A Perfect System of Misunderstanding

In a famil­iar com­mu­ni­ca­tions train­ing exer­cise peo­ple draw a pic­ture of their lives on a clear plas­tic sheet, a “view foil” or “trans­paren­cy” — the stuff used in the past with over­head pro­jec­tors. The idea is for each per­son to use col­ored pens to fill up his or her sheet with a vari­ety of images — of child­hood and fam­i­ly, work and pro­fes­sion, life expe­ri­ences and turn­ing points, val­ues, aspi­ra­tions and expec­ta­tions. Then, in the next part of the exer­cise, peo­ple hold the sheet up in front of their faces and look through it at some­one else look­ing back at them through their own sheet. How much of one anoth­er’s true face can they see through these two “life fil­ters”? Not a lot.

Sim­i­lar­ly, I remem­ber once work­ing with two peo­ple whose ongo­ing con­flict had sur­faced at a com­pa­ny retreat. The con­flict, relat­ed to project man­age­ment, direct­ly affect­ed the oth­ers in the room — all mem­bers of the same small firm. I asked the two peo­ple if they would be will­ing to work on their con­flict in front of the group and they agreed. I then asked the the first per­son (A) to talk about how he saw their dif­fer­ences, and asked the sec­ond per­son (B) to repeat back what he had heard A say. Then I asked the group to weigh in on how well B had para­phrased A’s main points. We reversed roles and went back and forth between the two peo­ple sev­er­al times. The results were so bad the group chuck­led every time they were asked to rate A or B’s para­phras­es. A and B each spoke almost entire­ly through their per­son­al lens­es — using words that char­ac­ter­ized and sup­port­ed their own ver­sion of the “truth” about the sit­u­a­tion even though they were sup­posed to be lis­ten­ing care­ful­ly to one anoth­er. They could not repeat what each oth­er had said with any accu­ra­cy, and the inter­pre­ta­tions were often so far off as to be hilar­i­ous. In a sec­ond phase of the exer­cise, group mem­bers came in more strong­ly to assist the two with their para­phras­es, which turned out to be more valu­able. (The group helped them more than I ever could).

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Again and again, as I’ve assist­ed peo­ple with their con­flicts, it is clear how they miss each oth­er in the name of pre­serv­ing their truths. We seem to thrive on car­i­ca­tures and stereo­types and all too habit­u­al­ly see prob­lems rather than pos­si­bil­i­ties in the unknown regions beyond our own pre­ferred sto­ries. With A and B, two high­er lev­el pro­fes­sion­als, the issues had to do with respect for one anoth­er’s con­tri­bu­tions, knowl­edge and time, and idio­syn­crat­ic meth­ods for coor­di­nat­ing their activ­i­ties. But there are a mil­lion ways to talk past each oth­er. With lead­ers, espe­cial­ly if there is a for­mal pow­er dif­fer­ence and mis­trust is present, the car­i­ca­ture often comes down to an endur­ing belief that the leader is some kind of nar­cis­sis­tic auto­crat, even when the blind spot dri­ving this mis­per­cep­tion is some­thing like incom­plete com­mu­ni­ca­tions and feed­back, per­fec­tion­ism, or poor del­e­ga­tion skills. Even a lead­er’s naive attempts to “serve” by tak­ing on too much per­son­al­ly can elic­it dis­tort­ed views of an auto­crat’s traits (such as con­trol). All of our behav­iors leave impres­sions and the fall-back posi­tion in this cul­ture seems to be that any­thing inex­plic­a­ble or ambigu­ous in a for­mal lead­er’s behav­ior is prob­a­bly the result of a hid­den agen­da, an effort to con­trol, or some­thing else clever and inept, part of the neg­a­tive, untrust­wor­thy stereo­type of “boss­es.” This isn’t to say auto­crats don’t exist (they do) — or that insen­si­tiv­i­ty does not exist (it does) — but insen­si­tiv­i­ty can be a two-way street, and if we miss each oth­er by an inch that inch can soon become a mile. 

This is one of the rea­sons for­mal lead­ers have to work a lit­tle hard­er to get past the roles and the pow­er dif­fer­ences — pre­cise­ly because they are lead­ers, help­ing every­one past the stereo­types in order to build a dif­fer­ent kind of net­work culture.

