“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.
That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.
I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.
What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:
“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”
The question is: Is that really true?
UNDERSTANDING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD
When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”
They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless.
By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.
When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.
WALKING IN SOMEONE’S SHOES
You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.
So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:
“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”
I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.
Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.
I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.
Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.
PERCEPTION AND PROJECTION
Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:
• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection?
• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?
• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?
It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.
Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:
“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”
And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”
Then I ask:
“Is this what the client wanted?”
“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”
“Well, did you ask?” is my response.
And then the coin drops.
You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.
“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.
“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:
“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”
“Believe me,” I answered.
“You absolutely don’t.”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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photo credit: via photopin (license)
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I’m so sorry your wife has to deal with MS. I have new friends here at the retirement community with MS, and I don’t know how they make it through the day.
And the ME/CFS that I deal with daily compares in many ways – and doesn’t in many others. Neither side would trade, mostly because of the time we’ve spent learning the accommodations needed to survive with what we have.
Ditto some of the things you’ve written about (and two friends of mine who have had strokes have talked about) – some commonalities, a lot of nasty extras.
I identify with the comments you received when you went freelance – I’ve had my share from deciding that the submission process I went through with my first novel (which I dropped when I got the obsession with the trilogy I’m working on now) was not something I was willing to continue doing.