You find yourself in a conversation that has gone wrong. Your interlocutor has said something that hurts you deeply. Just as you feel yourself ready to scream, you remember the words of a wise friend who told you that although you can’t control the behavior of others, you can control your own reaction to their behavior.

I disagree—but perhaps not in the way that you think.

Over the years I’ve learned how to debug puzzling, startling, hurtful conversations. In that time, I’ve learned that controling my reactions means going against deeply-held customs and values. These reactions have deep roots in both my upbringing and my wider culture. I can trace many of my impulses back to what my mother taught me, to what I’d learned the hard way in school, to larger influences from Canadian customs, and even farther back to decidedly British values. Using terms from the Satir Interaction Model, I move from Significance to Response quickly[1], instinctively, and rather before I’ve had the chance to reflect. If you find the Kahneman model helpful, then System 1 tells me how to respond. In spite of this, I can change and have changed how I respond to the surprising things that others do. If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have written about this, then, would I?

If I Can’t Control My Response…

If I can’t control my response, and if response follows significance (or interpretation), then I suppose I need to explore controling my interpretation. Indeed, I have been practising this very thing for years, and slowly I feel like I’m getting the hang of it. I’d like to use this article as an opportunity to focus on this very point. While I can’t control my response, I can control how I interpret the actions of others. Of course, this doesn’t come easy to me.

A Few Useful Tricks

I use a handful of tricks to help me avoid letting my initial interpretations trap me into negative thinking.

  • The Rule of Three Interpretations
  • “What would have to be true for me to behave this way?”
  • “Interesting”

The Rule of Three Interpretations

I first learned about the Rule of Three Interpretations from the work of Gerald Weinberg. This rule suggests that, before responding, we ought to think of three additional ways to interpret what has happened around us. If we can’t think of three different interpretations, the rule reasons, then we haven’t yet reflected enough on the situation. I wish I always had this much self control. When my temper runs a bit hotter than usual, I rather routinely forget to do this. Even if I forget in the moment, I try, after the fact, in a moment of quiet reflection, to find three more ways to interpret what had happened around me. Although this doesn’t help me right away, it helps me prepare for the next, similar situation, and that helps. The more I practise this, the more easily I remember to do it in the moment, and the more benefit it confers to me.

Particularly in online discussions—forums, mailing lists, and dare I say it, comments sections—I find this trick very helpful. I not only remind myself to use it, but gently ask others to consider it. Of course, I can’t force anyone to do this, and I don’t want to project an image of smug superiority, so I choose my words rather carefully. Specifically, I rarely write, “Can you think of three other interpretations of [the situation]?” I imagine that if you didn’t trust me and I aimed this nugget at you, that you would probably see me as judgmental, rather than helpful. Ironically, if you already knew about and used this technique, then you might find it easier to interpret my actions as gentle and helpful, rather than smug and superior. It’s complicated.

What Would Have To Be True…?

Along with the Rule of Three Interpretations comes a powerful question: What would have to be true for me to behave this way? This question not only encourages generic empathy, but specifically focuses that energy on finding at least one interpretation of the situation that would motivate me to do the very thing that has me upset at the moment. When I imagine myself behaving “strangely”, I immediately imagine a specific scenario that could lead me to behave that way. This concrete explanation of puzzling behavior feels much more significant—and more easily justified—than some abstract, hypothetical accounting for the strangeness. I also feel less likely to doubt the motives behind my own actions—even hypothetical ones—than those of another person. You might think this unfair, but since I must have character flaws, I might as well find ways to work around them. The difference, as usual, comes down to trust: I trust myself more than I trust others, so I cast myself in their place in order to fool myself into trusting them more. If you find this artificial, then so do I—and it works well for me.

Sometimes the other person’s behavior shocks and hurts me so deeply that I couldn’t possibly imagine what would ever motivate me to behave tht way. It becomes a kind of intellectual challenge that appeals to the archetypal programmer aspect of my personality. With enough reflection, I always manage to envision a scenario which would cause me to act that way, something that occasionally forces me to confront an uncomfortable truth about myself. This helps keep me at least somewhat humble.

Interesting…

This last technique seems perhaps the least practical, but I find it perhaps the most powerful. It seems like an attempt to control my response—and I’ve already told you that I don’t really know how to do that—but I see it as a method for conditioning myself towards a less-judgmental interpretation. In consists of reacting to even the most alarming behavior with a flat, simple, calm “Interesting.” I don’t always say this aloud, because some people sometimes interpret this as a kind of power play. I can see that, especially when I hear someone I don’t trust say that to me in a faux-Zen-master tone of voice. Even when only whispering it to myself as a kind of mantra, repeating “Interesting” helps me take a moment to acknowledge what has happened without judging the action nor the person doing it. It reminds me to observe without judgment. It reminds me to breathe and use the other tools I know, including the ones I’ve descrived here, to avoid contributing to the situation spiraling out of control. All this from simply repeating “Interesting” in the face of even shocking behavior. It seems silly, and it works well for me.

Just Start Here

These tricks can sound—and feel—quite mechanical at first, and you might feel strange applying such mechanical techniques to something as messy as human interaction. I understand. I’ve felt the same way, but I’ve noticed people treating me better and trusting me more since I’ve used these techniques. At first I used them to debug difficult interactions after they’d already gone wrong, but with enough practice, I began to use them to rescue conversations as they began to fall apart. You can probably have similar results, and if you’d like a place to start, then try this:

When someone hurts you, before you respond, think of just one more way to interpret their behavior. Just one. You don’t have to think of a gentler interpretation, nor a more accurate one, but just one more. Just one more interpretation can save the interaction before it blows up in your face.

Further Viewing

Practical Tools for Playing Well with Others from Øredev Conference on Vimeo.

Further Reading

Gerald M. Weinberg, Quality Software Management Volume 2: First-Order Measurement. Although I haven’t read this volume, others cite it as the origin of the Rule of Three Interpretations. I suspect that I read it in his Secrets of Consulting, but I can’t recall.

J. B. Rainsberger, “Don’t Let Miscommunication Spiral Out of Control”. A hypothetical incident in a hypothetical interaction triggered me at last to share my understanding, simplistic though you might find it, of Virginia Satir’s model for understanding human interactions.

  1. For now you only need to know that Significance has to do with deciding why someone has behaved a certain way, and Response has to do with, well, the way one responds.  ↩