Let me tell you a story. It’s all about assumptions and communicating with clarity and precision. Maybe it has a little to do with listening with empathy too.
I had a friend. She had a dog, and a small boy. She didn’t like the dog much. It had been left behind by a previous boyfriend, was bumptious and far too big for her small inner city home. Every day she took the dog for a walk in the park. Of course, her son came too. Anyone who has been a regular dog walker knows that relationships are built with the other pooch people in the park.
A couple of years after the dog’s death I was shopping with my friend when a shop assistant recognized her and exclaimed “Hello! So good to see you. How’s the boy?”
Remembering her from the park, my friend announced, “Oh, he’s dead.”
I watched the interaction unfold. The woman’s face fell and she stumbled over her words as she tried to express her sympathy for what seemed such a tragic event conveyed so bluntly. “That’s terrible” she said. “What happened?”
“It was some sort of leukemia, I think” replied my friend. “We were a bit upset at the time, but really, we decided it was probably all for the best in the end. The house just wasn’t big enough for us all and he was eating so much – a fortune to keep.”
The shop assistant was lost for words as my friend turned away with “Well, we must continue on. Things to be done” and swept off towards the china department.
As I followed, I explained that the woman had been asking about her son, not the dog. “Stupid woman”, said my friend, “Why didn’t she say so?”.
I have often wondered what that poor woman told her husband when she got home that night. I know I have dined out on the story for years. Amusing? Yes, but also sad because it demonstrates so clearly the misunderstandings that can occur when we fail to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, when we blithely launch forth without attempting to examine our own or other people’s assumptions.
Our continued growth and learning as human beings depends on our ability to question assumptions, to listen with empathy and understanding and to communicate with clarity and precision. Failure to do so can create some amusing situations,
but it can also lead to unproductive and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings.
I would love to hear some of your examples, both amusing and serious, when the failure to exercise these Habits of Mind led to miscommunications and unexpected consequences.