Last November, I wrote a blog post about dealing with difficult people. I told a story of coming together for a family dinner at Thanksgiving. About a week after the post was published, someone wrote to me and chided me for being insensitive to the COVID-19 pandemic and for not following the recommendation to avoid family gatherings of any kind. I wrote back and explained how disappointed I was that this person, who happened to be a consultant, would make such negative assumptions about me and my behavior. I explained that the story I told had occurred two years prior to the pandemic and that I had used that story to make the point about the conversational challenges some may have. They emailed back and denied making any assumptions.
This situation reminded me that we often make unconscious assumptions which can create challenges. Our brains assemble bits and pieces of information and make judgments, interpretations, and evaluations at light speed. We presume that our thoughts are factual and we act on them, saying things or behaving in a way that is based on incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information. Unfortunately, when we respond in this way, we may create more problems and challenges than we intended.
Here are nine questions that you might ask yourself to evaluate the degree to which you are making assumptions.
1. Does your past or your history impact what you are currently thinking? We are all subject to responding based on our past experiences and current frame of mind. However, if you tend to see people or situations in a negative light, do you ever stop, recognize what you are thinking, and ask if there is a different way to interpret the current situation?
2. What facts or evidence support your view? If you go looking for facts or data and you cannot find any, then recognize you don’t have complete information. We all fall prey to the Fundamental Attribution Error, which simply states that in the absence of data, we fill in the gaps, often in the worst possible way. Looking for observable information forces you out of your emotions and opinions and creates a degree of objectivity that is important to achieve before you take action.
3. What do you think you know? This question forces you to surface your view of the situation and causes you to examine what you don’t know. Once you can admit what you may not know, a variety of different perspectives will emerge providing you with added insight.
4. Is there another way to interpret the facts you are observing? Although I mentioned this idea in the first question, it is worth considering this question by itself. Asking and answering this question requires a stretch on your part. Once we see things a certain way, it takes deliberate effort to make yourself interpret the same events in a different way. This exercise will force you to pause and think differently, pushing you out of your comfort zone and allowing for the possibility that your initial thoughts may be wrong.
5. Do you give people the benefit of the doubt? We are so often quick to judge others inappropriately or even unfairly. We tend to judge others based on their behavior rather than on their intentions. In fact, that is how we often excuse our own behavior because we judge ourselves based on our intentions. It’s easy to excuse our poor behavior if we understand our intent was positive. Additionally we must admit that we really don’t know what a person’s intentions may be without talking to them. Giving a person the benefit of the doubt requires us to ask more questions than merely keeping our thoughts to ourselves and assuming that we know their intent.
6. Are you a positive or negative person? If you don’t know, then this might be a tough question to answer. You may need to ask a few people to share their honest perspective and experience with you. If they tell you they don’t know, find someone who will be candid with you. How you tend to perceive things influences how you think and react toward others, particularly when they don’t meet your expectations. Because we tend not to see ourselves the way that we are seen, understanding your general mood and demeanor can increase your self-awareness, allowing you to make conscious choices about how you will act toward others.
7. Are you a skeptical or disdainful person? These types of individuals simply disagree with anyone that doesn’t think like them. They are not interested in exploring and understanding the perspectives of others. They are more focused on pushing their point of view. They usually don’t understand that “pushing” against a person usually creates more “push back,” rather than creating mutual understanding and appreciation.
8. What is behind your negative or “hot” emotion? Because our emotions say more about us than they do about others, learning to look for what is behind our feelings can pay huge dividends. When we experience negative emotions, it is usually because we didn’t get what we wanted—our expectations were violated in some way. For example, if I become angry when the members of my team are late for our weekly meeting, I might assume that they don’t value the meeting, the issues at hand, or take their responsibilities seriously. I have learned that my emotional reaction stems from my personal value of commitment. My reaction occurs because I project my value for commitment onto the members of my team. So, when they don’t show up on time, I may become emotional because my expectation in this instance has been violated. The problem is that many do not understand their own values or expectations. People behave a certain way and our emotions seem to automatically appear and hijack the situation. Our emotion masks the reason for the reaction, so the challenge is to discover the meaning behind our emotion.
9. Do you assign negative thoughts, emotions, intentions, or motives to others? When you are unaware of how your thinking impacts your behavior, you can almost assuredly bet that you are making incorrect assumptions. Listen to yourself and how you talk about others that upset you. You might notice your behavior toward others and ask yourself what your behavior says about your thinking. Do you have the facts or are you just filling in the gaps about what you think you know? Once you recognize what you are doing and the thinking behind your actions, you can challenge the accuracy of your thinking by looking for evidence to substantiate your actions.
Whatever your role in your organization, a leader, manager, or team member, it makes no difference. If you hope to improve your personal and professional relationships, you need to slow down and stop and think about what you are about to do or say. Assess whether your thoughts are accurate and complete. Take the time to surface and challenge your thinking so you don’t make false assumptions and damage valuable relationships with others.
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