May 12, 2017

A Few Things We are Doing to Undermine Our Relationships

We are all engaged multiple relationship networks:  family, extended family, neighbors, associations, hobby groups, meet-ups, religious groups, country clubs, friends, significant others, spouses and on and on. 

Relationships are essential to our health and happiness.  They bring us joy and laughter and immense satisfaction.  They also make us completely nuts with all the drama and hurt feelings and processing that seems to be concomitant with maintaining many of them, especially at work where it is tougher to chose who you associate with.  We have all said to ourselves about someone... "Why does every interaction have to be so dang difficult?"  I am not suggesting that the people around you don't cause you difficulty.  But since we can't, despite our best efforts, control others, it is expeditious to look at what we might be doing to add to the complexity that we often experience.   And in fact I think there are three things that all of us do to one degree or another that make our relationships more complicated and difficult than they need to be.  I say "do" but I really should have said "think" because what I am referring to are all cognitive tendencies.   First, there is a familiar concept in social psychology known as The Fundamental Attribution Error. Wikipedia defines it as "the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain the behavior of someone else in a given situation rather than considering the situation's external factors." One thing that is super interesting about the Fundamental Attribution Error is that it is not a good explanation of how we interpret our own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and more frequently taken into consideration.   Said in plain English, when you crash your car into another car from behind, you are not a careless person or a mindless person...the roads were slick and the sun was bright and it was in fact the other person that really was the lousy driver for stopping so suddenly. When someone crashes into you from behind, they are not just an idiot, they are a careless, %$*&%^% idiot.  When someone says or does something, we make attributions about who they their core...and don't take situational influences into account for them as much as we do when explaining our own behavior.    The Fundamental Attribution Error mucks things up at both the individual and organizational levels. For example, despite real strengths, we might give up on someone we are managing too quickly because we assume their mistakes indicate flaws in their essential character and tell ourselves we should cut our losses. 

At the organizational level, I repeatedly saw in call centers mistakes being attributed to the agents "who just don't get it" and "don't try hard enough" and obviously need to be coached and coached again "because they are dumb."  That blaming response doesn't help and leads to problem solving strategies that didn't even solve the problem as opposed to figuring out why the mistakes keep getting made and looking to error-proofing solutions to address the situational causes. This one mental tendency distorts our perceptions of people and situations, leads to sub-optimal problem solving strategies, puts us on the defensive, and has us looking for more confirming information for our new hypothesis about them.  None of these outcomes are fertilizer for our relationships that help them grow and subsequently enrich us.  They are more like weed killer.  Think this tendency is not pervasive or that you are not heir to it?  Try this quick check:  think about the people who you are in some kind of relationship with whom you currently find most challenging.  Does your internal dialogue or explanations to others for why those people are so challenging involve labels you have placed on them about who they are or are they descriptions of the situational variables that are driving their choices and behavior?  I could be wrong, but for most I think Quod Erat Demonstrandum could get inserted here. As insidious as the Fundamental Attribution Error is, it actually has a precursor that is the second thought process that undermines our relationships.  It is actually a fundamental attribution error that happens before the Fundamental Attribution Error.  It is best illustrated in the well-known Zen story of The Empty Boat:  A man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, "Hey, hey, watch out! Turn aside!" But the boat just comes right at him, faster and faster. By this time he's standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it's an empty boat.   Continuing with the wrecked car theme, if a tree limb falls on our car, we aren't going to be happy about it, but we are also not going to blame the tree.  We won't make attributions about the tree.  The tree won't be an idiot that needs to pull it together.  When the leaves start to fall off the tree in the Autumn, we won't say, "See, I told you so.  There that careless tree goes dropping stuff again."  We will just call the insurance company and get our car fixed. 

Care to wager on the likelihood of getting that kind of matter-of-fact response when it is another driver that damaged your car?  I didn't think so.  If the wind blows sand in your eye at the beach, you rub your eye.  No internal drama.  If kids running around kick up some sand and it gets in your eye, never mind what you think of these particular kids, in your head you riff on and on about how an entire generation has become so thoughtless. Same outcome, but a completely different internal response...and one that really doesn't address the problem at hand, which is the sand in your eye.   Finally, if the Fundamental Attribution Error is gunpowder and the Empty Boat is a fuse, here's the match:  we take it personally.  We take what happens as some reflection of us and our worth. 

For example, that terse email from our boss asking for more information about a situation must mean we're not important...not a valued member of the team.  It could not of course have meant that it was one email among 100 he/she responded to while trying to care for a elderly parent or ten other explanations.  Surely we must be falling out of favor to get a note like that.

I am not advocating Pollyanna kumbya here.  This is not ignoring the fact that people do cause us difficulty.  That they sometimes speak and act without thinking.  That they don't often carry on in ways that are a far cry from what we want and need. It is also not to say that we have to like what they do.  It is also not to say that you shouldn't do or say something that might increase understanding or prevent the situation from occurring again.  It is just to say, there is an easier way to roll.  Just try to take care of business...since you have to anyway...and minimize the mental melodrama.   If you don't want to be all psychological or spiritual about it, just think about it as a process improvement step:  do what needs to get done without all the wasted mental motion:  fix your car, rub your eye, hit reply.  And if that sounds a little like Chop Wood, Carry Water, well I have no idea how that happened.  Try it for a week and see how it goes. 

One thing that will likely happen is that you'll suddenly be a lot easier to be around.  And don't be surprised if you find the people around you are suddenly a lot easier to be around too.  Insert a wink about here.

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