People are complicated and their lives are complex

People are complicated and their lives are complex

I can still recall many pieces of wisdom Robert Berra, one of my mentors, shared with me. This one has held up over time: “Paul, just remember one thing when you are in any circumstance when people are not being their best selves. Everyone is a little bit scared and a whole lot proud.” 

I think the phrase resonated because it described me. Growing up, I felt as if I was the only one who was scared. When I remember the phrase, I am kinder and more respectful to others. Recently I saw a quote by Steven Spielberg that brought this perspective back again:

I never felt comfortable with myself because I was never part of the majority. I always felt awkward and shy and on the outside of the momentum of my friends' lives. 

I remember pulling into the parking lot of the motel where I was to teach a program on personal effectiveness. I parked next to a VW bus covered with flowers and bumper stickers. Half an hour later, as I was setting up the room, the obvious owner of the VW walked in—a big guy with a long ponytail, bandana, cut-out sweat shirt, and soiled jeans. Thinking he was lost, I asked if I could help. “Yes, are you Paul? Well, I go by ‘Barbed Wire,’ and I’m here to be fixed.”

Long story short, Charles was a welder in a factory and had a reputation for being difficult—hence Barbed Wire. Once he had the reputation, he didn’t know how to get beyond it. Charles sat through the class, didn’t say anything, but participated in all the exercises and seemed to have fun with the participants, who were mostly young people from an insurance company. A week later, Barbed Wire’s supervisor called and thanked me. It seems Charles went back to the factory, apologized for being difficult, asked to be called by his given name, and asked to start fresh. Now, I don’t think he had some eureka moment in class. Charles simply wanted a fresh start, and the class gave him permission to ask for it.

Charles also taught me a lesson that I have relearned many times: Don’t make up stuff about people based on how they look. 

Here is the most profound idea I have for you with respect to understanding people: People do exactly what makes sense to them in the moment. I’ll use a baseball analogy because I love the sport. Think about hitting a baseball. There is no time to analyze a pitch and decide to swing. All major league hitters swing first and then stop the swing if it is not a good pitch to hit. Notice how many checked swings there are—lots. Now think about the difference between a batting-practice fastball and a game-time fastball. One looks hittable, and the other can actually look like a threat if it’s too far inside.

When people feel good about themselves, their lives and circumstances, they usually do the right thing. They tend to be at their best.

When people feel threatened, they often get defensive and do things that are not consistent with being at their best. They take things personally, say things they don’t mean, and justify their behavior—anything to deal with the threat they are feeling. They are not at their best.

If people are reacting to the moment, they are in part reacting to you. And you can be safe and catchable or you can be a threat—like a high-and-tight fastball that makes people duck. 

How can you be safe? By slowing down, always having time, listening far longer than you might want to, not trying to fix anyone or their thinking. Just be there—home with the lights on—and realize that if anyone can make a difference with this person, it is you, right now. 

Thanks for reading,

Every single person has a story that will break your heart. And if you’re paying attention, many people…have a story that will bring you to your knees. Nobody rides for free.
Brené Brown, American researcher 


- Paul Axtell, author of Compassionate Leadership

April 26, 2021
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