I had an argument the other day with Jane, my wife. She was angry because I hadn’t fixed a dripping faucet that I’d agreed to fix a week prior. It was keeping her awake at night and she felt I didn’t support what was important to her. I was offended because I’d intended to fix it. I didn’t feel supported because I’d been working on other important things and felt criticized for forgetting the faucet.

We tend to think other people shouldn’t behave as they do and take it personally when they criticize us. From my perspective, I was doing important work. I felt that she should be able to remind me in a nice way to fix the faucet. From her perspective, I was ignoring something that was important to her: her need for rest. We were both behaving badly and were communicating in a childish fashion. Fortunately, we both realized our bad behaviors and began investigating ways to communicate better and support each other.

There’s a progression for improving communication. First, criticizing the ego and others’ identities: The ego creates an identity of importance—a self image—based on achievements. When our achievements are criticized, the ego becomes threatened and focuses on defending itself. Attacking other people’s egos causes them to defend themselves, reinforces each party’s perspectives, and destroys any ability to communicate. This first state is an example of a victim’s approach to life. Victims take a step backward into comfort, disengage, and protect their egos.

Second, a shift to criticizing others’ behaviors: By criticizing the behaviors of others, we shift attention from ego identity to actions. People aren’t bad; their behavior is bad. This is more helpful. Doing this is less threatening to others and gives them some space to observe what they did so they can seek ways to change their behavior.  

Third, a shift to offering them support: Here we move beyond criticizing other people’s egos or criticizing their behaviors. We shift our attention toward ways we can support and stay connected with others. This is the most helpful. This third state is an example of a warrior’s approach to life. Warriors take a step forward into stress, engage, and protect the relationship. 

We can apply two tools that position us for offering support. First, “It’s not about me.” The ego gets offended when other people criticize us. However, how others act isn’t about what we did. Other people have a choice to communicate with hate or love. If they communicate with hate, then they’ve chosen to communicate that way.

Second, “They’re doing the best they can, given their abilities.” We tend to think other people should act nicer. But, given whatever their past experiences have been, they’re doing the best they can. Some survival behaviors are learned during childhood that aren’t effective for adult communication. Understanding this allows us to become more compassionate with others and ourselves. It helps us understand that “bad” behavior isn’t about flaws in the person; rather, there are flaws in one’s behavior, which can be changed. This doesn’t mean we allow others to shirk responsibility for behaving badly. We hold them accountable for their actions, but interact with them in ways that can help them develop “good” behaviors. 

These two tools position us for having a free mind, one that can focus our attention in a supportive way. A free mind begins by accepting a situation as it is, so our attention can flow spontaneously as needed. Allowing the ego to get offended or thinking others should act nicer, simply distracts our attention.

We can also apply this process for creating a supportive relationship with ourselves. We can have an “argument” with ourselves. We fall off a route and internally argue with ourselves, thinking we shouldn’t have fallen.

First, the ego gets offended. Its image and importance are threatened, so we fall victim to self-loathing behaviors. This keeps us separated from the situation, with our attention focused on supporting the ego, instead of solving the problem of why we fell. 

Second, we can shift our focus to our behavior, our actions. We did something, or didn’t do something, that caused the behavior, the fall. We don’t see ourselves as flawed; we see our behaviors, our actions, as flawed. There’s something flawed in our actions that contributed to the fall. What was it? This is more helpful.

Third, we can offer support. We realize “It’s not about me.” The fall doesn’t mean we are flawed people. We also realize “We’re doing the best we can, given our current abilities.” We know we can improve, but for this particular effort, we did the best we could. Knowing “It’s not about our ego” and “We’re doing our best” allows us to accept situations quickly so our attention is free to flow spontaneously, as needed, so we can learn. This is most helpful.

Supporting others and ourselves doesn’t shirk responsibility for bad behavior. Support actually creates the circumstances that allow us to take responsibility for our bad behavior. Knowing “It’s not about me” and “They’re doing the best they can, given their abilities” allows us to stay connected and support others.

Jane and I asked how we could help each other. I suggested she pick up the faucet repair kit to save me some time. She suggested I fix the faucet today, so she can have a restful night’s sleep. Offering support allowed us to accept the situation quickly and take action. Doing this improved our communication, collaboration, and helped change our childish survival behaviors into effective adult behaviors. That connection changed our perspectives and shifted our attention from our egos to the relationship. It also got the faucet fixed that day and a restful night’s sleep for Jane that night.

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