Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Four Horseman of the Relationships Apocalypse (Part 1)

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 nuts with all the drama and hurt feelings and processing that seems to be concomitant with maintaining them and even having them.

We have all said to ourselves about people we interact with... "Why does this have to be so dang difficult?"  I am not suggesting that the people around you don't in fact make things way more complicated than then need to be.  But since we can't control others, it is expeditious to look at what we might be doing to add to the complexity that we experience.

And in fact I think there are four things that all of us do to one degree or another that makes our relationships more complicated and difficult than they need to be.  I say "do" but I really should have said "think" because these things I am referring to that muddy the water are all thought processes.  I'll cover the first two in this post and the other two next week.

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 careless or 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 %$*&%^% idiot.

When someone says or does something, we make attributions about who they are...at their core...and don't take situational influences into account for them as much as we do when explaining our own behavior. 

This 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 attribute their mistakes to fundamental character flaws 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 worse) and obviously need to be coached and coached again as opposed to figuring out why the mistakes keep getting made and looking to error-proofing solutions that don't involve speculating about the agents' genetic heritage.

This mental tendency distorts our perceptions of people and situations, leads to sub-optimal problem solving strategies, puts us on guard, 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 sustain us.  They are all weed killer.

Think this tendency is not pervasive?  Try this quick check:  think about the people who you are in some kind of relationship with that you currently find most challenging to deal with.  Do your explanations for why they are so difficult involve labels you have placed on them about who they are/what they are like or are they descriptions of the situational variables that are what's really driving their choices and behavior.  I could be wrong, but I think Quod Erat Demonstrandum goes about here.

As insidious as the Fundamental Attribution Error is, it actually has a precursor that is the second of the four horseman wreaking havoc in 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?  Smart money is on the sidelines.

If the wind blows sand in your eye at the beach, you rub your eye.  No drama.  No Sturm und Drang.  If kids running around kick up some sand and it gets in your eye, never mind what you think of these particular kids, you head riffs on and on about how is it possible that an entire generation has become so thoughtless.

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 carry on in ways that are a far cry from what we want. It is also not to say that we have to like it.  It is also not to say that you shouldn't say something that might prevent the situation from occurring again.

It is just to say, there is an easier way to roll that won't have you asking..."why does this have to be so dang difficult."  Just try to deal and minimize the mental melodrama.  You have to anyway. If you don't want to be psychological or spiritual about it, just think about it as a process improvement step:  take care of business without all the wasted mental motion:  rub your eye, fix your car.

Try it for a week and see what happens.  One thing that will happen is that you'll be a lot easier to be around.  And don't be surprised if suddenly you find the people around you are a lot easier to be around too.  Insert a wink about here.

I will cover the last two of the four horseman next week.

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