How to Stay True to Yourself—No Matter Who You're Talking To
People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.
When Rochelle finished venting about her dirty rotten coworkers, I asked her one question: "What are you feeling?" Her officious manner melted like sugar in the rain. "I try so hard to be a good person," she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "But nobody ever likes me."
"Rochelle," I said, "I'm going to repeat some things you said, in the same way you said them. Watch." I parroted some of her words, imitating her angry tone and body language.
Rochelle recoiled. "You're kidding!" she gasped. "But that can't be. I'm so small, so weak."
"No, you're at least 5 foot 9, and you could beat me mud wrestling in about three seconds flat," I told her. "You feel small and weak, so you compensate by armoring your real personality and constantly pulling social rank with those around you."
This is true of virtually all arrogant, domineering people. Most of them (like Rochelle) spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak, which tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call "tossing fish."
If you've ever been to Sea World, you've probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who's carrying a bucket of what they love most. They're a lot like people, that way—and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval. Individuals like Rochelle treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, and the more approval we'll receive from them. (By the way, it's crucial to fully internalize truth no. 1 before you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and newfound interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)
Rochelle managed to keep truth no. 1 in her thoughts by picturing the souls of her coworkers. "Someone once told me to picture intimidating people in their underwear," she told me. "Well, if my boss came into my office wearing only his underwear, I would get really nervous. So instead of thinking about his bare skin, I try to imagine his bare self—what worries and motivates him. Then I can offer him encouragement and support, just as I do with my subordinates, and I don't sound like a toady."
Rochelle also mastered a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across well on television. "When you're being interviewed," Barbara tells her clients, "treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home." This is exactly the opposite of most people's first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the "gracious hostess," you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person's power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at those particular moments, the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The "hostess" trick can help you make the transition.
It took Rochelle several months of practicing these techniques before they came to feel natural. During those months, she gradually won more friends and positive performance reviews than she had in her previous five years at the firm. As she began believing in her own inalienable value, she stopped obsessing about her position in the office hierarchy and began to treat others warmly without even thinking about it. Career success is one result (she has racked up a promotion and a raise), but more important, she is now well liked by her coworkers and her own fine self.
It has been a long time since I watched that flight attendant level the ground between a scared old lady and a world-renowned celebrity, but the memory of her actions never faded. It reminds me that we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and that we cling to the twin isolating myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Crown).
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