Trying to Improve…Anything? What You Must Do First

Change is hard.

(There’s no point in sugar coating what we already know to be true.)

But do you know why change can be so hard? Because, in our efforts to move forward, we forget that the most important step starts backward. Looking backward that is.

We can’t make any change for the positive until we first look back at the negative habits that led us to where we are now. The point of this isn’t to berate ourselves, but rather to educate ourselves.

What were you doing that led to this point? If you can’t answer that question, you can’t move forward…

Taking a Look Backward In Order to Move Forward

When we so badly want to make a positive change in our lives, we often want to ignore everything that happened up to this point. We all have habits that are cringeworthy in retrospect, so we tell ourselves –

Let’s not think about that. I just won’t ever do it again.

Or –

Ack. Okay, okay, it’s okay. It happened but I’m going to be better from now on. MOVING on now.

You get the idea. We all have an internal dialogue that basically says, “No thanks, I really don’t want to relive that moment. And I don’t have to because I’m not going to do that again. I’ll be better from now on! That was just a bad moment…”

Except that it’s rarely just a bad moment. We often repeat the cringeworthy habit (over and over again). This traps us on a path paved by the best intentions, but it’s a path that leads back to the same old behavior.

If you’re trapped in a behavior you don’t like, you have to look backward before you can move forward. You must evaluate what’s causing the habit in order to break it.

Before you can make any positive change, you must first stop doing what’s not working.

The question is, how can you look backward without beating yourself up or wallowing in a pit of shame?

Temporarily Suspend Emotions with Logic and Empathy

The reason it’s so hard to look back at moments we don’t like is because we’re embarrassed. It doesn’t even matter if we talk to someone else about it – we still feel embarrassed.

Think about it this way: Have you ever tripped on a crack when walking down the sidewalk? You immediately look around to see if anyone saw it – but even if there was no one else around, there’s still a good chance that your cheeks turned red in momentary embarrassment.

When we know we made a mistake, we feel embarrassed – even if no one else saw the mistake.

The beauty of this is that it happens to everyone. You can’t prevent yourself from having that fleeting moment of shame at first, but you can redirect that emotion it into something more constructive with logic and empathy.

Let yourself feel the momentary shame, but then tell yourself to dial it down. Put it in your back pocket: “Okay, that sucked. Now let’s look at why it happened.”

Since this blog is all about creating stronger interpersonal connections, let’s look at a communication mishap for example:

Perhaps you have a challenged relationship with your boss, such that nearly every communication is forced. Your boss walks in and asks you about a project that you’re well under way on and that isn’t due for another few days. Due to past experiences, you feel your boss is micromanaging you out of a lack of trust that you’ll get the project done.

So you respond in a snarky or sarcastic tone. Your boss meets your tone with more micromanagement. By the time your boss leaves, you want to chuck your project out the window. But you also know that you made a mistake in speaking to your boss the way you did.

When your boss leaves, your anger could quickly dissipate into shame and then fear. “I am so going to get fired, “ you think. “How long will I get away with talking to my boss that way??”

This is not a fun moment to look back on, so you probably tell yourself you won’t be so snarky next time and then dig back into work. Except that it most certainly will happen next time.

This is an example of a behavior cycle, and it can play on repeat for years if you let it. So let’s see what happens if you move beyond the emotion into logic and empathy.

After you boss leaves, you stop for a minute and think about what happened. Maybe your boss is a micromanager, but how did your boss get that way? It could be a personality trait or it could be a result of experiences with other employees. Perhaps your boss has a history of managing employees that require multiple check-ins in order to get a project done. That’s not your fault, but your boss can’t help but think that’s how people are. So your boss does what he or she thinks is necessary to get the job done.

But you’re at a place where you might be thinking, “My boss should know better. I’ve never NOT gotten a project done on time.” That may be true, but have you ever had the liberty of doing a project without your boss’ micromanagement? If the answer is no, then look at it from your boss’ point of view:

“Of course so and so gets the project done on time every time. It’s because I always check in and make sure it happens.”

