TIL: the stress comes from guessing

Today I Learned

Anxiety and stress in our most important relationships arises from guessing what others want from us, and from guessing how we should “show up” for them.

What this means to me

During intense conversations at home or at work, when I am guessing what the other person needs from me I feel anxious and physically stressed. This causes the conversation (and therefore the relationship) to degrade in a few ways:

  1. I’m no longer listening fully to the other person because I’m distracted by thinking about my own feelings and needs.
  2. In a state of “arousal” (fight-or-flight) my listening and attention will get even worse.
  3. The other person, seeing me in a stress state, could react to that with their own stress response, amplifying the anxiety and stress of the conversation.

Putting this knowledge to work

Just ask the other person what they need, and to tell them what you need, so that we can show up for each other in the most helpful way and avoid the stress of guessing.

Two quick examples

  • When my spouse starts telling me about a difficult part of the day, I can say “that sounds tough…do you need strategy or sympathy from me right now?”
  • When I am talking with someone on my team about a challenge we need to solve, be explicit about my expectations: “I just need to talk through this scenario with someone – can you help poke some holes in my hypothesis? If there are any actions for you afterwards, I’ll be specific.”


If you have questions or feedback about this idea, or about my new short-form post type “TIL,” please leave a comment below.


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