Relationships

Draw a Circle Around Yourself First To make a difference in the large, start by making a difference in the small

Most of us want to make a difference. Some want to take on global issues such as poverty, inequality, or climate change. Others are happy with making a difference to their local community, or even just their own family. But we want our lives to matter to someone.

I used to think that making a difference on a small scale was somehow not “ambitious enough”. If I could make the world better for one hundred people, or one million people, it felt almost unethical for me to choose the smaller, local impact. But I have recently changed my mind – and now champion micro-scale impact! – thanks to a great blog post by Richard Branson.

Branson advises us to draw a circle around ourselves first to make sure that everything inside that circle is working well. Is our health in shape? Are the different areas of our lives in balance?

Once you feel the circle is strong enough you can widen the circle to include your family and friends. Once that second circle is strong you can expand it again to include your local community. If things go really well you can then draw a circle around your country. And if things go really really well, you can draw a circle around the whole world and deal with global issues.

This philosophy of circles taught me three key lessons:

#1: Macro issues are made from millions of ignored micro issues

Global issues do not consist of one big problem. They consist of millions of tiny problems that each happen on a local level for some specific individual. Fixing any one of these local issues is challenging, but definitely doable. But it’s here we risk falling into the fallacy of thinking: 

“What does it matter if I step up? My action will only be a grain of sand in the desert.” 

It’s precisely that kind of thinking that causes small, local problems to multiply. All issues are local, but it’s those that are repeatedly ignored that become global. When I now see a piece of trash on the street, hear an insensitive comment, or see an opportunity to make someone feel valued, I remind myself that it’s these local issues that count.

#2: You can’t help a big circle without a strong, small circle to stand upon

Helping someone requires that you have some strength to lend. This is why we need to draw a circle around ourselves first. It’s admirable to want to make a difference for one million people. But if you can’t make a difference to one hundred people first, let alone yourself, then how are you supposed to make a difference to one million? 

The circles work almost like a video game. By completing one circle, you gain the strength, resources, and knowledge you need to be capable enough to take on the next one. 

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, for example, he didn’t set out to connect the whole world. He just focused on connecting the students at his own school Harvard. Once he succeeded with that, he would widen his circle and connect all the colleges in the Ivy League. Then all colleges in the U.S. Then everyone in the U.S. And, finally, the whole world. But had they not first succeeded at one college, nothing else would have followed.

The same holds true for those who wish to make a big impact in any field. It’s by succeeding in the small that you gain access to succeeding in the large. And the bigger you decide to make your circle, the stronger all your smaller circles need to be. 

#3: When circles overlap there is an opportunity for partnerships

Once you expand your circles, you will find that they overlap with others. At the smallest level, you have circles overlapping at the family level, and the more that any of member widens their own family ring, the more the overlap increases for everyone.

The same thing holds true for the next level of circles. When there is an overlap of interests, that is a great opportunity for forming a partnership and taking on the problem together. Sharing resources, incidentally, widens the overlap because your circles move closer to one another, and the overlapping area can be worth many times more than the sum of its individual parts. 

The more our circles overlap, the stronger the fabric of society becomes. 

This philosophy of the circles has given me a new (and dare I say better) way to think about the world. At a time when global issues seem equally insurmountable and appealing to take on, let’s remember to draw a circle around ourselves first. Let’s widen it one step at a time and work to overlap our circles as much as possible. 

The more our circles overlap, the less space small issues have to fester. And if issues don’t have the opportunity to become local, they won’t have the opportunity to become global.

How To Listen so that Others Feel Heard People don’t want your advice – they want to feel understood

Have you ever had someone tell you about a challenging or frustrating situation they are going through, but when you tried to help them, they wouldn’t listen to you? Why do people ask for our help if they don’t want to hear what we have to say? 

