Who is My Problem? Is it You or is it Me?

I was fortunate to spend the weekend celebrating my in-laws’ 60-year wedding anniversary. The whole family was able to get together in one place and toast them and their years together. In one conversation with my mother-in-law, we were talking about habits that certain people have that in some cases we may find annoying. It was interesting – as it always is – to hear that what irritates her, is not noticed by me. By contrast, things I find off-putting were not bothersome to her at all.

What is this dynamic? How can it possibly be that if someone is “irritating” and “difficult” to one person, they aren’t such to everyone they come in contact with? How can we notice things about a person and feel negative toward them, but someone else sitting right next to us doesn’t notice the same things at all?

I find this phenomenon fascinating in the work I do, because in most cases, I am completely convinced that you are my problem! Your habits, your style, your manner of communicating are all the problem and upsetting to my life. I don’t see the fact that these issues that I rail against and dislike are being filtered through my lens. I am the one ultimately who deems them reprehensible or unlovable.

As many times as I have written about this concept, I still find it hard to grasp. Can it be true that there is really no “right” or “wrong,” but instead it is my filtering of it? Think about how, in different cultures, certain things are considered delicacies where in other cultures, one would never dream of eating them. Who is right? Who is wrong in their approach? Or think about things we view from the outside of a situation and we are clear about how wrong they are, but when we learn more about the situation we find understanding – “so that’s why he does that!” or “I didn’t know you thought this or that” are often our responses.

One approach I find useful, for example, is when I am about to deal with someone that other people have told me is a difficult person; “Watch your step” might be the warning. Instead of bracing myself to dislike the person or respond negatively to them, I decide to go into the new situation with an open mind. I actually think to myself, “I am going to like this person.” I look for things about them that I like. I see their behavior in a likeable frame rather than one that offends me. I see them as someone needing my understanding, not my resistance. In all cases where I have deliberately adopted this attitude, my entire viewpoint has shifted. I actually do experience the person differently than what others have told me.

It’s not easy to do this. We are swayed by the opinions of other people. We do get a mindset about someone that is hard to change. We have our filters firmly in place and we don’t like to have to admit we might be wrong – or at a minimum we don’t want to take the time and exert the energy to reframe and have to open our minds! We would rather see “people who are like that….” as we have always seen them. If they change, then we might have to change in response – and for many of us, this is simply too much work!

But what better gift can we give to another person than being willing to be open and allow them to reveal themselves to us? What better experience can we have than to learn something new about someone and perhaps turn a negative situation into a positive one? Maybe some of this comes with age because the older I get, the more I realize that many people are hurting and are desperately in need of someone to approach them with compassion and understanding.

When we think about this, is it really harder to take the time to deliberately reframe and give another human being a chance to show something we haven’t seen before? Is it really more time consuming to put our assumptions aside and engage in active and reflective listening? Is it really any harder to watch and learn than it is to reject someone out of hand and wish they were different?

Think about these questions this week. See if you can step back and open your mind toward someone where you’ve been closed before. See if you can learn something different and maybe turn a negative situation into a more positive one.