Month: May 2017

Who is Your Tea Server?

Who’s that one person in your life who gets on your last nerve?

Let me tell you about my person.

Recently, a man named “Sam” and I, along with 2 other women, sat shoulder to shoulder at a small table at Starbucks. A war raged inside me as he spoke.

Compassionate, good listener Julie worked hard to take in Sam’s words. She smiled and nodded encouragingly as he spoke.

Then there’s impatient, barracuda Julie. She thought, Will this narcissist ever stop talking? He’s driving me insane!

Sam wore a gold name tag on his blue plaid shirt which said, SAM SMITH, REALTOR. He found our Career Coaches’ Meetup group online, and decided to crash our inaugural meeting even though he’s not a coach.

He continued sharing his story. He said, “You know, most realtors are con artists. 80% of them are stay-at-home mothers filing their nails, looking for an easy buck. Do you know how little work they do in proportion to how much money they make? It’s a messed up system. Me? I do it differently . . .”

Soon barracuda Julie took over. I gnashed my teeth preparing to bite off his head as he shared way too much information about his 8 business ventures. The guy seemed desperate for approval.

After 15 minutes of his self-absorbed chatter I interrupted him: “Excuse me Sam, but what are you for exactly? I only hear what you’re against.”

This comment sucked the energy out of the room. It was not my best moment. Once again, I’d let a narcissist get the better of me. Whenever someone talks and doesn’t listen, lacks empathy, seems close-minded and arrogant, they push my buttons.

Long ago, the great Buddhist teacher Atisha wanted to move to Tibet. When he was told that Tibetans were very good-natured and flexible, he decided they wouldn’t be irritating enough to push his buttons. Therefore he decided to bring along his mean-tempered, ornery Bengali tea server.

This guy was bad news. For example, whenever Atisha asked for tea, the tea server would say, “Get up off your butt and get it yourself, you lazy bum!” Atisha would be tempted to shake his fist and tell him what’s what, but instead he’d take a deep breath and not react. The tea server kept Atisha in an alert, awakened state.

When he got to Tibet, he learned he needn’t have brought his tea server; there were plenty of unpleasant people there.

Each of us has a tea server, someone who pushes our buttons. Who comes to mind for you?

Maybe it’s the person who cuts you off mid-sentence. Or maybe it’s your lazy co-worker you secretly hold in contempt. Perhaps it’s your partner: “Can you ever be ready on time? We’re always late!” You react by blowing your top.

The truth is, each of us has different types of tea servers. The person who drives you batty, I may think is dreamy. That’s revealing, isn’t it? It means we have to really own our own part in this whole tea server dilemma. Here’s why it matters.

If we’re constantly reacting to our tea servers, we’re not being very good leaders. There’s a theory in complex systems I love called “requisite variety:”

The person in the room with the most variety of responses to people and problems has the most influence.

Think of a master chess player. The one with the most flexible mind and moves up her sleeve will beat her opponent.

In another context, think of the most impactful leaders you know. Are they rigid and reactive or fluid and full of grace? I personally prefer the latter kind of leader.

I also want to BE the fluid and graceful leader. Once I react unskillfully to someone, I’ve lost my ability to influence him in the future.

You know the saying, “The things we dislike most in others are the characteristics we like least in ourselves.”

For years my tea server has consistently been narcissists. Enough! Time to have an imaginary sit down with my tea server narcissist Sam and think about how we’re alike. I realized:

He really craves approval of others – just like me.

He’s an overachiever trying to be good at a million things . . . just like me.

He works really hard to be seen as “one of a kind” – which describes me to a T.

Once I realized I actually had a lot in common with Sam, I felt a lot tenderer toward him. I felt our shared humanity. I no longer felt so rigid and righteous about him – a much stronger basis for a relationship.

This afternoon, as sure as we’re sitting here, your tea server will appear in your life. Will you shake your fist and react in old familiar ways, or will you take a breath, and respond with grace?

Julie Bondy Roberts, MA, GCDF is a LinkedIn Profile Writer & Trainer, Public Speaker, Career Transition Coach, Forbes Contributor & Overachiever. She is the founder of Coming Alive Career Coaching.

Frustrated with your job search? Need clarity, solid tactics, a friendly nudge? Contact Julie at and she will help you get on track. You can also follow Julie on Twitter and Facebook.