Someone I really care about recently abruptly upset our work balance. I was stunned then hurt then angry. In an attempt to mitigate the damage and move forward, I came up with five questions that helped me to reframe the conflict in a healthier light:
1. Would s/he really want to hurt me? This one was easy. Clearly, no. The answer had a calming effect.
2. What might be her/his perspective of the situation? I imagined he was probably stressed, so the brusque emails and attempts to take control of a mutual project were possibly misread on my part as hostile, when they may have been neutral. Or simply a symptom of his anxiety. I realized he may have his own imperfections, too. Perhaps cryptic email communication skills. Something I hadn't considered. This realization helped to humanize him, and again had a calming effect.
3. What was really at the heart of the hurt? In this case, it was the feeling that my work was being rejected without a fair opportunity to revise it myself. Also, the fear that my work was simply not good enough. Both of these answers did nothing to assuage my hurt and anger. Which lead to the next question.
4. What past circumstances may also be at play? I learned from my past work in the magazine industry that the greatest insult was to have a project pulled from you and given to someone else to complete. It signified failure and instilled fear. I realized it wasn't fair to apply those feelings to this situation, even though it was natural to want to link them. But it did help calm me to realize my alarm had roots that intensified what I felt.
5. Could the last communication be read without hostility? I initially saw the email as unfriendly, imperious and dismissive. But if instead I saw it as simply rushed – if flawed – on his part, I didn't have the same sense of rejection and betrayal.
These five questions calmed me enough to not say or do anything stupid, at least until we had an opportunity to meet and talk about the incident. It was then that I realized my own hurt and anger had actually caused some damage: I had been so sure my work had been deemed irrelevant that I failed to report I had uploaded a revised file that fixed a small design flaw. If he was redoing my work anyway, what was the point? I would be seen as pathetic for thinking my file still mattered when it was already extraneous.
But without telling me, he had approved my work and the design flaw wasn't detected and went to production. The revised file now needed to be reintegrated, after the fact and in several instances, creating more work for the team. I should have simply sent word of the file swap – just in case – but I was too angry and sure my work was being redone anyway.
During our meeting, I unfortunately unleashed an assessment of what I deemed his poor management skills and inarticulate feedback. The Five Questions had helped to calm me before our actual face time. But I regret they didn't stop my outburst in person.
I learned it was much worse to cause hurt than to feel hurt.
Next time I'll do better. I'll answer a Sixth Question: Can you find a way to verbally express hurt and anger calmly? Perhaps the key lies with remembering Question One.