Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pick Your Battles

(Excerpted from Julie Christiansen's NEW book, When the Last Straw Falls: 30 Ways to Keep Stress from Breaking Your Back.)
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Picture if you will, a young girl from the islands, whose only experience with music is Gospel and R&B. Imagine her surprise when at the age of 9 she is given her first radio, and is introduced to Country music. Not just any kind of Country, mind you; we’re talking about the one, the only Kenny Rogers.

One would think that Country music would have no appeal for those who thrive on the soulful sounds of Motown hits; but even Maya Angelou, the great American poet found a universality and a sense of commonality in the lyrics of such songs as “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County”. They were songs about struggle, about doing the right thing, and about choosing your battles.

Kenny’s writing spoke to the hearts of millions who had been there; fighting for the things that really mattered. Not tangible things like money, valuables, houses or cars. They were fighting for the things that have true value: those intangibles – non-negotiables that are worth the battle. Love. Family. Faith. Freedom.

Yes, those intangibles are worth fighting for, right? You might be thinking, that’s all fine and good… everyone wants to fight the good fight. But right now I’m just struggling to get through my day!

This is exactly the point. For the most part, the majority of us are just trying to get through the day as we battle the day-to-day challenges of parenting, working, paying bills, figuring out relationships, and finding our place in the world.

How can you tell which battles are worth the fight? Begin with identifying the nature of each “battle scenario”.

1. What is happening? Identify exactly what is occurring in the moment. Take your time to look at the situation objectively, examining only the facts. By separating yourself from the emotionality of the moment, you will be able to see your stressors more clearly. Fighting battles is most difficult when you’re blind. Clear vision equals clear understanding, which will lead to better strategy. Sometimes the correct strategic choice will be to assertively engage; at other times, the best choice may be to walk away.

2. What does it mean? It has been said that nothing in life has any meaning except for the meaning you attach to it. Here are some examples:
a. Someone you love wants to drive drunk
b. You are faced with an ethical or moral dilemma
c. Your teenager wants to stay up late to watch a movie
d. Someone at work expresses romantic interest in you – the problem is, that someone is married
e. A stranger butts in line in front of you; he has three items, and you have 45
Which of these battles is worth fighting? Which might be best to let go? How would you define each of these events? What do they mean to you? The greater the meaning, the more likely you will have to do something about it. If it is just a minor annoyance, you may want to leave this battle for another day.

3. What is the lifetime value of this event? This is a question I ask myself every time I am faced with something that causes me stress, requires a decision, or demands that I take a stand. Deciding on how important this event will be within the context of your life will help clarify what steps might be necessary to ensure you get the best outcome for now and the future.

4. How do you feel about what is happening? Identifying and naming your emotional response is a vital step in deciding how to proceed in any conflict situation. It has already been noted that separating oneself from the heightened sensations of stress and charged emotions is useful when attempting to define the facts of a situation; however, at some point it is equally imperative that your feelings are acknowledged and placed into the context of the conflict. If you are feeling annoyed, you might respond differently than if you feel betrayed, rejected, alienated, or minimized. If you choose to engage in the conflict or stress-inducing situation, knowing how you feel and having the ability to assertively express your emotions will prove a great advantage.

5. What can you do to generate the best outcome? Always ask yourself what the best and worst possible outcomes might be for each problem-solving option you may be considering. By weighing out the pros and cons of each decision and following the path that will most likely lead to the best outcome for all concerned, your final choice of action is more likely to be the best one.

I was standing in line at the grocery store as the clerk, on automatic pilot, scanned my cart full of dry and canned goods, cleaning supplies, freezer items and fresh produce. It was a store that gave you the option to box your items rather than purchase plastic bags; whenever possible, I always tried to use boxes. Looking up, I noticed there were two empty boxes at the end of my checkout. I thought to myself, how gratuitous! Gratefully, I snatched them up – glad that I wouldn’t have to search through the bin at the front of the store for a couple of good sturdy boxes.

As I started loading my scanned items into the first box, I heard the man behind me in the line snarl to his female companion, “That figures – she stole our boxes!” Immediately, my frustration signal started going off – ding, ding, ding! The first though that went through my mind was, Since when do people OWN the grocery store’s discarded boxes? The next thought that went through my mind was that I should turn around and ask the man if he had something he needed to say to my face… It wasn’t my finest moment as the Anger Lady.

Then, I took a step back and evaluated the situation using the strategy map I just provided for you.

1. What is happening? Some guy – a stranger, someone I will never likely meet again, is upset because he thinks I took something that is important to him.
2. What does it mean? The boxes mean nothing to me – I just thought they were handy. But they obviously mean something to him. He thinks I stole his boxes on purpose. That he is feeling angry and agitated on account of something I did, is meaningful for me; and as such, will influence how I handle this situation.
3. What is the lifetime value of this event? On a scale of 1 to 10, about a ZERO. I have nothing invested in a relationship with this man and his companion. We are basically ships passing in the night – there is no relationship to salvage or to destroy. The boxes have no value to me either, so there is no need for this potential conflict to escalate.
4. How do I feel about what is happening? A bit annoyed by the man’s passive-aggressive approach, but otherwise unaffected. I don’t care about the boxes, so why should I feel upset?
5. What can I do to generate the best possible outcome? Give back the boxes, apologize for the misunderstanding, and move on.

Now, no word of a lie, this entire decision-making process took less than 15 seconds. Upon evaluating the situation, I immediately turned to the couple and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you had set these boxes aside.” I then began to remove all of my carefully packed groceries from the first box.

The woman began to attempt a weak apology of her own (for her partner’s grumpy reaction), and I basically waved it off, reiterated that this was not a problem, and then set off in search of two equally suitable boxes from the bin. I paid for my groceries, packed them up and walked away from the store feeling nothing but a bit of residual energy that infuses the body whenever it is faced with any kind of real or perceived threat. When I arrived home, I told my spouse about it, and breathed a silent Thank You that the “box fiasco” had not escalated into something ugly in the checkout line of my favourite grocery store.

Can you do this too? I’m certain that you can! This is the “T” part of my TSA formula that is explained in full in my book, Anger Solutions. The full formula is this:

T = Think – what is happening, what does it mean, how do I feel, what is the lifetime value of this event, and what do I want to do about it?

S= Say – speak assertively about how you feel, what you want, etc. Explain why you believe this is a problem and present a possible solution.

A= Ask – ask for the other party’s input. Be sure they understood what you said, and ask how they feel about it. This is the beginning of dialogue and the first step towards resolution of the problem.

With practice, you too can carefully and speedily evaluate each challenge, problem, or conflict that comes your way, and make decisions about how to respond in a way that gets you the very best possible outcomes. Pick your battles!
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