I discovered something years ago as I swam the shark infested waters of my relationship with my sister. I’d like to share this observation with you in hopes you too, can avoid getting eaten. Before I explain what I discovered, I should give you a little information about the relationship my sister and I developed over the years. First, I must tell you she passed away this last year and it was a sad day, indeed. No matter how controversial our relationship was at times, I loved her dearly. In fact, I called her every morning before I drove to work and most everyday as I drove home.
My sister and I were very different in many ways, but the same in others. She was a liberal socialist that believed all the money should be divided evenly between everybody no matter what job you had or how hard you worked. Well, that wasn’t exactly her stance, but it’s in the ball park. On the other hand, I am a conservative capitalist that believes it is our responsibility to help those less fortunate but compensation should match effort and impact of the work done.
We also found ourselves at odds on many other things. She was adamant about women’s rights, while I liked to focus on the rights of all people: men, women, children, the elderly and the unborn. I think it goes like this: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t they call it the Bill of Rights? We also disagreed on religion and government.
So what did we have in common? It’s simple. We loved each other. So since we had so much territory for disagreement, how did we talk so often with only minor problems? That’s a great question so let me explain.
You would think that we must have limited the areas that could be considered open for discussion. You would be wrong. All topics were fair game, but there were rules of engagement. First, every call started with topics that were not controversial and allowed us to warm up before we opened up. Our favorite topic was the weather. “It’s hot here today in Texas,” I would say. “Hot here in Oklahoma as well,” she would respond. You can’t get in trouble starting with the weather. We can’t control it but we can sure complain about it.
Next, she would ask about my family after which I would ask about hers. It let me practice my active listening skills. Just about now things would always turn a little more serious. So what would that be? Politics! I won’t tell you which side I would take, but you can probably guess. She saw the world in a completely different way than did I. She owned her own business in crime prevention and later was a counselor at a prison pre-release center. She was a first responder for rape victims in her town and held group sessions for pre-release inmates.
If God keeps track of the good you do, he had to get extra paper for my sister’s unselfish acts. I on the other hand, am a singer/song writer/dreamer turned businessman by necessity. A successful businessman by the way, so my view of the elephant was completely different than hers. So, to have successful discussions about anything other than the weather, we had to establish rules.
First Rule: either party had the right to call timeout. It had to be accepted by the other partner, no matter what. This usually occurred when the conversation became just too emotional and crossed over the line from helpful to hurtful.
Second Rule: the person calling time out should pick a future time to continue the conversation and that was what usually happened. However, sometimes the topic was too much for us to handle in a gentle manner and was postponed indefinitely. This happened rarely, but it did happen. Abortion was one of those topics. It was just too emotional for us to speak about without damaging our relationship.
Third Rule: when she told me about a problem she was having, I often offered advice. This almost always ended the meaningful part of the conversation. One day my wife gave me the book, MenarefromMarsandWomenarefromVenus. I wish I had read this 20 years sooner. But it wasn’t too late for me to change. So I did. When my sister would tell me about a problem she was having, I followed these rules and it worked.
⚪ Support her feeling of frustration
⚪ Assure her that she would come up with the correct answer, as she had many times before when faced with tough decisions
⚪ Only offer advice when specifically asked for advice
Fourth Rule: the red card disconnect. Here’s how it works. I want you to think of a soccer player (European football). The player is in the middle of the field surrounded by a few other players, but mostly open spaces. The game is being played fairly with no obvious fouls and you are only thinking about playing A game. Then it happens, you turn to tackle the ball away from a competitor and trip him instead. The referee is sure you did it on purpose and up comes the yellow card. You put your face in both hands, and raise them to the sky, proclaiming your innocence, but to no avail. You’re marked as an offender. You’re now being watched and many believe getting the red card is just a matter of time. Every mistake you make is magnified, with no tolerance or understanding that you’re only human.
At every turn the red card is just one misstep away. Why are they looking at you so differently than before? Because your offense has disconnected you from the mainstream. Just make the slightest mistake and you’ll be dismissed from the field of play. As an offender, you never gets the benefit of the doubt.
Now think about a relationship. When you are connected you can make a few minor missteps, but because of your connection, all is forgiven. Your words aren’t misinterpreted and you’re given the benefit of the doubt. You are, by the way, human and humans are not infallible. There is no ill intent driving the behavior and therefore no future bad behavior should be expected. But what if you already had a yellow card? What if the connection was already in jeopardy? If you and your partner or even you and your customer aren’t close, every word is suspect.
When you are disconnected, every mistake is magnified. Here’s what happens. The slightest misstep, the most innocent comment, a glance away or a shrug of the shoulders and you guessed it, the red card. You’re dismissed from the field. I know relationships that are played like this and I bet you do, too. These relationships are almost broken and just one foul away from the red card. Don’t let this happen to you.
Most Important Rule: don’t let the disconnect linger or minor offenses will be perceived as flagrant fouls and the red card isn’t far behind. Fix that small disconnect now.
Next week find out how to use the dying art of the handwritten word to stay connected or reconnect.