Sometimes You Win When You Lose


Todays story reflects my hard-won victory over . . . well, over me. It was grueling — like a 5-set tennis match. And, like a lot of my wins in the world of self-management and other-leadership, I’ll forget how I pulled out a win, why such a win is worth the effort, and how to do it again. I hope replaying it will contribute to my, and perhaps your, future wins.

I was enmeshed in a confrontation with one of my kids. We stood in the side drive quite literally face to face, for about an hour. The long and short of it was that I felt frustrated by what I felt was a pattern of reclusive and sometimes chilly behaviors. The discussion went through distinct phases. Stage one: issues raised, defenses raised, volumes raised, defenses on both sides raised even further. Stage two: harder listening – in both senses: first, hard to exercise the discipline to totally get what each other are saying. I find it takes enormous concentration to fight my urge to interrupt and argue, and to instead simply understand her point of view. Then it’s hard to let reality be something other than what I see it as, but instead to see how we truly experience different realities. After much external struggle and then even more internal struggle, I finally heard her fundamental questions: Why is it that I have to meet your needs? Why do we have to communicate in the times and manner that work best for you? And why can’t you accept that we’re different and let me be in my own way, even if it sometimes looks reclusive?*

That led to stage three: an odd moment of radical choice. I could almost hear the inner voices asking what my choice would be:  “How important is it to you to’win’ this argument? Does ‘winning’ really make sense in this context? Is it really surrender, are you conceding the game?” So, what would I do? Would I continue to insist on the primacy of my view of reality? Or would I let that go, and allow that she and I had vastly different experiences of reality. Would I focus on doing my work of gaining and operating from a full understanding of her reality, or would I keep pushing her to understand and live inside my view? I chose to explicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of her reality and her way of being. I am pretty sure she heard my request in turn for her to be sensitive to how her way impacts those around her, including me. But it’s her choice and not my insistence that stands to generate movement.

Is there broad leadership relevance to this story? I think so. I suspect that a manager-employee relationship in most traditional workplace cultures mimics this relationship of a parent vis-a-vis a nearly-mature older teenager. Oh, the tension and conflict may be masked at work, but the resistance to accepting the singular importance of the manager’s worldview is often working beneath that surface. So the manager has a choice: keep expecting and assuming the other must accept the primacy of the manager’s view of reality and chosen style of working together (and see deviations as insubordination, rebelliousness, ignorance, etc) , or do the hard work of understanding the other’s legitimate views, style and needs.

I look forward to reading responses to this post to find out whether you find it as hard as I do to close your mouth, open your ears and mind, and

Lead with your best self,


*I am not saying that I relinquished all parental standards in our talk. It would take many more paragraphs to reconcile and distinguish my legitimate authority and responsibility for standards with my commitment to meet my daughter as a fundamental equal.

** There was a glitch in last week’s link to the book Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments by Kent Keith. Sorry for any confusion. You can find Kent’s book here.

Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments

By: Kent M. Keith

Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World
buy now

  • This is your best one, yet, Dan, and you’ve had some very, very good ones. This gets to the heart of some things that folks might have learned in Psych 101, about how different perceptions lead to different mental realities. It also provides an excellent case in point for some of the practical, useful points made in _Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to OVERCOME DEFENSIVENESS and Build Successful Relationships_, especially Chapter Two: “Buzz off! I am NOT defensive.” 🙂

    For my own part, I’ve played the one-down role of your daughter far more than the one-up position of manager. Good for her for having the ethical fortitude of asserting her reality with her much-loved and admired and therefore perceived very powerful dad! So hard to do when the stakes are so high in such a tremendously valued relationship! Good for you for remembering some of the things you’ve been teaching in this series, that leadership has to include respect and sensitivity for others.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Norma,
      Thanks for the encouragement, as well as the reference to a new book (for me) Radical Collaboration. I think you well-described her position/perspective and how hard it is to stand up to authority.

  • Raising four sons was quite an education in itself. I have always believed ‘the win’ for me was just getting each other to understand the other person’s point of view. Simple. Thats the win, a win for each. Not necessarily acceptance – just an understanding. We all have opinions of equal ‘value’ or ‘correctness’. Traveling the road of ‘selling, telling, yelling, was near-sighted for me – simple understanding of each other’s position planted the seeds of compromise which usually came to pass.

