Winning at the Edge of Thought: Pragmatic Philosophical Dialogues // Today’s Dialogue: To Get What I Really Want I Must Change (Irvin D. Yalom)

My last blog post in this series discussed my conversations with noted philosopher and author Peter Koestenbaum about Irvin D. Yalom’s quote, “Only I can change the world I created.” Thanks to all who took the time to respond. Following is a sample of the responses I received:

“At the bottom of the rationale is human consciousness, and the argument stands by that human consciousness creates reality, which I agree with but not in the reductionist perspective presented. The perspective presented follows the rationale that every individual can create their own reality based on their particular beliefs; this is based on the premise that there is only human consciousness regarding reality and that is the flaw.”

“We, your clients and colleagues, are hungry for this kind of truth and sanity. Looking forward to the next chapter.”

Now on to my discussion with Peter about the Yalom quote that is the subject of this post: “To Get What I Really Want I Must Change.”

At the heart of this quote are the notions of choice and responsibility. It’s so much easier to wait around for the other person to change. All the while blaming them–or the organization–for the situation or experience. If you are lucky, the changes you want may happen without you doing anything; if you are unlucky, well…

At age forty-eight I had emergency triple bypass surgery. I was faced with the fact that bypass grafts at that time only lasted on average for ten years. I soon realized that if I wanted to get what I really wanted–to live longer than ten years–I had to make changes in my diet, the way I exercised, and how I managed the stress of daily living. I chose to follow the program outlined by Dean Ornish which required adopting a low fat, vegetarian diet as well as exercise and stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation. Through the years I’ve made changes to this program and I now follow a Mediterranean diet, along with continuing to exercise and practice a variety of stress management techniques. And 26 years later I’m still here! At my most recent stress test, my doctor remarked, “Your heart is testing normal.”

I’m sharing this story not to say “look what I did,” rather to make the point that I was the only one who could make these changes. No one could do it for me and I couldn’t do it alone. The support I received from my wife and partner Emily, family, and friends made it easier for me to make and implement these choices, but they could not make these choices for me.

At a Virginia Satir workshop I once attended, Satir described the “games” that happen in human relationships and an alternative to blaming the other person and expecting them to change. Games according to Satir are patterns in human relationships where you know how it is going to start and you know how it is going to end. And you also know what is going to happen in between. Each player in the game knows the other player’s moves and can predict what will happen as a result. Let’s take the weekly staff meeting (that everyone loves to hate) as an example.

In most organizations, meeting participants hold the leader accountable for the success or failure of the staff meeting. This is in itself an escape from responsibility for what happens in the meeting. The leader pushes through an agenda that attempts to accomplish too much in too short a time. As the leader drones on, participants worry about their “real” work which is left unattended. At some point, someone derails the discussion and the group follows a non-productive diversion. Then a group member goes off on a tangent and monopolizes the discussion. As the meeting closes, people rush off to their next meeting and more of the same.

Now let’s suppose you are tired of boring, time-wasting, energy-sapping meetings. The fastest way to create change is to become an investor in the meeting’s success instead of being a passive bystander.

For example:

  • If you have ideas about how to improve the meeting, you can offer your suggestions to the meeting leader.
  • You can engage people during the meeting by asking what they think about the subject.
  • If the meeting is off course, you can ask, “Is this what we really need to be talking about now?”
  • If there is non-productive conflict during the meeting, you can say something like, “I’d really like to hear what other people are saying.”
  • Instead of going to a meeting telling yourself it will be a waste of time, ask yourself what you can do to help make the meeting successful.

These ideas may or may not work in your meetings. Each meeting is different, with its own cast of characters and issues. The point is that the meeting will continue to be ineffective unless you as a meeting leader or as a meeting participant decide to change your behavior during the meeting. Instead of waiting for others to change, you must change. If you are not interested in making your meetings more productive, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Posted in Change Management.