I am slated to teach an 8-hour class at a local university this coming May. It’s required for their adult outreach college’s Communications Certificate, and it’s all about teaching people how to reframe each and every situation they’re in, whether something is happening external to them, being involved in a conversation, finding themselves confronted with something at work that has them seeing red or an occurrence within their own minds…e.g. their thoughts.
It’s not because I’m the Thought Police or even want to be. It’s because I have learned over a career that’s spanning more and more years with each day that passes, that you cannot control what other people think, say or do…that you can (and should) only control what you say, think or do. The Art of Reframing takes you from the former to the latter. In this particular case I’m teaching it within the context of a work environment, but reframing in its purest form applies to every facet of our existence
That this is something the majority of people don’t really understand, or are even aware of, was driven home to me in this past week within a fifty-plus year old British television show fandom that I’ve been part of for more than a decade now. A quasi-official website blog claimed a certain character was obviously a certain way because of what viewers saw within the aired episodes.
Unfortunately, the post completely ignored the facts that are known about this character (and one of his brothers), and even ignored something significant from one of the episodes that proved the blogger’s characterization of this guy was specious. Yet I’m not here to talk to you about fictional television characters, nor to call anyone out for a mistake that will unfortunately perpetuate an inaccurate characterization within that particular fandom.
Because what this incident clarified for me was this: the blogger did in the realm of fiction what each and every one of us does day in and day out. And what was it that he did? Judged a person’s character based on incomplete information or misinterpretation. In other words, he made an assumption and he swears he’s right…but factually speaking, he’s absolutely not.
We all do it. When you see a man begging for money at an intersection, what is your first, second or third thought about that individual? That he’s homeless? A drug addict? An alcoholic? Lazy? A loser? A moocher? Many folks make a whole bunch of assumptions about that person which may be right, partially right or completely wrong. From those assumptions they are judging. Judging why they think that man is standing there with his hand-written cardboard sign. Judging his character. Judging what he will or won’t do with their spare change.
Fact: Unless you happen to have known that person intimately from both inside of his head and out for his entire life, you don’t know what really led to his being on that corner begging. You may assume he’s homeless. Maybe he’s not. Maybe he just cannot afford the health care costs for his wife’s terminal illness. Kind of makes you look at him a different way, doesn’t it?
What about the woman trying to get her grocery shopping done toting four kids along, all under the age of 8? One kid’s screaming. One kid’s wearing only a diaper. One kid’s got a runny nose. One kid is asking for everything on every shelf they pass. They’re noisy. They’re annoying. They get in your way. What are you judging here? Are you assuming the mother doesn’t discipline her children? That they’re low class? That the kids are neglected? I have heard people make racial or religious judgments against women and children in this exact scenario before.
Find your compassion gene. Reframe the annoyance, anger or frustration you feel if you get in the same aisle as this woman. Maybe her husband’s dying of leukemia and the medical bills are piled so high she’s relying on state assistance to make ends meet versus one year ago she and her family were doing very well when her husband was still capable of working his high-paying job. Maybe the woman is the grandma, the kids’ mother has disappeared and she’s trying desperately to get them necessities from the store because they’ve been suddenly dumped on her and she wasn’t prepared.
Reframe your thoughts about the man begging in the intersection in the same way. Rather than assuming the worst of every human being you encounter, assume that whatever you’re thinking is wrong. Because newsflash: As much as I dislike blanket statements, I can almost unequivocally guarantee you that what you’re thinking is the case for another person is not entirely accurate.
Early in my career I worked for a financial organization as a Business Analyst, Project Manager and Assistant Manager. A coworker – who worked there before I started – became a very close friend of mine. I worked side by side with him five days a week for 3-1/2 years and then suddenly he dropped dead of heart failure at only 32 years of age. In the aftermath of his passing, when other coworkers who’d known him even longer than I had reached out to his family to find out the funeral arrangements, they discovered to everyone’s disbelief that he’d been married for a decade and had a young daughter.
