In the absence of complete information, our brains fill in the cracks and crevices with unverified narratives and stories. Our minds proceed to play out scenarios based on these stories, even when we don’t know the actual facts of a situation. At work, jumping to conclusions is the cause of more than its fair share of misunderstandings and conflicts.
In the book The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, a boy named Milo is transported to a make-believe world of adventure and learning where, at one point, he quite literally “jumps” to a conclusion – an actual island where things aren’t as one concluded. Milo realizes it’s much easier to jump to conclusions than it is to “jump” away once there. And it’s a huge waste of time!
Life is rife with frequent “jumps to conclusions” and “climbs up the ladder of inference” (another favorite metaphor). These mental trips happen quickly, which makes them next to impossible to stop. But we can work to keep our visits there as brief as possible (as Milo did.)
Commonly, the information we are missing can easily be acquired if we simply ask more questions and speak openly with others about our needs. The biggest challenges I’ve faced at work (and at home) have been because I haven’t reached out to others to get the necessary information to complete an accurate assessment of a situation.
You are pitching a big idea to your agency’s senior managers and you think the presentation went well. Afterward, you see your manager in the hallway and she gives you a nod, but doesn’t say anything about the presentation. After you pass by, your head begins swimming with possible reasons why she didn’t say anything. And no doubt, most of them are negative. You get yourself so worked up concocting a false narrative that you end up in a terrible mood. You, in turn, barely acknowledge your colleagues later that same day, and you are irritable at home that evening.
This type of scenario happens in every workplace, every single day. But it doesn’t have to!
Alternate Scenario 1
You are pitching a big idea to your agency’s senior managers and you think the presentation went well. Afterward, you see your manager in the hallway and she gives you a nod, but doesn’t say anything about the presentation. After you pass by, your head begins swimming with possible reasons why she didn’t say anything. Next is the hard part… freeze your thoughts and tell yourself “FULL STOP!” Say it out loud if you need to. Full stop is the punctuation (period) at the end of a sentence or thought, and that’s exactly what you’re telling yourself to do in that moment. End the thought!
Next, identify actionable steps you can take to acquire the missing pieces of information you need. Stop your boss in the hallway and ask for her feedback. If she doesn’t have time to talk, ask if you can schedule a little time with her later in the day to debrief about the pitch. Then, use the data you receive from her to create the real story based on facts and create additional actionable steps from that information.
If you can’t get the information you need as quickly as you’d like and your mind starts jumping and climbing again, tell yourself once again “FULL STOP!”
Your primary goals are to:
Put a stop to the thoughts and to take actionable steps to acquire the information you need to complete the narrative accurately.
It takes practice to train your brain. However, with time, you will begin to lessen your jumps and climbs to these made-up places and shorten your time-wasting visits.
Kimberly Nuckles is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.