Attribution and Anticipation: The Downside

I make my fair share of mistakes; many occur when I employ attribution and anticipation. I am most vulnerable to error when I attribute motives to others’ behavior and anticipate what I’m going to hear. Since we humans are more alike than different, I’m sharing my experience with the hope that it will help you avoid my mistakes.


It’s a natural human tendency to ascribe motives to people’s behavior, but it doesn’t serve us well. At least it’s never served me well.

Usually when I ascribe motives to others’ behavior, I have done so without the benefit of having heard their rationale for what they’re doing, without investigating what they’re experiencing, what they’re feeling, what in their history is influencing their behavior.

By ignoring all of these factors, by rushing to judgment without the benefit of the insights this information could have provided, I become biased. Every thought that I have about what to do in this situation is framed in the context of the motive I ascribed to the person’s behavior.

What I discovered over the years is that the motives I ascribe are usually wrong, precisely because I failed to talk to the person…to learn what triggered the behavior I observed. Once I gained this information, it was easier for me to help the person deal more effectively with the situation they were facing. And do so with behaviors that promoted the welfare of all involved.

Anticipation produces a similar result.


All too often I’ve anticipated someone’s response only to find that it wasn’t what I expected. The surprising response left me feeling ill-prepared to help the person. I’m not suggesting that anticipation is bad. To this day, I try to anticipate others’ responses…especially when it’s a conversation that requires candor and discretion.

The key is to prepare for the responses you anticipate while realizing that it’s unlikely that you’ll get any of these responses. If you assume that you’ll get one of the responses you anticipate, you create bias just as readily as with attribution…with the same result. You’ll be wrong and find yourself reeling as you scramble to deal with the unexpected.

When you anticipate without expecting what you’ve anticipated to actually happen, you are preparing yourself for a myriad of responses while simultaneously keeping an open mind. As a result you listen more carefully during your discussion. You’ll also have some valid points from which to draw depending on what you hear. 

Your prep work and careful listening enable you to reframe your points in the context of what you’re hearing so that they show signs of agreement on some element of what the person said while pointing out relevant facts the person is overlooking. When you attach new information onto what is already agreed upon, that new information is easier for the person to embrace.

So what does this mean for you?

For you

Please learn from my mistakes. Don’t attribute motives to people’s behavior without speaking to them. Instead, when you observe behaviors, ask questions like “I’m curious, why did you use that approach? What did you hope to accomplish? Did you get the desired result? What did you learn from the experience? What will you do going forward?”

It’s only through questions like these that you can hope to understand a person’s behaviors and help them develop behaviors that will be more effective for them in the future.

When facing the prospect of a candid conversation that requires discretion, prepare for the conversation by considering potential responses to your questions. Do so without expecting to get any of these responses. This approach helps you develop talking points without knowing whether any will apply to what you hear.

Enter the conversation with an open mind, absent any preconceived notions. You’ll listen more carefully and find it easier to frame your responses in the context of what you heard. When presenting your thoughts begin with areas of agreement, then add new insights to move the discussion toward a better result.

Remember that when you ascribe motives based on what you observed or expect to hear what you’ve anticipated, you automatically create bias. Bias limits options which makes it difficult to deal effectively with the situation you’re facing. When you realize that your bias isn’t accurate, you often feel out of kilter, scrambling to come up with something that’ll work. You can avoid this pain by not ascribing motives to people’s behaviors and not expecting what you anticipate to be what you actually hear.

For our kids

When you observe your kids ascribing motives, ask them “How do you know? Did you ask the person why they did what they did? Did you ask what they were feeling? Did you ask what triggered their behavior?” When they respond that they didn’t ask these questions, remind them that they can’t know, they can only speculate about why the person did what they did.

As you observe your kids’ conversations in which they aren’t really listening to the other person, ask them “What did you expect the person to say? Why did you expect that? What did they say instead? How did that change your perception of what they were saying? Were there areas in which you agreed? Could you have built upon those areas to incorporate your ideas?”

Oh, by the way, don’t forget to live these messages. Kids are more likely to act as we act than to do what we say. These are priceless gifts you can give your kids.

Feel free to share this blog with those you feel would benefit from this message. It’s an easy way to say “I love you. I’m thinking of you.”

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, please share your thoughts in a comment.

If you’d like to enjoy great confidence, check out our Confidence Self-Study programs (opens in a new link) (opens in a new link). 

If you’d like to enrich the lives of others by teaching them to be more confident, check out our Teaching Confidence Instructor Certification program (opens in a new link)

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