Don Draper and Lev Vygotsky

You know the situation: you and your interlocutor are just not on the same page. They’re your partner, spouse, student, the person behind the counter, or the person on the phone. Why won’t they listen, behave, or just “get it?”

That’s when it seems (because it’s true) that you’re over here, and they’re (sometimes way the hell) over there.

Of course you could just shrug your shoulders and say “it is what it is,” and walk away. But for whatever reason, that’s not you, or not what you’re about in the moment.

There and then, you’re doing your darnedest to get them to see things your way, to think or behave differently, and come on over to where you are.

What do you do?

Don Draper found himself in that very spot, during the opening episode of the fourth season of Mad Men. He had an idea for a womens’ bathing suit manufacturer which the client simply couldn’t accept on moral grounds. Don sensed the hypocrisy of this, and was outraged by it.

Fans of the series know Don is no stranger to pretense. In fact, one could even go so far as to suggest he is the product of many (e.g., married family man & philanderer, Don & Dick). Nevertheless, the old principle holds: easier to identify the stain on your opponent’s eye than on your own.

As we all know, Don stood firm. His was the moral high ground of the creative artist, whose integrity he was sworn to defend. Across from him, the equally self-righteous (if only more sanctimonious) philistines. He threw them out of his temple, putting on quite a good show for us all, and arguably advancing his own fortunes within the company considerably, but…

At what price?

Time will tell if it was all worth it, in terms of better clients, position within the company, or reputation within the industry. But in the moment, Don and his clients both lost, and not just an opportunity. They lost their footing, their relationship, and worst of all, their perspective.

Now that we know what Don had to do in order to entertain (and edify) us, let’s ask: what could he have done differently in real life?

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had an answer. He theorized that (presuming, of course you want to take people anywhere at all) individuals can only go so far without a special kind of assistance. This assistance, I think, is part and parcel of what most of us would good consider teaching, good negotiating, good therapy, and perhaps even good relating in general.

It’s a simple concept: first, find out where your partner is – not where you want them to be, but where they actually are. Then, get as close to them as you possibly can without stepping on their toes. Now you’re in the “zone,” in Vygotskian terms.

The next step involves walking your partner thoughtfully, gently, and most of all respectfully, to the edge: the edge of what they can do, think, feel, experience.

Have they ever seen the world from the standpoint of a particular age, race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or set of experiences? No? Well, now’s your chance to fill them in. If you want to be maximally effective here, don’t just tell them, show them (see the section on two ways of communicating).

Most of all, walk. If the change you’re looking for is important, let it happen at its own pace. Not yours, not theirs, but that of a third party just as important: that of your relationship.

Of course, you could stand across the riverbank and just exhort your partner to swim, knowing they can’t or don’t want to. Then if they swim, you’ll have the satisfaction of having overcome their resistance. If they don’t, you can still feel secure in the fact that your identity is safe on the other side of the river.

That’s what Don did – momentarily exaggerate the difference between himself and his clients, all in the service of momentarily supporting a flagging sense of self-worth (remember his boss said he “failed” earlier in front of his peers).

Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it leaves you alone, all alone, with nothing but your ideals for company. Which brings me to Anna Draper’s sage advice to Don in “The Mountain King” episode (Season Two):

The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.

Vygotsky’s genius, for me, is to show how relationship is possible when one of you wants to dance and the other doesn’t (yet) (know how). Time will tell if Don knows his Vygotsky as well as he knows his consumer.