Keeping score

Every week, I join several dozen people for a 90-minute tennis workout. We have five players per court, five courts, and a pro on each court. Rather than play regular games, we do drills: baseline shots on one court, overheads on the next, then one-up-one-back or volleys, through all five courts. The pros typically run the drills as fast-paced games: the first team to 5 or 7 points wins.

This week, a pro named Shelly was running us through a drill. After a long point, she called out, “Three-two.”

I said, “I thought it was four-one.”

“No,” another player said, “The score’s three-two.”

Shelly jumped into the air and yelled, “Yes! Yes! I’m right! I can’t believe it! I finally GOT PAULA!” I was totally surprised by her reaction, and gave her a “What’s up?” look. Excited, she called back, “You’ve been correcting me for 15 years, and today I finally got one right!” She was thrilled. And I was heartsick.

Yes, when we play games I mentally keep score. And if a pro calls a different score from what’s in my head, I typically question it as a way of double-checking myself. No big deal.

But clearly it was a big deal to Shelly–so big that she was jumping up and down with excitement over my mistake. I felt horrible. It never occurred to me that my keeping score on friendly workout games left someone else feeling wrong. To Shelly, my score-keeping was so important that she kept that score for 15 years!

As soon as we finished, I pulled her aside and apologized. “I feel terrible about this,” I said. “I never meant to point a finger or hurt your feelings.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said. “It’s just that I KNOW I lose focus out here, and you always have the right score, and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to what I’m doing….” She was really good-natured about it, but three days later I’m still wondering what other things I say and do that leave people feeling a little “less than” in my wake.

I’m like everyone else. I really value some things and am oblivious to others. For instance, I love language, and sometimes the old English teacher in me still rears her ugly head and corrects my partner’s grammar or word choice. Does he think more highly of me because of my astute ear? No! Is he overflowing with gratitude when I correct him? Hardly! Was I overflowing with gratitude any of the hundreds of times my father corrected my grammar? Never!

So why do I do it? Because when I’m not mindful, I get pulled back into the  world of being “better than,” of winning when winning isn’t what matters. Because part of me feels good when I’m right … and forgets that others like the same feeling for the same reason. Because part of me still mistakenly confuses grammar with goodness, which translates to confusing being right with being okay.

We all have habits like this. And they don’t just affect our personal relationships. They’re on display in organizations all the time. We hoard information to give us an edge over someone else. We talk poorly about others as a subtle way of conveying that we’re better, or take mental note of their failings while quietly overlooking our own. We push for our position in meetings because, after all, it is better than anyone else’s. In short, we push to be on top even when it doesn’t matter.

I see the fallout, too. Just the other day, a client was struggling to find something positive in the midst of chronic budgetary cutbacks, a recent workplace tragedy, January drizzle, and the daily grind of challenges between her organization and the monster pyramid it is part of.

She stopped, regrouped, and said, “You know what really bothers me? I don’t have one person above me who cares one damned bit about me or what’s going on in my organization. I just realized that!” Her boss and her boss’s boss act with indifference toward her and her organization unless they need something. And it leaves her feeling isolated.

“I don’t want to be like that,” she added. “I’m sure there are people who work in my organization who think I’m distant and don’t care. So I want to do things that say I do care about people and what they’re facing. I want to model that.”

I suspect this conversation was a turning point for her, as my conversation with Shelly was for me.

My client now knows what she wants to model. That’s her mindfulness at work, and I admire it.

I want Shelly to be glad to see me coming onto her court. I want my clients and those I love to feel well regarded and important in my presence. When I was young, I sowed subtle and not-so-subtle “I’m better than…” messages all the time, mostly because I struggled so mightily with my own lack of confidence.

I still value a good game. I value even more the wisdom of those who know when not to keep score.

 

 

 

 

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