Building Walls and Keeping Walls From Being Built

We were four months into our renovation project. By the four month mark, nerves are frayed. The whole house is in chaos: covered in drywall dust and splatters and paint. All of our time goes into renovations. We need to get it done, clear up the dust and get our lives back.

The players in our blended family:

  • A man who is trying to start a new business, deal with grieving, and close off his divorce (spoiler alert: that’s me).
  • His new partner who is both a perfectionist and someone who has chronic bouts of incapacitation through a chronic illness.
  • Two kids who are the best of friends with lots of shared interests. They are teens with a sprinkling of ADHD.

Building Walls Is Hard Work

Renovations are just a type of project. You have goals, tasks, workers and collaboration mechanisms. My goal was to get it all done as soon as possible, ideally in under four months. My partner’s goal was to get it done right, and when it would be complete was secondary to getting it done right. The longer the project went, the messier the house would get. Teenage ambivalence created big drifts of empty pop bottles, art supplies and undone laundry. The longer we focus on the renovation, the more the tide of junk rises.

When a project runs long, I press for completion. To complete a project, I will crop off features to shoehorn the project into the “completed” box. When it’s my own project, I will crop as required. When it’s a collaborative project, I need buy in from my collaborators. I need them to adjust their work habits or output to deliver their part of the project. That meets with resistance. My classic reaction to resistance is become louder and more strident. I will force the issue. If the wall isn’t ready, I will set a date for the painting to begin even though the wall is non-existent. That creates an urgency to get the wall up before the painter shows up. I realize that I’m a jerk. What I didn’t realize: I have a choice.

When I get frustrated, I will push for action to happen. That puts force in lieu of precision. It usually wrecks the spirit of collaboration. A project gone wrong is like a car with two gas pedals and no steering wheel. I have done it before. It has killed partnerships. It has wrecked relationships. I have a reputation for doing this. That push is my choice. When we got to the question of when the painting happens, I was tempted to say, “we’re putting the house up for sale in 3 days– finish the painting now.” It would have exasperated everyone. If there are ideal situations that can squelch an episode of depression; there are also ideal situations that can make despondency happen. I knew that. I knew jerky behaviour would not help my partner.

This time, I paused. Instead of taking the opportunity to push, I collected my thoughts. I first figured out if there was an alternative to having my partner deliver a particular task; then I suggested who it could be delegated to. I shared that I was feeling an urgency– that’s very different from landing tasks on top of my partner. I asked for compromise: I asked for it to be okay to either hand someone else the task; or that we consider a workaround to basically kill off the task. Then, I paused to listen for the response. By doing that, I got buy-in and understanding.

This all started with choice. I could choose to be strident and choose to alienate my family.  I could cave in and let the project take as long as it takes. I made the choice to recall how projects played out before. I made the choice to not engage on the topic immediately, but stop to contemplate. I stopped to come up with alternatives. I found a way to calmly share my mindset. I was willing to be realistic about the timeframes.

We have one battle: finish the renovations. I had the choice to add a new battle: to fight about the project. That engagement over the project would sap off time and willpower. The fight could delay the project. If I approached the impasse with the same mindset that I had used in the past, I could have made my partner shellshocked and bitter. I know her: depression crests now and again. She has been doing a phenomenal job to push past the symptoms of depression. If my bad behaviour left her discouraged, why would she feel compelled to hold it together? People don’t need to stay around when things get bad. They too have a choice. No one needs to keep a job they hate. No one needs to continue to volunteer their time and get only stress in return.

I reminded myself of my broader project goals. The narrow goals were to get all of the stuff nailed into place and all of the paint where it was supposed to go. There are bigger things I want in life. The broader goal was to accomplish the narrow goals along with keeping my family, my health and my sanity intact; and keeping their health and well-being intact, too. I made the choice to press for those larger goals.

Things to keep in mind

When you are confronted with a project and its difficulties, there are six things to keep in mind:

  • You have a choice. You can choose to go with behaviors that promote discord; or behaviors that take down those walls between yourself and others.
  • Pause when you need to. You are unlikely to be flying a jet plane. Your current problem will not fall apart during five minutes of seclusion, contemplation and examination.
  • Keep the bigger goals in mind. An entire project fits into a bigger project: living a good life.
  • You need to share your position. Make your goals known, especially those really big goals that wrap around the project.
  • You need to listen to the positions of others. People have different perspectives. Listen to those positions. Find a way to revise your position to synchronize with their positions.
  • Don’t be a jerk. Your collaborators want to help you complete the project. Work with them to find a way to complete the project well.
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