Sophia used to look at this painting when she was a little girl and imagine herself holding her mom’s hand and kissing her mom’s cheek. Sophia’s grandmother, the painter, died a few weeks before the mediation, and in her final hours, she signed the picture.
Sophia described this with tears and finally looked to her ex-husband and she said, “Frank took the picture. Frank, when are you going to stop trying to punish me for the affair?”
I looked to the guy, and his face was cold as stone, and I thought, “Whoa.” People come to see me because I can help solve their problems, but I’m kind of a one-trick pony.
The thing is I have this excellent trick, I can help them understand each other’s hidden motivations, and I knew something that Sophia didn’t. Frank wasn’t trying to punish her. People often think revenge is a human motive, but hurting another person is not a human need.
Now, how do I know?
Well, here’s a trick I developed a few years ago that I find very useful. If you ever think that somebody is motivated by something that doesn’t personally give you pleasure, you actually haven’t found their motivation; go deeper. I don’t get pleasure from hurting other people.
If it’s not in me, it’s not a common need, and if it’s not a common need, it’s not a human motivation. Go deeper. Revenge is pursued to fulfill another need.
But what? It varies, but very often, it’s a need for understanding. If I hurt you, you will understand, at the level of personal pain, at the level of intense personal suffering, what you did to me. You’ll finally get it. This wasn’t the case for Frank.
My theory that he had taken the picture in order to be understood for the pain of the affair was wrong. I often guess wrong. But as I was guessing and without blame convinced him to share something else, his eyes welled with tears and he looked over at his ex-wife Sophia and he said, “Soph, she had become my grandmother too! She was all that I had! You were all that I had.”
Frank was an orphan too, just like Sophia. He took the painting to fulfill a common human need of connection. Hurting Sophia was never the point. Sophia moved next to Frank on the couch and she wrapped her arms around him, and they sobbed together for ten minutes.
And I cried too. I had ten minutes. What was I going to do?
Frank ultimately returned the painting to Sophia, and she dug up a trove of old photos of Frank with her grandmother, so that he could remember his family.
Understand what happened here. We didn’t make the common and easy mistake thinking that revenge is a motive. Instead, we went to the source of all human motivation, to the common needs.
When Sophia understood that Frank had simply needed connection, human connection, and in particular, to her grandmother, she got it, she could feel it, and then the magic, and then solutions.
Now, many people, including some in this audience, are wary of understanding others, and especially during conflict. The thought goes like this, “If I understand the reasons you did what you did, I’m basically saying you were justified.”
Understanding seems like condoning, and for this reason, people often say, “Don’t go inside the mind of a terrorist, don’t get them. To get a terrorist is to legitimate terrorism. It’s to be an apologist.”
And for this reason, it was suggested to me that I dropped from my talk the piece about the Taliban teenager, because then people might think I condone terrorism.
Let me make something perfectly clear. Understanding reasons is different than condoning. I’ve learned through thousands of mediations understanding is a power to shape the world far greater than any sword or gun.
Understanding is exactly how you create the world that you want. I began this talk asking, “Is it possible to understand everyone at a deep and meaningful level, even those that are different from you?” And the answer is yes.
When your teenage daughter asks you for that hair straightener, and just one week after you bought her that hair crimper, and she’s standing at the top of the stairs with this crazy crimped hair, screaming, “You just don’t understand!”, this is how you understand: What is she needing?
She wants to be accepted, liked. The desire to be accepted, to be liked, is in you, is in me, is in everyone in this audience. And so you can understand exactly what she feels, and that alone will transform your relationship.
And then come the solutions, even if it’s only, “I see you, my beautiful little girl. I get you.”
There’s a formula for understanding why we do what we do, and once you get it, you get it. Human behavior is complex, but human motivation is simple. We seek the common needs, and nothing else. We seek the common needs, and nothing else.
The common needs are human motivation. Learn this language of the unconscious, this language of the heart, and you’ll improve every relationship in your life.