How to Understand Others
As social beings, there is a skill that has been crucial throughout millennia. It's a skill that we easily develop on a small scale, but it's harder to develop more broadly. As our world has become more and more interconnected economically, politically, and socially, we need to take a step back and think about what that means. Many have given in to the temptation to resist this growing interconnectedness. But instead, we could be learning how to embrace it. Regardless of your views, I think we owe it to ourselves to attempt developing this crucial skill more fully.
That skill? Understanding others.
In this post, I want to cover some steps that I think will help people develop this skill. I want to encourage all of you to read through these steps and to commit to the challenge of trying to develop this skill. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. But we can learn from the experience and become better informed.
So with that, we must begin first by understanding ourselves, outside and in.
The External Context
To understand ourselves, we need to understand our own contexts. Everything we do and everything we are exists within various contexts. To start, it's easiest to look at the ones outside and around us.
Many of us like to think that we make our own decisions completely independent of everything else. But the reality is quite different. Our decisions can be heavily influenced by our situation.
There is plenty of research to back this up. While the results of some are in question (e.g., the Stanford prison experiment), it cannot be denied that this is true. Just look at behavioral economics, a growing field that looks at how psychology influences our economic decisions. That field is finding that we don't always choose the most economically beneficial options in our day-to-day lives. In fact, we're rarely as rational as we like to think.
Now, that's not to say we have no say in our decisions and behaviors. Of course we do! The point I'm making is that there are a lot of outside forces that influence us.
Challenge 1: Understand your own external context
Which leads us to the first challenge on this journey. First, you must look at your own situation to understand how it influences you. There's no way you'll fully understand how everything affects you; there are too many things and the effects are often too subtle to notice. But you want to try to find as many examples as you can.
Spend one week observing what things affect you. How does your job influence who you're friends with and your way of viewing the world? How does the area you live in influence your political views? How do the foods available to you at the store influence your diet, your activities, your way of structuring meals? These are just some examples, and there are countless others you can identify. Do your best to come up with as many as you can.
The Internal Context
Once you have an understanding of how outside factors influence your thoughts and actions, it's time to start looking inward. As I mentioned before, we are not passive beings in our contexts; we interact with and influence our surroundings. And more importantly, we have things inside of us that influence our decisions.
Just as you looked at your external context, you need to begin looking inside. We all carry a history that is unique to us. We all have different personalities and temperaments that predispose us towards (and away from) various things. We all have different collections of known facts, beliefs, and prejudices.
But while some of these things are obvious (e.g., our preferences for foods), some are not. For example, all people have prejudices of some kind. It's inescapable. And while we may do a good job of not acting on those prejudices, that doesn't mean they don't exist. That also doesn't mean that they don't influence us, either. Even our expression of fair/equal thoughts and beliefs may be in response to our inner discomfort that arises from our prejudices.
Challenge 2: Understand your own internal context
Once you have an understanding of this idea, the time comes for introspection. Understanding the external context of others is relatively easy. What is far more difficult is understanding the internal context. And before we can understand the internal context of others, we must understand our own internal context.
So take two weeks and keep a log of your internal contexts. Do you have expertise in some areas that influences how you think about the world? Do your political and religious views affect how you interact with others? Do you have preferences and beliefs that guide your decisions about what to eat, what hobbies are acceptable, and so on?
This is a much harder task than the first challenge, which is why I recommend giving it twice as much time. Not only are many of these things subtle, but they can be difficult to admit. But this exercise is meant for you. Nobody needs to know what things you discover about yourself.
The Context of Others
Finally, we arrive at the last (and most crucial) step. Understanding others requires you to imagine yourself removed from your own contexts, both external and internal, and to place yourself in the context of others. It sounds simple on paper, but it's incredibly difficult in practice. That's why we needed to focus on understanding yourself first. Only by doing that can you have a chance at mentally separating yourself from everything and begin to imagine being in someone else's contexts.
After three weeks of looking at your own contexts, it's unfair to expect yourself to be an expert at doing this. In fact, this is something that can always be improved upon, and there are no real "experts" when it comes to this skill. Even those of us in psychology, who study and help others in various situations, and devote ourselves to understanding others (and ourselves) inside and out, are constantly growing and developing in this area.
But the best way to learn is through experience. After three weeks of examining yourself, you should be able to at least start the process of understanding others.
This last part is not something I want to suggest doing in a certain amount of time. Instead, this is something you should strive to continue improving throughout the rest of your life.
To start, you should follow the same process that you did when examining your own contexts.
Examine another person's external context
To start out, try to learn about the external context of another person. It'll be easier to start with someone who is similar to yourself so you have fewer new contexts to learn about. But from there, the goal should be to keep expanding outwards to understanding more and more contexts.
Try to think about culture, including expected behaviors, diet, rituals, and so forth. Consider the area the other person lives in, their job, their family structure. Get a decent understanding of their external context, so you can understand their thoughts and actions within that context.
Examine another person's internal context
Now we get to the most difficult, yet most crucial, step. To understand another person's context, you need to separate yourself from your own. Try to take a step back from your own history, beliefs, rituals, and so forth. And instead, try to imagine how you would think/act if you had grown up with the same experiences as the other person.
This may seem odd, as you are focusing on some of their external context. But to an extent, that's the point. While we all have our own internal differences, many of those are due to experiences rather than us being truly different in some significant way.
Because of that, you can get a pretty close understanding of another person by imagining yourself with their history. Once you're able to do that, along with imagining what it would be like in their external contexts, you'll have a good understanding of that person.
Of course, there is a limit to how much you can really understand them, so be careful not to assume you have someone "figured out." That's not really what this skill is about.
Instead, it's to help us understand different viewpoints, different concerns, different worldviews. It's to help us have more respect for one another, to feel a stronger bond with one another, and to realize just how much similarity we all share. Many of our differences are superficial, which makes them easy to identify and to discriminate against.
If you find yourself doing this and thinking that you would think/behave in a completely different way from the other person (e.g., "if I had gone through that I'd just be tough and deal with it"), try to realize that you're bringing some of your own context into the experience. Why would you be able to do that? Most likely not because of some personality trait you have. Instead, it's because you've learned how to react that way, you've been given the opportunities. Try to go further and separate yourself from that. Image if you hadn't been able to learn that way of responding. Then would your thoughts/actions be more like the other person?
Deep down, if we all went through the same experiences in our life, we'd probably end up very similar. To understand that means to understand who a person really is. That is, we can understand that they are a person with a lot of different internal/external contexts. We may not know what all of those are, or fully understand them, but we don't need to know all of it to appreciate the complexity of people.
We are all complex, we all have our own stories, and in these ways we are all similar.
I know this post is a little different from a lot of the others I've written. But given everything that has been going on, it's something I've had on my mind and have wanted to share.
My hope is that by taking the challenge and going through these steps, more people will open themselves up to a life of always working towards better understanding of others. We have a lot to gain by learning about/from each other, and a lot to lose by dividing ourselves.
So let me know your thoughts and experiences with this challenge. Like I said at the beginning, this isn't going to be perfect, but it's a start. This is something worth having a discussion around, and I'd love to hear input on how this could be structured in an even more effective way.
If you have thoughts on this topic, share them in the comments. This is a bit of a controversial topic, but I'll keep the comments moderated to ensure they're respectful. All viewpoints are welcome, and we will best learn from one another if people with different viewpoints share their thoughts/opinions below.