The power of gray areas, and how they will improve your holidays

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We were sitting around the kitchen table eating dinner earlier this month.

Josh looked at my husband Darryl.

“Dad, did you know that Mom’s tribe stole your land?”

Without missing a beat, Darryl said “Why yes, son, I did.”

I tried not to spit out my food.

Such discussions are not uncommon around our household, especially in the month of November as schools prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday. Josh has asked me:

  • Mom, are you a pilgrim?
  • Who won the pilgram war?
  • Why did the pilgrams take our land after we taught them how to plant food?

As you can imagine in our mixed Anglo/Diné (Navajo) household, there are very few clear-cut answers. Instead of giving short, simple answers for our kids, we like to discuss the gray areas. This approach leads to very deep topics like “why is there war?” “what is genocide?” and “if I am both you and Dad, what am I?”

We firmly take an AND stance. You are Anglo AND Diné. Humans do terrible things to each other AND have the capacity for unconditional love. You have total soverignty over your own life AND you must pick up your pajamas and put them away in the morning.

This philosophy spills over to every part of my life.

One of my clients  has political views that are the polar opposite of mine. If we were both into drama, we would stand on two sides of the street, waving signs at each other, along with a stream of blanket insults like “liberal hippie” and “conservative jerk.” Instead, we have really interesting conversations. We talk about our lives, and our kids. We discuss what it means to come out of the closet with political views, knowing that will alienate some of our audience, but possibly bring others closer. In this gray area, we listen without judgement. If we were in the same room with our families and a fire broke out, each of us would be prepared to lay down our lives for each other. I can care deeply about him as a person, work with him to build a business, and at the same time disagree with some of his political views. And he can appreciate my business advice, respect my work and firmly believe I am misguided in my political views.

In business, you can hold the clear intention to close more sales, and at the same time openly discuss if your potential client can actually afford to hire you. You can proudly stand behind the value of your services while not suggesting it is the only way your client can make progress. By exploring the gray areas together (“Will you make your money back from this retreat? Well let’s talk about it. What do you think? Is this the best time for you to make this investment? Do you feel like we have an appropriate match of skill and chemistry to do great work together?”) you will develop openness and trust. If your thought is “let me be of service to this person,” sometimes you will both decide that working together is not a good answer. For a great example of “gray area” discussion, check out Is it possible to do financial harm to a client? on the Heart of Business Blog.

Right now, my Bonus Dad Larry is very, very ill. He has had a long struggle with a fatal illness, and all indications point to the disease finally winning. The grief I feel is very deep. I know how close he is to my Mom, and what a vital part of my family he is. And at the same time, I can feel deep joy and appreciation for all that he has brought to my Mom and my family. The laughter. The companionship. The support. Losing someone dear is all about the gray area. Grief and joy mix together in emotional ballet. It is exquisitely beautiful, while being terrifyingly painful.

Applying the gray area to the holidays

How many of you are bracing yourself for uncomfortable holiday interactions?

  • Are you dreading the reaction from relatives when you tell them you are quitting your job to start a business?
  • Are you practicing your wince for when your Dad asks you when you are going to return to a “real” job?
  • As a single person, are you bracing for insensitive remarks from “coupled up” people about your romantic status?

To apply a little gray matter to these situations, what if you believed:

  • You can love your family dearly AND wholeheartedly disagree with them.
  • You can fully embrace your location independent, work in the cloud entrepreneur lifestyle, AND fully support the choice your brother made to be a corporate accountant.
  • You can appreciate the fact that your sister runs marathons and fits into size 4 pants, AND that you are wholly, completely, beautiful in your size 16.
  • You can be proud of the fact that you Occupied Wall Street, AND be truly interested in why your Uncle Louie thinks you are causing the downfall of Western Civilization.
  • You can be devastated by the end of your marriage AND excited to create a loving holiday for your kids.

Yesterday, driving Josh to school, I asked:

“What is that thing that connects all of us, regardless of what we look like, or where we come from? What can we all celebrate on Thanksgiving?”

“That’s love, Mom,” Josh said. “It is the force of energy in all of our hearts.”

That is something I can stand behind.

I am thankful for my life, for your life, and for our friendship. Long live gray areas! And Happy Thanksgiving.

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29 Responses to “The power of gray areas, and how they will improve your holidays”

  1. […] If you’re going to share a holiday meal with difficult relatives, take a look at “The Power of Gray Areas” by Pamela Slim. Here’s what gray areas can do for […]

  2. What a beautiful post Pam. I teach a negotiation skills workshop – the word AND is critical to creating understanding and reducing the polarity we often feel when we believe we are facing opposition.

    AND, I am with Willy et al. Josh for President!

  3. “You have total soverignty over your own life AND you must pick up your pajamas and put them away in the morning.”

    There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

  4. Nora Reed says:

    Really like the ideas! i will gonna apply the tips, it will help me to make my holidays more cool! thanks for share 🙂

  5. Something else you can do is pause 10 seconds before answering a question. Let’s suppose you’re 33 and single. Someone walks up and says: “You’re 33 and single. You must be incompetent in human-human relations. What is your problem”? The primary challenge here is to wait long enough before responding to not demolish the other person. This also gives the other people in the conversation a chance to change the topic before you issue your response.

    • Kit Brown-Hoekstra says:

      Mark, when I was 33 and single and someone said something so rude to me (and they did), my response was “At least I haven’t married any of my mistakes…” But perhaps a better response would’ve been, “Wow! Your question says more about you than it does about me. How sad for you that you define your worth by whether or not you are coupled. I define my worth by the good that I do in the world and the joy I squeeze out of every minute–whether or not I’m in relationship with someone. I will marry when I find the right person for me and not a minute sooner because I plan to get it right the first time.” (BTW, I married for the first time at 43 and am so glad I waited until I found the right one. Nothing is better than being with the right one—and nothing is worse than being with the wrong one.)

