A smart young woman asked my friend, Jennifer, "What would happen if you stopped accepting demands or criticisms from anyone not pulling their weight?" Jennifer, like many single moms, pulls her weight and a whole lot more. She is a lawyer and a social worker. She runs a hospital, takes care of her teenage sons, and in her spare time, writes books for young people. Like many uber-capable people, she is surrounded by folks who spend more of their time whining about what she should do than putting their own shoulders to the wheel. She thought it was her responsibility to accommodate them until hearing that question.
My coach (a coach is someone who can see and help correct your blind spots) asked me something similar after my third project in a row got killed by a committee. I had worked triply hard. I was sure all the pieces were in place.What went wrong? He counseled, "Demand equality in all your relationships; stop making deals with people who have no skin in the game." Like Jennifer, I'd always been willing to pull more than my weight in projects and relationships. I thought that's what I was supposed to do to "make things work." I'd make excuses for slackers. I told myself I was non-judgmental and forgiving. Instead, by working harder to make it easier for them, I trained the other party that nothing was expected; I'd do it all. Sooner or later, I'd ask for something back, and they'd walk away, disinterested. They never were really in the game to begin with.
Someone once told me, "Hunter, you could make anything work." I was proud of that; now I'm not so sure. That very ability kept me years too long in a marriage that was hurting us both. It kept me from seeing people I thought of as family, thought of me as disposable, when the going got tough. It kept me working with people and organizations that were not enrolled in the same vision, but were willing to ride my coattails until I asked for something, and then bailed.
You could call it a form of co-dependence. It runs especially high in powerful women, but it seems to thrive, irrespective of gender, among people who are bright, successful, forward looking, compassionate, and hardworking---you know, over-achievers. It especially thrives among liberals, who believe it is their job to make everything work for everyone. Whatever you call it, our uber-capable President, product of a single mom, has a raging case of it.
Back in the summer of 2009, the Republicans stated their intention to defeat health care, regardless of the bill's content or cost. Seeming not to hear them, Obama and Reid played into their closed fists, thinking they could win them over by accommodation. It was never going to work. They had no stake in a successful outcome. Au contraire. They openly wanted to weaken the Democrats and the Presidency, and saw this as their best shot at doing so. They made demands and criticized, but pulled no weight with contributions of ideas or creativity. Why should they?
Uber-responsible people erroneously believe we can change our adversaries, if we just accommodate sufficiently. We're like the woman who ignores the warning of a guy who says he's not interested in a relationship. "How about if I give you this?" she says, not hearing him. "Then will you like me enough? What if I give that up? Will that make you love me?" He's just not that into you. When there is no stake in the game, no accommodation is sufficient.
Accommodation is not to be confused with compromise, in which parties with an equal stake in the matter work together toward a mutually beneficial solution. Accommodation is a unilateral act of placation, in which one party tries, by any means, to win the approval of the other, usually by bending over backwards. It presumes all the power is on the other side; it disempowers you before you even reach the table. In accommodation, no one wins.
Not one Republican voted for that watered-down pabulum of a bill. They never intended to. As for the insurance companies, what did they offer in exchange for the 30 million new customers handed over by the bill's mandate? With their record profits and more on the horizon, they didn't need to risk any skin. They just showed up with demands and criticism, wailing, "Oh, please, Br'er Fox, don't throw me in that briar patch." As victory was handed to them, they collected the spoils, while Progressives ended up resentful and ashamed of getting so little for selling out so much. Such are the fruits of accommodation.
Have we had enough yet?
I like to think I am a generous person, giving much and not keeping tabs. I am not suggesting checklists of who gave what to whom, running our families on a quid pro quo basis, or throwing out compromise. I am suggesting that, in politics and in life, we do business with people who bring value to the table and have some sort of stake in a successful outcome. I am suggesting that in the New Year, we all stop accommodating people and groups who want to sabotage us, criticize us, and make demands without giving anything in return, personally or politically. While at times it may be frightening to walk away from a table on which there is something we want, in the long run we will be a whole lot happier and healthier. We will be the masters of our own souls. Here is my list of Resolutions for Progressives, 2010.
1. I resolve, in my personal and my professional interactions, to require and offer parity.
2. I resolve to state my expectations clearly, with willingness to terminate the relationship if necessary, rather than complain when they are not met.
3. I resolve to reject demands and criticisms that come from unengaged bystanders, as opposed to those coming from partners in a shared venture.
4. I resolve to forgive, but not to allow circumstances to excuse or justify, the selfish or irresponsible behavior of anyone, including myself.
Wishing us all a happy and healthy New Year!