July 22, 2012

I Object

Sometimes it feels good to get really mad--especially when you know you're in the right. We've all had the experience of being so wronged and feeling so furious that we feel like we just have to get it out. When the bank freezes our credit card even though we conscientiously notified them that we were traveling internationally, when our partner promises and then fails to put away the laundry for the third night in a row, when the renovation contractor consistently arrives late, we feel justified in our anger and it's a relief to tell someone off.

The problem is, this isn't always the best strategy. In fact, if we think in terns of objectives, it's often a bad strategy. Consider a few examples:

1) I recently had the experience of being so angry at my banking institution that as I dialed the customer service centre, I was practically shaking with excitement to let loose my righteous indignation. I raged at the customer service representative--which felt good in the moment--but when we hung up, my account was still frozen and the bank rep didn't seem too motivated to get to the bottom of the error. I had been so pumped up with righteousness that I failed to consider my objective: more than letting the bank know how I felt, I wanted access to my account. Did my behaviour facilitate the achievement of my goal? Not at all! I called back the customer service agent and apologized. It was embarrassing but by the time I ended the second call, the customer service rep was relaxed, apologetic, and eager to help. She promised to resolve the problem and call  me the next day (which she did!).

2) My friend's landlord has been consistently rude, picky about absurd details of the lease, and overall difficult to deal with. He recently raised the rent by $200 in a blatant attempt to get her to move out. My friend was livid; she decided not to renew the lease, and drafted a long email to the landlord detailing each episode in which he came over without calling, failed to complete repairs in a timely manner, or was otherwise unreasonable or non-compliant with the lease. I read the draft and asked her the key question: what are your objectives in this situation? My friend replied that she wanted to get her damage deposit back, use the landlord as a reference for her next apartment, and make sure he knew that he was a jerk. We reviewed the congruence between her actions (the email) and her objectives and decided that the email served only the third--and least important--objective. She decided that she wanted her damage deposit back and a good reference more than she needed to tell off the landlord, and decided not to send the email.

3) I had a client whose partner consistently worked late, leaving her alone in the evenings. My client felt hurt and sad and angry, and would repeatedly burst into tears the minute her partner walked in the door. I asked her the question: what are your objectives in this situation? When she replied that her goals were for her partner to realize how upset she was, and for him to come home earlier, I asked her how her partner usually responded to tears. When she replied that his usual reaction was to withdraw, she realized that it was time to rethink her strategy. By crying, she was achieving one of her goals (letting him know she was upset) but distancing herself from her second and more important goal. By reviewing her objectives, she was able to come up with a different strategy: talking to her partner about the problem--without tears--on the weekend.

In any situation--but in particular when we feel indignant and righteous--reviewing goals before acting can be a good idea. Simply letting out feelings isn't always an effective strategy, and it's risky to assume that others will change their behaviour just because we made our displeasure clear. The next time you find yourself gleefully/vengefully anticipating letting out your feelings or telling someone off, take a minute to consider what you're actually hoping for in the situation. You might end up changing your strategy!

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