A few years back, I was part of a long, uncomfortable meeting in which multiple people were sitting around a table trying to figure out how to best help a student with significant disabilities. Everything felt awkward, because the parents were scowling at one another with raw contempt—their pending divorce was contentious and ugly, and they'd brought their feelings right into the room with them. Between the two sat a court-appointed guardian ad litem. She'd been assigned to the case by the courts, given the role of determining what was best for the child, since the parents were unable to agree. About anything.
I was particularly nervous, because I was leading the meeting—and it was my job to negotiate, explain, and nudge everyone toward an agreement. I was the mediator. The one who would find compromise. Eeeek.
Soon after we started the meeting, an idea came up— something that we thought we might try when working with the student. I've long since forgotten the specifics, but it was some sort of behavior modification that we thought might be successful. The child's father adamantly agreed with the suggestion. Yes, he said; he thought it would work beautifully and he'd be happy to implement components at home. When he's at my house, he said, rather pointedly.
Annnnnnnd, of course, the mother disagreed. Nope. Wasn't going to work. Too much work for too little possibility of growth.
I could feel almost feel the heels digging in. The line being drawn in the sand. The flags being hoisted.
Eyes darted nervously around the room.
Okay, I thought. Here we go.
Before I could jump in to try to mediate, though, the guardian ad litem raised her hand slightly, not in a can-I-speak way, but in an I'm-going-to-make-a-statement way. She looked back and forth between the parents and said, ever so quietly, "Are we going to give this a life?"
Both looked down at their hands.
"No," said the mother.
"No," said the father.
"Okay. Let's proceed," she said, nodding over to the intervention teacher leading the meeting.
Just like that, we moved on.
Later, when the meeting was over, I pulled her aside. "Tell me more about this 'give it a life' thing," I said.
She laughed. "I use that phrase all the time with clients," she said. "The people I work with are often emotional or angry. It's hard for them to think rationally, so they pick battles that don't matter, or battles they are sure to lose. I like to remind them that it's their choice to make the issue bigger... or smaller. In other words, it's their choice to give something life or not."
I nodded. It made sense.
She went on. "And here's the other thing I tell people. If you choose to give something a life, it's now... a thing. It's a living thing that will take time and energy to sustain. So no matter what it is—a particular battle to fight, an alliance you are considering, a lie you're telling—unless you're willing to invest time into it, you better not bring it to life."
In both work and life, there are a lot of times we should consider whether we want to bring something to life— or whether it's better to leave it dormant, inanimate, and quiet. I use this little trick a lot, because it helps me to better manage my efforts and energy.... something that I'm always trying to master.