What if they are doing the best they can?
August 27, 2015
By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
Editor’s Note: This was originally written in 2016 and revised by Mindprint editors in 2019. Consider also reading “What if it’s a can’t not a won’t“
A few days ago, while listening to NPR in the car, I heard an interview with Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and, unbeknownst to me, a “top ten” TED talk superstar.
She has a new book out, Rising Strong, The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution, that answers this central question:
“What do…people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.”
Brown described one situation in which she spoke with a group leader at West Point about his relationships at work. Below is my transcription of her recount of the exchange. You, can listen to the full interview by clicking here.
Dr. Brown: What if I told you, that person who works under you, that person who you believe is not doing the best they can, what if I told you, in fact they are?…What would that mean for you?
He got very emotional and said, “It would mean, move the rock. Everyday I work from the assumption that they are not doing their best because either they are trying to tick me off on purpose or they’re being lazy…but if I heard without a doubt that this person is doing the best they could, then I would have to say, ‘I don’t think you can make a meaningful contribution in this position, let’s find one where you could.’ Instead of kicking the rock everyday, I would move the rock.”
Dr. Brown explains that most of us sit with our frustrations instead of risking asking the question or having the conversation that makes us feel vulnerable. In fact, it’s the willingness to be vulnerable that makes people successful.
I thought about how this might apply to parenting. So often I get frustrated and, like the tough-talking man from West Point, think my children must being trying to foil my plans on purpose.
When they push-back on chores, and routine tasks, whether it’s helping feed the dog, or the wet towels on the floor. How many times do I need to ask them to do what they know must be done? Hum…how many times do I need to ask? I guess I’m the one chasing my own tail. What if I admitted that our days are packed, or the hook for the towels is a bit high—could I take a better look at what I’ve done—or not done– to keep these issues going?
These are uncomfortable internal conversations to have with myself because, at their heart is the idea that I need make some changes. Maybe it’s not “moving the rock” but “moving a lot of rocks”.
If my kids are doing the best they can, in the situations they’ve been dealt and with the skills, energy, and maturity they possess at this time, then something’s got to give, especially if we strive for the boundary that ensures, as Dr. Brown suggests, integrity and generosity from me and from them.
I’ll have to read the whole book. Until then, my suspicion is that the dark matter, the invisible but forceful energy that tugs and pulls on the boundary of good intentions, in our family at least, is time.
We need to do a bit less, and take a bit more time in the things that really matter.
I see some tough conversations ahead. But, also, I hope, some time well spent.
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