You often find what you seek. In my years of helping teams resolve conflicts and build better communication, I’ve seen this simple truth to be an underlying component in countless circumstances. I believe it’s why we inevitably have strong opinions, and it’s how we end up attracting the exact energy and outcomes we assume to be right and true.
Consider for a moment how this occurs in a workplace setting: Imagine someone named Sam is feeling frustrated or upset due to some personal circumstances and has a bad interaction with his new co-worker, Lucy. Based on that one interaction, Lucy, who has never worked with Sam before, has drawn a conclusion that Sam is rude and unfriendly. Once Lucy has drawn this conclusion, she is geared to believe in her own assessment and may intentionally, or inadvertently, notice things that support her conclusion far more easily than things that refute it.
This can happen naturally, almost without a thought. If Sam has to end a meeting abruptly, takes a call in the middle of a conversation or gives Lucy an “off” look in response to an idea she shares with the group, Lucy is far more likely to assume that Sam has negative intentions and read into his actions as such. Brené Brown refers to these impressions as “stormy first drafts,” or “SFDs,” in her bestselling book Dare to Lead. You may have experienced this before, too.
Consider how this happens in everyday life: Say you learn about a new restaurant in town, and suddenly it’s all you seem to hear about. You see a billboard advertising it on your commute home, hear a commercial for it on the radio and notice people at your office, gym and kids’ school talking about it. When we notice something new, it often seems to keep making its way to us, whether it’s our observation about someone, an opinion or a tangible thing, like the restaurant.
When Can This Become Something Negative?
It’s not necessarily bad to have preconceived notions about someone or something. Oftentimes, our beliefs are warranted, such as when they’re based on multiple interactions and a solid foundation of understanding about how the other person thinks, acts and reacts based on our many experiences together. It can become harmful, though, when we make a snap judgment after one poor interaction and then judge all coming interactions based on that one bad one.
Just like the Sam and Lucy situation, we will all have some off moments of communication that might lead to confusion or frustration with our colleagues, family and friends. So how do we make sure that things don’t escalate to include hurt feelings, distrust or burnt bridges down the line?
Three Ways To Set Your Interactions Straight Before They Harm The Relationship
1. Clarify, Don’t Assume
If you feel slighted from a bad interaction, nip the uncertainty in the bud by asking clarifying questions. For example, you might say, “I know you probably didn’t mean to [insert negative behavior here], but that was how it felt. Is there an issue or concern you wanted to talk about?” Using a calm, nonaggressive way to share that the other person did something that felt off-putting informs them without placing blame. If they do have a problem, it opens up the line of communication to find a solution. If they don’t, they are able to share whether they’re having a bad day or simply didn’t even realize that their response came across negatively. Either way, it often clears the air immediately.
2. Try Another Perspective
If you leave the interaction still uncertain of someone’s intentions, do your best to purposefully give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re struggling at home, dealing with something personal or figuring out the best way to communicate. Next time you think they’re doing something to slight you, stay open, be curious and ask questions instead of snapping into judgment mode. Seek to see things from their point of view, and continue approaching the interaction from a place of openness and communication.
3. Illuminate To Better Communicate
If over time you continue to feel that there’s an unsettled air, set aside the time to meet with the person one-on-one. It can be much easier to let your suspicions of the other person fester and grow and to continue thinking that they have it out for you. But more commonly, there’s nothing personal behind their behavior. Getting everything on the table can help to illuminate any miscommunication and make it easier to move forward without all the negative feelings and assumptions.
While we certainly do tend to attract what we seek, this attraction can be used in a positive manner as well. Rather than seeking to confirm someone’s negative and hurtful qualities, seek clarity, communication and perspective. With your focus on those, what you’ll likely find is an opportunity for growth and peace in your work (and other) relationships.