Do you always think the best of people – or do you think the worst? It’s so easy to make assumptions and to find ourselves falling into a judgmental or critical frame of mind – both about people we know well (like family members) and about complete strangers.
So why worry about changing your thoughts? So long as you don’t go around being verbally or physically abusive towards others, what does it matter what you think of them?
The danger of letting yourself think angrily or negatively about others is that the thoughts tend to rebound on you: your internal voice will start to be more self-critical. Plus, your relationships will suffer; perhaps you won’t make contact with a potential new friend, just because you had a bad first impression, or you might find yourself unable to patch up a tricky relationship with a colleague.
To top it all off, you’re likely to feel a lot more stressed and unhappy if you believe that others are deliberately out to irritate you or to cause you grief.
Ask “What Else Could This Mean?”
In his post 5 Questions That Will Change Your Life, Tim Brownson suggests asking yourself “What Else Could This Mean?” He gives some examples, such as:
Your partner being late for a date may mean he hates you and doesn’t respect you, or it may mean he got stuck in traffic.
How often do you jump to conclusions about what someone’s behaviour means? Perhaps it’s a driver who you label “aggressive”, but who might be in a hurry due to circumstances that you have no knowledge of. Maybe a friend is being uncommunicative, responding to your attempts at conversation with mono-syllables: you could assume that they are being unreasonably moody – or you could wait patiently and see whether they open up about some problem or issue in their life that’s bothering them.
I’ve often felt aggrieved when a friend or relative has been snappy or rude – and have even responded in kind – only to find, later, that the situation was put into a completely different light by some circumstance which I knew nothing about.
If someone’s behaviour towards you seems rude, offensive or unkind, ask yourself “what else could this mean?” Perhaps they’ve suffered a recent bereavement; perhaps they’re ill, or under a lot of stress.
In a few cases, of course, people are simply inconsiderate: that guy making an obnoxiously loud phone call on a train, for instance. But you’ll find that your own internal reaction is much calmer if you can come up with a mitigating circumstance that explains the behaviour.
Recognize Your Own Subjectivity
We all grow up with a particular set of beliefs and ideas about the world. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey calls these “scripts” – our ways of behaving that have been formed by social conditioning. You might also think of them as a “map” of the actual reality of the world.
Everyone’s scripts or map are different. You probably have a similar framework to your family, friends and peer group – but you’ll meet plenty of people who come at life from a very different angle.
This can create friction and conflict. Some examples might be:
- You prize involvement in your church or community organisation very highly – your partner doesn’t
- You turn up five minutes early for every appointment, but you have a friend who’s constantly running late
- You don’t think it’s a big deal if there’s a few dirty dishes in the kitchen, but your cleaning-obsessed housemate is constantly leaving notes telling you to wash up
- You’re naturally thrifty and frugal, but several of your acquaintances live paycheck to paycheck
It’s all too easy to start thinking negatively about others simply because they don’t have quite the same values or the same conditioning as us. I’m sure you can think of examples in your own relationships, when you’ve been critical of someone because they didn’t hold exactly the same values or priorities as you.
One of the biggest steps you can take towards thinking the best of others is to recognise that they’re operating on a slightly different system – and to understand that they might find your behaviour baffling, annoying or downright idiotic! Value the differences in your relationships, and value what makes the other person special. Perhaps it’s annoying that your friend is constantly late, but the flipside of this is that s/he is a laidback, spontaneous and kind person.
Do you find yourself feeling critical or judgmental towards others? How do you overcome these thoughts? How do you make sure your words, actions and attitude convey your desire to think the best of people and to understand their point of view?
Got a personal question? Live Counselors Available Now