Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Don’t be a Victim (But Don’t be an Asshole, Either)

As I was writing my article Monday, I started thinking more about the power dynamics at play in human relationships.  This doesn’t necessarily mean just romantic relationships, either; it could be the relationship you have with your boss or co-workers, or the relationship you have with friends or siblings.

Also, I realize it’s a bit of a weird topic; “power dynamics” sounds like something you should learn about in physics class, but it’s absolutely essential to understand how these things work if you’re going to be a healthy, well-balanced person.

There are two basic sides to power dynamics in any given relationship.  The first side is the victim mentality.  People that are victims think that their problems are somebody else’s fault.  They are stepped on by others far too easily, and, as a result, feel out of control of their lives.  As a result, they complain about how “their boss,” or “the company” or “their friends” are keeping them down.  What they mean is that they are too scared to put their foot down and try to realize their full potential.  Victims float through life, taking orders from others, but secretly wishing that they could do something about their situation.

On the other side of the coin are domineering assholes, a very technical term that has evolved considerably in scholarship through the ages.  Domineering assholes seek to control every aspect of other peoples’ lives, and want to impose their own will whenever possible.  They crave the feelings of power that comes with telling others what to do and how to do it, and really like exposing the victim qualities of others.

If you’re like me, you probably tend more toward victim behavior in certain situations, while probably coming across as an asshole in others.  In my life, I’ve been searching for the proper balance between these two extremes, and thought that the following pointers might be helpful to others.

Learn how to stick up for yourself by setting boundaries and managing expectations.  This one is obvious, but it can be tough for someone that has been beaten down for so long to fully grasp how they can get their life back.  You don’t need to be tormented by colleagues that demand that you drop everything to help them, especially when you have an upcoming vacation or you just want to be out of the office for a few days.  Let people know early and often that you’re going to be gone.  Let them know you’re happy to try to get projects done before you leave.  And let them know that you’ll be reachable for emergencies via e-mail and/or phone.  Do the same with time away from work—set aside one time at night to check e-mails, and keep the smartphone out of the bedroom.  Unless you’re a doctor or fireman, it’s unlikely that whatever “emergency” comes up is a true emergency, and not just some power-play by a domineering asshole.

Get used to telling people “no.”  Pleasing strangers (wait…that sounded worse than I intended it to…) or others in general can be a dangerous behavior.  Unfortunately, it’s a behavior that is socialized into us by our school system at an early age.  The next time you don’t want to do something, be firm but fair and tell whoever asks you to do it, “no.”  Be ready to say why you don’t want to do it, and also have alternative solutions ready to go. 

Stop blaming others and take responsibility for your actions.  There are very few situations in life where things are entirely out of your hands.  Too many people are too quick to point the finger at others when something doesn’t go their way.  Realize that no matter what it is, you can either wine and moan about things, or you can recognize that there’s a problem and take affirmative steps to fix it.

Don’t demand—suggest persuasively.  There are certain situations where it pays to demand more out of people.  But unless you’re on a sports team or in a military unit, in all likelihood it’s better to suggest and argue your case than to just outright demand something on a non-negotiable basis. You may hear valid reasons for doing something a different way, or you may be able to find otherwise unseen flaws in your logic, but in either case, you’ll learn more by hearing others out than just blindly sticking to a plan for no good reason.  Just remember that when it comes time to make a decision…

Learn how to make decisions swiftly and without drama.  We’ve all been in the situation where we’re in a group of people that want to go to dinner, and someone inevitably asks, “where do you want to go?”  You would think they were asking where people wanted to be buried.  The group becomes paralyzed by fear, and it takes fifteen minutes to sort out an acceptable place.  On the other hand, if you consider the alternatives ahead of time and have a few suggestions at the ready, you can drive the discussion and make a decision that will leave the rest of the group relieved.  This principle doesn’t exclusively apply to dining options; there are plenty of other similar scenarios where people don’t want to be “on the hook” for making decisions with relatively minor consequences.  Once you are willing to accept what little potential fallout there is in these situations, you will be viewed as confident and decisive, and will become someone that people will turn to.

So that’s basically it.  Have any suggestions that I missed?  Let me know in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and former attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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