The Ultimatum

The older I get, the more amazed I am by everything that’s packed into our language. Let me amend that…packed into every language.

Great writers and thinkers can take a familiar word – one you and I have seen many times – and help us uncover meanings and implications we’ve never seen before. Playwright Bernard Shaw was a master at this. So was theologian Paul Tillich (I’m thinking of what he did with words like “grace,” “salvation,” and “sin.”)

Today I want to talk about a recent Washington Post advice column by Carolyn Hax that started me thinking about one of those familiar words. A woman wrote in because she was getting tired of waiting for a marriage proposal. Her beloved was a married man, they’d been together a long time, and he’d made many promises and declarations of love – but he was still legally married. The letter writer said she was thinking about giving him an ultimatum.

Here’s what Hax told her: “Ultimatums are a lousy decision-making strategy because they shift responsibility for your choices onto someone else. ‘If you [act], then I [react].'” She told the woman to take an honest look at the relationship and make a decision on her own: keep waiting, or leave.

I started thinking about a time when I too was thinking about delivering an ultimatum. It was long ago when I was committed heart-and-soul to an organization that didn’t seem to care much about me and my feelings.

I debated for a long time about laying down an either-or choice – “Fix this stuff, or I’m quitting” – and finally decided on a different route. I resigned. If they really wanted me to stay (as they’d assured me several times), the next move was up to them.

What happened next was…nothing.

It was a hard decision for me because I had a bright future with the group, despite the problems. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m glad I took that step, and I also know that the person causing most of the problems was an alcoholic.

Back to ultimatums. It would have made a huge difference if I’d had Carolyn Hax standing by my shoulder to tell me that ultimatums always mean giving the final decision to the other person. I wasn’t thinking that clearly, and all I had to guide me was my gut.

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Our love of writing gives people like you and me an extraordinary opportunity to share our knowledge and experience with others. The trick – of course – is to get their attention. The more I read Carolyn Hax, the more dissatisfied I am with conventional advice columnists. Halfway through most letters I can predict what they’re going to say.

With Carolyn Hax, however, I almost never know what direction she’s going to take. If you can bring that same freshness to your own writing, you’re going to build your own loyal readership. Can you take a familiar word – airplane, Christmas, love, cat, breakfast – and bring it to life in a way your readers aren’t expecting?

Not easy to do – but a goal worth striving for!



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