by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Alexa from Pixabay

Do you ever get worked over a mistake someone else made – just to realize upon reflection that it’s your own darn fault?  Apologies to the late, great Jimmy Buffett for paraphrasing his stolen “Margaritaville” lyric, but he captures the thought process so well: the one in which we want to blame our misfortune on somebody else until an honest evaluation allows us to confess our culpability.  I have a great house-sitter for when I’m traveling, a conscientious young fellow who follows my instructions carefully and even takes initiative to keep things looking great, so I was mildly irritated to return from my last trip to find he had cut my grass waaaaayyy too closely; yep, he scalped it, with maybe no time to recover before Thanksgiving company arrives.  But careful re-evaluation led me to admit I had failed to give him adequate instruction, even though I knew this might be an issue.  Ministry leaders stumble to this kind of outcome all the time.  How we deal with it matters.

I had had one other occasion on which my house-sitter, although he regularly did a fantastic job on every assigned task, had given the grass a real crew cut.  Before departing for my most recent travels, I had made a note to myself to make a note to him to leave the mower set for a higher cut, and to reinforce that message I had set the mower height where I wanted it before leaving town.  However, I forgot to write him the note, and his approach to mowing is apparently to provide maximum value by lopping off the greatest possible percentage of each blade of grass.  I had even remembered at one point that I had forgotten to leave him the note, but surely, I surmised, the hint I had left by setting the mower height where I wanted it would be sufficient clue.  Alas, it was not.

The outcome then was clearly my responsibility.  I could have wasted my time with laments like “Why would anybody butcher grass like that?!?!” or “Why would anybody change the mower height from where it had obviously been set by the person who regularly cared for the grass?!?” or even “And if you were going to make such a drastic change, why wouldn’t you at least ask about it first?!?”  It’s easy to work oneself up into a righteous lather, but what would be the point?  Nothing would be changed.  The self-recriminations can be painful if you had an inkling that maybe your directive was spotty, but you hadn’t followed through with extra clarification, but it’s not fair to take your irritation at yourself out on the person who was trying to fulfill your instructions.

And yet we routinely do express our frustration and displeasure in unhelpful ways, blaming others for mistakes that are partially or fully ours.

We litigate the past, focusing on assigning fault, when we’d do better to look to the future.

How do we mitigate the damage that’s been inadvertently done and set a course that prevents similar outcomes in the future?

We should, instead, follow these guidelines:

  • First of all, accept responsibility for our poor communication. It may be worth a dialogue about how the miscommunication happened (if it’s not obvious), but don’t belabor this point.  It may be worth exploring whether the person to whom we were communicating felt at any point that they were unsure about how to proceed.  It’s good to encourage people to feel like they can ask if they have any questions (especially if we have created an environment in which they do not seem to feel comfortable doing so).
  • Get everyone working together to repair any damage. Come up with a plan and move ahead as a team.  Do this without complaint and without recriminations, eye rolls, or statements about wasted time.  Keep it positive.
  • The first two steps will involve communicating the problem to the person who (unintentionally) committed the offense, but be very gentle about it. Do not communicate this message in the heat of the moment when you are upset about the result of the incomplete communication. Let it rest until you can do so calmly and in good humor, taking the emotion out of it and just dealing with facts.

Looking ahead to the future, here are some good rules to live by to keep from miscommunicating again:

  • Remember the maxim to stop and do a thing when it crosses your mind, not to put it off until later — this maxim is applicable if it is a thing that can be done quickly. No good thing comes of putting off a simple and clarifying communication. Many complications and errors can stem from delaying such a message.
  • It’s best to overcommunicate, even though it can feel silly, and even though it feels like you are in a way being disrespected if people aren’t paying close attention to the details that feel obvious to you – if they were paying close attention, you wouldn’t have to overcommunicate in the first place, right? The key point to remember is that your number one goal is getting The Thing done correctly and on time. That goal is almost always more important than “making a point.”

Once, my wife and I were meeting some friends for dinner at the brewery in a nearby small town.  We were there waiting – our friends were late – we continued waiting – impatiently – but we resisted the urge to text or call and say, “Where are y’all?”  After 20 minutes, they texted us, “Where are y’all?”  To which we replied, “At the brewery.”  To which they replied, “Where?  We’re at the brewery!”  Turns out, to the shock of us all, there were two breweries in this one small town!  A little overcommunication – in this case naming the brewery in question or dropping a pin with the map app – would have saved us all time and trouble.  Instead, we spent the rest of the evening going back and forth over which couple had made the error!

For additional ideas for avoiding such avoidable mishaps, check out the wikiHow entry on “How to Avoid Miscommunication.”  It features adorably cheesy illustrations and is filled with classic advice, like these leadership gems:

  • Think before you speak / write. Take a little extra time to state what you mean with clarity and simplicity, as directly as possible.  Then take time to read through what you have done or (if communicating verbally) make contemporaneous notes or follow up with a text or email just to confirm everyone heard the same thing.
  • Check your assumptions. Not everyone cuts grass the same way.  In fact, for any task that can be done, there are a thousand different ways to do it.  Never assume someone would tackle an objective with the same strategy or technique that you would use.
  • Get feedback to be sure you were understood. A follow-up text or email can do this (as noted above).  A good question or two can do it.  You can ask people to repeat your instructions back to you, or you can have them produce a timeline for a project (which involves recounting the steps of the project), or you can ask if they need any clarification about your instructions or if anything you said was confusing or if they have any suggestions about a different or better approach for doing the thing that is to be done.  All of these techniques allow space for the recipient of your directives to process and respond to those instructions, greatly increasing the opportunities for spotting divergences in understanding.

Keep in mind that people want to succeed and want to help you achieve your objectives.  Almost always, glitches that happen are unintentional.  And if a person is on the lazy side or has a habit of cutting corners, that’s all the more reason for crystal clear communication and precisely setting expectations.

What’s your standard reaction when mistakes are made because you did not communicate as clearly as you thought you had?  Are you willing to admit you might have been more clear?  Do you proceed to get the resulting problem fixed without tsk-tsking and making the other person feel bad for their mistake?  Share your stories and tips in the comments section.