Misinterpreting other people's intentions creates one of the biggest challenges I see in much of my coaching and training work. I suppose this is a natural part of human nature. Often, the only frame of reference we have for interpreting other people's behaviors is our own. As a result, we often interpret their behaviors based on how we believe we would react or behave if we were in their situation.Unfortunately, we often don't know everything about their situation.In a post earlier this week in Settle It Now, Victoria Pynchon states:
Harvard negotiation gurus Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman suggest that negotiators too often confuse hidden interests and constraints with irrationality. The mistakes and solutions when this is the case?
- Mistake No. 1: They are Not Irrational; They Have Hidden Interests — find out what they are and you may well be able to resolve the dispute and settle the litigation without putting any more money on the table or making any further concessions;
- Mistake No. 2: They are Not Irrational; They Have Hidden Constraints — keep one ear to the ground for hidden constraints, explore them with the mediator, opposing counsel or the opposing party; often those constraints can be problem-solved away;
- Mistake No. 3: They are Not Irrational; They Are Uninformed — listen and respond; respond and listen. You will find that EACH of you is uninformed about something that will likely make a genuine difference in the manner in which the litigation is resolved.
This observation points to the tendencies of negotiators. That's a key point, Malhotra and Bazerman reference the behaviors of people referred to as negotiators. Generally speaking, negotiators enter situations where they have the opportunity to research the other person's position and to plan a strategy for the negotiation. While I have not read this particular work, I imagine that many of the situations considered as they wrote it involved a good number of experienced negotiators – attorneys, mediators, and business owners with training and/or experience that should help them overcome the natural tendencies the authors reference.
Negotiators with the time to research and prepare a strategy struggle to overcome the tendency to draw false conclusions about the other party's rationality, ethics, or intentions. So, what hope does the average work team member with little or no training in negotiation and mediation skills and forced to respond to rapidly changing situations have to overcome this natural human tendency? If they insist on assessing other team members intentions when conflict arises, not much. If they focus on the specific behaviors they see in the other person, pretty good.
For the sake of clarity, I'll define the difference between a behavior and an interpretation by quoting from another article I wrote:
- Rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful, arrogant, obnoxious, flighty, unfocused, smart aleck, and pushy are interpretations.
- Interrupting, rolling eyes, speaking loudly (or softly), shrugging shoulders, looking away, walking away, and tone of voice are specific behaviors.
When you force yourself to focus on specific behaviors rather than on your interpretation of the other person's intention, you stand much better odds of remaining in control of your emotions to find a reasonable resolution to most workplace conflicts.