Remember the anniversary!

“My mom scolded me big time this morning for NOTHING!” That was the first thing Ann told me when we met up for lunch.

“I don’t remember your mom being unreasonable,” I said.

“Of late. We always fight. She complained that I don’t know how to cook! It is not fair!” she said.

Ann loves her mom. Last year, she gave up a job offer in the US because her mom was unwell. She returned to Vietnam. The opposite is also true. Her mom is a single parent and raised her single-handedly. Ann joked that she is the center of her mom’s universe which is probably true.

“Come to think about it, we used to fight like this too. Whenever I had to return to the US after a summer break in Vietnam,” she said.

“Aren’t you going to relocate to the Philippines next month?” I asked. Ann is management trainee in an international firm and part of her program requests her to relocate within the region for the next few years.

“Yup. And?” She asked.

“And your mom didn’t scold you,” I said. 

“Listen. She is sad that you are leaving her again and she is annoyed that you are spending more time at work and with your friends before you go. And she is probably worried about how are you going to survive not knowing how to cook,” I said.

I told her a personal story.

Pankaj was my first boss in P&G. He is someone with high emotional intelligence with the ability to decode subtle intentions. He read between the lines. He noticed that his boss was unusually critical of him at the end of the month. The boss would find the smallest negligible fault in his work and be tough on him.

Eventually, he read between the lines and figured out the root cause. His boss got pressure from his boss’s boss about business delivery every month. And his boss’s boss’s probably got the question from his one up manager. Those questions usually come in the last week of the month.

“He took away the problem before it became one,” I said.

He gave his boss a business update every third week of the month proactively. A simple step that saved him from reworking his plans.

A senior at work said, “manage your boss intentionally before he manages you blindly.” I think the philosophy is true for all types of relationship, especially family. Oftentimes, we take our family for granted because we assume that they’ll always be there for us.

“How do I read between the lines like your boss?” Ann asked.

“The wife is angry at the husband. For him coming home late, for his dirty laundry, and she even stopped laughing at his jokes. these are all the other layers of the onion. Those are symptoms. At the core, which is the root cause, she might just be mad at him for forgetting their anniversary and feels unloved,” I used a common movie scene as an example.

“Learn to be tell the differences between symptoms and cause,” I said, “causes are usually deep and emotional, so we don’t get to describe them often. It is so much harder to find the words for it. That’s why…most of us tend to tell you the symptoms. We don’t actually mean what we say.”

“In your mom’s case, what do you think are the symptoms and cause?” I asked. Ann thought for a while.

“Our arguments are the symptoms. We argue because she needed my attention?” she said.

“I think the cause is that she feels insecure?” she continued.

“Why would she feel insecure?” I probed.

“Because… I am her center of her universe and I am going away again,” she came to her Aha! realization.

“So what do I do with my mom? She asked.

“Overwhelm her with tender loving care. Make her feels safe. I assure you that the arguments will go away,” I said.

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