Ron McMillan is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The following article was first published on June 1, 2005.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What if you are not dealing with a reasonable, rational, and decent person? Is this possible or do you genuinely believe that each person with whom we interact fits this description?
I look forward to your comments.
All the best,
The “fundamental attribution error” is the automatic assumption we often make that the other person’s motives are bad. This can happen when someone says or does something we think is harmful or threatening. We immediately attribute bad motive–we tell a villain story: “they are evil or selfish; they do bad things because they enjoy it.”
To keep from making the fundamental attribution error, we recommend challenging your story with questions. One such question is “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?”
Posing the question is NOT making an assumption that all people are reasonable, rational, and decent; rather, posing the question IS an effort to consider other possibilities. This question helps us explore other assumptions and not automatically assume that the worst story we can come up with is the only one we should consider. When we replace our certainty that the other person is bad and wrong with the recognition that we don’t know why the person did what he or she did, our emotion changes from anger and frustration to curiosity and maybe even concern.
Now, instead of being pushed by our anger into silence or violence, we’re much more likely, in a condition of curiosity, to ask questions and engage in dialogue. As we talk over the problem and gather more information, we’re in a better position to ascertain the other person’s motive and intent.
If we find out that our initial impulse was mistaken (the other person’s motives are not hurtful), we’re in a good position to solve problems together. However, if we discover that their motives are hurtful toward us—perhaps they’re political or personal—instead of being trapped in a fight-or-flight reflex with our brain turned off by hot emotion, our mind is active and engaged and we’re in a better position to decide what to do about this potential enemy. All options ranging from ending the relationship and disengaging to escalating the problem up the chain of command are available to us.
Mastering your stories is NOT a positive mental attitude technique that assumes that everyone’s motives are good. It IS a set of skills that keep us from assuming that all people’s motives are bad and hurtful. All in all, this increases the probability of us getting what we really want.