You have an important conversation at work, and that evening, you think of the “perfect” thing you could have said, but didn’t. We’ve all experienced those “Why didn’t I say this” and “Why did I say that” moments many times. Those of us with perfectionistic temperaments do this even more than others. What should we do when our minds take such a turn?
In the March 2012 issue of O the Oprah Magazine, Martha Beck writes, “I love the Buddhist concept of enlightenment as living without anxiety over imperfection.” In consensus, persuasion, and related communication skills training, we learn to assess the success of a dialogue by comparing it, not to a perfect dialogue, but rather to the one we would have had if we hadn’t used our skills.
Like any other human endeavor, a consensus-seeking conversation is never perfect. In making perfection our standard, we only open the door to undeserved self-criticism and frustration. So the first and best medicine for such frustrations consists of a more realistic standard of comparison.
Suppose Emily’s sister Donna wants to borrow Emily’s heirloom necklace. Last week, Donna borrowed a blouse, and returned it with a stain that wouldn’t come out, and this is only the last in a string of similar incidents. The necklace has an intrinsic worth of about $200, as well as sentimental value. Emily values her relationship with Donna, but figures she has to set some boundaries.
Emily’s first impulse is to say something like, “I’m sorry, but the necklace is one thing I just can’t lend to anyone.” Then Emily remembers her consensus-building skills, and decides to discuss her interests, rather than taking an initial position.
So Emily tells Donna, “I feel torn because I love you so much and value our relationship. I don’t know what would be worse for that relationship, lending the necklace and then feeling angry and resentful if it got lost, stolen or damaged, or on the other hand, saying no to a dear sister.”
Bristling, Donna replies, “So you don’t trust me with it?”
“Well, I can’t help thinking about what happened to my blouse last week.”
“Just forget it.” Donna starts to leave the room in a huff.
Emily regroups and stops her. “Donna, please wait. I don’t know who I would trust with that necklace, because Granny left it to me, and there’s really no way to replace it. I’d like to trust you with it. What would you think about trying to agree on what we’ll do if something happens to the necklace, and I promise, in that unlikely event, if we do what we agreed, I’ll be perfectly content.”
Calming down a little, Donna asks Emily, “So if something happens to the necklace, what if I give you the bracelet that Granny left to me?”
Emily replies, “That would be fine.” She gives Donna a hug and asks, “Are we okay?”
“Yep, okay,” but her hug could have been a little warmer.
Donna could go home and wring her hands over the fact that there was no need to have mentioned the blouse. She could have moved straight into her suggestion that they agree in advance what to do if the necklace is lost, damaged, or the like. Instead, she made Donna wrong, and even though Donna says they are now okay, things would be even better if Emily had not mentioned the blouse.
Emily would be well advised to reflect on what would have happened if she had gone with her first impulse and simply refused to lend Donna the necklace. Or what if she hadn’t known the skills to regroup and stop Donna from walking out in a huff? Those are more legitimate standards for comparison in Emily’s situation.
It also helps for Emily to realize that, as with all consensus-seeking conversations, she can learn from this experience, and thus, continue improving her skills for future interactions. As pointed out by Martha Beck, “Embracing the lesson always loosens the stranglehold of worry.”