I had the occasion to work as an external consultant to a large multi national, a demanding, frustrating and very rewarding position. Over time I began to feel like part of the team, a real partner, irreplaceable even.
During one business trip a visiting executive joined us for the meeting and also for dinner. Upon arriving at the beautiful history charged restaurant I was surprised to see one large table for everyone who was employed at the client, and a smaller table with a sign that said "Agency". Many of us stood around confused by this arrangement, since only a few of the providers present even worked for an agency, until each of us who were not employees were gently asked to sit at the smaller table.
I thought of many things, (be warned not all of them were rational) including being relegated to the kiddie table at large family gatherings, discriminatory practices in the Southern US where Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, and yes, even the Jews in Nazi Germany who had to wear the star to show where they did or did not belong. Clearly I was having a strong reaction to this situation.
Mostly I thought how pissed off I was and how I would love to excuse myself and take a taxi back to the hotel. I mean who invites people to dinner and then seats them with each other at a separate (smaller) table?
The anger, hurt and weirdly shame, were honest emotions. I wanted everyone to know how I felt.
I wanted someone to do something.
One member of the client team sized up the situation and promptly sat with us at the kiddie table. Another team member came over as if to join us but it was all a bit awkward and she ultimately sat with the visiting exec, texting me an apology during the meal.
I spent the next days thinking of all the things that could have been done differently, including not setting up the tables that way in the first place, having a well communicated client - only dinner without the external consultants, pushing the tables together, mixing the groups, etc., etc. You will notice I only thought of options that someone else could take, pointing out how victimized I felt.
The anger only diminished when I admitted to myself that I too had choices, and in fact I had made one:
- I could have excused myself and enjoyed dinner on my own
- I could have expressed my dismay at the situation verbally, since I am well aware it was written all over my face
- I could have forgiven the client team, assuming there was no ill intent
- I could have carried the anger with me for a couple of days, refusing to accept the act of grace by the client who sat with us instead of at the big table, and while sitting there all angry I could also have brushed off the texted apology from the second client team member.
No need to tell you which choice I made. Let's just say Gandhi would not have been proud.
It is important to note that most people had a lovely evening either blissfully unaware of the hurt feelings at our table or unwilling to do anything about it. A few people were aware and attempted to make it right. At least one person (me) spent an evening and at least a day stewing in anger which did nothing to resolve the situation and made others feel defensive about their choices.
The moment we feel powerless or victimized could become our shining moment. It could also be the moment we fall back on old patterns and stew in our stuff. Here's hoping the lesson I learned helps me respond with more grace should I have the occasion to relive such an experience.