I am going to tell you a story that still, to this day, causes me shame.
A few years ago, I employed a company to help me move house. The deal was that I would pay by the hour, as it was hard for the company to estimate how long it would take. On the day of the move, I was feeling pretty stressed anyway about all that needed to be done. This feeling of stress only increased when, instead of sending a single five-ton truck, the company sent two, much smaller, two-ton trucks. As they pulled up, I could see this would mean that the removalists would have a harder time fitting in large goods and would need to do more trips between the two locations to move everything. All this would make the move slower, and therefore a lot more expensive than was originally quoted.
I greeted the foreman Pete frostily. After barely a handshake, I complained about the two smaller trucks. Pete replied that he was a subcontractor and had been given these trucks by the parent company without any explanation. He too was disappointed they had sent the wrong trucks because it was going to make the work much harder for him and his men. In a hurry, I brushed off his response as an excuse and told him where to start.
About 30 minutes later, Pete received a phone call. As he was directing operations, this meant that his men did not know what to do next and soon they sat down and started chatting. I felt initially irritated and then increasingly furious as time ticked by. All I could see was the bill mounting. I stood in front of the foreman, glancing angrily at my watch. When he finally completed his call, after maybe 10 to 15 minutes, I let him know how unhappy I was that he was taking phone calls on my time. He replied angrily that he was doing his best trying to re-organise his next client after the mixup with the trucks meant that my job was going to take longer. I stormed off to the other house to receive my goods and help show them where to put things.
Having an angry removalist is NOT a good position to be in when someone is moving your precious goods. When the trucks arrived, I discovered that rough terracotta pots had been stacked next to an inadequately packed fridge which was now deeply scratched, and heavy boxes were stacked on top of light ones, breaking the contents in some cases.
From there the day went from bad to worse and by the end, Pete and I were so furious with one another that I refused to pay and they left with many of our goods still strewn across the driveway. As my children and wife looked on in horror, I began to feel the shame. I am supposed to be good at conflict resolution, and here I had ended up completely losing my cool. My younger daughter told me that she had been afraid I was going to get into a physical fight. The situation had ended disastrously for us all. We began to take our damaged goods inside.
Later that evening, I took the time to reflect on what had gone wrong. Sure I was unhappy with Pete, but I also realised that my own behaviour had contributed a great deal to the problems that arose.
For a start, from the very first moment I met Pete, I had assumed I was right and he was in the wrong. He had brought the wrong trucks, he was wasting time on his phone, he was packing things badly. Far from hearing that he too was disappointed in the truck allocation and that it had majorly interfered with his plans for the day, all I could see of Pete was that he was not meeting my expectations. And my complete failure to try to see the world from his perspective meant that the relationship spiralled out of control.
I began to see times when I could have reflectively listened and really heard what he was saying. Times when I might have kindly offered water or food to Pete and his men, and times when I might have said something supportive or sympathetic as I recognized the extra work that the situation was creating for them. Yes, Pete had reacted appallingly, but so too had I, and at the heart of that behaviour was our failure to identify our shared interests.
Like me, Pete wanted to finish the job quickly and safely for his men. Like me, he wanted to minimise damage to any goods so that he had a happy customer and his reputation was enhanced. Like me, he was frustrated and angry that the promised resources had not been provided. If I had just slowed down and seen him as a human being with legitimate aims and interests, this whole situation could have been avoided. Focusing on shared purpose and listening early in the day would have united Pete and I in our demand to the parent company to send a single, bigger truck.
Although I still feel shame at the way I handled that situation, I learned a great deal from it. Since that incident, I have gone out of my way to treat tradespeople with dignity and respect. If they have time, I engage in banter and chit chat about their families and their lives and give them drinks and food as needed. When things go wrong, I make sure to reflectively listen to their concerns.
I have begun to see these relationships in a totally new way. Instead of a series of transactions, where the aim is to get as much out of the person for as little cost as possible, I now have the opportunity to form real relationships with real people. Usually, I find that people almost invariably return the favour by doing an excellent job, flexibly compromising when things go wrong, or at the very least, offering reasonable rates for additional work. But while all these extrinsic benefits are nice, they are not the best reason to behave this way. The best reason to behave this way is because these relationships make me feel better about myself in the world. They give meaning to my days, and moments of real learning and pleasure as I see people open up and share something of themselves.
Being prosocial pays off. But these moments can teach us much more than just that. For me, the lessons I take from this experience include:
- Economic transactions do not need to result in objectifying people. It is so easy to ignore the human elements of a commercial transaction, but so much more rewarding not to.
- Reflectively listen. When I see these relationships as a temporary team, I realise that I owe it to my teammates to hear what they are saying and learn.
- Focus on shared identity and purpose. Economic transactions look like they begin in conflict — the buyer aims to pay as little as possible while the seller aims to get as much as possible. But looked at through the lens of relationship, we have so much more purpose in common than we do in conflict. Not least because we all want the experience to be pleasurable and all parties to leave happy. And, in the end, we all want to feel good about our contributions to the world.
What have been your experiences in these sorts of situations? I would love to hear from you.