Have you ever met someone and, within a few moments, felt like you knew what kind of person they were? Perhaps you’ve read one of the many articles that help you analyze body language or facial expressions. Maybe you’ve even said things like I could read him like a book or I know her type.
The skill of quickly being able to sum people up can be useful - except when you’re wrong, which (as Byron Katie says) is only 100% of the time.
100% of the time
One of the great skills we have as human beings is our ability to fill in gaps in our knowledge to stitch together a coherent story, one that fits in with what we already know and is consistent with the experience we have. It helps us to make sense of people and the world in general.
As you build a story about someone, you apply a label or two, a shorthand description for the kind of person they are. Once you’ve applied that label, you’re likely to find information that validates it. Now you know you know them.
Except you're wrong, or at least you have a woefully incomplete understanding. Prof. Heidi Halvorson talked about the science of perception with the Harvard Business Review, and they summarized it this way:
"In Ms. Halvorson’s words, during a “brief first meeting, the perceiver has too much to notice, understand, and act on to give you undivided, unbiased attention.” Instead, they form a snap judgement based on “stereotypes, and other assumptions – using cues like your physical appearance, your organizational role, and your body language to fill in the blanks.” It’s not difficult to understand how these snap judgements lead to false impressions. As she puts it, “the way we see one another can be irrational, incomplete, and inflexible.”"
Irrational, incomplete, and inflexible. While it may be handy to make snap judgments about people, it’s grossly limiting. That knowledge you think you have is just a skewed subset of reality, and it's closing you off to developing richer and more meaningful relationships.
It may be human nature to make such snap judgments, but we are not slaves to our nature. With practice, we can develop a better way.
A powerful Zen technique
This Zen technique is actually no technique at all. It’s a state of mind - a perspective - that’s empty and ready instead of closed. It’s called "beginner’s mind" or shoshin (初心):
“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would."
Shunryu Suzuki, who pioneered the teaching of Zen in the United States in the late 1960s, described it this way in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.”
He taught that the goal of practicing Zen was not to accumulate more wisdom and become more of an expert, but rather “the goal of practice is to always keep our beginner’s mind.”
Try this the next time you talk to someone
A friend of mine (distinctly not a Buddhist) uses a similar technique when he meets new people, though he described it in a different way.
“I figure when I enter a roomful of people, each one of them has an interesting story to tell, and it’s my job to find out what that story is.”
Instead of scanning the room and putting people into neatly labelled boxes, my friend is now open to discovering what each person has to offer. He’s a better listener as a result, more open and more curious. These are qualities any relationship expert would recognize.
Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or discussing something with your spouse, having a beginner’s mind when you talk with them means your mind is empty of preconceived notions and stereotypes and labels and how what they’re saying relates to you and all that goes on in your head while you’re with someone.
Instead, you’re just present, listening with attention. That’s one of the best gifts you have to offer someone, and it can be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.