In my previous posts I described the difference between flexible thinking and more rigid black and white thinking, and described ways that embracing complexity can lead to higher level thinking about our own experiences and the experiences of others. In this post I will describe one tool that is useful when we're experiencing conflict with ourselves or other people, to facilitate this more complex or flexible thinking. Moving from judgment to curiosity.
How can a mindset change help?
Judgment is something that probably comes pretty easy for most of us. Judgments about ourselves, others, the world at large. Judgments are mental short-cuts that reduce more complex thinking. A judgment is a conclusion, not a beginning. When we start our thinking process with a judgment, there can only be one, predetermined conclusion. Judgment closes the door on critical thinking, curiosity on the other hand, has the capacity to initiate critical thinking and creativity, it allows us to walk through multiple hypotheses. Curiosity also has the power to elicit compassion, which can allow us to better understand others as well as ourselves and accept differences. Judgment has the capacity to limit the amount of information that we are able to acquire, and in the process we might miss something very important that potentially has the power to change our entire outlook.
When I was a young adult right out of high school, I worked in the daycare of our local community center. I have always loved being around littles, so I really enjoyed this job, however one day I had a very unpleasant experience. A woman stopped in to pick up her kiddo and said some very hurtful things to me. All these years later I don't remember what was actually said, but I remember being very confused because she was really hurtful, and I didn't understand why. This interaction was baffling, and felt very unfair. I finished my shift but it was difficult because of this really negative interaction, and I was terribly worried that I had done something wrong without even knowing. Later that day the woman called my supervisor and asked my supervisor to pass along an apology to me, explaining that that particular day was the anniversary of a very important loss, and she was grieving this loss. What a relief! That incident was an important learning experience for me because I learned sometimes a rude or thoughtless person is just having a really hard day and it's ok to not take that personally. Since that time I've had many opportunities to continue learning that lesson!
Stepping out of judgment and into curiosity can help us to not take negative interactions too personally, it can help us to understand how and why someone else might perceive and experience differently than we do, it can also help us to better understand ourselves. So how exactly do we practice this skill?
Start from the beginning
Practicing this skill starts with noticing. Notice your own reactions, notice other people's reactions. Notice when an interaction moves from being constructive to being nonproductive, or even counterproductive. Notice those moments when you get stuck, and find yourself taking a shortcut into judgment. Curiosity is all about asking the right questions, curiosity helps us to gather more information, or "add to the pool of wisdom" as one person I work with likes to say. The first question to start with is: what am I noticing. Look inward, what do you feel in your body. Is your stomach tight or knotted, are your neck and shoulders tense? Are you holding your breath? Is your temperature changing? What do you notice about your body in that moment? This is important information, this can help you identify and label what you're feeling, even if you don't know the why at that moment. Now notice your thoughts or self-talk, the ongoing narrative that we carry into every experience and interaction. What story are you telling yourself? What experiences have you had that might be shaping this perception? Are you responding to something that's happening in the moment, or something that's happened in the past?
What boundaries might be relevant and have these been crossed in some way. If a boundary has been crossed, is this about capacity or willingness and could that change with additional information or resources? These questions might help you to better understand what factors are coming into play in your own emotional and cognitive response. These questions also help to buy us some time, to be able to respond in an intentional and thoughtful manner, rather than with a knee-jerk reaction. It's totally ok to even ask for a break to give this more thought.
Solving the problem
Once you are clear about what you are thinking and feeling, and what you're actually responding to, now put your attention to the problem. This might be another person, or a situation, or an environmental cue, really the possibilities are endless. If the conflict is with ourselves, then a closer look at boundaries, values, and goals might help to clarify the best way to proceed. If the conflict is with another person it might be useful to ask: what information does this person have access to? What past experiences might important context to understand? Is there a difference in how this person is perceiving this situation and how I'm perceiving it? Is there important information that might be missing? Adding the lens of compassion to this questioning might help us to work towards resolution in a more collaborative and willing manner.
I hope that this dialectic process will help readers to feel more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, however be warned that this mental work is in fact WORK! This is work that takes time, space, and energy, and these are finite resources. With that in mind remember that this work is much more difficult, if not impossible, when these resources are depleted. This is why self-care and self-compassion are so important, we can't share what we don't have. So, how do you fill your metaphorical gas tank? Who or what feeds your soul? If you get curious about this, and notice, you might find that you have much more to give to yourself and the people that you care the most for.