When I began college in the Fall of 1987, it wasn’t a perfect fit. In fact, I left school and the end of a January term and sat out second semester trying to figure out what would come next. I left school, went home, and worked full time for the first time in my life.
Part of full time work was commuting to a job. I lived just outside of Washington D.C. and I spent countless hours, on my way to and from my job, circling Interstate 495, better known to Washingtonians as, The Beltway. When you commute a route regularly, you begin to pick up on all of the nuances of the drive. Which lane to be in when, what to expect from other drivers, and of course, when was the best time to be on the road to avoid traffic. The experience of commuting turns us into a hub of information about that stretch of road.
During the Spring of 1988, as I was wearing out a path to and from my job on the beltway, I was beginning to notice patterns. I wasn’t writing down my observations, but they were certainly affecting my habits and they were very much accessible in my thinking. I was making decisions based on these observations that made my ride more enjoyable. I wasn’t aware of this, until I had a conversation with a friend who was home on a break.
The two of us were headed somewhere on the Thursday afternoon of his break, when he commented that there were, what seemed to him, an unusually high number of tractor trailers on the road. Tractor trailers, big rigs, Mack trucks – whatever you call them – can be an intimidating force on the road. When they travel in elephant-like herds, they can be downright scary. That was the case on this particular day, but it wasn’t bothering me as I drove.
When my buddy commented on how many trucks were on the road, I answered simply, “Yea, because it’s Thursday.”
Based on my experience and observations over time, that answer made complete sense to me, but did little or nothing to explain my thinking. As only a good friend can, he gave me a look that told me he did not get the connection and possibly, that he thought I was losing it.
The breakdown in communication here can be seen clearly, and the fault was mine. I had all the information I needed to make sense out of what I said, but since he had not been traveling my route as a commuter, my statement was incomplete. These kinds of communication gaps appear regularly, in workplaces, in homes, in most places people gather. While we are asked to work with and communicate with a group or a team, we may find ourselves going only until the point that WE understand something, instead of pressing on until everyone understands.
In some cases, we don’t feel like it is our job to have to lead another person to a point of understanding. After all, shouldn’t they have to put in the time, effort, work, and learning we did? Isn’t that only fair? There is a core competitiveness to people that makes this a contest and grasping something first gives us a chance to stand proudly as the person who got it while we wait for others to catch up.
The potentially challenging overlap here is the tendency to think we need to keep some knowledge to ourselves to protect our position or standing in an organization. We worry that if we tell everyone around us everything we know, we can suddenly lose our value and place on the team. When we hold onto important information for ourselves, we forfeit the opportunity to be an influencer, a teacher, the kind of person who is a key piece in the development of the people around them. If we believe leading is making those around us better, we should be giving our teammates everything they need to succeed, guiding them through how to make the most of what we are sharing.
When I look back on that day on the beltway and my incomplete statement, I realize how easy it would have been to qualify what I said with, “Well, over the last few months I have noticed…” A lead-in like that would have provided some context. My thinking was self-centered, focused more on what I knew than what my passenger did. It is important to think and communicate in ways that anticipate the needs of those around us. We need to be certain we are giving people the information they need to know what we know. When we do, we become the kind of teammates people seek out in challenging times and people like that make any team better.
How well are you communicating and are you going the extra mile to be a great communicator?