These simple steps will stop you jumping to the wrong conclusions about others – and make it less likely that others will do the same about you

One of my Practical Appreciative Inquiry students recently shared this article from the Axios website on LinkedIn: Simplest workplace principle: Assume positive intent

The title pretty much gives away its its central point: that assuming the worst about people mostly leads to misunderstanding and drama, so instead, assume there’s a positive intent behind their behaviour until proved otherwise.

They give some sensible recommendations:

1) Ask, don’t think. Most of life’s problems can be solved instantly if you calmly and clearly ask someone who offended or irritated you what they intended to do or say. Don’t ask in a condescending or aggressive way.

  • Then listen.
  • Do this one thing in person and you’ll ease lots of tension.

2) Talk, don’t text. Typing words is a terrible way to capture the nuance of human emotion. You cannot resolve tension at work or in your personal life on Twitter or in texts. Pick up the phone or go old-school and actually talk to a person, in person.

3) Don’t talk crap. At Axios, we make it super-clear that we’re intolerant of anyone talking about colleagues behind their backs. It’s a fireable offense. You’re expected to take your grievances directly to the person, honestly and respectfully.

  • The only thing worse than assuming negative intent is gossiping about it and spreading the problem. That’s how Small Things become Big Things.

That’s how to stop yourself assuming the worst about others (and sensibly they point out that you shouldn’t ignore patterns of toxic behaviour).

But how to do you stop misunderstanding flowing the other way – other people making assumptions about you and misunderstanding your motives?

There’s a great tip from Gervase Bushe’s excellent book Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work: to stop people jumping to conclusions about what you say and do, give them enough information about the way you see things so that they don’t feel they have to fill in the gaps with guesswork and gossip.

So, especially in times of crisis, your communication needs to cover each of these four areas:

  • What you observe
  • What you think or believe about it
  • How you feel about that
  • What you want to happen.

Sensemaking is normal human behaviour – so making it clear how you see things, what you think and feel about it, and what you want to happen satisfies people’s sensemaking instinct without them having to ask you (which can be anxiety-provoking), make up likely reasons in their own mind (which will be coloured by our natural human tendency to assume the worst), or go to sympathetic colleagues to invent stories, most likely wrong, to explain your behaviour.

If you would like to learn a format to encourage teams and groups to have constructive conversations about where things are now and they want to get to, and come up with new and creative ideas to get there, consider joining the Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training – the next one starts soon!

How to Reduce Misunderstandings at Work

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