Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Dressing down

A recent swathe of adverse comments reminded me of an incident from my first job, in a merchant bank. After some initial training, I was placed in the treasury function. I speculate that this decision was based on my maths degree rather than personal aptitude! The dealing room was an alien world. Thankfully, some kindly-disposed ‘old hands’ helped me learn the ropes.

The details surrounding a ‘dressing down’ elude me now. Broadly, I’d been asked to do some sums for the boss, and had made a mistake. His condemnation of my work ended with: ‘this means I can’t trust any of your calculations’. That evening, being driven to Devon for the weekend, I sobbed the whole way. An error had been turned into a character defect – truly a ‘dress down’ Friday.

This tale says more about the flawed reasoning of my boss than my arithmetical reliability, and yet most of us generalise like this from time to time, escalating a single act to an ‘always’ or ‘never’ attribute. A lone example of kindness defines a kind person, a solitary discrepancy in a story implies a lie, and the teller becomes a liar. In making such inferences, we lose sight of someone’s wholeness, which usually encompasses being both generous and mean, both truthful and inaccurate.

Both/and is part of being human: I’m often considerate, yet sometimes not; mostly I’m candid, and occasionally I’m not. In overlooking the light and shade in each other, we simplify human complexities and inconsistencies. For example, we create an air-brushed positive image of someone, and then feel disappointed when they don’t live up to our (undisclosed) expectations. While this process is integral to being human, if I bring it into awareness, I’m more likely to question my mental constructs when I experience frustration or dissatisfaction towards others.

When I find myself mentally ‘dressing down’ a friend or associate, I draw on a Chinese parable, adapted from ‘The Te of Piglet’ (Hoff):

‘A man dug a well beside a road. Grateful travellers hailed the Wonderful Well.
One night someone fell into the well and drowned. People avoided the Dangerous Well.
Later, it transpired that the drowned man was a criminal who, in trying to evade capture, met his end in the Justice-Dispensing Well.
Same well. Different views.’

The Chameleon Well encourages the practice of suspending judgment. When someone does something ‘out of character’, I wonder what caused this departure from their usual disposition. Reconnecting to their many qualities, I see them more clearly and compassionately. Alternatively, I realise I’ve misinterpreted their actions, or credited them with imaginary superpowers!

I also use the Multi-faceted Well when I feel maligned. When I’m labelled rude, boring, selfish or aloof (to name but a few), the story of the well reminds me I’ve also been called respectful, pioneering, generous or warm.

Same Amanda. Different views. All partial.

This is not to excuse occasions when I have been combative, thoughtless or arrogant (to name a few more), but the parable prompts me to explore the substance of any ‘charges’, and to recall I can be conciliatory, thoughtful, modest. This balance helps me discern whether the dressing down is warranted. If so, I accept with grace and learn. If not, I’m learning to accept…and smile.

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