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The Porcelain Elephant In The Room

We need to talk.

We need to talk.

I subscribe to Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Management Tip of the Day and, every business day, I get a one-paragraph idea for improving my communication and management skills. It’s an intriguing way to get exposed to a wide-range of ideas in short period of time. (Click here to subscribe).

A recent tip summarized how to “Avoid Fighting With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work.” The article notes “It’s unrealistic and unhelpful for couples to expect that they’ll automatically be in sync when they arrive home; different needs, different recovery times, and different experiences…make it more likely that you’ll be out of sync.”

It’s a good point and it reminds me of a story from a young colleague of mine named Molly. Molly and her husband have been married for just a few years and they both work outside the home. They’re settling in to their careers and their jobs are demanding. They noticed that, when they arrive home, their emotional states are often “out of sync.”

Sometimes Molly would arrive home after a tough day and notice something askew in the house. She might stew on it a bit and, when her husband arrived home, she would “pounce” on him. Sometimes, it’s the other way round – husband arrives home first, stews on something, and pounces on an unsuspecting Molly when she arrives. I suspect that all married couples have had similar experiences.

What makes Molly and her husband different is that they realized that neither one of them was at fault. It wasn’t his or her fault. Rather, it was a question of timing and the degree to which they were in or out of sync emotionally.

So they decided to … buy a porcelain elephant. They also agreed to a timing-and-discussion protocol. The porcelain elephant normally sits on a bookshelf. However, if either Molly or her husband is stewing about something, he or she moves the elephant to a coffee table in the living room. It’s a quiet signal that “We need to talk.”

Let’s replay the same scenario. Molly arrives home in a bad mood, notices something askew in the house, stews about it, and … moves the elephant to the coffee table. Her husband arrives home and notices the elephant. He can immediately ask her what’s wrong or – if he’s really not in the right mood – he can ignore it for up to 12 hours. They’ve agreed that, when the elephant comes out, they’ll have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but not necessarily upon walking in the door.

I think it’s a genius move and a very mature strategy for a young couple. It ensures that the conversation happens while leaving some flexibility for both parties to get in sync emotionally. As the HBR article notes, don’t have the conversation “…right when you get home. Set aside some time to talk when you’re both feeling more relaxed.” Molly and her husband have figured out exactly how to do that.

How Do You Know When An Argument is Over?

I've got a bone to pick with you.

I’ve got a bone to pick with you.

How do you start an argument? How do you finish one? I’ve been thinking about those questions lately. It’s not because I’ve been arguing a lot but because I’ve been thinking about how we make decisions and decision-making often involves arguing.

Here’s how not to start an argument: walk into someone’s office and unload on him or her. That happened to me more than a few times during my career. It usually ended badly. When someone unloads on me, I find it difficult to listen dispassionately. Often, I strike back. I’m good with words, including mean-spirited ones.

Equally important, how do you know if an argument is over? I used to bump into colleagues occasionally and wonder, “Am I still mad at him? Is he still mad at me? How should I act?” When I’m thinking about questions like these, I’m not thinking about effective communication.

I think my grandparents, Grover and Addie, had an effective way to deal with these situations. When one was irritated with the other, he or she opened the conversation by saying, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” It was always in a neutral tune of voice. The phrasing was also neutral; it didn’t say, “I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m about to prove it.” Rather, it said, “We need to have a discussion and the outcome of that discussion may be that I’m right or may be that you’re right. But we need to clear the air.”

If Grover started the bone-to-pick discussion, Addie would typically respond by saying, “What’s the matter?” also in a neutral tone of voice. Grover would then lay out his case in an almost lawyer-like fashion. Addie listened essentially until Grover laid out his entire case. She rarely interrupted. (Grover did the same when Addie started the bone-to-pick conversation). Then they talked back and forth. From my kid’s perspective, it seemed like they both got equal time.

As they concluded their discussion, one would often apologize to the other. It didn’t matter if it was Grover or Addie doing the apologizing. The other person would always say, “Apology accepted.” And that was the end of it. This simple phrase meant a lot of things, like: “OK, the storm is over, the clouds have parted, we don’t need to re-visit this again, and, if we ever get in an argument again, I promise I won’t dredge this up and throw it at you, so let’s get on with life.” That’s a lot of meaning to pack into two words.

As a little kid looking on, it all seemed so simple and straightforward. Now I marvel at their wisdom and their self-control. Between the beginning and the end of their argument, I don’t really know if they fought “fairly” or not. But I do know that they delimited their arguments. There was a clear start and a clear stop. There were no ambushes; there was no lingering resentment. Just a simple argument and a clear resolution. Perhaps that’s why they stay married for so many years.

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