“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
—Seneca the Younger (Roman Stoic Philosopher)
Recently, a high-level executive confided that she felt thrown completely off-balance when she was left out of a project she had been excited to join. Her colleagues were equally surprised about her absence on the team, but this exec—I’ll call her Elizabeth—had lost herself in the emotions of resentment and confusion. She had forgotten the simplest solution to a problem or confusing situation: Ask why.
“I was so hurt that it was hard for me to face the project leader in other meetings we both attended,” she admitted.
Elizabeth had been avoiding that co-worker for several weeks when I suggested she approach him to ask why she had not received an invite. Once confronted, he instantly let her know he had been equally confused—in his mind, she had indeed been invited but had not responded to the invitation. As it turned out, the email had gotten stuck in his Drafts folder without his knowledge. Elizabeth was stunned. "All I needed to do was call and ask!" A simple mistake, with complex consequences.
Let’s break down this (not uncommon) situation:
- An undetected technological glitch occurred.
- The glitch contributed to a misunderstanding on both sides of an important communication.
- Efficiency, productivity, and cohesiveness of both the team and the project were compromised.
- Feelings were hurt, time was wasted, lines of communication broke down.
- It took one question to resolve the miscommunication.
So, what if Elizabeth had maintained a distance from her instinctive reaction and had become gently curious instead—before her perception of the situation fueled her actions (or in this case, inaction)? What if she had simply asked herself, “What else could this mean?”
So often, we allow the stories of our own invention to cloud a situation that might have been resolved in a matter of minutes. When we find the courage to ask the questions that will uncover the truth, we may be surprised to find the solution or answer was far simpler than we thought. Not always easier, but certainly simpler, because now we come from a place of being informed.
But what if, unlike in Elizabeth’s case, the response isn’t what we were hoping to hear?
“My life has taught me to be more curious than afraid.”
—Ishi, the last of the Yahi People
It takes courage to face the truth in all its sound and fury; the answer to your question is not always what you hoped or expected. If you find yourself triggered by something that someone else says or does, I recommend you stay grounded and remind yourself of Mel Schwartz’s 5% Rule: By finding even the tiniest point of agreement with what the other person is saying and then acknowledging them, Schwartz says, “the results can be astonishing.”
The reprieve from disharmony can give you the chance to take a breath and feel safe enough to become open again, to disrupt the tight hold of the story in your head. You now have a moment to determine whether any of the other person’s points have merit, or if there might possibly be a different interpretation of what you believe they are saying. Again: Ask. And keep asking.
This is what is meant by cultivating a curious mindset. You may still disagree with the majority of their reasoning, but the jewel in the lotus is that you may discover a truth about yourself or the situation that you had not thought of before. This, in turn, may lead to greater efficiencies or more creative solutions than either party was able to come up with on their own.