Taking It Personally
“Foolish is the person that takes offense when none was intended. More foolish is the person that takes offense when it was intended.”egonomics, David Marcum and Steven Smith describe the difficulties that arise when we get our identity confused with the topic being debated—when we take things personally. When we get into a vigorous debate, it’s quite common to find that we respond to a perceived attack with behavior that indicates our ego is in trouble.
When we respond to a statement or question by comparing ourselves, seeking acceptance, showcasing or getting defensive, it often means that we think our identity is under attack. In other words, we forget about the debate of ideas and respond as though who we are is being threatened and we take it personally. It’s not unusual that we have a tough time separating our ideas from our identity? Trial attorney Gerry Spence explains, “We all have a personal image that he must protect. For example, I do not want to be seen by others, and particularly my myself, as weak, as ill advised, as less than worthy, as stupid, as someone who cannot be respected. I will do whatever is necessary to preserve my personal image of myself. The more fragile my self image, the harder I will struggle to preserve it.”
Marcum and Smith explain it this way: “If we can’t distinguish who we are from what we do, what we have, or who we do it with, we won’t see past our titles or tenure in a discussion. If we say to ourselves or others, ‘I’m the Vice President,’ ‘I’m the CEO,’ ‘I’m the Director of Public Relations,’ or even ‘I’m the creative one’ or ‘I’m the advocate for diversity here,’ then we’re parading our identity, and take it personally.”
In egonomics, Marcum and Smith examine an exchange between Fred Rogers and Senator John Pastore at a Congressional hearing to effectively explain this point. It clearly showcases the benefits of maintaining a separation between identity and ideas and keeping your ego in check with humility. They explain, “In the intensity of debate, humility is like a two-way surge protector; it keeps us from making it personal or taking it personally.”
Of course, the trick is to avoid this negative response cycle in the first place. The authors borrowed an idea from Carl Rogers to give form to an essential attitude to take when faced with a vigorous debate (or when dealing with people in general). The idea is to treat people with unconditional positive regard. That is to say that “everyone is worthy of respect and capable of contribution, even when they don’t particularly act that way or even feel that way about themselves.” We want to assure others that we aren’t trying to change who they are, but we are interested in presenting another viewpoint.
If you find yourself in a situation where things have gotten beyond productive, then the author’s suggest using one of the following opening statements before we begin asking questions:
“You might be right…”
“Even though that’s hard to hear, I’m glad you’re saying something…”
“Okay. Let’s talk that one through.”
“Say a little more about that.”
It doesn’t signal agreement, it expresses a mind open to understanding. Debate needs to follow understanding or people often begin to defend themselves and not their ideas.
Finally, in the spirit of vigorous debate and deepened understanding, humility prompts us to ask, “Who cares if I’m right at this instant if we get it right eventually?” If we’re devoted to progress, it doesn’t matter who has the answer, but that the answers are found.In the balance of the book, Marcum and Smith show that shifting conversations from statements and judgments to exploration requires not just humility, but the relentless application of two more principles—curiosity and veracity. They maintain a good blog that is worth checking out also.
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