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4 Ways to Play the Social Obligation Game

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My friend, the actress/singer/writer Renee’ Flemings, posted this message on Facebook a few weeks ago:

Screw the presents and madness I want to see people in the flesh. Coffee, tea, a glass of wine, a walk around the block. In this time of crazy-who-knows-what’s next-ness, it’s good to see friends. Whatcha doing the next few weeks? Let’s meet up.

Renee’ listed names. Her friends responded. Renee’ has started having her 1-1 “Meet-ups.”

Obligation by choice and request. Nice.

That’s not how the bulk of this high-social season tends to go. If you’re American, you just celebrated Thanksgiving. You may have had a spectacular time or you may have had a lousy one. You may have challenged yourself to have a fine time even though you would have rather lounged at home and watched Netflix. Whichever way it went, chances are you played the obligation game. And you did not play it on your terms.

Here are my biases:

Social time is great. Tradition is wonderful. Choice is essential.

And screw obligation.

Not so easy when it comes to the work holiday parties, professional association events, family gatherings. Understood.

Here are some ways that may help you and me navigate our desire to participate, or not, in the flurry of social opportunity this season:

1.   Turn off the switch

That would be the obligation switch. This switch is linked to the narrative in your mind that says I HAVE to attend the company holiday party or I HAVE to spend part of the holidays with my family. We may indeed feel a whole lot of pressure, real or imagined, to attend the holiday party or see family. But HAVE to? No. How about flipping your thoughts to I choose to attend the partyEven though I may not really feel like going, I CHOOSE to go. And if you choose to not go, choose to assume full responsibility for that decision.

2.   Have the courage to be truthful

If you choose to not attend the holiday party, be truthful with your boss. I feel a lot of pressure to attend the holiday party but these parties just aren’t my thing. I want you to know that I love the folks I work with – but these parties simply wear me out. I don’t enjoy them. Can we grab lunch 1-1 one of these days instead? I would very much enjoy that!

Mind you, part of being a successful professional means developing a bit of a social muscle. Consistently not showing up for group events can, indeed, be a career derailer. But chances are, an honest explanation of why you choose to not attend a party will be appreciated by your boss. It may allow her to be honest about her own mixed feelings about this professional obligation. A social win.

3.   Offer alternatives

No, thank you can be a powerful choice when combined with an alternative offer, as indicated above. I would much rather spend some quality 1-1 time with you. Shall we grab a meal or catch a game? And if this season is too packed for you, I will be happy to do so first thing in the New Year. Now doesn’t this sound like a much richer opportunity for everyone involved? Perfunctory participation in a “mandatory” party has just been transmuted into a more special occasion. Bring it on.

Related: The Waterfall Effect or the Delicate Art of Alignment

4.   Set yourself up for a good time

Whenever you choose to attend an event, make sure you show up ready to have a good time. This is, of course, crucial for any function, any time; it becomes doubly important when social events pile up in the middle – and on top of – an already heavy work week.

Do NOT show up tired and cranky because you have already been out every night that week. Do NOT schedule a packed-to-the-rafters day for yourself and then run straight to a party. Do NOT manage your stress by imbibing a bit too much of the free booze.

DO the following instead: Plan a 2-hour break between work and any social gathering you attend. Leave work earlier if you need to. Use this break to rejuvenate yourself. A nap, a massage, a swim, meditation. Un-busy yourself. Help your body feel its absolute best. And decide – fully, clearly – that you will enjoy the event. Make this a bold and unequivocal choice. Then walk in the door.

Social pressures, seasonal pressures. They seem to wrest choice from us. Emphasis on seem– they will indeed if we let them.

Don’t. Mind your switches. Turn them off. Choose to choose.

And then, goshdarnit, enjoy being social.

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