I drive my kids to school on most mornings that I am not on the road. I like the uninterrupted time with them early in the day. It's a great part of my day, and I have come to look forward to the 20 minute drive each morning.
This morning, my oldest daughter got in the car and immediately turned to look out the window. I could only see her hair hanging over her face. Her posture resembled the picture in this post.
I attempted to start a conversation with a light-hearted (or so I thought) comment about how our day had begun. “We all had trouble getting out of bed this morning. Didn't we?”
In a somewhat disdainful tone (my interpretation), she said: “Yeah. I guess so.” She continued to look out the window with her head turned away from me.
I thought I had said or done something wrong. In an effort to connect, I said: “Did I do or say something to irritate you?”
Raising her voice a bit and speaking with an edge (again my interpretation), she said: “Nooooo.”
At that, I fell silent. She continued to stare out the car window. I continued to assume that she was angry. I searched my mind for the right thing to say. I almost chastised her for being angry with me when I had done nothing wrong. I wanted to “calibrate” her attitude because I assumed that she had a bad one.
Then I thought of what I have written and said in the past: Don't attach your intentions to other people's behavior.
I hate it when my own words convict me. It's really frustrating.
I took a moment and thought about her behavior style and her morning. She is reserved. She is slow to speak. She is slow to get moving in the morning. She had woken up late and felt rushed in her morning routine. I realized that my assumption that she was angry with me just might be wrong. She might be thinking about something else. She might not be thinking about me at all. I decided to remain silent so that she could process her thoughts. I decided not to push her for engagement.
As we approached her school, she turned to me and said: “I don't know why I was thinking this, but I was. I wonder if I would have been tried as a witch during the Salem witch trials because I have two different color eyes.” As she spoke, she had a half smiling, half questioning look on her face. The “angry” and “sulking” child was gone. Now she seemed engaged and happy.
From that starting point, we had brief, fun, engaging conversation before she departed the car for her day at school.
My initial assumption had been wrong. She was not angry with me. She was thinking about something else, and she was not ready to engage.
I am happy that in this interchange I remembered to question my assumptions about her intent. I am happy that I put into practice what I teach about conflict resolution and communication skills. I wish I always had the presence of mind to do so.
I believe that teams, families, and non-profit organizations would all perform at a higher level if team members would maintain a sense of wonder about things rather than a sense of judgment. What would happen if we could always question our assumptions? What if we could ask questions to clarify other people's perspective rather than label their perspective? What if?
(Originally published in my Resolving Conflict in Teams Blog.)
Photo courtesy of www.sxc.hu.