Early on in my consulting career, I remember having a hard day with clients and coming home to my wife, saying: “Those stupid clients just didn’t get it.” My wife, very gently, said “You mean that today, just today, you weren’t able to help them understand?”
The agency relationship I inherited from my very talented boss is a challenge on the best of days. On a day when a multitude of final decisions had to be hammered out seemingly for the third time, I started seriously considering where I could get a recommendation for a new agency. But, thanks to the hassle that is Corporate Procurement, instead I pulled up Google and typed in:
HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH PEOPLE WHO JUST DON’T GET IT
The first result is very good and I recommend looking it up in its entirety. The first paragraph got right to the heart of the matter:
Or, in one phrasing I particularly liked from the comments:
“There are no stupid questions, only points that we have failed to explain properly.”
It suggested a new and strange idea about anger and frustration. You sometimes hear stories about babies and developmentally-challenged children going through angry phases because they want to speak and convey their thoughts, but haven’t yet learned to. So perhaps when adults get frustrated in conversation, it’s because they still haven’t learned how to say what they need to say. Or, alternatively, because the adult is still being a toddler and refuses to accept that not everyone will agree with them and they won’t always get their way.
Either way, it’s one of those nice uncomfortable revelations. You mean that when the agency delivers the wrong size ad because “you never sent us the specs,” I have to take responsibility, even though I did send the specs, because I didn’t explain properly that those specs went with that project? What fun is that?!
But it does fit a piece of conventional wisdom that most people usually like to forget. As Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750, “He, who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.” Or in modern speak, the only thing you can change is yourself.
Improving one’s communication skills and learning to explain things clearly has its own obvious benefits, but there’s a side benefit, too: If you view it as your responsibility to make someone understand, then you will treat them with more patience and understanding and gentleness when they don’t. You won’t give yourself a heart attack, and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt without feeling the need to get so entrenched in their own point of view.
Is it possible that some people never will get it no matter how great a communicator you are? Seems probable. But if you do run into one of those, at least the process will be much pleasanter.