On being … compared and contrasted

By Ingrid Sapona

Remember those assignments in junior high school English class where you had to write an essay “comparing and contrasting” two characters in a story? I always thought that was kind of a lame assignment – really just a way of getting us to talk about a book. But looking back, I’d have to say I’ve made more use of the compare and contrast exercises in my life than pretty much anything else we did in junior high. (Maybe others make day-to-day use of things like calculating the area of a trapezoid or lighting a Bunsen burner, who knows.)

Of course, the compare and contrast I find myself doing doesn’t involve fictional characters – it involves comparing myself to others. I’m not talking about a Keeping Up with the Joneses type of comparison in terms of wealth and power. I gave that up long ago – even before America elected a president that’s younger than me! I’m talking more about behaviours or skills that other people I meet have that seem to contribute to their success or happiness.

Usually my compare and contrast exercise starts off with me observing the other person’s behavior in a series of situations, and then realizing that I admire their way of being, or approach to things. My initial appreciation for them is usually pretty general, but if I think they’ve got a “winning” way, then I take a closer look and try to figure out some of the specific things they do. (Yes, I’m intentionally avoiding describing them as a “success” because that might be misinterpreted as being wealthy, famous, or powerful. Anyway, now that you know what I mean, from here on, if I use successful, please remember that I mean something other than money, power, or fame.)

Sometimes the things that seem to contribute to their success are innate qualities – like an ability to relate to people, or a particular artistic talent. But many times their successful behavior relates to things I’m capable of doing, but that I don’t do, or don’t do enough of. It’s probably easiest to explain through an example.

Angela (not her real name) is a career consultant I’ve gotten to know the past few years. Like me, she’s in business for herself. Angela has a lot going for her. One of the things I admire most about her is the extent to which she seems up on concepts and trends that are hot in management circles. She often refers to authors and marketing or human resources gurus who have coined certain phrases that are popular in business circles. She has a knack for describing activities and actions in a way that seems straight off the pages of the Harvard Business Review. By doing this, she seems cutting edge and current, which is valuable in today’s business world. Though I pay attention to management terminology and lingo, I don’t tend to use it (and when I do, I usually feel like a phony).

Often, the end result of my compare and contrast exercise is that I find myself lacking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it often motivates me to try to improve in whatever way I feel I’m lacking. Of course, sometimes it’s just another thing that I use to beat myself up about…

But then there are times when the exercise helps me see – and take stock in – my own strengths. Indeed, it happened just the other day in an interaction I had with Angela. She had e-mailed a marketing brochure about a service she was offering and based on the title, I determined it wasn’t something I was interested in so I deleted it. A few days later she wrote to a number of us and specifically asked for input on the brochure. It seems that after sending it out she didn’t get any response and so she realized that somehow she missed the mark.

The grace she exhibited in her follow-up e-mail asking for feedback was yet another example of why I think so much of Angela and such a sincere request deserved a thoughtful response. As soon as I re-read the title of the brochure, I remembered why I had so quickly deleted it. The title indicated the service related to developing a personal brand, and brand is a concept I can’t relate to, so I didn’t even read on. This time, however, I read more and I soon realized that the title was misleading and some of the key information was buried far down in the text. But, for me, the main problem was her injection of business buzz words in what I think most readers would see as a non-business context.

Putting together my comments to Angela about the brochure provided me with a big Ah-Ha. I realized that the previous comparison I made of my fluency with business lingo to Angela’s fluency was only half the standard compare and contrast analysis. Though I do fall short in that comparison, by contrast, my professional focus has always been on using plain language, which goes a long way toward explaining why it’s such a struggle for me to use business jargon.

So maybe those junior high school English teachers were on to something. There’s lots to be learned from those compare and contrast exercises – just be sure you remember to do both parts.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … accused of being stubborn

By Ingrid Sapona

The past few years a friend and I have participated in a team sport and have been on the same team. Our player-coach headed two teams: the Red Team, which played in the Monday league, and the Blue Team, which played in the Wednesday league. We were on the Red Team. This year the sport’s organizers decided to only have games on Thursdays. By way of e-mail, earlier this spring the coach asked us all (members of both teams) what we wanted to do, given this change.

Because my friend has another regular social engagement, she’s unavailable on Thursdays. I confided to my friend that I suspected that if the members of the Blue Team are all available on Thursdays, the coach would go with the Blue Team. My rationale was that there’s no point in splitting the teams to form a new one for Thursday nights, if one of the teams could make the switch. That’s exactly how it panned out and about a month ago the coach told us she decided to go with the Blue Team.

I completely understood (and expected) the decision and was fine with it. Indeed, I was even a bit relieved because last season there were many nights I came home after a game feeling rather beat up. After the decision was made, I shared my mild relief with my friend. Though she was less content with the decision, she understood it too, especially given her unavailability on Thursdays. After that, my friend and I talked about the fact that it might be fun to get together and do other things on Monday nights. We also agreed that if we found we really missed not playing, on any given Monday we could try to sub on other teams who might be shorthanded.

Well, just as the season was to begin, we got word that the organizers decided to go back to the old format of two leagues – one on Mondays and one on Thursdays. So, our coach e-mailed us to ask if we wanted to play on Mondays, starting in the second week of the season. Before either one of us responded to the coach, we discussed it.

Unlike my friend, who was keen to commit to playing on Mondays, I was torn. I had mentally adjusted to having the season off and I was looking forward to being able to schedule other activities on Monday nights. My friend, who wanted the two of us to commit to the team, pointed out that during the course of the season there would likely be games called off due to bad weather, so we could do something on those evenings. It was clear she wanted me to agree to play and she was irritated that I wasn’t jumping at the idea.

I then suggested a possible compromise: since the season is broken into three series, perhaps we could sit out the first series (since it was very short notice) but we could offer to play in the second and third series, if the coach wants us. Of course, as I pointed out to my friend, the risk with this “solution” is that players from the Blue Team might be willing to play on Mondays and Thursdays, in which case we may well not be needed later in the season. That was a risk I was willing to take.

Though, at first, she seemed to like my idea, it soon became clear my friend didn’t want to take that chance – she wanted to commit to the whole season. We went back and forth a few more times and when it didn’t seem we’d reach agreement, I tried to put an end to the discussion by saying we’re both entitled to our own decision. Frustrated, she then accused me of being inflexible and stubborn. The comment stung and my initial reaction was to refute the labels. But, I could understand why my not wanting to continue discussing it might have seemed stubborn to her and I didn’t think she said it to hurt me.

Instead, I explained the way I see it, which is that our disagreement really boils down to the fact that each of us simply wants to have it our way, which I think is simple human nature. The coach wanted to field as cohesive a team as she could, which is why she decided to go with the Blue Team initially. My friend wanted to be able to play on the night she was free. And I wanted to be able to sit out part of the season. Unfortunately, as my friend’s comment made it clear, it’s also human nature to get upset when you realize that the end result of everyone wanting to have it their way is that chances are no one will get 100% of what they want. But, the way I see it – even if holding fast to your decision makes you seem stubborn and ultimately means you only get some of what you want, that’s still better than agreeing to do something you don’t want to do.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona