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Where Things Go Bad (Assuming/Interpreting) AND How Things Get Better (Asking/Listening)

Sherry feels she has done an outstanding job on the new report she has created based on the parameters given to her by her boss, Kurt. But Kurt doesn’t give her kudos on it, or even acknowledge it. Sherry worked hard and after hours to make her report outstanding and get it in on time, and she feels hurt that Kurt didn’t even give it a nod. These are all facts, but soon, interpretations a

nd assumptions start playing a role, which quickly sends things sideways: Sherry assumes that when Kurt has not responded he didn’t really care about either the report or the extra effort she put into preparing it, and these assumptions have made her angry and resentful. The next day, in a team meeting, Sherry is quiet and doesn’t offer any comments or feedback about an upcoming project the team has been working on, even though she has some concerns about it. She was hoping for a plum assignment on this project, but now assumes Kurt isn’t happy with her and has picked someone else.

For his part, Kurt hasn’t had the time to respond to the report, and is also feeling stressed about the delays that the team is experiencing with their big upcoming project. He is also frustrated that Sherry’s report didn’t have some of the data analyzed in the way he’d gotten it from the team member that Sherry recently replaced, and he assumes that her quietness is the result of feeling uneasy about not providing that analysis. He thinks she realizes the plum assignment will be going to someone else and that’s why she is quiet. He also assumes that in not offering any comments about the team project, that she hasn’t identified any real concerns about it.

How many times have you seen this kind of situation, whether at work or in other areas of life? And how often have you found yourself making assumptions about others thoughts or intentions, unwittingly unable to distance yourself from these interpretations? When we make assumptions, particularly those that lead to us feeling threatened or frustrated, it triggers a physical threat response that includes all the fight or flight chemicals in our nervous system. That response diverts us from being able to think more clearly, so we don’t recognize when we are making interpretations and assumptions, and we get emotionally hijacked. Things go from bad to worse, and fast.

Fortunately for Sherry and Kurt, Sherry had some recent training about self-leadership in interpersonal and team dynamics and better ways to navigate those dynamics. By the end of the meeting she recalled the training’s key points: recognize when you are making interpretations and assumptions, then request a conversation to check in to make sure team members share a common understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions behind what they’ve said and done.

As the meeting broke, Sherry realized she hadn’t asked for feedback on the report, and she hadn’t asked about the project role, so she requested a brief chat with Kurt on the way back to their respective offices and he agreed. It quickly became clear to Sherry that he did appreciate some new data and analysis in the report, even though he was frustrated about the analysis that did not appear. At that moment, however, he realized that he hadn’t yet mentioned to Sherry that he wanted this analysis. Sherry was fairly new in the role and this was the first time she was generating the report. The team member she had replaced had left before she’d had a chance to understand all the report’s details.

Recognizing Kurt may have made his own assumptions, Sherry felt exonerated. She didn’t want to forget to air the concerns about the big team project that she had kept to herself earlier, during the meeting, too. Those concerns opened Kurt’s eyes to some significant flaws in the project planning he hadn’t considered. She also identified some possible origins in regard the project delays that he hadn’t been aware of. This indicated to him that Sherry had some advanced strategic planning and team networking competencies he was unaware of. Those skills would be important to the project, and by the time he walked into his office, he was now reconsidering Sherry for that team role assignment.

Sherry and Kurt each did get one assumption right: during the meeting Sherry assumed she was no longer in the running for a key role in the team project and Kurt assumed she knew she wasn’t getting that role, but just about all of the other supporting beliefs and assumptions they had in regard were off-base. It’s so easy for relationships to go bad, and for group outcomes to get bogged down, when unchecked interpretations and assumptions are made. And while it doesn’t always lead to such neat, happy, and rapid resolution, asking for the thoughts and intentions of others can go a long way to clearing the air, and to better results. It does take some training and coaching for most people to get there. If you’re looking for better results in your group, reach out to us to discuss it:

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