“Do not take it personally”, “Sometimes you just come off as rude”, this is some of the feedback I have received from people that I must admit puzzled and frustrated me. That’s because, I really do not think that I take things personally, and I definitely do not like being seen as rude, who does? “You expect too much from other people” said my husband, when I talked to him about it, asking if he has any idea why I am struggling to communicate sometimes. And so, I decided to write about it hoping that by putting it “on paper” I could decode it and figure out how to solve this challenge.
I wrote the first draft of this text already a few months ago, exactly the way I would speak about it to someone if we went out for drinks, remember the time we used to go out and talk to people-plural? When I was writing this, words came out like a flood, with a touch of anger and frustration.
In this first draft, I was explaining my challenge to communicate with people sometimes, how I am working hard on meeting them in the middle and how it is their fault too! It is a matter of action and reaction, it always goes both ways…. But when I shared this text with Ikutree, the artist who did the amazing illustrations you will see in this post and asked her to do some doodles inspired by the text, she actually revealed to me that the story I am telling is all about ego.
I immediately knew that I had to reconsider and write everything again, from a different perspective. It is definitely not about whether I take things personally or not, not about my frustrations and challenges in communication but about battling and eventually perhaps defeating my ego.
Ready. Set. Go
Round 01: Listen before speaking
Listening to other people has come to be such a common struggle today, not just for me but for everyone. If you really think about it, most of us just wanna talk, talk, talk and not listen. So I asked myself, “Do I do this?” and the answer of course is yes, yes I do, most of the times, all the time even. Usually, at the beginning of a discussion, I think I am right, or I just know the answer and I can’t wait to let people know, let it out there in the open! Pleaseeeee let me be the first to say it!!!!! As if I am a student frantically raising her hand up in the classroom so that the teacher will see I did my homework.
The fact that I have to consciously try to listen to other people first, hold back and give my input only until after someone else is finished with what they have to say, is major proof that I like talking way more than listening. If communication is really a two way street, I have to remind myself that I do not have to talk over other people to display my competence or to be the first person to say what perhaps others know as well, or even to let my opinion know. Fuck, I can also be wrong…. what is the rush to talk anyway?
So now, I wait for my turn like a good girl or, I wait until I am asked to participate in the conversation or, even better at times I just to not speak at all. I mean is it always necessary for me to say something? The answer is no. As Abby Covert says in her book “How to make sense of every mess”:
Sometimes we have to be the one without opinions and preferences so we can weigh all the options and find the best way forward for everyone involved
Round 02: Ego vs empathy
These past few months, I have read tons of articles and followed a lot of talks about empathy, communication and efficient collaboration. From all these sources together, I could make out a sort of a pattern, a set of rules that can help towards efficient collaboration; practising empathy, learning to be comfortable with feedback and making it specific, actionable and applicable when you give it to others are keys to good communication and collaboration.
People have said that sometimes my feedback is harsh. I was wondering, why it is perceived as such and how can I give better feedback instead. Once again, I started to hold back. I did not hit ‘send’ to that email before reading it twice and started writing down what I want to say first, before I decide if I have to say it at all. Taking the time to consider if what I am about to say is constructive but also consider how I would react if I would hear or read the feedback I am about to give right now. Would I perceive it as harsh, as a personal attack if it was addressed to me? Am I about to dismiss a suggestion given and if so, do I have the necessary receipts to back it up? The truth of the matter is, in the end am I being assertive or unnecessarily harsh?
While I believe that there is nothing wrong with being assertive, I think it is intelligent and good for my nerve balance above all else, to pick the right moment to do it. Being assertive in the right moment without being too emotional or too focused on my point of view and without coming off as rude towards others. I really admire people who are talented at that.
Round 03: Tame my passion
One reason I react “on the spot” with perhaps a little too emotion is definitely my passion.
When people ask me to describe myself, I always mention that I am passionate and this includes being passionate about my work too, of course. Usually, recruiters and managers love hearing that. But let us not forget what passionate really means. Most of the time, people like to imagine that someone passionate would be a great co-warrior that will fight by their side for everything they believe in, defending their ideas. I believe that great inspiring leaders do achieve that but the way.
