“What have we learned from this?”

My husband used to say that to our kids every so often as they were growing up. They hated hearing it at the time, but since then it’s become somewhat of a family joke. And it’s something we all still say to each other from time to time.

It occurred to me recently that there are several other pearls of wisdom and advice that I treasure. I believe in them, I try to live by them, and I regularly share them with others – sometimes in all seriousness and sometimes in jest. There are five in particular that most of my family and friends have heard over and over, and I thought you might enjoy them and find them useful as well. Here are the first three. I’ll give you the other two next week.

Betty’s Belief #1: Nothing is impossible, and you should ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

“Impossible” things are being accomplished every day by people who either don’t know or don’t accept that they’re impossible. At one point in time, it was thought to be impossible to cook food or to heat or light your home without the use of an open flame. It was once considered impossible to ever run a four-minute mile. Or to walk on the moon.

An extremely accomplished friend of mine has been blind since the age of four, and much of what he has done in his life was in spite of people who told him it was impossible. There were also some things he pursued and achieved simply because everyone told him it was impossible, and he wanted to prove them wrong.

If there’s something you want to achieve, and you’re willing to do the work and make the sacrifices it will take in order for you to accomplish it, then do NOT listen to anyone who tells you it’s impossible – until you accomplish it. That’s when they’ll say, “Great job. I KNEW you could do it!”

Betty’s Belief #2: You can be brutally honest without being brutal.

As a writer, I’ve been in a number of feedback/critique groups, and as a Toastmaster, I take part in oral and written evaluations regularly. I’ve seen – and experienced – how helpful and motivating honest and supportive feedback is, and how destructive and defeating negative, blunt feedback can be. What I’ve also discovered along the way is that the difference isn’t in the feedback itself, it’s in how it’s worded. Saying, “This was so boring it was all I could do to stay awake,” is not helpful or supportive. But saying, “There were some places where I had trouble staying focused,” is both honest and useful, especially if you can name specific areas, and explain why you had a problem with them.

The same goes for criticism and feedback given in real life. I’ve been surprised a number of times over the years when people have come up to me and told me that something I said to them made a big difference in their lives. Or in their writing, or their speaking. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was that I told them. But I know – because this is what I believe and this is the way I am – that whatever advice or suggestion I gave them, it was honest and supportive, but never brutal or unkind.

Betty’s Belief #3: You can disagree without being disagreeable.

This is something we – as a society – used to know, but have apparently forgotten. There was a time when people of differing backgrounds and beliefs could share their wisdom and experiences with each other without fear of being attacked for them. There was a time when the saying, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was a good description of some of the freedoms on which our country was founded. Today, it seems the more widespread and popular policy is the one that goes, “If you disagree with me, I will defeat you. I will humiliate you, I will dishonor you, I will silence you, and I will crush you.” Sadly, I see evidence of this mindset on a regular basis – in business, in government, in religion, and in everyday life.
I love and am very close to people who are quite different from me in virtually every possible way – in our political and religious beliefs, and in terms of race, socio-economic background, and sexual orientation. Sometimes we question each other, sometimes we challenge each other. Sometimes we confuse each other, sometimes we strengthen each other. But we always listen to each other. We always learn from each other, and we learn about each other. And even if we disagree on everything else, we always agree – implicitly or explicitly – to treat each other with respect. And that makes all the difference in the world.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on January 26, 2012.
© Betty Liedtke, 2012