A number of weeks ago my wife and I arranged a meeting with the president of the local religious congregation we are serving. We were to meet at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon to plan some upcoming meetings with his presidency and other leaders of the congregation.
We arrived at the church just before the appointed time and found we were first there. We opened the doors and waited. After a few minutes we decided to do something constructive and so went to work sweeping and dusting. We worked for 30 or 40 minutes when I looked at a clock and realized the lateness of the hour. I was growing irritated. We’d traveled 45 minutes for this meeting, including saying “no” to other appointments, and now it appeared we’d been stood up.
I thought about other times our meetings had started late. I’d show up and be the only one there for some fifteen minutes until others sauntered in.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the president. It took him a while to pick up. “Hello.”
“Hi President, we’re at the building waiting for you.”
“What time is it?”
“It is about 3:40.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll be there in five minutes.”
He showed up some ten to fifteen minutes later. It was now after 4:00 and we had a commitment back near our home at 5:30 and would have to leave within 30 minutes.
The President immediately walked up and shook our hands. “Sorry,” he said and opened the door to his office. I was doing my best to be pleasant but was aware of irritation slopping around and spilling over the edges.
You might remember that in my last blog I wrote about four styles of leadership—dominator, avoider, accommodator and collaborator. What would a dominator do or say in this circumstance? How about an avoider? Accommodator? What about a collaborator?
What about you? What would be your natural reaction? What would you do or say in this circumstance?
I could have started our conversation with empathy. “Help us understand your tardiness.” Instead I opted for pretty blunt honesty. “We’ve been here for an hour now. We changed our plans to be here this afternoon and are not feeling real good that you just arrived.”
I remember his wide eyes and the look of panic on his face. My statement unsettled him.
“I’m really sorry,” he stammered, shaking his head. “I couldn’t get a train home last night and so caught a bus that took all night to get into Delhi. I didn’t sleep a wink. I got in this morning and decided to take a nap before our meeting but I didn’t wake up until you called. I’m really sorry.”
His explanation of his tardiness caused a shift inside of me. The stuff I’d been making up in my mind about why he was late was distorted. My guesses were off the mark.
“I didn’t realize you had traveled all night. You have to be exhausted.”
He talked more about his schedule and hassles of the past week. My wife and I listened and nodded in empathy.
But the problem of tardiness is habitual, not just from him but all our leaders and members. They are casual and easy-going about time and we could not help them accomplish their vision if they didn’t develop more discipline in making and keeping commitments.
So I opted for more honesty. “I feel bad about your schedule, how tired you are, and fact that you haven’t had more time with your family. However, I also have to say that this problem is not a one-time occurrence. It seems that you and others often come late to our meetings.” Then I was quiet (although tempted to go on lecturing).
“It is true. You are right. You are right.”
“There are consequences. Can we explore them?” I asked.
We talked about three or four. I wanted them to sink in, so he could become more aware of the impact of his tardiness.
“You know, we’re here to support you,” I said. “You really aren’t accountable to us. We simply want to help you achieve your vision and it seems like that can only happen if we are honest with each other and if we keep our commitments to each other. Would you agree?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I appreciate the help you’ve been to me. I’m grateful and won’t be late in the future.”
I am still learning to be a quadrant 4 leader. It requires skills in empathy and listening, a willingness to make positive assumptions about people and draw them out, to more deeply understand their experience and point of view. It simultaneously requires openness and directness in communication, a willingness to disclose how we feel as well as share feedback with others about our concerns and how their behavior is affecting us and others.
Most of us are good at one or the other. The key is to do both, flipping continuously between empathy and honesty, especially in the middle of conflict or during our most sensitive conversations. We are trying to create a shared understanding of the feelings and perceptions of all parties. If I simply want to get my own feelings out on the table and not listen I cause people to either fight or shut down. On the other hand, if I only want to listen and understand their point of view I fail to take care of my needs and give them new information to widen their understanding and choices. The best communicators, quadrant 4 leaders, are adept at both of these skills.
Fortunately, our relationship with this president became stronger on this day as a result of our honesty and empathy. He took our words seriously and yet felt our underlying care and support. We now speak more frankly. We take each others words more seriously. He has gone out of his way to emphasize the importance of commitments with the rest of his presidency and other leaders. We feel greater unity and are progressing more rapidly. This would not happen without both sides of the communication coin–empathy and honesty.