When we passed each other, he looked at me sheepishly and waved. Clearly, he did not see my car. I'm guessing that he did not intend to create a heart stress moment for me. It just happened. He's human.
After I waved to him to let him know that I understood, I thought of the times I have seen other people react totally differently. In fact, I thought of times when I have reacted totally differently. I thought of people yelling, honking the horn, and offering a one-finger salute rather than a friendly wave.
At that moment, I saw a connection to workplace conflict. The anger and escalation of road rage often begins by misinterpreting another person's actions.
When someone pulls out in front of you, cuts you off, or stops short; they either did it for the purpose of annoying you or they didn't. If they didn't do it to annoy you, they probably just reacted to what they thought they saw as they decided to pull out, change lanes, or stop.
Since I have pulled out, changed lanes, and stopped in ways that frustrated others without meaning to do it. I think it's fair to say that not everyone who does something to cause you stress in traffic intended to do so. In fact, I don't recall ever intentionally driving my car in a way that annoyed another person. I'm guessing that most people don't intentionally annoy others either.
What, you might ask, has this got to do with workplace conflict?
It's all about the interpretations we place on other people's words and actions. In the situation I mentioned at the start of this post, I assumed that the other person did not see me. I assumed that he had good intent and just made a mistake. As a result, I didn't get angry with him.
In other situations (when I have been less under control), I have thought that the other person saw me and pulled out despite the fact that they saw me coming. I assumed negative intent, and I got angry.
The same thing happens in the workplace. Someone does or says the wrong thing. Or, they don't do or don't say the right thing. Whatever the situation, it happens, and we assume that they “meant to do that.” With that assumption about their intention, we get angry, and conflict begins to grow.
I have noticed that the vast majority of people seldom do things for the purpose of causing other people frustration and aggravation. It usually happens unintentionally.
When things go wrong in our interactions with others, we have a choice. We can choose to assume that they meant to frustrate us, or we can assume that they made an innocent mistake.
I suggest starting with the later assumption.
I'm not talking about naive, polyanna type assumptions. I realize that some people actually do enjoy frustrating others. I'm just saying that most people don't.
Why not start with the assumption that applies to most people, and minimize the risk of conflict even beginning? You can always adjust if necessary rather than starting with the negative assumption and escalating a conflict without reason.
Image by wherisat on Flickr.