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Feb 12, 2010

Asking for the impossible

I had to apologize to Eugene today about asking him to do something that was impossible to do. It did sound reasonable when I asked; and I used all the right reasons – the interest of our students, the big picture, the right thing, etc. However, one glitch: it was impossible for him to do. Had I pushed myself a little further, I could have realized that myself, and avoid putting him in a position where he has to reject a reasonable request.

I find myself in his shoes quite often, and should have known better. Often one of my colleagues is completely right about something, knows she or he is right, and is asking me to do something – something that affects a third party. And sometimes I simply cannot do it. Why not? – usually, there is no good way of making a decision without hurting someone. Often, there is no way of saying what I want to say – the norms of collegiality, the relationships, may make it impossible; literally unpronounceable. What I have learned (partly from experience, and partly from Eugene), is to ask "OK, you're right, but what do you want me to do about it, exactly?" Or, "Give me a good line with which I can approach your colleague 'A' to say what you want me to say."

We all have to stop asking for the impossible. It is easy to say that someone else must keep their promises, be fired, dismissed, replaced, limited, or reprimanded – say it behind one's back. But how would you say it to one's face? How would you do it, exactly? How do you think the other party is going to react? Does the person you're asking to do something capable, or equipped to do what you ask? Would you be able to do what you're asking for? And if you think yes – why do you think other people are as capable and resourceful as you believe you are?

Just being right or righteous does not give you the right to insist something should be done the way you see it. The world is way too complex for that. People who are in the wrong must always have a face-saving option. No one should be humiliated. Everyone should be given a second and a third chance. Everyone can be forgiven and helped. We have to keep in mind the long-term consequences of our actions. We must keep in mind precedents we set.


  1. The big thing is realizing that you made a mistake, that you asked something of someone that couldn't be done. I find it more than frustrating when people won't apologize, when they won't admit that they are imperfect.

    Just think of the messages we are sending to our younger generations when we fail to admit our mistakes. We have CEOs, athletes, presidents, leaders and people in high positions who continually refuse to apologize, who think they do no wrong. No wonder kids today think that intentions are all that matter no matter who gets hurt.

  2. Lynette7:46 AM

    I realize this isn't always the case, but most mature adults have already tried the direct approach in dealing with an issue before taking it to a higher authority for help. Even if the higher authority is unable to resolve the immediate issue, hopefully he/she acknowledges a problem exists. More than likely it won't go away and will need to be dealt with in some manner.