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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

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Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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