Understanding Those Around Us: The Mystery Next Door

My most recent post focused on the idea of exploring our indwelling mysteries—those aspects of ourselves which we know exist but aren’t totally confident we embrace or even understand. In this post, I wish to redirect your attention to considering the mysteries presented by those close to you so that you might cultivate a more intelligent comprehension of what makes them tick and what improved strategies you might utilize to support them.

As well as we think we know our spouse, our child, our colleague, or a lifelong friend, we will never fully understand them. But what we can do is strive to notice and appreciate more than is immediately apparent. It’s not a question of not having invested sufficient time, care, or interest in getting to know them, it’s that individuals come into this world with very different temperaments, ways of reacting to the world, and thinking about life. So different, in fact, that it’s a miracle we can communicate at all! People with whom I have spent thousands and thousands of hours with have done things that astonish me. Years later, and with loads of hindsight, their choices, strategies, and perspectives continue to confound. These are riddles which I’ll never solve.

Despite such ongoing uncertainty, not all of our interactions with others need feel like a black swamp of guesses and confusion. In fact, I believe strongly that with a certain amount of quiet observation, we can gain insight into what’s really motivating them to behave in a particular manner. Perhaps, if we think it through and watch closely, we can learn a little bit more about why they get themselves sloppy drunk, or why they pontificate to the point of being obnoxious, or why they so readily throw away anything of sentimental value. There’s probably more to the story if we’re willing to investigate. Should we be successful, these insights will open up entirely new worlds of comprehension to us.

For instance, a friend spoke rather firmly to a group of loud and rowdy teens when they could have been equally effective had they delivered the message in a quiet and even tone. The urgency of their delivery reflected far more about this adult’s expectation of being ignored than it reflected anger at the children. This might explain a lot about why they go about communicating in such a strident manner when stressed.

We need to ask ourselves why does X behave the way they do? What fear, guilt, doubt, or worry is underlying this expression of self? What might I do or say to encourage their stronger, more confident qualities?

 

Although “love they neighbor as thyself,” is an integral part of living in any community, we get into trouble when we assume that how we would want something done or how we would handle a situation is equally true for our somebody else. For instance, I am a straight shooter. I want people to be honest and direct—just tell me what you think and I can decide what to do from there. Pussyfooting around drives me crazy. But, as I have learned, a lot of people are not this way. Many prefer a spoonful of sugar with their medicine. My assumptions about how to deliver delicate news have often proven incorrect and wound up making a tricky situation worse. I would have been far better served had I taken a few moments to figure out what approach might work best for my intended audience. All too easily, we can find ourselves at cross purposes when we employ strategies that we prefer on individuals who operate with very different software.

When you think about someone who behaves in a manner that seems self-destructive or perplexing, who comes to mind? Instead of focusing on their behavior, look behind it, what might be the underlying belief that might be motivating it?

For example, here are three possible ways to assess a situation: 1) a drunkard may want nothing more than to be close to those around them, but is so afraid they’ve somehow failed and will, ultimately, be rejected that drinking is the default they’ve devised to drive those very same people away. 2) Their drinking could be for another reason entirely such as burying grief or despair. 3) Or, perhaps their drunken under-functioning could be a strategy they use to suck up more attention, to reassure themselves that they take priority.

Taking the time to study and understand what might be prompting those around us to behave how they do will help both us and them. Looking beyond the first obvious explanation is key to demystifying our neighbors. There are many things that are none of our business, but when we care about someone and are impacted by their behavior, it is incumbent upon us to try to understand. At least a little. What I have found when I’ve made this effort is that my frustration level drops significantly and I am better equipped to respond with more patience and compassion. When I say this, I don’t intend to convey that all will be roses afterwards or that it suddenly becomes feasible to live with someone who insists on certain impossible-to-live-with behaviors, but cultivating this type of insight always helps. It just does.

Peering

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