A Failure to Communicate

In the movie Cool Hand Luke, the warden says what has become a famous line, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” after he beats Luke for trying to escape yet again.

What do you hear in that line? Even if you aren’t familiar with the movie, if you consider the line itself you might hear someone who feels misunderstood. You might hear someone who is frustrated because they don’t know how to say what they mean. Or, you might hear loss or sadness for what one hoped could be accomplished through a good conversation. However, taken in the context of the movie, we know that the warden is exercising his wrath on Luke, he’s angry and he wants desperately to show that he is in control. In it’s simplest explanation, Luke keeps doing something that the warden has made it plain he doesn’t want him to do. By his actions Luke is saying, “I’ve got to get out of this prison and I won’t give up until I do.” By tracking down Luke and punishing him more severely each time, the warden is saying, “I cannot let you escape and I will do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t.

Are these two guys failing to communicate? No. They are communicating with each other very clearly, aren’t they? The underlying issue is not a failure to communicate, it is the fact that their personal goals are in conflict. Luke’s objective is to escape and the warden’s goal is to keep prisoners from escaping.

When I think of times when I’ve felt like someone “isn’t listening” to me and I dissect the situation, what I usually discover is that they may be listening, but they disagree. When you feel frustrated, or misunderstood, or that you aren’t getting the support you want, the natural reaction is “Oh, he’s just clueless!” or “she just doesn’t get it!” You keep explaining or complaining about a situation and nothing changes, right? Have you ever felt like if you just explained it the right way a lightbulb would go off and the situation would be solved? Or, have you ever seen someone else point out the same problem and effectively get agreement for a change? “*&^%! I told him that 5 weeks ago and he totally ignored me!” Instead what likely happened is that your colleague took a different approach.

When you find yourself in this situation take your reaction as a clue that you and the person you are “failing to communicate” with may actually have different objectives. Recognizing this as a difference in priorities and goals, rather than a failure to communicate, is your first step in moving things forward and making the change you desire. The example below illustrates the 5 steps you can take to resolve this type of conflict.

Kristin is responsible for producing a sales report for her boss Henry’s sales division. It must be ready for quarterly executive meetings. As it stands now Kristin gets the data from Henry, and he’s always late with it since he travels a great deal. He also doesn’t like dealing with the details, he’s more of a big picture guy. Kristin keeps asking him for the numbers, he’s always late with them. The report has been late on a few occasions, making Henry look bad and he’s taken it out on Kristin. Their conversations on the issue have been full of frustration.

5 Steps to Changing the Conversation to Achieve Your Goal

1. Listen to your body – if you are feeling anger and frustration, PAUSE the conversation. Kristen’s objective is to get the numbers from Henry, and when he doesn’t respond in a timely manner it makes her crazy. She goes into his office to begin yet another conversation, and is frustrated immediately with his reaction. This time, she stops and takes a different approach
2. Ask one or two clarifying questions that will help you understand the other person’s objective. An example might be, “Henry, what do you think is the most important thing we achieve with this program? Or, “If you could wave a wand over this situation, what would you ideally like to see?
3. Listen to the answer and be prepared to be surprised or even disappointed. It’s okay, you’re learning some important information that will be useful. “Well, Kristin, if I could wave my wand, I just want to report to get done, accurately and in time for the meeting. I don’t care how you do it, and I don’t want to have to worry about it.”
4. Reframe your position based on what you’ve learned, “So, that’s really good for me to know Henry. Here I’ve been frustrated because I’m struggling to get the details for the report and you’d prefer not to be involved with the process. Based on what you’ve told me, that makes a lot of sense.
5. Propose a solution that achieves both of your objectives. “Henry, it sounds like your priority is that the report gets out on time. My goal is to meet your deadline and produce an accurate report. That’s been difficult with your schedule because I’ve been relying on you to give me the data and you’ve been traveling. How would you feel if I went directly to DP for the information? Or, would it be possible to give me a higher level access so I can get what I need myself? This would eliminate much of the delays we’ve been experiencing don’t you think?”

By learning Henry’s objectives, Kristin was able to come up with a solution that met both of their objectives. Early in my career, I got some great advice from my mentor Dr. Barbara Mayo-Wells at the University of Maryland. She said, “Sarah, if you want to get ahead here don’t be the person coming into my office to tell me about a problem. I’ve got plenty of those. Be the person coming into my office with a solution and you’ll set yourself apart from everyone else.” The best way to come up with solutions is to understand the other person’s objectives.

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Filed under bosses, communication, concensus, conflict resolution

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