Imagine the following situation:

You’re on a narrow street waiting for the light to change behind a rusty car. The driver is focused on something in the back seat. When the light changes, she doesn’t notice. You tap your horn politely, but she ignores you.

Then, she gets out of her car, opens the back door, and starts digging around in the back seat! You lean on your horn until she FINALLY returns to her seat and drives away.

Now, let’s do a quick exercise. What are a couple of ways we could respond to this situation? (Note: All of the following are responses submitted by our seminar clients.)

  1. We might blame the driver, making unflattering assumptions about her. “She’s a complete space cadet.” “Millennials—they don’t care about other people.”  “She’s a junkie and dropped her needle.” Or the classic, “Women drivers.”
  2. We might blame ourselves. (This is by far the least common.) “I always get in the wrong lane!” “I always lose my temper!” “Why does this always happen to me?”
  3. We could get curious, and search for reasons. “Is she OK?” “Maybe something caught fire.” “Maybe she’s a diabetic and dropped her EpiPen.”

OK, you’ve probably figured out by now that this isn’t a hypothetical—it’s a true story. The woman in the old car had a baby in her back seat. He had something caught in his trachea and was choking. When mother got out of the card to save the child, the man in the car behind her took the first response—blaming her—and flooded. He started screaming and swearing at her, rolling down his window and shaking his fist. Understandably, the mother was upset at this, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper to talk about the experience.

But imagine how the story would have played out if the man had made a different choice. Instead of assuming she was incompetent, what if he’d assumed that there was a logical reason for her behavior? Imagine how differently this would have played out. Instead of harassing a woman trying to save the life of a child, he’s rushing to her side to help. He’d be the hero of the story.

Three Thinking Patterns

This anecdote underlines a critical idea to productivity, teamwork, and well-being. When we encounter a frustrating situation, we can default to one of three thinking patterns, represented by the three categories of reactions we brainstormed above:

  1. Blame another person.
  2. Blame ourselves.
  3. Search for reasons—and solutions.

Note that for our purposes, blame isn’t the same as holding someone accountable. When we’re talking about blame here, we’re talking about assuming incompetence and inflaming the situation like we did in the first two assumptions we made above.

Take a quick moment to think about times you’ve seen others tackle problems with each of these three approaches. How effective do you think each one was at solving the problem? What about at maintaining the relationships involved?

It probably won’t come as too much of a shock that we usually see the best results with the third thinking pattern. The first one can feel really good; self-righteousness wouldn’t be so prevalent if it didn’t weren’t so fun. But that kind of thinking doesn’t leave much of an avenue for improvement. If our assumption is that the cause of our frustration is that someone else is a complete screw-up, that doesn’t leave us much that we can do. (Not to mention, we’ll be able to mentally conjure up plenty of evidence to support that idea.)

In addition to increasing our effectiveness, there are health benefits to this third thinking pattern. When we inflame and blame, our bodies flood with adrenaline—even if it’s subtle, it’s still there. Over time, this can harden our arteries, which contributes to a host of medical complications such as heart disease.

Reflexive vs. Reflective

Note that each of these three reactions is based on an assumption. And while these assumptions happen subtly and quietly in our minds, we have control over them. When we encounter that frustration, we can either react reflexively(blame others, blame self), or reflectively (search for solutions). We often default to first-assumption thinking. It’s quick, it’s easy, and the hit of adrenaline it brings is addictive. But because of neuroplasticity, we can actually make a habit of any one of these. And given how many frustrations we encounter in a day, we have plenty of opportunities to practice!

So the next time you feel yourself slipping into first- or second-assumption thinking, remember the baby in the back seat. Take a moment to cool your head, and try a different assumption. Even in the rare case where you’re wrong, and your situation really does stem from an intractable flaw in another person, you can rest easy knowing you gave them and your heart the benefit of the doubt.

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