For context for this series, click the below links:
Original post from Jennifer and our initial response, “Thank You, Jennifer”
Our first “Dear Jennifer” post
Our second “Dear Jennifer” post
Our last “Dear Jennifer” post
April 30, 2020
Thanks for the your last email… I want to say something clever or poetic but the truth is I am tired. I worked last weekend and can I just say “restarting” in a pandemic is not easier than shutting down. Plus we don’t really get to be happy about the fact that, for now, people in Manitoba are really safe relative to the rest of the planet – now it’s the pressure to keep it that way while restarting the economy…
…Also, thanks for your commitment to supporting conflict resolution during this time. I do think that conflict resolution experts and support will be in demand for some time. The world needs people invested in peaceful problem solving and healthy conflict resolution. If you had seen my last two weeks I likely needed you on retainer but just did my best. I am grateful for your emails and they remind me of other things.
For example, I remembered vaguely the Intent-Action-Effect (Private/Public) diagram I had seen somewhere a long time ago. I realized there is a lot going on in our leadership team with unspoken assumptions, so I worked hard to make more things public. I actually said, “I feel like we all have some significant assumptions – I wonder if we could list some of those before we come up with solutions.” That felt a little bit better. You also reminded me how much I like poetry – why do I forget that? I really do like creative phrases that express a thought or a feeling in a new way – but you know exactly what is meant.
First off, thanks for your latest reply. I continue to appreciate your honest engagement. I can relate to the desire – as you say – to come up with “something clever or poetic”. But many times, I discover that being plain spoken and practical will actually do just fine! 🙂
1. The Intent-Action-Effect Model:
For example, I appreciated your reminder of the Intent-Action-Effect diagram which I am now including below:
As you alluded to, this framework depicts the reality that in any given interaction there are certain elements taking place in the public realm (see right side of diagram). These include observable actions – e.g. words said or written, things done, or left undone. Then there are other dimensions taking place in the private realm (see left side of diagram). These include the thoughts or patter running inside one’s head which includes the intentions of those undertaking a particular action and the effect of that same action on others.
The model also depicts the power and danger of assumptions. That is, the one taking an action (see Action on diagram) often assumes that their behaviour or words will “land” as intended. Since most people do not set out to be malicious but are attempting, in some way, to be positive, effective or at least neutral they often remain “in the dark” about the possibility that their behaviour might be experienced negatively; they tend to assume that “everything is good” or “we are all on the same page”. At the same time, their own reasonable intention remains undisclosed/kept private (see Intent on diagram) because they see no need to divulge something they regard as self-evident (e.g. “Well, she knows what I’m trying to do here…”).
The trouble enters in when another party does not experience the first party’s action in a neutral or positive way (see Effect on diagram). Instead, the impact of the moment leaves them distraught and/or the meaning they make of the other’s behaviour is negative. This problem is compounded when the second party also makes an assumption. They assume that the first person or group knows (or ought to know) that their behaviour is being experienced negatively; in other words, that “they ought to know better” and therefore that the first party is either ignorant, incompetent, malicious or – in the worst case scenario – all three (!).
The above tendencies can also be further exacerbated by the different “filters” or “lenses” of various stakeholders (see the oval circles overtop of the arrows in the middle of the diagram). By lenses, we simply mean the various forces (personal, cultural, social, professional) that shape one’s unconscious assumptions about “the right way” to approach things. For example, the docs may see it differently than the nursing staff who have a different angle than the hospital administrators who face different realities than the minister of health.
2. Why It Matters Right Now:
When people are undergoing conditions of heightened stress, such as those taking place right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and/or the pressure to sustain the recovery that appears to be in its early stages (things you mentioned in your email, Jennifer), the tendency to make assumptions and misinterpret one another goes up. Sometimes, if we are not aware, it goes up radically, thus creating even more stress, but now the stress is associated with escalating conflict and distrust, stress that is – with a different approach – possibly avoidable.
So, what to do about this dynamic? Just what is a leader’s role in arresting this pattern?
The effective response involves making the private, public. The effective leader creates safety for others to share impact (emotional or cognitive) and to disclose intentions, those very things that we might otherwise be tempted to continue to hold privately. The effective leader accomplishes this by doing exactly what you did, Jennifer: i.e. by asking others to share their working assumptions before moving to solutions and by providing the motivation, rationale and interpretations behind their own actions or decisions. Effective leaders listen so that others will feel safe to speak and speak so that others feel safe to listen. They pursue transparency because they know that in doing so they are more likely to catch misunderstandings and to cultivate trust.
Thank you, Jennifer, for being this type of leader! 🙂
3. An Example of Personal Application:
A story from the personal realm to close. We have been quarantining in my house and neighbourhood for just over 7 weeks as I write this. While we’ve tried to keep our two boys (age 12 and 14) active, it’s not been easy. That’s why yesterday was such a great day, because yesterday – wait for it – we performed the annual ritual of resurrecting the trampoline!
The boys were having a grand ol’ time – taking turns with two of their friends – leaping and laughing and generally making sounds of teeny-bopper delight when, out of nowhere, a grown-up neighbour strode up to our fence and shouted at the kids that they were being too loud and that he was about to phone the police if they didn’t shut up! He then turned on his heel and was gone as abruptly as he had appeared.
The boys were shocked. A great day had just turned sour. Then they got angry. They burst back inside to report to me and my spouse. There was some venting and tears (and then we had to deal with the reactions of the boys themselves!) 🙂
Today, after some reflection, I paid a visit to my neighbour. I rang his doorbell and we had a conversation. I told him that I had heard that he had a concern and had approached my sons yesterday. He looked pretty uncomfortable. His lips were pursed and his arms crossed.
Then I asked him to tell me more about how the noise had been impacting him. He visibly relaxed, opening the door a bit wider and leaning on the door jamb. He explained that he could not hear himself think and that, in fact, the trampoline antics had troubled him for several summers. He added that – although he knew the police might have trouble taking a noise complaint at 11:00 a.m. on a Monday seriously – he had “said that to get the kids’ attention.” My neighbour concluded by telling me that he had assumed that my spouse and I were “aware of the problem because, if we can hear it from our house, surely you can hear it from yours!”
After some active listening and reassurances that we would definitely be working with the boys to keep it down, now that we knew it had troubled him, I explained that I had actually not been aware of the problem inasmuch I had heard the noise but that it hadn’t bothered me, probably because they were my kids and they were having outdoor fun after a lot of being cooped up. At that point he said, “Yeah, okay, well I get that,” before adding, “And, you know, it’s not that I don’t want them to have fun…I actually like the sound of kids’ laughing.” By this point, he had softened significantly.
We concluded our little neighbourhood negotiation with me requesting that he and I talk whenever and if ever he should be feeling frustrated again. I provided him with my home and work cell numbers and also requested that we speak “like we have today,” only raising the spectre of police involvement as a last resort. He agreed that this was a reasonable plan. I thanked him for his time before we moved on to some mutual grumbling about the slowness of our Manitoba spring…
”But the sun is nice.” 🙂