I painfully remember every time a hairdresser cut my hair and the outcome was strikingly different to what I thought I had asked for. My jaw would drop. I would try to gloss over my disappointment and usually offer a tepid “thank you, that’s nice”. And then I’d search for someone who held out the possibility of cutting my hair the way I wanted.
Over time I learned to point out what specifically was important to me. Not too short on the front, thinned out at the back, and a bit of a feathery thing on the sides. And over time, misunderstandings occurred less and less. I have been going to my current hairdresser for over 20 years, although I left Berlin a good 10 years ago. I’m so weary of trying someone new that I’d rather go only once a year than dance with a new hairdresser. Why am I sharing this?
Clarity – an allusive thing?
Well, the importance of clarity and alignment have been on my mind a lot, lately. I recently had the pleasure to facilitate a workshop for a large and diverse group who had come to realise that they lacked a clear, shared understanding of what they were working towards. This was all the more frustrating because they had been working together for many months when they realised their misunderstandings and general sense of misalignment.
These two stories might seem very different, but they share one common denominator: We assume that other people understand what we communicate to them all of the time. We talk about what we want to co-create together, or what we need from one another, and we think everything is clear. It is only when we set off to deliver something and then reconvene to share our output that we realise: We did not share the same picture about the job to be done or the goal to be pursued.
Misunderstanding others is part of the reality we all live with. When we communicate, most of the time we don’t fully understand one another, and we fill our gaps of understanding with our own interpretation rather than asking for more clarity, and more clarity, and more. The problem is that as we fill the gaps, we leave the territory of shared understanding.
Shared understanding means that you and I have the same image in our mind. Literally the same image. Because when we listen to others, we create an image in our mind. Let me illustrate that:
When you say “let’s get a pet”, I will think of a cat or a dog, or perhaps something smaller like a guinea pig. When you say dog, I might envision a big dog, or a small dog, etc. You leave a lot of space for me to create my own mental image which likely deviates a lot from the dog you might want to enrol me in.
But when you say, let’s get a young labradoodle with curly hair and floppy ears, my mental image becomes more fleshed out. However, there are still gaps for my imagination to fill.
For instance, what’s the colour of the hair? How long are the floppy ears? What does young mean? And how does it translate into size?
The more descriptive your language, the less gaps you leave. The less gaps you leave, the less room for me to fill with my interpretation. Once we have a shared mental image, we have clarity around what we are talking about. That is the prerequisite for creating alignment.
When you are next disappointed with someone not meeting your expectations, try to look at it from the vantage point of how you could communicate clearer so that the following time you interact with them, you close the gap a little more.
Do you need to close the gap of understanding in your organisation? Do you seek better alignment? Reach out to us for a complimentary conversation to explore your needs.