During a conference call this week, my manager said, “Erica, I know you think those meetings are formal enough but I think we’ll need to make them even more formal with our other clients.” I had no idea what she meant exactly but because there were some client representatives on the phone, I couldn’t really dig into the subject with her at the moment. Not that I could have asked her just then because the comment caught me completely off guard and my mind went racing down the track of figuring out if I’d messed up on something. She and I have worked together for years and I’d never heard an issue about not being formal enough. I don’t know that I heard much of the rest of the meeting and I knew I wouldn’t have an opportunity to catch up with her about this comment for a couple of days based on our schedules.

As I was driving home that night, I couldn’t get the event out of my head. I tend to think that way. I grab a thread and I’ll pull at it until there’s nothing left and then I imagine completely new threads to worry about. How dare she say I was unprofessional! I was getting more upset by the minute. Unprofessional. Stupid job. Stupid work. I’m running over every meeting I’ve ever had with this client trying to figure out how I might have come across as unprofessional. I’ve done everything that was asked, made suggestions, guided the account the right way. Then it hit me, like I’d just woken from a dream. She never said “unprofessional”. She said something about the meetings not being “formal” enough. Over the course of the day I’d tried so many ways to figure out what she was saying I had re-interpreted the message and was no longer even thinking about what was actually said.

So, what did she mean when she’d made that comment? I later found out. She only meant she wanted to include a few more senior managers in the regular monthly meeting. Oh. That’s easy.

Two lessons here. One, if you don’t know what someone meant by a comment, ask for clarification. It’s true that if a message does not come across clearly, our natural tendency is to apply the most negative interpretation. Second lesson, try to catch yourself when you’re starting to head down that negative interpretation babble we run in our heads because it could save you from a whole lot of useless stress.