Is Your Boss a Bookcase?

I’m writing today to share with you a way to understand people that can help you, even under the most trying circumstances, maintain your perspective and choose your responses.

It’s an unusual post as it’s based on a way of thinking that helped me navigate my divorce with more wisdom (or at least with less crazy!).

When I was going through my divorce, I made a commitment to myself to do it ‘well.’ We had young kids and I was determined that they not suffer because their dad and I couldn’t find our way through our challenges and differences.

Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I didn’t but I did do it better when I landed on a way to understand what had gone wrong and, as you might imagine from the title of this post, it involved furniture.

I often find that if I can simplify an emotionally heated and complex issue, I can work with it more effectively. One day when I was trying to explain to an old friend what had happened in our marriage I landed on this framework…

Bill (my ex-husband) is a bookcase. He is solid, organized, holds information well, and can be used to hold great thoughts and things of beauty.

I wanted Bill to be a couch; someone I could curl into and feel comforted by and held.

This thought was transformative for me because for years I had complained that Bill wouldn’t change even though I explained to him what I needed and told him why it was important to me that he be different.

Once I had the framework of the bookcase, I realized that I was the problem.

I was standing in front of a bookcase and explaining all the reasons why it should become a couch. And then, I would leave the room shocked, hurt, and offended that it hadn’t become a couch, it was still a bookcase.

When I describe it as a literal bookcase and couch, I could see that it was my behavior that was crazy.

Bill was (and still is) a bookcase! A perfectly good bookcase, probably better than many. But I wanted a couch. And, even if you break apart a bookcase and pad it, it still won’t be a couch.

Bookcases and couches are fundamentally different, serving fundamentally different purposes. If I wanted a couch, I needed to get a couch – not demand day after day that the bookcase become a couch, yet that’s what I had done with Bill.

It was a game changer for me to start to think this way.

People are people and while they can change significantly more than a piece of furniture can change, they can’t change who they are fundamentally.

So, it’s important to consider who you’re hiring, working on a project with, partnering with, or marrying. It’s important that you consider who they are at a fundamental level to ensure that you will get what you need in the relationship.

And if you can’t choose who you work with, it’s at least helpful to consider that they are not trying to make you crazy, they are being who they are and it’s important to think about how to get the best of who they are rather than standing in front of them demanding they be someone else.

I’ve found this to be a powerful image, and it’s fun to explore this concept with clients. They’ll say things like, “Oh, my boss is an armchair – soft but you can’t really relax around him” or “my co-worker is a file cabinet, she loves having all the information available all the time” or “my manager is a kitchen table always surrounded by her buds.”

This week, consider the people in your lives who you find most challenging and think about them as a wonderful piece of furniture. Then ask yourself, what it is you’re looking for.

If you’re going to get the best out of people, you need to make sure that you know who they are and what they have to offer.

Let me know what you find,
Linda Carpenter

PS. If the furniture image doesn’t work for you, consider this . . . you would never go up to your dog and ask that he or she become a cat or vice versa!

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  • Linda Carpenter, Stephanie Smith

    Carpenter Smith Consulting

    Linda Carpenter and Stephanie Smith started Carpenter Smith Consulting in Portland to support individuals and teams who dream about having the power, impact and influence to create success and meaning in ... Read full profile
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