I tend to assume the worst in a given situation, especially if I am tired, worried, or insecure. This becomes more evident in the ways that I communicate with other people. When I take a moment to pause and consider, I can learn a lot about how I interpret messages received from others.
E-mail is particularly revealing because it is without any of the visual or tonal cues that we have in face to face communication, so we fill in the gaps in our mind as we read an e-mail. We often “hear” the voice of the sender as we read. However, since we are filling in the gaps, there is a good chance that we will misinterpret the intent of the sender in some way.
Several years ago as I was changing jobs and handing a few open projects off to my boss, I received an e-mail that simply said, “Thanks a lot, Rob.” I read and re-read this e-mail several times. You can imagine the various tones and voices that this simple phrase can carry. Was this genuine or sarcastic? In the ambiguity of the phrase, I also began to recognize my own feelings and emotions. There were portions of my work about which I was proud and other portions which seemed unfinished and incomplete. I saw how my own feelings, doubts, fears, and insecurities were impacting how I chose to read this e-mail.
How often do we inadvertently attribute a wide range of unintended meaning to the comments of others? If I am not careful, I can carry on entire arguments with someone in my head over a small comment. What if instead, I intentionally choose to hear or read the best possible meaning from others when a comment can have more than one interpretation? I will probably be wrong at times, but likely no more wrong than if I choose the worst possible meaning. In choosing the best way, I avoid the unintentional damage of assuming the worst when the best was intended. However, when I am wrong and the intent of the comment was indeed malicious, a kind response is often more effective than escalating the conflict.