Unafraid of Dogs

On certain Saturdays during the school year, I read to second graders in a school under the Manhattan Bridge. I love to walk down, get the blood pumping, breathe deeply of the cool air. As I get closer, the day is just waking up, huge delivery trucks dropping off boxes of groceries, tiny forklifts carrying pallets of bagged rice or drums of cooking oil through the snow. Aside the bridge, sidewalk vendors sell produce, even the mundane seems exotic. In the schoolyard, old ladies perform tai-chi, gracefully shifting their weight, swaying in the morning light.

Yesterday we read a new book, I’m Not Afraid of Dogs, about a young boy who is “not afraid of dogs; I just don’t like them.” The boy eventually overcomes his fear when he is trapped by a dog and realizes it is more afraid than he is and wants him to protect it. “What emotion do you think he’s feeling now?” We asked and the kids replied with surprising insight: empathy. This school emphasize empathy – there are signs in the stairwell reminding them to practice it, reinforcing some initial empathy-training that must be part of the core curriculum. But it was surprising to have a second grader, squirming in his chair, spit out the word so easily – and appropriately in this case. So many adults struggle with the concept.

The volunteer’s reading guide encourages this reflection on empathy. Before starting to read, we talk about the title and the cover art (boy has climbed up a lightpost to avoid the leashed dogs who pass by without noticing him).  “Why is he up there?” I ask. “He’s scared,” they say. “But he says he’s not scared.” “Oh, he’s just saying that so others won’t think he’s scared.” “Have you ever been scared of something? Have you ever pretended that you weren’t scared? Why?” “This is boring. Can we just read?”

And on every page, “What do you think he’s feeling now? How can you tell? How does he feel when his sister calls him a fraidy cat?” So much emphasis on thinking about what the other person is feeling.

When I took a coaching class in grad school, we did a similar exercise. We were asked to have someone tell us about their day, then asked three types of questions in this order: What happened? How did that make you feel? Why do you think they did that, what do you think they were thinking, how do you think that made them feel? This moving from fact, to your feelings, to the other person’s feelings helps you move from your perspective to another’s perspective. It is human nature to attribute positive motives to yourself and negative motives to someone who makes you angry. Seeing beyond that helps you bridge the distance and come to terms.

Not long ago, I was working with team on a project and a conflict arose between two team members. Both people were stuck in their version of the story – when you feel threatened, you hold on with both hands to your version of the truth – and neither was seeing the other’s perspective. There was very little empathy in the room. How do you move past that? Ask one person to share their view, then the other, then help them see where they’re assuming things about the other person that they shouldn’t. In the end, neither person was wrong – they were just on different pages. Tellingly, when I asked each of them what they would do differently in the future to prevent such misunderstandings, they each came up with the same answer: the person giving the instruction would ask the person receiving to repeat it back; the person receiving the instruction would repeat it back.

When forming teams, it is particularly important to spend time getting to know each other. (Or to re-know each other if the roles have changed or they haven’t worked together in a while.) Building relationships early provides a foundation to fall back on later, when the work becomes busier and the team faces other challenges. When you trust your team member, you are less likely to attribute ill-motives to them – when its clear communication is not effective, you ask questions and problem-solve, rather than gripe. Effective leaders provide structures that cause this trust to develop.

If your team works remotely – with fewer water-cooler opportunities to get to know each other — or if it crosses cultures (geographically or between departments), this becomes even more important. At one point, my team was working with a team in a sister company on a software project. We couldn’t figure them out – how could they not tell us the features in the next release? Didn’t they trust us not to leak them? And how come we were dealing with so many different people on the same topics – didn’t anybody own anything? At the same time, they couldn’t figure us out: why did we need so much lead time on things? And why did it take us so long to get things done?

The truth was, they were in digital start-up mode where everyone does everything; and they used an agile project management methodology, where – to summarize badly — you have a list of things you want to accomplish and see how much you can get done before your next release. And they were used to providing information via the web, where you post it and change it if it needs updating. That makes sense for a small digital company, where you release things to the general public and iterate.

We, on the other hand, were working with a very large organization, with thousands of salespeople spread across the country, people who had many other responsibilities but were relied upon to convey new information accurately. We had developed methods of getting our people up to speed quickly, but it required preparation on our part, so advance notice was necessary. And our systems for distributing the technology that they needed were integrated with the POS software and were necessarily locked down to protect system stability, availability, and security.

Eventually our two teams came together. We got more nimble, they provided information to us in a way that better supported our needs. But as I looked around at the two organizations – of which our two teams were but two small parts – I could see the same thing happening again and again between other cross-company teams. And I couldn’t help but think the situation called for an outside consultant who could help the two companies bridge the communications gap.

Because, as the little boy in the book found out in the end, when you avoid those you don’t understand, you miss out on a lot life has to offer.

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