What Was I Thinking?

By Dick Koehneke

Recently I wrote about the subject of “navigating difficult conversations” using some insights from Sheila Heen, the co-author of the book Difficult Conversations.  She says, “In difficult conversations we need to become aware of our own internal voice.” 

That comment is true in any conversation.  When we’re not aware of what’s going on inside our heads, a conversation can turn into a confrontation.  When that happens, and when we reflect on the resulting communication meltdown, we might ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?” 

Let’s think about our thoughts before we have the next conversation.  Call it preventive reflection.  Maybe being aware of our thoughts ahead of time will help the conversation stay on a healthy track.  I can’t control the other person’s thoughts, but I’m supposed to be able to manage my own. 

Here are five thoughts that can make any conversation not only difficult, but painful.  They don’t come out of our mouths, but if they’re in our heads, that’s enough to cause problems.  

  1. “I’m here to fix you.”

When we see the other person as a repair project, we’re in trouble.  First of all, we probably don’t know what their problems are.  We might think we do, but as the saying goes, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Second, we can’t fix someone else’s problems; the best we can do is provide resources and support.  Third, that kind of superior attitude gets conveyed quite quickly to the other person, who is likely to respond with resistance, either passively or aggressively.

  1. “If you knew what I know, you would agree with me.”

Oh, so the problem is the other person’s ignorance, right?  Now I’m the great authority, the all-knowing source of important information for the other person to absorb, so that he or she can align with my absolutely correct thinking.  No room for learning on my part, is there?  If the other person thinks I see him or her as an ignoramus, they’re not likely to be open to my self-styled wisdom and insight.  In fact, they may decide to live down to my expectations, like this:  “If this guy thinks I’m an idiot, I’ll just go ahead and act like one.”   

  1. “When you reach my level of maturity, you’ll understand.”

Now the problem is not the other person’s lack of knowledge, it’s their immaturity.  Do you think the person who is truly mature ever feels mature?  Maturity is an ongoing process of becoming one’s best self.  True maturity involves humility and a desire to learn and grow.  Many years ago I was in an older pastor’s office.  On the wall there was a plaque that said, “I thought I finally got it all together, but now I can’t remember where I put it.”  Beautiful! 

  1. “My job is to talk. Your job is to listen.”

Ah yes, I’m the master of the monologue.  No comments from you, please.  What I’m saying is too important for you to interrupt.  Besides, I’m afraid that if you interrupt my train of thought, I might run off the rails and not be able to get back on – but I don’t want to admit that, so I just keep talking.  I don’t care if you’ve stopped listening.  I’m going to keep doing my job no matter what:  talking. 

  1. “I know what you’re thinking.”

How do you know?  Omniscience is an attribute of God, not man.    If I think I know what you think, that gives you the right to think you know what I think.  That’s a prescription for relational disaster.  As someone has said, “Overconfidence gives you the courage to act on your faulty convictions.”

Maybe I’m the only one who ever has thoughts like these.  Or maybe not.  What thoughts might  you add to this list?

On the other hand, here are some very different sorts of thoughts to keep in mind in advance of the next conversation. 

  • “I respect you.”
  • “I will listen to you.”
  • “I hope to learn from you.”
  • “I would like to know you better.”
  • “I’m glad we don’t think alike.”

Those are thoughts I want to have.  Can you add some more?