In quiet moments of late, I’ve been recalling moments from my leadership life where my best attempts to communicate were misconstrued or misunderstood. These were not bad faith incidents, although I’ve collected those experiences also. They were of the innocent variety, at least as they began. Once known, however, they threatened significant damage unless they were treated as an opportunity to listen well, make changes where needed, and communicate even more intentionally.
Once, when announcing that we had achieved an improved gender mix of involvement in a national deliberation body, I was publicly taken to task for not having that same mix on the board. Why did I not see that coming? Our celebration was extinguished.
Another such time came when publicizing a new product offering. We involved even more people than before in getting the product ready, used a new medium, and we demonstrated that we gained even greater market share. The overwhelming feedback, however, was that the original personnel should have had a greater role because they were there first. It isn’t good to have key personnel disavowing their own products!
Incidents like these happen also happen in family life.
Helping a grandmother meet her new grandchild, only to have the grandmother from the other side of the family experience offense as she believed her special moment of bonding now had to be delayed or shared. Sharing such moments are hard!
Helping a child get wheels, only to learn they preferred the privilege of picking out their own car. Oops! I did not mean to take the joy of young adult independence away! If the shoe was on the other foot; the tables turned and turnabout is fair play, I would not have wanted my sense of independence reduced!
I think of the apostle Paul’s wail (paraphrased): The good I want do is not the good that gets done!
I’ve come to realize that misunderstanding comes with the territory. Not only should I expect it, I should make good use of it as an opportunity to listen well, to restate what I am learning from the message (no matter how angry or accusatory it is), to discover what would satisfy those who raise issues whether or not it is in my power, to remain committed to any first principles that might be involved, to be clear about my responsibilities while remaining open to begin instructed, to not let my anxiety get hooked, and ultimately, if needed, to disagree gracefully.