    • Berri,
      I love the simplicity of this view. And by simple, you know I don’t mean “easy.” It’s more nearly achievable to shoot for understanding; acceptance is a ways further, and might just seem too far!

  • Dan – what was especially meaningful for me as a trainer of supervisors and managers is the last part of the blog where you make the comparisons between management and parenting a nearly adult teen.

    Very often managers do see themselves in the “parent role” with employees and proceed to conduct interactions with employees as they would a teen child. In fact, some management models encourage the manger/parent interaction style.

    However, in all my years as a trainer I have never once heard an employee describe their preferred interaction style with their manager as similar to that of a “parent to teen”.

    How much happier, productive and engaged might staff be if their managers treated them as valued adults rather than recalcitrant teens!

  • Hi Dan – once again you’ve started my week by challenging my brain. Each Monday your column contains thought provoking materials and leads to many introspective moments – some times it takes me a few days to realize the application to my life and others it rings immediately to my core.

    That’s the way it was with this mornings piece. I, being somewhat older than you, dealt with this very issue with my own daughter several years ago. She and I see the world from very different points of view. Had I embraced those differences rather than trying to mold her into what I thought was ‘the right way’ many of those face-to-face discussions you describe could probably have been avoided.

    It took a long time for me to realize that my role in parenting did not include molding her to my likeness, but rather to lift her up and encourage her to be the best person she could be. From that time forward we have become best of friends. No, it’s not always easy to watch the way she deals with things; and yes, it’s hard not to offer my opinion.

    I have been able to use the lessons learned from those personal battles in the other leadership roles I’ve encountered. Things can be accomplished in more than one way. As long as we treat each other with respect the ‘how’ something is done is not nearly as important as ‘what’ gets done.

    Thanks for always challenging me to think with ‘my best self.’
    Sue Murawski

    • Sue,
      My pleasure. Always great to hear from parents who are further down the road. I hold to the vision of a wonderful adult relationship with my daughter; that is, once I become an adult 🙂

  • In past letters you mentioned the book Crucial Conversations. The authors recommend that you “start with heart”. The essence is that you know what you want to get out of the conversation. If you want to win, you are not interested in dialogue. If you are interested in hearing all sides of a story, it’s not a matter of winning or losing.

    They would also say that insistence on authority and position to make your point can make it unsafe for dialogue. I would say it ensures that there is no dialogue. It also decreases the possibility of it occurring in future conversations. My feeling that we are often best served by being a tad uncertain about what we think is “right”, especially when we are in charge.

    • Donna,
      Crucial Conversations is a hugely helpful parental guide. I found the part where they talk about the importance of “make it safe” to be one of the best mental cues. Tomorrow on my show I will interview Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations. It is also a wonderful book on tough conversation — whether they are personal or professional. Worth a look.

  • Thanks for this one Dan. I just had a conversation with my 14 year old son where I alluded to the idea that he was a “bum” for sleeping in until noon on many of his summer vacation days. I was half joking and trying to illicit a response. Later that day, he expressed his own concern that he was being a “bum” because he was so lazy. I realized that the fact that he was sleeping in was a minor issue compared to his developing a strong self esteem and feeling good about himself. I wanted him to feel good about his summer, not to feel bad about taking it easy. I was putting some of my up bringing onto him, and in the process making him question his own self worth. Your artcle helped me realize this. Thanks again.

    • Glad to help!
      And aren’t those comments about being a bum some deep down wishful thinking??? I’d love to just roll out of bed on a summer day and have a bowl of cereal and maybe go to the park and see if I can get in a pick-up baseball or basketball game!
      Your son’s lucky you have that awareness!

  • Dan,
    If you were able to do all this thinking DURING the incident, you are very, very good! I usually come to all kinds of realizations AFTER it’s over about how I should’ve approached things. And then I often get caught up in the moment the next time, too! How easy it is to get wrapped up in the arguing and forget the larger context.

    With this age of blended families, I’ve had to add the dimension (with my oldest 2 kids) of the “you’re not my REAL dad” comments. Now that they are 23 and 20, it has become plain to all of us that I’m the one who’s been there for the last 16 years and that indeed, in some respects, I AM the ‘real’ dad. But it took a major toll some days on our relationships. Sticking it out has been a blessing for all of us.

