Why doesn’t this Idiot get it!

… or an object lesson in miscommunication

Here is a true story, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Bill is entering the place of work, under his arm is a large painting that is both heavy and unwieldy, his fist is closed beneath the picture. His colleague, Mike, is leaving the building and they meet in the foyer.

“Take this!” Bill says. Mike goes to take the painting. “No! Take this” he repeats in a more frustrated tone. Mike is confused at being rebuffed and is unclear what Bill is asking him to do. He spots a bit straw on Bill’s sleeve and wonders if he is being asked to remove it. He leans in to do so, and it is clear from Bill’s body language that this isn’t it. Bill is clearly getting more exasperated and shakes his closed fist beneath the painting “No! Take this” he repeats for a third time (on the British principle that if someone doesn’t understand you first time, repeat it s l o w e r and louder.) It slowly dawns on Mike that he must have something in his closed fist. He places his hand beneath Bill’s and Bill awkwardly drops a key into Mike’s hand…

I was told this story together with an action replay, and I was gobsmacked by how beautifully it recreated so many communications challenges in one tiny story. Bill just assumed that Mike knew what it is expected of him. He was busy thinking about all sorts of important things he needed to do. He only partially engaged with Mike. When his initial efforts at communication failed, he automatically felt frustrated. His instinctive reaction was that the failure must have been due to willful stupidity on the part of his colleague. He took no time to reflect on what had happened, and just kept repeating his failed strategy, with increasing levels of frustration.

Mike was too polite and English to actually ask what his colleague needed, and kept trying to figure it out, taking responsibility for the failure rather than simply saying that he didn’t know what is being asked of him. All the while he felt vaguely guilty about his inability to do what was being demanded of him.

On further reflection I thought it was too perfect that the hidden item was a KEY. The thing that unlocks meaning and situations; the thing you need to decipher a code. The item being carried is a PICTURE, a representation of reality, but of course we all have our own personal picture of the world. We assume every one is looking at the same picture we have, but never trouble to check this (incorrect) assumption.

“The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable” Paul Broca

When we are busy doing what we are doing, we seldom take the time to communicate fully or check if our communication1 is being received and understood. All too often people will tell us what they think we want to hear, in the hope that we will either just go away or that they will gain the time to find out what on Earth we are going on about! When our communication fails we tend to blame others. When our strategy fails, we often repeat it… and repeat it… in the hope that we might (somehow) get a different result.

It is a standing joke that male drivers will never pull over and look at a map, nor ask someone who knows how to get there. They just drive faster and faster in the wrong direction, in the sure and certain knowledge that they will see a sign somewhere that they can recognise. It is sad to say, a lot of us deploy similar tactics in everyday life too… and they are just as much a liability!

We don’t do the simple obvious things like:-

  • Stop… check if it is working
  • If it isn’t working, try something different or ask for more information
  • Say clearly and simply what it is we need
  • Take responsibility for our results (or lack there of) and adjust our actions accordingly
  • Focus fully on the person in front of us rather than giving them a fraction of our attention. People and relationships are more important than tasks.

This little ‘pantomime’ is obviously an extreme example, but a version of it is probably playing out in an office near you right now! Make sure it isn’t yours….

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw

Other resources:

1. NLP Precepts: There is some interesting thoughts here on communication

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