What Did You Make It Mean?

I’ve written on this topic before, but the recent United Airlines fiasco has brought it back front and center for me, and hopefully for you. The concept is simple – whatever reactions I have (or you have) to people or situations, especially emotional reactions, are based upon what I make the situation, events or information mean to me. In other words, we don’t react to what happens – we react to what we make what happens mean (to us).

Let’s look at the United situation. While there are certainly many different versions of the “facts,” let’s go forward with this basic set of facts:

  • An airplane is boarded with many passengers who are preparing to take off.
  • The flight attendant announces (on the plane) that four United employees need to get on this flight and asks for four volunteers to give up their seats.
  • Having not gotten the required number of volunteers, the flight attendant picks four people (apparently at random, which we’ll assume is true) to give up their seats.
  • A man refuses to give up his seat and stays seated.
  • There are multiple attempts to get this man to voluntarily leave his seat.

There are certainly lots of other elements and conversations that took place, but the foregoing facts appear to be undisputed.

Now, let’s look at the reaction. If you haven’t already seen the videos, here’s a link to one video of the security detail removing this man from his seat and the plane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XDrWvTx7wQ. So I ask you, what did United Airlines’ employees and the security detail make the man or the situation mean that caused them to react the way that they did and to take the action that they did?

Put yourself in that man’s situation – would you have voluntarily given up your seat and, if you refused to give up your seat, would you expect to be forcibly pulled from the seat and dragged down the aisle and off the plane? Probably not, yet the United employees and the security detail took action based upon something, and that something was what they made the situation mean.

For example, did they consider this man to be a security or safety risk? Did they consider this man to be disrespectful? Did they consider this man not to be recognizing their authority? Did they feel dismissed or ignored? Did they feel like they did not matter? Were they worried about how they would look if he didn’t voluntarily get off the plane? Was the security detail looking to show off their power and authority? We will likely never know the answers to these questions, but the conclusion is the same – whatever was going on with United’s employees and the security team, they took action (they reacted) based upon what they made the man and the situation mean to them, not based upon objective and observable facts.

It’s interesting that now, after the fact, United Airlines and others are attempting to use information they’ve learned since the incident to justify their actions. However, the only information that’s relevant is what was known at the time, and their reactions were necessarily responses to that information AND what they made it mean.

The same is true in our everyday lives, at work and at home. When you react to people or situations, your reaction is YOUR reaction, and it’s always based upon what you made it mean. Let’s consider a more commonplace real world example (not United Airlines). Recently, I was typing a long email, and when I was almost finished with it, my email system abruptly shut down and I lost the email and all the work I had done on it. My reaction: anger and frustration – but only two things had happened: 1. My email system had closed without warning; and 2. My prior work had been lost. My reaction was not to these facts, but to the impact – wasted time, having to do it over, not being able to move onto the next thing, etc. My emotional reaction was to what those facts (and their impact) meant to me.

Now let’s look at a people example. Recently, I was observing a man sitting at the bar (with his wife or girlfriend) and I noted that he was talking loudly (mostly about himself), trying to engage in conversation with everyone around him (including me), and continually asking the bartender (a woman) for her opinion on different things. I found myself getting annoyed with him, so I considered the reasons for my annoyance. Many of you are thinking, “of course you’d be annoyed,” but there is no “of course” when it comes to emotions and reactions because we’re all different and we don’t all make the same facts mean the same thing. Let’s look purely at the facts: I was sitting at the bar having a drink and dinner in a hotel; this man was doing the same thing next to me; this man was talking; this man was engaging with other people; this man was talking a lot about himself.

These are mostly facts, but let’s look at the judgments I made about the facts (what I made them mean to me): this man was disturbing my quiet drink and dinner; this man was talking loudly (my opinion); this man was being obnoxious; this man was being flirty with the bartender; this man was arrogant; this man was interrupting everyone else, including me. Get the point? The facts of the situation were not what led to me being annoyed – it’s what I determined that the facts meant to me and about him. My annoyance was to what I made it mean, not to what was happening.

This is exactly what happens every day in your interactions with people in your personal and professional life. The next time you have a reaction to a situation or person, ask yourself this clarifying question: What did I make this person or situation mean to me that led to my emotional or other reaction? When you ask this question you’ll not only minimize your reactions, but you’ll learn a great deal about yourself, about managing your emotions and reactions, and about improving your communication and relationships (and thereby your leadership).

By the way, if you’ve had a reaction to this blog (perhaps denial, rejecting the premise, annoyance, etc.), then I invite you back to the original question: What did you make it mean?

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