Category: Social Skills

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]


Boredom is a Sign of Complacency

Wayne Shorter jazz composer

This guy composes free-form jazz. Figure that one out.

I was listening to NPR earlier today and overhead this enlightening interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter. Just heading home after getting a beer with a friend, I listened to Wayne talk and answer questions:

Something I say is that boredom is just a sign of complacency.

He was talking, of course, about Jazz. People who listen to something new, like free-form jazz (or classical music, or whatever offends the palate–for me, it was actually Top 40 pop music that set off my alarms for a long time), they might be confused or offended, or more likely, just plain bored.

Change the radio station. Find the comfort zone. Don’t be willing to doubt your first reaction.

Embrace your skeptcism and protect it. It keeps you safe and warm and unchallenged, like the ugly threadbare blanket from your childhood. That blanket is cherished and sentimental–sure, but is it really keeping you warm? Or are you just afraid to grow?

Wayne Shorter went on to say ridiculous things during the interview, like talking about how when he played with Miles Davis and his band, they never rehearsed or talked even about music. They just talked to each other. Listening to the way the other person said a phrase was enough to riff off of later: they could hear something in the cadence of the other’s voice that was echoed in their improvisations, if the other musician cared enough to listen really closely.

Jazz isn’t about safety. It’s breaking out of a form, not fitting into one.

That quote was  taken from my memory, not from what Wayne’s own mouth. It might not be exactly right. Call it jazz, if you like. Here’s a direct one:

No one really knows how to deal with the unexpected. How do you rehearse the unknown?


For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’

Full circle:

Boredom is just a sign of complacency.

If you are bored at work, bored by your coworkers, bored by your boss–are you just being complacent? Have you given others permission to like you? More importantly, have you given yourself permission to like them? To enjoy the work and push yourself beyond the work’s less compelling exterior to the truly interesting, human bit hidden inside of it? It might be in there. Look for it.

Some of the music I most love I didn’t like the first time I listened to it.

Love at first sight is the happy exception, not the rule.

I didn’t love any of Rufus Wainwright’s albums wholly, not at first. It took me awhile to warm up to Fleet Foxes’s self-titled album. I didn’t understand Sigur Ros’s ( ) well enough the first time through to say much other than “I don’t think I like this. But it’s interesting, in a weird way, maybe.” Thanks goodness for the latter part of that first impression. Listening to Sigur Ros has taught me something new about being a human being, but it didn’t until the 3rd or 4th listen.

The same goes for the other people around you. Everyone has a superhuman ability. The difference is whether their environment has nurtured that superhuman ability or not. If it’s been stomped and tamped down, or if someone has watered that ability with a refreshing draught of encouragement and support.

You can focus on a person’s flaws and all the things they do that are stupid. Many people do. It’s easy to dismiss people. It’s risky and strange and often hard work to find the gem of talent, insight, or worthiness (C.S. Lewis would call it “glory”) that’s enbedded deep in the geode of neglect and self-doubt that encases many people’s talents.

Not being able to see and encourage the best in someone isn’t realism or being a straight shooter or the other person’s fault.

Your boredom with others is complacency.

My boredom with others is complacency.

And while it’s a tragedy that we aren’t there to offer the (literally) transformative  word of encouragement and support and belief, it’s a far greater tragedy that we can’t learn something from that person. When you can’t see through the haze of superiority, you’re losing something.

“Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not that we should expect to be perfect at appreciating people right away. It takes time and practice to develop a skill, and listening to people and learning from them is a skill. I have a lot of learning ahead of me, and an embarrassing amount of needless boredom behind me.

But it starts with a change of mindset.

If you aren’t willing to do battle with a first reaction when you listen to a weird song, you might not be missing out this time. But if you adopt a mindset of not being willing to listen, you will miss out, eventually. It’s easy to believe all of Katie Perry’s songs are trash. (and some might be–but do you know about the ones that aren’t?) It’s easy to believe Les Miserables is too long a book for you to enjoy. You’re not really “a reader.”

The point is people, music, books, and causes are far too interesting–and matter way too much–to be bored by them.

Mastery comes after practicing (and being uncomfortable).

Boredom is a sign of complacency.

Delight is a sign of engagement.

[Image source: Murphys Law]