7 Tips for Dolphins Who Swim With Sharks

September 4, 2020

Being empathic is a super-power, but it can present challenges in a rough world.

It seems in today’s world, being “nice” can be hazardous to one’s health. The assumption that others will be ethical players often leads to disappointment. Yet being mistrustful all the time, jaded and cynical, is a recipe for unhappiness, even if it does seem like the safer position to take.

The baseline level of frustration many of us live with day-to-day can have a corrosive effect, slowly degrading our sense of humanity over time, little-by-little.

This challenge of modern life is accentuated in crowded urban centers where there is little consequence to being unkind because it is easy to blow people off. Corporate culture further adds to the sense of dehumanization. Customer service purports to care, but binding service plans with impossible-to-read fine print mean we are more often captive audiences. Trying to get restitution from customer service reps requires massive investments of time and energy.

Relationships seem to have become fundamentally more transactional, even as the quality of long-term relationships in business is highlighted by leadership and management gurus.

Creating one’s own community is more essential than ever, developing sustainable relationships with people whose values are aligned with one’s own, and with whom mutual trust and reliability have been nurtured over time. Having that inner circle is essential for maintaining a safe base where it is possible to let down our guard, enabling us to relax and enjoy authenticity.

At other times, it’s important for people who value compassion, who want to be ethical, and who tend to be more “sensitive” to have tools for dangerous, murky waters. Here are seven tips for dolphins swimming with sharks:

1. Know your limits. Sensitive people tend to be more likely to seek genuine reciprocity, increasing their vulnerability to those who leverage the psychological tendency to reciprocate for personal gain. There is a real difference from genuine give-and-take, and the manipulative techniques often used by people with a Machiavellian sales mentality. Be on guard to avoid over-giving by knowing exactly where you are and aren’t willing to go before entering into a discussion.

2. Learn the art of persuasion. Arm yourself with knowledge about how manipulators operate, not to feed cynicism, but to recognize common techniques and develop countermeasures. The book Influence by Robert Cialdini is an excellent reference, for example, as are the more tongue-in-cheek The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. There are any number of videos online that spell out how people attempt to get their way via psychological manipulation. Build your knowledge base, but beware of becoming too suspicious as that can drive negative emotional reactions.

3. Communicate clearly. Put it in writing; get it in writing. Use email liberally. Verbal agreements on a “handshake” don’t mean much nowadays, unfortunately. Put your requirements concisely in writing up front, and if there is a conversation during which important agreements were made, memorialize them in a summary email right afterward. If there is an important document, such as a contract, read it carefully and make sure you understand what it means. Get help if necessary.

4. Know what you need and want. This is especially true for “people pleasers” who tend to want to avoid conflict, and feel “bad” when “making other people angry” or disappointing others. Unfortunately, while this is generally a laudable and prosocial trait, manipulators sniff it out from miles away, preying on guilt and shame to get others to back off on what they need and want.

It is crucial to be deliberately aware of our own emotional responses in the heat of the moment, naming what we are experiencing (e.g., I’m afraid of disappointing them), taking as much time as needed to decide rather than succumbing to seemingly friendly pressure (e.g., I’m trying to help you because I can only offer this special deal for a limited time), and being willing to walk away with the understanding that there are other opportunities.

Being firm and gentle with oneself is equally important if fears of missed opportunity or the reward of seeming to get a great deal are in play. Delayed gratification is your ally.

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