Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 50;   December 12, 2007: What We Don't Know About Each Other

What We Don't Know About Each Other

by

We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
The musical energy behind "Shall We Dance" (1937)

Academy Award® Winner Ginger Rogers. She is pictured here on the set with the other geniuses behind Shall We Dance (1937), including (from the left) choreographer Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire, director Mark Sandrich, Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and musical director Nathaniel Shilkret. As is often said, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." (The quote is variously attributed, but GingerRogers.com attributes it to Bob Thaves, author of the comic strip "Frank and Ernest.") We truly appreciate the wit of the quote when we realize the burden Ms. Rogers was carrying as she executed the dances with such grace, and seemingly so effortlessly. However, "backwards and in heels" might not have been the only burdens she bore. As a child, her father kidnapped her twice during an extended custody fight between her parents. And as an adult, she was divorced five times, a number which seems significant to us even now, but probably meant much more to her in those times. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

When we're around other people at work, we talk. We talk about work, but we also exchange tidbits about the world and about our lives. A movie. Politics. News. Family successes. Some of the tidbits can be pretty personal, but most aren't.

Think now about the things that you keep to yourself. How good (or bad) it felt to learn that your home is worth much more (or less) than you thought. What your boss said to you in your performance review. The illness of a family member. The costs of rescheduling your daughter's wedding. Your worries about your son's performance at school. Learning that the older boy who bullied you when you were nine will be joining the company as your department head. And on and on.

Most of the time, we don't dwell on this stuff, but it's there. It's the background that forms part of the landscape of Life. Most of what we don't talk about is somewhat problematic, because if something isn't problematic, we like to talk about it. We're intimately familiar with it all and we deal with it the best way we can.

We all have things we don't talk about. All of us. The man sitting next to you waiting for that flight, or that woman next to you at that meeting — they have their concerns, just as you do. Their concerns differ from yours, but they're just as real.

And since we don't often talk about these things, we begin to think that for others, they don't exist. We forget that the weight of it all sometimes gets to be too much. People snap at each other, and we assume it's a "personality clash," or a character flaw. People lose the thread of the discussion, and we think it's due to "lack of focus," or stupidity.

When it happens to us, we know perfectly well that it happened because we had a sleepless night with the new baby, or that we're worried about the asbestos found in our new home. When it happens to others, we forget that they can have good reasons, too.

We all have things
we don't talk about.
All of us.
This error is a form of the Fundamental Attribution Error. It happens because we have difficulty imagining what we know nothing about. And there's something you can do about it, starting right now.

When someone snaps at another (or at you), or loses the thread of the discussion, or misses a deadline — or whatever it may be — begin by reminding yourself that you have no idea what burdens he or she might be carrying. Instead of just reacting, remember the burdens you are carrying, take a breath, and slow down. Wait. Something good will come to you.

It won't always work, but every time it does, you'll make this world a little bit better for everyone. Go to top Top  Next issue: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
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Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?

See also Emotions at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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