Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Nuts and Bolts of Not Taking Things Personally

by Miki Kashtan

I can’t think of much personal advice that we hear more frequently than the idea of not taking things personally, and still, despite being told repeatedly and even being committed to it, we rarely know how to implement it. Why is it so difficult, and is there any clear practice that can help us get better at it?

Why We Take Things Personally

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is quite simple. It’s because everything reinforces the sense that whatever is being said is indeed about us – both from without and from within.

Here’s an example of how that works from the environment. I was sitting at a management meeting where the finance person was expressing her huge frustration that when she comes to other managers with feedback about how their departments are doing relative to their expenditure budget, they become defensive and provide excuses about why things can’t change. One of the managers immediately started arguing with her, whereupon she expressed even more frustration. 

After a while I stepped in, because it was clear neither of them was able to hear the other. I wanted to see, first, if I could hear what she was saying. I asked her if what she wanted was to have some sense of trust that people on the team would come together to hold accountability for the whole instead of advocating for their own departments. She breathed a sigh of relief, and said that was exactly what she was trying to express. That wasn’t, however, how she had expressed it. Instead, her language was full of expressions about the other manager. So I was entirely unsurprised when, at one point, he exclaimed that he didn’t want to be blasted each time he spoke with her. I said to him that I was hearing something different, and repeated what I had said previously. I added that I can see that he could take it as an accusation, whereupon he said: “It was an accusation.”