Imagining that other people are flat, boring caricatures and not nuanced and complex beings is a) easier and b) usually makes us feel better about ourselves. We imagine that we are the main protagonists in our lives, with full and rich inner worlds, and others are just “non-player characters” who are not as important or multifaceted as we are. Of course, everyone else is the center of their own universe. They feel about themselves the way that you feel about yourself . . . and you are just the supporting actor in their main story!
Some people find it really elevates your perspective to remember that the person in front of you used to be an innocent child once. They were young, hopeful and playful. They had a best friend and were scared of the dark and wore a woolly jumper with yellow ducks on it. Just like you, they had their first love and their first big disappointment. Just like you, they lay awake some nights worried about it all. Just like you, they have insecurities and deep secrets they’ve never told anyone. They cry when they’re hurt. They’ve shown touching acts of kindness to others. They have dreams. Talents. Questions. Dazzlingly unique insights and opinions. Everything.
Having “compassion” is sometimes reduced to a bland kind of tolerance of people we don’t quite like but have to bear with. But why limit yourself to mere tolerance? In fact, people are wonderful. They are works of art. Their perspectives and feelings and desires are not just something to begrudgingly accommodate in order to get along, but something to celebrate, learn about, lovingly accept, and welcome. When you stop seeing difference as a threat or a problem, you can start to appreciate it as a fascinating source of enrichment in life.
But what exactly does addressing someone’s higher self look like? For one, it’s a question of assuming the best of others and generously giving the benefit of the doubt, as we’ve seen. It’s also the willingness to imagine, on faith, that people are good, that people make sense, and that people want to help you and engage in mutually satisfying relationships.
It means treating people with respect and trust even when they have difficulty respecting or trusting themselves, and even if they’ve done very little to earn it! A manager at work may approach his team with the deep belief that each of them has something unique and valuable to offer. Instead of micromanaging them, he tells them, “I hired you because you’re good at what you do. How about you just run with this project and see what happens? I trust you to make the right decision.” It’s hard to imagine an employee not feeling respected and valued when told that.
Or imagine a parent who has a teenager who’s gotten into trouble at school. Instead of launching into a shame-heavy lecture about what they should have done and how disappointed everyone is, the parent could say, “You know what, you’re old enough know to know right from wrong. You’re a smart person and I know you’re also kind. What do you think about what you’ve done? I wonder if you feel that this is the kind of thing that reflects your values, or if you want to try and do something better?”
Doing this, the parent is communicating a few things: that they know and trust that the teenager in fact has values, that these are worth exploring and committing to, and that the parent is not going to impose their own values, but rather give the teenager space to figure out on their own. Again, the result is likely to be a heightened feeling of respect, empathy and responsibility. Instead of addressing the bad in their character, they address the good, and use that as a point of departure.
In a couple’s argument, one spouse is offended that the other forgot their birthday. But in love, they decide to address their higher nature. They say, “I know you care about me. I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt me, but you forgot my birthday. Why?” This is not placing blame. It’s not making assumptions or going on the offense. It’s simply taking the highest nature of the other person as a given and leading with curious respect. It’s seeking to understand the problem rather than going in with guns blazing. “She forgot my birthday, and she did it because she’s selfish and doesn’t give a damn about me.”
If you’re feeling angry and attacked yourself, it’s difficult to assume the best of people. But this is the moment when you most need to try! Instead of getting carried away in strong emotions, gain perspective by acknowledging their most vulnerable self. When you’re face to face with someone being difficult or annoying or mean, it’s easy to forget that they have a vulnerable self—but they do.
A core of non-violent communication (more on this later) is to focus entirely on people’s needs in any exchange. People communicate (even badly) because they want to meet their needs. They sometimes succeed, and they often don’t, but this is ultimately what’s behind all communication, up to and including aggression, stubbornness, fear, and criticism.
So, when you’re with a difficult person or in a challenging or unpleasant situation, ask yourself:
What are my needs here and how can I communicate them clearly to others?
What are their needs and how can I help them achieve those needs?
That’s it. Don’t waste too much time on anger, fear, or red herring details. If someone is being judgmental of you, examine the situation closely—you may discover that their criticism stems from a deep insecurity in themselves. They may feel worthless, and they judge others to meet a certain need, i.e., to feel better about themselves. This insight alone can help you defuse situations with them . . . as well as know not to take their judgment personally!