The Beach Ball Effect
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we know we need to have a difficult conversation with someone, but rather than have the conversation, we avoid it, in fretful anticipation the process or result will be too unpleasant and not worth the effort. But how can you possibly improve a situation if you take the “avoidance at all costs” approach?
Then there can be those unfortunate situations where we unintentionally, and maybe all of a sudden, find ourselves knee deep in the quicksand of an emotionally charged disagreement with someone. You don’t even know how you got there. But here you are, temperatures rising to the boiling point. You feel yourself sinking to a new low. It’s clearly not your finest hour.
You are incredulous the other person is taking such a hard line position. You are surprised at yourself for getting dragged in to something like this. Maybe then you realize others are within earshot, just on the other side of paper-thin office walls, or worse yet, in the same room, trying to unobtrusively slither out the door before they get sucked in. It can be downright embarrassing.
I can distinctly remember a time, many years ago, when I definitely should have won an award for my “Worst Performance in a Leading Role”. I cringe to this day when I think about it. The good news is, I learned a lot from that big mistake and can thankfully say I never came close to giving such a poor performance again, at least not in a workplace environment.
I was maybe 7 or 8 years into my corporate career. I had been working for IBM for a year or two when I was invited to join a team dedicated to developing bleeding-edge call center management systems for one of IBM’s largest customers. I was specifically recruited, thanks to the unique expertise I had gained at AT&T as a call center technology expert. This was back in the days when voice and data integration, capability everyone now has on their cellphones, was just a glimmer on the horizon. Back then, no one company in the world could do it, but IBM intended to.
I would be partnered with one of IBM’s leading data communications experts to define the customer’s business and technical requirements, which would then be turned into new technology. My partner, a brilliant guy who had been with IBM for over 25 years, led the technical requirements side of the team while I led the business development side of the team. It was a WOW opportunity for me and I was thrilled to accept the promotion.
One morning, our eight-member team assembled at the customer’s global data operations center in a big conference room to map out all the requirements and potential solutions. My partner and I stood at a white board drawing flow charts with lots of arrows, boxes and circles, and technical jargon. As we each outlined the various technology capabilities we knew of, based on our respective backgrounds, he became increasingly concerned about my assumptions and technical knowledge. To him, I was incorrect. Meanwhile, I was increasingly stunned at his lack of technical understanding. He didn’t seem to get it.
It was as though we were each speaking a foreign language the other didn’t understand. But rather than stepping back to ask clarifying questions, we each spoke more loudly, as though ramping up the volume on our conversation would overcome the other’s obvious hearing problem. We each grew increasingly exasperated with the other, until we noticed our other team mates had gingerly stepped away from us, back to the farthest point in the conference room, in attempt to take cover before all out armed conflict broke out.
Finally, at some point, my partner said something which caused me to realize we were each using the same technical terminology for very different functions, based on our respective technological paradigms. It was almost as though the term “up”, to those in the voice technology world, meant “down” to those in the data world, and vice versa. It was akin to the old joke about Americans and Brits: two nations divided by a common language. Until we came to that realization, I think we were both coming to the conclusion we could simply never work together again, and our team mates just wanted to get the heck out of there! Oh my.
Looking back at it now, I can laugh about it. But back then, I was terribly embarrassed that we were completely unable to listen to and appreciate the other’s perspective. We each thought we were right and the other was wrong. That was that. Turns out we were both right, from our own limited perspectives. Our failure was in not at all appreciating the other might be right, too.
I now call this “The Beach Ball Effect”. Think of it as though two people, Sam and Mary, come upon a beach ball, each from opposite sides. The ball’s colored stripes run up and down, vertically. Sometime later, back at the office, Sam and Mary are each asked to identify the colors of the ball they found. Sam is emphatic the colors were red, white and blue. Mary is certain the colors were green, orange and yellow. Each is sure the other is wrong, when in reality, each is correct about what they saw, but neither has complete knowledge. If they could just step back and rationally listen to each other, they would have a chance to learn from each other. Ultimately they could create a richer experience for everyone.
I love the way Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, explained it when we interviewed him for our upcoming books, The WOW Factor Workplace and Heartfelt Leadership. Among all the many wonderful gems of wisdom he shared with us, here is one that seems particularly relevant:
“Reasonable people who share the same values and absorb the same information will have a very similar outcome or point of view.
“Now the three things there: Reasonable. Values. Absorb information. Any time I’ve been in a conflict or negotiation where it’s gone sideways, it’s either because one party wasn’t reasonable, they didn’t share the same values, or one party hadn’t absorbed the information. They didn’t understand as much as the other party.
“I would say, ‘Okay. We’re both reasonable. So, now what do we know? I’ll lend you my eyes. You lend me yours and let’s see what we both can see,’ instead of ‘I know it all and you know nothing.’ Or, ‘I’m here to prove you wrong. I’m gonna getcha’.”
Can you think of a time when you were in a heated dialog, in a standoff, or in the midst of an important conversation that, in Garry’s terms, “went sideways”? Are you usually able to take a step back and listen respectfully to the other person’s full perspective, and have them do the same with you? Can you think of any issues of national importance where we all might be better off if we, as a country, could do that?
Next time you have a conflict, or whenever you are in a difficult conversation, try to think of you and the other party as being on opposite sides of that beach ball. You see your colors and they see theirs. Neither of you is necessarily wrong, but if you can each calmly and respectfully listen to the other explain what they see, without calling the other names or belittling them, you each might learn something and ultimately come to even greater understanding.
Give it a try. You might be amazed at the truly wonderful, mutually satisfying outcomes that await.