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“I think that whenever soul is present, it’s because what you’re doing, whom you’re with, where you are, evokes love without your thinking about it. You are totally absorbed in the place or person or event, without ego and without judgment.” – Jean Shinoda Bolen
Does it ever happen that when you make an error, mess up, miscalculate, etc. you tend to blame your environmental, organizational, or life circumstances for your action? That is, “it’s not about me.” But, when someone else messes up, do you generally point to some character flaw in them you assume caused them to behave badly or inappropriately?
I know what’s wrong with you
What’s operating here is a psycho-social dynamic called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). In essence, the FAE says we have a tendency to focus on another’s personality, character, values, motives or attitudes when we judge their actions, while discounting their immediate situation or life circumstances as a reason for their behavior. We assume we “know” the other person and then judge them on the basis of “our knowing,” rather than on the social or environmental context which may be influencing them.
There’s nothing wrong with me
However, when it comes to me, it’s never about me! It’s always about my life circumstances or social context; it’s never about my own personality or character.
1. On the way out of the building, I pass a coworker and say “hi.” They act like they don’t even see me, their eyes down, not a word. I assume they’re thoughtless, self-absorbed, unfriendly or even an absent-minded jerk.
2. My partner returns home after work and immediately goes to their computer. Not an “hello” or a glance – just a bee-line movement past me to get online. I choose to make a judgment about how disrespectful, unkind, unloving, cruel and uncaring they are.
In both circumstances, I have made judgments and assumptions that point to the other’s personality or character – on the basis that I “know” them and what’s going on in their life.
What I don’t know
In the first example, the individual just learned her seventeen-year-old sun was in a car accident – is in the hospital in critical condition; and in the second, my partner was told at 4:45 pm, just before leaving work, there was a chance they would be let go next week and they should check their email tonight for further information about the company’s possible next steps.
The critical question is: Why does it seldom occur to us that folks like those in these two examples may be preoccupied – in deep thought or reflection based on some challenging life circumstance or event?”
The point here is to be self-aware, conscious of how much our ego-mind, our judgmental-comparative, reactive mind, our human side, drives our habitual and patterned reactive behaviors and thoughts during our day, especially when it comes to interacting with and judging others.
The Antidote to the FAE
“When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.” – Marshall B. Rosenberg
One way to understand the FAE phenomena is to be curious about how we view others, and connect with others – at work, at home, at play and in relationship. What is the “frame” within which we relate to others?
Imagine three walls. On one wall there are ten framed pictures (all ten are the same picture) of the individual in the first situation above. On the second wall there are ten pictures of your partner and on the third wall, ten of yourself. Under each frame is a blank label.
Next, label each individual in each picture in any way you wish – i.e., with a word, a phrase….
When done, consider the labels, including those of yourself. How many of the labels reflect a “task-orientation” and how many reflect a “person-orientation?” How many reflect an objective, functional, role-playing, positional or impersonal orientation? How many reflect a subjective, heart-felt, or human orientation? How many reflect a human do-ing and how many a human be-ing?
Who’s judging – and the benefit of the doubt
Your labels can provide insight into what’s operating in us when we judge others. When we come from an impersonal, officious or “business-like” orientation to our world – at work, at home, at play and in relationship – we’re more inclined to be critical, objective or judgmental.
On the other hand, when we come from a heart-felt, soul-driven, subjective, personal and more conscious orientation, it’s often easier to be more aware of our reactivity, more able and willing to relate to the “person” as opposed to the “function” or role and be more open to giving another the benefit of the doubt – making no assumptions about another’s character, attitudes, values or motives. We allow that we don’t know chapter and verse about another (even our closest friends or loved ones) and thus refuse to judge them.
In fact, when we view others from a heart-felt place, we choose to be empathic, compassionate and accepting – understanding that, yes, another’s life circumstances and context can affect their behavior. No assumptions; no inferences.
“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.” – Marcus Aurelius
Why the FAE is our default mode
Simple. It’s easier and less scary to judge others than to honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly get to know ourselves. Judging others lets us off the hook of self-awareness, self-responsibility and self-management. Judging others’ motives and values allows us to forego exploring the truth of our own values and motives underneath our behaviors and attitudes.
Too, because we, in fact, don’t know – and/or don’t care – about what’s really going on in another’s life, we find it easier to focus on the person, rather than their context – assuming, comparing and criticizing based on what we think we know – or make up – about another.
Native Americans approach the FAE in this way: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”
Everyone is in Chapter Three of their life. No one knows what transpired in Chapters One and Two. Don’t assume you know.
No one gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be a jerk today.” Don’t assume you know their motives for acting.
Showing up in life – at work, at home, at play and in relationship – authentically, in integrity, and from a heart-felt place, we are more inclined to forego the FAE habit, or prejudge others. When we relate to others from a heart-felt, compassionate place, we can choose to be more accepting, forgiving, empathic and understanding.
Perhaps something to consider as we navigate through 2023.
Some questions for self-reflection:
- Am I often prone to inferring what I think motivates another to act, or behave badly? If so, why?
- When I behave inappropriately, do I usually justify my negative behavior by pointing to outside events and circumstances, and not to myself?
- Do I own my negative actions?
- Do I ever consider how I’d behave if I were in another’s moccasins?
- Do I consciously observe, watch and witness my negative behaviors?
- Am I willing to consider unseen causes for another’s negative behavior?
- Can I be compassionate toward others who behave inappropriately? If not, what prevents me from doing so?
- Am I generally judgmental about others? What does being judgmental get me? How so?
- Is there someone on my team or in my family about whom I can be less judgmental, and more understanding? How so?
- Am I a master of the art form of blame?
- How do I feel when another judges me – especially when they have no idea of my life situation or context?
- What would my life be like if I practiced being totally receptive, without judgment, to the circumstances, events and people in my life?
“It’s not differences that divide us; it’s our judgments about each other that do.” – Margaret Wheatley
(c) 2023, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful.
Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.
What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”
I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.
I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com
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