Ah, communication. To women, the lifeblood of relationships. To men, a four letter word.
My first realization that men struggle with communication came way back in the third grade. My teacher was Harriet Outlaw, a new teacher to Foley Elementary that year.
Being a newbie at Foley, Mrs. Outlaw was unaware of the significant scholarly pedigree that I had achieved in first and second grade. My goal was to use the first six weeks to bring her up to speed and establish the pecking order in our class.
To accomplish this feat, I had to outsmart my arch rival–Dina Watley.
Dina was no academic slouch. In second grade she amassed 129 O’s and only a handful of S’s. If you are unfamiliar with this rating scale, it was commonly used in elementary education during the 1970’s. “O” stood for “Outstanding” and “S” represented “Satisfactory.” The rare “U” symbolized “Unsatisfactory” and carried the same scorn and shame as a scarlet letter. Word at the canteen was that a kid named Rayford, who was repeating third grade again, got 117 U’s the year before. But on a positive note, he did pass his driver’s test.
For my part in second grade, I secured 132 O’s and a paltry two S’s–and they were probably in the area of “Conduct” where I struggled to be well-behaved. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how many O’s and S’s Dina and I made, but we were neck and neck and it adds to the drama of this story.
In mid-September, Mrs. Outlaw announced our first big homework assignment. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I begin fantasizing about what it might be. Euclid math? Writing a haiku? Simulating a volcanic eruption with baking soda and vinegar?
Like Ralphie writing his theme in A Christmas Story, I was about to separate myself from the “pretenders” in my class…
Then, she passed out 3 x 5 index cards and told us to . . . I leaned forward with anticipation . . . to write down the instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What? I had never been so insulted in my life! The task was beneath me. She obviously did not appreciate my intellectual bandwidth.
Nevertheless, I gathered my index card. As the bell rang to end the day, I vowed to show Mrs. Outlaw why I received 132 O’s in second grade.
When we got to class the next morning, Mrs. Outlaw already had Wonder bread, a jar of Jif peanut butter, and Smuckers jelly sitting out on a table in front of the class. While we were saying the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer (we did some crazy stuff in the 70’s), I noticed Mrs. Outlaw sorting the index cards.
She started with mine. How did I know? My card included an introductory sonnet written in exquisite iambic pentameter to differentiate myself from the rote rule followers. As she read to the class, it appeared she was suppressing a giggle. Then, she read STEP ONE:
-Take a loaf of bread and carefully spread the peanut butter on one side…
She followed the directions to a T. Without taking a piece of bread out of the package, she picked up the loaf and lavishly smeared Jif all over the Wonder logo on top of the package.
The class erupted in laughter. I felt my ears burning. Mrs. Outlaw quickly moved to the next index card. She read STEP ONE:
-Open the loaf of bread and take out two pieces…
I looked at Dina Watley. Her eyes were sparkling and a big smile spread across her face. It was her index card. Later that morning on the way out to recess, Mrs. Outlaw pulled me aside. She must have been reading my thoughts.
“That wasn’t for an “O” or an “S,” she said. “You weren’t the only one that made a mistake, but I knew you could handle it.” I was just getting to know this lady, but I liked where she was going. “I wanted to show everyone that sometimes what you think you are saying isn’t always what the other person receives. Communication is important.”
Lesson over. Got it. Obviously. I still remember it 40 years later.
There’s a lot of water under the bridge since third grade, but Mrs. Outlaw’s little communication experiment reveals three types of difficult conversations.
(1) The What Happened conversation – when she pulled me aside on the way out to recess, I thought Mrs. Outlaw was going to grill me on the particulars of what went wrong. Instead, she showed she understood my competitiveness. She identified with me. All to often, as leaders we are called in to “fix” a problem, our default is usually what happened here? Rather than assign fault or blame, reach out and identify with the other party to explore their mindset. You’ll normally find that the situation is more complex than originally thought and identifying with the other party will draw out more accurate data to help you solve “what happened.”
(2) The Feelings conversation – in all difficult conversations, emotions are simmering right under the surface. Rather than avoid them, feelings need to be addressed, otherwise they will fester into grudges or animosity down the line. Mrs. Outlaw knew I was embarrassed, but she didn’t want to snuff out a smoldering wick. Instead, she acknowledged my feelings and let me know that she was in my corner. By doing so, I was much more open to receive the real lesson: communication is important. Without acknowledging the feelings first in a difficult conversation, you can forget sending a message. The only thing the other person will walk away with is deeper emotions about you.
(3) The Identity conversation – I felt my sandwich faux pas made me look like an idiot in front of my classmates. Mrs. Outlaw reminded me that she didn’t identify whose index card it was. Because we are “me focused,” we assume that others’ perception of us is riding on this one conversation. In reality, such perceptions are rarely all-or-nothing, and each difficult conversation is simply the next step in your journey of becoming a better you.
Every now and then I chuckle when I make myself a sandwich. I always think, STEP ONE: Open the loaf of bread and take out two pieces. Thank you, Dina, for being my arch rival. And thank you, Harriet Outlaw for being my favorite teacher.
*If you want to know more about having Difficult Conversations click here. Or call me and we can help!