Thursday, May 27, 2010

Flicking the Switch

A few weeks ago, while taking part in an adoption-related seminar, the presenter made a couple of seemingly-non-related comments about the parents of adopted children, and the importance of continuing to build on the partnership relationship even while stressed by the demands brought on by children.  The comment which struck me most strongly was this:
"Inference and assumption in marriage are the path to disaster, and they lead us nowhere safe.... Be a sleuth.  Why is my spouse doing what s/he's doing and why?  Don't infer that s/he knows that they're having such an impact on you."
Wow, I thought - is she a mediator?  This is language of the sort that I might use in my work as a mediator!  Not many people talk like that about inference and assumptions.  In my (rarely humble) opinion, she's bang on.  Inference and assumption in marriage are the path to in any relationship.  Making assumptions about another person's intentions, assuming that we know/understand what goes on in another person's brain - this is the stuff that leads us to build up the baggage in our relationships to the point where we can no longer view the other person other than through the filter of our assumptions and baggage.

When I heard the presenter speak these words, I immediately thought about a case that I was involved with a while back, which culminated in a memorable moment that I've been fortunate enough to see replicated with many other clients since.  For some reason, the memory of these clients has lingered.

About four years ago, I was co-mediating two women (let's call them Mary and Joan) who had worked together in the same department for fifteen years, and who had been in conflict for fifteen years less a day.  These women were not in good way (they seldom are by the time they reach the point of working with external mediators!), and had accumulated years of baggage between them.  The load that they were carrying around had impacted the small team of people that they worked with and, as the situation continued to escalate, their manager finally called on us to intervene.

It took mere seconds to realize, upon meeting Mary and Joan, that they were both very bright, very articulate, and highly educated people.  They were professional women who performed at a very high level in their work.  I would also add that they were excellent communicators (in their jobs as well as in their styles) and were the type of people who were willing to take responsibility for their own actions.  And yet, given all of their assets, they hadn't been able to get it together when it came to their working relationship.  Far from it.  Trust was completely gone between them; they could barely stand to be in the same room together; no matter what one said, the other would view those comments with disbelief and skepticism.  And, despite these indisputable facts, my co-mediator and I were utterly convinced that both of the women had good intentions and were not out to make the other woman's life miserable...a fairly common duality found in our business.

My colleague and I had four sessions with Mary and Joan, facilitating their discussions about numerous incidents that had contributed to the themes prevalent in their conflict, and helping them to understand (not necessarily agree with) the other person's very different world view of the relationship.  It was a challenging situation, and we worked very hard to help them break down the many assumptions they had about each other, to help them bring some resolution or understanding to the many issues that had been an albatross on their relationship.  Both were reluctant to believe that the other person's intentions were, in fact, genuine, and that their conflicts had developed through a series of misunderstandings and disagreements rather than as a result of the other person having ill intent towards them.

I don't remember what was said at the end of the third session that might have prompted Mary to an altered state, but I do remember the moment that she broke down in tears.  She sat there, sobbing. Neither spoke, though Joan pushed the box of kleenex closer to Mary, and seemed near tears herself as she watched her long-time colleague weep with abandon.  It took several minutes for Mary to collect herself enough to speak.  When she finally did, she turned towards Joan and said, "I don't know what to do.  I don't know what to believe.  If everything I have believed to be true about you is not, in fact, true; if all of the negative intentions I have ascribed to you have been wrongly imputed; if all of the things I have thought about you are just my perceptions and not what you intend towards me, then I don't know what to believe.  I'm in a vacuum.  What, then, should I think of you?" She spoke out of passion and desperation, but also out of a sense of grief that so much had been lost that could have been prevented.  Though her colleague was equally 'guilty' of harbouring many erroneous assumptions about her, Mary owned her responsibility and took the risk of saying it. When she finally acknowledged that her faulty assumptions about Joan, and vice versa, had been the foundation of their poor working relationship, and began to believe that Joan really did not have negative intent towards her, she no longer knew how to understand and view that person whom she had spent more waking hours with than her family over the course of fifteen years.  For  far too long, she had viewed Joan through the clouded lens of her own assumptions!

That moment, and moments like them in the years since, was the closest thing I have ever witnessed to seeing a lightbulb go on in someone else's head.  It was the birth of understanding, a moment of huge personal growth, a new starting point.  Both eventually apologized to the other for the perceptions that they had wrongly held of the other for so many years and, by the end of the fourth session, they had come up with a written agreement as to how, going forward, they were each going to modify their behaviour, with the goal being an improved working relationship.  When they left the final session, it was after embracing, and after dampening each other's shoulders with more tears.  At follow-up points three and twelve months later, Joan and Mary were doing great; and from second hand reports in the years since then, it might even be fair to say that they had become both friends and allies in their workplace.

I have had the opportunity to witness light bulb moments for many people as they work their way through workplace conflicts and begin to see a colleague, a boss, a subordinate, through slightly different (or very different) lenses.  What has remained common in every single success story is this: a dawning awareness that we make a lot of (often unfounded, despite our certainty) assumptions about other people; we assume that we understand their motivations, particularly as it concerns how they act towards us and why they act the way they act towards us; and we assume that when they hurt us, they must know that they have done so.

Whether one is a janitor or a CEO, parent or child, the husband or wife, one friend or another, no one is immune to the stench of conflict created by inference and assumption.  In my marriage, in my working relationships, and in other personal relationships, some of the worst times for me have been the times when I have been misunderstood: when someone has assumed I have done something deliberately, or with knowledge that my action would impact him/her negatively.  I imagine many would say the same.

Would that we all begin, just a little, to question our assumptions about other people and simply take the time to do what that presenter suggested a few weeks ago:  be a sleuth; find out by asking questions why that person in my life is doing what s/he is doing; and not assume that they know how they impact me.

Would that the light bulb be switched on in each of us.  I think this approach might actually settle some wars.  The little ones and the big ones.

* Thanks for the comment Heidi.  Yes, years ago I read Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, though I must say that they weren't personal favourites of mine (that being said, I know they're pretty popular, so it's probably just me!).  A book that I'd recommend as being a little different, but extremely interesting, is one by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)...loved it.  Thanks again for posting - love having you here!


  1. Wow, what an inspirational story. The courage that it took for both of those women to engage in the process!

    Have you read Crucial Conversations or Crucial Confrontations? I found them helpful.

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