As I read about, study, and work to apply effective conflict resolution techniques, I see one common and overwhelming problem develop in workplaces, families, and social organizations. I see the same problem develop just about everywhere I see people interact.
What is this huge problem?
People make assumptions about other people's intentions.
Sadly, they often make wrong assumptions about the other person's intentions.
This behavior is so common and so prevalent, I have written about it on at least two other occasions.
In one post, I told the story of how I started down the path of wrong assumptions in an interaction with my daughter.
In another post, I shared an observation I made about an interchange where one person based their entire interaction with another person on their assumptions about the other person's intentions without ever asking for clarification.
Recently, I had the opportunity to observe another interchange between two people who got seriously engaged in a heated conversation because one of the parties took offense to what he believed to be the other person's intentions. For the purposes of this post, let's say their names are John and Joe.
In a small meeting setting, Joe raised a question about something John had proposed in a previous meeting. I heard Joe question the proposed approach to solving a problem. Apparently, John heard Joe question the necessity of solving the problem.
John's body went almost immediately rigid as he turned to face and lean toward Joe. His voice tone grew sharp, and his volume went up. In all fairness to John, I don't really know what he was thinking. I did perceive his tone and body language to become aggressive.
The conversation got progressively more heated as Joe and John spoke.
As they continued, John made direct, negative comments about his view of Joe's intentions. He used words like:
- “You just said that because you want to…”
- “You didn't have the courage to speak earlier about…”
- “I knew you would do this to me…”
In rapid succession, John manged to:
- Negatively label Joe's intentions,
- Attack Joe's character, and
- Express his view that Joe was doing something “to” him.
It only got worse from there, and it all began with John's assumption about Joe's intention.
John immediately assumed that Joe had a negative intention. His response followed the classic conflict escalation cycle almost perfectly. From this negative interpretation, he went to anger (my interpretation of his emotional state), and both parties found themselves locked in a negative conversational spiral.
Had John been willing to question his assumptions about Joe's intention and then to engage in conversation and dialogue rather than in attack and recrimination, the situation would likely have gone in a totally different direction.
The next time you find your assumptions about another person's intention leaning towards the negative, stop yourself for just a moment and question your assumptions.
- Did they mean that as an attack or simply as a statement of their opinion?
- Are they attacking my character or are they just trying to understand my approach?
- Did they mean what I think they mean?
I'm sure you get the point. Take just a moment to slow down and question your assumptions before you dive into the conversation.