'BE ALL YOU CAN BE' a us army recruitment slogan

“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best that they can”. Brene Brown.

I have been quite frustrated this week, and that’s just one, understated emotion:  Add in disappointment, anger, disillusionment and imagine how that played out and the picture is certainly not one of me at my best. There is nothing positive about these emotions and they appear to serve no purpose but to bring out the absolute worst in me:  So today I am reflecting on why I reacted in this way and questioning that if these emotions don’t serve me why do I succumb to them?  My negative self-talk is screaming ‘But you know better!’.  The picture in my mind’s eye of my voice raised, nostrils flaring, reading the riot act – it’s a version of myself that I would prefer never to show up.  At the time I labelled it ‘passion’; now I’m thinking ’poor judgement’. 

In Brene Brown’s book ‘Dare to Dream’, she talks about the assumption of positive intent which basically means choosing to believe the best of people and trusting that they have good intentions. She says when she works from this assumption her life is intrinsically better because it keeps her out of judgement and lets her focus on what is and not what should or could be.

At work there is so much misunderstanding, chaos, and tension because of thinking that the other person is stupid, out to get you or they should ‘be’ a specific way.  If you really dig deeply into toxic work cultures and rotten relationships, you will often find that bad assumptions are at the root.  Tell-tale signs are suspicion, backbiting, score-settling.  Now before you accuse me of being all Pollyanna-ish, I accept that there are some people who are rotten, dishonest, vindictive etc. but most people are simply stressed, or clumsy with their words, or innocently screwing up.

In her book Brene talks about running an exercise in her leadership workshops where she asks people to write down the name of someone who fills them with frustration, disappointment or resentment and then poses the question “what if you accept that the person is doing the best that they can?  One man doing the exercise with her tried this, and subsequently had an outpouring of emotion.   “Then I am a total jerk,” he told the group.  He went on “if he is doing the best that he can, I’m a total jerk and need to stop harassing him and start helping him.”

This week I wasn’t working from the assumption that people are doing their best. My default position was pushing and grinding on what I saw as under-performance, complaining about the same issues that have been going on and on. Instead of dealing with the more difficult task of teaching the team, reassessing their skill gaps, reassigning them or letting them go.

It constantly amazes me that I am always in training – and I am referring to my own training because I know this stuff.  I can practically recite the principles of ‘The Four Agreements’, which is one of my favourite books by Dan Miguel, where a key principle and what he calls ‘a simple truth’ is that everyone is doing the best that they can with the resources they have.  He says that adopting this belief will radically change your relationship with yourself and others.  This idea has been explored by lots of religious, spiritual, and wellness practitioners and I have got the message a thousand times.  As Deepak Chopra said, “People are doing the best that they can from their own level of consciousness.”  Despite this not being new to me how easily I forget and slip into a version of myself which is anything but my best.

I first came across this concept when I was doing my Masters in Coaching Psychology. We were taught that to be a good coach you had to believe that people were doing their best; otherwise, you couldn’t do your job effectively.  At first, it’s a hard concept to swallow especially in a culture that constantly urges us to do more, to be better, and to excel, so “I’m doing the best that I can” sounds a bit like complacency, an excuse for coasting.  But gradually I started to understand it from a deeper – and deeply personal -perspective.

Managing my mental health throughout the years, specifically depression and anxiety, has sometimes been very difficult, especially when the high achiever in me would get in the way with his negative self-talk about successful people not feeling this way or that I was weak.  I realised this was futile because there is very little I can do when I get a case of the blues. Over time and with a greater appreciation for compassion and how essential it is for good mental health, I have learnt to accept that what I can expect from myself some days is not getting two tenders completed, attending client meetings, and dealing with my bank manager on my overdraft, or even just one of those things.  I have internalized that some days I will lie on my bed, unapologetically and binge watch a Netflix series because in that moment that is my absolute best, because of what I am dealing with and I now know that sometimes I must give myself permission not to do more, not to be better.  Have you any idea what a relief that is?

As Miguel says, “Our abilities in any given moment depend entirely on our inner resources, and our inner resources are constantly in a state of flux depending on our emotions (pain, stress, anxiety, fear), our physicality (sickness, ailments, how much sleep we got), our histories (the habits we’ve adopted, the trauma we’ve experienced, the socialisation we’ve internalized), and so much more.”  When we consider everything that affects our capacity to show up as we’d like to be, we realize how narrow-minded our negative self-talk is.  We also begin to understand that everyone comes from a wildly complex, diverse array of experiences, and that comparisons among us are not only useless but, as the axiom states’, ‘odious.

So, I am cutting myself some slack.  When I make mistakes, I’ll try again tomorrow – to be better because that’s what trying your best looks like.  I am not the perfect manager, I’m still in training, still making mistakes.  I can take to my bed or perhaps I will comfort myself in the knowledge that as Miguel says ‘If you just do your best, there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment.’

Going to do better at not expecting better from here onwards!