Your boss could be stuck in a vicious cycle. He or she micromanages. The project gets done. No matter that you’d have gotten it done anyway, your boss has never seen the situation play out like that, so he or she thinks it gets done because of the micromanagement. And on and on it goes.

Until now. Since you’re looking at the situation from your boss’ point of view in a more logical way, and you’re using empathy to help you understand where he or she is coming from, it’s much easier to strategize what to do next.

When the project is finished (and the pressure is released), you could request a meeting with your boss and talk about how you feel. Engage your empathy muscles to keep yourself in your boss’ frame of mind (I have to micromanage to get things done), and say something like:

“I know it’s very important to you that these projects are done well. I want to let you know that I’m on the same page as you, and I hope that I’m doing a good job in my role on each project. However, when you check in repeatedly, it makes me feel like you don’t trust me to get the job done. Is there anything I can do to earn more autonomy and prove to you that you can trust me to do what’s necessary?”

There’s no telling exactly how your boss will react, because everyone’s different. However, the fact that you’re starting with your boss’ point of view and what he or she values definitely increases the odds that you’ll be successful. Remember, we all want to feel understood and heard. If you can show that you understand what’s important, then your boss won’t feel the need to explain it to you – and you two can figure out a way to move forward.

This act of analyzing a situation using logic and empathy will help you create a strategy to move forward that is essentially course correcting. You’ve acknowledged that something isn’t working, and even though it’s hard to admit your own role in it (ie communicating in a sarcastic or snarky way), doing so enables you to correct that behavior and plot a new course.

No matter how hard this is, there’s an inherent beauty in this strategy: because you are aware of your own role in what is happening, you can manage your responses and feel more in control. And once you have that power, you can change the trajectory of the situation by looking back and course-correcting.

Creating a Strategy to Move Full Speed Ahead

Thinking strategically is something that takes practice. The first few times you try to do something like this, it’ll be challenging to get through the emotion and into the logic and empathy as quickly as you’d like. So if you feel yourself dwelling in that reactive, emotional feeling, take a few deep breaths and count to five.

Counting to five with deep breaths is so simple and so effective. When we slow our brains down, we can pump the breaks on our hyper-emotional reactions. Then we can stop and thoughtfully respond. Responding instead of reacting is imperative to changing your behavior – especially when other people are involved (like in interpersonal communication).

The first few times something like the above situation happens, just practice the five second pause and thoughtful response. When that becomes second nature, you’ve developed a new habit. A positive habit!

At that point, you’re ready to move forward and think strategically. Most of our communication mishaps happen on repeat. We always react to our spouse this way when they give us that look. We always react to our kids this way when talk in that tone of voice. We always react to our boss/coworker/friend this way when they say that thing.

Since these behaviors are predictable patterns, now that you’re thinking logically and empathically, you’re at an advantage to fix them. You can already guess what will happen the next time the situation occurs, and knowing this, you can plan how you want to handle it differently than the last.

But you must remember the other person’s point of view first — you’ve got to use empathy.

When someone says something that causes an emotional reaction in us, we go temporarily blind and forget that this is a person who cares about us. At that moment, all we know is that we’re hurt. We react to the hurt and act accordingly instead of remembering that the other person could be just as hurt.

Place yourself in the other person’s shoes. What could have happened in their lives to create their current behavior? Or, what could have happened in their day that day to make them do or say what they did or said? We don’t operate in a vacuum. There are a million different things that happen to us that dictate how we will react to something. When we remember that, we realize that those emotional moments aren’t always caused by the current situation, in fact they may not have much to do with the current situation at all.

Remember that the person on the other end of the communication mishap more than likely does not have it out for you. Engage your empathy muscles. Then think about how you want to thoughtfully respond and correct your behavior in the situation.

Once you’re able to feel the emotions AND quickly surpass them with logic and empathy, you can then create a strategy to improve your behavior. Once you understand your own bad habits, you can finally make a plan to fix them.

In order to move forward, you must look backward. But you don’t have to live there! Reflect, analyze, and plot out a new course. Stronger interpersonal connections are both your destination and your prize.

Image Credit: William Hook

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