MCLEOD: Why I want to invent a time machine for empathy

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

Do you ever wonder why people act the way they do?

I had an experience with a friend recently that revealed just how much of our backstory we bring into our interactions, and how little we know about the backstory of others.

We were hosting a surprise party for a friend who had just turned 50.

At the end of the evening, I was sitting on the couch with one of the other hosts, a good friend who had brought her middle school-aged daughter to the party. The daughter, who is usually somewhat shy, asked me if I'd like to buy some magazines to support her band.

Before I could answer, the mother jumped in saying, "Don't ask Ms. McLeod that." She was clearly embarrassed that her daughter would give me a sales pitch at a party.

I had an opposite reaction. My response was, "You should totally ask me that. I would LOVE to buy some magazines."

Before you cast judgment on either of our responses, here's how the rest of the conversation played out.

Because the mother is a good friend who, like me, is interested in understanding why people act the way they do, we dissected our different reactions.

The mother said that the moment her daughter asked me to buy magazines she went into autopilot, hearing her own mother's voice say, "Don't be a bother." She was raised with the mantra: Don't ask people for things. Don't interrupt adults. Don't make people feel uncomfortable.

That's her backstory.

Mine is different. I also went into autopilot, but after decades of training salespeople, my immediate response to the daughter was, "You go girl!"

I'm a teacher at heart. When a kid approaches me trying to sell something, the narrative going on in my head is: Be proactive. Make a difference. Try your best. I want to reinforce to that kid: You have the power and ability to ask for what you want.

Two different backstories; neither is wrong. But they demonstrate how even in the most seemingly simple, low stakes situations, we all bring the backstory from our past into our current interactions.

Which leads me to why I want to invent a time machine for empathy. What if you had a machine that enabled you to go back in time and experience someone else's past?

What if you could go back and experience your spouse's childhood exactly the way they experienced it? Would you better understand their quirks and beliefs? Would you have more empathy for their fears and insecurities?

What if you could experience the past 10 years of work the way your boss had?

Would you understand why he or she gets frustrated and angry about certain things? Would it make you want to be more supportive and helpful?

What if you could experience your parents' childhood? Would you better understand why they acted the way they did? Would you be more grateful and forgiving?

For most of us, the answer to all of the above questions is yes. When you understand someone's backstory, their behaviors and actions make more sense.

Sadly, there is no such time machine. But you can create a similar experience in the here and now. Ask about someone's backstory, and use the knowledge to be more empathetic.

Once I understood my friend's reaction, I was able to say, "Your daughter isn't bothering me at all. There's nothing I love more than buying something from a girl with a good sales pitch."

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," which the Washington Post named as a "Top Five Book for Leaders."