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Early on in most mentoring engagements I introduce the idea of Compromising Up. The idea is simple but very difficult to absorb. Literally hundreds of times a day you face a situation that offers multiple ways of responding. Most people respond viscerally or using a limited number of criteria.

Someone might say something to you that set you off. Your response, rather than resolving the situation productively, makes it worse. Then things escalate and before you know it all possibility of harvesting positive results have been submerged.

Or maybe it’s subtler than that. An individual says something to you and you respond without thinking. It’s only sometime later that you come to realize that they were offering to help. But the chance is gone. The moment has passed.

Maybe you are intent on developing a closer relationship with an individual who is far more knowledgeable in an area. You have decided that this person could help you. So you schedule a meeting. But, for any of a number of reasons, you get distracted and miss the meeting. In that moment when you are distracted you had an option to compromise up. But you didn’t. And the opportunity to learn has passed you by.

The point of all of this is that the second order effects from your actions can have a much greater impact on your life experience. We all tend to pursue agendas. And, in a given situation, an agenda item might be to accomplish X. But in accomplishing such a thing, we find that what has happened because of such an accomplishment sours the entire experience.

Wisdom begins with understanding how the second order effects impact your life experience. It advances when you can broaden your focus beyond your personal agenda to include those around you and the context.

Becoming aware of the second-order effects tends to be a major focus of early mentoring sessions. It is one of the most difficult yet empowering parts of the journey. It’s also one that most people can’t make on their own because they don’t hold themselves sufficiently to account. Stated directly, they operate unaware of the second order effects and therefore focus only on the achievement of their primary goals. Breaking out of that destructive cycle is best accomplished with an experienced mentor.

The good news is that, with focused effort, the cycle of accidental defining can be broken. The idea of compromising up can operate in real time. An understanding of potential second-order effects can be developed. And, in the end, life can be considerably less chaotic and far more productive.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II