When Life Gets Weird

Have you ever felt like the last sane person on earth? Fortunately, it’s possible to turn the world right side up again when professional or personal relationships turn crazy.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - When Life Gets Weird

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

When I say that I’ve experienced this feeling, it isn’t (just) paranoia. I know, because I’ve been in the room when it was happening to others who didn’t see it coming. It’s devastating when things suddenly turn cold or change direction in a relationship that seemed okay before, especially when you don’t know why.

These are the times when a stiff shot of perspective can help. When clients, bosses, family members or significant others suddenly turn crazy for no apparent reason, you’ll be tempted to stop trusting a single thought in your head. When this happens, the first thing to do is find a private place to have your initial meltdown. Next, give yourself time to let these ideas wash through your mind before you make any judgments about what happened or say or do anything you can’t take back:

  1. This is not weakness… it’s grief over the death of your assumptions and it’s normal
  2. You are part of a highly interdependent system, professionally and personally
  3. You can’t control the thoughts or actions of others
  4. The person across from you is influenced by history and feelings you can’t see
  5. It’s likely that their assumptions and choices have little or nothing to do with you
  6. Somewhere there’s a vantage point from which their actions make sense
  7. Fear is often the hidden root of the rotten things that other people do to you… responding in kind only makes it worse

See the whole.

When I first got into quality management, I was captivated by a book called The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. He was the first of many system thinkers who opened my eyes to the idea that local events can’t always be blamed on local conditions. Many times they’re caused by things that are several steps removed from the visible symptoms.

Recognize that it’s not personal.

Yes, I know. It really IS personal. One of my favorite movie lines is Meg Ryan’s comeback in “You’ve Got Mail.” Tom Hanks says it wasn’t personal when Fox Books drove The Shop Around The Corner out of business and she replies, “whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” I agree, but that center point is someplace else for every other person in the system.

Events are influenced by things we can’t always see.

During the last big power shift in the automotive industry, Toyota latched onto system thinking to turn their quality problems around. To uncover the deeper root causes behind them, they began asking “why” five times when they encountered a product failure. Dorothea Brande, author of the timeless Becoming a Writer, said it another way – “A problem clearly stated is half solved.”

If the relationship is chilly, but you’re still talking, there are some practical ways to thaw it out. Peel back as many layers as you can. Look beyond your opposing positions to see what deeper interests you might have in common. This is your area of potential agreement. If you and I are committed to working together, the details won’t keep us apart. If you and I are NOT committed to working together, fixing the details won’t help.

Some disconnects can be fixed… some can’t.

Sometimes people get weird when they think you’re trying to change the rules. This relates to another Peter Senge idea – the harder you push on the system, the harder it pushes back. To phrase it more personally, the saner you get, the crazier the group will get so they can feel “normal” again.

They’ll keep doing this until they see that you’re serious about changing the rules. Then, they’ll either give up and adapt (least likely) or vote you off the island (most likely). This is when the client (or the significant other) stops returning your calls, or your boss stops you on your way in from lunch to say you can have a severance check if you’ll leave today (oh, and sign this short legal waiver).

This is a painful experience, but I assure you that it IS survivable. The party who won’t talk has just opened up valuable space in your life for an opportunity that’s much more deserving of the time and energy you’d have spent trying to fix up the old one.

Your input matters – please join the conversation: Have you ever been stonewalled? If the relationship recovered, what got you connected again?