[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Do you get that guilt and blame don’t help your life but you can’t stop yourself from blaming others sometimes and feeling guilty other times?
Do you wish you could get over feeling guilty for things you can’t change? Do you want to stop getting into arguments and losing friendships over blaming them?
Today’s model almost completely removed my habit of blaming others and of blaming myself, which led to guilt. I wrote about this topic at length about two years ago.
A model for overcoming guilt and blame: Everyone does the best they can at the time, given their perspective of their environment and capabilities.
It’s a mouthful, but once you get it, it’s simple to remember. It came to me when I realized that everyone says they do their best, even though they might call others lazy or something else they wouldn’t accept being called themselves. Call someone out on a shortcoming of theirs and they’ll often respond by explaining that they did the best they could but extenuating circumstances prevented it. If you understood them, you realize anyone would do the same.
If everyone says they do the best they can, it occurred to me to extend that consideration to everyone.
Everyone does the best they can at the time, given his or her perspective of his or her environment and his or her capabilities.
Once I extended that consideration, I noticed that everyone seemed to do the best they could from their perspective. Your perspective may differ, but they choose based on their perspective, not yours; just like you choose from your perspective, not theirs.
So I think everyone does like me — they perceive their environment, subject to their beliefs, and do what they think will most improve their lives at the time.
To understand someone’s behavior, you have to see things from their perspective, including believing what they do, not what you do, and imagine having their capabilities, not yours.
Before you call someone lazy or judge them negatively, try to imagine their perspective, beliefs, and abilities. That is, respond with curiosity. When you do, I predict you’ll find yourself understanding their choices. You may not like their beliefs and choices, but you’ll understand them.
Note that understanding doesn’t mean agreeing or supporting. If you want to influence someone, you’ll be more capable working with their beliefs, perceptions, and motivations. Since you often want to influence people you don’t like, doing so may feel distasteful, but otherwise you lose your ability to influence them.
Yesterday I alluded to how today’s belief leads to strategies. I don’t mean formal strategies like in chess, politics, or the military. I mean that when people do what they consider best, they end up creating a plan of action.
If you believe your boss wants to sabotage your career, you may act defensively. Or maybe offensively. In any case, you’ll always behave in a way to create the outcome you want based on that belief. You’ll never behave contrary to that belief.
Today’s belief’s strategy: Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can
This strategy is one of my most important strategies for interacting with people. I can’t tell you how helpful it is:
Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can.
It naturally follows from today’s belief, so if you adopt and internalize the belief, you’ll naturally follow the strategy. It incorporates many effective practices, particularly that you can’t change the past and that taking responsibility is on of the best ways to get things done. It also recognizes you can’t do everything, just what you can.
Using this strategy will get a lot more done than blaming others (or yourself) and avoid a lot of arguments. Arguments over blame tend to be unwinnable since the other person usually feels justified in their motivation. Worse than unwinnable, they’ll usually motivate the other person to feel more strongly justified — the opposite of your goal.
When you don’t blame but just take responsibility, people who you could have blamed will often apologize for anything that might have slowed people down, even without your asking.
Just think about it. Whom would you rather follow — somebody looking forward and trying to get things done or somebody pointing fingers and trying to get people to admit they’re wrong?
You may be wondering, “What about when people really are wrong and deserve punishment?” In that case, I recommend treating that as a separate issue. Let the team know you’ll revisit it in another context, but for the time being get the job done. Before you start addressing the person you believe needs punishment, you usually have to figure out your goal in punishing them
- Do you want them to admit wrongdoing?
- Do you want to make them suffer for what they did?
- Do you want to deter others from doing something wrong in the future?
- Do you want to reform them?
Those are the main purposes of justice. When you figure out what you want to do, then you can plan your action to achieve your goal. That’s another topic. I write it here just to note you can separate blame from getting a job done and revisit it later in a different context without losing your goals in addressing what you think they deserve punishment for.
No more guilt and blame
Back to the idea of imagining having the same beliefs and abilities as someone. This belief suggests that if you were in their place, you’d do the same. Since you can never have exactly their beliefs and abilities, you can never verify this, but we can consider it plausible.
Then we ask ourselves
How can I blame someone for doing what I would have done in the same situation?
and we realize we can’t. Blaming someone for doing what you would have done in the same situation hardly makes sense.
The result is that we stop blaming others. Instead, when we don’t understand them we respond with curiosity to find out what about them we didn’t understand made them do something we wouldn’t. Usually the difference stems from different beliefs, though differences could also come from different abilities or environments.
At some point when you berate yourself for some choice or behavior you did, you realize that guilt more or less means blaming yourself in the past and the guilt disappears faster than the blame.
The result? Your life improves tremendously, you judge less, and people like you more, including yourself. Instead you feel curiosity (because you want to understand their motivations), empathy (when you do understand them), and compassion (when you realize what they’re missing out on).
When I use this belief
I use this belief when I find myself blaming someone or feeling guilty.
This belief is my starting point for leading or influencing others — to motivate them I have to first understand them. Believing they are different than me doesn’t help.
What this belief replaces
This belief replaces believing that some people are fundamentally better or worse than others. It may be that some people are lazier than others, but this belief suggests otherwise. It suggests we all have the same emotions and emotional systems underneath, creating empathy and compassion.
Where this belief leads
This belief leads to a world free of guilt and blame, full of curiosity, empathy, and compassion.
Where this belief leads
This belief leads to a life free of guilt and blame, full of curiosity, empathy, and compassion. And getting things done effectively, with less arguing and more people following you.
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