But, what happens if we do not see eye to eye? What if I passionately defend something you do not agree with? This is usually the moment where I am no longer passionate, I am difficult. I am wondering if this a bit …. convenient to say. If I defend and promote my approach, especially at work, it is usually the moment where according to others, I am taking things personally. I am always surprised with this interpretation mainly because I think that this a rather quick conclusion.
How about understanding that there are simply different points of view, that I may speak out of my knowledge and experience? After all, it is very rare to have a complete alignment of vision, there will always be different approaches on how to reach an end goal, a desirable outcome. When I am facing this situation where people cannot accept that I am having a different stand, I must admit I am annoyed and I am definitely incapable of hiding it. People have told me time and time again, that every emotion I have shows up in my very expressive face.
So, perhaps what I need to do, is tame my passion. Not get rid of it, just tame it. Learn to compromise, sit out battles, yet again, and being prepared for people not agreeing with me for what seems to be the simplest most straightforward things. Basically just agree that we disagree. It is exhausting and unfortunate talking to the wrong audience, people who do not want to listen. The benefit of taming my passion in situations like this, is keeping my energy for the right things and being able to move on to things that matter and people that will listen.
Round 04: “What other people think of me is none of my business”
This quote that comes from RuPaul, has been extremely helpful to me in my continuous effort to not compare myself to other people and to not care about what other people think of me. People not only think, but often say to me that I am “too Greek” or “too loud”, what does that even mean? These direct references to my origin and culture had often made me think that I have to apologise for myself. At times I even did it!
It is nothing but surprising and even extremely outdated to expect people to suppress, tone down or even apologise for characteristics of their culture or gender. Specifically in such an international environment as Brussels. Heck, how about not doing that anywhere in the world?
Many times mediterranean people are commonly criticised for speaking too loud, for their openness and for being outspoken. We have all now and then, especially Greek people of my generation, faced stereotypes such as being full of idiotic pride, being poor and lazy amongst other lovely things.
What other people think of me is none of my business— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 2, 2011
And then of course, there is the gender aspect of it all. The universal perception of women, especially in business, being seen as difficult, too emotional or just plain bitches. While when it comes to men in business they are men with a strong vision. They get a get out of jail free card because instead of being perceived as difficult they are “just like that” and it is always up to the rest of us to understand, to tolerate this behaviour and to just “not take it personally”
But anyway, faced to the above perceptions of other people of me, due to my gender and/or origins, what I started to do even more than before, is compare myself to other people. So much that it became a bit of an obsession. I would perceive my differences as problematic simply because others were not accepting or understanding them. The reaction to this was to exaggerate these differences because I was angry and did not want to change, like “Fuck this, I will speak as loud as I want” or to really struggle to completely eliminate them. Slowly, I started to realise that both reactions are wrong and that in reality, what people think of me does not matter because it is none of my business. What other people think of me does not relate to me and should definitely not inflate my ego.
Being comfortable with myself, especially since I live abroad, is not as simple as it sounds. I will always be a bit of an outsider faced with silly stereotypes. As a woman people will still treat and view me differently, as a Greek woman, people still make a lot of assumptions about my character and behaviour.
Having an ego, does not allow me to focus on my (personal) growth but instead keeps me angry and focused on the perception that others have of me.
If people decide to colour me in a specific shade or choose to downgrade me in one thing, whether that is my origin or sex, then there is no point in putting any effort to make them see me in a different light and it is definitely not worth it feeling frustrated about it. I have tried in the past and it is both exhausting and sad. The key is focusing on my own growth instead liberating myself from trying to prove something or compare myself to others.
Who will win the battle?
Wouldn’t it be amazing to say that now that I wrote this, I have in fact found all the answers and won all the battles against my ego? That I have overcome every challenge, found the perfect balance and by the by, this gave me all the great most awesome advantages in the world? Ha! I have won life!
Well, this is not a TED talk so the battle against ego is an ongoing one for me I am afraid. I believe however that having identified these “key battles” for myself will eventually help me beat down my ego without losing what makes me, me; a dedicated, passionate person who will be in your corner and who will every now and then will shout out some Greek expressions and will serve you the occasional eye roll.
After all, if in fact this life is but a dream, and we are all the imagination of ourselves, I choose to not be a person enslaved by their ego….