There is no question that we have to interact, communicate, and collaborate with others in almost every activity of life. Amidst these activities, we often encounter individuals who appear difficult, or make us feel uncomfortable. It could be their personality, word choice, mannerisms, professionalism, value system, or a combination thereof.
It is a foundational part of human nature to find solutions, reasons, and justifications for almost everything we encounter. The process of making sense of our surroundings helps us to understand the world and modify our behaviors to match what we see and believe. There is nothing wrong with finding causes and effects in everyday life, but where this innate human need becomes inappropriate (and sometimes dangerous) is when we overemphasize the personal attributes of a person as the cause of something negative rather than the contextual factors of the situation.
We have known for decades that the behaviors of individuals in situations is more likely to be influenced by the environment more than the personality. That is not to say that every situation is due to environmental factors – usually it is a combination of both. However, when you overemphasize the influence a person can have on a particular situation, over other factors outside the control of the individual, then you have made a Fundamental Attribution Error. As you can imagine, this “error” is so widespread from collegial to spousal relations. In many instances, major conflicts (and even wars) can be traced to fundamental attribution errors whereby the “fault” is attributed to the other person’s characteristics instead of their circumstances.
Sometimes we have to interact with “difficult” individuals in our professional lives. Sometimes these individuals are within our family. I find that the conversation on dealing with such individuals fixates on the “difficult” person(s). However, what productivity and professional life gurus do not realize is that by shifting focus to the person, these conversations reinforce the same ideas they intend to breakdown. I choose to adopt a different approach, one that shifts the focus on not the “difficult” person, but you as the person who makes the judgement of the other person.
When it comes to dealing with “difficult” individuals, we need to consciously work towards decreasing our propensity to blame individuals for negative situations. Blaming stems from an innate human tendency of curiosity that can be very useful because it helps to make sense of the world. But we have to channel this tendency in a positive direction. In other words, blaming is okay, if it is does for the right reasons for the right outcomes.
My main argument until now is to emphasize that we should develop a habit of blaming the situation rather than the personfor any negative circumstances. Too often we get caught up in a mental state guided by our emotions that lead us to shift the focus outwardly when should be utilizing the opportunity to reflect about ourselves and the life we wish to lead.
It is imperative for you understand that, regardless of your expertise on a particular topic, you will never know everything about that topic. There is an interesting understanding among some PhD students that the objective is not clarity but more confusion; that is when you know you are successful and ready for post-PhD life.
If someone says something that contradicts your values or beliefs, you may experience uneasiness. However, in the quest for knowledge acquisition and translation, we need accept that people may know better regardless of our position in society or expertise.
Perhaps they can express their assertions in a more professional, polite manner. Or perhaps your reaction to their thoughts are actually grounded in a strong egotistical mentality fuelled by egocentric society – that you know better because you are “the expert” and any non-experts could not possibly know better than you.
But this assumption can be dangerous because our human minds are not capable of comprehending the world, let alone a minutiae aspect of it. For example, all of the minds in the world have only understood a small fraction of how the brain works, how can you, as an expert of brain science, judge someone else’s suggestions as inadequate? Sometimes a fresh, novel mind is needed to view the problem and devise realistic and appropriate solutions. This idea is the reason why there is a huge movement towards collaboration and partnership in many industries – end-users of an innovation have the experiential knowledge about its appropriateness and uptake.
The Fundamental Attribution Error can actually help to breakdown our tendency to be self-centered because it forces us to acknowledge that there are environmental factors beyond anyone’s control that can influence ideas, thoughts, and behaviors. An idea, therefore, by a non-expert may be as powerful as an idea from an expert because these ideas are a result of a compendium of environmental influences on the individual with the idea.
Acknowledging the Fundamental Attribution Error as an area for personal improvement can be the first step to shifting our appraisal of situations from personal attributions to situations. In turn, this strategy can also support transforming our egotistical mentality to one that exemplifies collaboration, cooperation, and partnership.
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