Getting Out of the Way

getting out of the way photo 2015I went to have blood drawn the other day. As I waited in the crowded waiting room, I watched the technicians open the door to the blood drawing area and call out a name.  Which one will call my name, I wondered. I hope it is a good one, not one who has insomnia, is mad at a spouse, had a fender bender on the way to work, is suffering from low blood sugar and needs a candy bar. Finally my turn came. A middle-aged, cheerful woman named Maureen ushered me into the cubicle, where I sat down and rolled up a sleeve. She tied the tubing tight around my upper arm and began patting the area where she hoped for a plump vein. There were too many “hmmms” and “arrghs” for my comfort and when she finally pricked the skin and began exploring it was painful. Now, the noises were coming from me. She was full of apologies as she abandoned that site, put a bandaid on, and said she would have to try the other arm.

I was unhappy. I had lost confidence in her, and was worried she would torture me again with no success. I dutifully rolled up the other sleeve and stuck out my left arm. She tightened the tubing and patted and poked with her finger. More “hmmm”s and a final “I don’t know about this,” at which point she whipped off the tubing and shouted, “Mike!”

“I’m going to let Mike do this one,” she said matter-of-factly.  “Sometimes that’s just the thing to do.”  I was so grateful, and gushed with appreciation.

Mike whisked through the curtain with a smile. He was small, young, with hair sticking up all over his head, and black horned-rim glasses. Maureen thanked him and left to call another patient. In less than a minute Mike had performed the deed, and disappeared like a genie with three tubes of my blood.

I keep thinking about Mike with gratitude, but actually I am more interested in Maureen. She admitted failure with such clarity and grace; she knew she was just not the person for this job, for whatever reason. And she knew what to do: call in someone else, maybe more experienced and skilled, to get the job done. Did she kick herself that she hadn’t been able to find that elusive vein? Was she embarrassed? Was she resentful that Mike had to come bail her out? I saw no signs, just ultimate professionalism and a realistic view of what was needed.

I am particularly impressed because for me doing what Maureen did is very difficult. As an environmental and public policy mediator, I offer the ultimate in people skills. I am the one who keeps calm in the midst of turbulent emotions and high-stakes conflict. I am the one that interprets one enraged side to the other, that guides the group toward a more peaceful place, hopefully toward common ground. I have been doing this for over 25 years and am confident in my skills. In certain situations, I am sure that there is no one who could do the work better than me.

But I have had my own Maureen experience. I was mediating the development of a set of regulations for a federal agency. There were tribal members in the collaborative group and with much experience in Indian country I knew this was probably one of the reasons I was hired. As we entered the last phase of drafting, I worked with the tribal members to help them document their needs. The result was a 20 page statement that included all their concerns, something I thought was useful for the group to see. But I had misjudged the impact that this would have on the agency. They were furious, felt I had betrayed them, and finally that I was not a competent mediator to let things go down this inappropriate road.

In talks I realized that their trust in me was seriously shaken, and that I needed to resign and let another mediator step in. I needed to call in Mike. But I did not have Maureen’s objectivity and apparent lack of ego.  I felt a flood of emotions that clouded the situation and made the transition difficult. I felt embarrassed, victimized and unjustly accused, I was insulted on the one hand, and filled with self-doubt on the other. In sum, I was a mess and it took me a while to put the experience in perspective and realize that, like in anything, there are times when you are the right one for the job and times when you are not. The reason is not important, and your ego is not the centerpiece. The process and its ultimate success are at stake, and stepping aside takes courage and humility.

Good for you, Maureen!

9 thoughts on “Getting Out of the Way

  1. I remember this passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I say beware of all enterprises (situations) that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes. Walden reminds me that when I feel lacking- I don’t need new things (visions, ideas, tactics), I need new eyes with which to see the things I already have.” Wise words from my son…!

  2. I’ve often felt like that, Lucy, kind of ‘hipper’ than other whites. I was born In India – British. I’m white to the core. Not Indian, tho’ most of the people I cared for were. I lived New Mexico for twelve years, and, unlike you, I never had very much to do with the local peoples. But I thought I knew how they felt about ‘us’. As with Australian aborigines, South African blacks. I went to a Chinese school for a while. I thought I was Chinese. They knew not.
    It’s complicated, because the sentiments are somewhat altruistic, and kind. You think you know more than you do. And friends have not told you much, when it really comes down to it. On the other hand, who can know about me?
    Same deal.
    I think Acoma is a most remarkable city. Such a sight to see, coming down that hill and suddenly seeing That Place!
    Great Blog Lucy. Myv.

    1. Thank you, Myv! What a rich and complex life you’ve had. I really like your observation that we think we know more than we do, and that these feelings come from an altruistic place. Seems to me we also run the risk of being patronizing…ignorant altruism — interesting topic. Thanks again, Myv

  3. mike also sports red sneakers and is always of good cheer. he is my favorite cubicle person

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