24 Oct A Simple Technique to Get All Your Interactions Started on the Right Foot
We all know people with big hearts who see the best in others. They just have a knack for it. And we know people who see the worst in others. And they remind us of that anytime we’re near them.
It’s so easy to spot our differences. For some, it’s even a bad habit. Seeing each others’ differences does have its place. But what would happen in our daily interactions if we habitually focused our similarities first ?
Seth Godin’s great article last week, Differences, reminded me of a milestone event for me that happened in my teens:
A lady came into our family shop and belabored us with stories about her misery: missed flight connections, jet-lag, hunger, anger, and being miserably hot. No one wanted to get near her. Except for my mom, who patiently spent an hour with her and eventually sold her shopping bags full of merchandise.
When I asked my mom how she tolerated such a miserable person, she calmly said, “She and I own the same purse. Can you believe it? And she’s right, it is very hot today. Lower the thermostat.”
That was that. It was that simple. By purposefully looking at just a few similarities, my mom ignored the worst aspects of a total stranger who was having a very bad day. She’s always had a knack for this and, at 88, still does. She also has more friends than anyone I know.
What We See in Others is a Story That’s Unique in Our Own Minds
We often hear, “Put yourself in someone’s else’s shoes” and “Look at things from their perspective.” Sometimes this is easier said than done. Empathy often requires some in-depth guesswork on our part about another’s circumstances or situation.
Think about it this way: Individuality exists only in our own minds. Everyone, universally, sees a different version of us based on their unique perspective. We all know people who see us favorably and others who see us not so favorably. Yet, we think, “I’m the same person,” don’t we?
That’s how we see others, too: from a unique perspective. It’s up to us to choose what we focus on, especially in new encounters and relationships.
When we broaden our focus to the highest level, it’s easy to find similarities in others—provided we look. It’s when we start narrowing our focus that we’re prone to reaching a tipping point that often focuses more on our differences.
Yet that’s only a story we tell ourselves. And it’s never the whole story about another person. We want others to give us the same benefit of the doubt.
Art Markman, Ph.D, in Focusing on Differences Lets Me Understand You Better, raises some good points about seeing the differences in others:
Dr. Markman is spot on. We don’t want to ignore our differences: We need to see them to figure out how to bridge the gaps that we perceive in others. Part of this is imprinted in our DNA as part of the fight-or-flight syndrome.
But we want to be careful not to let those differences become our exclusive focus. Moreover, we don’t want to let our daily encounters habitually focus on our differences.
Looking for differences in others can become a bad habit. Looking for commonalities can become a daily blessing.
The Quickest Path to Empathy
If we like someone or like someone’s outward appearance at first glance, we tend to mentally highlight our similarities. If we’re displeased, we tend to focus on our differences. We do this because it allows us to quickly set up an outcome, either one of avoidance or one of attraction.
The quickest path to empathy lies in looking for commonalities and resisting the initial temptation to spot the differences. This holds true for new encounters, as well as long-term relationships. At the very least, this attitude sets up a habit that you may find life changing.
Some applications that come to mind:
- Meeting new people: Resist the temptation to focus on first-impression differences. Instead, find two or three similarities you can build upon. Then challenge yourself to find more.
- Long-term strained relationships: Call and warm up the relationship: “I know we’ve had our differences over the years. I’m calling you to talk about our commonalities. They’re so important to me.”
- A heated argument with someone you care about: You’re arguing in the first place because you care. Change the tone: “Wait. We’re moving farther and farther apart. What do we have in common here?”
- A dwindling negotiation: “We came together to make this deal work. We expected to have some differences. Let’s get back to common ground and work our way to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
- A beggar in the street: What do we have in common with a beggar? Neither of us wants to be sitting on the cement begging. Neither of us wants to be broke—or broken. But one of us is. Start with the common ground which, in this case, is what neither of us wants in our lives.
- Impatience with our children: We are more than similar. Our children are small copies of us. Keep the emotional distance narrow by focusing on commonalities, despite their (and our) behaviors.
Those are just a few ideas. I challenge us all to start looking for where we have commonality and take the discussion from there. Are you game to try this for a week—and then some?