Critical Section


The "under the skin" game

Wednesday,  12/24/03  12:12 AM

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to a magazine called Highlights.  (Hey, it still exists!)  I think it was associated with Cub Scouts, I don't know.  Anyway I remember one little article which stayed with me my whole life, called "the under the skin game".

The article described how different people see things in different ways, and if you are fighting with someone you should try "getting under the skin", i.e. putting yourself in their place.  Once you see the situation from their point of view, the article claimed, you'll understand why you're fighting, and [presumably] find a way to compromise, or something.  Pretty apple pie stuff and targeted at little kids.  But amazingly I've found such value in this simple concept.

Ever since I read that article - I was probably eight years old or so - I've tried to do this.  I might do it two or three times a week.  It actually isn't all that easy.  I'm no actor, maybe this would come easily to an actor, but essentially you have to setup everything that's going on for that other person in order to really be able to get "under their skin".  You have to force yourself to truly see things from their perspective, including everything you know about them, until you suddenly "pop" into their skin.  (Yeah, it's a weird feeling.)  So there I am, pretending to be someone else - maybe pretending to be you! - and I look at me, and some situation, and try to figure out how it can be resolved.

Every situation is different, but there are two big things I always learn.  First, the other person is generally more rational than I thought.  They might have done or said or felt things which seemed irrational to me, as seen by me, but once I see the same things from their point of view they seem far more rational.

{ You might say, "yeah, well, if you pretend to be someone else, then you'll see them as being rational since you are rational."  But that's not the whole story.  People generally do rational things to further their own interests, and if they seem irrational it is only because you don't understand them and their motivations.  Yet.  Of course they might have a distorted view of events (i.e. they seem them differently from you :), but based on that view their behavior tends to be rational. }

The second thing is that I always seem less rational when seen from another's point of view.  I am doing rational things to further my own best interest, but when seen from the other person I may appear emotional, or stupid, or evil.

There is this great saying, Occam's Razor, which essentially states "never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence".  (There are many versions, this is my favorite.)  Sometimes it doesn't even take incompetence, sometimes it is just bad communication or differing points of view which make people appear malicious.

I went "under the skin" again today.  I had a business meeting - with whom and about what is not important - and there was an apparent severe disconnect in points of view.  During the meeting I kept thinking, "these are rational people, why are they behaving in ways which seem so contrary to their own best interest?"  It just didn't make sense.  Later I tried really hard to put myself in their place.  Wow!  They had a completely different set of priorities and motivations...  and saw things very differently as a result.  And saw us very differently as a result, too.  They must have been thinking - about us - "these are rational people, why are they behaving in ways which seem so contrary to their own best interest?" :)

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