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Huh?!  Am I Reading You Rightly?

by ELISABETH SEAMAN, with JACK HAMILTON

Co-Authors of Conflict The Unexpected Gift

A friend sent me a text with pictures of colorful fabric scraps she has. In my response I admired the patterns and colors of the material and told her that in my community, people are asking for cotton material to make masks. In her next text to me she wrote, “Have you thought about pitching in? Even cutting fabric for others is a huge help.”

I was somewhat taken aback by my friend’s question as I felt it almost as a rebuke that I could do more to help out in the current pandemic situation. Did she think I wasn’t doing enough? I also asked myself the question. To be honest, I felt a bit of a sting in the way she put the question to me. I knew she meant no offense, nor to suggest I wasn’t doing enough. And yet, her words rankled. I soon realized I had climbed a Ladder of Assumptions about what she had written.

I acknowledged to myself that I had created the following Ladder:

Setting: I’m sitting in my home with my mobile phone reading a text from a friend.

Facts: My friend texted me photos of colorful scraps of fabric she had collected. I texted her back, writing: “I like the patterns and colors of the fabric in the photos. In my community, people are asking for cotton material to make masks.” My friend texted me back, writing: “Have you thought about pitching in? Even cutting fabric for others is a huge help.”

Interpretations: I felt a bit of a sting in the way she put the question to me. I took

her words as a rebuke, chastising me for not doing more to help out in the coronavirus pandemic situation.

Motives: My friend thought I wasn’t doing enough to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, and was trying to urge me to play a more prominent role in doing my civic duty.

Generalizations: She saw me as one of those apathetic individuals who need to be prodded to get moving, and become more active in doing their fair share of the mundane tasks someone else might not have time for or want to do.

Actions: My friend’s words rankled me for a while after reading her text and got me to thinking why I was so annoyed by them. I decided I’d read negativity into what she’d written and finally realized she was only asking the question in case I might be interested in helping with the making of masks.

I recalled that a colleague of mine had recommended I read a paragraph written by Adam Grant in his May 8 New York Times Opinion editorial. He wrote: 

“It’s worth remembering that when people disappoint us, it’s not because of their actions. It’s because their actions fell short of our assumptions about how people should act. You can’t control what people do, but you can choose not to let their actions drive your emotions.” 

Understanding this can go a long way to building and maintaining good feelings among family members, friends and even strangers.  It’s never too late to acknowledge that however we interpret someone else’s behavior or words, it is only from one point of view – our own. And our perspective is only one of many possible ways to consider something. Whenever we rush to judgment about someone, as I did by racing up a Ladder of Assumptions about my friend, we need to face the fact that we could be wrong.

As we write in our book, Conflict—The Unexpected Gift, “Each time we feel the need to be right and make critical judgments about others, we create seeds of conflict. Making negative assumptions about others instantly, and not accepting them the way they are, is self-defeating and adds fuel to the fire of disharmony. We need to observe our behavior toward others in the moment, and check it out by trying to figure out why our mind rushes so quickly to making assumptions about them.”

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