Check Your Attribution [on KS Friday]

I have just had a front row seat to a full-blown, hyper-antagonistic, years-long, classic case of attribution-bias-escalation. It was [and is] ugly. The ripples are rocking boats, eroding foundations, ending friendships. The damage is thorough and, as is always true, infinitely avoidable.

Attribution bias. Making the assumption that you KNOW why someone did or said something. Assigning your reason to their behavior.

Years ago, a red faced executive called me, the consultant, in and fumed, “She said THAT to demean me!” I paused and asked, “Do you really know why she said it? Have you asked her what was going on from her point of view?” His blank stare told me all I needed to know. He would rather demonize her, be offended by her, than communicate with her. We sat down, drank a cup of coffee and decided that, rather than fume and escalate, rather than simmer in a victim-stew, he had at his disposal a better path. Communicate rather than assume, ask questions rather than blame, poison the well, and indulge in being offended.

It always amazes me how unconscious and/or resistant folks are to challenging their attributions. How eager they are to spin hard narratives and create vicious persecutors. How invested they become at being offended or otherwise insulted en route to being ‘right.’ It is monster-creation. It provides nothing more than a reason to draw a sword.

We do it so fast. Assume we know. And, once the attribution is made, we hold onto it as if it were gospel. It is easier to believe we know-all-things than it is to step out of the yummy-victim-archetype and ask a few simple questions, confess a few honest vulnerabilities. It is easier, more tasty, to take offense than it is to give consideration. Blame provides a great reason to never ask a question. Being ‘right’ is a hard stop to all inquiry.

In the canon of unconscious bias, attribution is one of the most-oft-used routes to really effective miscommunication. It makes mountains out of molehills. It makes muck from otherwise good working relationships. It savages careers. It makes vice presidents run to the phone and call consultants. It makes councils meet in secret and vote without investigation. It makes revenge a serious pursuit of otherwise grown-up adults. It makes weak leaders run for the basement and hide. It makes new-contract-creation and other tit-for-tat flexing a less-than-fun game of control. No one wins. No questions asked. It makes a hammer the only tool in the tool kit.

A few breaths to simmer down, the suspension of a snap-assumption, an honest “can I talk to you” conversation that comes with no blame and a wee-bit of vulnerability…could make a minor miscommunication remain minor. It could save all manner of hurt feelings, ill intention, relationship destruction, HR costs, separation agreements, litigation…all unnecessary wreckage that might have been avoided with an assumption-made-conscious, an attribution challenged. A simple word or phrase can usually be explained, “You took a bullet meant for someone else, I’m sorry.” Mountains return to molehills when we are willing to turn from our hyper-active-attribution-bias (“I’m right and I know it!”) and ask, “I’m not sure what just happened here. Will you help me understand?”

read Kerri’s blog post about ESCALATION

Feed The Mantra [on KS Friday]

As part of the 2020 census, Kerri and I were randomly selected to participate in a healthcare questionnaire. On first glance this might seem worse than a spoon full of castor oil but we were excited because the system of healthcare in America has been ruinous to us. There isn’t a single life decision that we make that doesn’t run through the fractious draconian system we mistake for health care [note: the good people who populate the system, the nurses and doctors and technicians are remarkable. My barb is meant for the money machine that intercepts our capacity to create a system that places the health of the citizens as central to the mission].

We spent an hour on the phone with a lovely woman who asked us multiple choice questions that were carefully written to avoid any real data. When she asked us if, over the last 12 months, we’d experienced anxiety, hopelessness, or depression, we burst out laughing. She laughed, too. “Was our level of anxiety high, somewhat high, moderate, little, or very little?” We answered with more laughter and she said, “Well, I have to ask!”

I told her the story of taking Kerri to the hospital the night she broke her wrists. Wrapped up like a mummy, in great pain, we sat for several minutes in the parking lot staring at two doors. The first led to the emergency room and would, no doubt, also lead to bankruptcy. The second door led to urgent care and perhaps an inability to care for a pianist with two broken wrists. We debated our choices for several long minutes. Keep in mind, we have healthcare. It is more expensive than all of the rest of our bills combined. And, we are afraid to use it.

“Have you avoided treatment or refused treatment in the anytime in the last 12 months because of cost?”

“Yes.”

We told the lovely woman conducting the questionnaire how much our premiums actually cost and she gasped. Literally. “I had no idea,” she muttered. Her job provides healthcare.

We access our coverage through the misnomer, Affordable Care Act. It provides a supplement so we can actually “afford” our coverage but access also comes with a cliff. It’s constructed like a cage. It’s an all or nothing abyss that prevents us from earning a living. We cannot earn enough to pay our bills because we’d have to jump a mighty-premium-reimbursal-crevasse to make enough money to survive the cliff. Catch-22. It’s why I stopped showing or selling my paintings; a single extra dollar could have pushed us over. Our get-out-of-jail-free-card? A job with healthcare.

For a moment, the lovely woman winced and was silent on the other end of the phone. “There’s no space to put this information,” she said. “I’ll put it in the notes at the end,” she said to herself. We knew, all three of us, that no one will ever read the notes.

We left the questionnaire disappointed but affirmed in our belief that nothing will change anytime soon. Our fatal blind spot in these perhaps-soon-to-be-united-states is that we think everything needs to run like a business. It’s why our schools fail. It is why our prisons are over populated. Market forces come with levers that work well if you are selling electronics but are debilitating if your are trying to educate children or provide accessible healthcare to a citizenry. I’ve seen many, many arts organizations and other not-for-profits enter a death spiral when a “well-meaning” board member insists that the organization run like a business. Apples cannot be oranges.

We feed each other a not-insignificant mantra these days. This is where we are. Let’s not miss this day. Rise above the circumstance. Each day, new. Let’s live, fully live, right here, Right Now.

RIGHT NOW and all of Kerri’s albums are available on iTunes

read Kerri’s blog post on EACH NEW DAY

each new day/right now ©️ 2010 kerri sherwood