Why can’t they just be nice? Is it really so hard to spread love instead of all this hatred? Why do they have to be assholes?

It’s a common theme and it was pandemic throughout 2020. Mean people suck and it’s your job to be nice. Those people over there just aren’t being nice. But I am.

The irony in all this is that in my history as an attorney, I’ve heard people on different sides of issues regularly. And the narrative is almost always the same on both sides. I’m being nice and expressing love. The other side is spewing nothing but hate. They can’t both be right. Often times they’re both wrong.

In Emotional Embuffination the book, I have a chapter on the fragility of the human ego. There I explore some of the defense mechanisms we have to protect ourselves. They generally involve an inability to see your own flaws, while seeing very clearly those of others. In other words, I can tell if you do something wrong. But I have a hard time detecting when I did.

That begs the question, how exactly do we go about NOT doing the wrong things, how do we know we are the ones in the right, and how do we know we aren’t being assholes? After all, we might secretly be the asshole and simply not realize it.

While the psychological defense mechanisms which protect our egos make this analysis difficult, a major way to alter your external experience is to change how you’re approaching the world in the first place. The way to do that is by training yourself to be calm, generous, and caring. Doing so will inherently alter the way you interact with conflict when it arrives.

1. Experience Nature.

One important way of altering how you interface with others is to make sure you spend time appreciating nature. While this may sound overly simplistic, it’s actually supported by research.

In one of a fascinating string of experiments, researchers broke subjects into two groups. One group was told to stare at a beautiful grove of tall eucalyptus trees for a minute. The second group was told to stare at an impressive building for a minute.

Each group was measured for various emotions. The group that stared at the trees reported less anger than the building group.

Even more fascinating, researchers staged an accident in front of each group. At the end of the minute of staring an experimenter walked up with a bunch of surveys and pens. The pens were dropped on the ground. Researchers then measured how many pens subjects helped to pick up. The group that stared at the trees picked up significantly more than the building group.

Lastly, each group was given survey questions designed to test ethical decision-making and entitlement. The group that stared at the trees presented as being more ethical and less entitled.

The moral of the story: get outside. Go on a hike. See some scenery. Spend a few minutes appreciating it. If you can’t get outside, follow my Instagram page (which generally has lots of outdoor pics). It can change the way you act by making you more helpful, less angry, more ethical, and less entitled. In short, it’ll help to eliminate asshole behaviors.

2. Stop Watching the News.

When people are scared, anxious, or hurting, they tend to act out of very primal places. Have you ever seen someone that was stressed out of their mind who just snapped and blew up at you over absolutely nothing?

With that principle in mind, it makes sense NOT to do things that will significantly amplify stress, anxiety, and negative feelings. The news is one of those things.

Here again, there’s research supporting the principle. As just one example, look here. Anecdotally, think about what you saw throughout 2020. Most people were obsessing over the news. The CDC found a significant increase in the number of adults with anxiety and depressive disorders between August of 2020 and February of 2021. (Note that’s just one example-there are tons). While some people suffered the tragedies of job loss or death of loved ones, many experienced nothing more than working from home and watching too much news but were depressed or anxious regardless.

The most common objection to the idea of not watching the news is that people should be informed. The presumption is they need to know how to vote in an informed way or they need to know if some catastrophe is coming. However, the time you spend watching the news rarely does anything to alter your voting habits. Most people make a decision and then reinforce it. And if some catastrophe truly is going down and you could take action to avoid it, you’re going to hear about it. I almost never watch the news and people love to tell me what’s going on. I knew about COVID long before I heard anything about it on the news.

Another common objection is it informs you in a way that will help you to discuss the issue with others and therefore change their position. However, people rarely alter their entrenched positions as a result of someone arguing with them. Indeed, there’s research showing that once we’ve made a decision, arguing only reinforces the decision. (See Chapter 10 of Emotional Embuffination).

Accordingly, if you want to decrease your stress, anxiety, and overall negative emotions, turn off the news. By reducing all those negative emotions, you’re going to interact with people differently. You won’t be stressed out and you won’t be on edge. The result is, you’re way less likely to be an asshole.

3. Meditate.

A regular regimen of mindfulness meditation helps reduce overall stress, anxiety, and generally improves well-being. Here again, there’s research supporting this. Additionally, it provides a calmness that can be tapped into in the midst of conflict.

Mindfulness meditation is simple to do, though still requires practice. To learn more about the specifics of how to do it, click here.

Like other solutions, by altering the way you approach conflict you’ll be way more likely to resolve it in a positive way. Meditation helps you to come to the table calmly and approach problems without losing your cool. That in turn goes a long way in avoiding a response that makes you look like the asshole.

4. Express Gratitude.

Habitual expression of gratitude does two things. First, it alters how someone else perceives you and consequently acts towards you. If others think you’re expressing gratitude related to them, they’re more likely to feel positively about you and to help you.

Second, it alters your general well-being. A number of different research studies have shown regular expression of gratitude alters individual well-being. See this article as an example or see Chapter 18 of the Emotional Embuffination book to learn more. As indicated above, by improving your well-being, you change how you interact with others. That can significantly reduce conflict and alter the perception others have of you.

Accordingly, if you spend time regularly expressing what you’re grateful for, you’ll lessen the chances that you’re going to act or be perceived as an asshole.

5. Focus on Solution Instead of Blame.

When things aren’t going how we want them to, the common impulse is to start pointing fingers. We love to talk about who is at fault. However, doing so takes focus away from resolution of the problem. It also makes whoever has the finger pointed at them very defensive. All of that makes it a lot harder to get out of the undesirable situation.

Instead, develop the habit of focusing on what would make things better. What action steps can you take to improve what’s going on? Pour your energy into those. In so doing, you’ll be more likely to fix things which is going to make you feel better and behave more nicely. It will also stop you from making people defensive and having them perceive you as being an asshole.

6. Look at Yourself.

Humans have a lot of psychological self-defense mechanisms designed to protect our fragile egos. I elaborate on these in Chapter 7 of Emotional Embuffination, the book. But this means if we’re doing something toxic or problematic, we’re usually the last ones to be aware of it.

That necessitates some serious introspection. A constant desire to grow and improve your weaknesses comes in part by taking a serious look at yourself. What can you improve on? What are you doing poorly? How can you become a better person?

Further, there’s some research indicating that actually seeing yourself in a mirror increases the probability that you will act morally. That means that if you look at yourself both literally and figuratively you’ll see your weaknesses, improve yourself, and act like a better person. The consequence is people are less likely to perceive you as being an asshole.

7. Journal.

Lastly, if you aren’t working through your feelings they have a tendency to surface in very negative ways. When you start snapping at people because you haven’t processed the frustrations you’ve been dealing with they aren’t going to like you very much.

It’s therefore critical you do something to manage emotions. One great way to do that is journaling. If you journal, you’ll work through frustrating things. In so doing you’ll pour less negativity on others. Consequently those around you will be less likely to see you as an asshole.