Right in the feelers

Every 4 years, the Olympics enchant me. I think for at least a few days, like I did when I was 16, that if I just stuck to a regimented gym program, started doing handstands on the daily, that I, too, could be an Olympic gymnast, or diver, or archer, if I wanted to be. The formula for Olympic television is: emotional backstory of how the athlete overcame adversity, injuries, the road to the Olympics, teary musical montage, and ultimately we watch as they walk away with some medal.

This year, I have no delusions of grandeur of ever being an Olympian. I’d get a medal if there was an event where you fall over things without spilling your beer, though. Gold. You bet your ass.

While I sympathize for the French gymnast with the horrific broken leg flopped to the side, and for the Dutch cyclist with a spine broken in 3 places, that is not front of mind this week. Instead, what has punched me right in the feels is empathy and compassion. A relatively quiet coworker, a man of virtually no words, unexpectedly lost his father this week. I gave him some words of encouragement via that always awkward email after management tells the staff what’s up. But a bouquet of clumsy words is better than silence, in my book.

Let’s get one thing very clear – perhaps on the outside, I looked okay when my dad passed away. On the inside, I was a fucking mess. I went through a shitty trifecta around the same time that included my dad passing away and going through a breakup, as well as some work stuff. I was living in another country and on antidepressants. I went to the gym, as that was my chosen escape from reality. I’d work out for at least an hour, every single day, and hard. I dropped 17kg, or 37.5lbs. I barely ate, and when I did, I couldn’t keep it in very long. That was one of the less pleasant side effects of Zoloft.

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Another coworker has organized a calendar for us to sign up for bringing in a dinner, drinks, or dessert for him to take home to his wife and their 3 kids. It brought tears to my eyes, that I work at a place with such thoughtful people who want to do something at times like this. My friends who had the unfortunate task of hanging out with me while I was going through the hardest time in my life probably could have used something like that. I could have used something like that. I didn’t take care of myself very well. My flatmate at the time told me one night, he half expected to come home at night and find me curled up in the fetal position on the floor because the gravity of what I was going through was so much.

Thankfully, I didn’t have a spouse, or even a girlfriend anymore, when I went through the worst of it. I didn’t have children to worry about. It made letting myself go very, very easy. Without those friends of mine in another country, I may very well have fallen into that dark abyss never to return. I don’t know what would have happened, and I don’t want to think about it.

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I will say, as someone who’s been through what he’s going through now, that losing someone you love feels like an incredible loss, sometimes too great to bear. Having people express care and interest in your well-being, when it’s not even at the forefront of your own mind, means more than anything. That emptiness left in the world by your loss gets filled up a little by love and compassion. The world’s not such a horrible place anymore. Someone you didn’t even know is thinking about you, and sending you well-wishes. In the great balance of the universe, it doesn’t bring your loved one back, nor do you magically feel 100% better. But there is a little more love in the world.

Now I’m not the best cook, but goddamnit, I’m gonna bring that man wine for the adults and something sweet for the kids to get they drank on (Sprites, g-rated, nothing illegal). I wouldn’t wish my cooking on anyone, so I’ll leave that to the Betty Crockers and Papa Johns out there.

I’ll make drinking jokes til the cows come home, but I actually stopped drinking, for the most part, during the hardest time in my life. I don’t recommend overdosing on a depressant when actively taking antidepressants, because it just makes the medication have to work harder. But sometimes, when you’re dealing with tough shit, it helps to blow off a little steam. Won’t fix anything, but it gives you something else to focus on besides how much it hurts. Then, in the morning, you’ll hurt on the outside how much it hurts on the inside.

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Be thoughtful and sympathetic (if you can’t be empathetic due to circumstances) to what others are going through. Think of someone besides yourself today. Do something nice for someone, unexpectedly. Put more of that love into the universe. I would ask that you carry that same thinking forward into your own life. Bring that someone some wine. Bitches love wine.

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In two previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (The art of getting by and One sigma).

