Flying on a low cost European flight carrier, which shall be left unnamed, I overheard a peculiar interaction between a flight attendant and a passenger in German. This passenger boarded the plane as one of the last people. When wanting to store his rather shabby and small carry-on in one of the overhead bins, he found they were all quite full. A young male flight attendant who was standing in a row and watching the passenger, gave the sloppy dressed attire of the passenger a once over. Instead of assisting him, he merely commented, “If there is no room overhead, your bag needs to be put under the seat.”
The gentleman, being older and somewhat overweight, struggled to bend down to push his carry on under the seat in front of him. His head turned red and he started to breathe heavily. The flight attendant sighed and reluctantly offered, “Or shall I see if there is still room in the back?” The man nodded. “You need to move over then to let me out,” responded the flight attendant
At that point, I noticed the woman next to me raise her eyebrow. I figured she was thinking the same thing I was, “What a rude tone for somebody in the service industry.” The gentleman moved a few steps to the side to let the flight attendant step out of the row. The reaction from the member of the crew was by no means a “thank you. Instead he said, “Not that way. I still can’t get through. I have to get to the back of the plane.”
Now this gentleman was extremely patient and stoic. He did not take offence to the tone or the words which were both clearly out of line, even considering that Germans can often be utterly unfriendly. It is not hard to imagine how with a different passenger this same conversation could have escalated into an unpleasant altercation. This flight attendant could have helped the passenger with a friendlier and more polite tone, but he obviously perceived the gentleman as a nuisance. He saw him as an irritating obstacle rather than another human.
So what exactly causes the start or the escalation of a conflict? It is not so much the actions we take that invite war, but the way we are while taking them. Is the other person an annoyance to us or can we relate to them with compassion and kindness? The same action can be performed from a heart at peace or a heart at war. Interacting with others with a heart at war is likely to provoke a defensive reaction or create or prolong a conflict.
There are two ways of seeing others: as objects, which leads to a heart at war or as persons, which leads to a heart at peace.
When we see others as persons it is because we recognize that their flaws and qualities are also ours. Everything which is in the world is also inside of us. The flight attendant at present might be young, slim, fit, healthy, financially well-off and very competent in regards to traveling but one day he might be in the place of this gentleman and require help. When we see others as persons, we also see that their desires, hopes, doubts and concerns are just like ours. Their cares and concerns matter to us. We have enough awareness to understand that what we judge in them are our own shadows. I can only speculate what prompted the crew member to act this way. Was he judgmental of the unkempt appearance, the weight, the lateness of the passenger, his clumsiness or the fact that this gentleman sat in one of the low fare seats on the plane (as opposed to getting food and other preferred customer treatment paying a somewhat higher fee)?
We see people as objects when we “de-personalize” them, for example when we reduce them to a category (a Poor Person), to a role (a Passenger), or to a quality (Difficult or Incapable). There are three ways of seeing a person as object: as an obstacle (“This passenger is making my job more difficult”), as a vehicle (“This Client will sign the contract and make me rich”), or as an irrelevancy (“I never bother talking to people who are dressed this way”). We are in a “them versus us” or “me versus him/her” dynamic.
What determines which way we see someone? We can simply choose to see someone as a person rather than as an object. We can choose to focus on what we have in common instead of separating ourselves through judgment.
When we are following a way of being that is counter to our own sense of humanity, we usually justify our self-betrayal. The other person who we don’t treat with kindness and compassion becomes an object of blame, and we begin to see everything about him in a “crooked way”. This is the seed of war; our need for justification distorts our perception of reality.
The perceptual box the flight attendant most likely was stuck in can be described as the “better than box”. From that box we feel we are superior. We see the other person as inferior, irrelevant, incapable or wrong. We treat them with disdain, indifference or impatience. We choose to feel superior or “right” over being at peace.
According to the Arbinger Institute, there are three other perceptual boxes we get stuck in when we interact with others from a heart at war. Sometimes we choose to feel like the victim, mistreated or unappreciated. That puts us into box two, the “I deserve” box.
Or we might have a tendency to need to be seen in a positive way (for example helpful, competent or a “good” parent/child/friend/boss and so on). From that need to be seen a certain way, we might end up sacrificing our own needs and interacting with others from an unauthentic place. That place breeds resentment underneath the surface of being such a “good” person.
A fourth box is the one which makes us feel less or worse than others. When we feel broken or deficient, we perceive others as advantaged or privileged. That results in us getting stuck in feelings of helplessness, bitterness, jealousy or depression. The entire world seems to be against us; life appears to be hard and difficult for us.
We all have a tendency to slip into one or two of these boxes in different situations. We are not in a box all the time. In some relationships we might be in a box, while at the same time we are out of the box in other relationships.
To get out of the box and to stay out of it, we first need to recognize the signs of blame, justification, horribilization, and those four common box styles. Am I blaming others for a conflict we have, am I justifying my own actions, have I made the other people worse than they really are? Do I have a need to be right and make the other party wrong as a consequence of feeling superior, inferior, victimized or needing to be seen a certain way?
“The more sure I am that I’m right, the more likely I will actually be mistaken. My need to be right makes it more likely that I will be wrong! Likewise, the more sure I am that I am mistreated, the more likely I am to miss ways that I am mistreating others myself. My need for justification obscures the truth.”
— The Arbinger Institute
We also need to find an out of the box place, for example a memory with that person or group I am judging or have horribilized, that helps me to see the relationship or situation differently. If I have horribilized my sibling/my boss/my step-mother and so on, do I have a positive memory of him or her? If I have horribilized a group of people (“all men”, “all Muslims”) do I have a different experience with one of them that helps me get out of that perspective?
When I have found that out of the box place I need to re-examine the situation anew, asking myself
- What are this person’s or this group’s challenges, emotional wounds or burdens?
- How am I, or some group of which I am a part, adding to these challenges, wounds or burdens?
- In what other ways have I or my group neglected or mistreated this person or group or made them feel unappreciated and unwanted?
- In what ways are my Better-Than, I-Deserve, Worse-Than, and Must-Be-Seen-As boxes clouding my perception of others and myself and interfering with potential solutions?
- What do I feel I should do for this person or group? Is there an action I could perform to shift the relationship?
In the workshop “Them Versus Us” we will examine where in our lives we are stuck in a them-versus-us dynamic and how to shift out of the boxes we might be in.
Join us for “Them Versus Us” on September 11, 2016 or on September 10, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Angelika Baum, 905-286-9466, firstname.lastname@example.org
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