Something caught my eye, and I looked up. Through the window, I saw a man running. There were two things that made this unusual. Firstly, he was a bald, portly, middle-aged gentleman running fast. Secondly, there were two police officers running after him. What would your first thought have been? My first thought was to wonder if they were going to catch him. Then I wondered what he had done wrong.
Then a bus passed them and pulled up a little distance in front of them. Any change now to what you’re thinking? They slowed down to a more respectable walk, and all three got onto the bus.
A few days ago, I was taking my daughters to an appointment, and we were running late. I told them both to get dressed and pack their bags as quickly as possible. My older daughter responded by springing into action. My younger daughter started arguing with me: we’re not really late, I should stop being so bossy, she doesn’t care if we’re late, etc. I told her that she was not being fair to her sister, who did care about being late, and that she was being quite selfish.
After wasting a few minutes in a senseless and escalating argument, my wife walked into the room and said: “Darling, can I help you get ready? What do you need?”
My initial and impulsive assessment had been that my daughter was being selfish. My wife’s assessment (as she explained to me later) was that my daughter was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure I was putting her under. She didn’t know exactly what to do to get ready and was disguising this by being argumentative. As soon as she got what she needed – clear actions and a supporting environment – she got productive, and in a few minutes, she was ready. We left on time.
It is human nature to infer meaning and reason into what we see and experience. When we see or hear something, we naturally ascribe reasons to it. We create a back story, we fill in the gaps, we make meaning out of the small slice of life we’ve witnessed.
In both examples above, I made two errors. Firstly, I created a story that made sense to me. The stories were created in a way that filled in the gaps from my perspective; they were selfish. The second error was that I filled in the gaps too quickly. It was impulse, and impulse by its nature is selfish.
These two errors are linked. Doing it quickly means I don’t have time to give it thought, and I have to rely on my own impulse and perspective. That makes it selfish. On the other hand, when I slow down, I give myself time to improve my perspective. Suspending judgment gives me a window in which to make my conclusions less selfish, and more productive.
Stephen Covey famously said that “the quality of life depends on the gap between stimulus and response”. What we do with this gap is how we improve our experiences, and our lives. Actually creating this gap in the first place is essential. We can’t choose our response, and we can’t improve our response if there is no gap in the first place.
Developing the habit of suspending judgment, even just for a moment, is tough to do. But it’s a noble habit that will change the way you experience life.