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Attribute to Others: A Spin on the Golden Rule

by ChuckMilk

I love the story (hopefully it’s made up) about the man using a stall in a public bathroom.  They guy in the next stall asks, “How are you doing?” and not wanting to offend the first man awkwardly responds, “Good…”  He was uncomfortable answering and hoped that was the end of it but soon was asked, “Where you headed?”  So he gave a stammering response. “I-I’m headed east, to Chicago.”  Then he heard, “Look, I’ll call you back.  Every time I ask you a question, some idiot near me keeps answering me!”

This is an extreme example but it reminds me how easy it is to justify and explain my own behavior while at the same time coming to the conclusion that other people are idiots.

There is a theory called the Fundamental Attribution Error which says that when we judge someone’s actions we blame their personality weaknesses for their behavior.  When explaining our own behavior we will use the situation to explain things rather than our own personality flaws.  So when other drivers make a mistake, they are selfish, rude idiots; but when I make a driving mistake I’m not a bad driver – it was the sun in my eyes, the pothole I was avoiding, or the poorly designed intersection.

For parents, when our kids make a mistake or disobey us, we tend to follow the Fundamental Attribution Error and punish them in order to correct their personality and degenerate state.  We label them, lazy, careless, reckless, rude, selfish, and a whole host of other negative traits.  We then feel a lot of fear because who wants to have raised a lazy, careless, reckless, rude, and selfish kid?

Yet, if we spill milk, don’t make our bed, stain our clothes, forget an assignment or are late, we don’t come to the same conclusions we would if our kids did the same thing.  We find valid reasons for our behavior.

What if we used the Golden Rule – do to others as you like them to do to you – when we respond to others who make mistakes?

I’m not suggesting we make excuses for poor behavior but what if we didn’t assume our kids had flawed personality but instead explored with them the circumstances and decisions that resulted in the error.  I’m one that doesn’t react to spilled milk well, but what if I spent less time focused on labeling her as careless and more time being helpful.  What if I responded, “Honey, you get so excited being together at the table and having fun with your sister that you forget your cup of milk is full.  I know you don’t want to spill it, how can I help you remember not to bump your milk?”

You noticed that I’m assuming that she doesn’t want to spill her milk, which is a huge departure from where I typically go.  Isn’t this the Golden Rule in action, responding in a way that you’d prefer?

When we teach de-escalation skills to our staff we focus on helping them visually move away from threatening finger pointing and instead transition to focusing on the problem.  Rather than standing in a threatening posture that communicates, “You are a screw-up” we try to stand shoulder to shoulder and use our hands to represent the problem.  For example, rather than saying, “You really messed things up,” we’d maybe use one hand to represent the decision the kid made and the other to show the result.  “You tried (hold out left hand) to get your roommate to listen to your point of view but when they didn’t listen you shouted and insulted (hold out right hand). What do you think you might try next time to get their attention without saying things you regret?”

The amazing thing is that this shoulder-to-shoulder focus on the actual event and the situation rather than personality flaws has the power to create change and hope.  We assume that personality won’t change but circumstances and our reaction to them can.

This principle of not assuming the worst about those you deal with can bring so much freedom to your relationships.  I hope you notice when you are using the Fundamental Attribution Error and instead take on another translation of the Golden Rule: Attribute to others as you’d like attributed to you.

Image credit: delish.com