Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Time to Unpack Your Emotional Baggage

Biased assumptions destroy communication. Time to unpack.

Woman standing behind another woman looking suspicious

Negative assumptions hurt communication

Imagine this scenario. It’s Tuesday morning at 10:45. You’re having a productive day and you’ve got three tasks checked off your list. You're working away on your computer when the email alert pops up in the bottom right corner of the screen.

Your stomach churns at the first site of the sender’s name. It's from "him," the person that just rubs you the wrong way.

You remember that your boss asked you to share your draft presentation with him before you deliver it to the team next week. He’s read it—too much to ask that this request get buried in his inbox like all of your others do! Here is his message...

"I read your presentation. I found a couple typos and I have some ideas for how to strengthen your point. I have time at 3:00 if you want to discuss it."

When I ask people how they would react to this, the comments are almost always the same. "I feel defensive." "I am angry and annoyed." "I am dreading 3:00."

Then I ask people to wipe that person out of their minds and instead, to think of the person on their team who is their greatest ally. The person who they chat with in the hallway on the way back from meetings. The one they share their work with because they value the "second set of eyes." Can you imagine that person?

Now imagine the same scenario and the same email.

"I read your presentation. I found a couple typos and I have some ideas for how to strengthen your point. I have time at 3:00 if you want to discuss it."

When I ask how they feel now, I get a similar level of agreement but a very different message. "I'm relieved he found the mistakes before I presented to the boss." "I'm grateful for his help." "I'm interested in his ideas for making it better." This is an incredibly common scenario.

Negative Assumptions

Team members are struggling under the weight of baggage, bad filters, and hair triggers. Nothing that is said is evaluated objectively. Everything is going through a filter that distorts the original message. Because team members are in self-protection mode, they think only of how the statements "feel" when they land rather than thinking of what the person meant when they said it.

Most people relate really strongly to this point when I refer to it as the "mother-in-law effect." The idea that the exact same line coming from your own mother has a significantly different effect than when coming from your mother-in-law.

I am frequently asked to help teams where two or more members have become embroiled in conflict that they can't seem to resolve on their own. Their mistrust of one another is affecting everyone on the team because conversations that seem rational devolve quickly into pitched battles. The most innocuous comments are getting haunches up. To all else in the room, the reactions seem way out of line with what was said.

And that's the sad state we're in on so many teams. It's not about the content of the message, it's about our perceptions of the sender...and more importantly, it's about us. We have let ourselves get to the point where we're not really hearing anymore, we're just judging. If you've reached this point with someone on your team, it's time to unpack your baggage.

How We're Wired

There are a few things that contribute to the problem and understanding them is important to changing the situation and to improving your team effectiveness

  1. You can't possibly do a thorough job of processing the volume of communication you receive so your brain processes most information using primitive filters looking only for the most basic information about threats that should be attended to…your brain is looking for "friend" or "foe."
  2. Attention errors make it likely that you'll pay more attention and give weight to information that confirms your original point of view…so if you have already decided someone is a "foe," you’re more likely to look for evidence that confirms that they are.
  3. You don’t get to hear the intent of people’s messages; you only to get hear how their words come out and to feel how the message impacts you. The disconnect between intent and impact is at the heart of many strained relationships.

Start with a Positive Assumption

The next time you react to something a teammate says, turn the situation on its head. Start with a positive assumption, rather than a negative one. Instead of assuming the person is attacking you or that they are incompetent, start by assuming that they are adding value.

  1. Instead of making knee-jerk reactions to what is said, really think about it. Repeat what they said in your head before responding. Think about the words, without reading between the lines or thinking about the back story. Hear the words coming out of someone else’s mouth—how do you interpret them now?
  2. Pay attention to the positive, rather than the negative components of the message. Did the person start with a compliment and then share some constructive feedback? Focus on the compliment for a moment. Let it soak in.
  3. Think about the possible positive intentions they might have had. How might the person have been trying to help? What were they trying to get at? What value are their comments adding?

If you start with a negative assumption, you waste all the value that your teammate could be providing. A positive assumption is the only thing that gives you a chance.

Book Cover: You First This is the fourth in a series of blogs based on my new book You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. See others in the series:

Overworked and Under-contributing

Are You Drowning Out Minority Voices?

Spread Too Thin: 4 Secrets to Reducing Your Workload

More from Liane Davey Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today