What happens when you lose the big account or your new business venture tanks? We’ve all worked hard at something and had it not turn out the way we wanted. The sting of disappointment and loss from a layoff, a lost contract, or a marriage that ends after years of trying can weigh on us, filling us with regret, blame, and sorrow. It’s even harder when the situation doesn’t line up with what we feel is right, just, or fair.
I’ve done quite a lot of work around ideas like “fairness” and how they work in the human brain and body, so when it came up in a recent conversation, I listened deeply. I could hear the pain the idea was causing in the other person and I could relate. When we hold the idea of “what’s fair” as a frame of reference, we are always going to suffer. The reason is that “the human brain has evolved to regard its own perceptions as correct and complete” (HBR), but since each person has their own idea of what’s fair, all that happens when we make that claim is we feel awful—hurt, betrayed, abandoned, mistreated.
“What’s fair” creates a polarity between parties and a game of emotional ping-pong ensues in which no one really wins. At best, one side gets to be right for a while, and then maybe the other side gets a turn at being right, but ultimately all that’s happening is wrong-making, blame, and self-righteousness that can go back and forth endlessly. In far too many relationships between people, groups, communities, and even countries that’s exactly what we do.
Here are five more productive approaches to consider if you find yourself in this predicament:
1. Notice What’s Really Happened.
When we feel something is unfair, notice that all that’s really happened is we’ve made up a rule about how others should behave or how situations/events should be. The truth is, everyone’s perspective is accurate from their vantage point (based on their consciousness, skills, abilities, and experience of reality at the time). So, even if it doesn’t seem fair from where you stand, it might if you looked through a different lens.
2. Go for the Stretch Goal
When you feel you are being treated unfairly, be willing to slow down and look a little closer. These are the moments a successful learner would not miss—key skills in communication, boundary-setting, resilience, and self-honoring choices are mastered in precisely these times. How could you stretch your skills and use what’s happening to come out even stronger on the other side of things?
3. Shift To What’s Workable
In my work and life, I’ve found it most effective to shift from “what’s fair” to “what’s workable.” When you use workability as your frame of reference, conversations start to move forward. For example, if you say to someone on your team, “It isn’t fair we have to do this project without sufficient resources,” that may be true, but you’re stuck. If you shift the conversation to, “This isn’t workable the way it’s structured,” then things open up to exploring all sorts of new possibilities for how things could be structured. Before you know it you’re creating a business case for current or future resource allocation, leading the way to a better way of doing things, and possibly improving the organization beyond the small problem you identified in the first place.
4. Break The Cycle
On the receiving end of “this isn’t fair because you did that” last month, that instinct to run to my own defense did rear its ugly head. I quickly reminded myself that statements from others can only hurt if we buy into their perspective as true. If we are judging ourselves, even in a small way, about how we’ve handled a situation, we are going to get upset if someone claims we’ve been unfair. Breaking the cycle is about handling our own self-judgment so we can see with clear vision. In my case, it was important to remind myself that there is a powerful distinction between giving up and recognizing when your boundaries have been crossed repeatedly, trust has eroded as a result, and you need to make a self-honoring choice. In that case, I still grieved because I had to let go of something I worked hard on and held dear, but I was able to move forward knowing I gave it my absolute best for as long as I could.
5. What If…
When things don’t work out either personally or professionally, what if we stopped judging that something went wrong? I’ve seen from my own experience that the tough calls we make at times, even the painful, regretful ones, can also be the catalyst needed for meaningful change. What if enduring loss creates the perspective that never would have happened without something ending first? What if we complete agreements with honor rather than quitting in anger and blame? And what if force-fitting that business deal or giving that situation yet another year of your valuable time is what’s keeping you from expanding, growing, and experiencing more joy?