    I find it much easier to work through work problems as colleagues, even with supposed ‘subordinates’. Maybe I should try to see my kids that way, and treat them more as equals in order to ‘get through’. With one still in his teens (14), I may still need this lesson! Thanks for sharing your insight!

    • Dave,
      Your comment about treating your kids like employees strikes me as pretty rich. I think that family teaches us a lot about business leadership and vice versa. What if we saw our kids as our clients, and our job to meet their essential needs? Interesting mind bender, no?

  • What a timely message. I found myself in the same position with my daughter (pre-teen) on Sunday. I am quite confident that any mistake I could have made, I did make. It is so difficult to keep your leadership principles in mind when there is such a large investment, so much at stake. The problem was finally resolved – but it took all day, forced the cancellation of events that would have been fun and bonding for us and left me simply exhausted and wondering if she “got the message.”

    For me, that is exactly what talking to a supervisor can be like. It is as if step one is always an attempt to negotiate through a maze of assumptions the other person has made about you – assumptions that label you and “mark” you in some way as a dissenter, complainer, rogue who is unable/unwilling to be a team player, lazy, disobedient or simply sloppy in your work ethic. Through all of those assumptions, I find it extremely challenging to move to stage two: bringing the truth, and to have faith that the other person can hear it through all of the noisy assumptions, in the spirit it is given.

    One of the things that makes me crazy in conversations like this with my daughter is her instant flight to defensiveness. I ask myself if I am attacking. I don’t feel as if I am, but I am not in her shoes and there must be some reason for her to feel the need to defend. But even in situations that don’t involve me, she quickly rushes to blame someone else or justifies her actions based on someone else’s behavior. This puzzles me since I really try to teach my children accountability, and as time has gone on, I begin to see this as her “winning strategy.” It’s worked for her in the past, so she continues to use it, to refine it, and I am only now starting to hear it.

    I have observed individuals who are far more educated, older, more experienced, rush to defensiveness also. People who should know better also will often dive into the conversation and bypass “resolution” for “defensiveness” of whatever the issue is. Again I ask myself if I am attacking. But I also ask myself how it is possible to relay a difficult situation, a destructive situation, without seeming to attack. I WANT to be a problem solver in my organization. I want people to feel empowered by their positions and to see how much more they can do when we say “yes” to them, rather than boxing them up with our assumptions. I want all of the puzzle pieces to “fit” well. That’s not always possible and when something is not working, I try to relay things that I would want to know if I were the supervisor – not the trite “so-and-so showed up late and has taken 3 bathroom breaks” kind of stuff, but the tough, “our integrity is coming into question” stuff. And I am responded to in what I like to refer to as “Playground Justice,” having my own shortcomings pointed out to me in a “physician, heal thyself,” manner that says, “when you’re done fixing YOU – THEN, we’ll look at these other things.” I have short comings – I know that. I went into the conversation knowing that. So ignoring or rerouting the topic does not help resolve things, it only leaves me thinking, “yeah, who AM I to point this stuff out?” It sounds very much like when my daughter says, “well, he started it.”

    Responding in that way seems to me a simple attempt to shift blame. It is not examination, it is not introspection, it does not lead to resolution or evolution and you can leave conversations like that feeling as if you’ve not even been heard. As one of your other readers mentioned, it makes for environments that feel unsafe for honest communication. I wonder how I built that with my daughter? I wonder if enough “water” has passed under the bridge between my boss and I, for him to gauge my intent when I tell him things that he needs to hear but doesn’t necessarily want to hear.

    I don’t believe we ever “outgrow” our “person-hood” and each of us still wants certain attributes in the life portrait we are painting; the need to be right, the need to be valued, the need to stretch beyond boundaries that others place on us, the need to be heard.

    In college my friends and I played a game that we actually called, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question was asked from person to person in a group of raucous students who were simply in love with living from day to day – a world in which anything truly WAS possible. It was all about potential then. I remember one young man clearly, generally the “odd ball”, (but he was OUR oddball), listened patiently, smiling and excited about being included in the group, as people gave their answers: I want to be rich, I want to be famous, I want to be the CEO of a major corporation that eats smaller businesses for breakfast! Finally, it was his turn. And the question was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And he smiled shyly, actually blushed, before saying, “understood.” It was like a bell rang in my head, that’s EXACTLY what I wanted. And looking around the circle, it seemed that everyone else wanted this too.

