Thanks to technology, information constantly speeds around the globe. At work, a deluge of emails, voicemails, text messages all compete for our attention – alongside back-to-back meetings, conference calls and rushed hallway conversations. It can be difficult to keep it all straight. And the deluge of information increases our desire to plow through it, without taking the time to pause and give real thought to what we are receiving.
Which leads us to the common problem of misinterpretation. Most of us are getting good at figuring stuff out: If communicators aren’t clear and direct, we ask a question. If we can’t do that, we make assumptions and take our best-guess. And, if it doesn’t work out right, it’s easy for us to place all the blame for the confusion on the Sender.
However, this increasing reliance on our own interpretive skills moves us into the path of a different kind of misunderstanding. The kind that threatens collaboration, trust and coordination of work. Suddenly, we “guessers” can begin to see more than what the message says. We trust that our intuitive understanding of the Speaker is the truth – the way we trust our solid interpretation of more factual data.
Here’s an example: A team member comes to you in distress. He’s just received a request from another team in the building, and he feels that the email message is condescending and rude. With a dramatic flourish, he shows it to you.
You read it. Seems to be brisk and to the point for sure. But, from your read, the words themselves are quite innocent. You recall a tension between these departments, but that’s been long solved. So, what’s going on?
Your employee may be the victim of his personal Ladder of Inference. That’s his brain stirring up past experiences, to allow him to make a quick assessment of the present moment and choose the correct response. It’s his interpretive mind figuring it out. Problem is, his inference can be dead-wrong. The past might be skewing how he hears messages received today.
Sounds unfair, doesn’t it? And it is, but it is also perfectly natural in human interactions. It’s one of the reasons that careful Senders try to anticipate responses from Receivers, and target the message accordingly. They don’t want their intent to be misconstrued – but we can’t always know what about the past still haunts us, or what people are reading into our words.
What to do in this example? You could just tell the Receiver that they are being too sensitive, and to get over it. You could suggest to the Sender that they would get a better response to their request if they used diplomacy. You could keep-an-eye on the relationship, being extra-sensitive to a recurrence of the inter-team conflict.
A more powerful habit is one I call “Choose the Best Interpretation”. It’s a way of collapsing the Ladder of Inference – by not trusting our immediate negative reactions to others. Instead, we assume the best from the Sender. You may have heard it called “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It’s an interpersonal practice that builds trust and allows you to move forward with even the nastiest of situations.
Steps to Choose the Best Interpretation
- Notice when you have an emotional reaction to a communication – feel uneasy, unsettled, angry or irritated – and it seems out of proportion to the factual content of the message. (There may be people or topics that always create this in you).
- Take a moment to ask yourself what “story” your mind has constructed around this message – what is the inference and assumptions you are making?
- Say: It might not be true. Choose to ignore the “hidden agenda” you think you have uncovered. Choose not to be offended or upset by the other person.
- Purposefully, assume good intent. Assume the best of the other person. They may not be skillful communicators but assume that they desire something good for the organization, for the project, for clients or staff, and for themselves. (Whether or not they desire something good for you is less important.)
- Respond in a way that is respectful, professional and as you would to anyone who has the best intentions. If possible, and especially if the message seems ambiguous or contentious, make the effort to call or meet in person.