On a group coaching call I led yesterday, we talked about how we “fill in the blanks”. This came up when someone mentioned a challenge to write a story in only six words. He gave this example: “Baby shoes for sale, never worn”.
What story do you make up from reading those six words?
Based on that short sentence, my mind instantly filled in the blanks to create a complete story about a family in grief, trying to move on after losing a baby. I immediately felt sad. I didn’t even have to stop and think about it; it was just right there as soon as I heard the six words. One prompt and boom!
Advantage or detriment
Sometimes filling in the blanks works to our advantage, sometimes to our detriment. In my experience, most of us have no awareness this is taking place, and our lack of awareness definitely creates problems. Let’s see if we can do something about that!
Here are some examples of how this can play out.
My wife is wrapping Christmas presents. She loves being Santa and giving gifts, and I love her for it. In the middle of wrapping a box in red and white snowman paper, she stops and glances left and right. I see her glance, and I instantly “know” she’s missing the scotch tape. I also know that after she applies tape, she’s going to need twine, but I don’t see it anywhere. I get the tape and some twine and give it to her. The whole thing takes a few seconds. Based on seeing her glance, my mind filled in the blanks, I took action, done. I felt good for seeing her need; she felt seen and supported … happy ending.
From another coaching client this week: He sits at the kitchen table, enjoying a cup of morning coffee. He sees his wife coming down the hall towards him. In his eyes, she does not look happy. Before she utters a word, or is even inside the kitchen, his mind fills out a ton of blanks. He immediately feels frustrated and defensive. He’s thinking: “She’s mad. Again. She’s going to chew me out for …. what? I did everything we talked about yesterday, so she’s got no reason to come at me like that! It’s always the same. She never sees all the stuff I’m doing; she doesn’t appreciate me. This is going to be a fight, there’s nothing I can say that’ll convince her”.
Of course, he could be right that’s she’s mad at him for something. After all, it’s happened before in their marriage. But she could also be having a bad morning for ten other reasons. Maybe she just stubbed her toe? Maybe she just had a fight with their kids? Maybe she got an upsetting text from her sister? Maybe she just got fired? Or maybe she’s not having a bad morning at all, she just has a frown on her face before she gets her coffee?
Point being, his mind instantly filled in the blanks and created this entire scenario before she said or did anything. As a result, he’s immediately frustrated and defensive, which works against him every single time. He’s now very likely to say something snarky or frustrated, thus increasing the odds of a fight actually happening.
Rule to live by
We can’t stop our minds from filling in the blanks, but we can use it to our advantage. I have a two-part rule of thumb:
1) Go with the most generous interpretation possible (at least to begin with).
2) Get more information.
If you can’t conjure up a generous version, simply go with, “I don’t have all the information, let me get grounded before making a conclusion”.
Another client used this to good effect. A junior team member called him to ask for a meeting. In the past, he would have filled in the blanks like this: “Come on, not another meeting. She clearly didn’t get the instructions I gave her yesterday. I’m so tired of repeating myself. Can anyone take instructions around here? Now I’ll have to waste more time with more meetings ….” This time, he went with the conclusion that he didn’t have all the information, so he simply asked her to elaborate on what she was looking for with a meeting. Turns out she had a lead on a potential new client and she wanted to run it by him. In this case, she got what she needed over the phone, no meeting was necessary, and she proceeded with her next step.
Our default skews negative
It's important to notice that our default way of filling in the blanks often skews negative. Particularly when we’re already feeling stressed at work or disconnected at home. It’s like we’re primed for the negative options.
The guy with the coffee filled in the blanks to create a worst case scenario. That was his default option. A better starting point would be a more “generous” option, such as, “She must have had a rough night; I’ll get her some coffee”. Then, if relevant, he could go for more information: “Are you doing ok?” “How are you feeling?” “Is something up?” Even if she was mad at him, he’d put himself in a better position by avoiding defensiveness and instead remaining fully present and open to other possibilities. And by asking for more information, he might learn what (if anything) was actually going on for her and could then take the next appropriate action.
Being generous with your interpretations is a nice gesture towards someone, akin to giving people the benefit of the doubt. But it’s not primarily for their benefit – it’s for yours! Using a generous option helps you avoid negative spin cycles in your mind and keeps you away from reflexively defensive responses. Instead you get to remain present and open which is always the better stance from which to choose your next response.
Go with the most generous interpretation possible and get more information. Then make a conclusion and choose a response. It’ll serve you well, I promise!
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