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Rabbi Shmuel Gluck - Areivim - Understanding the "Other"
by Rabbi Shmuel Gluck

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Understanding the “Other”

I've written about the need to understand other people's feelings on numerous occasions. I believe that parents react to children without understanding what motivates them. The same is true for spouses. If parents/spouses would take the time to feel what the other person is experiencing, they would have an easier time working together with them. In this article I'll suggest several reasons for understanding the other "person".

The likelihood of solving an argument between two people is not as dependent on the difficulty of the argument, as it is dependent on how difficult the two people arguing are. The first step in solving arguments is going beyond the "I am right and you are wrong" attitude that is frequently found in arguments. The argument may be between parents and children, spouses, friends or partners.

When I talk to married couples, I find that many of them believe that disagreeing with their spouse means that they don't understand their views at all. Subconsciously, they believe that understanding the other's view would be admitting, to a degree, that the other is partially right. To avoid what they perceive as a weakening of their position, each feels forced to take the position that the other's view has no merit.

What I try to explain to them is that a lack of understanding, and certainly insulting or ridiculing, the other, doesn't strengthen their own position. Understanding the other's view is a statement of their open-mindedness, not the validity of the other's position. The only effect of not understanding the other's view is that it makes it immensely more difficult to mediate between the two.

By totally rejecting the other's view they unknowingly also reject their competency. Their attitude is that if the others can believe what was just said, then they aren't normal (or some other negative phrase). By discrediting the others, they begin to believe that the others aren't going to listen to reason. (How can they think that way?) This causes them to believe that the situation is hopeless. It also entrenches them into an "all or nothing attitude. When both sides have a combative position, mediating becomes impossible.

Although most people would like the truth to surface, and would prefer being right, they are still comfortable with a fair compromise and, when necessary, admitting they were wrong. However there are others who, in addition to feeling mistreated, have a need that is greater than getting to the truth behind any argument. Their lack of self esteem won't allow them to be wrong. They need to demonize their spouse, children, partner, or friend. Demonizing these individuals protects them from considering the possibility that they're the ones that need to change.

When I suggest a more open-minded approach, they often respond with: "What can I do if I don't understand the other's actions?" The answer is that this question isn't totally honest. Just as our actions are based on our thoughts, our thoughts are molded by our prejudices. What often takes place is that our need to be right affects our conclusions.

To prevent an all out war, I suggest that each person listen to the other's view and attempt to understand why s/he thought that way. They don't have to agree. They simply must listen and, if possible, be able to say, "I understand why one could think that way."

Doing this requires effort. For example, a husband forgot to buy something that his wife asked for, and she is very upset. The husband tells her that his boss recently gave him a raise and, considering the possibility of traffic, he didn't want to take the risk of coming to work late. Although one can debate the risks of coming late, the concern is legitimate. Remember, she doesn't have to agree with the conclusion, only with the thought process.

Although, in many cases, the excuses may be less then true (there was more than enough time to do both), this article focuses on those cases where everyone is truthful and sincere. Most relationships begin with sincere individuals trying to protect themselves from someone (one of them) trying to make the other look, and feel, incompetent.

In some cases it's truly difficult to understand the other person. Husbands and wives, parents and children, think differently. It's what I refer to as gender differences. Women are more focused then men, on things being in order. Men are more focused then women, on having disciplined children. One is no more right than the other, but for the home to be effective, both opposing approaches are necessary, in order to create the perfect balance. Nevertheless, for both to understand each other, they must say to themselves, "If instead of being the husband/wife/friend/child, I was the other, I may have also done the same thing."

What's even more difficult than understanding gender differences, is to understand gender weaknesses. These are faults commonly found in both genders. Men don't understand why women are focusing on details at the home, when they're already late for a wedding. Women don't understand why men have to discipline their children, when they're already crying. They're two different genders.

To understand the other's thought process requires each to say to themselves, "If I was a man/woman and if this took place, I would also do ...." Once again, they don't have to agree with the conclusion, only with the thought process.

This approach is not only necessary for compromising, but also necessary when one is right. To be a partner in change requires good will. Believing that the other person is irresponsibly wrong, creates resentment and anger. Creating change in others requires patience, confidence in the other's ability to change, and good will.

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