This morning my daughter and I set out to make an omelet. We've done it many times before without much fanfare. I took two eggs from the refrigerator, placed them carefully on the counter and retrieved the bowl.
My daughter cracked the first egg into the bowl. It did exactly as expected when she tapped it on the edge of the bowl. The second one, however, slipped from her hand and landed on the floor. Now, I admit there's not much I hate cleaning up as much as a broken egg. Once out of its shell, it's pretty slimy. It slips and slithers all over the place if you aren't careful.
At this point, there's not much to be done beyond responding to the situation: clean up the mess, go on with our cooking and enjoy our breakfast. Emotional reaction of any kind would have had little impact. Normally, I wouldn't have given this event much thought But this morning, when I bent to attack the offending glob I thought, "Thank goodness this isn't spilt milk. That would have been so much more of a mess." I never have figured out how even the smallest quantity of spilt milk can cover so much territory.
I grabbed a paper towel and nudged the slithering mass onto a a small piece of cardboard and into the trash. Within 15 minutes we were enjoying a delightful cheese omelet.
So, why was this morning's experience important? It taught me a lesson.
Life's messy. Even in the most carefully planned life there are messes to clean up and difficult people to deal with. But no matter what form life's messes take there's no reason to allow them to interfere with your ultimate accomplishments and enjoyment.
I've been dealing with some particularly difficult people in my life, of late. They were topmost on my mind when we were preparing breakfast.
- A client owns a restaurant. His employees absolutely refuse to follow rules or abide by legal directives. The owner allows them to "get away" with behaviors that ultimately are destroying his business. As consultant I'm supposed to help them. But I can't make them do what's best for them.
- At my Condominium unit owners insist on continual disruptive criticism and complaining.The Board is constantly fixing problems that their disruptive behavior causes.
- A member of my family is a drug and alcohol addicted driver who, caused an accident that killed his passenger and, pert near, claimed his own life. Everyone knew that was coming. Throughout his teenage years every effort to help this troubled youth failed.The consequences of his behavior are astounding.
Each of these is a classic difficult person. They aren't just people having a bad hair day. Their behavior is chronic and disruptive. They negatively impact those around them. And, every effort to reason with them has proven futile.
In a flash of brilliance, I was caught up with how they resemble broken eggs and spilt milk. Some are like slithery masses, and others scatter in every direction demanding more extensive cleanup.
Generalizing about the people in our lives can be dangerous. There's not a person alive who can be packaged neatly in a box. Not one person alive is all bad or all good. Even the most heinous villain has a nugget of good. Those we put on pedestals and honor as heroes have fatal character flaws. And while each individual is unique, each one will behave precisely as it is in their nature to behave. While we can try to help them, we can not control them or "make" them be any different than they are.
The challenge is for us to respond and not react. The response might be a simple nod of the head, or an acknowledgment that we hear them. The response might be to show them a better way or point them to professional help. But, the most important response is to acknowledge our powerlessness and the limits of our responsibility then remove ourselves emotionally from the situation and go on about our own lives. The challenge is to remember that we are not responsible for the decisions others make. We are not responsible for their behavior. We are not responsible for pointing fingers or laying blame. We are responsible for taking appropriate action and for our own behavior only.
In our capacity as a parent, a manager/supervisor in a business or a member of a community, we deal with difficult individuals on a daily basis. Because we do need to maintain order in the family or in the business, we normally can't walk away from such individuals without failing to meet our responsibilities. But we can minimize the impact these difficult people have on our lives. We can step back and recognize that each individual is, in fact, acting precisely in character. We can respond reasonably, by addressing their disruptions without emotion. We can observe their behavior, make every effort to help them resolve their problems and minimize the damage caused and dispassionately execute a cleanup maneuver that is in keeping with the characteristics of the situation. We can refuse to take responsibility for their behavior.