    Humans are such complicated beings, but one simple truth can resonate through a difficult conversation, through a life – I believe that. Maybe it’s tone, maybe it’s something else, but I believe that at some core level, we know the truth when we hear it and it resonates through us and becomes part of everything we touch. We MUST respond to it when we hear it, truth demands action. I suppose the only solution is that you keep trying – learning the different languages (resonances) of other people’s truths, until you get through and until what they’re really saying can “get through” to you. You keep listening and asking questions until you are sure you have heard correctly. For me, the primary thing is to REMEMBER to use the tools that I have when I need them the most, and not allow myself to be carried away by an already tumultuous flow of words! And above all to remember that what we all want, really, is to be “understood.”

    Easier said than done.

    • Jesse,
      If you don’t mind my warmly playing with your name,
      That was La-Tour-deForce! I hope you will stay with it. I can’t believe you wouldn’t! I think you have the potential for huge breakthroughs with your daughter and yourself! I love that you’re in the middle of that exchange — on the one hand a “subordinate” and on the other the “parent.” What a great way to fairly and intelligently assess the dynamics that are at play!

    • Jesse, great thoughts. As I was reading through your well thought out words and your comment about wishing for a better culture of responsibility at work, I couldn’t help but think of Kirk Weisler’s wonderful book on this topic. I have heard Kirk speak and he is just incredible. His ‘bestsmelling’ book ‘The Dog Poop Initiative’ is a fantastic and fun way to broach this topic – and no I am not connected with him in any way except that I am lucky enough to have been inspired by him at different junctures… I live in Australia, he is in the U.S. – I’m not on any commission except the commission of love 🙂 Have a look at his site and click on the ‘Meet Kirk’ link to get an idea of what he is about then check out his book . Sorry Dan, I hope you don’t mind me plugging Kirk’s stuff, it just seemed to fit so well.

  • Ahhhh, that moment of confrontation.
    I remember it well. It took place 25 years ago as my oldest son stormed out of the house and put his hand on his beloved Lincoln Mark IV ready to tear out of the driveway and down the street. He was angry with me and I with him, over what I don’t remember.
    But in that fleeting moment of his leaving the house I had a thought; “Treat him with respect”.
    As I leaned out the door I asked him to come back into the house and this time I would listen. I also told him that as long as he spoke to me with respect and didn’t raise his voice, I would listen. With that promise, he slowly walked back into the house and we resolved our disagreement.
    We both learned to listen to each other that day. We learned that even though we didn’t think alike we could come to some type of understanding.
    I also remember my dad saying; “The minute you raise your voice, you’ve lost the argument”.

      • Any time! I have lots of sage advice for raising three boys.

        I was lucky enough to have a middle school teacher, of my first boy, take the time to stop and talk with me, when I expressed my eagerness to learn what I could do to help my son through the next few years. This came after I heard him say ” So your Mrs. Flynn!”. It seems my son was a good student and loved to talk. Only, he did it when the teacher wanted to talk.
        The teacher stated that in Middle School the children sit on a fence, ready to lean one way or the other. Peers have a great influence and will be more than glad to take your job if you are not there to influence and LISTEN. He said my son would tell me lots of things; even things I did not want to hear. But I was to just listen and nod. And afterward gently steer the conversation toward “Well, how would you handle that?” or something else to keep the door to conversation open. He said to hug him and tell him I loved him, a lot. Especially when he was MOST unloveable. Because that was when he didn’t love himself.
        I really took this advice to heart and used it on all three of my sons. They took me through some pretty funny and some scary times, but we all made it.

  • Hi Dan,
    You are doing a great job. Management is a definitively categorized concept. There are numerous phases and categories of management. There is nothing wrong with being a good manager whatever the endeavor.
    When working with people particularly young people, it is very important to hear their perception of the situation. Thus giving the expectation of your expectations and role as parent father. This enhances the prospect to communicate, because I listened attentively to the other persons perception. Situational experiences of the now and past can be compared. The times may be different, however, the essential consequence relies on the inferential analysis of these circumstances.

