Where has our empathy gone? We desperately want people to hear and relate to us. We don’t understand why others fail to recognize our contributions or the value we have to offer. The lack of connection causes further withdrawal, and our cynicism toward others grows. Everyone has it wrong, except for us, of course. Everyone is an idiot. Over time we exempt nobody from our chastened view of humanity.

Ok. Maybe this doesn’t accurately describe how you view others, but there is a good chance you fail to see others as people. We become conditioned to seeing people as objects. These objects either help us, hurt us, or make no difference to us. The waiter at a restaurant is a means of getting food to eat. The coworker is a means of completing a report or a machine fixed. Teachers are a means of educating our children. We are failing to see people as people. We see them as a means to an end. We rarely look at the bank teller or the grocery store cashier and attempt to empathize with what is going on in their lives. We barely make eye contact.

My intent is not to make you feel bad or to have you go on the defensive. The reality is that we don’t realize we are behaving in this way, and most choose to respond, “so what.” What if we saw every person as a person? I am not suggesting that we seek to understand their life story, but I am suggesting that we recognize that they have a story. Our Worldly cynicism continues to grow because we don’t see people as people. We see them as a means to an end and nothing more.

Imagine the depth of relationships you could develop with your neighbors by seeing them as people versus just neighbors. Imagine how much more fun your work could be if you experienced your coworkers as people with similar or more significant challenges to overcome than you. Almost instinctively, we look at people as objects through which we might achieve our goals or get what we desire. The tendency is to use people as vehicles, observe them as obstacles to blame, or ignore them as though they are irrelevant. In other words, we are shallow in the views we take about other people. We don’t see them because all we can envision is what they can do for us or how they are blocking us from getting what we desire. The good news is that through increased awareness, we can begin to see people as people.

What is wrong? The programming of our youth begins at an early age. The infant is reliant on a primary caregiver for all their needs. They are helpless. As they grow up, they become more and more obsessively focused on themselves. This inward obsession is natural and a vital part of the maturation process. The challenge for youth and adults is that we are overwhelmed with inputs that validate our inner focus. Marketing focuses on capturing our attention and making us feel unique or special. The media triggers our fight or flight mechanisms that subsequently inhibit our ability to empathize with others. The government panders to all demographics while vilifying the other side of an issue. The sports world vilifies their opponents while companies vilify their competition. The world is us versus them on every front. How can we not become inwardly focused and incapable of empathizing with others?

Here are some ideas to consider when you are struggling to connect with people at home, at work, or in your community:

Assume you are the problem.

Reality hits us between the eyes from time to time. Too often, our preference is to pretend that reality what we think only to determine later our thinking was flawed. We assume someone took something from us only to find later that we had misplaced it. During our interactions gone wrong with others, we most often believe the following:

  • Malicious Intent – We believe the person we are dealing with is out to harm us. Their defiance is meant to set us back or impair our ability to do our work. In friendships, we hear that a person has been speaking poorly of us behind our back. The thought makes us bristle with anger that another person would intentionally harm our relationship with another person. Our response is most often to counter the other person by building alliances that we believe will support our cause and come to our defense. Our response triggers the other person to develop their alliances (validating their feelings). The cycle continues until either the relationship breaks down altogether or reconciliation occurs. Unfortunately, more often than not, the relationship is unable to recover because neither party is willing to forgive and forget. The assumption is that the other person was out to harm us, but our cowardly nature never allows us to have an open dialogue with the other person. Consider the workplace disputes and family divides that have resulted from assuming malicious intent without ever having an open and honest conversation with the other person. What are some questions you could ask yourself when you realize you are assuming malicious intent?
  • Superiority – The person we are dealing with is inferior to us. Status is an unfortunate reality of society. We rank and file others based on a myriad of criteria. The bottom line is that every person is human. Every person has dreams, challenges, desires, hopes, and feelings just as we do. Society has conditioned us to measure our status versus the status of others. Too often, our need for certainty and a sense of significance will cause us to take a position of superiority versus others. Humanity has a natural disdain and will immediately resist a person that acts with superiority. As with malicious intent, this occurs at home and at work. Husbands that work will often consider themselves more valuable to the contribution of the family than their wives. Rainmakers (often salespeople) in companies will develop a belief that they are superior to others in the organization. How could you keep your EGO in check when dealing with others? What questions could you ask yourself to determine if you are taking a superior approach in a relationship?
  • Morality – We were wronged by a person before, and we assume that the person has low morals. We remain guarded in all aspects of our interactions because we question the intent of the people with whom we are dealing. We observe a person from a distance, do something that we believe to be a demonstration of low moral character. We can’t be sure, but we assume the worst. We avoid discussing the situation with this person that has supposedly wronged us. Now in every interaction we have with the person, we consider what we observed even though we have no insight into what happened. Instinctively we question the morality of others without reason or understanding. We could ask ourselves, why am I assuming this person has low moral character? Do I have clear and irrefutable evidence of a weak moral character?
  • Manipulation – We are manipulators. Our manipulation is almost undetectable on the surface, but because we see people as objects through which we get what we desire, we manipulate. The reality is that because we are continually manipulating others, we assume they are manipulating us. We are instinctively skeptical because we know our nature. It is easy to confuse influence and manipulation. The difference is that influence is a desire for the other person to be positively impacted versus us achieving the desired outcome. Do you see people as objects or people? Are you using your ability to articulate arguments to manipulate a situation for your desired outcome?

Contrast the assumptions above with what we could have with an outward mindset approach:

  • Pure Intent – When our intentions are genuine, we genuinely desire what is best for the other person. Instead of contemplating what we can get from the person in front of us, we think about what we can give. The shift from getting to giving is transformational. Give without expectation is another form of pure intent. Unfortunately, many people will be incapable of taking this approach. The inward mindset has a hold on their mind that leading with pure intention will not be possible. If you are an outward mindset person dealing with someone that has an inward mindset, don’t give up. Show up with pure intentions. Don’t compromise. Demonstrate what it means to have pure intention. Don’t allow them to take advantage of you, but don’t attempt to resist their selfish nature. Roll with it.
  • Humility – Life isn’t about you or me. Showing up with humility is the easiest way to find common ground when differences or issues arise. Today’s societal norm is obsessed with what we are getting, or “hey look at me.” Humility allows us to see and hear others. Leaders must demonstrate humility if they expect others to follow. Humility is a form of respect. The outward mindset requires that we begin every interaction from a place of humility versus a position of superiority. No person is better than another regardless of their skills or ability, and every person is worthy of respect. Tough pill to swallow from many, and that is why great leaders seem few and far between!
  • Honest Mistake – So what, you screwed up or so what, they screwed up. Grace is the greatest of gifts and seems to be one of the most challenging gifts to give. We expect perfection. We expect people to do what we ask without exception. The reality is that humans screw stuff up. They especially screw stuff up when they are always in “go mode.” Go mode is ideal for getting things done and making progress, but we must expect people to make mistakes. It will go sideways, so the best strategy for continuing the project is to offer grace to those that make honest mistakes. If people use poor judgment to cut corners or pursue what is best for them, we should push back. We must seek to understand the difference between an honest mistake and dereliction of duties. People will always claim honest mistakes (and we should offer the benefit of the doubt), but further inquiry might be required to understand the intent or possible neglect. When feasible, lead with grace and forgive others for their mistakes.
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