Assume the Best to Communicate Better

Assume the Best to Communicate BetterRecently I completed a training called Crucial Conversations, about how to tackle difficult discussions effectively. One key message of the training was that often our negative emotions aren’t responses to the facts, but to the stories we’ve told ourselves about the facts. This is exactly the same tenet driving cognitive behavioral therapy techniques of combating negative thoughts.

We react to what we believe, even if it’s only a version of the truth.

We can change what we feel and how we react by changing our thinking.

With difficult conversations, we often start from a place of anger or negative emotion. We may assume the worst about the person with whom we disagree. If the story we tell ourselves going into a difficult conversation casts the other person as the enemy, it will color the tone of the exchange. A better way to approach a conversation is to assume the best about the other person.

Assuming the best might look like:

  • We’ve clearly had a miscommunication; Dan did not understand what I meant.
  • Something in Margaret’s experience or history suggested this course of action.
  • We probably both want the same outcome, so this is a chance to work together to get it.

Contrast with assuming the worst:

  • Dan deliberately went against what I asked for.
  • Margaret has no idea how things are done.
  • Chris has his own agenda.

There are good reasons to start a difficult conversation by assuming the best. Chances are, it will help you to reach a more satisfying outcome, and it will limit the hostility within the actual conversation. Consider these three major reasons to assume the best the next time you need to talk to someone about something difficult:

1. It limits how upset you feel. If we react to the stories we tell ourselves, then telling a negative story is a great way to feel upset. Swapping in a positive version will limit your bad feelings.

2. It allows you to communicate more clearly and effectively. When we are in the throes of anger or stress, we focus very narrowly on the perceived threat, and may not make the most strategic decisions. Limiting our negative emotions lets us more effectively harness our creativity to solve a problem (this is known as the broaden and build theory of positive emotions).

3. It increases the chances the person you’re talking to will be receptive to your message. If you open your conversation by suggesting something negative about the other person, you’ve set him up to play the role of opponent. People become defensive if they feel accused. If you start a conversation by assuming the worst, you put the other person in a position to feel upset and narrowly focus only on that. By assuming the best and trying to enlist the other person as a fellow problem-solver, you limit his defensiveness and increase the odds that your message will fall on willing ears.

Now, the best possible story may not always be the true one. People really are jerks sometimes; they really may have meant harm. But the great thing about assuming the positive is that even if you’re wrong about it, you still will be a more effective communicator because of that story. This is a strategy to manage your emotions and behavior, not overlook truth or change facts.

Have you ever gotten better results because of a positive story you told yourself? What did that look like?