As I was driving a few weeks ago, I noticed someone driving in front of me with their rear windshield wiper on. I noticed it because it annoyed me. There was no rain. Why on Earth would they have their windshield wipers on, let alone the rear windshield wiper? As the wiper persisted, I got more and more irritated. I was so annoyed that I noticed myself trying to look at anything but the car in front of me (I know, I know, great driving technique).
As I drove past the car, I asked myself the basic coaching question, “What else? What could be an explanation for that person’s behavior, if not to annoy me?”
I thought maybe there is a sleeping baby in the car and the sound is white noise. Maybe that person borrowed the car and don’t know how to turn it off. Maybe the driver is distracted and is driving on autopilot. I can continue to think of answers even now.
The point is, as soon as I asked, “What else might be the reason?” it greatly diffused my irritation. I grew in understanding and compassion. Their behavior was far less annoying because it wasn’t a personal attack on my driving enjoyment! [I speak firmly tongue-in-cheek, of course]
When I was working on my undergraduate degree in Family and Child Psychology, I learned about a phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The FAE occurs when we notice behavior in other people and believe that it is a part of their personality rather than related to circumstances.
For instance, after receiving poor service at a restaurant, you might declare that your server is a bad server without considering other circumstances that contribute to poor service (e.g. being shorthanded, the host seating too many tables in the same section at once, etc.).
Driving behind someone with their wiper on, I might declare that person is a bad driver (as I continue safely looking anywhere but the driver in front of me).
In short, the FAE says that we automatically assume the worst about other people.
The danger is when we fail to ask “What else?” in relation to people close to us. We so often assume that our loved ones couldn’t possibly have another motivation behind their behavior (other than being a jerk who is trying to irritate or hurt us). “S/he should know better!”
But truly, they probably do have other reasons. Just as we’re self-centered and asking, “Why is this person out to get me?” They’re most likely self-centered and assuming everyone thinks like them and wants what they want.
Try it! The next time someone hurts or irritates you, ask yourself, “What else might be the reason?” Better yet, ask them directly if you can, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.” In doing so, you’re offering them Christian love that covers over a multitude of sins.
P.S. If you’re really daring, ask yourself, “What is going on inside of me that makes the other person so irritating to me?” Now that’s a truly difficult question to answer. It will probably reveal things that you don’t want to admit are there. Hence, it’s only for the daring. 🙂