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Surrounded by Idiots


As I’ve shared before, I love listening to audiobooks. I use the Libby app which connects me to free audiobooks from the library on my phone. Generally speaking, the books I want to listen to are available that way, but not always.

I saw an ad on Instagram for Audible that included several audiobooks they promoted. Since I love to read, I scrolled through the titles. One that stood out to me had the word “idiots” in the title and, apparently being one myself, I managed to miss that it said, “Only from Audible” on the cover. So, idiotically, I went to Libby and searched for the book but it wasn’t there. Libby always offers suggestions for other titles when the title you’re looking for doesn’t appear. In this case, one of the suggestions was the book, Surrounded by Idiots, by Thomas Erikson, which I figured sounded like a good read.

If you like personality profiles, this book is one for you. As the subtitle explains, the book covers, The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business (and in Life). While I quite liked the four different behavior types (and honestly, Erikson explained that most people identify themselves as two or three of the different types), I want to share what he wrote about the harmony and conflict outlooks, which, for me, was a new way of thinking about discord.

Before I share what Erikson wrote, I want you to consider what your comfort is with conflict. In my experience, most people tend to be conflict-avoidant in order to be harmony-seeking, which is to say, harmony is the goal. Does that sound like your experiences too? Yet, have you also noticed that avoiding conflict doesn’t mean that conflict is at bay? In other words, just because most people want harmony doesn’t mean that everyone agrees. So what happens when people who want harmony disagree on what would be harmonious?

You can look at conflicts in two ways. The first way is called the harmony outlook, or striving for harmony. Everything depends on being on good terms with others. Reaching an agreement is an end in itself. This means that those who cause conflict are problematic troublemakers. Conflicts are indicative of poor leadership, poor communication, and discord. And so we smother conflict and pretend that it doesn’t exist. Because who wants to be acquainted with a troublemaker?

I once met a coach who used an interesting metaphor for this kind of behavior. She said it was like sitting at the dinner table with a rotting pile of trash in the middle. You know, with mold and flies and everything. Everyone sees that the trash is there, but no one says anything. You brush away the flies and pass the food across the liquefying banana peels without thinking anything about it. Maybe by the end someone wonders if there even really is a pile of trash on the table at all.

Finally, one of the dinner table guests says, “We have to do something about this!” That person becomes an agitator, because we now have to deal with this nasty mess of garbage. Couldn’t she have just kept quiet?

Nowadays we know better. The aspiration of having everyone in agreement about everything all the time is an impossible utopia, not even worth trying to achieve. Someone will lift the lid off all that discord that was so effectively and hermetically sealed for such a long period of time— and what happens then? It stinks from a long way off. In the end the harmony outlook inevitably leads to conflict.

The second way, and the opposite to the first, is called the conflict outlook. It basically means that we accept that conflicts exist—that it’s natural. No group exists where everyone is always in agreement about everything. The whole point of the conflict outlook is to deal with every little dissentient issue as soon as it shows its head. [Some personalities] do this naturally. When they see something that doesn’t work, they say that it doesn’t work. This means that problems can be resolved at an early stage. But you have to deal with the issue before it begins to stink. The conflict approach usually creates harmony.

When reading about the harmony versus the conflict approach, which one sounds most like you? Are you a person who believes the way to harmony is through avoidance so you will find yourself passing the food across the table covered in garbage hoping no one will mention it or are you someone who believes the way to harmony is through conflict, so you will try to deal with the issue before it begins to stink?

Perhaps one of the reasons for my shock is that I have a conflict outlook, which is something I knew about myself before reading Surrounded by Idiots. For example, in my office I have a fluffy pink stuffed elephant toy. Her name is Puddles the Pachyderm. I’ve had her since I was a child. I take her with me to meetings when I’m afraid things might get heated. I’ll say something like, “I know that we’d rather not talk about the elephant in the room, but at this point, we’re going to have to. This is Puddles the Pachyderm. She’s very soft and we’re going to use her as our talking piece and pass her around so everyone has a chance to talk. You can set her in your lap, squeeze her with your fists, or even hug her if you want to.” She

is symbolic, obviously, of the elephant-in-the-room cliche that is indicative of the “liquefying banana peels” Erikson wrote about. She is also disarming. We are all adults sitting around holding a child’s toy talking about areas that are conflict-leyden. I’ve never had a meeting with Puddles that backfired.

The point of all of this isn’t to say that people with a harmony outlook are better or worse than those with a conflict outlook. It’s also not to say that you need to choose a side. The point is to highlight that there are differences in perspectives and approaches to just about everything in life. If you think your way is the only way and you’re not interested in learning about how others think and behave, you will likely find yourself surrounded by people who think you are an idiot.


P.S. Are you curious about what personality type you might be of the four Erikson wrote about in Surrounded by Idiots? My Catch of the Week is this image that gives a very simple summary of the four different possibilities–Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue. The words that are listed on the left, “On a good day,” are words that people of that color would use to describe themselves. The words listed on the right, “On a bad day,” are words that people who are challenged by someone of that color would use in an unfavorable manner to describe that same person. What sounds most like you?

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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