We do it all the time. We may or may not be aware that we’re doing it. And all too often, we get it wrong.
What is “it”?
Assigning motivations to people they may or may not have.
Whether at work or at home, we are constantly trying to make sense of other people’s behavior. This is especially problematic when that person is behaving in a way we don’t like, understand or expect. We think to ourselves:
I would never do that to someone I care about. He is so self-centered.
I can’t believe my boss said that to me. She clearly doesn’t respect me.
He’s intentionally trying to make me look bad. He’s so manipulative.
How can she not see she’s completely wrong? She’s stupid and incompetent.
Who behaves like that? What on earth were they thinking? How could they be so thoughtless?
In conflict situations we assign motivations to explain the other person’s behavior or communication. And we rarely assign positive motivations. We explain that person’s unexpected or unwanted response by slapping a label on the person: lazy, unkind, stupid, incompetent, thoughtless, self-centered, egocentric, manipulative, disrespectful.
Assigning motivations is unproductive at best, and can be downright harmful if we guess wrong. Does the other person truly want to harm us? Are they purposely trying to make our life more difficult? Are they being thoughtless because our well-being really doesn’t matter to them?
While their behavior may come across that way, is that their true intent? In conflict situations the true intent is rarely a desire to cause harm; it’s usually a desire to be understood.
Here are two ways to stop yourself from assigning motivations people may or may not have.
#1 – Clarify motivations– theirs and yours.
First, identify the motivation you’re assigning to that person and ask yourself, “What if that person’s motivation is not (to hurt me, make me look bad, disrespect me, etc.)?” Is there another explanation for their behavior?
Second, share your motivation or intent with the other person, ‘cause if you’re wrong about them, there’s a good chance they’re making false assumptions about you. “My intention isn’t to bust your chops, it’s to (find ways we can communicate more clearly, understand why you made that decision/choice, achieve a mutually shared goal.)”
#2 –Give them the benefit of the doubt
Dale Carnegie was famous for his advice to “give someone a reputation to live up to.” When we assign a motivation, we are actually giving someone a reputation to live down to. We are focusing on behavior we don’t’ want vs. what we do want.
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
“You’re a smart guy. I know you can do better than this.”
“I know this project matters to you, which is why I don’t understand why you missed the deadline.”
“I know you’re a conscientious person. Let’s look at how your actions affected the people around you.”
“I know it probably wasn’t your intention, but when you interrupted me in the meeting it came across as disrespectful.”
“I know this mistake wasn’t intentional. But it was serious. What solutions can you come up with to make sure it never happens again?”
“I know you care about me, which is why I didn’t understand when you did (said) X.”
We cause ourselves a lot of pain and needlessly escalate conflicts when we assign motivations to people they may or may not have. Use these techniques and give yourself a chance to clear up misunderstandings and create more effective outcomes.