Checking Assumptions in Difficult Conversations

Emotional Intelligence has many applications, one of the most helpful being in the area of having important conversations that address overt, covert or impending conflict. Conflict itself is not inherently positive or negative but rather it’s how we respond that tends to shape the experience in either direction. As such, E.I. skills can greatly increase the odds of conflict being positive or useful as a client of mine recently discovered during our E.I. Coaching session.

Mike was a self-declared conflict avoider. That put him in good company as probably most people fall into that category. And more often than not, even those who say they enjoy conflict may not actually be very good at it! Mike admitted that he had been avoiding a conversation for at least two years. He had a working relationship that held much promise at that time and then something caused it to deteriorate with the partners drifting apart. At least Mike assumed this. He assumed a few other things as well – for example that he must have done something that offended the other person (Bill).

I asked Mike what would be compelling to have the conversation now, after all this time. He said that he felt that if he could have it, perhaps they could get things back on track. “Two years down the road, there is a project that we could collaborate on but… ” and then he paused. I asked him “What’s the but?” He replied that while both were aware of the opportunity, neither had mentioned it to the other. I asked what would need to happen for him to have the conversation he had been avoiding. Mike said he would have to be prepared to hear the impact that he had on Bill at that earlier time. “Or at least the impact you are assuming you had” I offered. “What are you really afraid of?” Mike said he actually wasn’t sure but just assumed he must have done something to tick Bill off and was reluctant to bring it up. I asked Mike what Bill’s feelings about conflict were. Mike smiled and said “Bill’s a bigger avoider than me!” I then inquired about what assumptions Bill might be holding and if they could be similar to Mike’s. He admitted that was very possible and perhaps Bill felt that he had done something to offend Mike also. The circular nature of assumptions was becoming apparent to Mike.

I asked Mike if he would be willing to let go of the fear and instead, look to seek information to understand and address what would help the relationship to develop going forward. He said he liked that reframe. I worked with Mike to use E.I. to calm his emotions otherwise triggered by his assumptions. Then, to put the assumptions aside and begin the conversation positively by telling Bill that he values their working relationship and would like to know what he could do to help it move forward. We also looked at how Mike could ask what impact he might have had previously and if Bill needs anything different to go forward. Now, the metaphorical ‘monster’ was out from under the bed and was much less scary viewed in this way.

Assumptions can be a vicious circle of non-productive, inaccurate emotional thinking. The consequences can be harsh or even incorrect judgments of others or of ourselves. As a result, relationships can be damaged or self-confidence lowered. Using E.I. to manage our emotions and seek information directly from someone can go a long way to dispelling what we would otherwise make up to fill information gaps with deleterious side effects.

Getting free from his own assumptions helped Mike to change his perspective and calm his own amygdala. So much so that when he actually had the conversation with Bill, he reported back to me that it was much easier than he had expected and they were able to resolve past distance and differences to enable them to commit to a new collaboration. In other words, he checked his assumptions at the door before going in!

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