Papers polarize issues to sell papers. Television and movies sell us villains and heros. Pure good and evil is so pervasive in our pop culture, yet it rarely exists.
For every Russell Williams there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians that could never be labelled ‘evil’ or even ‘bad’. So it is unfortunate that conflict sells, because its popularity hyper-sensitizes us to label the people and organizations we see in our daily lives as good or bad, and I’m as guilty as the next guy.
But experience has taught me that, whenever I start to think of a coworker, group or organization as an bad or as an adversary, I’m usually wrong. I now force myself to stop and think: Is the individual behaving badly because they are bad, or because they are being put in a bad situation? In my experience, there has been almost no case where bad behaviour could not be explained by a bad situation. As a result, I inevitably see bad systems, not bad people.
But I’m not saying that this is an easy thing to do, it isn’t!
If every time you interact with a person they seem to get angry at you for ‘doing your job’, something called ‘cognitive dissonance‘ kicks in. This is the uncomfortable feeling that you get when things don’t jive. You think “This person is treating me like I am an unreasonable or incompetent person,” and this very likely conflicts with your view of yourself. In an effort to deal with this dissonance, it is much easier to say to yourself, “well this person must be a jerkface”, than to cool your anger and think “this is the product of a pretty standard human in bad system or situation”. In fact, a more likely course of action is that you try and find other people who also think that this person is a jerkface, share your experience, and feel better that your observation has be corroborated by others (helping satisfying the dissonance). You also become more perceptive of the other actions confirming that this person is bad (confirmation bias).
It is human nature, but it just isn’t very productive.
Since it so hard to react in a positive way when you feel like you are being attacked, prepare yourself ahead of time:
Dog-ear a page in your notebook and write a few things down to prompt you the next time you are dealing with a confrontation. Some suggestions:
- If you’re too angry to think straight, disengage!
- He/she probably isn’t angry with you, it’s their situation
- Say “I see that this is causing you concern, what can I do to help?”
- I can tear a strip out of this guy/gal, but would it really help my cause?
Remember, the best place to find a villain, is in the movies.