Note: This story is based on a powerful example mentioned in the great book: Difficult Conversations.
Michael and Jack are 2 friends. Jack has a brochure designing and printing business, and Michael is an occasional client.
Michael needs Jack to lay out a financial brochure and print it by next day afternoon. Actually, his regular designer is out and he is under a lot of pressure.
A Frustrating Phone Conversation
MICHAEL: Well, you really screwed this one up! Look, Jack, I know you were under time pressure on this, but . . . . [sigh]. The earnings chart isn’t presented clearly enough, and it’s slightly off. It’s just a disaster. This was an important client!
JACK: Hi, Michael, I got your message
MICHAEL: Yeah, look Jack, this thing has to be done over.
JACK: Well, wait a second. I agree it’s not perfect, but the chart is clearly labeled. Nobody’s going to misunderstand…
MICHAEL: C’mon, Jack. You know as well as I do that we can’t send this thing out like this.
JACK: Well, I think that…
MICHAEL: There’s really nothing to argue about here. Look, we all screw up. Just fix it and let’s move on.
JACK: Why didn’t you say something about this when you looked at it this morning?
MICHAEL: I’m not the one who’s supposed to be proofreading. Jack, I’m under tremendous pressure to get this done and to get it done right. Either you’re on the team or you’re not. I need a yes or a no. Are you going to redo it?
JACK: [pause] Alright, alright. I’ll do it.
The Trouble With Such Conversations
We all have had similar frustrating interactions, at some point. Right?
Well, the trouble with such conversations is that while both parties are able to somewhat resolve the immediate issue at hand and move ahead, but they are still left feeling bitter and wronged. This leaves what I call as mental baggage, in both their minds. And this baggage defines the inter-personal dynamics both people share going forward.
So, if the relationship matters to both of them, then it is important for them to move from such a superficial conversation to an honest and open conversation.
An Honest/Open Conversation
Jack [provides his context to Michael ]: Listen Michael, you are a good friend and a client as well. Late afternoon you called me up saying that you were in a tight spot. You needed a financial brochure laid out and printed by next day afternoon. You said your regular designer was out and that you were under a lot of pressure. I was in the middle of another project, but you being a friend, so I dropped everything and worked late into the night on his brochure. Early the next morning you reviewed the mock-up and gave the go-ahead to have it printed. I had the printed copies on your desk by noon. I was exhausted, but I was glad I’d been able to help him out. Then I got back to my office and see this message from you!
MICHAEL [provides his context to Jack]: Jack you are right in what you are saying. I appreciate that you were able to attend to my task at such a short notice. But, let me also give you my context. Whenever, I have gotten some work done from you, I have spotted some issues in the output. It is not as if your work has errors. It is just that my regular designer produces a much better output. I was hesitating in telling you this. One reason was that I did not want to hurt you. The second reason was that I myself was not being able to put my finger on the exact area where your output lacks. I just felt it. And my bosses felt it too, but could not articulate it. Nevertheless, they were certainly unhappy with me what they thought was a case of me doing a favor to a friend. This has further complicated my situation. I cannot afford any more mistake from your side. That is why I got angry on you. Perhaps we both have something to learn here!
Jack [confesses and provides additional context]: Dear Michael, I am glad you shared your situation with me. Now, I am better able to understand your behavior. Let me confess to you that I am already a bit aware that I am still learning my trade, and am not quite there yet. By the way, this is one reason why I charge you less. Moreover, I was relieved when you reacted positively to my first output 6 months back. I interpreted that as a validation of the quality of my work. But I take your point now, and will try to improve my output quality next time onward!
Jack [confesses and provides additional context]: Jack, let me also confess that I overlooked the fact that you were charging us less. Plus, I was not clear with you on my expectations as I am with my regular designer. I also did not follow the step-by-step process with you that I follow with my regular designer. I guess I was just under a lot of time pressure. But, I am happy that things are a lot clearer between us now. Let us aim to have a better experience next time–for both of us. Cheers!
There are certain relationships–both personal as well as professional–that matter to us.
But, often, when problems arise, we only engage in ‘easy’ conversations. Such conversations are superficial, and hence result in mental baggage (despite their helping in resolving the immediate problem at hand).
The right approach is to engage in an open and honest conversation. As Adam Kahane says in his best-selling book ‘Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities‘:
…when we talk and listen with an open mind and an open heart and an open spirit, we bring forth our better selves and a better world.