Robert was dressing for a meeting where he would be speaking, and casually he turned to his wife, Julie, and asked, “Does this tie work?”
She replied, “I like the red, striped one better. Here, let me help you put it on.”
Later, Robert called to tell me that he’d felt somewhat annoyed after Julie’s response. “I don’t understand why this bothers me,” he said.
“Because she exceeded her brief,” I said, and I continued to explain when my answer was still unclear to him. A brief, especially in British English, refers to the description of an assignment or responsibility, or authority given to a person. If you “exceed your brief,” you are engaged in activities outside those you were assigned.
“When you asked Julie, ‘Does this work?’ you were simply asking if there was anything significantly WRONG with the tie. Is that right?”
“You just didn’t want to make a glaring mistake and embarrass yourself needlessly in front of the audience.”
“You were NOT asking Julie to choose the tie SHE liked, and certainly you were not asking her to dress you, like a manikin. Would that be accurate to say?”
“YES,” he said, with enthusiasm. He enjoyed being understood, with a dash of being right in addition.
Following are some examples of “exceeding our brief,” which usually seem innocent to us:
- You’re asked a specific question, which you answer. But then you keep offering more and more information because you feel useful and important. Julie and Martin are an example of this. Martin was not absurdly wearing a paisley tie with a striped shirt and plaid pants. He wanted only to know if the tie was glaringly inappropriate, not whether it was her favorite.
- Somebody invites you to perform a couple of specific tasks in helping to complete a larger project. As you become invested in the overall project, you feel entitled to offer your opinion about several other tasks that have nothing to do with the ones you were assigned.
- Your friend drives to your house with a car he’s just purchased and asks how you like it. You ask what he paid for it, how many miles it’s been driven, and whether he had it checked out before the purchase by a mechanic. But the car was already BOUGHT. That decision is over, so you really exceeded your brief by asking questions that MIGHT be appropriate if the car had not yet been purchased.
When we hear that we’ve exceeded our brief, very commonly we make multiple, reasonable-sounding excuses:
- “But I know a lot about this subject, so how could I not share it with a friend—or family member or whoever?”
- “I was just trying to help.” How many atrocities have been justified by this excuse? Without intending to, we FORCE people to listen to our opinions, and then we follow up on them, in effect strong-arming people again to listen, to agree, and to implement our “brilliant” ideas. It is almost never loving to exceed our brief.
Okay, so let’s assume that you do know a lot about the subject in question and that you really are trying to help, as opposed to getting a sense of power, praise, and importance from knowing a lot? Is it acceptable for you to speak up? Yes, but only if you’re careful to assess whether the other person really wants the help you offer. You might, for example, say:
- “The tie works.” This is the simple answer to Martin’s question. You might offer more information, but not unless the other person really wants it. Then Martin—or whoever you’re talking to—must have the guts to say, “Nah, I just wanted to know if the tie—or whatever—looked stupid.”
- “I have a few thoughts about the project you’re doing if you want to hear them,” which could be used in the case of the second example above where you assigned only a couple of specific parts of the project.
- In the case of a car already purchased, when your friend asks you if you like it, there is only one reasonable answer. They’ve already made the decision, they’ve made an investment in it, and they want the APPROVAL from others about the wisdom of their selection. Keep your opinions to yourself.
- Your partner is considering going outside to do some work in the backyard. You’re sitting in front of your computer, and he asks what the weather forecast is for the next several hours. You indicate that the forecast is for a significant chance of rain, and then you add, “Probably not a good idea to work outside today.”
Wrong. You were asked about the forecast, not about whether it was a good idea to work outside. You exceeded your brief, and in the process controlled your partner and made him feel small.
- You have decided to take your son, Johnny outside to play for a while, and your partner offers the suggestion that your daughter, Sharon, would probably enjoy time with you also.
Nope. You made the decision to play with Johnny, enjoying some one-on-one time with him. It’s not like you have forgotten that you had a daughter. If there were an ongoing imbalance in the time you spent with the two kids, then this might be a subject for a couple’s meeting, not something to bring up, right while you were about to do something with your son. People tend to feel more accused if a “discussion” happens right when a supposed “error” is identified.
Exceeding your brief is avoided so much easier if we are clear about what exactly our brief is. Sometimes this varies from moment to moment, but on other occasions, our “brief”—our responsibilities and authority—are assigned in an ongoing way. How can we know our brief? Clarity. Always. As much as possible give people regular responsibilities in family and couple’s meetings. But some responsibilities change from moment to moment. It all works out if:
- We love each other. If I love you, and our responsibilities suddenly change—or perhaps we forget them—we both care about each other so much that it takes almost no time to determine what we’re both freely willing to do. And because we love each other, we LISTEN and speak clearly. Every day I briefly scan Donna’s face, and if I find anything other than peace and contentment there, I ask questions until I find the imbalance, or injustice, or lack of love that is causing that expression. If I am diligent in looking for evidence of love —or lack thereof—in the people around me, big imbalances in our “briefs” tend not to occur.
- We meet regularly to discuss our schedules and responsibilities. Prevention of contention is far easier than putting out a fire.
- We pay attention, we listen, we look, we touch, all of which are elements of loving. And it’s a feedback loop. The more I listen to you and look at you, the more I learn and gain the ability to avoid conflict. The more I love you, the more I listen, look, and touch, all of which contribute to loving you.
The more we love people, the more we care about how they feel, and the more we notice. On that path, we tend not to “exceed our brief,” because we just would not be careless about mechanical things like job assignments.