It is by virtue of how addict­ed we are to our inter­pre­ta­tions that we cre­ate the per­fect, impen­e­tra­ble sys­tems of mis­un­der­stand­ing and mis­trust, our crimes of rec­i­p­ro­cal, mis­con­strued “truth.” Big and small sys­tems. Big and small crimes. There is so much irony in this. Our pri­vate truths become our mutu­al false­hoods. That’s why we must slow down, cre­ate the dia­logue that pen­e­trates our assump­tions, reach out, and learn to trust. Of course, that can be a com­pli­cat­ed and ini­tial­ly time con­sum­ing task. Of course there are no guar­an­tees. But if you want to get beyond mis­un­der­stand­ing you have to ask about what you real­ly don’t know. You have to be able to para­phrase what does­n’t quite fit with how you thought things were. That’s where con­nec­tion is. That’s where free­dom is — in what is unknown, uncer­tain, awk­ward and yet to be dis­cov­ered about one anoth­er — the stuff that blows our the­o­ries all to hell.

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A and B got bet­ter that day. As the group helped them para­phrase and as they talked about their dif­fer­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of painful events they began to see how bad­ly they had missed one anoth­er, and they agreed on a dif­fer­ent code of respect. It was a good expe­ri­ence if not a rad­i­cal breakthrough.

Like an anthro­pol­o­gist I try to under­stand how peo­ple assign mean­ing to one one anoth­er’s masks, learn­ing lan­guages that may have sim­i­lar words but are not at all the same. If I am lucky, peo­ple wipe clear a lit­tle spot on the plas­tic sheets and part of anoth­er human eye appears before them — they see each other. 

Some­times there’s a kind of sad­ness or lone­li­ness in occu­py­ing this inter­me­di­ary space. I am not sure exact­ly why that is so. But it is some­thing about see­ing real­ly won­der­ful, incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed peo­ple each mak­ing assump­tions about the oth­er that have lit­tle to do with the truth I see in both of them.

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8 Comments

  • Dear Dan,
    Your posts always move me (and oth­ers) deeply to embrace basic truths that pro­pel change.

    This post went even fur­ther. It puts us into the “aha” moments of life with a fresh new view and caus­es reflec­tion to trans­form the way we communicate.

    This post is home run and I will share with many.

    Warmest regards,
    Kate Nasser

  • I sec­ond what Kate posted.

    Dan you have a gift of going deep­er and affect­ing us ful­ly. You are a soul­ful leader

    I tru­ly enjoy read­ing your thoughts and ideas.

    Bless you.
    Lol­ly Daskal
    Lead From Within

  • I heard it said that there’s at least three sides to every sto­ry; your side, their side, and the truth. Your post exem­pli­fies this remark­ably well. 

    As a leader, I always keep this in mind when facil­i­tat­ing con­flicts or when brain­storm­ing with the team.

    Thank you for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence and won­der­ful insight.

  • Great arti­cle. Every­one has lens­es, some just don’t know it.

  • Dan, This is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten. Of course, I expect that from you. I par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­ate the last two para­graphs. You have tak­en the need to rec­og­nize our own lens­es and acknowl­edge the lens­es of oth­ers a step beyond. How true that some­times there is a bit of sad­ness in releas­ing who we have been as we become more authen­tic and more car­ing. Giv­ing up some­thing that has been very com­fort­able holds risk, but in that risk is possibility.

  • Thank you so much to all for your kind com­ments. It’s great to know this post res­onat­ed with you.

    @KateNasser — “reflec­tion to trans­form the way we com­mu­ni­cate” — YES!

    @LollyDaskal — As always, Lol­ly, thank you for your heart-felt support

    @Redge — Yes, I’ve heard the three sides to every sto­ry state­ment, as well, and total­ly agree — and, as I bet you know, it’s not always easy to keep all three in mind! Thank you!

    @Denise — Some­times I think I see my own lens­es, some­times oth­ers have to point them out to me! Thank you for stop­ping by, Denise!

    @ Ah, Lyn, it’s clear you have expe­ri­enced that same feel­ing. I love the way you con­nect that to authen­tic­i­ty and the per­son­al journey…my best to you

  • I real­ly enjoyed your post, Dan. Excel­lent insights and so well writ­ten. The fish­bowl tech­nique is so pow­er­ful. Reminds me of the Greek Cho­rus. Unfor­tu­nate­ly most of us live our lives look­ing out from behind the plas­tic sheets, with­out even real­iz­ing it’s there, and with­out a per­son­al Greek Cho­rus to tell us what is real. 

    I too have expe­ri­enced sad­ness or lone­li­ness in the inter­me­di­ary space. What I usu­al­ly real­ize is I’m attach­ing some mean­ing to being alone. When I explore it with curios­i­ty, it is dynam­ic and ever-changing.

  • Wow, what a fab­u­lous com­par­i­son, Jesse — the Greek Cho­rus! Indeed! They share the lyric in the back­ground and rein­force the deep­er mean­ing of the sto­ry line.

    And thank you for your thoughts on the lone­li­ness. It is a sub­tle thing — some­thing I con­tin­ue to work on. Your sug­ges­tion to explore it with curios­i­ty is some­thing I will take to heart. Thank you!

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