Last week, looking out the back window of our house, I saw our dog Hobbs standing over the carcass of a possum. He was sniffing it cautiously and had a “what do I do now?” look about him. Finally, he walked away, disappointed with the end of his chase.
As he was leaving, I saw one eye of the possum open. Then the other. Slowly, it got up and started to sneak away. Hobbs noticed, and the chase resumed. As soon as Hobbs caught up with his prey, the possum feigned a heart attack again. Hobbs sniffed and left. You could almost hear him say, “This is no fun.”
I’d always heard of “playing possum,” but had never seen it in real life.
Play dead and they’ll leave you alone.
It was an amazing strategy, working perfectly for the possum. It works for people, too.
It reminded me of this time I was facilitating a men’s group in which each guy shared their story. One week, a guy was telling his story and I was bored. Feeling guilty, I looked around only to notice other guys were showing signs of boredom, too – looking down or fidgeting restlessly. One guy even yawned.
I tuned back in and realized what was going wrong. This guy was telling his story in black and white. There was no color to it. He was a detached reporter, and thus we detached. He told us his father was a drunk, but didn’t tell about the impact of a drunken father on a little boy.
Midway through his story, I asked him to pause for a moment.
Turning to the men, I asked, “On a scale of 1-10, ten being extremely engaged and one being almost asleep – how would you rate his telling of his story?”
Everyone got awkwardly quiet, looking down at the floor. The guy who was telling his story seemed understandably miffed. When no one spoke, I went first, “I’d give it a three,” I said. “Anyone else?”
Finally some of the guys began to speak. “4,” said one guy. “2,” said another. “I’d rate it a 3,” said the man to his right. 4 was the highest number.
Then I told them this:
There’s no such thing as a boring person or a boring story. (tweet this)
The only way that happens is if a person makes themselves boring. And the result is no one engages with them. People leave them alone.
He was playing possum, and we were “walking away” as if we believed his story was dead.
So I turned to the guy and said, “The story you told us was in black and white, devoid of scenes and emotion. Come back next week, and tell it in color. Bring us your real story.”
The following week he returned and told his story again.
This time, he was a character in the story, not a reporter.
Every man wept.
Every man was engaged.
Every man connected with him in a way no one ever had.
The storyteller joined us in our tears. It was holy moment, and I learned a profound lesson that day.
Often, when we walk away from people, while they may be unaware of it, they are acting in some way to repel us. It may be subtle (boredom) or it may be overt (meanness). Sadly, it usually works.
All of us play possum from time to time.
We have unique strategies to get people to leave us alone. Some people avoid connection by their humor. Others revert to anger and aggressiveness. Some simply appear uninteresting.
My challenge to you today is this: Unless someone is obviously dangerous, don’t pull away from them, even if they try to make you. Stay around them long enough and they’ll open one of their eyes. When they do, pursue their real story.
It’s in there. I promise.