I’d like to tell you a story about Lucy the dog. While married to my first husband, we owned two female German Shorthair pointers. I had not been familiar with the breed prior to owning them, and in fact, was even a little intimidated by their size and muscular build. But I immediately fell in love with them because of their gentle and lovable nature. Things were great until we decided to add a third dog into our household.
Lucy was the runt of her litter. We selected her in part, because she was so tiny and that seemed initially to only add to her adorableness. She was timid and cuddly and I carried her in my lap the whole ride home in my lap to introduce her to her new family. But almost immediately upon introducing her to the other two “girls”, we saw a side of Lucy we had not yet seen. The tiny little ball of white fur began hissing and snapping at our other two dogs almost like she was possessed. We snatched her up and tried again at different intervals with little success.
Within a day or two we took Lucy to our vet, the same one who had cared for our other dogs and knew us fairly well. Our vet checked Lucy out despite Lucy’s lack of cooperation. Our vet deemed Lucy to have a poor temperament and recommended we take her back to the breeder as soon as possible. We were stunned and confused as to why we had not seen this side of Lucy before.
Not yet willing to give up, we took Lucy to a doggie behaviorist. Yes, I’m still a little embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. I was grasping at straws about what to do with Lucy. But as it turned out, the behaviorist turned out to be incredibly smart and helpful. She told us that Lucy’s temperament was just fine. The problem as she saw it was that, Lucy was so tiny, that in the presence of two big dogs (who had obviously arrived at the party long before her and knew the routine) Lucy felt frightened and intimidated. And so, she protected herself with the only productive resource she had: hissing and growling. It’s not as if she had the skill to take either of them on in a physical fight. The behaviorist suggested we separate Lucy from the other girls until she got a little bigger and stronger before leaving them together again. We took her advice and ended up in a short time with three dogs who loved being together.
I am often reminded of this story when I work with some people. I especially recall a family from a few years ago. The husband and son viewed their wife and mother as aggressive, bitter and controlling. It was clear when we worked individually, that this woman, not only did not see herself the same, but felt rather helpless in the relationship with the other two. Similarly, a newlywed woman told me recently that, she often feels like a burden to her husband and not worthy of his time, even though he describes their relationship as her not wanting to be around him.
When I hear these types of stories, I am reminded of Lucy. It describes for me that, it is often a sense of helplessness and insignificance that fuels people into behaviors that, come across as powerful and overbearing to others. When we are the recipient of such behavior, we want to shut them down. Unfortunately, that is the very approach that reinforces their starting feeling and spawns more of the behavior from them that we don’t want. It becomes a perpetuating cycle.
The behaviorist suggested we help Lucy become bigger and stronger to feel less intimidated. It’s hard to think of how to find the willingness to do that with/for an individual that feel is already emotionally pummeling you. The key however, is to try and consider that their outward strength, may possibly be a reaction to feeling vulnerability, intimidation or fear. This shift in your thinking doesn’t require that you put them on the couch and psychoanalyze the other person. In fact, you don’t even have to be “right”. By simply shifting how you respond to the other person you interrupt the cycle. When you aren’t resisting, there is no need to keep fighting. I’m not suggesting you lay down and take a beating, but rather, you use the encounter as an opportunity to learn something more about the other person and what is motivating their behavior. Questions like “I can see that you are really upset, can you help me understand how it feels like I may be contributing to that for you? This is an example of Stephen Covey’s “seek first to understand and then to be understood principle. I genuinely believe it’s one of the single most effective tools in developing and maintaining strong communication with another person.
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