I recently read an article at the Farnam Street Blog called “The Most Respectful Interpretation.” It outlined several very good reasons that you should give coworkers the benefit of the doubt in work situations.
The author begins by acknowledging that we all can feel frustrated if a coworker, colleague, or client takes longer than you would like to get you information or complete a task. Our automatic tendency is to judge that person: maybe they are lazy, maybe they are thoughtless. Maybe they are simply bad at their jobs.
But after acknowledging that anger, the author points out that we should be able to put ourselves in their shoes as well:
“By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”
Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they’ve decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.
When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.
We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?”
The author goes on to talk about the application of this philosophy to life in general, even outside the workplace.
It’s good advice. It has an obvious application in today’s politics, as well. What if we started from the assumption that people on the other side of the ideological divide aren’t stupid, crazy, or mean? What if we try our hardest to see the world from their perspective? What if instead of being dismissive when we hear something they say, we stopped for a moment and thought about it, and then chose to respond to the most respectful interpretation of their point of view?
It doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly agree with them. But it could mean that we learn how to have a conversation. It could mean that we find a way to treat each other like human beings, and really engage in a dialogue.
But then the next thought comes to mind: why are people so bad at this?
I have a lot of young friends who talk about how much they hate the idea of working in Corporate America. Many of them never actually have, or have only done so briefly. Many of them are artists, or freelancers, or consultants, or entrepreneurs… all fantastic occupations! I have no disrespect for those professional roles, or the ways of life that they require.
And they have strong opinions about corporate America. For many people, especially young people, the idea of working for corporate America conjures up images of conformity, bureaucracy, incompetence, and a complete lack of personal connection.
But sometimes I wonder if people who force themselves to assimilate into the corporate machine sometimes get something beneficial as a side-effect: they are forced to learn how to play the charm game, deal pleasantly with people they don’t like, and engage in a functioning relationship with people who have very different interests, goals, and priorities than their own.
It’s a skill that people who want to succeed in the “corporate machine” have to learn to survive… and it’s a valuable lesson.
Am I saying that all of my wonderful artists, and consultant, and freelancer friends need to join corporate America in order to learn how to have polite political conversations?
No, of course not. But on the other hand, I do look at some people and think, “….how might it change their world-view, and their character, if they needed to learn how to work well along-side people they don’t necessarily like or agree with? What would happen if more people learned empathy as a professional skill?”
Would it have the side-effect of making the world a better place, as well?