In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, shares an encounter he had with a father that had trouble with his son:
A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”
“Let me restate what you just said,” I replied. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”
“That’s right,” he replied.
“Let me try again,” I said. “You don’t understand your son because HE won’t listen to YOU?”
“That’s what I said,” he impatiently replied.
“I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him,” I suggested.
“OH!” he said. There was a long pause. “Oh!” he said again, as the light began to dawn.
“Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he’s going through. I went through the same thing myself. I guess what I don’t understand is why he won’t listen to me.”
This man didn’t have the vaguest idea of what was really going on inside his boy’s head. He looked into his own head and thought he saw the world, including his boy.
While we may chuckle at this father, the reality is, we are all guilty of committing the same offense constantly. Why can’t my parent/child be more understanding? Why can’t my employees be more hardworking? Why can’t my boss be more supportive? The problem is always someone else, and we never reflect to think how changing ourselves might solve the problem.
Not only do we try to control others, but we do it unknowingly. As a result, we hurt others and ourselves, and we don’t even know how it happened. People are not machines, and we should not be trying to control them.
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How big of a deal is it that we try to control others? Robert Waldinger answers this question in his TED Talk, What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. As you may guess from the title of his talk, our tendency to control others has a huge impact on our happiness.
Waldinger is the fourth director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years, starting in 1938. Studies like this are exceedingly rare, but through a combination of luck and persistence from generations of researchers, this study survived. The study found that wealth, fame, and working harder do not make people happy. Instead, having quality relationships is the single greatest driver of our happiness and health. Period.
Everyone wants to be happy and free of suffering. Since quality relationships is a key driver of happiness, trying to control others (whether unconscious or not) is literally going against what we want in life. So now that we know how severe this problem is, how do we stop trying to control others?
First, we must accept that we do try to control others, and we must decide to improve. Next, we need to develop a heart of kindness and a mind of humility. A heart of kindness means that we do not see ourselves as the main character of the world, but rather, we seek to benefit others. A mind of humility means we focus on the good points of others and overlook their bad points because we understand that everyone has their individual strengths and weaknesses. Humility also means we look for our weaknesses and seek to continually improve ourselves.
So instead of trying to get my parent/child to be more understanding, I should be more understanding first. Instead of demanding my employees to be more hardworking, I should create work for which the employees want to work hard for, and I should be a boss that my employees respect and want to work hard for. Instead of wishing my boss would be more supportive, I should be an employee that my boss wants to praise and support.
As Liao Fan once said,
“If things do not go our way, it is because we have not cultivated enough virtues to move others.”