My son has to read a book called “The Revealers” for summer reading. We like to take turns; he reads a couple of chapters to me, then I will read one to him. It makes the story come alive and gives us something to do together. This book has intrigued me because, so far, it is about Russell, a boy who is bullied. He seeks out other bullied kids to try to figure out how to push back on the bullies. Last night the chapter we read had him simply questioning the bully, “Why me?” He approached it like a scientific experiment (like an Interested Observer…) and wanted to find out why the bully was after him. The reaction? The bully punched him so hard that he fell to the ground and couldn’t see straight.
I thought the scenario to be so on point for the work that we do here trying to teach others how to deal with difficult people. While we may say we are trying to learn different ways to approach others, to be more attentive and compassionate and less emotionally connected in our Interested Observer role, oftentimes inside we are saying, “I hope my actions make that other difficult person change!” What we really want is for the other person to just be different and stop rocking our boat. Russell’s experience was that by taking a different approach, he rocked the bully’s boat and he paid a price as a result. Now my guess is, given this is a sixth grade reading assignment, that Russell figures out how to deal with the bullies and we learn some important lessons by the end of the book. But, at this stage, we are seeing the reality of life. We may change. We may approach others differently. We may learn to adopt the Interested Observer stance but the other person may not change, or may react even more negatively.
When we seek to deal with difficult people and improve our relationships, we have to give up our desire to change them. We need to consider that it’s our energy and our emotions and our focus that become negative in dealing with others who upset us. If we examine our own intentions at times, we’re not setting out to change the other person and find the key to unlock their reactions to us; we’re setting out to find new ways to give ourselves freedom from the negative reaction. In other words, it’s a bit of self-interest that can sometimes translate into compassion. But acting as an Interested Observer, and being curious and refusing to react in the same old ways, is more about conserving our energy for the positive things we want to accomplish or pay attention to in our lives than it is about a quest to change others.
Be honest with yourself, if you choose to approach someone differently this week, about why you are doing it. Place the focus on learning, not on trying to gain an advantage. And remember Russell: He genuinely just wanted to understand and he took a fist in the nose as a result. While hopefully this won’t happen to many of us, we may get emotionally punched out during the process. If we want to learn from this work, we have to be prepared for anything and give up our expectations that we’ll “fix” anyone. We can deal with trying to change ourselves and our reactions. That, alone, takes a tremendous amount of focus and commitment. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, this week see if you can “be the change you want to see in the world” and leave the other person’s reactions and approaches up to them.