Families, man. Blood of my blood. Heart of my heart.
Our familiar relationships are often the most complicated we have. No one can set us off like they do, no one can calm us like they do and no one can make us feel loved (or unloved) like they do.
I don’t know if you have siblings. If you do, I don’t know if you’re close to them or if you talk at all.
My older brother is miles away from me. Thus, so is my favorite baby in the whole wide world, my niece.
Fewer things come close to the way I felt the first time I saw her. Sure, it was after almost 30 hours of flights and layovers, so my emotions were running high already. But a baby, umm, especially a sleeping baby is one of the purest things on this planet.
How the story starts
My brother’s family had a photo shoot. The photos turned out lovely and we thought of printing them out, framing them and giving them to my parents for Christmas. We settled on December 31 for the date, since that’s what we get more excited about in Albania.
On December 31, I went to the photo studio to buy the cornices and get the photos printed. I know, I know, I live on the edge.
Two customers were inside, so I waited for one of them to finish to enter the store.
The shop owner kindly asked the next customer: “Yes, hello. How may I help you?”
The fight and the sequin pillow
The old man looked at the shop owner respectfully and said: “I wanted to come here and get your opinion on something. Maybe you don’t remember me, but I asked my friends for recommendations on a photo studio. They said I should come to you. So I did.”
At this point, he took something out of a plastic bag he was carrying.
“I wanted to ask, just get your opinion really, do you think this looks good?”
He held up a sequin pillow that had the face of a young girl all over it.
The photo studio owner’s facial muscles danced around a little. His tone changed immediately. “Well, I told your son-in-law, or whoever it was that came here, that in sequin pillows, photos don’t turn out very well. I said that you shouldn’t expect the same photo quality as you would in a printed photo or cotton pillow.”
The older man remained calm. “I know. We understood that upfront, but in my opinion, my niece’s face is almost unrecognizable in this. We were not expecting this.”
The shop owner’s facial muscles were now throwing a whole party. He took JLo’s advice and got loud. “Sir, I told your son-in-law upfront what to expect. This is how sequin pillows look.”
Again, the old man, without switching into an aggressive body language or raising his voice, (he just repeatedly raised the sequin pillow in the air) said: “I’m talking calmly, aren’t I? There’s no need to yell at each other. It doesn’t seem like this was made by a professional. I wanted to get your opinion and ask whether this was done by an intern of yours.”
The shop owner lost it.
Almost screaming, he said: “I do not hire interns. I never have. It’s just me in here. It’s been such for the past ten years or so. And we know each other, don’t we? You live in the neighborhood. We’re acquainted. You know it’s just me in here. Even though I told your son-in-law the result would be similar, you’re still asking for something else. And you’re doing this in front of a customer. This is so disrespectful. You know, I could take you to ten other photo studios, they would all tell you the same thing. Sequin pillows ruin the quality of a photo.”
It seems like he unlocked the heavenly gates with that second to last sentence. The old man said: “Well, that is all I wanted to know- if we’d get the same result at other photo studios. There was no need to yell. I didn’t disrespect you, I had a question and came here to ask it.”
“You disrespected me in front of a customer. This is how sequin pillows are. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” – the shop owner said, turning in my direction, “I have another client.”
Mr Grandpa kept his manners, repeated his point and left. The shop owner, still visibly angry, apologized to me. “I’m so sorry. It’s just that some people make me get out of character.”
I pretended I had no idea what he was referring to, got my photos and left.
Against and pro adverbs in writing
Now, maybe I’m biased in the way I told the story. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King said adverbs like quietly, angrily, forcefully, calmly are for lazy writers. For example, when a character in my novel slams the door, if I’ve explained the narrative and the situation entirely so far, there’s no need to add “shut the door angrily”.
But I added descriptors like calm or references to the shop owner’s facial expressions, so I could make it as vivid as it was for me as an observer.
Why did I share this story?
The reason I shared the sequin pillow story is precisely because of my bystander position. For most fights, either we’re in them, or we’ve picked sides before the debate takes place. Think: politics, causes, TV shows when a dumbass questions our favorite character. Of course, everyone questioning or debating my favorite character is a dumbass of enormous proportions, but don’t tell my “woke” self that.
