The Litmus Test Questions – Season 2020, Episode 20

Technically, a litmus test is used to test the acidity or alkaline content of something, but we often use it more generically to mean a decisively indicative test. Some means of determining the validity of something.

Eight or nine weeks into this global pandemic have shown us the best of us and the worst of us. Maybe you’ve seen John Krasinski’s YouTube channel, Some Good News. He’s Jim from the hit TV series, The Office. Well, more currently, he’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime. His weekly YouTube episodes are just what they claim – some good news. There are lots of good news stories of people behaving with extraordinary kindness and generosity.

Then, there’s politics. Or coronavirus opinions. Just today the Speaker of the House called the President “morbidly obese.” The hateful language runs both ways. Wide-open. As does opinion on COVID19. It’s all a hoax. It’s going to kill us all. One extreme spews hateful sentiment toward the other extreme.

Weeks ago I began muttering a question that has since become one of my litmus test questions for any human interaction on any topic. Hint: I’ve got three of them now.

“Is this helpful?”

But that’s just the beginning. We need to embrace it more deeply.

Let’s take all the political jaw-jacking that goes on in our nation’s capital. I don’t care how you vote. I don’t care who you support or who you oppose. The problem isn’t one party or the other. It’s everybody. And it proves how insensitive we can be to those we oppose and how sensitive we can be to those who oppose us.

I’m not naive about positioning, marketing, and leveraging media coverage. There’s another game being played under the surface by both Democrats and Republicans. Both sides know the importance of visibility and air time. That’s largely why the rhetoric continues to escalate. Being quotable trumps NOT being quotable. Even if the quote is hateful, foolish, or downright idiotic.

Is it helpful? Well, they think it’s helpful to their agenda. And those who agree with them think it’s helpful. That’s why we have to go a bit deeper and ask, “Helpful for what?”

It’s not likely very helpful for running the country, but it’s very helpful for trying to gain a political advantage.

Yeah, I know. It’s all so big and so out of control, there’s not likely much reining it in. It’s just a grand illustration of poor behavior among people who enjoy wearing the title “leader.”

Okay, enough about politics. I hate politics. I’m a Capitalist. 😉

During this pandemic, I’ve heard lots of people comment about the strife and contention. Personally. Professionally. In many areas of life. I’m hearing complaints, “They won’t engage in an honest discussion.” Hot topics have long been difficult subjects in which to have an open, honest dialogue, but this pandemic has given some greater opportunities to dig into viewpoints and opinions they don’t want to be challenged. It’s not helpful.

When we think about leveraging the power of others in our lives we’re really focused on surrounding ourselves with people willing and capable of helping us grow, improve, and become better. I realize not everybody wants that. Mostly the highest achievers among us do. I’m optimistic that others will see the value and pursue it more vigorously, which is why I’m dedicated to evangelizing the message through this podcast, and in every other way possible.

Who you surround yourself with matters a great deal. 

As you take a closer look at your circle of friends and influence the litmus test question may be useful if not invaluable.

“Is this helpful?”

“How is this helpful?”

Let’s personalize it though. Unlike national politics or sports debates for entertainment, let’s make it as personal as possible. Ask the litmus test question about YOUR life. Remember, we’re interested in our growth, improvement, and opportunities. And we’re mindful that the noise in our lives has an impact on us. Surely I don’t have to convince you of that fact.

I’ll tell you some things I’ve done during this pandemic to help myself. I didn’t do it right away, but by the time we entered week 3 of staying at home I’d had enough of the social media grand-standing close-mindedness. I unfollowed, unfriended, muted, unfollowed, or whatever else I needed to do to silence the people who proved unwilling to engage in open, honest dialogue. For me, most of these people were hollering loudly about how the pandemic was fabricated and not real. Others were constantly complaining about government overreach. Still, others decided it was the right time to further their viewpoint about everything from climate change to having children vaccinated.

After a few weeks of being bombarded by it all I started asking myself – and some of these other people who surrounded me in social media – “How is this helpful?”

That only sparked further vitriol. An unexpected surprise that I should have seen coming. To be fair, I asked that question only of myself at first. I simply tried to understand the highly opinionated viewpoint. Mostly I wanted to know why people felt the way they did. Why did the conspiracy theorist think the coronavirus was totally made up? Why did others think when the governor of Texas gave “stay at home” orders that it was government overreach and violation of our liberties? Mostly, I was very curious why so many seemed devoid of understanding and compassion – even for government officials who were clearly up against something so colossal and unforeseen.

