Most of the significant problems in the world involve people, so making headway on these problems often requires a deep understanding of the people involved. For instance, enough food is produced to feed everyone on the planet, yet starvation still exists because this food can’t be distributed effectively. The reason for this distribution failure usually involves people—like corrupt governments.
However, it’s very easy to be wrong about other people’s motivations. You might assume that they share your perspective or context, think like you do, or have circumstances similar to yours. With such assumptions, you may conclude that they should also behave like you would or hold your beliefs. Unfortunately, often these assumptions are wrong.
Mental model one: The third story
In any conflict between two people, there are two sides of the story. Then there is the third story, the story that a third, impartial observer would recount. Forcing yourself to think as an impartial observer can help you in any conflict situation, including difficult business negotiations and personal disagreements.
The third story helps you see the situation for what it really is. Imagine a complete recording of the situation, and then try to think about what an outside audience would say was happening if they watched or listened to the recording. What story would they tell? How much would they agree with your story? Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explore this model in detail in their book Difficult Conversations: “The key is learning to describe the gap—or difference—between your story and the other person’s story. Whatever else you may think and feel, you can at least agree that you and the other person see things differently.”
If you can coherently articulate other points of view, even those directly in conflict with your own, then you’ll be less likely to make biased or incorrect judgments. You’ll dramatically increase your empathy and your understanding of other people’s frames of reference—whether or not you agree. Additionally, if you acknowledge the perspective of the third story within difficult conversations, it can have a disarming effect, causing others involved to act less defensively. That’s because you are signaling your willingness and ability to consider an objective point of view. Doing so encourages others involved to do the same.
Mental model two: The most respectful interpretation
Another tactical model that can help you empathize is the most respectful interpretation, or MRI. In any situation, you can explain a person’s behavior in many ways. MRI asks you to you interpret the other parties’ actions in the most respectful way possible, giving people the benefit of the doubt.
For example, suppose you sent an email to your kid’s school asking for information on the science curriculum for the upcoming year but haven’t heard back in a few days. Your first interpretation may be that they’re ignoring your request. A more respectful interpretation would be that they are actively working to get back to you but haven’t completed that work yet. Maybe they’re just waiting on some crucial information before replying, like a personnel decision that hasn’t been finalized yet, and that is holding up the response.
The point is, you don’t know the real answer yet, but if you approach the situation with the most respectful interpretation, then you will generally build trust with those involved rather than destroy it. Building trust pays dividends over time, especially in difficult situations where that trust can serve as a bridge toward an amicable resolution. The next time you feel inclined to make an accusation, take a step back and think about whether that’s really a fair assumption to make.
Mental model three: The Hanlon’s razor model
Another way of giving people the benefit of the doubt for their behavior is called Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.” A likely explanation for any person’s action, including harmful ones, is that they took the path of least resistance. That is, they carelessly created the negative outcome, but they didn’t cause the outcome out of malice.
Hanlon’s razor is especially useful for navigating connections in the virtual world. For example, we have all misread situations online. Since the signals of body language and voice intonation are missing, harmless lines of text can be read in a negative way. Hanlon’s razor says the person probably just didn’t take enough time and care in crafting their message.
We judge others differently to how we judge ourselves
The third story, most respectful interpretation, and Hanlon’s razor are all attempts to overcome what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, where you frequently make errors by attributing others’ behaviors to their internal, or fundamental, motivations rather than external factors. You are guilty of the fundamental attribution error whenever you think someone was mean because she is mean rather than thinking she was just having a bad day.
You of course tend to view your own behavior in the opposite way, which is called self-serving bias. When you are the actor, you often have self-serving reasons for your behavior, but when you are the observer, you tend to blame the other’s intrinsic nature. For example, if someone runs a red light, you often assume that person is inherently reckless; you don’t consider that she might be rushing to the hospital for an emergency. On the other hand, you will immediately rationalize your own actions when you drive like a maniac (“I’m in a hurry”).
All the mental models described above can help you increase your empathy. When applying them, you are effectively trying to understand people’s actual circumstances and motivations better, trying as best as you can to walk a mile in their shoes. It will be a little uncomfortable, because you will likely find that you make more incorrect assumptions than you think. But empathy is a powerful tool—for communication and for leadership. So lean into the discomfort, and you’ll find that the long-term payoff makes your all your efforts worthwhile.
This article is excerpted from Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann. It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio, a division of Penguin Random House.