There is a particular quote from that film that, unfortunately, has made its way back across my path again tonight, and I’m not pleased to see it so soon. “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”

Tonight, I tried my best but managed to awkwardly comfort an old friend who had been on the phone with his father in South Africa, while he remained helpless in New York City. His father did not make it past that telephone call. Life has taken away again. No matter how prepared one might be for that call, one is never prepared for Life After It Happens.

Tonight, I was Luna Lovegood soothing Harry Potter upon seeing, for the very first time with disbelief in his eyes, the thestral he never knew was there. I tried my best to not say the wrong thing to my friend as he, too, was introduced to the thestral he didn’t know was there. Thestrals are fictional winged horses with skeletal bodies, with faces like reptiles, and are a bad omen according to the Ministry of Magic. These beasts were used mainly to pull the carriages that take experienced Hogwarts students from the train stop at Hogsmeade to the Hogwarts grounds/castle. More importantly, thestrals can only be seen by people who’ve witnessed death at least once. Harry had never seen them before that moment until he did, due to one thing or another upon arriving to Hogwarts.

I don’t want to be the one who sees the thestrals, too. Ignorance can be bliss. I’ve had the grave task of welcoming a friend to this horrible club no one tells you about when you hit your 30’s. True, people lose parents at all ages, but it begins happening with much more frequency in this stage of our lives, but with no less impact. I’m not the only one of my friends who has lost a parent in the last 3 years. I know friends who lost both parents before that, too. It’s not a competition. The hurt is massive. The emptiness, confronting. I don’t take comfort that my friends have lost parents, too. But it helps to know that others sort of know, in their own way, what it feels like. It’s not wished on anyone. But it’s somehow comforting when someone else has been through it, too.

Don’t panic. I see them, too. They won’t hurt you. It’s a little frightening, now that we know they exist. Yeah, this means we’ve seen some shit.

To my friend and newest member, may your heart ride with winged horses, above the deep, low valleys of sadness that exist between you now, and you years from now, when it hurts a little less. I love you.

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People skills

I do have fucking people skills, goddamnit. I understand Tom Smykowski’s frustration in Office Space, I really do. If you haven’t seen this gem of a movie, I highly recommend you view it as soon as humanly possible, especially if you work in an office environment. It may be outdated and nearly 15 years old but it’s still as relevant today as when it was written.

My people skills were the reason I was given the challenges of a couple strained relationships with clients at work (see my post on being set up to fail here). Apparently, despite being an introvert, I have a reputation around the office of being outgoing, approachable, and contributory to a positive work environment. Little do they know, I’m actually a real asshole sometimes. I actually genuinely abhor dealing with people even on my best days. Let’s just keep that between you and me, OK?

When you dislike something so much, and when your natural inclination is toward comfortable solitude as a result of being an only child, you often get thrown into the deep end of the social pool and forced to interact with others. My mother would tell me to go call people and say hi. She supported my interaction in a youth group for girls to get to build friendships in my formative years. I was forced to learn to deal with neuroses and thus, developed “people skills” from a young age.

I really have to wonder what would qualify a legitimate selfish asshole to have wonderful people skills. So I did a little research to break it down. Let’s see what people skills really mean. By the way, I openly admit here to having to do research despite taking a communications course in college, as I have fried all the brain cells relevant to that class, which I can neither confirm nor deny showing up to drunk multiple times, including the final group presentation.

The first and possibly most important component of people skills is communication. This is the ability to take in information, clarify comments and participate in effective verbal and written exchanges. Communication isn’t just developing your own message and getting it across. It involves active listening to others and the messages they are sending. There are words, but there is also so much more: eye contact, body language, verbal and nonverbal cues, and facial expressions to name a few. The goal of the communication must be acknowledged between the parties – are they or you there to motivate, to persuade, or simply just to provide information?

