(Today I’m taking a quick break from the Four Keys series. It will resume tomorrow.)
Most of my life I’ve been confused by others actions and reactions.
If you’ve ever heard yourself muttering “What the heck were they thinking?” you might have experienced the same confusion.
When I feel confused, too often, I label the other person such that their actions make sense to me. These labels are a way of framing, or seeing, the other person.
I do this because most of the system is hidden from view – I can’t tell what’s happening inside their system.
Unfortunately, these labels may not be very kind. Labels like ‘stupid,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘thoughtless,’ ‘ignorant,’ and ‘naïve’ are some of the kinder ones. Sometimes I said them quietly aloud, but usually just to myself. Of course, I never told the person I was labeling.
As awful as it sounds, this is a way of making sense of the world around me. It also prevents me from having to ask “What is going on with that person?”
Just last week I pulled up behind a car at a red light. When the light turned green, the car didn’t move. As cars went around me, I gave a short “Beep! Beep!” on the horn. The car lurched forward six inches and stopped. This time I gave a real “HONK!” and before I knew it, I heard myself mutter “idiot.”
The car lurched again and died. It dawned on me that they were having a problem, not being an idiot. I pulled up beside the car and offered an apology and sincere help. It turns out the driver was learning to drive a stick – and I immediately felt like a giant jack-hole.
By framing/labeling the other person, I was attempting to make sense of their actions.
When I respond to a confusing situation through labeling, it soothes me and makes me feel in control, possibly because I’m afraid of living in a world where people are out-of-control and irrational.
But I’m also wrong. I can’t stress this enough. I. Am. Wrong.
And it matters when I’m wrong – because my response isn’t to the other person, but the label I’ve created.
Instead of making sense, I’m making non-sense: fictional ideas about others which explain their actions and justify my reactions.
I think managers are particularly susceptible to this. We see what people do, and apply labels to fill in the missing details about why.
And once we’ve labeled a situation, removing that label is very difficult.
But, when we take a minute and pull alongside to see if everything is okay…
And maybe we ask, “Can I help?”
We might find that honking is the least helpful thing we could do.
And we might remember that it wasn’t long ago we were stalled at a stoplight, trying to drive a stick.
Hang in there, and enjoy the ride.