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.
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
I will cover the last two of the four horseman next week.
Please share your comments below.