The answer is that people don’t want your advice or reassurance, at least not to start with. At first, they just want to feel understood

Giving advice or reassurance, however, is the opposite of making someone feel understood. Imagine you are struggling to meet an important deadline, and you decide to call a friend to help you deal with the pressure. After telling your friend about the overwhelming stress you are going through, how understood would you feel if your friend responded with any of the following? 

  • “Don’t worry; I’m sure things will work out.”
  • “At least you got a week left to finish it.”
  • “You should [fill in advice].”

You would probably feel as if your friend hadn’t heard you at all. You just spent several minutes telling them how stressed out you are, but none of the above responses acknowledges those feelings. 

When someone tells you that they are struggling, what they really want from you is to acknowledge their feelings. And the way you do that is to: 1) put their feelings into words, and 2) validate that it’s understandable they would feel that way. 

Let’s look at a conversation when the listener fails to use these two principles. The following is an excerpt from Michael S. Sorenson’s fantastic book I Hear You, which shows a conversation between the couple Amy and David, where Amy is expressing frustration about her sister, Emily.

 

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to—or care at all about —what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Well, have you just told her what you want to do?”

Amy: “Of course I have. We all have! She always seems to havesome reason for doing things her way. Ugh. I’m so sick of this.”
David: “You should just tell her that—that you don’t feel like she’s listening.”

Amy: “I’ve tried that. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazy because everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only to have to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, if you don’t want to go, don’t go.”

Amy: “Of course I want to go! I just want to go and actually have fun!”
David: “Then just talk to your other sisters. I’m sure you guys can figure it out. Or I’ll talk to her!”

Amy: “No, I can take care of it. I’m just frustrated.”
David: “What if you each planned one day?”

Amy: “It’s not that easy. The sites we want to see are too far apart from each other.”
David: “What if you just booked a tour group instead?”

Amy: “No, we want to do it ourselves.”

 

David (not quite sure what Amy is expecting from him at this point): “Well, you’d better figure it out soon. Isn’t the trip in a few weeks?”
Amy (now frustrated and ready to end the conversation): “Yeah. It’s okay. I’ll figure it out.”

 

Why did David’s multiple attempts to help his wife go so poorly? He thought that Amy wanted advice, but what she really wanted was validation – to have her feelings acknowledged. Amy remained frustrated because David tried to fix the problem right out of the gates instead of first validating her frustration. 

Here’s how the conversation might have played out had David validated Amy instead of immediately trying to reassure her: 

 

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to—or care at all about —what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Really? What’s up with that?”

Amy: “I don’t know! It’s driving me crazy. The trip is in a few weeks and I’m afraid we won’t be able to get reservations.”
David: “Ugh, that’s so frustrating. What are you going to do?”

Amy: “I don’t know. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazy because everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only tohave to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, yeah—you’re splitting everything four ways, right? It’s your vacation as much as it is hers.”

Amy: “Seriously. I’ll figure it out. It’s just so frustrating.”
David: “Yeah, that really would be. Especially if you keep running into this with her.”

Amy: “I do! I’ve just come to expect it from her. Ever since we were kids.”
David: “That would drive me crazy.”

Amy: “Ugh, tell me about it!”
David: “Ugh, I’m sorry.”

Amy: “It’s okay. I think I’ll just talk to her about it again. If she really won’t budge . . . I don’t know. I might even do my own thing when we get out there.”
David: “Not a bad idea. Hopefully, she loosens up a bit.”

Amy: “Yeah.” [Brief pause]

Amy: “Anyway, thank you for listening. How was work?”

 

If you just take one thing away from this article, it should be this:

People aren’t ready to hear your advice or reassurance
before you have acknowledged their feelings.

The next time someone tells you about a challenging or frustrating situation they are going through, remember to acknowledge their feelings first. And the way to do that is to: 1) put their feelings into words, and 2) validate that it’s understandable they would feel that way. 

Often, this is the only thing the other person needs. Only if you have acknowledged the other person’s feelings, and they still feel stuck, can advice or reassurance be helpful.