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Mon, Sept. 23

Column: Seeing ourselves in others

In most cases, when we see ourselves in someone else, it’s because they are like us in gender, age or ethnic background, share the same activities or interests, or because they agree with us on matters of religion or politics. But what about those people who are not only not like us but are downright annoying?

He or she may be part of your family, sit at the desk next to you at work or share the same group of friends with you. Though you consider yourself a reasonably patient person, there’s something about this person that consistently raises your hackles. 

Perhaps he or she interjects an opinion too often or chimes in with comments completely off the topic. Maybe they like to take over the discussion and steer it toward their latest purchase, vacation trip or accomplishment. 

Early in my working career, my pet peeve was people who would corner me in my cubicle and do what I called a “core dump”: a long monologue on whatever happened to be top of mind for them. Regardless of what they shared, as far as I was concerned, it was a monumental waste of time that kept me from getting down to what really mattered – my work.

Only after years of experience did I come to an important realization. Each time I blew someone off as quickly as possible, I was passing up a golden opportunity. Someone was making themselves available to connect with me. The things being shared were not trivial to them and my work wasn’t so important it couldn’t wait a few minutes. If I had the patience to really listen and enough empathy to give a thoughtful response, it opened the possibility of a mutually supportive relationship.

Though I couldn’t see it at the time, my first impulse to pull away from any interaction that wasn’t all business really sprang from seeing myself in the other person. I was highly self-critical of revealing anything that could make me appear vulnerable – that just didn’t fit my image of a professional, someone to be taken seriously. When I saw the vulnerability I was repressing in someone else, I rejected it with equal disdain. 

Only when I reconciled myself to the fact that I needed that human connection too did I begin investing in and reaping the benefits of cultivating positive relationships. Ironically, I later learned that the Gallup “Q12” assessment of employee engagement – how actively invested staff members are in the welfare of the organization – includes the question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” One of the most personal of connections was statistically identified as a key indicator of a productive, successful employee.

When we have a negative reaction to someone or even outright conflict, it may be a red flag signaling an issue or quality in ourselves hidden from conscious view. As annoying or frustrating as these situations can be, they also present an opportunity for self-knowledge and growth. And it doesn’t need to take years to happen. I find making the effort to hold the person in a positive mental light not only softens my attitude toward him or her, but helps me see failings in myself that I’d prefer to ignore in a much more forgiving light.

“Sympathy for the devil,” so to speak, becomes sympathy for oneself – the real self, not the idealized version we would like others to see. Once we can acknowledge and move past these previously hidden bottlenecks, the energy that was tied up in holding down the “unacceptable” can be released for more joyful purposes.

Alexandra Piacenza is a Prescott resident and is the immediate past president of Prescott Area Leadership.

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