Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reading People Correctly

TITLE: Reading People Correctly
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 14 July 2011
Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (1 Cor 10:23-24)
MAIN POINT: Our tendency to misunderstand and misinterpret another person's intent stems from a lack of self-examination. When this happens, we easily misread people.

It began with a simple email about one’s opinion on a project. I gave a sharp response. The reply came back quick and fierce. I tried to calm nerves by offering to clarify what I have said. The response came back at an even more aggressive tone. In the end, I was accused of being insensitive, ignorant, and downright incompetent. The pattern is predictable. Each reply requires a clarification later. Each clarification spirals into another round of re-clarifications and re-stating one another’s positions. At one point, I simply hated the Email icon on my computer, even threatening to move that program into the trash. The whole episode turns both parties into misunderstanding each other, as well as a deep sense of being hurt and misunderstood.

In this week's installment of Sabbath Walk, I offer to examine the reasons why we tend to misread other people, and how we can learn to read people better.

A) Misreading People

What I have described above is not unique. I have seen many examples of how the familiar scenario plays out on public electronic forums, or social media networks like Facebook and mySpace. One negative comment leads to an even more negative rebuttal. Technology only goes to speed up the pace of disagreement. For example, emails are very convenient to use. Misinterpretation of emails are equally convenient to transmit at electronic speed. Though the medium of communications and the technology may change, the people behind the use of such devices and systems remains the same.

The sinful human person has a natural disposition to treat oneself more important than others. Many of us do, and are prepared to defend ourselves to the core, refusing to give in. Sadly, some of the nastiest words are uttered by people who profess themselves to follow Jesus! Churches split over trivial matters. Christians take each other to court over disputes and arguments. The common reason is this:
"I am fighting on the basis of a principle!"
Such cases do not help the Christian public image at all. It makes non-Christians rather glad not to be part of the Church especially when they see Christians squabbling away in both private and public places. Of course, the most prominent disputes are fought out in the law courts, to the embarrassment of the Church at large. It makes me wonder what happened to Jesus' call to the disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Are we loving people, or are we loving principles? Telling.

KEY POINT: Each of us are very prone to misreading people.

B) The ‘Emotional’ vs the ‘Rational’

Here is a physiological take on why human behaviour tends to be more emotional. The personal communications guru, Oscar Bruce poses an interesting take on linking human communications with brain behaviour. After all, he is a communications ‘guru.’ He says that the human person is prone to making mistakes because they are ‘hard-wired’ to do so. He explains it by pitting the ‘rational’ side of the brain against the ‘emotional’ part. Like a lion that overpowers the cougar, the emotional side usually dominates over the rational cerebral cortex. Bruce goes on to say that due to the tendency to let the emotional ‘overwhelm’ the rational, humans are more prone to misjudge others, misinterpret intentions, and to misunderstand one another. That is not all. Once the ‘rational’ is won over by the ‘emotional,’ the brain then goes on to work as an integrated whole, where “I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG!” becomes a personal crusade, regardless of truth. Perceptions reign.

KEY POINT:  Our hearts often overwhelm our heads when reading (or misreading) people.

C) Reading People Rightly Begins With Self-Examination

Psychological analysis like the one suggested by Oscar Bruce tend to be overly simplistic. Yet, I think it is a good reminder for us to be conscious that we manage our emotional involvement at an appropriate level.  I will venture to suggest that in order for us to read people more fairly and correctly, we need to adopt a stance of self-examination first.

St Ignatius of Loyola has long been one of my favourite authors. His classic treatise, “The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius” occupies a prominent position on my bookshelf. It is a foundational book on guiding oneself toward spiritual perfection in God. This is a response to Jesus’ teaching:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Before one begins the spiritual exercises, Ignatius offers his very important starting point. He writes:
In order that the one who gives these Exercises and he who makes them may be of more assistance and profit to each other, they should begin with the presupposition that every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it as false.” (Anthony Mottola, trans. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, NY: Image Doubleday, 1989, p47)

In other words, when we interact with one another, we ought to assume that the other person has good intentions in the first place, and to interpret everything from that angle. Such an attitude prepares us toward the path of spiritual perfection as advocated by Jesus. In order for us to live as 7-days a week, 24 hours a day Christians, all our thoughts, words, and deeds need to begin with this healthy presupposition.

KEY POINT:  In understanding others, adopt a healthy positive interpretation as a natural default position.

D) What If We Are Suspicious About Others?

This question stems from a desire to protect ourselves, especially those of us who have been badly burned or hurt previously. I can understand. Ignatius gives this advice.
If he cannot give a good interpretation to this statement, he should ask the other how he understands it, and if he is in error, he should correct him with charity.” (47)
This is great teaching. When we feel we have reasons to suspect, why not take a step back and put it in a simple question without any pre-judgment? This not only lowers ourselves from a mental boiling point, it helps us practice humility, and to avoid judging others.

I work a lot with small groups. Sometimes, there are strong views said which threaten the overall mood of the discussion. Handled incorrectly, they can become divisive and explosive. One way I manage it, is to ask the person:
  • “You have said that _____________________, have I understood that correctly?”
  • “Can you explain your point again, maybe in a different way?”
  • “Can I paraphrase what you have just said?”
Every leader of small groups must be aware of the insidious danger of suspicions. Suspicions are little trojan horses implanted in the minds of members of any group. It comes across as seemingly innocent questions. Over time, the trojan horses can create untold damages on relationships. As suspicions come in, trust goes out. This then leads to a sharp reduction individuals giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

Ignatius wisely teaches. Let the person know that you are genuinely interested in a right understanding of what he said. In other words, clarification and understanding remain key objectives in group dynamics. From Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Corinth, no one should seek only his own good, but for the good of others. Likewise, in our interactions, we can learn to seek out the good of others in our group, rather than to put ourselves as a foremost concern.

KEY POINT: When in doubt, paraphrase, clarify, and seek to understand others.

E) What If It Does Not Work?

I understand that even with the best of intentions, we can still read people erroneously. Ignatius gives a third additional guideline.
If this is not sufficient, he should seek every suitable means of correcting his understanding so that he may be saved from error.” (47)
This is practical advice. In other words, the journey of self-examination does not end after the first step, but ought to be exercised at every step, over and over again. Like a self-correcting feedback mechanism, one needs to adopt a stance of ‘seeing other’s good’ over and over again. This requires us to self-examine our own intentions. This requires us to clarify other people’s intentions and words. This requires us to re-evaluate our understanding over and over, until we reach a good and clear perspective that is free from self-prejudice.

Dale Carnegie, the author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" offers this guide for our benefit.
"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving."
In a world that literally worships abilities and talents, it is a good reminder to know that relationships thrive more on maturity and graciousness. We have a calling to become better persons ourselves, for Jesus' sake and for our neighbours' sake. We have a calling to obey Jesus' command to love one another. We have a calling to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. A proper understanding of other people is closely tied with a proper understanding of self. Perhaps, when we misread others, we may have also misread ourselves.

Thought: "We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are." (Talmud)


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