When you have to work with someone or spend time with someone who makes you mad or irritates you, ponder this question: What could I like about this person? The question may seem repugnant at first, but it will help you counteract your brain’s natural negative bias.
Once you've decided you don't like someone, you automatically notice all the things about them you don't like, and you overlook things you do like about them. You're not doing this deliberately, of course, but it happens naturally and automatically.
If you think about something you like about the person, however, you don’t feel as much negative emotion when dealing with them, and you can deal with them more effectively.
I'm not talking about gritting your teeth and forcing yourself to be nice to someone. If you take a little time, you’ll find some things you genuinely like about the person. And when you genuinely like something about someone, you have a genuinely nicer feeling toward them. Ponder this question once in awhile. It will help you create and maintain that feeling.
One caveat here is: Some people are actually dangerous. One to four percent of the population are sociopaths who don’t care about you, who are incapable of normal human empathy, who will use and abuse you, and who cannot change. Do not try to find things you like about these people.
But chances are, the person who irritates you is not a sociopath and it would make a difference to ask yourself occasionally what you genuinely like about them.
Another good question along the same lines is: What does that person do (that I don’t like) that I have also done?
A third technique was expressed succinctly by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” he wrote, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
I just finished reading the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and I found a good example of what Longfellow was talking about.
Before Lincoln ran for president, he was a small-time attorney. One day he was invited to participate in an important trial. He was to be co-counsel for the prosecution with a distinguished attorney named George Harding. Harding wanted Lincoln because the judge deciding the case knew Lincoln and liked him.
After Harding hired Lincoln, the case was moved to another city (with a different judge) so Harding hired a different co-counsel, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln didn’t know about the change, so he kept working on the case. But Harding and Stanton ignored and shunned Lincoln, at one point referring to him as a long-armed ape.
Stanton did not want Lincoln involved in the case, and Stanton made this painfully clear. Stanton avoided him at mealtimes, letting Lincoln eat alone even though the two attorneys ate and stayed at the same hotel. Stanton never asked Lincoln to even show him the considerable amount of work Lincoln had already done for the case.
As I was reading this, I thought Stanton was clearly a rude, mean person. Stanton insulted and humiliated Lincoln.
A little later in the book, I learned more about Stanton, and he had enough sorrow and suffering in his life to disarm all my hostility.
Earlier in his life, Stanton had been married and was deeply in love. He was happier than he’d ever been. They had two children together. Then one tragedy after another tore his world apart. First their daughter died of scarlet fever. While he was still reeling from that heartbreak, Stanton’s wife died of bilious fever.
Stanton almost went insane with grief. Stanton’s sister came to live with him, and she said he often wandered through the house at night sobbing, and screaming, “Where is Mary!?”
A little while later, a fever damaged the brain of Stanton’s younger brother. He was “unhinged” and purposefully cut his own neck with a sharp instrument and bled to death, spraying blood all over the room, even up to the ceiling.
His brother’s gruesome suicide was the last straw. Before these tragedies, Stanton was a cheerful man, full of goodwill toward others. From that point on, and for the rest of his life, Stanton was glum and grumpy. And sometimes rude.
I imagined losing my child, my wife, and my younger brother. Suddenly, I didn’t resent Stanton for his rudeness to Lincoln. I felt sorry for him and sympathized with the unendurable anguish he must have suffered. I believe that’s what Longfellow was talking about.
There is only one problem with Longfellow’s very sensible outlook — we don’t very often find out the secret history of our enemies. Maybe the point is to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone treats you poorly, you can reasonably assume they have sorrow and suffering enough to disarm your hostility, and you’ll probably be right. And even if you’re not, you have saved yourself a little suffering. It is less painful to feel sympathy than to feel anger.
When you are stuck working with someone you don't like, try one or more of these:
1. Ask yourself, "What could I like about this person?"
2. Ask yourself, "What do they do (that I don't like) that I have also done?"
3. Assume the person has had sorrow and suffering in their personal history, and act accordingly.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.