What happens when we only have a little information?
Have you ever had an experience like this? You’re talking to someone and they say something like ‘For the first month we worked together, I thought you didn’t like me’ and you think what? I never disliked you. You ask them to expand and they sayWell you always walked by and never said hello. You never invited me to lunch but you did invite others. I just figured you didn’t like me.
You’re blown away. You thought they didn’t like you for the same reasons. What is going on here? How could an event like this happen? Perplexing, yet it’s a fairly common scenario. Both of you made assumptions about the other person based on a limited amount of information. Without having the information directly from them, your brain filled in a story for you. If we aren’t careful, many of these stories end up with a negative tint.
Why we start making assumptions.
When you’ve only had limited interactions with someone, it’s easy to make assumptions about the way they’re acting. Every minor detail becomes more significant because you have so little to work with. You then take those small details and run them through your own filters and your rules about how the world should work. If they don’t match up, we may make uncharitable assumptions.
The other person has their own rules and filters they run the world through too, though. Rarely are individuals taking actions that they believe are wrong. Typically, we look at the situation we are in, evaluate the evidence and do what we think is justified. With everyone playing by different rules, we run into perception problems.
We’re not as socially calibrated as you might think.
You might think most of us are socially calibrated, however, misunderstandings arise far too often. We may be calibrated on the big things, but even slight variations in assumptions and rules can create problems. A quick example; We might smile at someone thinking it’s warm and encouraging, but it’s slightly different than the smile they expect so it comes across as sarcastic and disingenuous. Processed through different filters, the intentions don’t match the perception at all.
Well, don’t we have to make some assumptions?
What can we do to combat these natural biases? How can we live in a comprehensible world if we don’t internalize some rules and values? I’m not saying we should entirely disregard others’ behaviors, however, it’s worthwhile to contemplate a few options instead of jumping to a negative conclusion. Here’s a few tools you can try.
First, it’s worthwhile to brainstorm a few ideas about what their intentions might be. How might they be interpreting the world differently than we are? Flip the scenario and imagine you’re them. Try the perspective of if it were me and I were acting that way, what would I have to be thinking? I would probably only storm out of a meeting if I was already having a difficult day. Maybe they’re not just throwing a tantrum, but instead other stressors are piling up at home and they hit their limit.
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
If you don’t have enough information to make a reasonable guess, give people the benefit of the doubt. The next time you’re stuck in traffic, you don’t need to assume the next driver cut you off intentionally. You can imagine they made a mistake and you were just in their blind spot (the truth is irrelevant, you don’t have enough information).
You may not be the type of person to intentionally cut off other drivers, but you’ve definitely made a mistake before. That scenario makes it easier to relate. It’s not simply positive thinking, it’s a way to frame your experience which provides greater emotional control and understanding of others’ intentions. We’re all doing what we think is right, for the most part. The closer we can get to understanding their why the easier it becomes to digest scenarios.
Another method you can try is being straightforward. Simple, right? Instead of fabricating people’s intentions, ask the why behind them. You’ll be surprised how often there’s a discrepancy between their intentions and your perception. This won’t always be an option, but when it is you can gain a lot of valuable information.
Of course, asking people their intentions needs to be done tactfully. You have to create an environment where they’re comfortable talking to you candidly. Don’t make character attacks or imply motives, simply indicate you want to understand better and focus on the action itself. You’re always rude and never say hello in the mornings, why? Or You never say hello in the morning, does that mean you don’t like me? is far more invasive than It seems like you don’t say in the mornings, I’m curious as to why? I just want to understand your habits a little better.
Communicating curiosity, instead of judgement, provides a more approachable platform for others to share their feelings and intentions. When you seek to understand, instead of escalating the situation, you create space to open a dialogue. While not every assumption is this drastic, small misunderstandings can build into large ones and it’s more efficient to take care of them as soon as possible.
Feel better about how you filter the world.
By limiting the assumptions we make, we empower ourselves to get to the truth. Creating our own stories almost always comes with a negative bias which can snowball into stressful and emotionally charged situations. Hopefully these tools help you realign to a more realistic perspective. If you have any tools of your own, we’d love to see them in the comments!
ANSWER THE EXERCISE IN THE COMMENTS: Think of an action someone did recently which you didn’t understand. Tactfully ask them what their thoughts and motivations were behind the action. Genuinely seek to understand them better and take note of anything you find surprising.