In Praise of the Touchy-Feely Crap

If you look at my resume, you’ll see that most of my full-time stops at places have lasted for years. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some great people who have become great friends. Heck, more than that. They’ve become family. Now, I realize that’s not a unique experience. You spend a lot of time with the people you work with, and you either grow close or you hate each other. This is a story of both.

At one agency where I worked, we hired this smooth-talker/scumbag that I wrote about before. This guy came in and insisted we have these meetings once a week that we take turns leading. They can be anything you want. They were fun, I guess, but they felt forced. Like, “Hey, let’s all become closer by sitting around in a circle and staring at each other.”

One guy brought in some of his old record albums and shared the classic artwork. That was pretty fun. But it didn’t make me like him any better. I already liked him.

One girl that worked at our place for about a half a second gave a presentation on the Hmong community. She was Hmong. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia: “The Hmong people are an ethnic group in East and Southeast Asia. They are a sub-group of the Miao people, and live mainly in southern China, Vietnam and Laos.” That was also the race of the family that Clint Eastwood grew close to in Gran Torino. Hey, here’s a tidbit I just remembered she explained in her presentation. Remember that scene where the kid is laughing as the gang is bullying him? The Hmong laugh when they’re nervous. A pretty cool authentic detail in the movie.

Anyway, her presentation was pretty interesting from a cultural appreciation point of view, but then she started getting kind of worked up, and finally exploded with, “And I get so sick of people mispronouncing it! People pronounce it ‘mong’, and it’s pronounced ‘mong’!” There was dead silence. Everyone was kind of looking around at each other, because to us, she pronounced it the exact same way both times. No one could hear a difference, but no one wanted to say anything because she was so pissed. So we just let the silence stretch out until she started talking again.

Another time, this girl who really bonded with the smooth-talker/scumbag did this activity that he was proud of. With him sitting there beaming, she started off by saying that we were going to get to know each other better, and we were going to pair off and ask each other this list of personal questions that she had prepared.

Okay, let me give you a little background about myself. I was raised by a Master Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. My dad. I am as emotionally stunted as they come, okay? So what do you think my reaction to this was? It was visceral. Primal. Cells I didn’t even know I had were recoiling in horror.

The good news is she said, “I understand that not everyone will be comfortable with this, so if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.”

That was my cue. I stood up, said “Good”, and walked out.

I went back to my desk and enjoyed the silence and was productive for about an hour, when everyone came back out to their desks. As the guys walked by, they all glanced at me enviously.

Thankfully, we fired the smooth-talker/scumbag shortly after, so we didn’t have to do anything like that again.

Until the civil war.

Remember I said you grow to either love or hate the people you work with? There came a time when the friction between some people at the agency became too much. The situation grew to the point where if it didn’t get fixed, people we valued were either going to leave or get fired. So one guy recommended bringing in an outside person to help fix it. Sort of group counseling. And I, being part of the management team, could not just get up and walk out on this one. I had to participate.

So what does a good Marine’s son do? He sucks it up and does what he has to do. I resolved to go to the weekly touchy-feely meetings with a positive outlook, and to give them my best effort.

The girl who came in to lead the sessions was great. Her name was Lorraine Aguilar, and we still keep in touch. Here’s her LinkedIn page.

The touchy-feely meetings were extremely uncomfortable for me, and they lasted for a couple of months. They got easier, though. In fact, I kind of started to look forward to them. Lorraine shared some valuable information and skills. We learned about conflict resolution, and we learned how to get along with clients and with each other. Overall, some feeling were aired, some wounds were cleansed, some bad blood was purified. I’m not sure everything was healed 100%, but the group was definitely better off for having Lorraine.

I of course have forgotten most everything I learned. I do remember two things, though.

One, everything is always the other guy’s fault. Oh wait. I think I’m remembering it wrong. Now I remember.

One was advice on how to minimize miscommunication. Here it is: Repeat what you heard back to someone. For example, you might say, “So what I heard you say was you like these concepts that have talking bears, but the ones with talking raccoons creep you out. Got it.” It helps to clarify and ensure there are no misunderstandings. Or spots with talking raccoons.

And two, this was great advice in avoiding conflict, and in my opinion, just being a nicer person. It’s this: Give people the benefit of the doubt.

I know people who go through life assuming the worst. “Did you see the way she looked at me?” “Oh, she said that on purpose, knowing it would bother me.” “Oh, nice job cutting me off. Must be nice driving a BMW, since the rules of the road don’t apply to you.”

Not everyone is out to offend you. Most people are just pinballing their way through life, trying to cause and experience as little damage as possible. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, you’re assuming the best of someone. That’s always, always, always a better way to go. Maybe she looked at you and was thinking of her upsetting diagnosis she just received from her doctor. Maybe she had no idea saying that would bother you. Maybe they truly didn’t see you. And by the way, the rules of the road do apply to BMW drivers. Tesla drivers, though, that’s another story. Man, those people really are out to personally offend everyone. What a bunch of entitled, self-important…

The point is, if you assume the best and give people the benefit of the doubt, you become a Happiness Elf. If they really did mean well, you didn’t cause conflict where taking offense would have created it. If they didn’t mean well and you treat them kindly anyway, maybe you defuse a potentially heated situation. And maybe your day is a little better for both of you. Worst case, your day is better for not being bothered by an unpleasant person.

Go on, give it a try. It could change your life.

Wow. Look who’s touchy-feely now.

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