Have you ever thought negatively about a person or a situation based on information you thought was accurate but which turned out to be wrong? I remember thinking certain things about another guy I went to school with and for over two years, I didn’t talk much with him except to be polite and civil. Something triggered an opportunity for him and me to go out for beers or coffee and just talk about things that bothered us about each other. It turned out both of our beliefs about each other were misconceptions, based on perceptions and assumptions we had never checked out until then. We became the closest of friends and still are today.
This kind of thing happened over the weekend in my church. There was some missed communications between people and some of the parishioners started to run with that, believing that what they perceived as a change in plans was orchestrated by what they believed to be a small but controlling group of parishioners. Not being a big fan of small controlling groups in any organization, let alone in a church, I could relate to this view. But then I learned that one group perceived that I was a part of the small controlling group. It dawned on me at that moment that the person or persons carrying that perception didn’t really know me very well.
But in a very short time after worship services ended, the perception and assumptions that were the basis for that perception morphed into a position. We were on our way to an internal dispute, one which I understood that there was a false basis for, but one that could very quickly take on a life of its own. This is especially true when we don’t stop and first get our facts straight.
This is how many disputes begin, with unchecked assumptions and inaccurate perceptions. It doesn’t take long for these incorrect perceptions to take root and start to get spread around by one active person or a small group. Then, other things, some maybe true, some probably not, some totally irrelevant and some going back to another time or an earlier dispute, start to get piled on, either inadvertently or sometimes purposefully. And a missed communication escalates into a dispute, diminishing or neutralizing any good that may have come before the wrongful trigger.
We Americans are a very competitive and overly litigious society. We should know all too well what happens when one side reaches for his or her gun. It is so much harder to get them all back in the holsters than it was for people to draw their weapons and come out blazing. It’s harder for someone to back down, and harder still for someone to say they were mistaken at that point. Once the ego is involved and the strategic planning and staking out of positions has begun, it is difficult to diffuse the situation. The ego’s pride also comes into play, things may get personal, there’s the need to save face and to point the finger of blame at the perceived other side. And once one side has placed blame, if there wasn’t another side yet, there is now. We are off to the races.
What can we do to avoid this or respond to it in a productive way? Start always with the preventive and proactive step of checking our assumptions before jumping to any conclusions or assumptions. Don’t skip over this step. It’s so much easier to correct things at this early point, and so hard later.
It may be years later, after years of friendship or brotherhood have been lost. Or worse yet, maybe never.