“My sister went and bought a new car even though her old car was perfectly fine. Then says she can’t afford to come out to the family reunion. She needs to get her priorities straight. She’s so selfish.”
“I quit the board. I can’t work with those people. They are ignorant about the way the world works. Their policies will do more harm than good. I thought they really wanted to help our community, but I think they’re just in it for themselves.”
“I thought he was a good person, but when I heard he was running for the other political party, I was shocked.”
When we disagree with someone or are hurt or offended in some by another person it can be difficult to make sense of what is going on. People who make ‘dumb’ decisions or seem to have “no common sense.” The person who we believe cares about us and then does something that harms us, the person we trusted to help a situation who seems to just make everything worse or the person we thought had high moral standards, makes a decision we disagree with. To make sense of others we often jump to conclusions about the other persons character, intellect or morals. When we do this, we lessen the chance of obtaining the type of understanding that can repair a relationship or help resolve an issue, is lost.
Here are 9 ways to work towards making sense of other people:
1. Beware of judgements
Judging a person, their ideas, beliefs or actions as stupid, immoral or simply, wrong, causes us to lose sight of the whole person. If we believe this about another person we will lose hope that a relationship or situation can be repaired. If a person is ‘stupid’ there is no point in trying to get to know them better, hear about their reasons for their actions or find a way to work together.
On the other hand, if we can remind ourselves of situations where this person has said or done things that show characteristics other than the one we’ve labelled them with, we will understand that this person has more to them then what we’ve labelled them with.
If we struggle to find examples of things they’ve done or said that we’ve admired or appreciated, stay tuned for the next steps.
2. Assume good intentions
Start with the assumption that humans generally act, speak, or espouse ideas based on the experience and information they have at that time. This might not sit as true to your experience. This is a life long challenge. Understanding why people act the way they act, (without adding a negative judgement is key). If you’ve spent your life judging yourself and others negatively, you may have difficulty considering that the above statement could be true. Start with yourself. Can you look at words or actions that you or others have judged negatively and consider what good intention you may have had (despite negative outcomes). For example, when I chose to quit my job in anger, I was feeling a lot of stress and pressure and was trying to get some relief from it.
NOTE: having good intentions does not remove responsibility from the person who acted, for the results of their actions, it simply shifts the focus away from judgements of character, intellect, morality, etc. and onto what needs to be done to repair the harm done.
3. Assume rationality
Individuals act in ways that are rational to themselves, based on their context, their experiences, the skills, and the information they have at that time. For example, an individual who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship, may not be lacking intelligence. They may have considered all their options and decided that the results of leaving are worse than the results of staying. Depending on the situation, this could actually be true for them, at that time. This doesn’t mean that you couldn’t check to see if there are possibilities that they haven’t considered, resources that could change the balance of pros and cons for them, it just means that you can’t assume someone is “crazy” because they make choices that appear non-sensical to you.
Use your creative mind to consider ways in which another person could have the same goals as you, or goals that you would admire, and still make decisions and act in ways that appear contrary to you.
Is it possible that there is more than one way to achieve those same goals. For example, is it possible that another person could hold wildly different political or religious beliefs from you and still want the best for their children, for society, etc.? If you can’t imagine it, keep digging, keep listening…
4. There is no such thing as ‘common sense’
I know that ‘everyone knows that there is such a thing as common sense,’ but when it comes to making sense of other people, I have yet to observe a time when believing or saying “it is just common sense” has helped anyone resolve their differences or come to a better understanding of another person.
Each of us comes to our understanding of the world and how it works through our own unique set of experiences, influences, personality and ideas. We may share many of these things with other people, but even then, our interpretations of the world around us will rarely match any one else’s completely. Sometimes it helps to find others who feeling similarly to you or who share your perspective on an event or situation, in order to get support, but assuming that “everyone knows… “ is not helpful.
If you’ve started with the assumption that the other person had good intentions, is rational and may have a different perspective from you based on their vantage point in the situation, their information, experience and history, then you are getting much closer to understanding another person.
