In every relationship: professional and personal, there is a balance of power. In healthy relationships where we feel empowered, we are able to be our authentic selves. We can act with confident strength, we are able to speak up and address uncomfortable problems. We can demonstrate the vulnerability that let’s us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult.
In relationships where we lack power, we become insecure. We get snarky, passive aggressive, and resentful. We let our fear drive our behavior.
For most of my life, I gave away my power without even knowing it. I acted out of a need to be liked and to look good. Because of this, I played the victim a lot. If I got a traffic ticket it was because the cop was a jerk. If I lost a fight, it was because the ref made a bad call. If I lost a customer, they just made a dumb decision. Nothing was my fault…ever. Of course, I didn’t know any of this back then. I didn’t understand why I kept losing. Bad luck I guess?
In the past few years, I’ve learned that my bad luck was entirely my fault. Now I know that the choices I make dictate my circumstances. And because I have control over my choices, I can make my own luck.
The area of life where this change is most obvious is when I screw up. Before, if I made a mistake and had bad news for a customer, I put off making the call because I was scared of their reaction. I made a habit of avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Then, when I finally did talk to them, I made excuses. I blamed the problem on someone else. This created a power shift between us. I lost power and I lost confidence. And because I didn’t own up to the problem, my customer lost confidence in me. I felt their loss of confidence in me and became even weaker. Downward spiral anyone?
What I’ve learned since then is that there is a really effective way to recover after messing up. It is the art of taking the blame and owning total responsibility for the situation. The idea is illustrated beautifully in Eminem’s movie 8-Mile.
In 8-Mile, Eminem plays the main character, Jimmy “B-Rabbit”, a blue collar factory worker from the wrong side of the tracks in Detroit. Jimmy’s life has been in shambles. His girl cheated on him. He got jumped by his rival rappers. His relationship with his alcoholic mom is disintegrating. Every hope he has to cut a demo tape and make it in the music world depends on the outcome of his rap battle with his archrival, and current champion, Poppa Doc. The rap battle takes place in a hip hop club in front of a raucous audience who determines the winner by their applause.
B-Rabbit is a really talented and hard working rapper but he totally choked the last time he battled Poppa Doc. He got crushed and humiliated. His time for redemption is at hand but he must come up with a rap to vanquish the champ. His problem is that you typically win a rap battle by dissing the other rapper. And Poppa Doc has much more to dis B-Rabbit about (his life is in shambles) than B-Rabbit has to retaliate with.
As the challenger, B-Rabbit is forced to go first. This is typically a weaker position because your opponent can rebut your rap and use what you said against you.
But here is where the magic happened.
Instead of just attacking his opponent like everyone expected, B-Rabbit rapped about himself. He made fun of the fact that his girl cheated on him, he dissed himself for getting his butt kicked by Poppa Doc’s crew, for his best friend shooting himself in the crotch, and for being such a loser and living with his mom in a trailer park. If you don’t mind an impressive barrage of profanity, you can click here to watch the battle.
When B-Rabbit’s rap was over, Poppa Doc had nothing to say. B-Rabbit took away all his ammunition, all his power.
So how does this apply to your life?
Imagine that you show up late for an important appointment. If you didn’t know better, you might walk in and say, “I am so sorry for being late, traffic was really bad” or “Man, I’m sorry I’m late, I had trouble finding the place.” If you really blow it, you might not even address the fact that you’re late. None of these apologies takes real ownership of the disrespect and disregard that your tardiness demonstrated.
However, if you were thinking WWBRD (what would B-Rabbit do?), here is what you would do.
When you show up late for the meeting you would say “I am so sorry for making you wait. This was completely my fault. There is no excuse, and I won’t let this happen again.” or something along those lines. If your apology doesn’t include the words “It is completely my fault” or “I take full ownership of my mistake” or “It was nobody else’s fault but my own” than you are giving your power away.
The magic with this approach is that it completely disarms the other person and takes away their power to still blame you. What can they say? “Yeah, you should have left earlier!” You already said that. And if they do, you just say, “You are totally right. It was completely my fault. I am sorry I kept you waiting.” By you owning the problem completely, both of you can put it behind you and move forward.
This approach is especially powerful if the problem wasn’t entirely your fault. For example, let’s say that you got in an argument with your wife. Both of you participated in the argument and you are both at fault. But if you want to be the leader, nip the argument in the bud, and put this behind you, say something like. “I’m sorry honey. I didn’t mean for this to happen. This argument was totally my fault. I love you so much. Please forgive me”
After she does a double take, and examines you for sarcasm, she will let out a deep breath, tension will drain from her, and she will say“No, it wasn’t your fault, I’m sorry too.”
Problem solved, you can both put the argument behind you, and you can feel good about taking ownership of a problem you contributed to.
Psychologically, this works because as soon as you own it, she doesn’t have to defend herself, or attack you any longer. When you take responsibility, she can let her guard down, and you can come together.
The other benefit is that once you are in the habit of taking ownership for the problems in your life, you’ll identify ways to prevent a similar problem the next time.
So, if you want to become more confident, strengthen your relationships, and face fewer problems, start taking ownership of how you show up in life. Just remember, WWBRD.
Take the lead,
Jeremiah Miller is a leadership coach and the founder of Forging Leaders. He believes that the greatest contribution we can make to the world is related to the greatest personal struggle we have overcome. Growing up without a dad, his greatest struggle was leadership. He is grateful to his wife and his friends for allowing him to learn many of his leadership lessons at their expense.
You can reach Jeremiah at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916.835.7186