Not a single solitary one of us who worked with him, played with him, went out with him and had long conversations about families with him ever had a clue he was married, let alone that he was a father. To say we were shocked was an understatement. All of us would’ve told you that this man was a single, shy, quiet, lone wolf who had a heart as big as the USA, a mellow temperament and put family first always.
You see how wrong we were, after all those years of knowing him? We made judgments and character assessments based on what we knew. Yet he had concealed what we later discovered to be a huge and very important part of his life, from every single person he worked with. Even Human Resources didn’t know he was married with a child!
When a person cuts you off on the freeway, you do not know what’s going on in that person’s vehicle or head. I agree that when handling a potentially deadly weapon such as a car that a driver’s head should be completely in the moment and focused for best and safest results, but you are not the driving police and you don’t know that the guy in front of you didn’t just find out his pregnant wife’s been taken to the hospital and might lose the baby. You don’t know if he just gold told on the phone by his boss that he’s being laid off. Maybe his car’s having a mechanical problem he can’t afford to get fixed. Perhaps his son just spontaneously unbuckled himself and he was trying desperately to get the kid rebuckled for his safety. You don’t have any idea what’s going on. It’s your job to be a vigilant driver, not curse everyone else on the road.
Reframe every thought you have, not to lie to yourself, but to stop lying to yourself. You don’t know why this political figure says or does what he says or does, or why that coworker is always trying to squash everyone else’s advancement. You may think you know with complete certainty why your child is behaving badly and be frighteningly wrong. You might assume a whole bunch of things about other people based on your very limited-scope individual experience that could not be further from the truth.
Here’s another fact: Most of us don’t really understand why we do or say the things we do or say. So how could we possibly always know everyone else’s motivations?
We’re all different, each one from another, as different as the multitude of stars in the Universe. Dwarf stars might share characteristics, but they’re no more exactly alike than any snowflakes are. We all are here in our lives with different beginnings, middles and ends. Our experiences, beliefs, cultures, religions, families, educations and racial histories shape and define our individual perceptions and existences. If I see a little girl crying, and I had been a several abused child, I might automatically think the girl’s being abused. The truth might be that she dropped her lollipop on the sidewalk and is losing her marbles about it like little kids do. You see how wide a gap there is between those two possibilities…and the truth about why she’s crying is probably something I wouldn’t even fathom.
When I rewrite a thought – which is all reframing means – into something more compassionate, I rewire my brain the same way you rewire it when you undertake any new habit. If we all looked at one another every minute of every day and understood that none of us knows the personal, private inner workings of anyone else, then on the whole we’d be much more compassionate creatures, not just to starving children, abused animals and bullied kids…but to every man, woman and child – and any living creature – that crosses our paths every moment of every day of our lives.
We believe what we tell ourselves. That’s why people get so heated about having their opinions and viewpoints challenged…they firmly believe what they firmly believe, and since they believe they are right, then the other person by default must be wrong.
It may take some time to negate your judgments with reframing. Heck, I’m not perfect at it and I teach others how to do it! But you can accomplish this feat one thought, word or deed at a time. Like anything else, start with baby steps. Repeat the habit over and over and over and soon you will do it automatically. Compassion, when you Google it, is defined as ”
sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”
Treat every person you encounter the way you would want them to treat you if you encountered a suffering or misfortune. Judgments may hurt the people you’re judging if you use words or deeds to make them apparent, but more importantly your judgments hurt you. Reframing is exactly what it sounds like…replacing a not-so-good frame with a better one. Only doing so in your mind.
You never can tell what your thoughts will do,“You Can Never Tell” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
In bringing you hate or love;
For thoughts are things, and their airy wings
Are swifter than carrier doves.
They follow the law of the universe –
Each thing must create its kind,
And they speed o’er the track to bring you back
Whatever went out from your mind.