5. Consider Context
Think about the other person’s context, who they are, what their living situation, life
situation, financial status, history, culture, relationship issues, experience and personality bring. Remember, there are likely many things happening for that person that you are unaware of.
if a person has good intentions, is rational, and not unintelligent, morally deficient or ignorant, it is quite possible that you do not have all the information about what is going on or why they’ve chosen to speak or act in the way that they do.
6. Get to Know yourself Better
If you assume that others who disagree with you are act differently from how you would act, have something wrong with them, you are essentially assuming that you are superior to them, even if you believe that you are generally a humble person. Maybe you do think, “yes, I actually do believe that I am superior to this person.” This belief, like the one about ‘common sense’ has rarely helped repair a relationships or resolve a conflict, in my experience.
The remedy to this superiority complex might surprise you. It is to get to know yourself better. Find out what is unique about you, your perspective, personality, culture and experience. What makes you, you, is unique to you. Discovering your uniqueness improves self-esteem more than assuming superiority over others. It tells you more accurately, which areas you have “an inside scoop on” (namely, experiences specific to you) and helps you to be better at imagining how another way of doing things, another perspective, or opinion might also be valid, and even add to your own.
There are lots of ways to get to know yourself, here are a few:
- Do a personality test (try Myers Briggs or the Enneagram Personality Types)
- Get to know your political opinions, here’s one tool that might help if you are really unsure where you stand. Vote Compass. (If anyone knows of a better one, please let me know, I’d love to hear about it!)
- Learn more about your family history
- Find out more about your cultural heritage/ take a language class
- Explore your values and beliefs See What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values
- Notice what things are enjoyable to you and what are not (starting with your 5 senses —-see How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions – Part I and Your Emotional First Aid Kit- Part II)
- Ask others who care about you, what is unique about you?
7. Determine what part is this situation is your beeswax?
The other thing to consider in all this is why you care about what the others person does or says. How does it impact you, personally? If all you can come up with is, “it’s just offensive” then you have some more work to do. Dig deeper. Does it appear to challenge a value you have something you may have considered ‘common sense?” Does it make you nervous about your own decisions. For example, are they doing something that you may have been tempted to do in the past but through better of? What are your responsibilities in the relationship? Is this person an employee or your child? Are there safety concerns? If you find that your conners are primarily about another persons’ spiritual or moral wellbeing, consider how this is your responsibility and return to the other sections to determine if they may have similar concerns but be choosing another way to live these things. Or, perhaps they don’t share your values, specifically and have chosen different values which may be rational to them, given their context, history and situation.
NOTE: Unless a person is underage, or at serious risk of harming themselves or others, they have a right to live their lives the way they decide and unless this impacts you directly in some substantial way, physically or emotionally, it’s not really any of your business.
8. Get more information
If you determine that this situation is your business, OR, if you find that you are genuinely curious about another persons motivations and want to increase your understanding and perspective you might decide to get more information about the situation.
Start by doing your own research. If you have become familiar with your own perspectives through the exercises in Step 6, and you are aware of the other persons’s perspectives (such as religion or political views, culture , etc.) you might start by learning more about those perspectives to see if you can become clear on where they are coming from, or at least be better informed before questioning the person directly. Once you’ve done this research if you decide to talk to the other person directly about the situation, do your best to maintain a non-judgemental stance, and communicate your assumption of their good intention and rationality before asking for more clarification or understanding. This is your best bet to having a conversation that improves your relationship and can potentially resolve the situation.
NOTE: In all of these steps,the goal is not that you have to agree with another person’s choices or perspectives, only to understand them better. In understanding you have a greater chance of becoming closer, resolving a situation and even of being influenced or having an influence on another person.
9. Determine the appropriate next steps in this relationship/situation
If you have gone through the previous 8 steps and feel that there is still something unresolved in this situation or relationship, you will need to determine what is left for you to do. Here are some options to consider: