speak/listen

Being straightforward - or not

If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others
— La Rochefoucauld

By John-Paul Flintoff

Every day, from the moment we wake till the moment we go to sleep, we do out best to avoid being seen as mad, bad or wrong.

As part of this general approach, we often pretend to understand things that we don’t understand.

As a result, small misunderstandings develop into huge ones. This often happens at work (but not only there). Like this:

Ms A. asks Mr B. to do something, and Mr B. agrees to do it – despite having no clear idea what the thing is, exactly.

Over the following hours / days / weeks, Mr B. keeps himself busy with everything else, at least partly in order to avoid admitting, even to himself, that he has no idea what is expected of him.

Opportunities to seek clarity may arise, as when he meets Ms A. in the corridor, fetching a coffee. But Mr B. doesn’t say anything about the thing. Instead, he makes jokes about something he saw on YouTube, or similar.

Meanwhile, Ms A. has started to wonder how Mr B. is getting on. She’s desperate to ask, but doesn’t want to seem “pushy”, and trusts that he’s knows what he’s doing, and is doing what she asked.

The deadline approaches. Mr B. now feels like such a twit for failing to ask for clarity that he decides it’s too late. He can never ask! The best thing to do is to hide in his mental bunker, wearing a tin hat, and hope that Ms A. has forgotten everything.

The deadline arrives. Mr B. walks the corridors, to fetch coffee and anything else, as if this was a day like any other.

Meanwhile, Ms A. finds that her heart is hardening towards Mr B. She thinks it may be time to have it out with him.

She writes an email. Before sending it, she takes out all the bits that sound horrid, and sends instead something that asks in a roundabout way how he’s doing.

Mr B. is unsure what exactly she’s asking, so he doesn’t reply.

They pass each other in the corridor. For the first time in a long time, they don’t exchange a word.

And so on, until either Ms A. or Mr B. leave the organisation and the other one says, “Thank goodness we got rid of him/her, s/he’s completely useless.”

That’s what often happens
Most of us can think of a time this kind of thing has happened. We have all been Ms A. occasionally, and we’ve all been Mr B.

It needn’t be like that
The secret recipe for avoiding this kind of mistake is to be honest – and sooner rather than later. If Mr B. had said to Ms A. that he didn’t understand her request in the first place, everybody would have been better off.

If it’s so easy, why don’t we avoid this problem?
The desire to avoid being mad, bad or wrong is very strong. But we can train ourselves to recognise that asking for clarification is not to be mad, bad or wrong. We can train ourselves to recognise when we have no clear idea what is going on, and to tell the other person just that – to state our own experience, without blaming anybody. For instance: “Ms B., I think I’m missing something! Can you explain?”

True fact
I wrote this after getting into exactly this kind of scrape, but less extremely, with a colleague at The School of Life. Kirsty asked me to write an outline describing a common communications problem at work, but I didn’t quite understand what she wanted until the deadline loomed – and I had to admit I’d been a twit. This amused her, and she explained. The result of our conversation was this post.

Other true fact
I got the line about mad, bad or wrong from Steve Chapman. Thanks Steve.

Posted: March 25, 2015