When someone’s flaws seem to overwhelm every interaction we have with them, we’ve likely stopped seeing them as a person. We instead are looking at a flattened, disproportionate version of the individual that lies beneath.
Last year, I posed for a caricature drawing at a state fair. When the artist turned the picture around, I was met with a squirrel-like face with giant cheeks and two huge front teeth. The artist had included a few other subtle yet recognizable characteristics, but the teeth and the cheeks commanded the drawing. I had to hand it to the artist—he had exaggerated the two features of myself that I tend to dislike the most.
When caricature artists draw, they purposefully exaggerate some characteristics and oversimplify or minimize others. In a matter of minutes, they can produce a drawing that objectively looks nothing like the person yet captures their image perfectly. When we act inwardly toward others, we play the role of caricature artists ourselves. Rather than seeing a complex individual with a unique and interesting story, we see an oversimplified—and likely unflattering—two-dimensional version of that person. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take very long either.
Just as the artist who drew my portrait emphasized two of my features, when we need to justify our own inward behavior, we tend to exaggerate others’ faults. Quirks are more prominent, differences are bigger—bigger, in fact, than we may have even noticed before. And when we start to focus on these exaggerated faults, it becomes clearer and clearer to us how we are in the right.
We all likely have mentally drawn caricatures of people at work or at home. That irritating coworker who always seems to shut down your ideas at a team meeting; a direct report who consistently gives excuses for missed deadlines; the child who refuses to listen. The more we see someone as incapable, unintelligent, rude, discriminatory, selfish, careless, and so on, the easier it is to look past our own failings. We are no longer able to see ways that we may be mistaken because the other person’s faults appear so obvious.
“But what if they really are doing something wrong?”
When a caricature artist draws, they are technically drawing what is in front of them. The artist who drew my picture was not making up the fact that I indeed have teeth, eyes, and a nose. All he did was draw those existing features with an altered perspective. The same goes for us. At some point, we all will likely work with difficult coworkers, manage someone who is underperforming, or have a child who rebels. These are facts, aren’t they? We don’t just make people’s behavior up.
So, what can we do? Seeing someone outwardly does not mean that we are excusing their behaviors, and it doesn’t mean that the behaviors do not exist. But these behaviors will never take away our ability to choose our way of being—whether or not we are truly seeing someone as a person.
At Arbinger, we talk a lot about the circular pattern of collusion. When we are experiencing conflict with someone else, our behaviors are likely fueling the very problem we are attempting to solve. We become trapped trying to correct, change, and convince another person to change, because their flaws are all that we are able to see and end up provoking the very behaviors we want to stop. Fortunately, there is a way out, and it’s our own responsibility.
Although differences may be all that we can see, refocusing our way of being toward another person will shift our perspective. When we get curious about other people and begin to see them as the complex, 3-dimensional characters that they are, faults that were once so glaring begin to shrink. They may still exist, to be sure, but eventually they will no longer command our focus. Seeing another’s struggles, learning about them, and building a relationship takes time. It can be difficult. It can be painful. It’s not as easy as sticking with their caricature and wallowing in how wronged we’ve been.
But in the end, we end up drawing a better picture. A (more balanced) picture with details and mistakes and complexities. A picture that makes other people step back and go, “I want to do something like that too.”