My initial notion was that people were under enormous pressure. Perhaps their businesses were heavily impacted. Maybe their personal income was negatively impacted. But that wasn’t the case with the most highly opinionated people. I began to scroll back through the social media of these people, intentionally going back months prior to the pandemic. Turns out, the highly opinionated people – many of them – had largely been behaving that way before. I just hadn’t been so sensitive to it I reckoned. Until now.

That caused me to take a serious look at people, one-at-a-time. And I asked myself, “Are they helpful? How?”

Care to guess what I concluded about almost all of them? There were only a few exceptions and most of them were folks I just found entertaining because I found their commentary kinda funny. And my new-found sensitivity wasn’t based on my own viewpoints because it was week 3 and I honestly didn’t have any strong opinions about much…which isn’t shocking because I can be largely indifferent about MANY things. It’s a talent. 😉

I concluded that most of these voices weren’t helpful to me in any way. They contributed nothing to my personal growth, improvement, or opportunities. But I dug one level deeper before ditching them. “What will I miss if I walk away from them?” When I concluded “nothing,” I began to knock them off my list one by one.

Simultaneously I began to get more finicky with Linkedin. Lately, 9 out of 10 requests hit me with a sales pitch immediately upon approval. I used to think it was snotty to not accept Linkedin invitations, but I’ve changed my position on that. “How is this helpful?” I started asking that question of the connection requests. And I was willing to give people the biggest benefit of the doubt. Sadly, most connection requests still blitz me with an overt automated sales pitch the second I accept their invitation. Oh, well.

By week 4 I was really getting into a groove of looking at the voices that influenced me in social media, my content consumption patterns, and the people in my real life. You know what I mean, the actual people with whom I have some relationship.

It was time to distill the questions into something more than on being helpful. There was something more valuable to me when it came to the people who were physically in my life. It was a question that was congruent with the other two and it gave me a great trifecta of litmus test questions.

“Are they safe?”

I’ve got people in my life who are unsafe. Many of them have never proven safe, which is why my relationship with them is very casual and shallow. I keep them that way because unsafe people – for me, at least – are people who I don’t fully trust. I shoved this litmus test question to the top when I started to closely examine the people who know me personally. That is, unlike social media connections, these people know who I am and I know who they are. We know each other by name. That’s what I mean when I say these were people I know “in real life.”

What does it mean, to be unsafe? For me, you can determine what it means for you, it means they’re harshly judgmental, critical and don’t have my best interest at heart. It means they’ll readily use how I feel or what I think against me. Safe people are just the opposite. They exercise understanding and compassion. They won’t betray me or relish my failures.

Are they safe?

Are they helpful?

How are they helpful?

That became the sequence as I examined this circle of people. You may think, “Well, if they’re not safe, how can they be helpful?” Good question, but I have at least one answer. Contrarians or people who you know oppose you can serve to help you grow, improve, and spot opportunities. Not all of them, but some of them. Maybe.

Some in my unsafe circle are helpful. They give me an idea of what their peers are thinking. By staying in touch or staying connected with them I’m able to know what’s important to them. It helps me better understand them and what they stand for, even if they are unsafe for me personally. That’s valuable to me. That’s HOW they’re helpful.

If the answer to that second question is, “They’re not helpful,” then I’m happy to politely steer clear of them as much as possible. The reality is that in order to say “yes” to the people who make us better we must say “no” to those who don’t.

I suspect we not often enough think about these things choosing instead to simply accept the facts of those who surround us. I’m guilty. But we all know we have people in our lives who are toxic, hurtful or worse. We just keep moving on with them in our lives. Likely because doing something about it means having a conversation or confrontation we’d rather avoid. But maybe not. It’s up to us to decide. It’s also up to us to figure out if the price for that pain is worth ridding ourselves of the person is unsafe and unhelpful.

In our quest to improve the people who surround us it’s important to note this isn’t based on some superiority on our part. It’s about taking individual responsibility for ourselves. Wisdom is getting it right in real-time. Making smart and wise choices in the moment. Smart and wise are determined by thoughts, decisions and actions that make us better. Not selfish, or self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. That’s why every wise parent urges their kids to select quality people to be their closest friends. We ought to embrace that behavior in our own lives…all of our lives.

These litmus test questions can help us as we figure it out for ourselves. Next time we’ll focus on how we can be a person for others – a person who can make sure we pass the litmus test questions for them.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

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