Every discipline has its buzzwords. In real estate, the three most important words are location, location, location. For the Olympics, the three most important words are gold, silver and bronze. I believe that two of the most important words in human relationships are "so what?" Too often we spend our precious time in endeavors that make us unhappy because we're afraid of the negative reaction we may receive by saying no or disagreeing with another person. Our thinking about the situation ends when we feel this fear. I'm suggesting we push beyond the fear and go one step further. So what if the other person gets angry or disappointed? What's the worst that can happen? And what if the worst actually happens? So what?
Many of my clients took such a risk, spoke up in spite of their fear, and found the answer to "so what?" wasn't so bad after all. In fact, asking "so what?" actually strengthened some of the relationships they feared would worsen. Maybe you'll identify with one of the following two examples.
Annie had been working late every night for several months because her lonely mother called her several times each day. To compensate for the time spent on the phone with her mother, Annie was staying at the office until 8:00 p.m. These hours were taking its toll on Annie and she was feeling tired and stressed.
When asked, Annie responded with great clarity about what she wanted, which was to talk with her mother once during the day for a few minutes and then again after work. So why wasn't Annie telling this to her mother? She felt sorry for her mother and anticipated her mother's anger and hurt. Annie's thought process ended with this anticipation. Then came the million dollar question: so what? So what if her mother got angry? Would her mother eventually get over it? Would her mother stay angry forever? Would speaking up irreparably harm their relationship? Did her mother have a right to Annie's time regardless of the impact on Annie?
Annie and I role-played her eventual conversation with her mother. The actual conversation went as expected and her mother was angry and hurt. Annie explained to her mother that she loved her and wanted to talk with her daily, but she couldn't have those conversations at work. Annie's mother was put off for a few days and then a new routine was established and her mother got over it. Annie found herself less resentful of her mother and looked forward to and enjoyed their conversations more. Another bonus was that Annie felt that her mother actually respected Annie more and their relationship was strengthened. Annie's work productivity increased and her stress level decreased. By speaking up, Annie created a win-win outcome.
Another client, Jim, had been on the job at a small company for only a few months when he became the sounding board for his new boss. Jim's boss stopped by Jim's office many times each day. Some days the boss popped in as many as ten times. While Jim was pleased that his new boss valued his opinions, Jim found the interruptions detrimental to his work. The situation got to the point where Jim was stressing in anticipationof his boss coming in. Jim's excitement about his new job was being replaced by stress and regrets. Like Annie, Jim felt he couldn't voice his concerns to his boss for fear of angering him. After all, Jim's boss decided on promotions and bonuses.
Jim was surprised when, after telling me his predicament and why he couldn't be honest with his boss, I asked, "so what?" So what if his boss was insulted? So what if his boss couldn't have total and complete access to Jim? What was the worst possible outcome? Jim said the worst that could happen was a smaller bonus, no promotion, or even being fired. I asked Jim if he wanted to work for someone who would be so vengeful for speaking up about something that was not only in Jim's best interest, but the company's as well. This made Jim pause and we role-played the conversation with his boss.
Jim finally had the overdue conversation with his boss. His boss was surprised and hadn't realized just how many times each day he stopped by Jim's office. Jim assured his boss how much he liked his job, what a good move it was, and how refreshing it was to be part of a cohesive team. Jim and his boss scheduled preset daily meetings that allowed Jim to better plan his day without interruption. Jim's boss benefited by having to sharpen his thoughts before their meetings, and the company benefited by having a more efficient and smoothly running office. Again, the outcome was win-win.
How can you apply the "so what?" approach to your life? Here are a few tips:
1. If you're in a situation where you fear the outcome of a difficult conversation, ask yourself what is the worst possible result. Then follow up with "so what?" So what if the worst possible outcome actually comes to fruition? Unless death, homelessness or another tragedy results, go for it.
2. Always begin the conversation with positive statements. Annie began the conversation with her mother by telling her how much she loves her, how important their relationship is to her, and how much she enjoys the time they spend together in person and over the telephone. Jim began his conversation with his boss by telling him how much he enjoys his new job, how he feels he has much to learn from the company and the boss, and how pleased he is that the boss has shown so much trust in and respect for Jim's input.
3. Never begin the conversation with the word "you." Doing so immediately makes the other person defensive. The situation isn't anyone's "fault;" rather, the situation merely needs to be refined and restructured. No one necessarily did anything wrong.
The next time you're in a situation where you feel you can't say "no," ask yourself why that is. Then follow up with "so what?" It worked for Annie and Jim, and it just may work for you, too.