Friday, October 7, 2011

Social Interactions

Part of my job, a large part actually, is interacting with people.  A stage manager needs to keep the director happy, the actors happy, the designers happy, the technicians happy, and, if it's a musical, the musicians happy.  That's a lot of groups of people to keep happy and those people are from all sorts of personality types and backgrounds.

My job depends on reading people and I honestly don't mean to boast when I say that I'm quite good at reading people.  It's part of my job.  I can tell when someone says my name if it's because they need something or just want to chat or if they have a serious concern.  I can do what someone wants before they actually ask (that's actually a lot of fun to do).

I used to be awful at reading people.  I didn't know when to stop talking (or when to start).  I didn't know how to gracefully accept criticism.  My default reaction was anger when it seemed like someone was challenging me (I still struggle with this and with criticism depending on the situation and on the person).  I recently was living back in my parent's house for a few months and both my sisters remarked (after having spent time with me for the first time in years) on how different and relaxed I seemed.

I think dating the change back to one particular instance is unrealistic, but I do remember when I decided consciously that I couldn't be angry my entire life.  I had just finished soccer practice, I was fourteen so I couldn't drive yet and my mom was picking me up and driving me to volleyball practice (not looking forward to that aspect of being a parent (at some nebulous far off day in the future)).  We had about an hour and a half between practices and normally my mom and I went and did something (getting a snack, going to a park, etc).

This time we went to a park.  I didn't want to go to volleyball.  My coach thought I had a bad attitude.  My mom and I had had this discussion before (she was also a volleyball coach and could empathize with my coach).  My biggest problem was I have been in a volleyball gym since I was seven days old, my mom coach, I'd grown up seeing the game played, so when a coach told me I'd made a mistake, I really did know I'd made a mistake and 90% of the time I knew exactly how to fix it.  Of course, tactless and angry as I was, my response to the coach was "I know!"  To me it was one of those situations where I knew I'd messed up and I didn't need my face rubbed in it.

My mom's point was always: "If you know why you messed up then why did it happen in the first place?"  She knew it was an unfair response, but she was trying to make about how coaches say things.  So there we were, me sitting in a park with my mom, sobbing.  I honestly didn't understand.  My mom explained that coaches want to hear "Yes" or "Okay" or "I'll make that change" when they give corrections.  My (clearly brilliant) counterpoint was "But I do know".  I think this repetitive conversation must have gone on for a full hour.  The advice was nothing new, I had heard it all before, but somehow my mom got it through my thick head this time.  I agreed to just say "okay" or even just nod the next time a coach went to correct my error.  (For the record, this was never a problem in soccer like it was with volleyball (probably because I actually didn't know as much about soccer)).

The amazing thing is my mom's advice worked almost immediately.  The libero (a position that is basically a defensive specialist) from the local large college helped out with our practices occasionally.  I really really respected her (hell, I wanted to be her) and when she corrected a passing error I had made, I nodded and passed the next ball perfectly.  I was immediately rewarded with the phrase, "You take directions so well."  That was probably the first time I'd had that phrase used in reference to me, but was by no means the last.

I didn't get better at taking directions completely or immediately, but I did gain some important insight into people: when someone says something they want their opinions respected.  So, now when someone says something I disagree with if it's not going to actually harm me or anyone else then I nod, smile (I used to grimace because it was so hard for me), and say "Okay, sure" or "Yeah, I can do that."  I do this even when my thoughts are more along the lines of "Sure, you're saying words that I'm not actually going to follow at all.

Believe it or not I actually got complimented on doing this.  My technical director was a man I respected, but frequently disagreed with, but I made a habit of saying, "Yes, okay" to him (and I really did try to do what he asked the majority of the time).  My last show in college, he came up to me and said: "I know you frequently disagree with me and sometimes when you agree with what I say, you're just humoring me, but I appreciate it and wish more people did it, so thank you."  He then promptly got embarrassed and ran away because he wasn't someone who was comfortable with complimenting other people.

And, this isn't the only thing that's important by any means when interacting with people.  There are so so many things I have learned, particularly from stage managing, and I think one day I will write more about it.  As is, I have rambled on long enough and have written, if not a novel, then at least a short story.

Note: I'm not advising you to lie to people.  I'm simply saying that in my experience people respond better if you are polite and humor them.

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