Being mindful of why we do what we do in the world can be hard work; interpreting why others do what they do, on top of monitoring ourselves, is a recipe for disaster. The problem with interpreting others’ actions is that the things we make up about another person’s behavior is almost always negatively skewed:
• Sally interprets her husband’s silence as him not caring,
• Scott interprets his wife’s upset as her thinking he’s a terrible husband,
• Karen thinks her best friend said no to a joint family trip because she thinks Karen’s family is too unhealthy to be around.
The second problem is that these interpretations are often not only wrong, but they also frequently cause more of a problem than the original behavior itself. The reality is seldom what we think it is and not nearly as bad as we think it is:
• Sally’s husband’s, acutely aware of his not talking, has tried on many occasions to push himself to talk. He’s frustrated and shocked it was so hard.
• Scott’s wife thinks Scott is a great husband—except for the fact that anytime she’s upset with him he gets defensive and takes it personally.
• Karen’s best friend said no to the joint family vacation because she is ashamed about how her family acts with one another and doesn’t want Karen to think less of her.
Humility is a necessary ingredient in healthy relationships. Believing we know why others do what they do is anything but humble. The truth is that you no more know why I do what I do than I know why you do what you do. And that’s a good thing. If you think you know what’s going on in someone’s head, then ask the person if you’re right. If they say no, then be humble enough to believe them. Don’t be tied to your assumptions—they’re just assumptions—not “truths.” Stop believing that you know better; you don’t.
Unchecked assumptions of any kind have no room in healthy relationships. They set up friendships, hurt businesses and harm intimate relationships. Rather than assuming, when in doubt, check it out. Don’t be tied to your assumptions and don’t allow your assumptions to make an already difficult issue even more difficult. Slow down. Deal with the issue at hand, not your interpretation of it, and ask for what you need.
Challenge: Pay attention to your assumptions and how they escalate or de-escalate an already difficult issue. Practice either checking out your assumptions or letting them go. Notice the shifts this one change makes in your relationships.