When I first started managing, I remember thinking that I knew what was going on in the team. How people felt. What the issues were. How people were doing. Which made it all the more painful when I was blindsided with reality a little while later. Times have changed, as have I (I hope), and I’ve come to embrace the idea that there’s only so much you can really know about your co-workers.
This hit home when my father’s cancer went from a manageable chronic disease with occasional flare ups, to an acute variety with a median survival rate of less than six months. There was no rhyme or reason, but suddenly my life was turned inside out. Weekends were spent flying down to be with him in the hospital, but during the week I worked normal hours. After he passed away, my internal life was very different for a long time. I thought about this when a co-worker went through something similar. Outwardly, he was the same. Inwardly, I’m sure he was a mess.
Some of the people you work with are trying to get pregnant, and failing. Others are having pregnancy scares. Some are dealing with financial issues. Some might be working through marital issues, alcoholism, or drug addiction. Many are trying to lose weight. Some might have been the victims of descrimination or sexual harassment in the past (or the present). Some might be dealing with depression or bipolar disorder.
You don’t know. You don’t have the first clue about the majority of things going on with your co-workers. You don’t know about their home lives. You don’t know what their jobs mean to them. You don’t know why they’re acting the way they do. You don’t know a goddamn thing.
Well, and so what? Why should this matter? Being professional means sucking it up, putting away everything external to work, compartmentalizing, and just getting on with things. Which is all well and good, except none of us can fully compartmentalize. When someone’s hurting inside they’re less energized, more self-involved and less aware of others’ emotions. You can touch a nerve without realizing it, and a light conversation can suddenly blow up. What the hell just happened? you think, and place the blame on someone else being touchy and a loose cannon. What you don’t think is, I don’t know a goddamn thing.
At the critical moment of the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev sent a belligerent ultimatum to JFK, followed a couple of hours later by a rambling, emotional letter that provided a way out of the standoff. This was confusing, but JFK decided to ignore the first, and respond to the second message, a decision which possibly saved the world. You frequently have this same choice, though in a subtler way and (let’s hope) with lower stakes.
How you react to someone else’s inappropriate, antagonistic, or dismissive behavior is going to depend on how you interpret their motives. If you just think they’re an asshole, you’re going to react differently than if you know they’re going through a messy divorce and are having trouble just keeping things together. But you don’t know. The most common reaction to negative behavior is to believe that another’s actions are based on something intrinsic to their character – i.e., that they’re a schmuck. Of course, we always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt – I cut you off in traffic because I didn’t realize how close you were, or I was distracted by my kids, or I really needed to get into that lane to make my turn. You cut me off because you’re a jerk.
The thing is, this is entirely inside your head. It’s just a story you’re telling yourself. You don’t know a goddamn thing. When someone does something frustrating, you can:
- Decide that it’s because they’re a bad person. In this case, it’s just their character, it’s who they are, and there’s nothing that you or anyone else can do about it. The only solution is avoidance, or to attack back – fight fire with fire.
- Decide that it’s because they’re going through a bad breakup, got bad news from the doctor, or just had to put their dog to sleep. In this case, there’s a temporally local event that’s causing them additional stress – once it’s over, they’ll return to healthier styles of interaction. You can just wait this out, and sympathize with their situation.
- Choose to believe that they lack social skills, don’t know how to interact in a professional environment, or have developed behaviors that, while inappropriate, have been effective at getting them what they want in the past. In this case, they lack skills that would help them to be more effective – skills which can be learned. Here, you have an opportunity to help them.
- Expert Level: Think about how their behavior might be a reaction to something you did or said. In this case, there may very well be a disagreement over how to approach a problem, but you should be able to find a way to discuss the issue safely.
You get to decide which story to believe – they’re all stories, and they may all be wrong, but some are more useful than others. JFK could have chosen to believe the most pessimistic, negative version of the story being presented; but instead, he chose to ignore that and chose the most optimistic, positive version. Who knows what was really going on inside the Kremlin, but in the version of reality he chose to believe there was an opportunity for rapprochement.
When you believe that someone else is doing something for characterological reasons, you’re stuck – there’s nothing you can do but fight or avoid. When the story you tell is that there are situational reasons, you have the ability to make a change. No one is the villain of their own story – if you took a peek inside their brain you would see a situational justification for their behavior. Whether or not it’s factually correct, it’s how they understand themselves – no amount of argumentation is going to change it, and more importantly, it’s why a frontal assault isn’t going to be effective in the long term.
I am absolutely not saying that you should let other people take advantage of you by turning a blind eye to reality. Rather, it’s a reminder to be humble – you don’t know why someone else is doing something, and any story you come up with to explain their behavior is going to be just that – a story. If you understand this, then you can choose a story that will lead to a constructive approach, instead of one that drives down a destructive path. Whenever you find yourself thinking angry thoughts about someone, try imagining a scenario in which what they’re doing makes sense from their point of view. You don’t have to believe it, but give it a shot. Try imagining a situational – not characterological – reason for their actions.
In the absence of information, people make stuff up – this applies to everyone, you and me included. But if we’re going to make stuff up, the question then becomes what kinds of stories we’re going to make up, and how they’ll affect our actions. Will they be compassionate or blaming? Will they lead to strong self-efficacy (the belief that we can affect a situation), or fatalism? Will they make us happier or angrier? More or less effective? Practicing empathy isn’t a matter of kumbaya turn-the-other-cheek irrationalism – it’s about finding ways to be effective in difficult situations.