Is it their attitude or your perspective? Shifting our outlook on life

Jul 07, 2023
It’s not easy, it can be difficult, but sometimes we have to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Source: pexels

When my children were in primary school I attended a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course. It wasn’t designed to teach parents how to train their children, but rather to train the adults to be more effective parents.

One of the striking pieces of information in this very helpful course was when in a confrontational or stressful or distressing situation, to work out exactly who owns the problem.

While this might seem simple on the surface, it’s not necessarily so. In a child-parent situation, many parents are inclined to take on their child’s problem and act accordingly. Or, to be more exact, react to the situation and either engage in an argument with the child or try to fix the problem themselves, or dismiss whatever the child is saying.

PET teaches parents to work out who owns the problem so they can remain calm and consistent and help the child to see how they can find a solution.

It’s a skill that is helpful in so many situations in the adult world, not just when dealing with children. For instance, you’ve had a long day, either at work, or home with the kids, or shopping for important items without success. Feeling tired and disgruntled, you go shopping for your week’s groceries only to find a lot of what you need is out of stock. At the checkout, the cashier seems just as grumpy as you feel, and your inner voice wants to yell at them that they should be sympathetic to your needs and not be so &*#^$ disinterested.

So who owns the problem? Do you, because your needs weren’t met? The cashier, who’s probably listened to over a hundred customers complain to them and whose legs are hurting from standing all day on a concrete floor?

This is where effective listening comes in. It’s not easy, it can be difficult, but sometimes we have to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. A kind word, a thoughtful question, and a stepping back from our problems can allow us to see that someone else might have just as big a problem, if not bigger than we have.

How often have you encountered a shop assistant who appears to be “going through the motions” and you’ve taken the time to ask them how they are, acknowledge that it must be a long day for them on their feet all day or listen to the loud music that blasts out in shopping centres. Your sympathy will often elicit a grateful smile as they realise that you see them as a person and not just part of the shop fittings.

Of course, there will also be those people behind the counter whose attitude is not caused by a bad day or health or other problems. Some just have a personality that really shouldn’t be released to an unsuspecting public. One such person runs a local “el cheapo” shop.

They have the attitude of a prison warden waiting for a large-scale breakout. No friendly smile as you go to the counter to pay for your goods. No bag, no handbag no matter how small, gets past their eagle-eyed inspection. No “please” or “thank you”, just a gruff command to open the bag or handbag.

As customers we’ve become accustomed to having our bags looked into as we leave shops, but this person always amuses me with their seemingly unfulfilled need to find a shoplifter. As everything in the shop is under $5, it’s hardly a shoplifter’s dream hoist. But I always smile and say “Thank you” and wait for the day I will receive more than a gruff response. It’s not my problem, so why should I react to their attitude and spoil my day?

Years ago I read an article in which a woman’s dog vomits in the lounge room just as the doorbell rings. She hurries to answer it, only to find her ex-boyfriend from college and his impeccably-dressed new wife have come to visit. She ushers them into the dog-vomit-free but messy rumpus room, inwardly bemoaning her daggy t-shirt and shorts and unwashed hair, and wondering what they must think of her.

Then she sees a dry, curled-up orange peel near where they are sitting. Suddenly her perspective changes. She thinks she’s probably made their day: the ex-boyfriend is likely thinking he’s lucky he didn’t marry such a slob and the wife that the old girlfriend is no temptation for her husband. The thought makes the woman forget about how she looks and the state of her house and enjoy the visit. I found that very enlightening and I’ve tried to emulate that perspective.

A recent newspaper survey found that older people were voted the crankiest customers by retailers. Unfortunately, older people are more likely to have medical conditions that cause them constant pain, so perhaps that contributes to a less-than-ideal attitude when they go shopping.

A friend of mine recently said she finds she hasn’t got the patience she used to have and is getting cranky more often. I wondered if, as we age, we realise we don’t have much time left and so become impatient. Could it be we feel the world is hurtling ahead so quickly that we are being left behind? Or have we lost the tranquillity of the slow-paced life we had in our youth?

We can’t change the world or the technology that seems to be spinning us faster and faster into the unknown, but we can manage our attitude and expectations, and try to be more aware and understanding of others’ problems. We can choose to be proactive rather than reactive.

Singer Kamahl once asked, “Why are people so unkind?” He went on to say that kindness is next to kingliness. What a wonderful world it would be if we could all strive for some more kingliness. And on the days when that feels impossible, we can still search for a virtually dried orange peel and hope it will bring us – and others – a smile.

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