You’re Not the Boss

When I argue against another person’s position on an issue, or against her general worldview, I’m not just telling her that she’s wrong: I’m telling her that I’m her superior. She must do and think as I say. Her life must be lived by my rules.

Do you like to be told what to do or to think?

Neither do I. Neither does she.

Nobody wants to be bossed around. Nobody wants to be told how to live life.

On the contrary, people want to choose. They come to embrace ideas as they find them useful, sweet, or joy-inducing. No matter the actual process of changing one’s mind, in hindsight we credit ourselves with voluntarily finding a better way.

I’ve never heard someone rejoice that he had been badgered into changing his viewpoint against his will. 

So, if I desire to win some to my cause, rather than lecturing or scolding, my attitude must be one of demonstration and invitation. Demonstration is merely the joyful, purposeful way I live my life. Invitation implies: “Come in! The water’s fine.”

The Play’s the Thing

If you go to see a play, one of the things you may not notice right away, is that the best playwrights rarely craft dialogue that says directly what the characters are thinking. In fact, when a character does say exactly what he means, actors, directors and writers often describe the line as “on the nose” — an amateur tactic to be avoided.

The vast majority of a character’s lines dance around the main issue. They talk about other things as a proxy for what they really mean to say. The use misdirection both to obfuscate and to reveal. Body language and movement speak volumes. The words themselves often say little about the real issues at stake.

Playwrights do this because people do this.

We argue about one thing, when we’re really upset about something else. We remain silent when our hearts and minds overflow with a torrent of emotion. We spout off when we have nothing to say, just to release the pressure.

In a play, each character is on a journey which has a beginning, a middle and an end. At a certain point, the protagonist clashes with the antogonist and the outcome hangs in the balance, until it’s resolved in a way that’s both surprising and obvious. A script editor first wants to know, “Whose story is it?” and “Where are we in the hero’s journey?”

But in real life, we don’t often know where we are in the story — or even whose story it is. We always think it’s our story, but we often also play a part in another person’s drama. The sooner we understand this, the more useful we can become on that hero’s journey…and thus on our own. 

Every other character the hero meets either aids him or restrains him from accomplishing his goal, even when he doesn’t yet realize the nature of that goal. 

Why all of this talk of plays and dialogue?

Because your entire life is an unscripted play. You will experience many a conflict, and many resolutions of those conflicts, but perhaps not enough happy ones. Yet like a playwright, you and I must understand that people can change, but they rarely do so because they’re told to change. 

They change because they choose a better future. You can be an accelerant, or an obstacle, to that change. 

The ideas that induce such change rarely get stated overtly. People do not speak in Powerpoint…or talking points. Dialogue is rarely “on the nose.” 

Real people talk about real life, and little by little, who we are leaks out, either as a refreshing aroma, or a stench. Usually, it’s a bit of both. 

My point here is two-fold…

  1. Don’t take another person’s words at face value.
  2. Don’t lecture with your own words.

First, to avoid taking another person’s words literally, you must listen in the gaps. You must ask whether the current topic of discussion is really the subject that concerns him. Often, his words are a proxy for something else he’s afraid to say, or for which he can’t formulate a proper sentence. While everyone thinks he says what he means, we rarely do. 

Caution: When you come to realize that most people are talking about something other than the apparent topic, the temptation is to call them on it — to render your own “on the nose” assessment of what’s really eating at them. This is often executed with a triumphal flourish, as if you could see through their charade. One should avoid doing so in almost every situation. My attempt to unmask what you really mean can come across as an accusation of dishonesty. 

Instead, when I realize what you’re really getting at, I should do my best to stay in your zone, and discuss the issue obliquely, and without guile. At some point, the other person inevitably breaks, and says what’s really the bother. Let him do it at his own pace, and in his own time. 

Second, because real people avoid directness, you and I should avoid the lecture. Dogmatism doesn’t sell well even in the college lecture hall. Stories about my own experience work much better. By appearing to go off on a tangent with a personal story, we actually invite the other person to consider a new idea, without a lecture.

Stories fascinate, engage and invite. Yet even here, we struggle. We feel that every story must have a moral, and that point must be stated in plain language. 

I find it ironic that many thousands of sermons have been preached to explain what Jesus meant in a parable. The omniscient Lord of creation, who fashioned humans in his own image, chose to tell stories that often left the listener to consider the motives of the characters and the reasons for the outcome. Yet we feel we must clarify what Jesus was “trying to say.”

To be sure, Jesus sometimes nailed it down at the end, usually in response to questions from his befuddled disciples. But often he would just float the story out there, then turn on his heel and leave us to contemplate. 

The parable is a powerful tool — one that rarely requires another tool to finish the job. 

The way to avoid appearing arrogant and bossy, is to avoid dogmatic lecture.

The other person is right: you are NOT the boss of her.

Be a friend. Tell a story. Invite her in .