July 22, 2007 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

In the early stages of relationships, when there has not yet been enough investments of time for deep roots to take hold, breakdowns can occur for many reasons. Certainly prejudices can stop the relationship from ever getting off the ground, and even rumor and innuendo can waylay progress. While it is likely that most of our relationships won’t endure the test of time, most are ended before deep roots have formed, so there is a limited sense of loss.

As time rolls on, though, these roots do form. For relationships that have grown over years or decades, in the workplace as in personal life, there is a richness of shared experience that can deepen the bonds. That stated, we need to be careful to always appreciate that even if we are in the same place at the same time, experiencing what seems to be the same thing, we are each experiencing it from our own perspectives, and these perspectives will never be identical. No relationship is ever immune to being broken without this appreciation.

Our perspectives are formed based on our entire lifetime of experiences and attitudes that are formed from those experiences. Perspectives are very complex beasts, to be sure. Two people can see the exact same event, from the same physical viewpoint, and walk away with two very different perspectives of what happened. The closer the people are to participating in the event, the more personalized these perspectives will be. If the event involves two people interacting with each other, the difference of perspectives will often make the same event appear as two entire different ones.

All the more so if we cannot appreciate the other person’s perspective. If we draw conclusions about what the other person was thinking or feeling or intending based solely on our own frame of reference, we can easily pass inappropriate judgment. No matter how deeply rooted a relationship is, this judgment can erode the strength of the relationship. Left unchecked as a flawed assumption, the relationship may never recover.

In the judicial system, we lean on experienced, unbiased, and objective judges to arbitrate cases that make it to court. They generally get to that position after some time as lawyers, being trained in what is right and wrong, based on written law. Working within a system of right and wrong, they will pass judgment only after hearing both sides of the argument and determine that there is clearly an appropriate conclusion. In most jurisdictions, we are innocent until proven guilty, and we don’t draw conclusions based on assumptions about motives or feelings or intent. We seek out reasonable evidence before we find someone guilty. I personally like living within this system.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t deal with our own relationships that way. We seldom have the complete picture of what has occurred (as would be drawn out in a court of law). We are often too close to the action, with a personal stake in the outcome, and will pass judgment based on our own very biased perspective rather waiting to objectively seek out all perspectives.

It is one thing to pass judgment on whether someone robbed a bank, another to determine whether the offence merits our being offended at all. Much of what is governed by law is expressed in black and white, while interpersonal issues are often much more hazy. There are shades of gray, we’re not good at recognizing this so that we can extract the important deeper information, and we make hasty decisions.

Quite often we will deal with relationships in a guilty until proven innocent approach, not trusting others until they ‘have earned it’. Other times, if there was an event that has offended us, we will break the relationship without ever uncovering the root of the behavior that caused the offense. Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing we have given the situation all we could to resolve it, while in reality we have only played it out in our own heads, from our own perspectives, so many times we are sick of it.

We throw our hands up in exasperation. “I give up trying to work with them”, or “they are not putting the same energy into this relationship”. More often not, you will here these same arguments from both sides, as neither side has really taken the time to understand all the perspectives. The mere fact that there is an ‘other side’ indicates that there is a bias that remains unresolved.

In most challenged relationships, there is contribution to dysfunction on both sides, and it is the failure to appreciate the other side, to walk a mile in their shoes, that is the root of the problem. We fail to appreciate that our behavior is offensive to others, or we don’t understand why the other person is behaving this way, perhaps assuming that they are doing so by conscious choice, while in reality they are likely unaware of the offensive behavior or even unable to control it.

For casual relationships, it is easy to walk away, to take our toys and go home. For deeper relationships, whether in the work environment or in personal relationships, the cost of arbitrarily or hastily passing judgment can be high, and there may be no getting over the accompanying sense of loss. Considering the investment and value of these relationships, it is worth considering whether it makes sense to pause before passing judgment. – JB


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