How could I possibly know the factors surrounding your decisions and offer one guiding principle for them all?
The truth is, I don’t know what you are facing in your life.
But, because we are both human, I understand that we have something significant in common. I understand that we are always “in relationship” with others, even when alone with our thoughts.
I’ve also learned that there are only two ways to make a decision: with eyes open or closed.
Open or Closed to What?
Simply put, in every decision I make, I am — to one degree or another — open or closed to the humanity of others.
I am either seeing the people involved in and affected by my decisions as full-on individuals like I am — with problems, hopes, dreams, concerns, weaknesses and strengths (like I have problems, hopes, dreams, concerns, weaknesses and strengths) — OR I am seeing them in a way that diminishes their humanity.
In other words, I am either seeing people as people or people as something else.
I may be thinking of the person or people involved in this decision as obstacles to what I want.
I may be seeing them as a means to my ends — as vehicles for my success.
It’s possible, too, that I may regard them as “irrelevancies,” as nothing of importance in the thing I’m trying to accomplish.
In every moment, in every decision, I am, I repeat, either seeing people as people or seeing them as objects.
This crucial concept is part of the work of an organization called The Arbinger Institute. Arbinger teaches conflict transformation, inward integrity and outward-oriented mindset. More on this soon.
This “people vs. objects” perspective hits hard when we recognize it in our own lives. See if the following stories remind you of anything you’ve experienced lately….
Andrew has lost his car key. He was certain he left it on the kitchen counter. His roommate (or spouse, or child) was the only other person in the area from the time he put it down till now when he’s in a hurry to leave.
Andrew has searched, and searched again, asked around, become frustrated, demanded, and even decided the keys were moved by others.
Then, checking in that small pocket inside his bigger pocket, he realizes the key is there. What a relief! Right?
But wait. Andrew is still angry. Why does he feel like blaming someone else when the key is found? Why does he still resent the people who might have moved the key?
Think with me:
What decision or choice was involved here?
How to respond to the lost key…and how to go about finding it.
How were the bystanders in this scenario being seen?
As obstacles to being on time, perhaps? As headaches on this and maybe other occasions?
Taylor is in charge of an event. She’s gathered original, creative, actionable ideas. She knows what she wants to do and how to make it happen. She’s on fire!
The reality is, she is also on a committee. It’s time to meet. Taylor is the chairperson. Everyone comes with his or her own plan. Taylor’s is better, she’s certain. Plus, she just really wants to see the event through to its praiseworthy completion.
Taylor listens to everyone’s input about the event and is firmly convinced her way is the way. When it comes time to finalize the decision, she presses her point (as civilly as possible) and artfully maneuvers the group into accepting her proposal. Feels great!
The meeting ends a little off-kilter, but Taylor assumes it’s because others are being petty. It’s a good plan. They’ll thank her later on.
What decision is involved here?
Well, which event to approve…but maybe also how to go about the decision-making process in the first place.
How did Taylor see her committee members?
Perhaps they were somewhat irrelevant to the process. Perhaps they were potential obstacles to her plan. Perhaps they were instrumental objects (pawns?) to get what she wanted.
I Don’t See Myself in Andrew or Taylor
This might be because the stories I’ve shared don’t parallel your life.
It might also be, and I offer this carefully, that it has become customary for us (you, me, others) to see people as objects, so much so that we’re not only closed to their humanity, but to our own — to the reality of a personal lens through which we see others as obstacles, vehicles and irrelevancies.
It’s just a thought.
Here are quick examples of behaviours and mindsets in this closed state of being:
- Frequent use of terms like loser, idiot, jerk, weirdo, trash, stupid (and so on) in referring to people.
- Frequent dismissal of people as different than oneself: low lifes, those guys, their kind, etc.
- Like the above, stereotyping of a particular gender, age group (teens, Millenials, the elderly, etc.) especially with disdain or derision. This would include racism.
- Frequent feelings of inferiority or of fear about others’ superiority to oneself.
- Chronic discouragement or “depression” about one’s ranking in a social setting — school, work, church, gym, which part of town you live in, a project you’re working on that relies on outside support.
If This Feels Uncomfortable
Take heart. People can change. If what I’ve described resembles someone in your circles or surroundings, that’s helpful — we can see living examples of what we don’t want to do…or what we might be doing. We can learn from them.
If the examples remind you of yourself, that’s actually hopeful, too. You’ve just completed the first step toward making better-informed, wiser, more reality-based decisions because you’ve noticed signs that you may be closed to how things (and people) actually are around you.
