People struggle to communicate. We struggle to say the important, vulnerable thing to our spouse. We struggle to ask for raises or reassignments. We struggle to set boundaries with or make requests of our colleagues.
Oftentimes we are struggling because we have already drawn a set of conclusions about the outcome of the conversation so we never bother to have the actual conversation. Or we think we know why someone is doing something we don’t like or appreciate, and that assumption about some else’s motives turns into a story about that person. Slowly those stories we have about other people begin to feel like facts.
But something feeling like a fact does not make it true.
Judith Glaser, in her work around Conversational Intelligence, called this habit we human beings have “climbing the Ladder of Conclusions.” (Glaser, 2014)
We all make up stories in our lead about why another person says or does something.
· When someone talks over us in a meeting, we write a story about why they did that.
· When someone is late with a reply or promised project, we make up a story to explain why.
· When someone else is praised for their work and we are not, we create a story about this too.
In every case we are trying to explain “Why?” from our point of view.
But we are trying to explain “why” in relationship to our own emotions, because first we feel, then we think. It is our feelings, layered with our thinking about our feelings that creates our beliefs about other people, and color our conclusions about their intentions.
I am continually reminding people of two things:
1. Learn to assume the best intentions in others.
It will make your life happier, and your relationships easier.
2. Check your assumptions.
Investigate. Ask. Find out. Not from one third party, from the person you are making assumptions about.
Yes, I am suggesting you go and actually have a conversation with the person you think doesn’t like you, …who looked at you “funny , … who did not reply to your invitation.
Here’s one approach:
Ø Ask if you can talk over coffee or lunch or a break. This signals more time, relaxed environment.
Ø Let them know you are curious to learn what you can make the relationship better.
Ø When you meet, let them know you want to better understand their point of view, and offer your own firsthand experience. Then share your stories. Both the facts and the story you are making up in your head. Use the language, “the story I am making up in my head…”. For example: “When you didn’t reply to my email, the story I made up in my head was that my idea was bad, and you don’t like me.”
Ø Share the impact your interactions have had on each of you. Describe also the positive impact you want to have on them in the future.
Ø Talk through your ideas about how to make the relationship better in the future.
We spend a lot of time believing the wrong thing about other people’s intentions. I know, because at least 30% of my time coaching leaders is spent helping them find ways to think through the stories they are making up about other people, and figuring out how to simply talk with them directly.
So the next time there is someone you have written a big story about, take a moment to walk down the ladder of conclusions: set aside your conclusions, challenge your beliefs, separate your thoughts from your feelings and then from the actual facts.
Remember, even the best relationships have some tension in them from time to time. When we check our assumptions, assume best intentions, and seek to understand the other point of view, more often than not we find common ground. And common ground is where trust is found.