I was recently working with a woman who was convinced her ex-husband was trying to alienate the teenaged daughter from her mother. The malice she believed was motivating her husband had become a preoccupation for her. The blame game consumed her energy. The husband claimed he had no such motives. Was he lying? Was he in denial about his own deep motives? I couldn’t be certain any more than his ex-wife could. But I was sure that her repeated demands for him to change his motives were simply not working.
The only change available to her was in how she interacted with her daughter. She had to focus on improving the mother-daughter relationship without getting hung up on what she thought was motivating her husband.
Here are 5 good reasons to avoid arguing about the other person's motives:
1. You can’t know if you’re right about his or her motives. Keep your thoughts hypothetical ;
2. When you impute hostile motives to the other person you make yourself angrier. This escalates the dispute, and puts you into an emotional state less likely to come up with a solution;
3. You look like the bad guy when you make angry, explicit claims about his or her motives;
4. Motives are irrelevant. The best resolutions focus on objective behaviours that can be observed, known, agreed-to and monitored.
5. Discussions of motives rehash the past. Solutions focus on the future, and to the behaviours you WANT.
When someone hurts you, it’s natural to assume it’s intentional. “He’s spending more time with our daughter just to win her away from me.” The reaction is natural and automatic. You begin to revisit old memories, recasting them to confirm your story of the other person’s malice.
But wait. Let’s slow down. You might be right. Your speculation is one way of explaining what happened. But you may be overlooking something. Beware of claiming certainty.
If your goal is not high energy drama but just to get past the dispute then consider challenging your automatic interpretations of someone else’s motive. It won’t be easy. It takes a disciplined act of will to catch yourself in the act and to question your automatic thoughts. And then to practice patience.
We have enough difficulty gaining certainty about the tangled threads of our own motives. Let’s not claim certainty about the intentions of others. We walk a smoother path through life when we walk it with humility.