Do we see others at work as human, or do we fit them in a convenient slot based on their professional role or our hasty judgment of them?
Assessing people in a sentence is simpler, but deceptive, because we miss a compassionate understanding of the (inevitable) mistakes in behavior and understanding which all human beings make.
A British television show I encountered accidentally and now watch regularly offers a marvelous example of a more nuanced and whole way of looking at people. The show, called Larkrise to Candleford, is set at the very end of the 19th century in two small towns. In one town the inhabitants are poor, still tied to the land and the local squire, and in the other they are more prosperous artisans and merchants. The show grapples with social changes happening at this period in history, the switch from agriculture and serfs to mercantile and industry, fresh ideas about evolution and the rights of women and all people.
But what makes this drama compelling to me is how every character, lead or minor, is sympathetically revealed as a full human being. Instead of the usual one-dimensional characters who can be summed up with a phrase, such as the lazy drunk, the wise generous postmistress, the angry socialist radical, or the careless spendthrift wife, everyone of them has faults and admirable qualities.
The lazy drunk plays local music and loves his wife deeply, the wise generous postmistress is at times controlling and self indulgent, the angry radical is a sensitive father and a talented craftsman who wants to create beauty for its own sake, the spendthrift wife has a generous spirit and optimism that at times inspires her neighbors. They are seen in all their richness and contradiction.
It may feel comfortable for us to ignore this, especially at work, to tell ourselves a simple story about our coworkers, bosses, and employees that reduces their truths to a cartoon outline and puts ourselves in the best light. But, when we open our hearts and minds, even a little, to the complexity within everyone, we begin to see our universal human capacity for both greatness and fallibility. If we can learn to say,”Yes, I recognize myself in you, both good and bad, admirable and mistaken,” we take an important step toward compassion, forgiveness, and transformation in our workplace and other relationships.
Lorraine Segal has her own Santa Rosa based business, Conflict Remedy, specializing in workplace communication and conflict resolution. She works particularly with schools, colleges, non profit & community groups, and governmental agencies in Sonoma County and the North Bay. She teaches classes in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University.