Communication skills, written, verbal, and nonverbal, require a level of empathy to be effective. We are all human beings (unless you, like me, also engage in full two-sided conversations with your cats and dogs), and at the core of this humanity is our emotions, mental state, and the “space” we occupy at the time of the communication. Empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is the ability to have a visceral understanding of what another person is going through. Sympathy is not empathy – you can have sympathy for someone whose father passed away, as you can imagine, even if your own father has not passed away. Someone who is empathetic may have also had their father pass away, and gets it just that little bit more because they have shared in that experience. Empathy requires putting yourself in another person’s shoes and recognizing the thoughts, emotions and experiences that person is having. This is where the golden rule comes in – treat people how you’d like to be treated. If someone is having a hard day, maybe soften the communication a bit if you think it will land badly with the person with whom you’re speaking.

In my career, I’ve had some amazing examples at how to suck at giving hard feedback. There have been times I’ve been passed over for promotion, or really screwed up on a project, and I didn’t take the feedback very well as a result of the way it was communicated to me. When you think about the impact you want your feedback/constructive criticism to have, you want the person to take it on board, digest it, and then work hard to show improvement in this space. You need to word it and deliver it in a way that makes the person feel like righting that wrong is achievable, and that they feel supported to try again. If you really want your feedback to fall on deaf ears and come across as a douchebag, then you just go ahead and be blunt, don’t think about the head space that person is in, and just drop the bomb and run. Congratulations, you’ve learned how to be unsuccessful at managing people and “how to lose friends and alienate people” (that too, is a great movie).

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Some people are completely incapable of empathy. There is a level of emotional intelligence required to monitor not only other’s emotions, but your own. Have you ever met someone with a high EQ, or a great inclination toward emotional intelligence? They seem to know their own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals, and then take it a step further to recognize their impact on others.

If you work in management, as I do, a huge part of development and application of people skills means having a proclivity for conflict resolution. This is a HUGE part of my responsibility at work. Daily, I find myself mediating disputes and resolving conflict among customers and colleagues. This is where your internal lawyer/mediator needs to come out. You have to have the ability to clarify a specific dispute, not get emotional or take it personally, and listen in a non-judgmental manner to both perspectives. The whole point of conflict resolution is to offer suggestions for reaching an equitable compromise and demonstrate a willingness to work together to resolve the issue. Everyone wants the issue gone. Holding on to grudges, grievances, and getting emotionally invested to only get your way will never resolve the conflict, and simply wastes everyone’s time. The key here is while you may be burning, nay, fuming, on the inside, you can’t be aggressive, and for it to work, both sides need to win. While I may have a knack for conflict resolution from years of experience, it doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d rather have no conflict to resolve. Why can’t we all just get along?

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I think the biggest underlying skill necessary for conflict resolution is patience. Patience is something I still continue to struggle with today. My latest temper tantrum when I ran out of patience was not pretty. Let’s just say I got quite vocal and verbal about the fat neon white guy blocking my perfect Yosemite picture. I was incapable of maintaining an even temper, to repeat and explain information as necessary, and to control anger in even the most trying situations. The anger won, but hey, I got my shot. So I won too. Patience requires self-awareness and self-regulation – you need to adapt to changing circumstances whilst redirecting disruptive or unproductive emotions.

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Finally, people skills include tolerance. You must have the ability to accept differences, even when you don’t personally agree with or condone them. As an out and proud lesbian in the San Francisco community, tolerance is a dirty word, because to me, it means you don’t really embrace the person’s difference, you just put up with it. I’ve learned, though, that not everyone’s differences need to be embraced. When someone is wrong, I have learned to let it go and not feel the need to convince them they’re wrong. I just sit quietly and let them marinate in their wrongness. I tolerate their wrong point of view, and move on with my life. It’s not ideal, and I’d love to embrace them. They aren’t going to change though, or at least, I can’t change them. So it’s ok to just tolerate in this instance.

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In all of this, I would say people skills require building relationships built on honesty, comfort, familiarity, respect, and trust. While sometimes I’d love to live an insular life, impervious to idiots and difficult people, I simply can’t. Hrmph. People. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em.