It’s oh so easy and deliciously fun to jump to conclusions about others’ motivations, especially when we can feel indignant and justified while making others out to be petty, small-minded, or selfish. We can decide they’re a jerk, an a**hole, a biyotch, or (favorite expletive) and feel superior to them.
It’s great fun until someone else does it to us.
But that’s different, we say. We’re right.
What I’ve learned is that everyone has their perspective which is just as valid as our own, regardless of whether we understand it or agree with it. Failure to at least try to understand someone else’s perspective can be damaging to morale and relationships and undermine a group’s effectiveness.
I have to admit that some people are particularly difficult to understand and it may be tempting to just write them off as narcissists, selfish or small-minded. And I may not always be wrong when doing so. After all, even a broken clock is right twice per day. So for all of those times (since I can’t ever really know when I’m right) when I find myself indulging in negativity, complaining, or self-justification here’s what I try to do.
First, I must acknowledge that I form some judgment or assumption when I form a conclusion. There may be a belief attached to that. For example, if my friend is in the habit of offering something to me that she knows she cannot deliver, I may decide she’s manipulative (a judgment/assumption/conclusion). But if I examine my underlying belief (it’s her job be honest with me so that I feel safe or valued), I can see what the real issue is and have a conversation with her and/or make a decision about what her friendship is worth to me.
Second, I can examine my own role and potential hypocrisy in this situation. It’s easy to cast blame on others, but much harder to take ownership of one’s own contribution. A great starting point for this self-reflection is as follows: if I’m accusing her of manipulation, there is probably some element of manipulation that I myself am employing such as getting mad if she doesn’t do what I want.
I also may be hiding a belief from myself that is potentially unflattering. For example, my underlying belief in the above scenario might really be that my affection for her is predicated on her doing something for me. I may be very unwilling to admit this to myself and instead rationalize the conflict to say it’s about honesty. I can test my assumption by asking myself whether her company alone is sufficient for me to continue our friendship. Or perhaps I pressure her to do things for me that she’s not comfortable doing? Is this her way of getting me off her back?
Finally, I can also do an exercise where I envision other reasonable explanations for her behavior. She might simply be an unrealistic and overly optimistic planner who is sincere in her offers at the time. She might have every intention of making that promise work, but later find she’s too busy or overwhelmed. She might be misusing one of her strengths if she’s tired or stressed out. In other words, I am now looking at my friend from the point of view of her humanity, not her failures.
These exercises are not necessarily designed to get someone else off the hook after behaving poorly. They are intended, however, to help one get a new perspective on what was previously a very one-sided internal dialogue.
There are multiple benefits to making this effort in such situations. For example, trying to see the conflict from another’s perspective will smooth the way when discussing the issue with them. You’re less likely to make her defensive if you’re not leading with an accusatory tone. Also, it’s much easier to forgive someone when you consider or realize that you have contributed an equal or significant part to the problem. And that forgiveness, as Suzanne Somers once said, is a “gift you give yourself”. That gift to yourself is peace of mind and the power to retain your equanimity and positive emotion.
Therefore, engaging in such exercises means that you can potentially be rewarded psychologically and emotionally for your efforts. Like other skills, these actions get easier with practice, as do the concomitant benefits. So what do you have to lose besides your premature conclusions and resentment?