Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wall Street's Fault!

What a month! For the first three weeks of September, I was in Australia giving seminars at their National Mediation Conference, a day with Human Resource Professionals for the national railroad (RailCorp), and four days teaching about High Conflict People to students and professionals at a Masters in Conflict Resolution university program. I watched the financial meltdown in the U.S. from a distance.

Then, I flew to Kentucky last week to give an all-day workshop for a conference of the United States Ombudsman Association and the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. It seems that interest in conflict resolution and high conflict personalities is alive and well, although our economy is not. Perhaps there are some lessons that overlap here.

First, Setting Limits (Part I): One of the key issues I study and teach is that high conflict people are risk-takers and they can’t stop themselves. Suddenly we, as a nation, are discovering that deregulation and other policies allowed some risk-takers to go too far. Whose fault is that? Well, who allowed deregulation to happen? Probably all of us, out of an eternal optimism and trust in others and trust in Wall Steet. And lack of knowledge of how high conflict people are increasing—and can’t stop themselves. The lesson learned? Hopefully, that WE need to keep setting limits so that the risk-takers who represent us financially and politically.

Second, Setting Limits (Part II): Congress is getting approval ratings these days around 15%. Whose fault is that? It seems to me that we have a choice every two years to provide consequences for many of those we elect, and our decisions can have a big impact on the rest. But who votes? Can’t blame that on Congress. WE need to set those limits on our politicians. We shouldn’t focus on blame. We should vote!

Interestingly, in Australia everyone is required to vote and they have strong penalties if you do not. I wonder if such a requirement in the U.S. would produce less self-interested and less extreme politicians.

Third, Reality-Testing: It seems that we, as a nation, got caught up in believing in a housing and credit market that had no limits. What were WE thinking? It seems to me that we were told it couldn’t last, but wishful thinking took over. Of course, the media fed this wishful thinking. Lesson learned? WE have to keep our own expectations and dreams balanced by reality. And we need to stop paying as much attention to the images of more and larger and richer that we are bombarded with everyday.

Fourth, Empathy Attention and Respect: Most of all, rather than looking for who to blame (it’s not just THEM, and it’s not just US), we need to recognize that these are normal human problems. Brain research suggests that we like to blame others (it makes us feel good about ourselves when things go wrong), and that we like to put a human face on our complex problems (someone else’s, of course). So let’s have a little empathy for all of us. It’s normal to want more. It’s normal to want complete freedom to make money. The question is finding the right balance between individual risk-taking and selfishness, and society’s general well-being. We are always learning. We have incredible abilities to change course and learn from our mistakes. What policies need to be changed? What expectations need to be changed? Which decisions led to this? And what decisions will lead us out of this? Rather than focusing on Who’s to Blame for this mess in the past, I hope that we focus on learning what all of us can do differently in the future.

Fifth, Flexible Thinking: It is tempting to solve the problem of over-spending and over-extending by cutting back in an extreme manner—using “all-or-nothing thinking.” The world economy will stabilize when each of us stabilizes. This means that we shouldn’t panic and stop buying and stop contributing to the economy to protect ourselves individually. The biggest lesson of all, in my thinking, is that we need to stay connected to each other in these troubled times. Best wishes!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Narcissism and the Meltdown

I don’t know if you saw an Associated Press article in your newspaper last week (10/7/08) about a Los Angeles area married man who killed himself, his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law. He was unemployed, previously worked in the accounting industry and was despondent over his extreme financial difficulties. Apparently he left a suicide note saying he considered two options: just killing himself or killing his whole family. He reportedly chose to kill his whole family, because it was “more honorable.” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/7/08, p. A4)

Why would someone do this? And what can we do to help prevent this from happening more widely? Some ideas came together for me yesterday while speaking about high conflict personalities with 230 domestic violence professionals in the Chicago area. They had a powerful display of life-size figures of women who have been killed by their husbands/boyfriends and T-shirts with writing by children whose parents were killed. The danger of domestic violence is on their minds every day and their work is so important. I used the above example to explain ways to work with Narcissists.

First, Recognize Narcissism for what it is: an unconscious human defense mechanism. Narcissists are preoccupied with their public image, because their very shaky self-image is managed by trying to look superior in public. Images of wealth, having honorable status, trophy spouses, children in the best schools, etc. often help narcissists cope with a deep underlying sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. When the public image is shattered, many narcissists cannot cope. Some become violent toward others, often those closest to them, who they blame for their own problems in their distorted and dangerous thinking. Others blame themselves. In either case, violence becomes a much higher risk.

Second, Narcissism is Widespread: Researchers indicate that each younger generation has become more and more self-centered and narcissistic over the past 50 years (and this seems to be worldwide). A very recent national study in the U.S. (Stinson, et al, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, July 2008) determined that over 6% of our population meets the criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder. This means that over 18 million people in the U.S. may appear normal, but are stuck in a self-centered, self-defeating dysfunctional cycle of thinking, feeling and acting.

Third, There Need to be Consequences: Narcissists can’t stop themselves, whether it’s domestic violence or greed. However, when they know that there is a strong enough negative consequence, they will restrain their behavior. That’s what we just learned about Wall Street with insufficient regulations, and that’s what we know about domestic violence reoccurring when there aren’t strong legal consequences, like jail time.

Fourth, Don’t Diss the Narcissists: Taking a chapter title from my new book (“It’s All YOUR Fault!”), it is very important to resist the urge to criticize obviously narcissistic people when their fortunes turn sour. Resist the urge to say I told you so, and resist the urge to say Now look at you, Mr. Big Shot. DON’T tell people you think they are narcissistic. It might hurt you in the long run. Instead, give them your E.A.R.: Your EMPATHY (not sympathy—empathy means you can have similar feelings and frustrations), a little ATTENTION, and RESPECT them for their efforts and positive qualities as a person.

Fifth, You’re Not Alone: One of the surprising things about this financial meltdown is that it is worldwide and will affect everyone. No one individual is solely to blame for this (although those who have significant responsibility should have appropriate legal and financial consequences). We need to stick together. We need to let others know that we care and want them to know that there is more to living than making money. Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that we will discover that we can care for people more than money after all!
Please check out my new book "Its All Your Fault".