Erhard Seminar Training (EST), Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and A Course in Miracles (ACIM), are three mind management systems that share a fundamental idea about how we should relate to people.
The idea is simple: don’t believe the stories you tell yourself about people’s intentions.
In NLP the concept is explained by emphasizing that we can never really know exactly what someone means. Words have different meanings for different people. We can only experience our projections of others, not others themselves, therefore we need to always be fully aware that whatever interpretation we have for a given communication, it can never be exactly what the sender intended.
In EST, this same idea is told a little differently. Students are taught to distinguish between the facts of a given situation and their stories about it. There is the fact that my friend didn’t call me back when she said she would, then there’s the story I told myself about this fact: that, for example, she didn’t care about me.
In ACIM, a text that functions like scripture, there is a chapter titled “Your Brother’s Sinlessness.” And there are several exercises in the student workbook on exploring the concept of the sinlessness of the (br)other as well. Lesson 335 states it thus: “What I see in him is merely what I wish to see, because it stands for what I want to be the truth. It is to this alone that I respond, however much I seem to be impelled by outside happenings.” The Lesson goes on to instruct the learner to commit to seeing their (br)other as not having committed any wrongdoing, regardless of what their perception might tell them.
Why do these systems for personal transformation insist that we reject our perception of others as having wronged us? Well, it’s because neurologically speaking our brains can only provide us with an estimate of the intentions of others and this estimate can very often be completely wrong or inaccurate.
When it comes to describing the neurology that underlies this habit of our minds, we can turn to neuroscience, where researchers recently isolated the neurons that specialize in simulating the decision-making process of our social partners. We may also look at the experiments conducted by Psychologists at the University of Plymouth, who were able to demonstrate that the way we literally see the actions of others is literally distorted by our expectations. This literal visual distortion could very well translate into more intangible contexts of perception. So, for example, if we expect someone to be rude to us, we are more likely to see their behavior, speech or facial expressions as hostile, or the words in their text message as such as well.
This distortion is responsible for a huge margin of error in our interpersonal relationships. And the more loaded we are with preconceived ideas and expectations, the less likely we are to interact with what is actually the case. And when we interact with a reality that is not even real, we then go on to potentially make that imagined situation a reality. For example: I expect a person is going to be rude to me, and therefore I behave towards them as if this is true. My behaving this way towards them may actually cause them to eventually be rude. By acting as if something is true, I stand the chance of making something that wasn’t true a reality.
These mind management systems train practitioners to eliminate this kind of perceptual error from interpersonal relationships. And it is really hard work. Over time, however, this practice enhances our lives in a number of ways; both with people who we may have accurately perceived to be rude, and those we inaccurately perceived to be rude.
In the first instance, we build rapport by not buying into the hostility. We build trust or appreciation on the part of the social partner because they were rude, and yet we didn’t admonish them. They might want to do better by us next time (in an ideal world, anyway).
In the second instance, we’ve prevented ourselves from acting defensively or creating a hostile environment for the other person, and as such, they are more likely to enjoy our company or find us trustworthy.
By continually practicing seeing the “sinlessness” of our other we make ourselves much more valuable and likeable to a broad range of people. Of course it goes without saying that always assuming positive intent on the part of others carries its own risk — i.e. it makes us less able to detect actual threats. So, if we are to use this mind management technique, it would be great to use it with discernment. Sometimes you’re right about people’s intentions and it would be best to avoid them.