Fighting Your Own Battles

September 8, 2020

For our new office, I ordered 13 lateral filing cabinets. While away from the office I get a call from the shipper that the cabinets have arrived and I need to be there to sign for the delivery. I rush back to the office where I see two pallets full of filing cabinets stacked in front blocking the main entrance to the building.

I get out of my car and approach the truck driver. I introduce myself and he cuts me off, “Here’s the paperwork, sign this and I have to go.” I’m taken aback. “Wait, we’ve got to get these heavy cabinets inside the office.” “That’s not my problem, I’m delivering curbside, sign the paper and I have to go.” At that moment, I see nothing but red. In my head, this jerk of a truck driver just blocked the entrance to the building and is planning on leaving it this way.

An argument ensued, I use language I regret, and, long story short, I end up moving the cabinets into the building.

How many times do we allow ourselves to be dragged into arguments and come away thinking the other person was a jerk while the other person thinks we are the jerk? For me, it’s more than I can count. I’ve had long email chains with people about who is wrong. I’ve had colleagues who I have not spoken to in years over disagreements. I know siblings who haven’t spoken to each other for decades. I’ve seen parents and children stop speaking over what to me seems like silly arguments.

If you’re like me, following the argument, or even in the midst, when I retell the story to someone else, I am recruiting whoever is in front of me to agree the other person was wrong, they were the jerk, and I was right.

I finally got sick of this happening because, quite frankly, it distracts me from making things better and prevents me from being happy. So, I went about the task of figuring out why this happens and why it’s so hard to get resolution to an argument. I read Urban Meyer’s book “Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Program“.

Coach Meyer realizes that teaching football is the same as teaching life. He teaches his coaches and his players how to deal with individual, unforeseen events so they can succeed in football and in life. He trains his players until they can give that relentless effort for 4-6 seconds on every play.

E + R = O means Event plus Response equals Outcome.

An event is something that happens to us. In my case, the delivery of the filing cabinets. The response is how we respond to the event. My response to the truck driver created an outcome which was an event for the truck driver and his response created another outcome which was an event for me and the ultimate outcome was a result of our collective events and responses.

Let me tell you, I’m a lawyer and I’ve been conditioned to believe I am right so the realization that my response to events has a direct impact on bad outcomes knocked me for a loop.

I have been deposing doctors for 25 years. They are some of the most educated people in our society, but they have no idea that their response to the events of being sued has a direct impact on the outcome of the case. I’ve met all the stereotypes, the god complex; the greed driven; the uncaring; and the prideful. Most of the doctors that hurt or kill someone are incapable of relating to the plight of the patient. They are caught up in themselves, unable to see that this arrogance affects the outcome of the case against them.

Professionals have difficulty controlling their response to events, yet a college football coach has had great success teaching the skill to 18-year-old student athletes. The book goes into a long discussion of how to control your response to go “Above the line” as Coach Meyer calls it. I recommend the read.

For me, knowing that I had the ability to impact the outcome by my response still did not answer why I get mad or sad or stubborn when events occur. It’s easy to conceptualize an “Above the line” response, but once I get mad, it’s almost impossible for me to pull myself out and anger dictates my response. Before we beat ourselves up too bad, I also learned that this is normal and natural. It takes real effort to pull out of a tailspin.

To learn how, I had to do more digging. I learned there are 5 emotions.

Happy, Sad, Anger, Fear, Shame.

I learned that how we feel about an event controls how we respond. As I sat back and thought about it, I realized that of the 5 emotions, 4 of them suck, and those 4 are always competing to control my response, putting my response to events in direct conflict with me being happy.

In a book called Crucial Conversations, linked below, I discovered that in the time between the event and the time we develop feelings and respond to the event, even if it’s a split second, we tell ourselves a story about what just happened. Further, it’s the story we tell ourselves that controls how we feel and it’s how we feel that controls our response.

Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson:

What I learned is that in between E and R in coach Meyer’s equation, there is another equation that occurs (S + F = R) The Story + our feelings = our Response and all 5 feelings are competing to control the story we tell ourselves.

At the core of every event in my life, I realize I am constantly barraged by 4 bad emotions trying to get me to tell myself their story and then respond poorly to events that happen. When I give in to those negative emotions, I get myself in arguments that go on and on. If I want to change how I feel and how I respond to events, I have to change the story I tell myself about the event that just happened.

Did you ever buy a new car and all of a sudden, you see the same cars on the road? They were with you the whole time, but you never paid attention because you didn’t have that same car. The same thing happens with these emotions. Because I am paying attention to the emotions that pull at me, I see the emotions that are controlling the story that others are telling themselves and how those emotions control how they respond to me.

Everyone I meet is fighting their own battles, just like I’m fighting mine. Being in tune with that let’s me control the story I tell myself; how I feel; and how I respond to events.

When I saw the pallets outside the office, I needed to tell myself the truck driver’s story. He was by himself unloading two pallets of cabinets. He was not told and not prepared to move the cabinets into the building. He saw a crazy man approach and start telling him what to do. Forcing myself to see things from his perspective may or may not have led to the driver helping me get the cabinets into the building, but it certainly would have changed the outcome to where we each didn’t leave angry and thinking the other was a jerk.

Instead, my anger fed his anger fed my anger…. I was caught up in my battle and he was caught up in his. There could be no resolution other than one fueled by our collective anger.

By actively thinking about the story I’m telling myself and then changing it if necessary, I get to spend more time with my friend Happy and his children calm, rational, content, mindful, grateful, pleased, and understanding.

My email chains have gotten shorter, I have less heated arguments, and my blood pressure is down. Here’s another secret. It does not matter whether the story I tell myself about the other person is true or false. The point is to change how I feel and by me feeling better, my response is better, which changes the outcome of events for me, even if the other person can’t get out of their own way.

I hope that in time, I won’t have to keep consciously thinking about the story I tell myself, but instead I will automatically push aside fear, shame, anger and sadness, taking myself above the line and changing the outcome of events.

I invite you start thinking about the story you tell yourself when an event occurs. If that story makes you mad or sad or scared or ashamed, change it. Find a story that makes you feel happy (or happy-ish or calm if that’s all you can get) and then see if that changes how you respond and the outcome of the events you face every day. I bet it will.

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