  • Hi Dan,

    definitely another ‘top ten hit’ for me, this one. Talk about resonating at a deep level! The fact you can share so openly about your own fallibility and struggles that we all have in common is powerful and healing. I can think of many parallels already even at the early stage of parenting that I am at with 3 boys of 5, 3, and 1. Our 5 year old is a wonderful and spirited child who I’m sure we are going to have many growth experiences with down the track if the first five years are anything to go on! If you can picture it, he is the sort of personality where if you can picture ‘the line’ you aren’t supposed to cross drawn on the ground, he is standing there with one foot on the line and the other foot dancing a merry tune across it on the other side. Your topic here really strikes a chord with me and sits perfectly in the area of learning to respect him as a person yet seeking to teach and discipline him to a level of behaviour that is acceptable… there is no management experience like it yet the similarities are glaring as you and others have clearly noted.

    The main lesson I take from your sharing is that crucial one that is surely the secret to success as a parent that our job is not to ‘create a person’ the way we want them but to give them the tools and the support to help them create themselves. They aren’t meant to be our mirror image but only to have a picture of us that on occasion they may choose to reflect on us when they feel the need to. From where I sit being the sort of person that struggles with wanting other people to think like I do and see the world the way I do, I am very clear on the enormity of the task ahead of me and your message helps me on the way. Thank you for your open sharing and the wonderful thoughts others have shared.

    • Daniel,
      Thanks for the great reflection. Keep that sense that the job is not to “create a person” as you put it, but to empower and sometimes put some bumpers in place for them. You might have read James Hillman’s book The Soul’s Code. I think it should be a must for the parents of “spirited” children, as you put it. Hillman provocatively draws on an ancient Greek notion of the soul, and argues with wonderful biographical snippets, that the soul chooses the body (along, of course with the parents who give life to that body).
      I have often thought of this idea with my three kids and thought: “What if his/her soul chose me and Jennifer? What was it this soul needs?” Sometimes it’s been to protect them from hurting themselves until they were fully read to make their own choices. Sometimes it’s been to give flight to their souls and encourage them on their way. But Hillman’s thinking offers the same kind of detachment you have articulated.
      — Danmulhern
      One last thought: I suspect that you are not fundamentally different than any parent (or person) when you describe yourself as “the sort of person that struggles with wanting other people to think like I do and see the world the way I do.” Indeed, the major way you may be different from many/most is this that you are AWARE of this tendency. Awareness is what creates the possibility of choice, of choosing not to act on it. I fear much more those that are not aware of the impulse to control, or pretend they do not have it, or justify its necessity at times when they might be better off backing off!
      Thanks again for the conversation, Daniel. How cool is it to speak across the world in this way??? I hope I never cease to be amazed by it.

      • Dan, it is waaay cool (to use some youthful lingo 😉 ) to speak across the world in this way. And yes, maintaining that ability to never cease to be amazed by all those things we found amazing on first encounter is one of those secrets to happiness surely 🙂

        Your comments on my thoughts were good to reflect on and I must put that book on my book list (near the top). On your point about my awareness, I must say I think it is only a slight awareness at this point and often falls to the background in the heat of battle. The trick I now need to master is bringing it to the forefront of my thinking more often… maybe your book suggestion might help.

        I am a great arguer though and if I can put in an addendum to my first post I have recently been reminder of my own ability to argue through my teens as my mother is here visiting me from New Zealand (where I am originally from) for our eldest’s, Callum’s, fifth birthday and we have been having a laugh at just how good an arguer I was when I was in my teens. My mother was sharing how she used to argue back sometimes and realise how futile it was. This is in line with the teachings of another kiwi (term for a New Zealander) whose name is Celia Lashlie who wrote a book “He’ll Be OK – Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men”. Her insights were quite incredible and based on research she actually did with boys in school after her own experiences working in prisons with some of those men who didn’t quite make the right choices through their earlier years. Her book is here and I’m sure you will find her insights incredibly astute – even where the subject matter in your initial sharing was a daugher:

  • I don’t know that my above post came across entirely the way I meant it on the point of arguing. I didn’t mean it to sound like some great strength, I meant to represent the fact that being such a great arguer makes it tougher for me to be aware of that fact regarding wanting others to see things the way I do… a lot tougher.

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