It’s Not About the Shampoo (Listen for the Unspoken)

How many times have you had a conversation with someone where they got really upset over something trivial? Clearly, there was a subtext there and something deeper going on. Instead of just reacting in the moment, is it possible to figure out what’s actually occuring and steer things in a more positive direction? Author Peter Bregman believes so, and he has written a new book about exactly that (and much more!) Enjoy his thoughtful guest blog below.

Written by Peter Bregman

I was pretty focused, working in my office on an article. When my wife called my name, I really didn’t want to be interrupted.

We were going away for the weekend and Eleanor wanted my help packing. She shouted from the bedroom, raising her voice enough to be heard between the two rooms. I yelled that I was working on a deadline.

She yelled back “Could you at least pack the shampoo?”

Now that just seemed ridiculous to me. She wanted me to get up from my computer, walk over to the bathroom, grab the shampoo bottle, and put it in our suitcase? She was in the bedroom already packing everything. It would take her ten seconds to do it herself.

“Listen”, I shouted, “can’t you just put the shampoo in the bag? It doesn’t seem like a big deal.”

“Fine!”, she yelled, and as soon as I heard the tone of her voice, I knew I had made a critical error. I had missed the entire point of her request. I thought it was about packing the shampoo, but that wasn’t the case.

Welcome to the land of clumsy communication, misunderstanding, and unnecessary arguments escalated by not paying enough attention.

On one level, Eleanor’s request was about packing the shampoo. But even then, I had misunderstood what she meant. She thought I hadn’t yet packed my own toiletry kit and was asking if, when I did, I could pack some shampoo into a small bottle for the family: a reasonable request.

On another level, Eleanor’s request had nothing to do with the shampoo; it had to do with the fact that Eleanor is the one who always packs for the family, and she was sick of it. She asked me to pack the shampoo because she needed to feel like she wasn’t the only one packing. Like we were in this together. In some ways, she was being generous by asking me to do something as simple as pack the shampoo. She could have asked me to get all the children’s clothes together, but she didn’t. She was being sensitive to my deadline. I’d missed that.

And then at the deepest and most profound level — a level impossible to reach effectively in a conversation carried out between two rooms —  I eventually learned that Eleanor’s request was about a nagging question: this, she wondered as she was packing, is how she’s using her Princeton education? Her master’s degree? Her role as the packer represented, to her in that moment, the failure of equality, of women’s rights, and her own decision making about family and choices.

All those things were packed deeply inside her request. But I wasn’t really paying attention, since I was in the middle of writing. Which one of us was right? In situations like these, it doesn’t matter who’s right. It only matters how we communicate, connect, and collaborate.

It’s not unusual to miss the real communication going on behind the words. It’s typical. We’re taught to clearly and rationally express our needs, desires, requests, and expectations. And we’re taught to listen carefully. But how often do we do either in our relationships? And when we don’t, and a miscommunication follows, who’s responsible for making the first move to clear up the miscommunication?

Whoever sees it first.

And that’s the real challenge. It’s hard to listen to what someone is saying and understand the real need hidden behind words. How do we know when there’s something deeper and more significant going on?

My clue, after being jolted by her tone, was Eleanor’s words at least.  Could I “at least” pack the shampoo? There’s an edge to that. A sign that something else is going on.

Once I thought I figured it out, I was able to go to Eleanor and, after apologizing, ask her if she was feeling all alone in preparing the family to leave for the weekend. Yes, she told me, she was. And she hates that feeling. I let her know that I understood, and appreciated it. And then I got the shampoo.

When someone you are in a relationship with expresses a request, demand, assertion, or thought that doesn’t seem to make sense, resist the temptation to react. Instead, pause.  For four seconds. The length of a deep breath. Ask yourself what’s going on. Ask the other person. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Chances are there’s something deeper going on that is not being said.

four secondsAbout the Author:

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a firm which advises, coaches, and develops leaders at all levels to take powerful and ambitious actions to achieve the things that are most important to them and their organizations.  His most recent book is Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want, to be released on February 24, 2015. His previous book was the Wall Street Journal best seller 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, winner of the Gold medal from the Axiom Business Book awards, named the best business book of the year on NPR, and selected by Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Post as a top 10 business book.



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