Whether or not you realise it, we experience crucial moments every day. These may not be life or death, or success or failure but could still impact you or those around you. You may have missed a deadline at work and now your co-workers have to pick up the slack, your spouse double booked on a date you had planned, your child was rude to you. Whilst the weight we put on these conversations might be low, overtime the weight increases if you don’t speak up.
When we know we need to initiate a tough conversation we don’t, or when we do, it doesn’t go well. Why?
It has to do with a limited view of human behaviour. We’re all guilty of it. When we don’t speak up even in minor moments, we build up stories in our head, we tell ourselves they’re behaving like that because that’s the way they are. Depending on the situation, we might think they’re lazy, selfish, or arrogant and we can’t do anything about it. We put the conversation in the bag and move on. But what happens when that bag fills up?
Many times, we commit what’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error. When looking at another person’s behaviour, we jump to a conclusion. In that moment, people do what they do because they’re personally motivated to do so.
We need to rethink our conclusions if we want to have healthy outcomes in our crucial conversations. If I decide you act the way you do because you are evil and horrible, it’s difficult for me to have an effective confrontation with you because I am filled with judgment. We need to think more broadly and recognise that there are actually six sources that influence human behaviour – not just the one that we so readily conclude.
To illustrate this, let’s put ourselves in the position of a grade 7 high school teacher whose student has been underperforming and not completing homework. Their poor performance is coming back on you despite your best intentions. Let’s look at the possibilities of what could influence the student’s behaviour and try to diagnose the situation.
Source #1 – Personal Motivation
It would be so easy for me to jump to the fundamental attribution error, which suggests that the reason my student is under performing? He’s lazy and doesn’t care. He might not enjoy homework and thinks it’s a waste of time. That could be true. But maybe there’s something else going on here.
Source #2 – Personal Ability
Maybe there’s a personal ability problem. He has been home schooled and never learnt part of the curriculum that other students know. His knowledge of the homework is minimal, he doesn’t have what the fundamentals skills to complete it.
Source #3 – Social Motivation
Maybe there’s a social motivation issue going on. He is upset with his parents and so he is making a point. He has decided not to complete his homework as he knows the frustration it brings to other people. So now, my issue is with the parents, right? If I want to see change in my students’ behaviour, I need to talk to the people in his family.
Source #4 – Social Ability
We know that there could be a social ability challenge. Maybe he’s tried to complete his homework, he has studied but still doesn’t understand the question. He’s tried to ask for help, but I’ve been too busy. He can’t complete the homework until he gets more information.
Source #5 – Structural Motivation
Perhaps there’s a structural motivation issue. There’s no incentive for him. The school doesn’t do much to reward the student for completing homework, as it’s an ‘expectation’. On top of that he is a part of a competitive sports team, the best use for the best reward of his time is to practice and win with his team.
Source #6 – Structural Ability
There could be a structural ability problem. Perhaps he needs a calculator to complete his homework but doesn’t have one. He wants to complete his homework but is lacking the tools to do the job.
Each one of these sources can come into play. We often limit ourselves in moments where it’s so tempting to jump to the fundamental attribution error – assuming people are only influenced by personal motivation.
When you roll a die, there are six possible outcomes. In troubling moments, what if we rolled a metaphorical die just to entertain the notion that perhaps it is not source #1 that is causing us grief. Perhaps there are other potential reasons people are acting badly? This forces us to evaluate what those other potential options might look like. Having more information and a better understanding of what the problem might be puts us in a better position to confront the issue effectively.