Monday, March 10, 1997

Understanding Human Behavior, Uh Huh, No Sir I Reckon It's Not Easy to Do

Having just completed a month long course at the Humphrey Institute called Managing Human Behavior I was reminded of just about the only truism I've learned over the past thirty two years: the more you are around people, the less you understand human behavior.

The course, taught by Mike Johnson, who during the day teaches business courses to students at the University of Minnesota's Dental School, was one of the better management classes I've attended. We began by studying the elements that influence people's values and to understand that someone who was born during the Depression years in rural Iowa probably doesn't have the same values as a Generation X'er raised in Seattle. To try and manage both people the same way is ludicrous. Once the understanding is there that people have different values and thus have to be approached differently, the class shifted focus to motivating employees. The theory presented was that a person cannot motivate another person, that the best a manager can do is to provide an atmosphere where employees motivate themselves.

This perhaps was the course's strongest point: the acceptance that hard as people try, as much time as we put into trying, we really cannot change another person. We can't get someone to value the same ethic or morals that we do nor can we make someone we find it difficult to deal with actually less difficult. We can however change our own perceptions and actions, learning how to turn conflict and differences into something positive, how to make change something to strive for as much as we strive for constant improvement.

My recent attendance at a current movie reinforced some of what I learned in class. Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade is a very special movie, the rare film that creates a world so familiar and yet so different than anything previously experienced. Thornton's character of Karl is someone never quite seen before. He has been described by some as the "dark side of Forrest Gump" based on his lack of mental quickness and minimal social skills. Yet where Gump was a character that represented some kind of pseudo-fable, Karl seems every bit real. Like M*A*S*H's Captain Tuttle, there is a little bit of Karl in each one of us.

The movie begins with Karl's release from a state mental hospital where he has been for thirty years since killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old. The doctors, as Karl says, have decided he is now right in the head. At first it looks as if there is no way he will ever survive out in the "real" world and indeed early on he tries to return to the hospital. But then he is befriended by a boy, and the boy's mother and we begin to see that Karl is a most complex simple man.

The movie earns every bit of its unforced sentimentality. While Karl is confused by his foreign surroundings, at the same time his quiet little existence and self taught philosophy, a reaction from the dark shadows that follow him, are the logical response to a world that he describes as "too big." His moral basis, the Bible, which he says "took him four years to read and he reckons some of it he doesn't understand," helps him make his decisions about what is right and wrong. Yet it is through his contact with other humans where his real education, and his real morality shine through.

The movie is laced with three dimensional characters that we understand on an unusually deep level- that is to say like in life we don't know what ultimately motivates them yet we have seen enough people like these characters to know how we react and respond toward them. Dwight Yoakam gives an inspired performance as Karl's nemesis, a man who Karl sees as truly evil. Where Karl understands and accepts his own limitations he knows Yoakam will never reach that same level of understanding. Yet in the end Karl's quiet philosophy of human nature and of Yoakam's character gives him all the advantage despite the difference in mental abilities.

Sling Blade says more about humanity, people's insecurities and peculiarities, human behavior and the walls and bridges that separate us while bringing us together, better than any work of fiction I've seen or read in quite awhile. It contains several lines of beautifully written dialogue that don't seem written, because the characters are fleshed out well enough where we accept and enjoy whatever manipulation might have distracted in a lesser movie. Indeed it plays out like a good novel creating characters that are uniquely familiar, helping us to follow their path while learning a bit about ourselves along the way. And perhaps that is truly the best way to understand another human- through our own motivations and behavior.

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