We live our lives in states of highly imperfect information.  We try to make sense of what we observe to be happening around us by relying on a series of biological hacks to turn stimuli into electrical impulses. This is flawed in numerous and interesting ways.

A large part of what we observe revolves around the actions and words of the people around us. And based on what we observe, we react. But we don’t react directly to the observation. Instead we build a mental model of the emotional and mental state of the person when they said or did the thing. We infer their intent.

So a typical interaction looks a bit like this:

  1. You have an intention (A)
  2. You say or do something based on this intention
  3. I see you say or do that thing
  4. I filter this observation through my own special set of biases and preconceptions.
  5. Based on what remains, I construct an interpretation of your intent (B)
  6. I react to my interpretation of your intent.
  7. Hilarity ensues

My reaction to your action is based on my own construction, rather than what you actually meant.  And the world is a worse place.

There are some heuristics that I find useful to alleviate this issue:

The first is from a former manager, who was fond of saying “MRI - most respectful interpretation”. Accept that what you observe is ambiguous and consciously choose the meaning that puts the other person in the best possible light.

The second is from one of my favourite film scenes of all time: As the man with the moustache points out, be curious, not judgemental. Ask “what did you mean when you said that?” or “why did you do that?” and listen carefully to the answer.

And finally, choose discomfort over resentment. Now I know the context of the video was slightly different, but bear with me. When someone says something that you don’t like, it’s often easy to just brush over it and walk away resentful. Instead, front-load your pain and ask or tell them: “hey, when you said that thing, it made me cranky, what gives?”.

Also: Shut the fuck up and listen. You have one mouth and two ears for good reason.