One Question to Immediately Shift Your Perspective

There I was, lying in the middle of a cat-hair-covered rug in my friend’s San Francisco apartment staring at the ceiling while trying desperately not to care. I’d just sent one of those really ridiculously important text messages; the kind you think about, then type, then erase, then re-type, then question sending, then send anyways. [The communication specialist in me is currently giving the most dramatic eye-roll you’ll never see and begging me to tell you that this was years ago, when I sometimes hid behind words on a screen rather than risk splashing my tender emotions all over an important face-to-face conversation].
I’d sent the message hours ago and still no response to a pivotal question concerning my relationship at the time. As I lay waiting in anguish (and cat hair) my friend playfully said, “Who knows Bets, maybe they’re busy training elephants. I mean it’s a lot to get down from an elephant just to check a message, ya know?” She had recently returned from Africa which was the only way it made remote sense that training an elephant could be a plausible reason why my significant other was currently indisposed.
Though the relationship ended (perhaps given poor communication? lol) what endured from that rather pathetic moment in my young adult life was a game I came to call, “What else could it be?” The premise is simple. If perception is reality then changing one’s immediate reality requires a shift in perspective. It’s a game I regularly use with clients when coaching them around an issue that has them stuck in a detrimental way of thinking. And, it’s a game I play when I catch myself making snap judgments about a situation.
If you’ve played organized sports at any age you’ve likely had at least one teammate who was a total ball hog. We tend to think of these selfish players as black holes (or assholes) who play only to pad their stats and steal the spotlight. But what else could it be? What if you learned that the selfish kid on your team shoots every time she touches the ball because her parents only validate her value and worth as a person when she scores?
While merging from one freeway to another the driver in front of you slows dramatically, almost dangerously, as they navigate the seemingly easy exchange. Honking, swearing, and words like “Learn how to drive you stupid ______” tend to flow freely from many a driver in this situation. But what else could it be? What if you learned that the 42 year-old man who slowed is actually an excellent driver, but that his teenage son was killed on this exchange 3 months ago and today the first time he’s had the heart to take the same road himself?
And then there’s my grandmother. She’s 90 years-old and every morning she washes her coffee cup in the bathroom sink despite constant pleas from my family to please leave it, we’ll get it. I gently remind her that California is in a drought and that the coffee stains the sink. This happens every morning and each time she says, “Ah darling, I forget.”But what else could it be? What if Grandma doesn’t forget? What if washing her coffee cup is the only way a woman who no longer drives, or handles money, or does any housework feels like she’s being not a complete burden on her family?
The three stories above are true, and just as true is the ease with which we often make determinations about a situation without knowing the whole story.
Next time you find yourself assuming the worst, try asking, “What else could it be?”. Perhaps an elephant sized shift in perspective might be the kind of training we can all use to cultivate greater compassion.