What is the danger of interpreting someone else’s behavior?

Business Leader Post, August 8, 2013

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Everybody I meet in a family business consultation plays psychologist. Family members explain the reasons for the behavior of other family members. Lawyers, accountants and other professionals all seem to have a concept of why certain people behave in certain ways. They use words like jealous, self-centered, selfish, lazy, mean, controlling, and narcissistic

With the exception of narcissistic, those words are not psychological terms. They are descriptions which purport to provide a reason for another person’s behavior. They are labels with judgments attached to them. They distance us from the other person and make communication more difficult.

Clearly, there are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. However, successful communication can only begin when one is able to appreciate another person’s behavior in the context of a situation. Understanding the context of an individual’s behavior requires training and experience. Even with that training and experience, psychologists cannot know other people’s thoughts or know how their feelings are driving their behavior—unless they ask.

I am not suggesting that all family members sit down with other family members and ask them what they are feeling and/or ask them to please explain why they behaved in a certain way. Some situations are too volatile for that. But I can say with confidence that judgmental labels don’t help and that asking questions as opposed to coming to conclusions can clear up a lot of confusion.