Last week I was the new kid in a new environment, completely out of my element. I was sitting in a meeting of the local gem and mineral club and was looking through a hand lens at a rock specimen. A woman at the front of the room said, "Put the lens up to your eye and bring the rock up to it." Suddenly a flash of anger shocked through my body and, while I managed to shut my mouth, I'm sure my body language telegraphed my negative reaction.
I was shocked at the intensity of my feeling ... like standing at the blackboard in the second grade with the teacher scolding me for my wrong answer to a math question. As I thought about it later, I heard a little genie sitting on my shoulder asking, "Perhaps it's time to do a little self-examination?" So, when I received the latest issue of the New and Improved newsletter with its article about the Four Agreements, I particularly homed in on "Don't take anything personally." What I had felt was a personal attack, a reminder of my incompetencies, was simply one person trying to help another and my insecurities got in the way of building a relationship.
Mary Bartlett has generously allowed us to reprint her article. You can subscribe to the newsletter at
Four Agreements Applied to Work Relationships
by Mary Bartlett, New & Improved,
In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz outlines four essential codes of conduct that can be of significant value when used as directed in a consciously applied program of mental hygiene and regular professional care ... PLUS you’ll have fewer (mental) cavities.
The Four Agreements gives us direction about what WE can do to respond appropriately to difficult behaviors and make our work relationships run more smoothly. They are deceptively simple, yet are rather difficult to apply. However, with mindful and diligent practice, they are utterly effective.
1. Be impeccable with your word -- Nothing brings out the gators more at work than someone who says one thing and does another. So yes, of course, you’re not going to lie, cheat, steal, gossip, backstab, or rummage through someone’s desk while they’re on vacation -- are you? But, this agreement goes deeper than that. It also means honor your word literally. Being mindful of the words you speak means making statements in the positive, being who you say you are, and letting go of any fake persona you may be presenting to the world. When your colleagues know you are on the "up and up," that you’re willing to own up to your mistakes, ask questions, and be who you say you are, they are more willing to hear you out, and work through any real or imagined slight or conflict brewing in the ideation room. You’re someone who people want to stay in relationship with and they're willing to do the work to do so when it gets a little rough.
2. Don’t take anything personally -- Guess what? It has nothing to do with you. While none of us likes to admit it, most of us think we’re the center of the universe. When something negative happens, our first thoughts relate to something we said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do that caused the negativity or conflict. We replay the mental "tape" to find out if we’re to blame. In the process, we forget our learning from Psych. 101, which says that when someone reacts negatively to us, or to a situation, it is a mirror of some unresolved issue that person is dealing with themselves. But what if a colleague’s negative behavior is meant as a personal assault? All the more reason to not take it personally!
A case in point. One partner at N&I, who shall remain anonymous -- hint: the name is a palindrome -- was a newly hired trainer and worked for months with a colleague who did everything possible to make his (the palindrome’s) life miserable. The colleague gave unhelpful feedback, undermined him in front of trainees, and shot down all his ideas. But the palindrome just smiled and focused on the positive. He didn’t react because he knew his colleague was angry and threatened that he (the palindrome) had been hired. And the guy was a good trainer with mastery of the content that our young palindrome was learning. Did it resolve the conflict? Well, they never became friends, but they were able to work together productively after about 6 months By not reacting, the palindrome made the most of a difficult situation. Even more to the point, didn’t make it worse. And today, the palindrome is able to rest confident that he behaved well, rather than doing something he regrets.
3. Make no assumptions -- We usually assume the worst ... and because our thoughts create our moment-to-moment reality ... we act as though our assumptions are the truth. We all know not to, but do we ever consciously try to catch ourselves making assumptions and correct them? To understand the impact of assumptions on conflict, we have to ask ourselves where assumptions come from and why we make them. When we assume, we’re working only with the data we have in our own mind, and quite frequently that data is incomplete, if not flat out wrong. And because that data leads us to assume a conflict, we imagine a conversation directed at clarifying that data as one leading to a conflict. So, we avoid the conversation, and behave as if our incomplete and unverified data is "reality." This is another case of "thought creating reality" even when that reality could be radically altered by a different (more complete) data set.
How simple this could be, but how risky really to admit to and initiate the conversation. You might be surprised at how receptive people can be to someone who -- from a genuine place of "here’s what I was thinking" -- is willing to admit to their assumptions and be willing to move on. I once worked with an organization where a managing leader was making some rather negative and wrong assumptions about the staff. During a staff debriefing, when these assumptions came to light and the staff had a safe place to discuss it, the manager was able to apologize and gained new respect from her staff. Will it always turn out this way? Probably not, but who are we to assume? Why not just ask?
4. Always do your best -- "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty" Sounds like the Boy Scout Oath? Well yes, and the Scouts have a great history of success as an organization, so why not learn from them? When we put forward our best effort, and our colleagues know they can rely on us, they are much more likely to hear us out. When we’re doing our best we are fully engaged in our task, we have passion for the work and best of all, it doesn’t even really feel like work! Doing our best brings out the best in others and that’s a sure-fire recipe for innovation.
So, how do you get there from here? If you have roadblocks lurking around every corner you may think it’s impossible or even naïve to practice these four behaviors. And it may be true that all four -- all at once -- is a pretty big stretch. So how about taking it one at a time? You can use mindfulness (our capacity to be aware of our behavior) to watch yourself and catch yourself in the act, of making assumptions, taking things personally, stretching the truth, putting forth a half-baked effort.
Focus on one behavior, for one day. When you catch yourself -- and you will -- take a mental step back and think, "In what ways might I remedy this situation?" Sometimes, it’s a relatively simple thing to adjust your behavior. As you become more proficient in your behavior change, you might be amazed to notice all those difficult, conflict-filled time wasters becoming fewer and fewer and your productive, innovative, idea-generating sessions becoming greater and greater. Better yet, it gives you something productive to do: rather than trying to change the other person (good luck!), you’re able to make an impact on something you can really change. You. And to that we say a genuine, "good luck!" Mary ... firstname.lastname@example.org