09/25/2014 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Understanding 'Understanding'

My wife will attest to the fact that I'm not the most patient person in traffic situations. My impatience also extends to a few other situations, but for the sake of this article and protecting my sparkling image, I'll stick to traffic. Here's an example.

While returning home from the airport recently, I stopped to get some quick "road food" as it was late and I hadn't eaten dinner. I pulled off the main road and noticed that the driver of the minivan in front of me was driving very slowly. I muttered a few words of "encouragement" and watched as he pulled into a CVS parking lot. I zipped by and continued around the block to the fast food restaurant. I soon realized that the driver had pulled into the CVS by mistake and was reentering the road from the other side of the lot. But, I was now ahead of him and as I passed by, I muttered, "Ha. Serves you right for making a wrong turn."

I continued to watch him in my rear-view mirror and was taking great pleasure in arriving at the drive-thru lane of the restaurant ahead of him. But, as luck or karma would have it, I wasn't paying attention to the road and drove right past the entrance to the restaurant. The last thing I saw in my rear-view mirror was the minivan turning ever so slowly into the drive-thru lane. I'm sure the driver said something like, "Ha. Serves you right for muttering."

If you're like me, we are part of an elite group of people who drive exactly according to the driver's manual. We signal at the right times. We enter the highway at the right speed. We never drive slowly in the passing lane. And thank goodness, we know who leaves first at a four-way stop. Everyone else on the road is just a DMV-impaired imbecile.

At least that's what I'm thinking at the time of my irritation. But perhaps there is a flaw in my thinking.

You see, almost every time someone else irritates me, it's likely because of my lack of understanding -- my lack of understanding of the issue, their situation, or my own prejudices.

Here's another example.

On of my favorite stories is from Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes sitting on a very calm New York City subway one Sunday morning when a man and his three sons get on the same car. The man started reading the newspaper while his sons began running about the car, throwing things and yelling at each other. Stephen Covey eventually confronted the man about his sons' behavior. The man looked up, as if becoming aware of the situation for the first time, and explained that they had just came from the hospital where his wife had died a couple of hours earlier. He said that his sons probably just didn't know how to act.

Do you see how your new understanding of this particular situation changes your reaction to the boys' behavior? This is how understanding works. We see with different eyes.

In graduate school, my training was based on the concept of the "person in the situation" and it is the foundation of the social work profession. Essentially, it means that we can't separate one aspect of a person from their biological, psychological, social, or spiritual situation. In other words, we are all part of all we experience. For example, a person who seems unusually angry may be in an abusive relationship or has just discovered they have a incurable illness. When we consider the situation, the anger seems less unusual and perhaps even appropriate.

The problem is that, during the course of our day, we jump to conclusions with the people we encounter without finding out about their particular situation.

When I was a counselor, it was imperative that I not jump to conclusions about my clients or else I would not see their situations objectively. In my day-to-day encounters, however, I'm less inclined to consider what the abrupt waiter might be going through.

So, how do we try to appreciate the person in the situation so that we truly embrace the concept of understanding? Here are three suggestions.

Consider the Alternatives. When someone does something that irritates you, consider different reasons that might explain their behavior other than simply trying to irritate you. By considering the alternatives, you will avoid being a knee-jerk... jerk.

Think of Yourself. Sometimes, when we put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we realize that we might do the same thing in their situation. Ask yourself what would lead you to do what the other person just did. You might identify with them more than you expect.

Give them the Benefit of the Doubt. If we assume that people are basically good and that their intentions are honorable, we can avoid a lot of misunderstandings. Imagine how differently we'd see the world if we saw everyone else through good-colored glasses.

We are all a person in a situation. As much as we want others to understand our situation, we should try to understand theirs. Maybe even the slow driver of the minivan who got his food before me had a very good reason for driving slowly. Probably not -- but maybe.