Friday, April 30, 2010

Getting Along with Humans

I really like the discussion we've been having about having a code and I'm looking forward to writing more about it. Along the way there, I realized a great precursor to having a code is simply learning how to live with other humans. The following are some rules of thumb that I've found useful along that front. I'd love to hear yours.

1. Truth is Pragmatic
Before we start, I'd like to point out that the degree to which everything that follows is 'true' is proportional to the degree that it works. If you approach any of the following from the perspective of it being true because it can be proven or because you can't think of counter examples, then, well...

2. Doing the Best We Can
A first principle that can completely change how you view others (and yourself) is this: each of us is doing the best we can given the context of our beliefs.

By "best we can" I don't mean the dismissive "There, there, you did the best you could do." Instead, I'm talking about our always doing what we believe is 'right' or 'best'. If someone were to scream at you in anger, you could respond from a generic perspective, "screaming in anger is always inappropriate" or you could respond from the perspective, "he screamed at me because that's the best way he can think of taking care of himself in this situation."

Neither requires you to settle for angry screaming as something that you want in your life. However, the latter tends to lead towards better communication than the former.

So try it on, each time you encounter a behavior you don't particularly like (even in yourself), remind yourself, "he's doing the best he can."

3. Just Ask
As Samuel L. Jackson has said in more than one movie, "Everyone knows when you make an assumption, you make an ass outta you, and umption."

So much of what challenges us in relationships is there simply because we make assumptions about others, never stopping to ask them whether or not the assumptions are valid. Surely, being able to assume certain things about others is useful (e.g., that he'll show up when he said he would), but there are many more that are less than useful (e.g., I think he's not telling me something.)

Whenever you find yourself 'guessing', cut off the assumption-effect by asking the question that's on your mind. Imagine that all war, all conflicts, all that challenges us, is just a big misunderstanding.

4. Just Tell
Of course a lot of assumption results from not being authentic about what we're thinking. I wholeheartedly believe that clearly saying what you think with an attitude of love and without hesitation is always the best way to go (if you're getting hung up on the word 'always', please see item 1).

Note that I used the phrase 'attitude of love' and not 'manner of love'. Often times, we confuse affect with attitude. While the latter can be effective, it's suboptimal. When we speak in a manner of love, we can say all sorts of heinous things to another person while looking 'lovingly' into their eyes and caressing their hand. That won't cut it.

When we approach someone with an attitude of love, really deciding to love her, it not only changes our manner, but it also change us. The very attitude reshapes what we're thinking and what we have to say. When the words come out, they're the reflection of loving thought, not unhappiness wrapped in loving manner.

5. Impose No Debt
Whenever you do something for someone, make your reward the doing of it, not the expectation of obligation or a debt of gratitude.

Over the years, my mom and dad spent endless hours doing things for others (see When My Mom Died). However, the thing that significantly differentiated my mom from my dad is that my mom always did so without the expectation of anything in return. She did things for others simply for the joy of doing them.

My dad on the other hand would often bring up how he did thus-and-such for so-and-so and they "never even thanked me". He would begin to build into his good deeds an implicit expectation of receiving something in return: gratitude, acceptance, accolades, love, respect, favors, etc.

At times others would take offense on my mom's behalf, but she herself was never offended; it didn't even occur to her to take offense since, from her perspective, she'd already been 'paid in full' just through the act of giving.

Of course, it's fine to expect something in return; just be clear about it up front.

6. Take It to the Source
This one shouldn't be an issue if you abide by 3 and 4, but nonetheless, it bears (re)stating. Whenever you have something to say to someone, say it to him or her and no one else. There is probably no greater contributor to conflict, strife and disharmony than venting your unhappiness over person A with person B.

7. Take Nothing Personally, Ever
Whenever we start taking things personally, we become biased. We compromise our abilities to hear what is being said. We get defensive and even offensive. Stupidity is directly proportional to the degree to which we make something personal.

Even when someone means for you to take what she's saying personally, what she's saying is still all about her, not you. So, believe it or not, you never, ever have to take something personally.

So What?
I'd like to propose a little experiment. Spend 48 hours trying on items 1 through 7 and see what happens. Here they are quickly:
  1. Whenever I catch myself looking for reasons that one of the following is not true, I'll remind myself that it's true because of the great changes it's going to effect in my life, not because it can be proven.
  2. I will regularly remind myself that we're all doing the best we can (even me).
  3. Whenever I find myself making an assumption, I'll stop myself and ask instead.
  4. Whenever I find myself not saying what I'm thinking, I'll look at the other person, focus on him in love, and then say it.
  5. I will take joy in the act of doing something for someone without the expectation of anything in return.
  6. I won't complain or say anything negative about anyone to anyone else. It I have an issue with someone, I'll take it directly to him or her (remembering #4).
  7. Nothing anyone says or does is about me, even if they mean for it to be.
So, are you up for it? Look at your clock, write down the time, and begin the countdown for 48-hours of relationship-changing excitement. Ready? 5... 4... 3... 2... 1..

Happy Friday


  1. I wonder about #2 - we're all doing the Best We Can. It has certainly served me well, but when talking about past events, as in "his loud screaming was the best he could do at that time", it occurs to me that 'best' is really speculation, or spin. It would be more accurate to say "that's what he did; now deal with it". I mean, the 'best-ness' of an event is not intrinsic to it, it's entirely in my perspective of it. And I don't mean "deal with it" in a dismissive way either - the dealing with it is completely in my power and opens up a whole area of discussion on what way of dealing would be most helpful.

    But I see how calling our actions "the best we can" is compassionate, especially when it's a continuing behavior or something that we're finding hard to change.

  2. @Sree: saying "it was the best he could do" can be seen as: of the choises he was aware of having at the time he did his best.
    - but no means does it mean that it was the best for you.

    #5: not expecting anything in returns includes: don't expect anyone to be greatefull. And to me it means: don't tell people about the good deeds you are doing. Doing them and knowing for yourself you did it, is enough.


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