It’s not uncommon to get cut off on a California freeway. It is uncommon to have a gracious response to such an incident. As is often stated, we tend to explain our behavior in terms of our intentions; we tend to explain the behavior of others in terms of the outcomes. When we cut off someone on the freeway, we quickly justify it because the baby needed our attention, we dropped something, or we simply didn’t see the other car approaching. When someone cuts us off the explanation is clear – they are a terrible driver who never should have been given a license.
While we may think this inclination is limited to strangers, it effects all of our relationships. We give our misdeeds generous justification, while quickly condemning the actions of others. It may be tempting to think that familiarity would inhibit this; one should be able to understand why someone they know well acts in the way they do, but unfortunately intimacy isn’t a barrier to prevention. In fact, we may be more prone to critique those closest to us, wrongly concluding that they should know better than to act in such an aggravating manner. We erroneously conclude that our way is the right way, and that we are the better partner for it.
In a management book on change, the authors provide a reason for this phenomenon. In their words “one reason we’re able to believe that we’re better than average leaders, and drivers and spouses and team players is that we are defining those terms in ways that flatter us.” In other words, our position of superiority comes from the inclination to describe excellence in terms of how we behave, and we are, by default, accomplished in that behavior. Others might not be, and therefore they suffer in our estimation of them.
What may be frustrating on the freeway, can be disastrous in relationships. After all, my standards of excellence may not mirror those of my spouse’s, but it’s my standards that I’m likely to use when evaluating their actions. As a personal example, I can distinctly remember early on in our marriage when my husband folded the towels in the “wrong” way. In God’s graciousness, He stopped me from saying anything to “correct” him, realizing that “my” way was only the “right” way because I thought it was so. (And that if I ever wanted him to help with the laundry again, criticising such an inconsequential action was probably not the way to encourage future assistance!)
The point is this – there are some things in relationships that are rightly nonnegotiable. These are the things that Scripture calls us to, and we should rightly evaluate our actions (and the actions of others) in light of the truth of God’s Word. There are a thousand smaller things that aren’t this way, yet we treat them as if they are. In doing so, when our spouse/friend/boss/parent doesn’t live up to our standards, we think that they are somehow not a good spouse/friend/boss/parent. But if we redefined excellence in terms of what they are good at, if we used their standards of what makes a good spouse/friend/boss/parent, then suddenly they would be! And it’s their standards that are driving their actions; it’s their standards that are motivating them.
So perhaps our relationships could use a little more redefinition of what excellence looks like and a little less criticism. Perhaps if we were quicker to celebrate what they did well, instead of evaluating what they did poorly, our relationships would be more encouraging. Perhaps if we consider their motivation rather than our evaluation, our relationships would be more gracious. Perhaps our relationships would flourish.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.