ago: I was leading an activity that had a goal of helping people learn to ask for help. The students were given a task to do individually that was not very possible to do alone, without help. From the previous day, I had identified one of the students as being hyper-independent. She (gender determined by coin toss) immediately reacted when I gave the instructions for the activity. She was angry, and an observer may have perceived that she attacked me. Happily, I was unsurprised by the response. I knew that it wasn't about me, but about her fear of not having the answer, not being able to control the outcome by herself. I responded, "Whoever told you that you had to have all the answers?" She immediately broke down in tears and told a story of just that--having to be in charge, not getting any support, and having to do it all herself. She did the activity and got a huge gift of being able to let go of some of the charge connected to those thoughts.
If I had taken what she said personally, I wouldn't have had the resources to respond the way I did. What do you suppose would have happened if I had responded defensively? It wouldn't have been pretty, and she probably wouldn't have gotten the gift of releasing some of her pain.
When I'm instructing it's a lot easier to respond in that way, because I'm in "instructor mode." I'm not that clear-thinking every moment of every day.
What would happen if we simply didn't respond to anything but the loving content of messages, or responded only with love or positive regard to all communications? Think about your interactions at work or school. With friends. With family. This last one is probably the toughest, since familial relationships are so primary, and thus so tied into our basic emotions and reactions. Imagine the following interactions:
child: if I don't get the car tonight, I'll hate you forever!
parent: I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm afraid you can't have the car tonight, and I love you.
spouse: Why are you embarrassing me by wearing that again?
spouse: I'm sorry you're embarrassed. I love you and I'm wearing this again because I like it.
boss: This report isn't very good--this semi-colon should be a dash, there's an extra space here, and [...]
employee: Thank you for the feedback; I appreciate it.
Do these examples sound ridiculous? Do you get tense just reading them, perhaps thinking another response is appropriate?
Simply imagine what it would feel like to not take anything personally. To see everyone consistently with unconditional positive regard. To not need to get tense or afraid or angry about what someone thinks about us or says about us or anything else. How would things be different in your primary relationships? In your family? At work?
I'm committing to working on this thought experiment in daily life as best as I can. I'll write about my experiences.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this first thought experiment.