Life Coach Tal Fagin encourages us to imagine a world where we approach one another with curiosity and care, where we are slow to judge but quick to extend the benefit of the doubt.
One of my favorite aspects of coaching is helping clients improve their relationships. Regardless of what they come to me for initially—whether it’s taking their career to the next level or improving their health—somewhere along the way, we shine a light on how they relate to the other people in their lives. It could be parents or spouses, friends, children, siblings or colleagues. Everyone has someone with whom things could be just a little bit better.
All too often, we want to change these other people. We want them to see things our way, to live according to our values and our ideas about how people should be. Unfortunately, this approach never works.
As one of my favorite quotes goes: When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100% of the time. (Thank you, Byron Katie.)
Instead, I try to help focus people on generosity.
The idea of generosity usually makes us think of giving—typically money, possessions or time. We forget that “generous” is also an attitude. It is a way of being in the world, a way of perceiving and receiving others. It requires us to check our assumptions, limit our reactivity and hold off on a judgment. It allows us to feel empathy and compassion, to extend kindness instead of hostility.
And because “live it to give it” is one of the first rules of coaching, I will share a recent lesson of my own.
Last week, with an afternoon snow-storm just getting started, I pulled on my hat, gloves, coat, and boots and ventured out with my puppy. River trotted happily ahead of me, large stick in his mouth, down the middle of the street. I marveled at his proud prance, feeling grateful for this new love in my life, for the crisp, cold air, the beautiful snowy landscape, and my family at home waiting for me for dinner.
Then a car came flying around the bend.
We were far enough away that I could pull River safely to the side, but the fear and outrage bubbled up in an instant. So did the ugly story in my head—the one starring a reckless driver, a selfish, stupid, careless, dangerous jerk.
Who the hell drives like that? Around here! What kind of idiot? What is his PROBLEM?!?!
Then the driver slowed down to talk to me. He was someone I knew. Someone I like and respect. Someone who did have a legitimate problem. He was driving around, looking for his lost dog, desperately trying to find her before the storm. I saw the sadness and worry in his eyes, and felt only sympathy. How would I feel if River were wandering alone in the world instead of panting safely by my side? How many times had I driven too fast, and perhaps irresponsibly, because of some imperative of my own?
My anger eased into compassion. I promised I would keep a lookout. I wished him luck.
As River and I continued on—now sticking a bit closer to the side of the road—I kept my eyes peeled for the lost dog. I thought about all the near-misses and blind curves in the road that define our lives, but also about assumptions, reactivity, and generosity.
We make assumptions about other people all the time. We react instinctively, and all too often defensively when someone’s behavior feels threatening, frustrating or somehow wrong.
We turn their bad act into a character assessment—one rude act renders her “a rude person”—forgetting that we are dealing with a whole person with myriad qualities and traits. We perceive their “bad behavior” as a personal affront—a poison arrow soaring in our direction—and we wield our judgment like a shield.
We forget to be generous.
How often do we rush to judgment without all the facts? How often do we linger in a state of frustration or anger on account of a brief encounter with another? How often do we malign one another, jumping to conclusions based on the stories in our heads that feel entirely justified, but so rarely are?
Imagine if that were not so. Imagine a world where we approached one another with curiosity and care, where we were slow to judge but quick to extend the benefit of the doubt.
Imagine if we took this a step further, with the goal of improving the lives of everyone we come into contact with, even in just some small way.
If my imaginary world sounds good to you, if you are interested in extending more generosity to the people in your life—whether they be family, friends or perfect strangers—I would invite you to try the following:
Recognize Your Reactivity. Take some time to think about how you react when someone offends you in some way. Bring to mind a recent situation where someone upset you or disappointed you. What did you do? How did it feel? What stories did you craft about that person? What labels or judgments sprang to mind? Hold all of this negativity in your mind, believe it with everything you’ve got. Notice how that feels.
Now take a deep breath and let that go. Create a new story, one where some facts remain, but others get filled in. Picture this person in front of you, perhaps apologizing, perhaps supplying some key missing details. See their sincerity, feel their humanity. Recognize them for the whole person that they are, not just the sum of their mistakes. Notice how you might feel just a bit lighter, more open or forgiving.
Make Better Assumptions. Give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than rushing to judgment. Our tendency to rush to judgment is innate, one of the many defense mechanisms embedded deep in our DNA. By making others wrong or bad, we think we aim to secure our own place in the world. What is secured, in reality, is disconnection and loneliness.
Instead, create a new knee-jerk reaction. Assume that people are doing their best and that they generally mean well. Rather than assuming people are lazy, unkind or mostly out for themselves, take the opposite point of view. If and when you find yourself disappointed or hurt, start off believing there must be a good explanation.
Adopting the more generous, more forgiving point of view will benefit you just as much as (if not more than) the other person. It takes energy and effort to stay angry with someone. Shedding some of that negativity frees you up, leaving you calmer and more content, more receptive and better able to relate.
It is not about You. We all play the starring role in the drama of our own lives, which can be exhausting! Occasionally, we are far better off playing the omniscient narrator than the hapless protagonist. When you find yourself troubled by the treatment of others, try inhabiting their point of view. What lies beneath their negativity? What might they be going through?
Remind yourself that whatever it is, it probably isn’t about you. Try not to take things personally. Instead, extend some compassion or curiosity. Ask “what’s going on?” as opposed to “What the hell is your problem?” Be genuine in your concern. Generosity is listening when you might otherwise be talking. It is asking questions, expressing interest in the thoughts and feelings of another person. It is remembering that not everything is about you and that sometimes the best thing you can do is just hold space.
Be the Rising Tide. Part of what blocks generosity is insecurity and fear. We worry that people will take advantage of us. We worry that being too trusting or extending too much benefit of the doubt will expose us to being hurt, or make us look naive or foolish. We instinctively feel it is better to protect ourselves from harm, to armor up against any possible attack.
Respectfully, I disagree.
I believe that we can, at least in most situations, safely extend ourselves more fully. We have the power to be generous with one another, and in the process, to elevate our relationships and our communities to new heights. I have seen it happen again and again, among family and friends, and even among perfect strangers. Or as I like to call them, potential friends.
PS – Rumor has it the lost dog was found, safe and sound. Just in case you were wondering.