When you think somebody is being irrational, cruel or stupid it’s useful to ask yourself a simple question, David Rawlings says. ‘What must the world look like from inside that person’s head for this action to be the best choice?’
Apparently there’s an important negotiation about to start. Something to do with boring old trade deals. At least it will all be over in two years. So, nothing to worry about really!
But it does remind me of something that comes up a lot in helping with difficult relationships, whether personal or professional. It’s the idea that perceptions are more important than facts.
If, like me, you see many things that need to be done in our communities, countries or the world, then you probably find it hard to understand why everyone else can’t see them too. It’s almost as though people live in different worlds…
…Which of course they do!
We humans have a need to find meaning in everything, and so we are compelled to imagine what others “meant” by their words and actions. Inventing our own account of what other people are thinking is one aspect of the way we construct our own reality. But it isn’t “real”, it’s a representation of the world – a map that’s personal and internal to our minds.
“The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski, 1931
We believe, naturally, that our internal map of the world is the same as the real thing. Actually, in many ways, it’s more important, but it isn’t the same. Your subjective perception of the world around you contains elements that are practically unknowable in the real world, for example what other people are thinking, or what they intended by the things they did and said.
The map is full of information that has been constructed, imagined, made up – but you believe it to be accurate. For example, if your first impression of someone on first meeting them is that they behave aggressively, then you label them “aggressive” and file them accordingly in your internal archive. If that perception was wrong, in the sense that you misread their emotional state and their intention, then it usually takes a lot of contrary evidence to make you revise it. (This can all be unconscious – you aren’t necessarily aware that this has happened, but it will affect your future responses to that person.)
We also believe, again naturally enough, that everyone else’s map is the same as ours. But of course it never is, and most misunderstandings arise from different maps. They might be comical or they might be violently destructive.
In my map, I can be forthright and uncompromising in doing what I think needs to be done because my intention is positive, for the greater good. In your map, ignoring others’ sensibilities is never acceptable and so you disapprove of what I do and even oppose me. The fact that we might share the same ultimate goal for our community or team doesn’t stop us falling out.
Your map is formed from sensory data after it has been filtered through values, beliefs and existing memories. It embodies your morality, or sense of right and wrong. This can be very divisive because we find it difficult to talk about. It’s hard to justify your feeling that something is “just wrong” because you hardly ever have to think about it, so you treat it as non-negotiable and simply say nothing. The difference is unacknowledged and therefore persists while attention focuses on the specific actions (for example you did something that upset me) which are argued over endlessly with no resolution.
Tenaciously arguing your case, sticking to your guns and not giving an inch are behaviours that are often held up as admirable. But I’d suggest that such digging-in is only appropriate when you’ve reached the end of negotiation and you’re signalling that you won’t compromise anymore and would rather walk away without agreement – “no deal is better than a bad deal”. It’s not appropriate to start a conversation in that way. Exploring each other’s maps is much more productive. In disputes, people on opposite sides often really want much the same things.
Getting inside your opponent’s head is the first step towards finding common ground. This might mean asking questions about their underlying beliefs and presuppositions, and these are not things to be argued with! In this instance, they are simply facts. If you’re coaching, you can challenge beliefs – that’s usually where change has to occur – but whenever you have a direct interest in the situation, as a party in the dispute, then you are definitely NOT coaching.
When you think about somebody’s irrational, cruel or stupid behaviour, it’s useful to ask yourself the question: “What must the world look like from inside that person’s head for this action to be the best choice?”
Then you might go on to ask: “How can I be so sure that their actions really are irrational, cruel or stupid?”
And then: “How might people view me and my behaviours from within their different maps?”
So where does that get us?
If you get used to the idea that your understanding of everything is just one of an infinite variety of ways that reality can be mapped – and that they are all equally valid – then you can begin to expand your influence. You do that, not by forcing others to agree with you, rather by helping them to identify the areas of overlap.
If you believe that our politicians understand and are informed by these ideas then you can rest easy.