Three Steps to Becoming Less Obsessed With Yourself- Wisdom from The Arbinger Institute

A Sobering Discovery

My Waldorf teacher training included extensive exercises around developing consciousness. My classmates and I were to spend several minutes a day in meditation on a tree, and during a class entitled Inner Work, we practiced the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha: “right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (Wikipedia)”. We were not learning Buddhism as such, but examining aspects of our behavior against our personal moral compasses.

I had always rather prided myself on my ability to understand another’s perspective, and fancied myself compassionate and intuitive. This inner observation, however, revealed that I was sadly mistaken. Yes, I was interested in the thoughts and feelings of others, but my main question was what they thought and felt about me. Other people were my lenses; the subject matter was myself. 

My discovery was humiliating to be sure. I was not the person I wanted to be, nor pretended to be. I was shamefully self-absorbed. But the discovery also contained an element of excitement, because I felt that if I was the problem, I was free to do the work of changing.

A Way Out

Thankfully, I found the work of The Arbinger Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people become genuinely responsive to others. I read three of their books, and fifteen or so years ago, attended a weekend Arbinger training session in Arizona. I learned about the human tendency to deceive ourselves into viewing other people as objects: obstacles in our way, vehicles of use to us, or simply irrelevant. I felt especially enlightened by the knowledge that we as people get caught in cycles of harboring criticisms of others to justify our mistreatment of them. I learned about new ways of thinking and being to awaken myself to the humanity of others and see them as people as real as myself. Of course I often relapsed and fell into my old ways, but having once “been there,” it became a little easier to find my way back. It’s a lifelong endeavor. 

“Your conscience will reveal to you

That other hearts are hurting too.”

-me, self-quoter (you see, the struggle with self obsession is real)

Just this past week, I discovered Arbinger’s newest book: The Outward Mindset.  I was thrilled to dive in again. Here are two quotes that hit home:

“Remember, the principle to apply is, as far as I am concerned, the problem is me. I am the place to start. Others’ responses will depend mostly on what they see in me.

The most important move is for me to make the most important move.”

“To be outward doesn’t mean that people should adopt this or that prescribed behavior. Rather, it means that when people see the needs, challenges, desires, and humanity of others, the most effective ways to adjust their efforts occur to them in the moment. When they see others as people, they respond in human and helpful ways. They naturally adjust what they do in response to the needs they see around them. With an outward mindset, adjusting one’s efforts naturally follows from seeing others in a new way.”

A beautiful story of this natural change, that brought me to tears, in the words of the harried mom who experienced it, can be found here.

The book’s three basic steps toward an outward mindset are effective for individuals as well as organizations:

1. See the needs, objectives, and challenges of others

(My note: Ask questions such as “What would it be like to be her?” “What need is he seeking to have met?” “What pressures might my boss be under right now?” “If I gave my heart to that difficult student in my class, what would occur to me to do?” and listen for answers.)

2. Adjust efforts to be more helpful to others

(My note: Do the thing that occurs to you to do when you reflect on the unique needs of the other. In organizations, take steps to support the department you’ve been in conflict with. Try to help them meet their objectives.)

3. Measure and hold yourself accountable for the impact of your work on others

(My note: Find out if your efforts are effective. Example: [Charles was a lawyer who began to reflect on the principles of this book and decided to return his fees to two of his clients who had been dissatisfied. He] “returned the money in May of that year, and he began tracking his impact on his clients by checking in with them on a regular basis to make sure that he was meeting or exceeding their expectations. Then something interesting happened. These clients started talking to their friends and acquaintances about their honest and conscientious lawyer. By July, Charles was receiving seven new client matters per week. By November, that number had grown to thirteen per week... ...In March, he left his job to start his own law firm.”

The handy acronym is SAM—“see others, adjust efforts, measure impact.“

Interestingly, being this responsive to others doesn’t always mean a “softer” approach. It means truly considering the needs of others and “soft” is not always what they need.

Chip is part of a SWAT team. The Arbinger approach worked for them:

“These changes have increased the cooperation Chip and his team receive from suspects and from the community, and the results have been astounding. In addition to shrinking community complaints against them to zero, in the first three years after adopting this approach, [Chip’s] SWAT Squad recovered more illegal drugs and guns than it had in the previous decade.”

I most heartily recommend that you read The Outward Mindset and/or Arbinger’s other books: Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace. If these resonate with you, I also recommend The Bonds That Make Us Free, by C. Terry Warner, who founded The Arbinger Institute. I consider these among the most important books I’ve ever read.

Let’s talk about this! Your comments are welcome. 

“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.”

-G.K. Chesterton