- If my colleague and I got in a fight, as much as I’d try to, I wouldn’t be able to tell my best friend what went down without painting it in a certain light, with my experience and outlook on it.
In the sequin pillowcase, I was just standing there, experiencing a non-scripted debate between two people.
Two takeaways I want you to read
Imagine if we could act rationally in fights, as if it weren’t us fighting, but a stranger, a grandpa who’s asking about the sequin pillow with his niece’s face on it, a shop owner whose quality of work gets questioned in broad daylight in front of customers.
The words I used to describe the worried grandpa and the loud shop owner might tell you whose team I’d be on, if I had to pick sides.
However, I think both these people were right.
I’ll go ahead and guess what was going through both these people’s minds.
Mr Grandpa’s perspective
- It’s New Year’s Day. We’d planned a lovely surprise for my niece. She loves sequins. I doubt she has one item of clothing that doesn’t contain a shiny element. You can’t take the sequins out of the girl, but you can put the girl in the sequins. Something like that.
We found a beautiful sequin pillow and wanted to put her gorgeous face all over it. My friend recommended a photo studio, the guy was a pro, plus it was pretty close. I was excited to see the pillow and make my niece happy on New Year’s Eve, but when I saw the pillow, the photo quality had decreased drastically. It was hard to tell it was her.
I wondered what had happened, so I decided to go to the photo studio myself, just to see whether the guy there can help us out in any way. Now, he’s yelling at me.
Shop owner’s perspective
- It’s New Year’s Day. I’m at work because I know lots of people leave things for the last minute and I wouldn’t want them to find the store closed. Few places are open today, so they might end up without the gift they’d planned. However, I can’t wait to go home and spend the last day of the year with my family.
A few days ago, someone brought me a sequin pillow and told me they wanted a photo printed all over it. That’s tricky and I try to avoid such work because the result is underwhelming. However, I kinda knew this person and their family, plus they were sure they wanted the sequin pillow, so I agreed. Now, their father-in-law is here, telling me I can’t do my job, in front of other clients nonetheless.
Who is right or wrong now? No one, right?
Earlier this week, someone asked me what my favorite book is. As you may know, asking this to a writer is a special kind of torture. They made it easier, though. “What book would you recommend to me?”
Ah, yes, now we’re talking. Since this was happening in a professional setting, I went with non-fiction and one of the latest books I’ve read. I got this question before, “If you were the CEO, which three rules would you implement in the company?” You can see my old answer here, but here’s the actual one.
The book I mentioned to the person who asked me and the one I would turn into a rule if I were CEO is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Even though I’ve researched and learned about communication extensively, I could wax poetic about this book and its methods for crucial conversations for days. But I won’t.
Here’s one of the life-changing, breakthrough teachings that I wanted to share with you, worried grandpa, and the loud shop owner. Whenever you find yourself in a heated discussion with someone, ask yourself this question:
“Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?”
Unfortunately, all the people we deal with aren’t reasonable, rational, and decent. But a lot of them are. Your girlfriend, your best friend, your cousin, your roommate, your business partner, your boss, your colleague, and your hairdresser probably all are.
I mentioned these people because we often get in crucial conversations with them. Crucial conversations are debates whose outcomes can be so good or so terrible as to make or break your entire perception of the person and the relationship. Don’t ask why a hairdresser is on this list. It gets vulnerable in there!
Common crucial conversations
These are some common crucial conversation, according to the book:
- Ending a relationship
- Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments
- Asking a friend to repay a loan
- Giving the boss feedback about her behavior
- Approaching a boss who is breaking his own safety or quality policies
- Critiquing a colleague’s work
- Asking a roommate to move out
- Talking to a team member who isn’t keeping commitments
- Discussing problems with sexual intimacy
- Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem
- Talking to a colleague who is hoarding information or resources
- Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem
“At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well. Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period.”Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Kerry Patterson, Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan
Next time, instead of turning to anger or walking away (either literally or metaphorically) from a crucial conversation, ask yourself this:
“Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?”
Remember the sequin pillow.