Have you ever stared in disbelief at someone’s completely incomprehensible actions? Been bewildered by another’s disproportionate reaction to events? Or felt like your head was going to explode because a colleague kept making the same mistake over and over again? Every now and then we all experience the frustration of behaviour that seems utterly irrational or bizarre, whether it’s misplaced anger, resistance to ideas or change, sabotage, or some other form. If this sounds familiar, keep reading — this post is for you. I’ll consider it a public service if I can prevent at least one more exploding head and, I hope, generate a little more empathy and understanding.
The solution is in these four words: All behaviour makes sense.
Repeating this short phrase to myself like a mantra has helped me through many a difficult encounter. It reminds me that no matter now challenging another person’s demeanour, words or deeds, there is some underlying cause that I simply don’t yet know — and it often has nothing to do with me. This simple statement of fact always piques my curiosity, opening my mind (and heart) to whatever might be going on for him or her beneath the surface.
This is important because as long as my curiosity is actively engaged I stay out of judgment. Otherwise it’s far too easy for me to label the other person, objectifying them as a “jerk,” “lazy-ass,” or “crybaby,” and seeing them as the problem instead of attacking their behaviour which is invariably the real issue. I also sometimes make it about myself, when in many cases — if not most — the behaviour really has little to do with me, at least not directly. Or I make (incorrect) assumptions about what’s causing the other person to act out. My false attributions might be based on how I would act (or react) in a similar situation, but of course we all have different perspectives, cultures, family histories, and other baggage that shape our responses. Any such assumptions are bound to increase the mutual misunderstanding and frustration in an already fraught encounter. Curiosity is a powerful antidote.
Even if it doesn’t make sense to me immediately, any questionable behaviour still has its own logic. Considering all possibilities keeps me from rushing to an unhelpful conclusion. The only thing I need to do to avoid getting sucked into an emotional vortex is to stay curious about that driving force. It sounds hard, especially when feeling triggered by the behaviour, but even the most outrageously incomprehensible behaviour is essentially the outward manifestation of an inner need: We satisfy thirst by drinking. When tired, we sleep. Picking up the phone to order a pizza is just one of myriad behaviours that can address a hunger, and so on. The same is true for whatever is bothering you about the other person’s behaviour: there’s a motivation, it’s just hidden from you. “All behaviour makes sense” is an effective reminder that he or she is just trying to tell you they need something, albeit in an awkward and uncomfortable way. The trick is to figure out what the unmet need is or, where necessary, help them do it.
At the basic biological/physiolgical level the causal connection can be relatively plain to see. (That said, it took me years to finally join the dots linking my cranky mood swings with low blood sugar. Who knew “hangry” was an actual thing?) Where the need-behaviour connection becomes more opaque is in the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy: abstractions such as self-esteem, belonging, or self-actualization are more difficult to surmise from a person’s outward behaviour, even to the well-trained eye. We can appreciate another’s anger and defensiveness when their physical safety or security is threatened, but it’s tougher to comprehend when it’s their identity, self-concept or some other invisible, interior thing that’s at risk. All it may take is the slightest suggestion that he or she may be wrong, for example, and the self-preservation instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Even though it’s just a cognitive threat, the primal brain still delivers a burst of adrenaline and the injured party can react as if life itself were on the line. When that happens we can only be certain of the visible, external signals: we can generally interpret the tense facial expressions, harsh language, sour tone, and other cues. What we can’t know for sure is the underlying cause.
Diagnosing the root problem is a challenge because the presenting symptoms can have a number of possible motivations. The aggressive bully might crave a winning feeling, or he might be seeking respect; the chronic latecomer may be exerting a semblance of control otherwise lacking in his harried life, or he may secretly like the attention that follows his habitual tardiness; the apparently shy introvert who seldom contributes to meetings may be retreating into safety and security amid the noise and chaos of brainstorming sessions, or may simply want time to collect and process more data. Depending on the people and situational specifics, the unmet needs could be more process-oriented (ex. the need to ensure equal input in a creative decision) or people-oriented (ex. the need to be right, to save face, to preserve a relationship, etc.).
Caution is key because asking direct questions to surface the unmet need(s) risks unintentional provocation and can result in defensiveness; gentle, appropriate questioning is both an art and a learned skill. Further complicating matters, the person exhibiting the difficult behaviour may not be consciously in touch with their own underlying needs. They’re frequently unaware of the problem behaviour in the first place. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that in typical creative collaborations, team or organisational situations the list of most commonly frustrated needs is relatively short. It includes the need for validation or recognition; the desire to be heard and understood; the hunger for acceptance and belonging; and variations on these themes. With the right sensitivity and training you can learn to better identify the underlying needs and therefore satisfy them, reducing or eliminating the unwelcome behaviour. Getting to the precise root of the issue is easier, of course, if you have a trusting relationship and an environment that encourages open, honest dialogue.
Absent those, genuinely seeking to make sense of another’s behaviour nonetheless forces us to shift into a different, more productive problem-solving mode. Rather than trying to change the person (which is never successful anyway) we can refocus on influencing the behaviour. The alternative is being triggered by the behaviour and getting dragged into a downward spiral. So when you’re struggling to understand someone’s words, actions or inactions, remind yourself that all behaviour makes sense (yes, even Twitter and Facebook trolling). Remaining curious makes room for empathy and reduces the likelihood of conflict, blame, or other counter-productive, enervating attitudes — including Exploding Head Syndrome.