Have you ever had a disagreement with someone that escalated really fast and felt crazy? And then you wondered what the disagreement was about? Or it seemed you were both arguing on the same side? How did that turn into anything unpleasant, anyway? Unpleasantness hurts, and we would all like to avoid that. Hey, who started it, anyway?
Communication is a complex art, and misunderstandings do happen. To save a relationship despite one of these crazy misunderstandings, we need to be patient. We need to be understanding, philosophical, lighthearted, and ready to forgive and forget.
A friend, “Janet” tells this story: She was at Friday happy hour, at a popular restaurant, with a dozen friendly colleagues. Of course, it was not possible to hear everything everyone said. Each person was hearing snatches and phrases. Janet heard one colleague, “Sonia”, cheerfully say “[mmpht mmpht] because I’m Mexican!” Sonia had an Anglo surname. Thinking Sonia might have a Mexican parent or grandparent, Janet leaned toward Sonia and asked pleasantly something like, “Sonia, did you just say you were ‘Mexican’?” Uh oh.
Sonia cocked her head to the side and appeared to stiffen. Several colleagues leaned forward and queried Janet, in variously stern and accusatory tones, “Are you calling Sonia ‘Mexican’?” My friend was in Deep Trouble, accused of being openly racist. My friend kept saying, “Sonia called herself ‘Mexican’—I’m just asking her about it.” Fortunately for Janet, the group had already been drinking for awhile, and they shortly tired of accusing her and simply let it drop. Janet will never know how much social damage was done by the mistaken impression that she was somehow accusing a woman of being “Mexican”. The whole conversation was so fluid that it would be virtually impossible to follow up later. Sonia clearly felt attacked or confronted. Janet certainly felt attacked or confronted. But who started this altercation? Who was responsible for the damage being done to Janet? Sonia was cool to Janet for the next couple of years they worked together.
A client, “Bev”, tells of working as a high-ranking administrative assistant in a structured department at a State agency. One morning, a food vendor for an adjacent agency saw Bev in a hallway and announced she would soon be providing hot breakfast options within the building. Bev said something like, “Oh, how nice.” She wondered if the vendor had obtained the right approvals, which would have to have been from managers higher than Bev. Within 2 hours, an angry administrator came to Bev and demanded to know if Bev had given the vendor approval to provide hot breakfasts within this agency’s building. Astonished, Bev said, “no, I don’t have the authority to approve anything like that!” And the angry administrator asked again. And Bev repeated her answer. And the angry administrator asked again, a bit differently. At this point, Bev was wondering if someone had set her up, telling the angry administrator that she, Bev, had definitely approved the new hot breakfasts. Bev was baffled, because anyone would know that she had no authority to even consider the question. As the conversation loops went on, Bev began to feel attacked. Who started this conflict? Could it have been resolved? Did this situation contribute to her wrongful termination a few weeks later? We will never know.
Sometimes a social/communication dynamic gets rolling, and it is difficult to tell who started it, who is right, and who is wrong. Perhaps the most important thing is to give up trying to figure out who started it or how it developed. Rather, it is crucial to maintain your poise and your smile, and make the best of the conversation. Remain pleasant and, above all, keep your energy neutral and light. Keep your replies simple and speak them in a light tone. Try to steer this illogical conversation in the direction of a solution. Or take the opposite approach and make a light comment to divert the conversation. Be a generous listener. If you can stay light and easygoing, people will sometimes simply forget an accusatory or unpleasant conversation.
Do you want to have the least conflict possible? Then bypass Paralysis By Analysis, stay light and even. Forgive misunderstandings whenever possible. Smile pleasantly. Don’t worry about who started it. With focus on the light and the positive, you may be able to be the one who ends it
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