The woman in this story is a peer of mine, currently launching a startup business. She is one of my best friends; like most people who have been friends for a long time, we have our moments! This is the story of two of those moments; all the more remarkable because two moments add up to one story.
I needed her to shut up. We were in a meeting and we needed to be respectful of the other person in the meeting. In hindsight, I probably should have agreed with her ten minutes ago. She was probably right, and I had disagreed with her. I couldn’t agree with her honestly without analyzing the topic for an hour, and there certainly wasn’t time for that right now.
I had tried to take the conversation elsewhere, into topics that might actually make a difference for the decisions that needed to be made. She wasn’t having it, and her persistence (usually a valuable thing) was being applied to the wrong topic. I wasn’t the only person in the room who thought she was seriously off-track.
“We’ve moved on,” I said. Sharply, decisively. To demonstrate the point, I continued talking about the decisions that actually needed to be made, the issues that could be explored to everybody’s benefit. I kept one eye on her while concentrating on achieving the true goals of the meeting.
She seemed disoriented for a moment, then thoughtful. The rest of us made progress on a couple of items. Then she rejoined the conversation, contributing her intelligence, insight and creativity to really make a positive difference. I was delighted; my beloved friend had returned.
Later, I found myself correcting someone else who was looking the wrong way — I didn’t know him quite as well, didn’t trust him to understand what I was up to, so I was gentler with him, more considerate and thoughtful. I could speak to my friend in private after the meeting, but he was a different story. “Difficult, isn’t it?” she said to him. He gave her a wry smile.
Later, when I had time to think, I wished I had found a way of achieving the outcome that had been less hurtful. Then again, it can be hard to tell what’s actually best in these situations. Sometimes, it’s useful to give people something to think about; hard-won lessons tend to be powerfully learned.
Life went on, our friendship continued. I forgot about this incident, until about six months later.
“We’ve moved on” she said. It felt like a slap in the face. I was already feeling frustrated, but this was beyond belief, that she should speak to me that way!
Before I could reply, she was continuing, talking about the plans that she was making, getting feedback from the other people at the table. I’d repeatedly tried to raise the subject, and she’d escalated from ignoring me to shutting me down aggressively.
I looked around the table for support, and noticed one of my other friends glaring at me. Well, of course he was glaring at me, he didn’t like what I had to say. I tried to make sense of what the leader of the meeting was doing, why had she shut me up like that? It dawned on me that perhaps she wanted me to shut up before I went beyond ‘annoying’ and into ‘offensive’. Under the circumstances, explaining that to me would only have made things worse.
I studied her, as she moved rapidly from one decision to the next — there were a lot of decisions to be made. Realising that I’d been stupid, I made an effort to catch up with the agenda (everybody had indeed moved on). Not wanting to repeat the same mistake, I waited for my moment, then saw an opportunity to offer something genuinely insightful and constructive.
She smiled at me, as if she hadn’t seen me for a long time. Later, I felt tired and excused myself; she made an effort to show that she valued my opinion, quietly expressed a bit of nervousness about how aggressively she was pursuing her agenda. I did my best to be reassuring.
I couldn’t quite stop thinking about it, though. I felt convinced that there was something I needed to address. A large part of me just wanted to express how difficult it was, to be treated like that; even though I could tell she had done me a favour, it still hurt. And part of me was playing a quote from Elon Musk on repeat in my head: “CEOs don’t need sympathy.” It seemed pretty clear that I had a lot to think about.
Thank you for being my friend, and for showing me a mirror yesterday. It’s easy for me to believe that we have a lot in common, which makes it reassuring to be reminded of your strengths.