Sometimes I forget to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and see things from their point of view. John Gottman, famous couples researcher and therapist, tells us that being able to do this is imperative for a good relationship. Usually this means being able to understand why the other person is feeling what they are feeling. Sometimes I am actually too good at that, usually in the context of the therapy room. Today I am thinking about it in a slightly different context, though it has similar results.
Recently I joined a committee for a professional organization that I have membership in where I really did not know anyone very well. I have just moved back to town and am in the process of creating new relationships/business contacts with people. I used to belong to this organization before, about 15 years ago. It was good then so I thought I would give it another try.
When I lived here before I was in another profession and was well-connected by virtue of what I did. I was in business development for a CPA firm as well as for a bank. Since then I have transitioned into doing marriage and family therapy work for professionals/executives. I have had my own business for the last 13 years. I think to myself (which is too often) that no one knows me here for what I have been doing these last 15 years. I think they only know me for what I did when I left. I think about how well known I was where I was living in North Carolina, but how little known I am here for the kind of work I do now. So I enter the first committee meeting leading with these negative thoughts, feeling inadequate and somewhat anxious despite the fact that I am very extroverted.
I was shy about volunteering my time to help, mostly because I have so much going on with the transition here, so I held back. However, there was one event where I thought my field of expertise could be a plus. So I stuck my toe in the water and offered to help, but someone else with a stronger voice took charge of the lead. That was okay with me, but I have to admit feeling a little left out. I felt so left out that by the time I pulled out of the parking garage at the end of the meeting, I didn’t pay full attention and scraped my front bumper against the concrete post! That was like an exclamation mark to my feelings of frustration and I almost quit the committee right then and there. Afterall, I figured, they didn’t really need me. I wasn’t really contributing anything.
But I stuck with it and tried again by attending the next meeting. Once again, I felt weak to the strength of the other committee members’ strong voice when it came to speaking out on planning this one event…they were taking on all the work and I did not have a part in it, and I wasn’t speaking out and saying anything because I was listening to those negative voices in my head too much.
A few weeks went by, and it came to be the week of the event. Imagine my surprise when the person with the strong voice e-mailed me to request my input re: the content of the events’ program. We arranged a telephone call, and I was blown away by how it turned out. During a forty-minute conversation, I found out that this person valued my opinion, and preferred to collaborate during the presentation part of the event. They also suggested that we co-facilitate that evening. I gave strong opinions on the content and was met with positive response. I felt my anxieties wash away as I realized that I was the one with the problem: I had failed to put myself in the other person’s shoes because I was too preoccupied with my own insecurities. If I had done so sooner, I would have seen that they sought my input as a valuable contribution. That they were not preventing me from participating in the planning at all, that I was doing that all by myself with my negative thinking.
Thank goodness I was open to the call of cooperation and was easily able to brush aside my hurt feelings. The collaboration turned out to be a rich experience. When the other person introduced me at the event, it was done in a flattering style, with attention called to my “many credentials”. To say I was in disbelief at the moment was not too strong of a phrase. I hope that I will be savoring this experience for months to come…what it teaches me is not to be so preoccupied with the negative voices in my head that I fail to notice when someone is extending a helping hand.