I re-read the email and my blood began to boil. I was already angry after reading it the first time, but now I was sure it was a slap in the face.
Rather than send a blistering response or worse, pick up the phone to tell off the sender, I sat back in my chair and stewed. I hate it when I'm not taken seriously, I thought.
Several days later I participated in a meeting along with the sender of the offending email. It was weird. As we worked through the agenda he seemed to have totally forgotten how he'd treated me. I tried my best to concentrate and add value to the conversation.
It took almost a month for me to gather the courage to have a real (and calm) conversation with the man. Before we had talked five minutes, I was embarrassed. Turns out I had totally misinterpreted his words. Ugh. Thankfully, he was gracious and we quickly worked our way past the misunderstanding.
It's been years since this event and we are still friends. And I've learned a lot about not jumping to conclusions. In fact, it's become one of my life's rules:
Always assume the best of others.
And sometimes it's really hard. You know how every fiber of your being reacts to what someone has said or done. You want to just ... I'll let you fill in your own reaction here. Self leadership can be more difficult than leading others. It takes an extremely high level of courage.
Psychologists have a term for our tendency to jump to the wrong conclusions about others. It's called negative attribution theory. While it can be tough to overcome, the positive impact it will have on your life and leadership can't be overstated.
Here are a few steps you can take to get started:
Pay attention to your feelings. (Many of us have no idea what we're feeling in any given moment.)
Catch yourself when you react negatively to others.
Ask yourself what you are assuming about their behavior and motivations.
Try to imagine one or two alternative possibilities.
Intentionally affirm that even if the most negative explanation is true, dwelling on it, responding in anger, and letting it destroy your relationship is probably not helpful.
Determine how to respond in a way that assumes the best and builds up your relationship without ignoring how you feel.
Let me know how it goes. I've wrestled with this for decades and understand the effort it takes. I've also experienced the emotional freedom that assuming the best of others brings. You can too.