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BriefConsulting 1.9: Generosity Too

BriefConsulting® features few tricks. I have no master list of steps, prescribed phases, or replicable method to my ‘madness.’ Some phrases, however, do seem to repeat themselves, and while I don’t feel like I over-rely on them, and they’re certainly not magic bullets, I do hear them coming up again and again. The most common one serves as a most-purpose, if not an all-purpose unsticker because the situation within which it comes up probably serves as by far the most common stuck point: the unspoken conspiracy.

Unspoken conspiracies amount to unconfirmed conclusions about another’s motives, purpose, character, or beliefs. These commonly emerge from a small violation of the generous interpretation rule, and usually require only one to play, but may metastasize into into urban legend-quality stories, where a large group engages in something not unlike mind reading; usually, unusually inept mind reading.

The pattern starts when someone decides what another’s behavior means, then responds as if their behavior meant that, creating a perfectly self-sealing situation. Because the ‘decider’ never confirms the accuracy of their assessment with the target of their judgment, the one who’s behavior gets judged typically doesn’t even know the unspoken conspiracy exists. The result becomes rather like junior high school.

A story from my junior high school days might best illustrate. My friend Jake was known as lazy because he always showed up late for school. Sometimes just a few minutes late, but he’d often miss most of home room, the first class of the day. Because of this, many concluded that Jake was just a sleepyhead unwilling to get himself up on time for school, and his often disheveled appearance did nothing to disconfirm their less than generous interpretation. Some teachers gave him a hard time. Many students did, too.

Most people didn’t know about Jake’s home life. His dad was mostly gone on extended business trips and his mom was bedridden with multiple sclerosis. His family employed aides to help care for her, but Jake and his younger sister were often needed to help the aid, and sometimes the aid couldn’t make a shift. At night, a microphone hung over Jake’s mom’s bed, amplifying the sound of her labored breathing so the aid would be able to hear if she started aspirating. The whole house reverberated with the amplified sound of that breathing, which would often turn to frantic coughing or simply seem to stop altogether, before hesitantly, noisily starting again.

How would you sleep in a home like that? How many times did you have to get up at two or three or four o’clock in the morning to help care for your mom when you were in the eighth grade? Would that have caused you to be chronically late for school in the morning? It was a wonder Jake ever made it to school at all, and a near miracle he was just an hour or so late, and simply remarkable that he managed to maintain decent grades, too. But few knew what was really going on in Jake’s life, just his closest friends and, I suppose, the Principal.

Maybe because I was one of Jake’s closest friends, I learned early to suspect any less than generous interpretations I’d see carrying on a poisonous life of their own. Inside organizations, senior management wears a tail they scarcely ever hear about, as suspicious employees, absent much generosity, decide what executive behavior must mean without ever once asking an executive what they’re up to. The employees engaging in this unspoken conspiracy typically have a long list of perfectly good-seeming excuses for not confirming their interpretation, a presumed lack of access usually heading that list.

When I encounter one of these, I usually hear myself asking, “What did s/he say when you asked about that?” Of course, not once in my life have I ever met an unspoken conspirator who had actually asked. Not even those convinced that they’re working for the biggest SOB on the planet, an interpretation that certainly yields them unending grief, has ever stepped up to ask. The result seems to be self-inflicted morale problems, lost productivity, otherwise unnecessary frustration; the real cost of making less than generous interpretations.

Not everyone feels that comfortable confronting the villain of their unspoken conspiracy. Well, you know what would happen if I was to actually confront, right? These dire predictions virtually never come to pass, but I can ask about the probably long list of people who have asked but been fired or demoted or disembodied as a result. Nobody ever manages to name a single victim, except, following a short conversation with the Brief Consultant, them self. By their own hand.

Once, when The Muse and I were working for a national laboratory, we heard again and again about this one executive who was pretty much universally characterized as a jerk who was actively working to undermine lab operations. Bill often traveled to Washington DC, and was said to be souring lab relationships there. These stories smelled like an unspoken conspiracy, so we found an opportunity to meet with Bill when we were next in DC. He agreed to meet with us, but said he wasn’t sure why we’d called the meeting as he met up with us at his building’s security check-in point. Once in a conference room, I explained, holding out my hand to shake with Bill. “Everyone we work with at the lab says you’re a real SOB, and never having met a real, genuine SOB, we thought we’d take the opportunity to stop in and meet one.”

Bill looked at us for a long, stunned minute before taking my hand, laughing. That meeting was scheduled to last fifteen minutes, but Bill insisted upon inviting a colleague into the conference room and we enjoyed a delightful hour or more chatting about what Bill was really trying to do. He thanked us warmly for stopping by. Not many back at the lab ever found the opportunity to break their personal unspoken conspiracy with Bill, but a few did.

Whatever less than generous interpretation I’ve made, I’m pretty certain that I’m standing on my own garden hose complaining about the municipal water pressure unless I’ve gone to see that ‘real SOB’ who seems to be the source of my misery. If I can’t muster the courage or foolhardiness to have that conversation, I know (damn it!) that I’m always free to liberate myself by making a more generous interpretation of what’s going on. Bill was holding down a necessary role at the national lab, that of designated SOB. As he explained, “Somebody’s gotta do it.” He was no more satisfied being the SOB than his fellow lab employees were pleased that he was filling that role, but he’d come to grips with the nature of his job. Others seemed to almost enjoy complaining about this arguably necessary presence in their programs.

I suppose life would be more satisfying if these unspoken conspiracies weren’t so darned satisfying to engage in. Unconfirmed, less than generous interpretations usually do serve a useful purpose at first, resolving some mystery to the satisfaction, often to the delight of the only conspirator involved in the plot. Later, these little babies tend to grow up to create an unintended life of their own, one that weighs down on their parent’s life. And it seems to require the services of someone from outside to spot the invisible tangle and wonder, “What did s/he say when you asked about that?” The stunned silence that follows means someone’s experiencing the possibility of life with one fewer resident inconvenience.

Whether my interpretations influence anyone else, they seem to hold deep influence on me, on the quality of my own experience. I’m perfectly free to engage in any unspoken conspiracy, though I’m often challenged to understand why I chose to step on my own toes to get back at those who’s mysterious behavior frustrated me. It’s generosity, too, to choose an interpretation that actually works for me, even if you never suspect that I’ve also liberated you from our little unspoken conspiracy.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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