The Key to Understanding Anyone Better..Hint: It is not empathy, although that would help. Part 2

This is Part 2 of my blog on Understanding another person.  If you have not read last week’s blog entry, please take a moment and scroll down to read my earlier comments.

Assumption #1: Here, the focus is on you.  When you assess, or judge, another’s behavior as right/wrong or good/bad, you are acting “as if” you already know all there is to know about the person and their behavior. Suspending judgment enables you to be more objective in your interactions with the other person.

While you may disagree with them and even have an opinion about their behavior, for the moment, it is best if you suspend judgement. At a later point, any disagreement you might have can become a focus of discussion.

Assumption #2 and #3 focus on the other person.

Assumption #2:  To assume a person’s behavior is “valid” only means that you are saying that they believe what they are doing is right for the situation in which they find themselves.

You are not saying their behavior is appropriate, effective, or even beneficial. You also are not saying that you agree with the behavior.

This is a critical key to gaining an understanding of another person.

Assumption #3: The basis for this assumption is the idea that each of us wants to engage in a behavior which will help us achieve whatever outcome we want in our present situation.  To the extent that this is true (as it most often is), we do what we have to further our own agenda.

There is no judgement here about the “agenda”.  The other person may be acting in their own self-interest or altruistically.  The only relevance here is that it is their agenda and they are pursuing it.

To do less than the “best” we can won’t help us achieve our agenda.

I am not saying that their behavior is the “best” possible.  In many cases, what they are doing clearly (initially to you and later to them) is not the best possible.  It is only their best in the moment given their model of the world.

This assumption also leads to the possibility that they might choose to change their behavior if they acquire new knowledge, new skill sets, or a  different model of the the world.

Based on these three assumptions, your task of understanding the other person can now focus on gaining information about, insight into, and a better understanding of their model of the world and their skill sets for dealing with those they come in contact with.

When you focus primarily on the behavior, which is what most of us do, you most likely will get bogged down in judgements (on your part) and rationalizations (on their part) and will find that your discussion does not lead to any useful understanding of what is going on.

Asking “why” is often ineffective.

So, another person does something we disagree with and we ask “Why did you do that?”

In an earlier post (9/28/16) entitled: “What” is a better, and more accurate, word to use than “Why”. Here is why. I discussed the reason you want to use “What” rather than “Why” whenever you are questioning your own actions or the actions of another person.

I noted:

When you ask a person, “Why did you do that?”, what you really want to know is:

  • What was the basis for your decision to (do what you did)?
  • What did you hope to accomplish (by doing what you did)?
  • What other alternatives did you consider (before you did what you did)?
  • What motivated you (to do what you did)?”
  • In what way might your opinion of me lead you to believe you needed to approach me in the way you did?

When you ask “why”, what you will likely get is an excuse.

While I did not really delineate it my earlier post, the rationale for asking “What” rather than “Why” involves gaining an understanding of the other person’s model of the world.

When you understand how they view their world, their relationship with you, their goals and their view of their ability to accomplish their goals, their view of their strengths and weaknesses and so forth, the behavior which originally prompted your concerns now becomes self-evident.

My California Youth Authority Example

When I worked in the California Youth Authority, many of my clients were young black women who had committed serious crimes including murder. I am a white male, raised in a middle class home, with no criminal past.

We were separated by age, gender, race, a criminal past, a history of physical and sexual abuse, and a variety of cultural issues.

This being said, it was my job as their therapist (There were no black female therapists at the time.) was to help them gain a better understanding of themselves, their self-image, their values and so forth.

I approached these young women by admitting that I could not “know” what they felt (empathy) or what they had experienced. I explained that they were an expert about themselves and I was an expert on dealing with (psychological) issues.  I needed them to help me help them. So, if they helped me understand how they viewed their world (Their model of the world, including me.), I could help them gain a better understanding of themselves and an improved ability to get out of “jail” and stay out.

While their crimes were always unacceptable and they were held accountable for what they did, the specific behavior which got them incarcerated could only be approached once it was clear to them that I had an understanding of what they were experiencing.

Understanding opened up the door to further exploration of important issues.

I was not always successful.  But, sometimes, I was.

This is an example of pursuing understanding not empathy.

I hope the above was helpful.

If you found this information useful, please send a link to anyone you know who might  benefit from it.

And, finally,  please leave a comment.

Leave a Reply