November 26, 2013

Empowering others to their own self-empowerment

Yesterday a friend pointed me to a link with seven awesome affirmations, reasons to "stop proving yourself to everyone else." There are great points there for everyone to remind themselves of from time to time, especially in the Internet era.

But as I read it, I thought about how these lists are like Twinkies for the psyche--good for the sugar rush and quick calories for one's confidence, but not enough to overcome true self esteem difficulties if the environment around you pushes you down all the time. It's easy to tell yourself to be who you really are, find your own path, own your happiness... but if those closest to you don't give you the space and support you need, you'll keep getting dragged down.

As a parent, youth coach, former scout leader, and manager in the workplace, I am constantly focusing on empowering others. I believe in all seven points in the article and use my own version of them to guide me in coaching, managing, raising my kids, talking with friends--everywhere I interact with people. Maybe that's just my positivity strength, but everyone is capable of being a force for empowerment.

With that in mind, here are seven points for those of us who want to empower others to grow, to accomplish all they can, to be happier, to suffer less stress.

1. Don't compare them to someone else.

Being compared to someone else sucks, especially if you're the one that falls short. Celebrating the abilities and accomplishments of others is wonderful, and we should do that. Saying that Susan's husband is a great cook, however, is different from saying, "I wish you could cook like Susan's husband." Being happy your son's friend got straight A's is different from saying, "I guess you're just not smart like he is."

We all have different talents, strengths, likes, and dislikes. The girl that can't spell might be a dynamite poet. The boy struggling in Chemistry might be a whiz at Physics. Instead of pointing out where you think they're falling short, focus on what they do well. Recognize their talents. Don't get mat at your kid if he'd rather socialize than bury his head in a book; chances are, the parents of the bookworm wish their kid would be more outgoing and social. Love them for who they are, acknowledge and understand their strengths, and guide them in a way that will help them harness those strengths.

2. Understand, then embrace, their dreams.

Popular culture is full of stories of parents forcing their kids into certain careers or molds. Sometimes it works out, but come on. If you were forced into a career you hated, how happy would you be?

People perform better and live happier if they can pursue what they love. What they love, not what you want them to love. Maybe you think you see them being successful in a particular path if they'd only commit themselves to it. But they never commit, even if they've tried it. Frustrating, right? Forget it. Their dreams are not about you. Their dreams are about them. They won't commit to your ideas because they're your ideas, not necessarily their ideas. Instead of trying to fit them into roles, help them figure out for themselves what they love. Then, embrace it. Support it.

3. Illuminate their path, but don't walk it for them

We all know the term "micromanage" as a bad word. For good reason. Not only does a micromanager frustrate the people they're controlling, but they're also creating stress and stifling growth. This is true both with leading teens and managing the workplace, where we strive to develop and grow talent while simultaneously accomplishing the work that needs to get done.

The manager's job is to set up the tasks, then provide the tools and materials for the worker to get the job done. Get out of the way and let them do it. Maybe they'll do it a different way from your way, and that's okay. If they seek help, give it. Shine a light on the path so they know where to go, but don't control every step of the way. People perform far better if you let them unleash their own creativity, and they take far greater pride when they know they've accomplished something on their own.

Micromanaging says I don't trust you to do it right. Handing them the keys and giving them a map says I know you can do it. Which is more empowering?

4. Make sure they stop looking up for a bit.

We're all under such pressure to reach a consumerism-defined version of "success." It's so easy to look at those who have more than we do and think we're not as successful as we should be. Nicer cars, bigger houses, brighter jewelry, fancier clothes. Don't feed that monster. It's just one more way that society makes us feel less than we are. If you think about it, advertising exists to make us think our life sucks, and to make us compare ourselves to some consumeristic ideal that, when you look at it, is all veneer and no structure.

If you know someone perpetually feeling stressed about their wealth or feeling inferior to those who have more things, help them stop looking up the economic ladder for a bit. Help them look down and see how high they really are. (With 1.6 billion people living without electricity, if they can read this blog post they're already in pretty good shape.) Then, go a step further and help them understand that they should not define themselves by the things they possess. And prove it by caring about them, not about their things. Be a good friend.

5. Be patient.

Not everyone develops at the same pace, so be patient. I see parents getting so frustrated with their children because things seem so much easier to adults than to kids. The kid has only 15 years of life experience instead of the 40 or 50 the parent has, after all. The kid isn't going to automatically know or be able to do things adults take for granted. It starts early, with new parents fretting that their baby isn't walking as early as those other babies... give it a rest. All kids grow up. Parenting is a constant exercise in seeing the world from the kid's perspective and helping them grow up. Same thing is true with adults. We are all growing and developing every day, facing new challenges and trying to learn new things. Don't get frustrated that they're not expert in everything right now.

6. Let them fall... but be ready with the first aid kit.

We've all seen the graphics going around the internet that success can't be reached by a straight path. Success is reached through a multitude of missteps, learning with each one. Parents and micromanagers have difficulty seeing their children and workers fail. It could be because they think the failure would reflect badly on them as the parent or manager. Or it could be that they don't want the task to go undone or be done incorrectly. Or, they might just be uncomfortable seeing their kid or worker feel bad at falling short of the goal.

But if you do everything for them, they'll never grow. They'll never feel the sting of losing or the elation of achievement because it will always be dampened by the knowledge that someone was there to fix it and make it all right. Sometimes, you have to be there to catch them before they get hurt. Other times, though, it's more important to stand by and watch, then pick them up and apply the first aid afterwards. Either way, you have to let go and allow them to grow. But let them know you're nearby.

7. Don't try to make it all about you.

It isn't about you. So don't try to make it about you. When they're telling you something, don't hijack their story and tell your own. When they're telling you what they want out of life, don't compare it to what you want out of life. When they're working out a problem, don't try to make them do it your way. So what if they want to load the silverware into the dishwasher upside-down? So what if they want to drive the back streets when you would take the highway? It's not about you, and you can't successfully make it about you. When you try, all you do is make people feel that you care only about yourself and don't care about them.

And maybe that's really the case. But it doesn't have to be.

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