And This is Helpful?
Being able to recognize that we are seeing people as objects affects everything. It is also the major step toward clearer thinking. It opens us to the reality of the people around us.
In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey shares the story of a subway ride next to a rambunctious family with children. Their father appears disengaged and doesn’t tend to their silliness or the discomfort they are causing fellow travelers. This goes on for some time.
Finally, frustrated and somewhat indignant, Covey speaks to the man.
“Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man seems to come to.
“Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Heart fall, right?
This sudden change in perspective, sometimes referred to as a paradigm shift, allowed Mr. Covey to respond to the man’s humanity with open eyes. His assumptions were adjusted (reality-checked), and the man became something other than a neglectful parent.
Which Matters to My Decisions How?
The state of mind (or heart) that accompanies seeing people as objects is, as I mentioned, closed; it’s inaccurate, partial, prejudiced, skewed, fuzzy, and distorted.
When I walk into a situation where I need to take action that is justifiable, fair, informed, fore-thought, sound, moral, carefully reasoned, and wise and that brings about beneficial, sustainable, successful and ultimately positive results, I need my facts straight and my head in the right place.
How do I do that through a window that is warped and pocked by convoluted, prejudiced or muddy thinking?
Getting an honest, realistic picture of the people involved in or affected by my decisions will always affect the quality of my planning and my execution. Always.
But What If Someone Really is a Jerk?
…Or bad, or corrupt, or mean, or dangerous, or unreliable?
And here’s the truth:
Seeing people as people doesn’t mean that we are ignoring their faults or giving them a pass because “they’re human, too” or because “it’s nice.” It means getting past any false, uni-dimensional, inaccurate assumptions (or judgments) so that we’re crystal clear on the living, breathing people involved in our choices.
In fact, when tough decisions need to be made because of flaws in performance or personality, it is especially important to shed objectifying, closed-minded beliefs about others and see them for who they really are — the whole truth, as best we can discern it, and nothing but the truth.
Then, as we apply our knowledge, wisdom, training, advice, expertise and intuition, we’ll feel more settled and confident that we’re doing our best, doing the right thing. How can that NOT affect the quality of our outcomes and next steps?
How Do I Get to This Way of Reality Checking Before Decision-Making?
If you’ve felt a twinge (or bigger) of recognition about seeing people as objects, you are on your way.
The next step is often the simplest, and hardest, to take. It’s so simple, in fact, that in our effort to be clear thinkers about people and relationships, we tend to skip it and go straight to awesome plans we’ve made to live and decide without prejudice! That’s what makes it hard.
We, like Stephen Covey in the story of the motherless children, have to experience a shift initiated by:
a) Our recognition that we are closed, in some degree or another, to a person’s (or to people’s) humanity, and
b) A willingness to see the truth. “I want to learn more.” Then, we need
c) A state of mind (and heart) where we see people as people.
This is where some self-study comes in. We need to know two things very, very well before we can know others as their whole selves.
We need to find the times, places, relationships (past or present), circumstances and memories in which we have felt the most accepted, appreciated, loved and at peace with the world. (Idea: Make a list.)
Then, we need to go there, physically or mentally, and — in that state of mind — make the decision to do what is best for that other person (or people).
In this process, the action you or I resolve to do may surprize us.
The decision may seem counterintuitive or radical or it may feel very natural; it may also bring some level of discomfort at leaving behind practised, usual ways of doing things. It may take some negotiation with others involved in the choice to come to a mutually clear understanding.
But, if our minds and hearts are freed from hardened biases, and if the haze of our own unexamined and unsupported preconceptions is removed, we will be able to act with greater confidence that this choice is the best we can make in these circumstances.
What to Do Next
Simply, practise seeing people as people.
What has worked for me is studying the underpinnings of this approach to decision-making and then trying the concepts out, first, in the relationships closest to me.
Here are three books I highly recommend:
Leadership and Self-Deception
The Anatomy of Peace
The Outward Mindset
All are by The Arbinger Institute. The ideas in these very readable books better my life on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
How I Will Help
First, you can learn from my mistakes.
I had a recent incident with seeing people as objects. It’s embarrassing but true, a short prime example, and waiting here for you.
You can also click here for a one-page “thinksheet” to help with clear-minded, reality-checked decision-making. It’s free!
How You Can Help
If reading this article sparked thought for you, I’d like to ask the favor of sharing it with others through email or social media. Copy this link and paste into your Twitter, Facebook, or other update.
May the good you spread come back to you!