Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.


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