Why don’t we ask people we care about how we can be better with them?

October 11, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog

Another leadership coach, Marshall Goldsmith, asked a question during a presentation:

At your jobs you ask your clients and managers how you can do better. Do you ask your spouse, family members, or other people you care about if you can be a better spouse/mother/father/etc.? If not, why not?

Marshall has no problem connecting your professional and personal lives. I hope you don’t. This topic is as much about professional relationships as personal. As, for that matter, it is about your relationship with yourself.

Before looking at the attendees’ responses, consider yours. Do you want to be a better spouse/mother/father/daughter/son/etc for the people you care about? Do you ask them how you could? If not, how do you expect to? Also if not, do you want them to be better for you?

After writing their responses I’ll write the response I thought of. I bet it resonates with a lot of people.

First I’ll note I’m using Marshall’s terminology, but I prefer not to use the terms better and worse. To me, asking “how can I be a better person” is too vague to help and asks for judgment, which people don’t often like to express. Besides, there is no absolute or abstract definition of goodness for any relationship role that everyone agrees on. It seems to me you don’t want to conform to an abstract property. You want the person to like you, to feel emotional reward from your participation in their life. I suggest as a more effective question than “How can I be a better spouse/mother/father/etc.” something based on the emotions they feel from you, like

  • How can I make you happier?
  • What behaviors would you like to see more or less of from me?
  • What behaviors did you enjoy, like, or dislike from me in the past?
  • What do other people do that you wish I did?
  • What do other people not do that you wish I didn’t do?

Now you’re asking about them and what they like. I find these questions more specific and therefore easier to answer, likely making the answers easier to act on. You don’t have to act on them. I expect simply asking about the other person will show you care, if nothing else. You can follow up these questions with more, to understand them better. Who doesn’t like to feel understood?

Anyway, Marshall asked it as he did and people understood the question.

Common answers

People responded to Marshall’s question “Why do we not ask ‘How can I be a better spouse/father/mother/friend/etc’ at home” as follows

  • We don’t want to be accountable (Marshall said this might be the deepest answer)
  • Deep down inside we’re afraid of the answers
  • We don’t want to hear the answers
  • Ego
  • It implies we need to change
  • We’re afraid of criticism
  • It tells the world I’m not perfect
  • We’re too arrogant to be vulnerable

Those answers make sense to me. I think they contribute, but I think they miss something.

An important answer I didn’t see

To some it may seem too obvious to mention, but for many I think not stating it explicitly denies them awareness.

I think we often don’t ask how we could change because we want to be understood, supported, and cared for for who we are. I see this reason as different from not wanting to change, fear, protecting vulnerabilities, and the like. Some may call it childish, selfish, or infantile.

I don’t.

Why this answer matters

I think it’s one of the most fundamental feelings we probably all have. We want people to like us for ourselves. Sure, we want to make people we care about happy and don’t mind changing in some ways, but that doesn’t decrease our desire to be cared for for ourselves. The more we change ourselves for others, the less they can understand us for ourselves, especially if we succeed in changing that part of us. We might have liked it. The other person might have liked that part of us too, even if they anticipated liking the you they wanted more.

If you disagree, maybe we think and feel differently. For those who agree, to deny this basic feeling lowers our self-awareness, one of the most important elements of changing ourselves since, if we don’t know where we are, it’s harder to get where we want to go.

Then again, just asking someone how you could change for them doesn’t oblige you to change. You could use what you learn about what your partner wants to start a new direction of communication and understanding without necessarily changing yourself, which your partner might appreciate as much or more than the change they said they wanted.

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