Many Christmases ago, my sister and brother-in-law were taking a nighttime drive from Boise to Salt Lake City. My sister saw a Texaco star as they passed through a sleepy town, and made a random comment about it.
A few seconds later, my brother-in-law said, “That was a Christmas star. It was somebody’s decoration.”
My sister responded with something like, “You’re an idiot. I know a Texaco star when I see one.”
My brother-in-law came back in kind: “You’re the idiot! I know a Christmas decoration when I see one.”
Thus began an epic argument, which ended with them angrily turning the car around at the outskirts of Salt Lake City and driving all the way back to the source of the dispute.
It didn’t matter that their kids were bawling by that time—each was hellbent on proving the other wrong.
Can you guess the end of the story? They were both right, and both wrong. They had indeed passed a Texaco station—and next to it, a house with a star.
According to the trailblazing educator and social psychologist John L. Wallen, “most basic and recurring problems in social life stem from what you intend and the actual effect of your actions on others.”
The same dynamic applies to business. Misunderstandings arise when your words or actions fail to have their intended effect. You see a Texaco star—your business partner sees a Christmas decoration.
This gap between intention and effect—whether it occurs in a marriage, a friendship, or a boardroom—is always present, regardless of the strength of a given relationship. It waits there to trip us up; to create oceans of misery out of trickles of misconception.
In the case of my sister and brother-and-law, it didn’t matter that the objects in contention were located right next door to each other. They could have been two feet apart, with the same results. She saw one thing, he another.
If they hadn’t driven back to investigate, they might have spent days, even weeks, living with the sort of festering resentment that creates new gaps over far more serious matters.
The gap is bridged when your words or actions have their intended effect on others. The difficulty lies in the fact that, in Wallen’s words, we “see our own actions in the light of our intentions, but we see the other’s actions not in the light of the other person’s intentions but in the effect on us.”
I know myself by what I intend—I know you by how I construe your intentions. This is a recipe for disaster, a walking time bomb, worth pondering on a daily basis.
The first step is to recognize that bridging the gap begins with yourself. It’s all well and good, in the aftermath of an argument, to say you intended X. But did you? Is X something that you really analyzed and considered before opening your mouth? If not, it’s no wonder that someone else heard Y.
The second step is to acknowledge your all-too-human tendency to be super generous with yourself when it comes to your intentions, and super stingy with others when it comes to the effect of their intentions on you.
Both steps require a ton of thought and patience. If you’re truly set on lessening the communication gap between you and others, you’ll make a daily habit of reminding yourself—before every interaction, if necessary—of the reality of the gap, the difficulty of saying what you really mean, and the importance of responding to what someone says instead of how it makes you feel.
Daily habits eventually become a part of you. As you seek to improve your communication skills and close the gaps of intention and effect between you and your colleagues, be forgiving of yourself as well as them as you experience slowness and setbacks.
Just as the kid at his first piano lesson suffers clumsily over each new placement of his fingers, but in a few years’ time sees those same fingers flying up and down the ivories, you’ll arrive at a point where speaking and listening carefully becomes second nature.
It doesn’t stop there, however—even master communicators screw up from time to time, and each new person you meet represents new challenges, as well as new opportunities, in the art of gap-bridging.
Think of it as exploration—a drive through the dark on a snowy night and a vision of separate stars. You and your companion may disagree about the nature of the star, but in the end, you both saw a star. And if you have to turn the car around to see how the other saw it, don’t stint on gas. It’s worth the journey.
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This article was originally written on December 22, 2016 and updated on December 23, 2016.