A dear colleague and I were talking at lunch about the usual subjects – our work, our families, the miserable state of the world. We commiserated about our aging parents growing more frail. I said, “It is what it is,” and my friend replied, “No it isn’t.”
I repeated, “Yes, it is what it is,” and she repeated, “No it isn’t.” After a few more rounds of this craziness, I said that though it may be cliché, the phrase indicates acceptance of a particular situation. She countered that this might be true in some cases, but that I should listen more carefully.
Most of the time, she explained, the speaker is really signaling resignation, not acceptance. I asked her what she meant and in summary here is what she said:
- The phrase pushes away uncomfortable feelings and shuts down further exploration. “It is what it is” sends the message, “let’s stop talking about this or I’ll reveal how I really feel” (sad, anguished, scared, angry, helpless, etc.).
- It disempowers us from acting. “It is what it is” provides an excuse to do nothing that might relieve our suffering or the suffering of others. After all, why do anything different if “it is what it is?”
- It prevents us from reframing the situation. For instance, while parents naturally become frail and decline (as we all inevitably must) why shouldn’t we consider how great it is that they are still with us, able to enjoy their friends or their grandchildren?
Finally, she said, “it is what it is” is impossible to dispute. The phrase is self evident and socially unacceptable to argue against.
Of course, my colleague did argue, and in doing so she completely changed my feelings about the phrase. Now, when I hear the dreaded “it is what it is,” I am more sensitive to what the speaker is really saying (albeit in code). This sensitivity is particularly useful in my leadership coaching practice. Case in point:
Ann told my client Jack that he was about to receive the major promotion he had worked hard the past five years to earn. He knew Ann for years, because she had been his boss’s boss. Ann was a hands-off executive who spent most of her time building relationships with key clients and with strategic partners. Unfortunately, Ann had not always followed through on promises, particularly about human resources needed to stabilize and grow the business. In fact, Jack was inheriting a region with three key vacancies on the senior team.
Jack worried that he was being set up to fail in his new role, and that Ann would not actively engage to support him and fund new key hires. He was actually thinking of turning the job down! I couldn’t believe it and asked why.
Acceptance or resignation?
He said, “It is what it is. Ann will never change. She’ll never provide the resources and attention I need to succeed. Why should I take the risk when I could continue in my role for a few more years.”
I replied that he was approaching his new role with the same mindset he approached his current role, as a trusted lieutenant. With this mindset he wouldn’t challenge Ann to partner with him to ensure the region was successful.
I added that if he was locked into the idea that “Jack is who he is,” he wouldn’t grow into the role of senior executive, whether or not he felt Ann’s support. I said that the promotion wasn’t about him, but was about ensuring the success of the business, regardless of who was in the top job. His first mission was to start thinking and acting as a senior executive.
I said, “It isn’t what it is. And, you aren’t who you are. Those are both self-limiting assumptions.” Jack was a little shaken by my provocative comments. But he recognized he had been blind to the possibility that it “wasn’t what it could be.” And after more conversation, he saw that if he approached Ann differently the whole situation could shift.
Jack ended up accepting the job, but not before challenging Ann to partner with him for one year to get the region to be the highest performer in the company. She responded beautifully. They partnered to assess and then reorganize the region, investing in key hires differently but more strategically than Jack had planned.
Moral of the story: When you are in conversation with someone who says, “It is what it is,” just say, “No, it isn’t.” Their reply to your comment will signal true acceptance or resignation. Then, don’t be judgmental about it. Just be curious.
And if you are ever tempted to use the phrase again, resist. Because obviously, “it isn’t what it is.”