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Teachable Moments


“You can’t please all of the people all of the time” is an adage I learned to believe a long time ago. And when you write a weekly advice column, you better accept that philosophy pretty darned quickly or you won’t last six months.

That said, I’m sharing some reactions I received from one reader. Her letter is a “teachable moment” for all of us, as her attitude illustrates: 1) how people rush to judgment without knowing all of the facts; 2) why assumptions break down communication and ultimately, relationships and; 3) why “should” messages are typically useless.

This woman was quite angry with me for how I responded to a letter awhile back. She  wrote “shame on you” and “you really missed the mark,” adding that I “really screwed up.” She then told me how I “should” have answered. Finally, she weighed in on in a previous column, telling me how I “had failed” to address yet another issue. And though she closed with “sincerely” she added a P.S. “What age are you living in …?” Yes, it was a bit of a thrashing.

Some background into what it’s like to answer your letters and e-mails will be helpful. Naturally, I read them the all the way through, an easy but time consuming task. (Think about a single spaced letter, seven pages long, written on both sides, in very bad handwriting.) Next, I sift through which ones are appropriate for publication. (Trust me, some don’t make the cut.) Then I need to decide if the issue is timely and different. (I don’t want to waste your time!) Finally, I often have to edit the letter to fit the space. (I only get 700 words a week. Space is at a premium!)

But the most challenging aspect of this job? Having incredibly limited information to respond to. Remember, I only get one side of a any issue. Here’s a life lesson worth practicing: knowing that it is pointless to try and imagine the rest of any story. Speculating on anything is dangerous business. Consequently, I am always without vital information. Therefore, I always come down on the side of caution and restraint.

My training in counseling psychology taught me how pointless it was to tell someone what they “should ” or “should not” do. The seeds of this pressure are sown throughout childhood. Each of us carries our own unique “should” messages with us well into adulthood. These powerful, and typically useless, cannonballs can blow up without warning, leaving perfectly good people stalled and guilt ridden. Or they can loiter inside of us us with great  weight, forcing us to drag around what can be very counterproductive missives.

Yet, time and time again we hear how we should be behaving, what we should be feeling, how we should be responding. Experience has shown me  that it is far better to engage in a meaningful conversation with another human being and allow him/her to come to conclusions that are individually significant and useful.

Ah, but this raises perhaps the King of Slippery issues …  allowing another to live his/her life without our interference, means we not only have to relinquish some control (there’s a challenge for many) but, are you sitting down? We also have to look at the very real possibility that we may not be right 100% of the time!

Yes, I’m poking a little fun fun here but these traits are not at all funny. Sadly, we humans are often frightened by our differences. When people look, speak, believe, behave differently than we do, alarm bells can ring, sometimes softly, sometime with a loud clang! Combine this reaction with lack of valuable information and the clanging is deafening! Anxiety shuts down our logical, open minded brain. It triggers the need to tighten things up, to control the situation. Our mouths fly open and without even thinking about the words coming out, the flood of “shoulds” pours forth!

Has this column simply been me telling you how you should be? I hope that’s not your take away! All I’m trying to do is point out that some ways of communicating and behaving that may just lead you to more satisfying encounters and relationships.

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