We’re all so enamored of our own opinion, it’s sometimes hard to imagine why anyone would do something we see no sense in. So it’s easy to dismiss a decision we don’t understand as being foolish, which means we think the person who made that decision is foolish. And it’s certainly possible they are. But that assumption turns out to be wrong more often than it’s correct. Here’s a case in point.
The wrestling match
A couple of years ago I was attending my son Matthew’s junior high wrestling meet. Each match takes place on a mat with a circle twenty-eight feet in diameter as the wrestling area. The coaches are allowed to sit in chairs just outside the circle. But they’re not allowed to venture far from their chairs or come inside the ring.
At one critical point, Matthew’s opponent had him on his back, close to being pinned. Matthew’s coach slid out of his chair and onto his knees to shout instructions and encouragement to help him break out of the hold. Even though his coach was still outside the circle, and only a few inches from his chair, the referee waved him back. The rules are, after all, the rules.
After the match was over, I had about an hour until Matthew wrestled again. I tried to be productive, so I pulled out my laptop to get some work done. But the cheering for the other matches occasionally distracted me. At one point I looked up to see the coach of one of the other teams running all the way around the circle to coach her wrestler, madly waving her arms around. I knew what was supposed to come next, so I looked at the referee. But he didn’t do anything. “How could he miss that?” I thought.
A moment later, she ran around to the other side to get closer to her wrestler again, and this time even stepped inside the circle waving more signals. “Well, that’s not fair,” I thought. My son’t coach wasn’t even allowed to get a few inches out of his chair, and this woman is running all over the mat!
I could have spent the rest of the day being angry at “that stupid referee” and “that cheating coach.” Or I could have gotten up and done something about it. But then I asked myself,
Let’s assume there is a legitimate explanation for this. What could it be?”
Nothing came to mind, so I kept watching, looking for a clue. Importantly, I was really looking for—and honestly hoping to find—a good reason this obvious violation was being overlooked.
And that’s when I saw it. The woman running around the ring wasn’t the boy’s coach. She was his sign language interpreter. The boy was deaf. His coach was sitting in his chair outside the ring, exactly where he was supposed to be. This justifiable exception to the rule was made to level the playing field. Suddenly my son and his coach didn’t seem unfairly judged. In fact, I gained a whole new level of respect for that official and the organizers of the meet for making these arrangements.
When we start with the open-minded assumption that the rest of the world isn’t full of idiots, it’s amazing what good sense we’ll find in other people’s decisions. Next time you, or your kids, find yourself complaining that someone else’s statement or decision is “stupid” or “doesn’t make any sense,” try this. Assume there’s a good explanation for it. Then see if you can figure out what it is. Odds are you will.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What might have happened if I had reacted to what I first thought was unfair treatment by the referee?
- Have you ever heard someone say something like, “The world is full of idiots,” or “Most people can’t think their way out of a cardboard box”? Do you think that’s true?
- Describe a situation in which you were the one that was thought silly because someone didn’t understand the truth of the situation.
- Most of the time, we’re too quick to judge situations like this. But what are situations where it’s important to make very quick judgments and decisions?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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