Have you ever had a conversation with someone and instantly assumed the worst about what they’ve said? If you’re honest with yourself, you probably do it all the time. I do it frequently, if I’m honest.
One of the toughest parts of life is communication. Within Distilled, the company where I am blessed to work, we have a manta that says:
Communication solves all problems.
One of our founders, Will, even wrote it on our whiteboard in our office before he left after visiting us for a week last December from the UK.
In every relationship, whether a professional or romantic one, communication will be hard. Different people have different ways of referring to things and use a different vocabulary than we do. Some people aren’t specific, some have a certain vernacular they like to keep to, others don’t express themselves well at all.
At this point, you must be doubly sure to assume the best from the person, especially if they have never given you reason not to! If you go to the negative and automatically assume that they didn’t have your best in mind, you’ll almost inevitably end up attacking them instead of seeking to understand and using it as an opportunity to build relationship instead of breaking it down.
Instead of “Why would you say that?” turn it into “What do you mean by that?” Instead of “Oh I disagree with that”, say “Can you explain that a bit more? I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying”. Instead of saying “Why would you do that?” ask yourself why the other might have acted that way.
It Goes Both Ways
Every relationship takes two. While it’s hard to be on the end of not being understood, remember that it can also be frustrating to not understand what the other is talking about. I’m pretty convinced that this is why people often respond with something accusatory like “Why would you do that?” It’s fear, plain and simple. That person, in that moment, is being self-protective (and self-protection is not wrong, but when taken too far it can be) and their response take the shape of accusatory instead of seeking to understand and open up.
I’ll use an example here that my friends have written about. Rand and Geraldine, two of my friends in Seattle, have a great relationship. Rand is the CEO of SEOmoz and someone I greatly respect, and Geraldine is his hilariously awesome and spunky wife who blogs on The Everywhereist. Rand wrote about the experience on his site, which I will quote at length (emphasis mine):
…the Monday after the discovery of her tumor (the prior Wednesday or Thursday), I went into the Mozplex and told our exec team at lunch what was happening and that I might need to take a break for a little while or a long while from work stuff. That afternoon, I called an impromptu company-wide meeting. I stood in front of ~60 Mozzers, including plenty of close friends of Geraldine and mine, and told them about her tumor, and the potential possibilities (we didn’t yet know it was relatively treatable). I was so choked up, I couldn’t get through half the sentences. It wasn’t my finest moment in front of my team. I think I made half the staff cry with me, and probably instilled more fear and uncertainty than anything else. It was Crystal‘s first day at Moz, so I tried to look at her and tell her, since I didn’t know her at all and I couldn’t cry in front of someone new, right? That was probably horribly embarassing, difficult, and unfair for her.
But the worst part was… I hadn’t checked with Geraldine about telling the company.
She later joked about this on her blog and to our friends, but it was a huge, collosal, monstrous fuck-up. Possibly the worst one I’ve made in our 11.5 years together. And of course, she forgave me, and teased me about it, and we moved on (after making some clear rules about sharing).
I only share this example because I know Rand and Geraldine talked about it (and obviously shared it publicly) and it’s been a big building block for their relationship. You see, Geraldine could have flipped out at Rand and not sought to understand where he was coming from as a person who is scarily transparent. On the flip side, Rand could’ve been angry at Geraldine for wanting some privacy. And both of them probably were angry/frustrated, but at the end of the day they gave each other the benefit of the doubt and worked it out.
This is how it should work, but notice I didn’t say that it took place instantly (I bet it didn’t). Sometimes, giving the benefit of the doubt takes time.
Give Yourself Time
Most of us hate having something hanging over our head. I know I do. I detest having something unsettled. As I’ve gotten older and matured, and had more experience under my belt, I’ve learned a few lessons.
First, sometimes it takes time to get better. This is ok. As long as you’re processing and thinking and working through why you reacted how you did, you’re moving forward. At some point you need to come to a resolution, but give yourself time to think about it. When you screw up, try to figure out why and then try to do it differently the next time.
Second, communicate as you work through it with the other person, if the relationship merits it and they ask for it. A professional relationship might not be the right place for it, but if it’s a personal relationship, friendship or romantic, and the other person wants to process it with you then communicate it! This is relationship building, not destroying, if done right.
You’re going to screw up. It happens. When it happens, take a step back and ask yourself why you reacted that way. A self-aware individual is the most powerful type, though, because we fight our demons and move forward through life.