I have to admit that I never thought that I’d write a blog post on how to relate to others. For most of my life I realized that I wasn’t particularly empathetic but didn’t prioritize changing that.
Then I met a very empathetic friend (she wrote The Charisma Myth) and she just point blank told me that I should work on being empathetic. So I did.
I’m sure I still have plenty of work to do, but even though I’m not an expert, I have a lot of ideas to share on how to relate to people, maybe because it’s something I had to consciously work on.
Maybe the biggest change I made is in how I judge other people. I can be pretty judgmental by nature, but that’s changed a lot for a few reasons. I now have a process I go through to try to be more positive and understanding towards people.
First, I realize that I just have no idea what someone’s life is like. Even if I know a lot of the particulars (which usually none of us do), I probably can’t really relate to what it feels like to live under those circumstances. Do I know what it’s like to be a single mother? To have a career I feel trapped in? To have pressure from a spouse? To go through a divorce? To recover from drug use? I can guess, but I can’t have that much faith in my guess.
If I don’t know what someone’s life is really like, then I should assume that they are probable doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
I’ve also come around to believe that almost no one is malicious. People act maliciously sometimes, but I think that almost everyone believes that they are good people and are actually trying to do the best they can.
So when someone cuts me off in traffic and then gives me the finger, my first reaction is to think that they’re probably having a bad day, are stressed out, and (hopefully mistakenly) thought that I made some driving error.
Obviously that doesn’t mean that cutting people off and giving them the finger is a great thing to do, but none of us are at our best all of the time. In the same way that I give myself a break for not performing at my best when I’m sick or stressed, I try to give other people a break, too.
This is a little bit useful for random incidents with strangers, or even in perceiving things you hear about through the news, but it’s a lot more useful when relating to friends.
If a friend flakes on me, I don’t think that they’re an awful person or that I’m not important to them. I just think that they’re probably busy or stressed and feel bad about it, so I may as well try to not make them feel bad about it. If they say or do something that I initially perceive as a slight, I try to think about how they might see it where it wouldn’t be an offense.
Since we can’t actually walk in someone else’s shoes, we have to assume that they’re doing the best they can.
Sometimes things can’t be excused away. Sometimes there’s no perspective we can take that makes what someone did or said the right thing to do. But even in those cases, we can have compassion.
I remind myself that I make mistakes, too. Sometimes I put myself before others when I should have done the opposite. Sometimes I say I’m going to do something and then I have to do something else. Obviously I try to totally eliminate these sorts of things, but it’s not possible.
I once had a long distance girlfriend who had a real job, so when I went to visit her she would usually take a day or two off of work. One time, due to the flight landing after midnight, I make a mistake and thought that my flight was the next day. She called me excitedly from the airport… while I was driving around San Francisco. And then after we broke up we scheduled a phone call and my phone alarm didn’t go off and I missed it.
Years later we agreed to meet in Boston. My uncle was giving me a ride, but at the last minute my brother and his girlfriend wanted to come. His girlfriend took forever to get ready and it turned out the car needed gas, so I was half an hour late.
It would be pretty reasonable for her to think of me as someone who was rude and late and didn’t really think about others. None of that is generally true, but it’s not hard to see how she could think that. So when I ascribe meaning to people’s actions, I try to counter myself by thinking about reasonable excuses, even if the actions are clearly bad.
Of course, if someone is always flaky or rude or selfish, you don’t have to talk yourself into hanging out with them. The purpose of this process is to empathize with people and better see their perspective.
Photo is NY from a Brooklyn rooftop