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Sense The Attitude Behind The Words

Updated: Jul 2

Recently in a workshop class, a participant asked the teacher, “If a high level leader skips the middle level manager and directly orders the bottom level employee to do something, and then this bottom level employee doesn’t report the matter to his manager, is this wrong?”


Before I let you know what the teacher said, you can think about the answer first.


Personally, I thought “Of course that’s wrong. The bottom level employee needs to report any work they got from other people to his manager. After all, his manager is responsible for him and needs to know what he’s working on. Moreover, higher level leaders need to respect the people below them. It’s disrespectful to not let the middle level manager know that you want to use his direct report.”


To my surprise, the teacher said,

“It depends. You have to consider the details of the entire situation. For example, what’s the relationship like between the high level leader and the middle manager? Did they communicate about this kind of matter previously? What’s the personality of the high level leader?


Of course, it’s important for top level leaders to be a good role model. But if they made a mistake, we shouldn’t scold them. It's not socially appropriate for someone in a lower position to scold someone in a higher position. Also, if I’m the middle manager, the next time I see the high level leader, I might smile and laugh and say to the high level leader, 'Oh yeah you can let me know next time that you want to use so and so, then I can help you better!' This way, you get the message across without creating any conflict or awkwardness.”


After class, I told my mentor that I was surprised by the workshop teacher’s reply. Isn't it obviously wrong for the high level leader to not inform the middle manager? My mentor told me,

“You have to have situational awareness when answering questions. You have to sense the attitude of the asker. Answering questions is not just about replying the matter, it’s about correcting their attitude and their mistaken way of thinking.


Based on the way this asker asked the question, she feels like obviously, the low level employee should report the matter to the middle manager, and that the top level leader shouldn’t order the low level employee without letting the middle manager know. Her attitude is one of blame and opposition. This kind of attitude will create conflict with others. If the teacher says ‘You are right’, then she will go back to her company and say ‘I went to a workshop, and XYZ famous teacher agrees with me.’ She’ll use our famous teacher’s words to threaten others to listen to her. That’s why our teacher didn’t dare to affirm her views. Instead, he tried to help her understand the other people’s perspectives so that she could communicate with them in a harmonious way.”


My mentor's words reminded me of this quote from The Record on Education:

"When you know their mind, you can correct their problem."

Icon Sources: 1, 2


I remembered that oftentimes, when this teacher replies people's questions, he will say, "First, we need to understand others. See things from their perspective. Don't oppose them. Don't think I am right and they are wrong." Indeed, the root of conflict is not in the matters, but in the attitude (mind) you have towards the matter or person in question.


I then asked my mentor, “So what if the asker further replied, ‘The top leader doesn’t have a close relationship with the middle manager. The top leader is simply someone who likes to do what he wants and doesn’t follow the rules. The low level employee is similar.’ Then how should we reply?"


My mentor said, “You can reply that no one is perfect. When we see our superior has problems, we can advise them in a respectful and polite manner, that we should be understanding and patient in the process."


Again, the response is about correcting their attitude of opposition and blame. I got the idea, as I have previously written about how to effectively advise or criticize others before.


Another person at the workshop asked the teacher,

"My daughter couldn't come today, but she wants me to ask you, if the human race goes extinct, what will happen to Buddhism? Will Buddhism also die out?"


Again, how would you reply? What attitude do you think this daughter might have?


What came to my mind was: "The human race probably won't go extinct anytime soon. The Buddha said there's still 9000 years of Buddhism left." This answer is still focused on replying the matter.


The teacher replied,

"First, I would try to understand why your daughter asked this question. For example, if her personality is the type that tends to worry a lot, I might try to ease her worries and ask her, 'If a person works hard to cultivate virtues and accumulate goodness, do you think they can change their life for the better? If one person can, do you think a family can? The same for a nation and for the entire human race. So don't worry about the human race going extinct. Instead, we can all focus on improving ourselves and accumulating goodness. Also, the Buddha said that there's still 9000 years of Buddhism remaining in this world.'


Another possibility is that she has a big heart and cares a lot about the wellbeing of the whole world. In this case, I would praise her big heart and encourage her to have a big aspiration for herself."

From this experience, I learned that when listening to other people's words, we shouldn't just listen to the words. We need to listen deeper for the attitude behind the words, and that comes from observing their facial expression, tone of voice, and choice of words. Consider these examples:

  • If someone offers you help, are they truly sincere, or are they just being polite but don’t actually want to go through the trouble of helping you?

  • If someone says, "It's no trouble", are they sincere about it, or are they just being polite?

  • If someone says, "How can I help my family members and friends to learn ancient philosophy with me?" Do they have an impatient, controlling, and opposition attitude? Or do they have a humble and cautious attitude?

  • If someone is asking you for advice, do they truly trust your judgment? Or are they just being polite? Or are they flustered and asking anyone and everyone?

  • If someone is giving you advice, do they have a cautious and humble attitude? Or do they like to lecture others?


Even if two people say the same thing or ask the same question, if their attitude differs, then our response should differ. We can even extend this idea to actions. If someone does something for you, are they happy to do it, or are they doing it because they don't have a choice? Our goal should be to help others have a good attitude and an effective way of thinking. In my observation, this is quite a different way of thinking that many are not aware of. But when we practice this way of thinking, we can better prevent and resolve problems from the root.


Weekly Wisdom #296


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