Last Monday was a sobering moment for everyone living in or with connections to the nation of Qatar. Families lost children, spouses lost their partners, and a nation mourned the loss of 19 lives in a mall fire.
From the minute the news went out that “Villaggio was on fire” (the phrase everyone from students to coworkers was repeating) the questions began.
“Who knew about the fire and at what time?”
“Why had someone put a nursery upstairs?”
“Did the fire fighters have the equipment they needed?”
Several investigations are open and in the nature of tragedies, they will take months, if not longer to resolve. What is clear is that nearly every person connected to the emergency response of Villaggio suffered from a lack of necessary information. The first responders were not notified that children were inside; no floor plans for the mall were available; and while humans were outside working within the limited range of words, the fire inside was eating everything it in it’s path.
While this large scale, devastation was happening across town, I was having my own miscommunication at work. While the effects of my conflict were nowhere near the tragedy of the fire — no one died — the principles on which my afternoon (and most of the week) went awry were the same as what plagued the teams at Villaggio: I was hearing what people were saying but I wasn’t listening. Feeling unheard, the other group was returning the favor.
The root of any miscommunication is the act of hearing without listening. Once I sat down at the mediation table, I got the other side’s perspective. At first it was hard not to get defensive: how could he have thought that’s what I meant? Did she not realize how aggressive her behavior was? I asked the people I was in conflict with to consider the situation from my point of view, later that evening or some other day, when they could.
When I got home, if I wanted to be fair, I had to do the same. I replayed the offensive scenarios over in my mind, this time with myself as the aggressor, and a tiny square of understanding opened. This led to another, to another, and to a new set of ground rules that has since helped us right tilting ship.
None of this would have happened if everyone in the situation had not performed a very mundane action: accepted responsibility.
I accepted the possibility that what were defensive actions on my part, after being repeatedly interrupted, were seen as offensive maneuvers. As hard as it was to hear that I had some part in the communication meltdown, in hearing out the other side, I saw that’s all it was. Humans miscommunicating. No one was a villain; everyone wanted the same thing — respect.
In our litigation saturated global culture, when politicians are caught cheating on wives or elections and apologize with platitudes, I got an old fashioned lesson in listening. When’s the last time you listened to someone? Not the words they were saying but the message they were trying to convey? Do you assign and accept blame equally?