Social learning theory posits that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction. This theory points to learning through interaction, relationship and instruction by others. If this basis is true, then wouldn’t it also be true that all learned “truths” that we have as unique individuals are also uniquely ours? As no two people have shared exactly the same actuality as they developed and moved through the myriad of experiences that brought them to current day living; it would make sense that no two people share the same realty, even if looking at exactly the same picture, idea, poem, lesson, etc..
I believe that our realities are shaped so much by our fears, experiences, positive relationships, and day to day minutia, that it is next to impossible for two different individuals to see the same situation in the same way. It’s as if we wear lenses, or spectacles, that are entirely biased by our learned perspective. If we view life experiences so different from each other day to day, wearing our so called “perspectacles”, how are we ever able to agree on anything? Or come to general conclusions with each other?
This biased perspective that each of us holds is the root cause for so many miscommunications between individuals and especially within couples. How many times have you looked across the table at your partner, in the middle of a heated argument, and wondered…how in the world did they come to that conclusion? When both people are faced with the same situation, conflict, or event, how is it possible for it to be viewed in such different ways? The answer is rooted in the the very basis of how we learn things as human beings.
When we are babies our parents point at square object sitting on the floor with weird symbols on it and say “book”. We have no idea what the sound “book” means but we hear it and a small seed gets planted in our minds. A few days later, our parents say the same sound to us again and pick up the square object off the floor while doing so. As this continues to occur over the course of our beginning months of life we begin to associate the sound “book” with the square object our parents are pointing at, picking up, or reading from. Then maybe our parents ask us, “Can you say book?” while pointing to the object. As babies just beginning to speak, we try out the sound and are immediately rewarded with positive reinforcement in smiles, loving gestures, and excitement in our parent.
This positive reinforcement motivates us to continue to practice and work on making our parents give us that good feeling again. Eventually through trial/error and repetition, we internalize the sounds that go together making a one syllable noise “book” as the square object with the symbols on it to the point where we don’t even have to think about it anymore as the word just automatically pops into our head. This becomes our internalized knowledge and it is how we learn everything. Everything gets learned in this manner: what to fear, what feels good, what is right/wrong, how to take care of family members, talk to others, and what love looks like. Everything.
If social learning theory holds to be true, then this would mean that everyone has had unique and different learned experiences around everything that has formed their world view. So when you have a couple in an argument and the husband stops talking and is silent, the wife will interpret that with the learned experiences that she has associated with that behavior. For example, if her father (in the midst of an argument with her mother) used to be silent, when he was about to hit her mother across the face, her reaction will be one way; however, if her father used to be silent to allow his wife to have some space to formulate her thoughts in the argument, her behavior will be different. Based on what she has learned, this same behavior in her partner can evoke fear, or security. One of the main causes of conflict with couples in working through their issues together, is that there is no one way to view any shared experience. All of us utilize our own perspectives to determine what we believe to be our personal truth, we identify it as right or wrong, and then act according to this belief system that we hold in place.
So if this holds true, how do we learn to interact with each other in a healthy manner? How do we have shared respect and room for individual opinions allowing for an appreciation for the differences in our shared realities? The first step is to recognize that this is everyone’s truth and your way of seeing the world and your reality are your unique perspective and yours alone. Having a general respect for the fact that everyone you meet will see the same thing as you in a different way can help you to get over your bad self, tell your ego to take a deep breath, and minimize your frustration in collaborating with others.
After you open up your perspective to allow for differing opinions, I encourage you to humble yourself and ask questions of whomever you are connecting with. Don’t make assumptions with what your “perspectacles” are telling you someone is feeling based on what you think is going on. Learn to have the courage to ask questions and be curious about someone else’s experience. One of the best ways to encourage someone to feel like you are truly open to a different point of view is to have genuine curiosity about them. You are sharing your time with a unique individual who has learned things much different that you. For example, they may have painful past experiences or trauma they are trying to work through, or maybe they struggle with trying to identify their own feelings in the moment; you never know what someone else’s journey is about. Be compassionate and patient and hold open your heart as you hear someone’s truth. It doesn’t have to change your perspective or mind, but it should help you to understand that this person is not you, but is instead uniquely their own individual self.
Finally, in addition, I encourage you to see if you can catch yourself using negative judgement when considering persons with vastly different viewpoints from your own. See if you can begin to appreciate and have an openness towards others that may be be new for you. When in an argument or discussion with your partner, try a genuine curiosity about their point of view and ask them about it in a non-judgmental way. My bet would be that your relationships open up into a brand new closeness as you begin to understand and stay open to the uniqueness of your partner. This new skill will work effectively for you in all collaborative relationships: at work, in your family, friendships, and in dealing with the guy at Starbucks. I think honoring everyone’s unique perspective makes our world a more interesting place full of individuality. I mean how boring would it be if everyone was the same?
Stacey Neil, LMFT is a licensed Psychotherapist and Certified Personal Trainer who has a private practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.