A great post by Peter Bregman who speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.
“To be fair to me, I was pretty focused at the time, working in my office on an article. When my wife called my name, I really didn’t want to be interrupted.
We were going away for the weekend and what Eleanor wanted to know was, could I help with the packing? She shouted from the bedroom, raising her voice enough to be heard between the two rooms. I yelled that I was working on deadline.
She yelled back: could I at least pack the shampoo?
Now that just seemed ridiculous to me. She wanted me to get up from my computer, walk over to the bathroom, grab the shampoo bottle, and put it in our suitcase? She was in the bedroom already packing everything. It would take her ten seconds to do it herself.
“Listen,” I shouted, “can’t you just put the shampoo in the bag? It doesn’t seem like a big deal.”
“Fine” she yelled and as soon as I heard the tone of her voice I knew I had made a critical error. I had missed the entire point of her request. I thought it was about packing the shampoo.
Welcome to the land of clumsy communication, misunderstandings, and unnecessary arguments escalated by not paying enough attention.
On one level, Eleanor’s request was about packing the shampoo. But even then, I had misunderstood what she meant. She thought I hadn’t yet packed my own toiletry kit and was asking if, when I did, I could pack some shampoo into a small bottle for the family. A reasonable request.
On another level, Eleanor’s request had nothing to do with the shampoo. It had to do with the fact that Eleanor is always the one who packs for the family and she’s sick of it. She asked me to pack the shampoo because she needed to feel like she wasn’t the only one packing. Like we were in this together. In some ways, she was being generous by asking me to do something as simple as pack the shampoo. She could have asked me to get all the children’s clothes together. She was being sensitive to my deadline. I’d missed that…”