Ideas from the team

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Empathy - we’re all doing our best

Taking the time to see things from someone else’s perspective (and understanding that other people see you from their perspective) is a powerful strategy. We call it empathy.

We could be pragmatic, even cynical, and say that understanding the motivations of others helps us personally, it makes our jobs simpler and our lives less stressful. Or we can take a more humanitarian view and say that understanding others makes for a happier, healthier society. Most likely we can take both views simultaneously.

Every person around us has their own internal drivers – dna, history, education, prejudices, tribal alignments, etc.

Layered on top of that, each of us has countless external and internal influences that are constantly shifting – the weather, the temperature, the late bus, the painful shoes, the needy family member etc.

And, layered on top of that, the bizarre world of work brings all sorts of customs and conventions that make very little sense to anyone outside the bubble of that world.

And everybody… everybody… can really only see the world from their own perspective. We can’t actually see the world through the eyes of others so…

We look at the actions of other people without ever really knowing the influences behind them. And we tend to concentrate on our influences and don’t always think through our actions.

When a colleague is consistently late it’s infuriating (perhaps it's because they are lazy). When we are consistently late, it’s a series of one-offs, each with a reasonable explanation. Usually it’s the fault of the bloody transport system.

When we can’t find something on a website, it’s because the website is rubbish. When others can’t find information on our website, it’s because they’re doing it wrong.

We have an inbuilt bias to forgive ourselves and to see ourselves as the hero of our stories.

And that’s OK, as long as we realise it’s all a construct to help us get through the day, as long as we don’t actually think that other people are all incompetent, petulant, lazy idiots.

If a colleague or customer does something that infuriates us, we can be sure they’ll have a reason for doing it. Sometimes it will be a personal reason, a crisis that is more important than work; we all have days like that. More usually the reason will be a system or a process with influences that we didn’t consider.

My point is that everyone thinks they are doing their best. But often their motivations and influences are beyond what’s immediately obvious to us. It’s OK to be annoyed about the consequences. And, if you are annoyed, it’s much better to admit that to yourself than to bury that emotion.

But it’s always worth asking whether it’s useful to hold on to your frustration. Is it actually helpful? To you or them. Your resentment won’t change the situation.

And remember it works the other way round as well. Other people get frustrated with you all the time, even though you really are doing your best.

Take a moment to remember that your colleagues and customers are complex, fragile human beings, just like you.

Michael Smith is the founding director of Cog Design, a design and digital agency that helps arts organisations inspire their audiences.

@michael_cog
cogdesign.com