Updated: Feb 18, 2019
Happiness is a feeling. Cheerfulness is a choice… and a weapon.
By cheerfulness, I don’t mean schmaltzy niceties and fake smiles. Real cheerfulness means something much deeper. Cheerfulness is the ability to willingly, even gladly, bear the slings and arrows of life and relationships.
The feeling of happiness comes and goes like weather. Cheerfulness can be deliberately chosen and cultivated as a virtue in leading conflict.
The ability to be willfully cheerful in the face of adversity is a powerful weapon. It's not a weapon against people. Individual people are never really at the heart of any problem.
Instead, cheerfulness is a weapon against the real enemies in life: discouragement, despondency, faithlessness, despair. Deliberate cheerfulness allows us to stand our ground when all seems dark, the odds are against us, or relationships turn sour.
When relationships falter, our initial reactions are often a mixture of sadness and anger. There is nothing wrong with sadness. It’s natural to feel sadness in the face of loss or disappointment.
Anger is often the appropriate initial reaction in the face of injustice or other offenses against what is right and expected behavior. Anger can help us to move out of the paralysis of sadness and into action.
Anger might be a great motivator, but it’s a terrible tactician. You must move beyond it to lead conflict effectively.
There’s a great old quote from the U.S. labor movement: “Beware of a movement that sings!” The meaning of this phrase is, once roused by righteous anger, successful movements are those that find the heart and hope to gladly suffer for something larger than themselves; not for the destruction of enemies, but for their transformation.
For instance, the U.S. civil rights movement and the struggle to topple Soviet Communism in Europe were causes separated by time and culture. However, both shared similarly buoyant leaders who inspired hopefulness in the face of terrible injustice and violent repression.
In the micro-context of relationships and workplace conflict, the same lessons hold true.
You can only lead conflict effectively when you are committed to something larger than your personal comfort. That might be your care for the wellbeing of the person in front of you, the culture of your organization as whole, or the mission your institution serves.
You must know who you are, what you stand for, and why you are willingly facing the discomfort that comes with conflict.
This is essential. Otherwise, we will simply seek solace in the limited selfishness of our own personal happiness.
Choosing to be cheerful means you are willing to free yourself from what is convenient to you and experience suffering for the sake of others. The ability to do this is the ability to lead others through conflict.
Beware. It’s easy to imagine ourselves being self-sacrificing in large and showy ways. This is comfortable because it feeds the ego. It also allows us to put off sacrifice for a later day. It’s much harder to choose cheerfulness each day in the innumerable small things that no one notices.
In the coming week, try out a few of these tips to practice cheerfulness on a small scale:
Make time to talk with a colleague you normally avoid. Learn something about them you did not know. Share something personal with them that you normally wouldn’t.
Take a week off from complaining about being busy or having too much on your plate. When someone asks you how things are going this week, choose to share something that you or others (even better) are doing well.
Offer unexpected encouragement to five colleagues; one for each day of the week. Make a schedule and an explicit commitment to talk to a specific person each day.
Don’t tell anyone what you are doing or seek any praise for it. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.
The most powerful weapons don’t hurt, they heal. And those weapons take a lifetime to master. So, don’t delay. Start practicing now.
Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.
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