• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • Seattle has grown nearly 20% since 2010. This change has all sorts of consequences, but the one that may affect me the most is a collective breakdown in the civility of driving behavior. When I moved here from San Francisco in 1989, the driving customs seemed almost quaint. Getting through a 4-way stop seemed to take forever, as drivers gestured politely to each other to proceed. Those days are gone: and aggressive driving seems to be the new normal.

    The upside of all this for me is that I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my habit of jumping to conclusions about others’ intentions or states of mind. Without verbal language, or body language, or facial expressions to work with, all I get is the roar of an engine and the flash of a sleek fiberglass auto body. It’s challenging to use perspective-taking to drive a mile in that driver’s car: where is that person going, and why? What is that person’s state of mind? What just happened to them? Do they have a spouse and kids? What do their parents think about them? What work do they do in the world? All those curious questions, the human richness, gets collapsed into a moment of road rage and a fully fleshed-out (and entirely made-up) story of carelessness and disrespect.

    That whole thought process of making sense out of another’s actions takes place with regularity in your work relationships too. People are making up stories about you, and you’re making up stories about them. These stories are more informed than our road-rage stories, based as they are on what we hear and see, and our past experience working together. Nevertheless, they are usually unconfirmed, and as a result can be pretty inaccurate.

    While you will never know what made the driver of that black Corvette do what he did at the last intersection, that is not the case with work interactions. There is a way for you to find out: ask. One useful formula is, “You look (skeptical/disappointed/angry/impatient). Am I reading that right?” Phrased this way, you’re letting the other person know that they are having an effect on you—it’s a communication to them—but also giving them the opportunity to fill in your story with some facts about their current state of mind. The offer will not always be taken, and that’s OK. If not, you’ve established a basis for trying again another day when the person might ready for a more open conversation. If so, you’ve opened up a channel of communication that can lead to a much more accurate view of that person’s world. And that beats road rage.

    Try It: The next time you find yourself making up a story about a co-worker, look for the right moment to ask them about it. You can use the formula “You seem ____________. Am I reading that right?” or whatever language feels natural to you. As much as possible, refrain from triangulation (asking Person B about Person C); go for the direct route instead. Even if you don’t get a useful answer in the moment, you’ve started a conversation that may yield insight over time.

    Image:  United States Air Force