I admit to being not very good at following the rules. It’s always important to me to understand what the rule is for and if it is really necessary. So, when faced with an instruction, I usually come back with why? Or I have suggestions to offer as to how things can be done differently. It does not always make me very popular! Also, I can see how it can be challenging for someone trying to enforce the rules.
Ways of following the rules
Of course, we need to have all kinds of rules in order for society to function well. It just seems to me to be important how you decide to follow them. There are the kind of people who enjoy their authority. They seem to take pleasure in wielding the small amount of power that enforcing the rules gives them. They are generally not interested in explaining the rules, just in making you follow them. It can be tough to be at their mercy.
Then there are people who use empathy to help them administer the rules. These people try to see through your eyes and to understand where you might feel challenged. Conversation with people in this category can help you to understand the rules you are being asked to follow.
My recent experience of following the rules
A couple of months back I had a direct experience of both of these types of people in authority. My partner and I went through an extraordinary week of loss and bereavement. We lost two people very close to us through cancer. First, my partner’s brother passed away in Amsterdam. Then a week later a very dear old friend passed away in the South of France. We wanted to attend both funerals and spent an anxious week making arrangements to make it possible.
My brother-in-law was cremated on a Friday. Straight after the funeral my partner and I left for Schiphol airport to catch a plane to Girona. It was the quickest and most efficient way to get to Roqueronde, where the second funeral was going to be held on the Saturday afternoon.
Both of us were quite exhausted and emotionally frail with all the grief and worry we had been through, but we were very relieved to be able to attend both ceremonies.
Security at Schiphol Airport
I am always a bit uncomfortable going through airport security. There is always a slight feeling of waiting for something to go wrong and on this occasion it did—spectacularly.
We usually favour checking in our luggage when we fly. It’s good to minimise the hassle of security. This time we were taking carry-on luggage because we were in such a hurry. We completely forgot the 100ml maximum for toiletries. We had bought brand new tubes of the cream my partner needs for his skin and the gel I need for my rheumatism. Of course, they were all bigger than the allowed size.
Although we had our outsize tubes in the designated plastic bag, our case was still hauled off the conveyor belt. With her rubber-gloved hands the young woman dealing with us rummaged through everything. She was completely deaf to our explanations—which soon became entreaties—that we needed the creams, that they had never been opened and would cause no harm.
There was even an underlying feeling that she enjoyed the drama of taking about €60.00 worth of creams and throwing them all away.
Bus drivers at the long-term car park
In contrast the bus drivers at the independent long-term car park definitely came in the category of people following the rules with empathy. The arrangement is that you park your car in a protected area and then catch one of the buses that the firm have running between the car park and the terminals. When you return, there is a bus scheduled to collect you.
The driver on the way out was very friendly and helpful. He was happy to talk but kept quiet if you had little to say. He noticed my difficulties getting in and out of the bus because of my rheumatism and made sure he was on hand to offer an arm. I really got the impression that the boring routine of the job came alive for him through the people he met and helped. For him following the rules was simply a skilful means.
Our flight back was already and late evening flight and then it was delayed. We rang to warn the drivers but were still anxious that it was too late for them to wait. Imagine our relief to find the bus waiting patiently at is allocated place in a cold and rainy Schiphol. As I tried to run, he waved me down and shouted for me not to hurry. He tucked us up in the bus and drove us back to our car. We really felt we were home.
We don’t know what is going on for people
There is a quote that I like very much and often use in my workshops:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
The quote is attributed to Ian Maclaren, as well as Philo, Plato and Socrates. I don’t know which of them actually said it, but it carries a deep wisdom. As we encounter people during our everyday activities, we really have very little idea of what is going on for them. The woman at security did not know we had just been to one funeral and were on our way to another.
The thing is, if we allow ourselves to take just a moment of reflection to consider how life is, we can see the truth of this quote. We all want our lives to go well and to be happy but so often things go wrong and the very things we want to avoid happen to us anyway. The very fact of being alive means that we can be in the middle of all kinds of worry, anxiety, and fear, as well as hope, inspiration and happiness. The point is that we do not know and therefore it could be a good idea to make sure our behaviour does not add to someone’ pain.
There can be many occasions when we are distracted, or overwhelmed and our wish to be kind gets pushed aside. Remembering that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle could help to focus our attention.
Barriers to empathy
When you own opinions about the type of person you are encountering overwhelm your ability to relate to them. Among others this can refer to sexual orientation, social class, race, nationality and work occupation.
We referred to this earlier when we discussed the kind of person for whom following the rules comes first.
If the problem you are dealing with is happening a long way away from you either in geographical distance, or emotional distance then it can be easy to disengage from it.
This happens when we dissolve any sense of responsibility for actions that are taking place.
In my experience the woman at the security desk bumped into all four of these barriers.
To put it simply, the main antidote to these barriers is humanising the other. Instead of taking distance we engage. We try to look at each human being as being just like us, with feelings and hopes and fears. Sweeping statements and broad generalisations are set aside. Instead we look at the particular circumstances and individual needs. There is curiosity to really know about people and things. We take time to pay attention.
My insight about following the rules
These barriers to empathy can be crude and obvious but they can also creep up on you in surprisingly subtle ways. When I look back on the thoughts and feelings that I had concerning the woman at security, it dawned on me that I too was bumping into the same barriers. In my distress, she became the ‘other’ for me. I was ready to fault her on the way she was doing her job without giving any thought to how she might feel as a person. Just seeing her at her post in her uniform made me feel uneasy. It built up from there. So, although I am of the opinion that staying kind while following the rules is very important, I would now add another point. When you are being subjected to the rules, you also need to keep your heart open towards the person making you follow them.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.