Fighting the Habit of Assuming the Worst


When we’re in a relationship for any length of time, we form impressions of the other person.

Sometimes our impressions are right, but other times, we’re way off base.

First impressions are useful because there are times we have to make snap judgements about others and think on our feet (is this salesperson trying to scam me?).

But in a longterm situation where cooperation is most important (think marriage, coworkers, bosses) these assumptions can calcify and get in our own way.

[In arguments], the parties’ relationship tends to become entangled with their discussions of substance. On both the giving and receiving end, we are likely to treat people and problem as one. Within the family, a statement such as “The kitchen is a mess” or “Our bank account is low” may be intended simply to identify a problem, but it is likely to be heard as a personal attack.

Getting to Yes, 20

Nothing is stopping me from assuming a potential client is snubbing me when she doesn’t respond for a week. Or that my boss is trying to push me out of that important project when I’m left out of the latest development. Or that the offhand comment my friend made was a secret jab at me. But are these assumptions helpful?

Assuming the worst is scary because

  • It becomes habitual, meaning we don’t notice we’re doing it (instead, we treat our impressions as fact).
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the worst often means changing the way we respond, and actually creating the distance we imagined.

Fighting the Habit

Today I read a great (and hilarious) story about an SEOmoz employee who challenged his boss about an uncomfortable comment she made about another employee. This is a great story about how trust in relationships is built–and how easy it is to (even justifiably!) misconstrue one another. It would have been easy for there to be less openness in SEOmoz’s work environment, and for the employee to never talk about his discomfort.

Potential ways to fight the habit of assuming the worst:

  • Identify assumptions. When you feel negatively about a person, situation, or interaction, stop and think about why you feel that way. Try to figure out your assumptions and seperate them from what actually happened and was said.
  • Test assumptionsOften this is as easy as asking someone a question.
  • Prepare to be wrong.
  • Assume positive intent.

A passage on that last bullet point:

Our relationships at work are sometimes corrupted by negative assumptions that snowball over time. A colleague speaks out against our idea in a meeting, and we think, He’s trying to show off in front of the boss. If this happens another time or two, we might conclude he’s a “brown-boser,” a label that will become self-sustaining …

To interrupt this cycle, some organizational leaders urge their employees to “assume positive intent,” that is, to imagine the behavior or words of your colleagues are motivated by good intentions, even when their actions seems objectionable at first glance. This “filter” can be extremely powerful.

‘… If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed… you don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’

Decisive, 108-109

Understand your negative assumptions, acknowledge them, then actively act the opposite.

When we adopt a habit of assuming the best, we have the same side effects as above (with a twist):

  • It becomes habitual, meaning you foster goodwill until you are explicitly shot down.
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the best often means changing the way we act, and actually dissolve other people’s negative assumptions.

[Image source: deflam via photopin cc]


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