What’s happening, really?

Sally, a small business owner, shares an idea with an employee, Joe, who furrows his brow as she speaks. Sally assumes that the young man is ready to criticize what she is saying and gets defensive. She begins to build a case in her mind about Joe. “He reacts negatively to any ideas I bring up about the business. I am the boss around here. He should just do what I tell him.” (In her upset, Sally forgot she was just exploring an idea.)

It is only in a facilitated conversation that Sally understands that Joe was trying to understand her idea and how to implement it. And Joe now understands that Sally, even though she spoke in a confident manner, was actually just floating an idea that she wanted to explore with him. It was not a decision or a directive. What they thought was happening was not really what was happening.

The source of many conflicts that I have helped resolve are the assumptions or judgments (often negative) that people make about what others are saying, thinking or feeling. Sally assumed Joe was being critical of her idea; and Joe assumed Sally was giving him an order.

The most difficult part of facilitating the resolution of misunderstandings is helping people distinguish between their direct experience (what they have actually seen and heard) and their interpretations and judgments about it. It’s tricky in part because direct experience includes not only what we see and hear but also our internal reactions to what we see and hear (body sensations, emotions and thoughts).

Judgments are people’s reactions to the entirety of their direct experience. It is difficult to tease apart internal reactions from external occurrences. And people’s judgments occur very quickly and usually unconsciously, often with very little data. People then become confident that their interpretation is correct and act as if it were reality. Sally assumed Joe was being critical and Joe assumed Sally was telling him what to do and they reacted accordingly. Since this pattern of assumptions had been going on for a while, their relationship was beginning to fray and Joe was considering quitting.

It is an act of humility and wisdom, to pause, not assume your interpretation is correct, and ask, “What’s happening, really?” This question enables you to describe what you are observing, “I notice that you are furrowing your brow;” and ask a question like, “What does that mean?” Or, you could share your observation and interpretation about what you are seeing. “You seem to be furrowing your brow. Do you not like my idea?” In other words, you are not assuming that your assumptions are true!

Misunderstandings often originate from people’s negative and incorrect interpretations of one another’s words and facial expressions. People, especially leaders like Sally, can avoid misunderstandings by noticing their interpretations and deciding to ignore them or check if they are accurate. In other words, by determining what’s really happening, not what they think is happening.

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

1 thought on “What’s happening, really?”

  1. I have seen these scenarios happen so frequently in my career. Thank you Mary for reminding us of these simple miscommunications/misunderstandings. It really is so important to stay curious and not infer.

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