I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my life getting educated, trying to learn about how things (and minds) work, figuring out what’s what and generally just…knowing stuff.
But I find that I’m my very best self when I come into the conversation not knowing a damn thing. When I catch myself knowing in advance what someone is thinking or having a strong sense that I’ve heard this before, I’m in the danger zone. It establishes the bounds of the inquiry before I even hear the full scope of the conversation and pretty much ruins any shot I have at the beautiful intrigue of listening with a fresh perspective and curiosity.
One of the biggest challenges and potential landmines in management (and all relationships) is the fatal assumption that other people share your views and motivations. It’s a particularly key element of emotional intelligence to be socially aware enough to understand the distinction without frustration. Operating on the basis that he surely liked what I liked, I recently plopped a nice piece of chocolate in front of a friend for dessert. It was really good chocolate–the dark, peppery kind from Zurich–and I knew he would love it. I had a moment of mental fun imagining how blissful he’d be when that rich and flavorful chocolate melted on his tongue.
It turns out he’s deeply allergic to chocolate.
Truly, I wasn’t trying to feed him a deadly dessert, I just hadn’t bothered to really find out what he wanted.
Here’s another one. When my little brother was about eight years old, he saved his allowance for months so he could buy a special gift for Mom for her birthday. He was so proud of his selection skills and anticipated Mom’s excited reaction. I’ll never forget her face when she opened the package–he’d wrapped it himself in the Sunday comics–to discover that he’d given her a Tonka truck. She was clearly amused and very surprised. He eagerly agreed when she asked him if he would be willing to park “her” new truck with his other trucks and play with it now and then.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” presumes that others prefer, or even enjoy the same things you do. We know that’s often not quite right, however. Giving me tickets to the football game or the opera you love might seem like just the right thing. I’ll be game to go with you, but there are many things I’d rather do more. Giving my friend the piece of chocolate that will send him into anaphylactic shock? I’ll choose another treat to share. Promoting someone from sales because you want to honor their great work in finance? How about asking them to join you in exploring the best way to honor their skills, interests and needs? Do unto them as they would like to have done unto them.