I heard a story once that caught my attention.

A man was walking down a city street when he was approached by a would-be mugger.

“Give me your wallet or I’ll stick you,” he said, flashing a blade.

Barely breaking stride, the man looked at the mugger and said, “What time is it?” The mugger was so caught off guard by the seemingly-out-of-context question that he paused for a few seconds, dumbfounded. And in those few seconds, the man had gained the crucial distance away from him to avoid the mugging.

I don’t know if the story is true, but it illustrates an interesting principle.  In so much of our lives, we have fallen into established patterns in how we relate to others.  Often we don’t like those patterns very much, but we feel stuck with them.

  • A boss doesn’t listen to our ideas.
  • Team members fail to take initiative, waiting for your direction.
  • A client continually pushes the boundaries on scope.

While these behaviors look like they’re just the annoying actions of another person, they’re actually part of a dance we’re doing with them.   Somehow, by what we’re doing or not doing, we’re part of the system.  Muggings don’t happen without someone playing the part of mugger and someone playing the part of victim…

Do you want this Tango or this? Dance Club

So, think about someone whose actions are bugging you right now.  How can you change the dance? What unexpected change can you use to shift the dynamics?

And while you’re at it, why not share what you’ve tried to change the dance in your working relationships? What’s worked and where have you just stepped on toes?