Ego Dance

It was about a year ago, in the spring of 1992, when I started to understand. I was having lunch with two fellows who had left Microsoft to produce and market very high quality technical reports. Both of these guys had been very involved with the development and marketing of OS/2, and they really knew their stuff. The conversation was rapid and intense, as we each sought to establish our technical dominance over the other. I raised a question about the motivation behind certain OS/2 design decisions and they pounced quickly. I was mistaken, they assured me, because they had had many personal conversations with Bill Gates about exactly the topic at hand, and my information was just plain wrong.

Somewhat chagrined, but not one to give up easily, I pounced back on another point, and then another. And on it went, the dance of the egos. After an hour or so, we had traded an immense amount of information, but something else had happened. I realized that I felt drained and resentful, and I had absolutely no desire to call these two people into my life ever again. It wasn’t that they were bad or mean or anything like that. Instead, they reminded me too much of myself… of that part of me that I was (and still am) trying to outgrow. And I realized that the process we had engaged in, this “dance of the egos”, which was so totally familiar to me as a left-brained engineer, was dehumanizing and demeaning to all of us.

As this insight penetrated my awareness, I wanted to get up from the table and just walk away; but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. The literal “tell the truth” part of me wanted to share this new perception, but I didn’t know how. Instead, I continued the conversation for a little while longer, then thanked them and promised to follow up with them later.

I lied. I had no intention of calling them ever again; but I couldn’t tell them that because I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the skills then to tell them my truth in a clean, open and emotionally honest fashion. I could tell my truth about technical matters which were safe, somehow; but going deeper than that and telling them how I felt as a human being wasn’t safe. It was just too scary. And much of the time, it still is.

About a month ago, one of my clients, Craig Nathanson at Intel, asked me to write a paper on “human versus technical skills.” Craig has been leading an effort at Intel to identify the critical skills that the people in his organization will need if Intel is to move forward as an organization. As a part of this investigation, Craig’s team (of which I have been an occasional member) organized the necessary skills into four major categories: human, personal productivity, business and analytical and technical.

His recognition that human skills were of utmost importance was a real eye-opener for me, because, as a recovering engineer, I have been working on making this transition. At first, I thought that writing this paper would be a “no brainer.” I have worked so hard on turning myself into a real human being, attending workshops, learning to be open and vulnerable, that I have started to operate under the illusion that I know and understand this “stuff.” But when it came to actually responding to his request and doing the writing, something was holding me up. Time and again, I got a case of writer’s block. I would stare at the computer, but nothing would appear on the screen.

Then last night, it hit me. I was trying to write from my head rather than from my heart. I was approaching the problem like an engineer would… logically. And that is just the problem. For most of my life, I have hidden behind logic. This made me a pretty good engineer, but I always felt somewhat of an outcast from the rest of humanity.

For the past 25 years, I have hung around lots of other software engineers. We were the bunch that the “straight” people, the sales and marketing types, would call the “beard and sneakers crew.” They would express a certain degree of awe and wonder at what we could do with computers, and then would talk about slipping us pizza under the door, trembling in terror at the thought of letting us go near a customer.

As a group, we would play with this. At Tandem Computers one day in 1978, the entire software development department came to work dressed in suits. We paraded around the building to let everybody see that we actually had suits and could even, if the need arose, tie a neck tie. But rather than cop out to the bullshit, we chose to come to work in cut off dungarees, holey tee shirts and bare feet “because it was comfortable”. We would laugh at the people in suits. But inside, there was an emptiness to the laughter.

Life at Tandem was great. The halls would ring with people intensely debating complex technical topics. Once, I spent three days arguing deeply about some esoteric problem having to do with how the DDL compiler should represent a certain type of COBOL picture clause. Three days, just trying to be right. When called on it, I would respond that I didn’t need to be right; I just wanted to find the best solution. But inside, I really wanted it to be my solution.

I got fired from Tandem because I pissed off the VP of Software Development. I had all the tact and grace of a bull elephant, and I didn’t have any respect for people who abused their power. At least that was what I told myself.