  6. Such a great post, thank you. I get to practice this daily as my business partner and I have different worldviews but we’ve been able to work together really well for the past 5+ years. Sometimes we have to put things on pause and have a 2 hour Skype call to better understand each other… and that’s OK. I think the key is indeed love, demonstrated through deep respect.

  7. Kit Brown-Hoekstra says:

    Pam, this post is why I’m such a huge fan of yours, and tell everyone that they should read your blog. I love how you mix life lessons in with entrepreneurship, and bring in the wisdom of children. Thank you for always pushing for the highest and best that each of us has to offer. And thank you, too, for teaching your children (and the rest of us) that it is possible to bridge cultures and take what is good and wise from each, that it isn’t necessary or helpful to deny any part of who we are, that you can acknowledge the tragedies of the past without infecting the present.

  8. Eleanor says:

    Oh Pam. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing with such honesty and heart!

  9. Extreme John says:

    Another great post Pam. Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays are very essential for the bond of the family. Children are most affected by this so it is important to know how to have a good holiday and it would even be better to improve it. Thanks a lot for sharing!

  10. Dale Ting says:

    Pam, what a great post. Hit home on many fronts: family reaction to entrepreneurship, my support of people who stayed in the corporate world, how to make a positive thing out of differing political opinions, AND how I think of myself as being Chinese AND American.

  11. Sarah Yost says:

    Beautiful! This resolves some of my questions.
    About creating things to buy AND being of complete service.
    Being of complete service AND saying no.
    Being a business AND being a healer.
    Being a mother completely in love with my children AND bored by certain parenting chores.
    Delighting in a chocolate chip cookie AND caring for my body.
    Thank Josh for me.

  12. […] this morning: The Power of Gray Areas, and How They Will Improve Your Holidays. This article caught my attention not only because it’s another great article from Pamela […]

  13. Hi Pamela
    Thank you for your very personal as well as universal post.
    I love this reminder for the AND.

    The “AND” that I am crafting for myself (and my clients) right now is :

    I am simplifying my life AND making a bigger difference

    Kind regards

  14. James says:

    I keep thinking that, in the context of eventually starting a small business, I have to succeed or else. Either I make that business my sole income, my primary thing, or I am a failure. Which is silly. I actually have a great safety net to fall back on for work, and can start out slowly, or even take a risk that isn’t going to break me because I have the availability and ability to work at any time I need it.

    And yet, for some reason, fitting that into an ‘and’ philosophy seems foreign. Which is ridiculous. I think you have articulated one of those ‘living in a van down by the river’ fears people (and myself) have had, and the reason it is (for more people than they would easily admit) not as applicable as we tend to think. Thanks for that.

  15. Mark Hayes says:

    Wow! Really, really great article! I’ll be passing this on to more than a few people.

  16. Janet says:

    great article and topic! Kids say the darndest things.. very wise! I guess a gray area for me would be learning how to balance all these conflicting emotions I have about the 9 to 5 while recently becoming one (again) AND working on a business. i realized that its ok to have something stable to fund my business when it’s not self-sustainable on its own.

  17. I love this. I have an animal rights inspired vegetarian daughter and a son who fills our freezer with meat he has hunted in the woods. Our dinner table is a *gray* place. We have to find lots of places for AND.

  18. Beautifully, powerfully said, Pam.

  19. Deb says:

    Pam, beautiful.
    You know, you don’t have to wait for Josh to grow up to figure out what/who he’s going to be. He already IS…and in such a big way!
    Much love to you and yours on this grateful day.

  20. Laurie Foley says:

    Josh sounds like a natural born healer to me. I think we could all use more of his special medicine. Thanks for the “and” reminder, Pam. Much love to you and your family.

  21. I simply heart this post Pam. Exquisite insight showing emotional, and far as I’m concerned, spiritual maturity. Consciousness is love and it seems fully expressed in this post.

    I appreciate the light you share.

  22. Tzaddi says:

    There you go, making me cry again. I love this. Thank you.

    And YES, I’m with Willie: Josh for President!!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

  23. Thank you Pam for such a great post. I am finding myself in the grey areas of life more and more, and learning that it is a good place to be. Only wish more people in my life would join me there.

    Absolutely LOVE Josh’s response….may have to borrow it sometime!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  24. Cheryl Dolan says:

    Beautiful and very thought provoking post Pam. The gray is so rich, creative, juicy. It’s where change and transformation can really happen.

    I vote for Josh.

    Happy Thanksgiving Pam, to you and your family – I am very thankful to have you in my life. xoxo

  25. Pam,
    Yes, long live the gray areas…may we all become masters of exploring them. In our mixed Buddhist/Jewish household, we look for and celebrate the gray year round, especially throughout the holiday season. Gray paves such a rich territory. (btw: I think we should invite Josh to speak at the next inauguration, even if he doesn’t run.)
    Ditto on the sentiment…thankful for you and for your work in the world.

  26. Carol Ross says:

    Bravo, Pam! Yes, AND! Thank you for a thoughtful, timely post and leading the way in helping us re-think our lives, both personally and professionally. Each voice brings something to the table that we all can learn from.

    BTW–My vote is for Josh as Elder. An old soul, for sure.

  27. Josh for President.


    • Rob says:

      I’ll vote for him! He seems much more mature than most of the candidates we’re presented with.

      Lovely post Pam. Thanks for sharing. 🙂