If you spent this week putting one penny in the jar for each act of kindness you offered someone and took three pennies out when you had to say no or draw a line in the sand, how many pennies would be in your jar?
This concept was introduced to me in a webinar I watched as part of my work at the library. It was specifically about interacting with homeless patrons, but a lot of it would apply to any human interaction.
The workshop leader said that for each friendly gesture (“Hi, my name is Janet. How are you?”), you are dropping one penny in a jar. On the other hand, when you need to ask for compliance or enforce a rule (“Sir, please don’t eat in the library.”) you are removing THREE pennies from the jar.
It seems this strategy could be universally helpful with people with whom you need to set boundaries. Where I think many people (including myself) get stuck is remembering to take pennies out. I think many people find it really easy to collect pennies but are fearful and insecure of spending them.
“What if they say no and get mad?” (They might.)
“What if it doesn’t go the way I think it will?” (It won’t.)
“How can I control what they say?” (You can’t.)
Like the economy, it’s a fluid system that only works when there is give and take. If someone is hoarding pennies and not spending them, the economy grinds to a halt.
This is one of many concepts that is easy to understand intellectually but is difficult in practice. My advice is to start small with low risks purchases. Ask for something that you are confident you’ll get, but won’t be a big deal if you don’t. Do this frequently, so you (and the other person) get used to asking for things.
Pennies in, pennies out. Pennies in, pennies out.
When I was an office manager at a real estate firm, I had a dozen brokers asking for things all day. It got to the point I couldn’t get my work done, and I didn’t know how to set some boundaries, so I started with something really small and reasonable. If a broker interrupted me because they were having trouble with their computer, I would say, “Sure. Just give me five minutes.” Even if I wasn’t in the middle of something, I got in the habit of always asking for five minutes. This set the expectation that I wouldn’t drop everything every time someone had a question. In most cases, by the time I went over to help them, they had figured out the problem by themselves.
After that, I was able to ask for a non-negotiable lunch break, where each broker took turns throughout the week to cover my lunch hour, so I didn’t need to ask for favors every day.
By the time, I left that job, I always had a nice stash of pennies in my jar, and I had no qualms about spending them when I needed to.
If you think this might be helpful for you, I recommend trying it out with one relationship you would like to improve. First, check to see if you have any pennies in the jar. If your jar is empty, take a few days to stock pile some spending money, and then buy something simple and small.
Something that wasn’t discussed in the webinar, but I think is important to clarify is that the acts of kindness and friendly gestures don’t earn you pennies if they don’t have meaning to the other person. Be sure you are acting with the other person’s needs and wants in mind.
This takes practice. You may struggle at first, so be kind to yourself.