Last week I was wandering around Kmart trying to find an adapter plug. In my search I found myself walking through the Lego aisle. I was taken aback by the fierce feeling of joy and longing that hit me as I walked into that aisle. When my son, Patrick, was little we would spend a lot of time in this aisle. Pat would carefully examine each box – trying to decide, ‘Is a Luke Skywalker + Desert Skiff set better than a Hans Solo + StarFighter set?’ I would get bored and impatient as he carefully pondered these questions and start to hurry him along.
Standing in that aisle, those memories came back to me with such intensity. I felt so proud of the young man that Pat has become and at the same time I longed to go back in time, hug that earnest little boy and gently tell that younger version of myself not to be in such a rush, that these moments were precious.
I drank in that memory and walked on. A moment later, I saw these bargain jeans.
I thought, ‘How can they do that for $7?’ and unbidden, thoughts of the recent news about deaths in garment factories in Bangladesh came to mind. I felt sad, guilty and powerless.
Someone watching me might have been surprised by the emotions I seemed to be experiencing. They might have come up with a story for why I seemed upset looking at a pile of jeans or why I had a tender smile in the Lego aisle. It is unlikely that they would accurately work out what was going on inside me.
These two moments show why perspective taking can be so hard.
On the surface they seem very similar. I was reminded of something and then I felt an emotion. But they are quite different in one important respect. In the Lego Aisle I was reminded of something that had actually happened to me. But in the jeans aisle the ideas that provoked the painful emotions weren’t a result of my direct experience. I had looked at a series of squiggles on a computer screen a few days earlier and now seeing some jeans makes me sad. This difference might seem pedantic but it has some important practical implications.
The second incident requires language. Language means that a pair of jeans can make me sad because of something that has happened to some people I have never met, in a place I have never been to. This is an important difference between humans and other animals. It is part of the reason that humans are much more vulnerable to emotional pain than other animals. It also means it can be incredibly hard to interpret, predict and influence our own and other people’s emotions.
Say my manager tells me I haven’t done a good job on a piece of work. My response won’t just be to that event, it won’t even just relate to all the other experiences I have had that my mind tells me are similar – conversations with this manager, with previous managers or other colleagues and possibly even that time 40 years ago when Mrs Leary (the scary teacher) shouted at me in grade 3. (I asked to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after we had returned from lunch break, she found this annoying.) Experiences I have had in the real world won’t be the only factors influencing me. I will also be influenced by what I have learnt through language. It could be my Dad telling me that most managers are fools, the theory I learnt at university about how these conversations should go or the story I have about myself that I am disorganised and incompetent. The factors influencing my response could be numerous. (Psychological flexibility is the skill of not being pushed around by these responses and is the central theme of this blog.)
This means that when my manager tries to do the right thing and work out my perspective on the feedback, she is likely to get it wrong.
It is almost impossible to really see the world through another person’s eyes. Insoo Kim Berg used to say ‘You must have a good reason to…’ She believed that people’s behaviour always made sense to them. If the behaviour doesn’t make sense to us then it is because we don’t have enough information. Her response was to ask questions with a stance of genuine curiosity and a real interest in understanding the other person and their behaviour.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that negotiations lead to better outcomes when at least one party asks good questions. Negotiators tend to make false assumptions about the other person’s needs and motives. Acting on those assumptions leads to poorer outcomes for both parties.
So next time you need to have a difficult conversation with someone – do spend time considering their perspective before the conversation but also make sure you remain curious throughout the conversation, gathering information that will help you both to reach a good outcome.
“You must have a good reason to…” Insoo Kim Berg