When people project their own behavior onto others…

People who are passionate about their work sometimes lose their tempers. It happens. When it does, we need to cut each other some slack. But have you ever found yourself in the line of fire with someone and you can’t figure out why they are so angry? Or what they think the argument is actually about? Maybe the disagreement seems trivial to you, but has them torqued out of shape. When this happens to me, I try not to take it personally, because it’s an indication that something else is going on.

People Project

Not that long ago, I was pulled into a circular argument that I was eager to resolve. No matter how conciliatory I tried to be, my associate became increasingly furious. It was as if what I was saying was being mistranslated into some other language. Fortunately, I quickly recognized the pattern. The other person was projecting his own thoughts/behaviors onto me. He thought I was trying to manipulate him into a certain course of action (I wasn’t) and had it in for him (I didn’t), and so he was determined to strike first. When I refused to be manipulated by him – and when my behavior didn’t align with the scenario he’d played out in his head – he became defensive.

This is something of a meme for TV dramas – the cheating husband accuses his loyal wife of running around; the conniving co-worker assumes everyone else is trying to con him; the dirty cop assumes that everyone is on the take. It seems like a trite plot device, but it can be pretty disconcerting when it happens in real life. Fortunately, as soon as you recognize what’s going on – when you understand what a person’s motivation is – you can solve for it.

In my case, once I realized that the argument wasn’t about what I was saying but about what he was feeling (threatened), I changed my whole approach. Instead of trying to win this particular argument, I tried to diffuse the situation, demonstrate that I felt no ill will, and give him a chance to dial his rhetoric back a bit.

The take-away here is that we all deal with colleagues, bosses and customers who, while not malicious, might occasionally blindside us with unwarranted aggression. Recognize it for what it is. Be gracious. And instead of fighting fire with fire, try to remove the kindling.

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