Like most of us, I viewed the term “intolerance” as negative and divisive – a source of conflict. But I recently re-thought my views after being introduced to the concept of a “toleration”. A toleration is something we find to be a nuisance or minor inconvenience, though not serious enough to warrant the time or energy to deal with. I believe that inconveniences can clutter our lives and relationships – and may blossom into full blown conflicts if left unaddressed.
This struck home recently when I simplified our home’s audio-visual system. The system, which included the normal array of a television set, a DVD player, a receiver/speaker system, etc. had become somewhat complicated. To switch the sound system from the normal cable input to watch a DVD required me to manually disconnect the sound inputs from the cable box (located behind the television) and re-connect them to the DVD player. Specifically, this required me to don a headlamp (it’s dark behind the television) and fiddle with the connections. This was a bit inconvenient, but only took 30 seconds or so.
That was the problem – it was easier for me to put up with the small inconvenience than to invest the time and energy required to simplify the system. I “tolerated” the existing set-up for years. When I finally decided to undertake the task (for the benefit of other users in the family), it took me less than 15 minutes to install a switch box that allows us to change the audio feed with a simple push of a button. Hundreds of adventures with my headlamp behind the television (and the odd profanity) could have been eliminated years ago by the investment of 15 minutes. When I completed the task and proudly examined my handiwork, I couldn’t help but think “what took me so long?” to get around to fixing this.
I believe this applies to relationships – both personal and professional. “Tolerations” could include being interrupted, receiving inadequate lead time on an assignment, being left of of loop, having someone check their email during a meeting, etc. These are not earth-shattering problems and most of us can live with them, yet over time they can foster resentment and erode relationships.
Most people tend to avoid conflict – especially with minor annoyances. It’s easier in the moment to let things slide than risk a confrontation. It many cases, avoiding conflict is an appropriate conflict management strategy. Any conflict “instrument” (such as the Thomas-Kilmann) recommend avoidance in situations in which we view neither the issue nor the relationship as important. When the relationship is important, or if the issue is one that persists, however, avoidance can result in frustration and resentment.
And in many cases, what we fear will be a confrontation turns out to a routine conversation. People we find “difficult” seldom set out with the intention of making our lives miserable. They are usually so focused on themselves that they are unaware of the impact their actions have on us – unless we let them know. I have sometimes raised an issue fearing a defensive response, only to hear “sure – no problem, I didn’t realize that.” And even if you do receive a defensive response – at least the issue is out in the open, the other person is aware of our concerns and we can take pride in the fact that we had the courage to speak up for ourselves.
I’ve also found that small successes are accompanied by a sense of relief and build my momentum to tackle other tolerations.
Years ago, Fram Oil Filters ran an ad campaign to encourage people to use their product as preventive maintenance. Their the tag line: “You can pay me now or pay me later”.
Consider doing yourself a favor – choose one toleration and take the time, energy and risk to raise it with the other person – directly and respectfully. You’ll likely find yourself asking yourself “what took me so long?”