Managing Thoughts About Others

We will all be familiar with the experience of “falling out” with someone. We may have walked away from a challenging encounter muttering under our breath about the other person. Those of us old enough to remember “Wacky Races” will recall Mutley’s wheezing, bitter grumbling about his master/foil Dick Dastardly. Motley’s resentment, (see here)and constant canine wordless spluttering, is a thread that runs through the show – reflecting our own internal monologue when someone we are in conflict with comes to mind.

Try it now – think of someone you don’t like. What are the thoughts that come to mind? You may notice that once these thoughts get going, they are hard to stop. The question for those interested in improving the way in which they hold difficult conversations is – do these thoughts help?

In this article I’ll be suggesting that there things we can do to help ourselves, and others, in such situations.

Making Sense of the World: Experiential Shorthand

The human brain makes a great job of helping us to negotiate the world, constantly taking our unconscious observations and turning them into manageable messages that help us make sense of our experience. On a cold winter’s afternoon we stumble upon a candle lit coffee house, full of the aroma of fresh coffee and warm muffins and we think “cozy”. Our brain lets us off the process of listing all the pleasant features of the café – smiling staff, warm lamps, deep yielding cushions and just lets us know that it’s “nice”.

This will work too with people we fall out with. Someone mentions their name in a meeting and, unbidden, thoughts come to mind – “difficult”. “awkward”, “annoying” and maybe even more disparaging. The question is, do these thoughts help or hinder us in arranging an outcome that is good for all of us?

Confirmatory Bias

This is a subtle, insidious process that can have a substantial impact on the way we deal with our life experiences and other people. It comes from the notion that we make fairly quick evaluations and then look for evidence to confirm our assessment. We have an experience of discomfort with someone, a minor disagreement for example, and we say to ourselves “ah they are that sort of person”. When next our paths cross we may find ourselves looking for evidence that our earlier assessment is correct.

I’m not saying that we do this because we are “bad” – these unconscious processes are understandable and may be very helpful. If you should be so lucky to be swimming in the barmy waters off the coast of California and see a large dorsal fin heading towards you, your response will probably not to mentally evaluate the risk of shark attack in this area and how your dress or behaviour may attract a Great White. You are more then likely to think “Shark – let’s get out of here!” You may not even think, you may just react. That response to a sense of threat is crucial to survival. When we have to deal with certain people – family members, colleagues, staff, service users – our negative thoughts may not help us to find the best way of helping them to collaborate with us.

Arguably a more dangerous aspect of confirmatory bias arises from prejudicial stereotypes. Remember “hug a hoody”? I know that many of my neighbours children where large hooded tops – its just their thing! However when walking along the street and seeing a youth coming towards me, face obscured by yards of material, I simply can’t help feeling a tingle of fear. I have taken everything I have heard about young people so dressed and created fear in myself. I’m sure that we can think of groups in society that cause us to react in certain ways – how will we manage this bias when dealing with them?

Convenient Beliefs

So how do we deal with these experiences of being human? How can we manage these thoughts about people to help us connect with them?

One useful process is to develop a set of “convenient beliefs” to help us become more resourceful in difficult situations. Convenient beliefs are thoughts and beliefs about people that seek to bring some open-minded balance to a situation to help us have the best conversation. I don’t claim that “convenient beliefs” are true – just that they may be helpful in many cases. Let’s try one.

“Everyone is doing the best they can, with the resources they have at their disposal”

We may encounter some behaviour that seems very strange, or some performance that we may feel is incompetent – just not good enough – and we decide to raise it with the person involved. We can see that starting out this process by reflecting on the above belief rather than they are “mad” or “stupid” may help us to describe our observations and listen to the other person’s response. We could argue that the convenient belief can help us be more compassionate – whilst that may be so I prefer to think that it opens up possibilities for change. Let’s try another.

“The success of communication is defined by the receiver”

There’s little more frustrating than telling someone something repeatedly and them not seeming to “get it”. We may respond to this frustration by putting the responsibility on the other person’s shoulders. By adopting the above convenient belief we may be encouraged to look a little more carefully on how we have communicated.

“Everyone is trying to cooperate – it’s just a question of finding out how”

Again an example of a convenient belief that, if adopted, can help us explore our own resources to increase flexibility in how we approach difficult situations. Rather than write people off as “resistant”, this belief encourages us to look hard – and listen – to how we can help people collaborate with us.

Remember, I’m not claiming that these believes are “true” but that they may help. Should the un-hugged hoody slip a sharp blade out of their pocket and demand my wallet – I shan’t necessarily think to myself “everyone is doing the best they can…” at the time.

Although it may help later 😉

Reflective Task

  1. Notice your response to someone with whom you are “at odds”. What thoughts come to mind, what bodily sensations do you experience? Don’t try to change these feelings, they are useful in helping you make sense of that world.
  2. Consider that these sensations are “information” rather than truths. They tell you that you are challenged by dealing with this person.
  3. Apply a convenient belief. Consider that this person is doing the best they can with the resources they have available.  This may be hard. You may consider that they don’t seem to be trying at all! However sit with the thought that what you are experiencing is the best they can. If you have a role with this person – as manager, worker or family member – what can you do to help them develop further resources.


Phil Jones











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