I was facilitating a leadership class for mid-level managers and supervisors recently, and two people were being very vocal about their frustrations with lack of information flow between them and their senior leadership.  Whenever one of the two people spoke, I looked around the room and saw what I perceived to be general agreement—people nodding, crossing their arms, and leaning back in their chairs.  I was concerned and began to think about how best to get the concerns out on the table in a more constructive manner.

It’s funny how you can see things so wrong sometimes as you climb your ladder of inference.  And I wonder what colors your perception when it happens.  Was I willing to believe that everyone was on the same page because I was so often frustrated with lack of information from senior leadership back in the days when I was a manager, perhaps?

Anyway, the good news is that one of the more senior folks in the room took me aside and got the blinders off my eyes.  She told me that the two people who kept speaking up were known throughout the organization for dominating conversations in a negative way, and their colleagues were frustrated with them because they were in the class to develop their leadership skills and not to hear the same old complaining they’d heard many times before.  “It’s not to say that we couldn’t improve communication between levels of management,” she said.  “But I think in time you’ll see that neither of those two people are thinking constructively on the topic.  They just like to vent and they like to have an audience.”

I had a moment of thinking that she was just trying to sweep real issues under the carpet.  Then I went back to the conference room and within an hour I saw that she was right.  People were leaning back and crossing their arms and nodding as if to say, “There he goes again.”  It wasn’t agreement, it was a polite resignation with an underlying frustration.  I began to shift the conversation in other, more positive directions and watched as literally the entire room jumped into the discussion to help me.  And when, at one point, one of the naysayers began to complain about something that wouldn’t work for the seventeenth time, people applauded when my response was, “Well, do we want to talk about what we can do, or about what we can’t do?”

It amazes me when I think about how wrong my initial perceptions were, and how unproductive that class would have been if someone hadn’t steered me back in a better direction.  It reminded me that all of us, no matter how good we think we are at reading a crowd, need to constantly question our perceptions and assumptions.  What are we noticing and how are we interpreting it?  What are we not noticing?  What are we filtering out, because it doesn’t fit with the story we’ve already made up?  Without asking these questions we risk taking the wrong road every time.

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