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Conquering the Sneakiest Source of Unnamed Conflict

Photo by Noyes

Photo by Noyes

My face is very expressive.  My husband calls me an eyeroller. I think about all the times that there is something going on, like a five hour stint with and without my web developer trying to get the branded page of my ezine to look right in 2 browsers and an email client (Aweber sucks!).  Sorry, I digress, and Aweber really does suck.  My DH almost always thinks that the frowns, the sighs, the groans of utter exasperation are directed at him and not at that timesucking Awber interface.

I see this happen in the workplace all the time.  Someone is a little snappish in the meeting, and the next thing you know, you’re hearing phrases “she’s out to get me” or “what did I do to him” uttered out in the smoking tent.

This happened with one of my clients.  She was upset because another manager, “Sheila” had scowled at her in a meeting.  My client decided to create a plan of action that excluded Sheila, because “it was obvious that Sheila was out to get her,”and she wanted to know what I thought.

I wasn’t there, so I have no opinion.  I asked my client, “How do you know that she was sneering at you?”

“Oh, I just know. She was looking right at me”  I will point out that my client and Sheila don’t know each other well and have oftentimes found themselves on the opposite sides of a disagreement.

How do you know?” I asked again because really how does she know? Unless there is some other corroborating evidence, someone giving you the fish-eye may not mean anything.

I really wanted her to think about it, because we all do this.  We attribute feelings and attitudes onto other people based on a look or a tone, and suddenly our opinion becomes fact.  (How many times have you snapped at someone because you started out frustrated?)

My client couldn’t tell me how she knew that Sheila was “out to get her,” but she also wouldn’t budge off of it.

After getting permission to help her think this through rather than making my own pronouncement of what I thought was going on (after all, Sheila may very well be out to get my client), I asked her this question, “What if Sheila isn’t out to get you?”

Client:  “Oh no, I know she is.”

Me: “For the purposes of examination only, it doesn’t mean you have to believe it or act on it, can we say just for a moment that Sheila is not out to get you?”

Client: “OK….”  She’s very suspicious, but I don’t trick my clients.

Me: “How will Sheila feel when she finds out you’ve gone behind her back?”

Once we determined if Sheila didn’t deserve to be sabotaged, then my client would be doing major damage to the relationship, my client decided on a different plan of action.  She decided to ask Sheila why she was scowling at her through the meeting.

Turns out, Sheila was completely unaware that’s what she was doing.  She was actually in perfect agreement with my client, and was angry about something completely different.  Problem averted.

We humans attribute thoughts and feelings onto other people based on the way they communicate or their facial expression, and we do it without thinking.

Does this happen to you?  How many times have you unknowingly cast the first stone?

I know that in my distant past, I sabotaged more relationships that I can count from this sneaky source of conflict, and it undermined my leadership abilities because it undermined people’s respect.

Next time you are tempted to attribute a feeling or a thought onto someone, I invite you to stop and think.  Do I really know what I think I know?

Be Your Best You Today,


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Terri Schepps

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