And then a few years later, I got fired from another job because I couldn’t get along with the VP of Software Development there. And a few years after that, the same thing happened again. But this time, I was in my mid forty’s with a family and a huge mortgage, and making lots of money. Getting fired this time meant I might wind up living under a bridge. I was deeply angry at the people who had done this to me, and terrified of being a total failure as a husband and father. I sounded just like my own father and history was repeating itself.

My dad was a brilliant man who had to be right at all costs, and who couldn’t tolerate people who wouldn’t let him have his way. He was a lousy father and a miserable husband, and I had become him.

As I started to look back at my life, I realized that there was a common thread to all of my interactions with the people who had pushed me away. I had pushed them away first. I had judged them and found them wanting, even while I was wanting something from them. They were jerks because they didn’t understand me. Nobody understood me, and nobody cared. I deeply, desperately wanted someone to care for me, to hold me, to love me and heal me; but I was unwilling and unable to do this for myself.

As I was working through my third firing, I came in contact with a codependent work group that was based on a 12 step program. I got deeply involved and started openly sharing what was going on with me, and openly starting to face my fears. I started to understand the victim, persecutor, rescuer triangle and realized that I was an exquisite victim. I learned to become more open and vulnerable, and to listen to and acknowledge my feelings. Even with all this work, many of my key relationships were still in a shambles; but they were showing signs of healing.

I started to see a counselor on a regular basis, and sometimes my wife would join me. And then one day, something very significant happened. I had realized that I wasn’t really telling my wife how I felt because I didn’t feel safe telling her. Every time I tried, she would start asking questions and respond by telling me what was going on with her. In desperation, I blurted out, “Stop! I don’t want to answer your questions or hear your thoughts. I just want to tell you how I feel. Don’t analyze me or question me. Don’t even respond. Just hear me. Become a rock in the stream and let me wash over you.” And she did.

I realized that wanting to tell her my truth wasn’t enough. Our relationship problems stemmed from a lack of skills, on both my part and hers. Neither of us knew how to listen empathically. We were both up in our heads, analyzing.

That incident became a metaphor for me of the problem of personal growth. Each of us is born with our own unique gifts. Some are natural healers and some are engineers; but our native ability can only take us so far. Growing our skills beyond the gifts we were given takes practice. It takes trial and error. It takes making mistakes and failing. For software engineers, this takes place in the isolation of our minds as we build and debug programs. The process is quite safe… just me and the computer. It may not do what I want right away, but it is nothing personal; its just a bug. Find the bug, correct the code, recompile, and presto! It’s fixed! But with people, it’s not quite so simple. Failing in relationship with people means judgment and rejection. Computers are so much safer.

If you are a left-brainer, otherwise known as an engineer, a techno-weenie or propeller-head, maybe you recognize a little bit of yourself in my experiences. If you do, can you also recognize the need deep within yourself to share your truth with other people? Instead of talking just about technical topics, take a risk and talk about how you really feel. Try to find someone who is willing to just listen non-judgementally and let you just tell your truth. At first, this may be scary and difficult; but if you practice daily, and take the risk of being open and vulnerable, you will rapidly build the skill of communicating with people in a much more open and honest manner.

But it’s not enough just to speak your truth. You must also learn to listen to the truth of others. It is easy to listen critically, to find fault, to be right; but it is very hard to listen non-judgmentally, to let go of the need to be right and the need to win. Listening empathically means hearing what is being said at all levels, even if the person speaking is unskilled at telling their truth. It means letting go of the need to explain and defend yourself, and even letting go of the analytical tendency to probe and ask clarifying questions.

Listening from your heart means simply hearing what is said and echoing back what is said in your own words to let the speaker know that you understand what they really said. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them or support them; only that you hear them. I have found that simply helping someone feel heard is a wonderful tool for building rapport and even intimacy.

If you are not a left-brainer, but you spend much of your time dealing with them, and find yourself frustrated by their apparent mono-dimensionality, try creating a safe space and just listening empathically. Become the rock in the stream and let them wash over you. Don’t question them or give them feedback. Just be there and make it safe for them to tell their truth and become more whole. Help them learn to listen to their heart and to yours.

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