I did something nice for a stranger. Twenty minutes later, I regretted it.
by Kern Beare
I was flying home after facilitating my Difficult Conversations workshop at Idaho State University. It was the first leg of my return journey, a puddle-jump on a small turbo-prop from Pocatello to Seattle. It was a short flight, but long enough to teach me something.
During the boarding process, I had switched seats with a fellow traveler. I’d reserved an aisle seat, 14A, but the person who reserved 14B, the window seat, asked if we could switch places. I didn’t want to, but I could see she’d find the aisle more comfortable, so I agreed.
Twenty minutes into the flight, I started to regret my act of kindness. I was feeling cramped, and frustrated that I couldn’t stretch my legs. Regret soon morphed into resentment, and I began to stew. Why had she asked to switch? If I’d wanted the window seat, I’d have reserved the window seat! And she’s not even that much bigger than me, she would have been fine sitting in the window seat!
I let this fruitless internal dialogue rage on for a minute or two, and then finally interrupted myself long enough to point out that I was undoing any personal benefit I might have received from being a nice person. Rather than the positive vibes that come with being considerate of others, I was encasing myself in the emotional equivalent of barbed wire – every resentful thought a painful poke at my insides.
So, taking a lesson from my workshop, I decided to refocus my attention and looked out the window to the vista below. At that point we were flying over the snow-capped Sawtooth mountain range, and I impulsively tapped my seatmate on the shoulder and pointed to the beautiful view outside. She removed the earphones she’d been using and gazed out the window.
Looking out the window together gave us a chance to chat a bit, which opened another window, one that gave me a small glimpse into her life. She’d been in Pocatello over the Mother’s Day weekend to watch her grandchild so that her daughter, a single mother, could get some rest. Now she was headed back to Seattle where a full week of work awaited her. I could tell she was tired. A busy mother helping another busy mother over Mother’s Day. It was a little sad – where were the men who should be celebrating them? – but also moving. By the end of this short conversation my resentment was gone. I felt good about my decision to switch seats, glad that after a tiring few days she at least had a more comfortable ride home.
This little episode reaffirmed for me the value of two related principles I talk about in my workshop: the importance of prioritizing the relationship over being right, and being able to see beyond our own story. Focusing just on my grievances — my ‘story’ — only amplified my discomfort and resentment. Focusing on the relationship forced me to widen my lens, to see beyond my story to take in the humanity of the other person – and to let that have a bearing, an influence, not only on how I saw the situation, but also on how I felt about it, and on how I responded.
A Hindu parable, recently sent to me by a friend, makes a similar point in perhaps a more memorable way:
An aging master grew tired of his apprentice complaining, and so, one morning, sent him for some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and drink it.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Bitter” said the apprentice, spitting it out.
The master then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. After the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man told him to drink from the lake.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Fresh” said the apprentice.
“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.
“No,” said the young man.
At this, the master sat beside the young man, and said, “The pain of life is pure salt. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container that holds it. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”
In a difficult conversation, seeing beyond our story and strengthening the relationship is how we turn a glass into a lake. It reduces our bitter (salty) feelings toward the ‘other’ by ‘enlarging our sense of things,’ making us more compassionate, more responsive and, yes, even more happy.
Kern Beare is the founder of the Difficult Conversations Projectand the author of Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together.