A man came onto the subway car begging for money so he could buy food. I reached into my bag. I didn’t have any spare change on me, but I had a granola bar, which I offered to him. I’d done this many times before, and my gesture had always been met with appreciation.
Not this time.
The man shook me off, refusing the food.
I was stunned.
Wasn’t he hungry? Why would he refuse?
The Skeptic’s Approach
A skeptic would say that the man must not be really hungry if he refused food. Or that he refused the offer of food because he only wanted money, to buy drugs or alcohol. It would be easy to judge him, to speculate that he was disingenuous in asking for help because he wasn’t willing to receive the assistance offered.
This is how we form stereotypes: the person begging for money will use it to buy drugs; if people refuse your help it means that they aren’t ready to change.
If we look through a wider lens, and with a mindset of compassionate curiosity, we might begin to see other possible reasons.
Perhaps the man was allergic to an ingredient in the granola bars. Maybe he had trouble chewing something hard and crunchy. Maybe he just didn’t like granola bars. And maybe he refused my offer because he didn’t want the food to go to waste?
All of these reasons are stories. Which story is true?
I have no idea.
Any of them could be true. Or there could be another reason that I didn’t consider.
Widening the Lens
If we sit in judgment of him, then the mind comes up with reasons that make him “wrong” or “bad” in his motivations. And we’re more likely to extrapolate those reasons to an entire class of people.
All people who beg for money on the subway will use it to buy drugs.
Compassionate curiosity widens the lens; it opens us to consider other possibilities.
This is a lesson that extends beyond the subway or the street corner.
The Drive to Make Things Better
When you have a passion for helping people and a system for doing something that works, it’s easy to look around and see all the ways people can benefit from what you offer. You know your system, your way, your magic sauce, is better than what they’re doing now.
You know that, if only they would take your advice, their life would be better.
Maybe you’re right.
But maybe you’re not.
As a person who always sees the way to “make it better,” I have bumped up against this wall often.
I thrill in the delight of discovering a new thing — whether that thing is a new product, a must-try fitness class, or the latest life hack — and sharing it with others. Many people appreciate learning these things. But not all.
I’ve learned that some people interpret suggestions of “a better way” — or even “a different way” as a statement that their current approach is “wrong.”
They don’t need to be fixed. They don’t need a better way.
When we approach with compassionate curiosity, we open to learning more about where others are coming from.
This requires humility, and a willingness to be wrong — at least partially.
In exchange, you’ll gain a new perspective and perhaps even learn something that helps you improve your process to make your “better way” even better.