On my best parenting days, when my son throws a tantrum or lashes out, for the most part, I react to his outburst with compassion. “I know you woke up early today and you’re feeling more cranky than usual,” I’ll hear myself say. Or “Are you feeling irritable because you didn’t have a big enough lunch? That’s OK—hunger can throw anyone off.”
But the funny thing is, I almost never afford this level of kindness to adults.
Take this recent interaction: A friend of mine that I used to see quite regularly pre-pandemic had totally blown me off. If I reached out directly about making plans, her response was vague, never concrete. (Me: “Hey, I miss you! Want to get brunch Sunday?” Her: “I’ll get back to you, thanks!”) This happened a few times—we just couldn’t ever confirm plans—and that irked and bothered me. But if I took the approach that I do with my toddler, I’d have spent less time stewing about her flakiness (was she mad? had I done something wrong?) and more time being brave and bold (maybe her commitment issues weren’t about me).
This idea is called ‘emotional generosity,’ something Dave Bailey, a career coach known for his work with CEOs, described in a recent piece for Medium. It’s the art of not taking things personally, he says. His suggestion: The next time we encounter emotions or a behavior that we don’t like or understand, we should make every effort to see past it and proactively find a compassionate way to make sense of it instead.
For example, the boss that micro-manages occasionally. Instead of lamenting their need to control, consider other—more empathetic—reasons for their response. Pressure from the higher ups? A deep-rooted passion for this particular project? That could be it, so maybe next time you’ll cut her a bit of slack. Or how about your sister-in-law who, no matter what you do, is always offering unsolicited (read: passive aggressive) advice about your parenting skills? Her intentions are probably good—she truly wants to be helpful so you don’t repeat something she only came to learn by making mistakes.
Here’s why this approach is worth it: Keeping an open mind about a difficult behavior often hits a lot closer to the truth than you’d expect it to, Bailey explains. In other words, the emotionally charged responses (much like those toddler outbursts) we sometimes bear the brunt of in situations at work, with family, heck, with strangers, more often than not aren’t about you. Thinking that way can help spare you the emotional labor of drawing a zillion conclusions vs. letting it go.
Per Bailey, it’s as simple as asking: ‘Hmmm, what else might be going on here?’ You may not have the answers, but it might be enough just to afford someone you care about space to figure things out. Or, better yet, listen long enough to find a solution that allows you to meet them where they are. (It goes without saying that if someone is seriously affecting your mental health, that’s a different story.)
Back to my friend…a more generous interpretation could be that she’s less sure about in-person plans post-pandemic; or perhaps she’s just going through a hard time on the other side of a very traumatic year. Based on that assessment, it’s OK for me to just let her be for a minute. (Something I wish I had written back at the time: “Totally understand, it’s such a weird time as social plans come back online. Would love to see you soon!”)
Bottom line: You don’t have to make every challenging or head-scratching encounter about you. It’s actually an act of self-care to free your mind from absorbing the emotional baggage of something you don’t have enough intel to decode.