I’m an optimist. I see opportunities everywhere and my natural inclination is towards a vision where everyone benefits. When I see a beautiful under-used performance space, I immediately start thinking of community events that could happen there, and the income and building improvements that would then become possible for the property owner. When I have precious quiet time and new business ideas start to sprout, my first thoughts are about exciting possibilities to collaborate with other smart, creative people who are looking for similar opportunities. And I love nothing more than taking steps to make things happen — with some notes, phone calls and emails it’s amazing how quickly some ideas and projects can move forward.

By and large, entrepreneurs are a similarly optimistic bunch. So when things don’t go well — or fail spectacularly, as the case may be — it can be a real blow. Not too long ago I had a project crash and burn on me and have done a lot of thinking, musing, fretting and, finally, getting philosophical about it all (phew!). As usual with these kinds of things, the take-aways are complicated and colored in shades of gray, but bit by bit I’m feeling some clarity and that maybe I’ve learned (or re-learned) a thing or two. One of the biggest lessons for me: How personal styles of communication (or lack thereof) can really make or break a collaboration.

First, open communication is key in avoiding conflict in the first place. For most of us (i.e. those who aren’t addicted to drama), this is preferable. Looking back at my project, I thought the four team members were on the same page regarding expectations, but I was wrong. There were subtle warning signs that I should have heeded better that one person in particular wasn’t on the same page (in fact in retrospect I think this person straight-up didn’t know what s/he wanted). The problem was exacerbated by the fact that we had plenty of talks, meetings, etc. that created the false impression we had similar goals. So from the beginning our foundation had a big ugly crack in it that I just didn’t see.

Once disagreements or conflicts are in play, communication is even more important. When someone on the team lets bad feelings, dissatisfaction or grievances fester, it puts the whole project at risk. That’s what happened with ours. The person who wasn’t on the same page quietly fumed about real and imagined grievances until s/he quit in a senseless freak-out. What a waste of a good project, and of all of our time.

I was halfway through this post today when I saw this on Seth Godin’s blog:

Unhappiness compounds.

Unaddressed, it compounds into frustration.

And frustration is the soul killer, the destroyer of worker and customer relationships, loyalty and progress.

The solution is pretty simple: address the unhappiness. Change the system or talk about the problem or acknowledge it if that’s all that can be done. None of this can happen, though, unless there’s communication.

Of course there is an art to communicating openly without being a drama queen. I’m quickly fatigued by folks who are broken records about their various conflicts, grievances and dramas. Similarly, speaking openly isn’t the same as aggressively demanding your own way. Between the extremes of aggressive communication and being passive/repressed/whatever you want to call it at the other end of the spectrum, there is a wide middle ground. In conflict-resolution speak, this is called assertive communication. There are tons of articles online about how to develop a healthy assertive communication style; this one by Guy Harris (“The Recovering Engineer”) is a good concise read.

One of my problems is that as an optimist, I sometimes forget that not everyone around me is communicating stuff that’s bothering them. I assume that because I make a point to communicate openly — including doing my best to respectfully express things that are bothering me, or raising topics that aren’t 100% comfortable, and doing so with compassion for all involved — that everyone else is doing the same. (And I’ve learned in my 43 years that I can come off as brusque or bossy, so I really try to temper that.) I take people at face value, and at their word, tempered by my instincts (which I usually trust) and a pretty sensitive BS-detector. But when people actively hide their feelings or intentions, I have learned over and over again that I can be pretty clueless.

And let me be frank: When people aren’t honest with me about important things, it pisses me off mightily. But once those fires die down I’m just sad that business and/or creative projects can be wasted by someone’s inability to speak (or face) their truth.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, other than to suggest this: Next time you’re stewing on something, think about dishing it out instead of keeping it all for yourself. Otherwise you run the real risk of having your crock pot blow, and that’s no fun for anyone.

 

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