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How to train your brain to like people who annoy you

Have you ever considered that maybe you’re the problem? How you interpret people’s behavior depends on what you think about them already.

How to train your brain to like people who annoy you
[Photo: Christina Morillo/Pexels]

No matter how much you try to like people, there is always someone in your work life who annoys you. You see them coming down the hall and your skin crawls. Invariably, they say something that rubs you the wrong way, and you leave the interaction feeling justified that you dislike this person so much.

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As it turns out, you may be creating your dislike for this person all by yourself.

Back in the 1970’s, Tory Higgins and his colleagues pointed out that most of the behaviors you observe in other people are ambiguous. Suppose you meet Donald and find out that he is very certain of his ability to perform well at work. Is he self-confident or conceited? How you interpret his behavior depends on what you think about him already. If you like him, then you admire him for his confidence. If you don’t, then you think he is a narcissistic jerk.

The first thing you have to realize is that your reaction to someone is self-fulfilling in some ways. If you don’t like someone, you will interpret their behaviors in a more negative light than if you like them. So, the very same behavior can be taken as evidence for why you should or shouldn’t like them depending on what you already believe.

Compounding this problem is our tendency to focus on a coherent story about people. So, when you don’t like someone, you emphasize their negative qualities and minimize their positive ones. Then, when you think about them, most of the information you have is consistent with your overall belief.

Tell yourself you like them

These two lines of work suggest that the first thing you need to do when you are faced with someone who bugs you is to think happy thoughts about them. Really, if you start your interaction with someone focusing on what a good person they probably are, you will be more likely to interpret what they do charitably and to focus on their desirable characteristics.

Of course, some people will still do things that bother you. Perhaps they complain all the time when you wish they would just find something nice to say. Or maybe they don’t participate in workplace events and seem aloof or superior to everyone else.

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Focus on the situation

The next thing you should do is to focus on the situation rather than the person. At any given moment, a person’s actions are being driven by three factors: their deep-seated motivations (what we often call personality), their current goals, and the constraints of the situation. A colleague might drink the last cup of coffee in the kitchen without putting up a new pot because they are selfish (an aspect of personality), because they were rushing to bring that coffee to a supervisor (so, they were pursuing a particular goal), or because they were running late to an important meeting (an aspect of the situation).

Your general tendency is to assume that someone else takes the actions they do because of their traits. So, when you see someone do something that annoys you, you assume it is because they are a bad person.

Consider everything else

If you want to think differently about this person, ask yourself what other factors might have led to this behavior. Is there some goal they might have that would make this behavior sensible? Is there something you missed about the situation where you would do the same thing if you were in that situation? If so, then maybe what you witnessed was perfectly reasonable.

Finally, when all else fails, you want to be proactive. It turns out that you can also create negative interactions with people by your own interactions. You see someone who bothers you coming down the hallway, and your facial expression goes dark. You say a clipped “hello” and try to get away. The other person might have been in a perfectly good mood until they saw your stormy face, which then affected their own behavior.

Instead, take advantage of people’s natural tendency to mirror what you do when you interact with them. Give a big smile. Wave. Wish them a good day. Tell them a piece of good news. You just might find that the advice to “fake it ’til you make it” works for your social interactions as well.

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