Essays

The delicate art of negotiation

I live in awe of partner dancing.

My older brother did ballroom dance in high school and it was something that always struck me as fascinating, the interplay between the lead and the follow, and silent conversation, and the art of both dominance and submission. As a pianist, I have found that same dynamic present between my left hand and my right, between the keys and the pedals, between technical perfection and whimsical musicality.

In other words: it takes two to tango.

Over this weekend, over a series of conversations with my very dear friend, we discovered quite sharply (but with no hurt feelings or deep wounds) that we are rather different in our approaches to living and to tackling problems. It came to a head in a discussion on job searches and moving, as we are both simultaneously engaged in these points.

My upcoming move has caused me to produce a detailed inventory of every item I think I will need, a priority for each item, unit cost and total costs, identification of the vendors for the items that I need, and a link to the ones I have selected. And yes, it is in a spreadsheet. And yes, I have calculated the totals. And yes, I am tracking order numbers.

She finds this horrifying and discomforting; I do not think I could function without it.

Conversely, her approach when it comes to her job search (and her requesting my general assistance with it) led to me doing something of a similar fashion with questions like:

  1. What type of people do you want to work with?
  2. What type of hours do you prefer?
  3. What type of work, specifically, do you like?

To which she threw up her hands and said: “I’m adaptable!” and I responded: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!”

And then she critiqued my inventory list with the statement of: “I just like to move into a space and see what happens. What you’re doing makes me think you’re deciding once and for all and you’re stuck with it! I hate being stuck with things.”

And round-and-round we went until we came to the conclusion of this: she is not all that way (she likes some order and structure, of course) and I am not all the other way (I am always willing to change my mind and to have it changed even after the fact).

The challenge is about how to communicate that we are people that are flexible and adaptable, but that we start from such different points and yet want the same outcome: to be happy with where we are going and who we believe we will be.

It has been an illuminating few days, to share a space with a dear, dear friend and yet recognize that we are so flagrantly different in these tiny little things, which, if left unaddressed or unacknowledged, would flare up into these grand irritations and sulking and hurt feelings.

It is never about being right, you see, it is about accepting difference, in fact, even celebrating it.

I derive a deep comfort from controlling my space around me… because I grew up in an environment where certain things that deeply affected me were explicitly not in my control. But, I never have had even the hint of a desire to control others. My friend grew up in a way that provided her an alternate approach. Some times it feels that we are starkly different, but then–

One step, two step. I lead, you follow. You lead, I follow. It is a dance, it is a discussion, it is a careful negotiation that is coached in the language of sharing and of empathy, of understanding and a desire to be understood, of knowing and being known.

She will never succeed in wresting this detailed inventory from my cold, dead hands, but that’s okay for if she asks: “Shall we wander off here today?” there is no question of my answer:

Yes. (Because I’m adaptable, too, one simply just need ask: specifically!)

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