It’s not about you

Last year, I was at my sister’s house one morning and playing with my toddler niece. I did something, and my niece burst into tears. I started apologizing and frantically saying “What did I do? What did I do?” My sister looked over and said “She’s just hungry – give her a banana.” I gave my niece a banana and she was happy again.

I tell this story a lot, as it’s a great reminder that we are too egocentric and think it is always about us – I thought I had caused my niece’s distress, but my niece was going to stay cranky until her hunger was satisfied. And that is true in most interactions – the other person has their own needs to be met, and until those are satisfied, it almost doesn’t matter what we do.

Having that lens creates empathy – when somebody massively over-reacts to something I did, I realize something else is probably going on that I’m not aware of. I try to understand what’s going on in their life, and what needs of theirs aren’t being met, because until those are dealt with, it’s going to be hard to make progress on what I want. And admittedly that’s not always possible. But realizing that I am not personally responsible for the moods of everybody I interact with was a helpful correction for me.

This principle is also helpful in dealing with work situations – it’s generally easy to trace back people being obstinate at work to them feeling like they are losing control. Presenting a plan that seems eminently reasonable may trigger an emotional reaction, in part because it wasn’t the team’s idea and it was externally imposed on them, which can feel like an attack, creating a fight-or-flight response. If I can diagnose that, I won’t dig in to fight about the merits of the plan itself, and instead will look for ways to let the team know that the plan will help them with their problems.

This is also a good reminder for dealing with ourselves. I was on a long bike ride last weekend, and took a wrong turn that meant I added another 20 miles and 2000 feet of climbing to my planned ride. And I was in despair, thinking I would never be able to do it. But, thinking of my niece, I realized I was probably just hungry. I saw a McDonald’s, ate 1000 calories, felt much better, and cranked up the climb and back home. When feeling despair or overwhelmed, it’s important to take care of our own needs, because everything else will seem harder until we do.

When dealing with people, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you. Thinking about what the people you are interacting with need, and how you can satisfy those needs, will lead to you being more effective in getting what you want out of the interaction.

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