“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.

Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”  ~ Rumi

The conditioning we receive throughout life is so pervasive and powerful that it’s literally impossible to be aware of the psychological influence that it has on our feelings, including – perhaps especially – on our feelings relating to others. We are fundamentally social beings, so even the presence of other people can dramatically affect our experience of situations and things that we come across. For example, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini quotes one study where “men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking and better designed than did men who saw the same ad without the model. Yet, when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments”.

What is happening is that we naturally interpret everything through the lens of our own experience and belief systems. If you’ve read my book, The Little Black Book of Decision Making, you’ll know that I love the following Sufi proverb, because it captures this idea so powerfully and in so few words: “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets”. Another way of saying this is that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.

The psychological truth is that our emotional reaction to any experience cannot be attributed to any sort of objective “reality”, any more than a roller coaster can be said to be objectively exhilarating or terrifying. Rather, our emotional reactions are the result of our subjective interpretation of whatever is happening. Inevitably, this means that the way we see others – how we label or judge them, has more to do with ourselves than with them, as this wonderful story that I’ve paraphrased from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, illustrates:

Stephen was travelling on the underground when a man got on with his children. The peace and calm that had previously existed was immediately shattered as the children’s terrible behaviour disrupted the other passengers. Irritation levels in the carriage understandably started to rise, but the father had closed his eyes and seemed oblivious. Astonished by this obvious lack of sensitivity to others, Stephen spoke politely to the man, suggesting that perhaps he could control his children a little more. The father then seemed to become aware of the situation for the first time, acknowledging he should do something, and saying, “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either”.

This article offers some useful starting points to think about the root cause of negative biases that you might experience towards others.

Read the Article: Are You Biased Against That Coworker You Don’t Like?

My Advice

There is one capability that both comes before and sits below all the techniques mentioned in the article, and which is, therefore, an essential enabler to developing emotional balance: to become much more highly attuned to our own emotional state in the moment. To do this, we must learn to use our minds differently.

By keeping some of our attention on the inner world of our emotions, we create the opportunity to change how we feel. This focus enables us to become aware of negative reactions. Having done so, we can then track back to the underlying thoughts, developing the capability to look at the thinking associated with the emotion. This capability is sometimes called metacognition, which means thinking about what we are thinking about. By becoming more conscious of your thoughts, the self-awareness generated will enable greater conscious regulation of how you feel, improving your ability to build constructive and empowering relationships.