A good friend of mine recently sent me a link to an interesting article. It seems a summer intern was not particularly happy with the strictness of the company’s dress code. This person decided to let the issue go until it was discovered that another company member was allowed to wear cloth shoes and sometimes running shoes. The intern became motivated to do something upon finding out that the other interns also felt like the company’s dress code was overly burdensome.

The person approached their manager who indicated that there was no leeway in the company’s dress code in spite of the exception granted to the woman who wore more casual footwear. Nevertheless the intern drafted a proposal to management recommending that the company adopt “a more business casual dress code”. The intern then drafted a petition that all of the other summer interns signed with the exception of one individual. The next day all of the interns were called to a meeting with management. The interns assumed that there would be a discussion of the dress-code policy, and then some satisfactory resolution to their complaint.

The opposite was true. All of the interns were told that they were being terminated for “unprofessional” conduct. They were asked to turn in their IDs, to gather their personal belongings, and to leave the premises immediately. In spite of their shock in the moment, one manager told the interns that the person who was allowed an exception to the company dress code was a former soldier who had lost her leg. She was allowed to wear whatever footwear made walking bearable. Of course the intern pleaded that had they known the reason for the exception, they would have responded differently. An argument made a little too late.

When we experience an event, we naturally draw conclusions about our experience and make assumptions that then drive our behavior. Problems arise when our assumptions are incomplete or inaccurate, but we act on them all the same. Here are some questions that you might ask yourself before you take an action that could have negative consequences to yourself and others.

What are you assuming?

Often our thought processes occur so quickly that we don’t stop and even try to surface our thinking. So we observe, think, and then become emotional. If our emotions are “hot” or negative, our rationality usually never sees the light of day. Slowing down and asking yourself, “What am I thinking?” is a great mental exercise for surfacing the thinking that may go undetected. Recognize and surface your thinking.

Is there evidence or data that supports your assumptions?

Usually our thinking is the result of some event or experience that gives rise to our interpretation of the event. If you can’t identify any facts or evidence as the basis for your thinking, then you must rightly suppose that your assumptions are the product of your thinking rather than the product of verifiable fact. That is why I like to say, “Don’t believe everything that you think”. Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true. It just means that you thought it. Look for the facts.

Given the data you have, is there another way to interpret the same set of facts?

There is usually more than one way to interpret the same set of facts, particularly when people are acting irrationally. Ironically everyone is rational from his or her own point of view. Taking some time to identify another’s rationale is a great way to enlarge your perspective. If you can’t figure out why a person might say and do as they did, then perhaps you ought to go ask them, so you gain the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. This is not easy because we are usually so invested in our perspective that we rarely take time to get outside our thinking and consider other perspectives. Force yourself to think differently about the same set of facts.

What other data do you need?

Once you begin to notice and understand your assumptions, you can identify the information or data that you need to gain in understanding the intricacies of a complex problem. Once you can recognize that something is lacking, you are free to seek other data points that you didn’t even know existed. Look to other sources outside yourself to broaden your perspective.

Are your actions aligned with your thinking?

Sometimes we make a decision about a course of action, and then we behave differently or in ways that are incongruent with our thinking. For example, if you have a child who acts out, you may decide that you will ask questions the next time the child acts inappropriately in order to understand the reasons for their poor behavior. But then in a moment of frustration, instead of talking, you decide to deliver some old fashioned corporal punishment. The behavior you selected may not be congruent with your thinking. Examine your behavior from the viewpoint of your assumptions.

Is the way you are thinking and acting delivering the right results?

If I return to the previous example, sometimes when I notice that a child is receiving a punishment, they begin to cry. The adult in the situation continues to deliver an even harsher punishment, to which the child responds with even more resistant energy only with increased volume. When this happens, I am usually tempted to approach the adult and ask them, “Is this working for you?” Obviously, the adult in this situation is assuming, “If I increase the punishment, then the child will cease their screaming.” Unfortunately the opposite is true. What is obvious is that our thinking and the ensuing results are often invisible to us, and so we continue to behave in the same way and get the results that we didn’t want. Use your results to assess the effectiveness of your thinking.

How can I change my thinking to change my results?

If your results are an indicator of your thinking, then you must change your thinking to change your results. This requires a deliberate, conscious effort on your part to examine the thinking and the results that your thought processes are producing. Sometimes it is difficult to get outside our thinking because that is all we know or have experienced. Try learning from others or from those with a different perspective who are much more experienced than you are. It might surprise you to learn what you didn’t know. Seek learning from others. 

We don’t often take time to think about our own thoughts. By that I mean that we don’t do sufficient personal reflection on a frequent basis to allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes and to make course corrections when they are needed. Consequently, like the interns in the story above, we become more focused on a course of action rather than taking the time to assess and explore the thinking that may lead to actions that produce unwanted and unintended consequences.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

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