You, Me, You

Earlier last week, the LinkEds & Writers group began discussing a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” An early comment questioned the authenticity of the attribution to Shaw. Would Shaw really say “single biggest”? (Were you expecting something else from a group of editors and writers?) Another early comment included a link to the comic “Communication” from xkcd.

I didn’t get the punch line. I’m pretty literal-minded, so it can take me awhile to get some jokes. Then I started thinking: Why wasn’t I getting it? What did it have to do with that Shaw quote? What does that last panel mean? What?

That night, my husband, one of my twin daughters, and I participated in a communication exercise (synchronicity in action).

Husband’s object

My husband and I sat in back-to-back chairs and were each handed five Legos: two yellow, one blue, one white, and one red. My husband built a stable object with all the Legos, then gave me directions on how to build the same object.

My version

During the exercise, I was told that I could ask for clarification. My husband never mentioned the colors, and I never asked which color Lego was where. You can see that I didn’t duplicate my husband’s object.

My object

In a second round, my daughter chose me to give her directions. I began by telling her that my object was like a pyramid, with the large blue and yellow Legos side-by-side.

Daughter’s version

My daughter didn’t duplicate my object. I guess there are two ways to interpret side-by-side.

How many different ways are there to build a stable object with five Legos?

The exercise was a concrete, no-fault way to understand that what you say and what another person hears can be different.

Not for the first time, I learned that when I focus on what I think and need, I’m pretty unlikely to get a message across to another person. The difference between what I said and what the other person heard can be miles apart or subtle. (Who knew there are two ways to interpret “side by side”? Being literal, I often see only what is in front of me.) I forget this basic fact about communication more often than I remember it.

About twenty years ago, I learned that it is my responsibility to communicate in a way that enables the listener to understand my message. If the listener doesn’t get it, I need to figure out the mismatch and try again. I do this when I work with authors, but I lose the skill when I talk with my husband and children. The closer the interaction gets to myself the harder it is to focus on the other person and what the other person needs. I suspect I’m not alone in this.


Hours passed. That xkcd comic popped back into my head. And suddenly I understood. This is how it works: You try to understand the other person; the other person gets you. And then you communicate.

It’s the same in negotiation. When you focus only on what you want, you can’t find a solution. You can have a power struggle, but I think that’s not much fun. When you focus on what the other person needs, or maybe on a mutual goal, you get to a solution.

Or think about networking. When your attitude is “me, me, me,” networking ends up feeling slimy (see Chapter 4 of Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book, The Start-up of You). When you focus on the other person, you connect and everyone has fun. Maybe you even get some good work done or create some opportunities.

In Taekwondo, when you spar, if you focus on “me, me, me,” you won’t get very far. Actually, you’ll get kicked. I’m pretty sure that, one way or another, this is true everywhere. It just takes longer to notice.

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