My anger was rising. Every time he spoke, I grew more frustrated and irritated. I could feel my blood pressure rising, my face flushing, my lips tightening, and my shoulders hunching forward. I knew that I was furrowing my brow and that my voice was growing flatter and more menacing with each verbal exchange.
While I did not physically fear for my safety, I did feel threatened. I felt ambushed, cornered, and criticized. I was not happy. My greatest desire was to make the conversation end — quickly.
And, I was falling prey to a common problem in conflict resolution.
I was responding to my fight-or-flight response rather than responding logically and rationally to what was happening. I was withdrawing into my own perspective without objectively hearing the other person’s.
I was assuming that he had the intention to verbally attack me. When I heard his words through the filter of intentional attack, I could not find the focus and ability to remain objective. I became almost totally self-protective, and I went on an attack of my own.
Was his voice volume elevated? Yes.
Was he leaning forward? Yes.
Was his face flushed? Yes.
Did his tone sound like aggression to me? Yes.
Did his body language look like aggression to me? Yes.
Did he intend to be aggressive? I didn’t know.
Assuming a person’s intention is a pretty dangerous thing to do. In reality, we don’t know the other person’s intention unless they tell us. In most cases, we only know what we assume to be true about their intention based on our past experiences and our own emotional filters.
The leverage point for better self-control lies in recognizing that we have the power to choose our assumptions.
In the example above, I could have assumed that the other person was passionate about the topic rather than angry with me. With that one shift in perspective, I would have changed my focus from self-preservation to problem solving. I could have listened better and kept my responses more controlled.
By making the assumption of benign intent, I could have moved the conflict from escalation to resolution.
In this case, sadly, I did not make the switch. I chose a negative interpretation, and I escalated right along with my partner. The conversation did not end well.
Fortunately, we spoke again on a different day, and we had a more positive outcome. It ended well, but it took far too long to get there. My contribution to the excessive time investment started when I assumed that he meant to attack me verbally.
It turns out that he did not intend to attack me. He was merely frustrated over the situation, and I saw it as an attack.
The fight-or-flight response that causes our bodies to respond under the influence of adrenaline is a wonderful thing when we face a physical threat. And few of us face a physical threat in most conversations.
Choosing to assume that the other person has benign intent can help you to control your response so that you can be the one to move towards resolution by showing empathy and understanding rather than anger and judgement.
Assuming benign intent could prove to be wrong. The other person might actually mean to verbally attack you. If that is the case, you can escalate if necessary. Even in many situations where the other person intends an attack, you can deescalate the conflict by making the positive assumption and responding kindly.
The assumption of intended threat almost always leads you to respond in ways that escalate even minor misunderstandings. The assumption of benign intent can give you the time and self-control you need to respond in a way that resolves the conflict.
If you want to do everything that you can do to move a conflict conversation towards resolution, remember to assume the other person has benign intent.
(Check this post on Why Conflicts Escalate for further insights on this topic.)