Assumptions we make about other people’s motives can be obstacles to resolving conflict and differences. We know the impact of their words or actions on us, but we are often merely guessing their intent or making up a story about them that validates our worst fears or resentments.
I had an experience in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery that illustrates this.
Close to my office is an extensive, beautiful rural cemetery, dating back to the mid 1800s, with ancient oaks shading gravel paths and bending over old gravestones. On breaks from work, I wander through, reading inscriptions and wondering about the lives of those buried there.
In a corner of the property, just off one of the paths, is a run down shed, with peeling paint, a rusty grate over the window, an old padlock on the door, and a bent metal sign that says, ”Private property--Keep out!”.
Although I find the cemetery in general a peaceful, contemplative place, I always shuddered slightly as I walked by the shed, envisioning a ghostly interior: cobwebs, mortuary slabs, a sink with sinister stains, and open crumbling coffins.
On a recent visit, I walked by the shed, and found the door wide open. Inside was a shabby but functional break room, with a water cooler, coffee maker, small refrigerator, a lumpy turquoise couch and chairs. This ordinary interior was quite a contrast to the picture my morbid imagination had conjured up.
I believe we do something similar when we make assumptions about someone we are in conflict with. We paint a picture of them and their intentions that may be far more dangerous and negative than the reality.
Although we can’t literally see inside another person as I could see inside the open door of the shed, wecan learn to “open the door” to understanding the other person’s perspective. It takes willingness, detachment, and active listening, sometimes with help and support from a coach, mediator, or counselor, but the result can be miracles of forgiveness and resolution.
Lorraine Segal and her business, Conflict Remedy, are based in Santa Rosa, California. Lorraine provides one on one communication coaching, training, and mediation by telephone and face to face. She also teaches in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University.