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
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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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More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Taking on the full load is what we do when we feel fully responsible for either the success or the failure of some organizational activity. Instead of asking for help, we take extreme measures to execute responsibilities that might not even be ours.
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Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
Too much time on his handsHurtful Clichés: II
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
A field of corn severely stunted by droughtToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cargo containers at a port of entryComing May 31: Unresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.
A blue peacock of IndiaAnd on June 7: The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

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