Give Me Some Context – Please!

One of the nice things about doing the kind of work I do (helping people to understand human behavior) is that I am able to see situations on a daily basis that continually remind me how important it is to help people understand themselves and others. This week I was reminded about Secret #4, “Don’t assume I know what you mean,” in my dealings as a Lecturer at the University where I teach.

I have taught for several years now and love it very much. Compared to my full-time work I don’t get paid very much, so for me it’s more of a labor of love: I enjoy teaching and feel I have a lot to contribute. I’m especially blessed to have the chance to teach at my own alma mater. Some people can donate large amounts of money, but I can “donate” my experience and expertise.

Over the years I’ve received letters from the union, or collective bargaining unit, at the school. For me, having worked in an industry that has no unions, I actually have no idea how they work. For example, apparently one must sign a separate document allowing a withdrawal from payroll. The document arrived at my home during a time I wasn’t even teaching, so given the triage approach I have with the volume of mail I receive, it went into the “to be addressed later” pile!!

Then this week I get a threatening letter from the union saying if I don’t sign their document and return it, as of Wednesday in person at the school, I can no longer teach there. I read this note and panic, because I don’t have an office at the school, I am traveling to DC on business, and I can’t meet the demand. I respond accordingly to the threats, thinking that I cannot teach anymore – and then everything breaks loose.

The wonderful and very talented Dean that I work for is a bit upset that I am being threatened, so she lets others in the school know, and then the emails fly back and forth with the union representing their position. In the midst of it, having $32.50 deducted from my check seems like a small matter to me – just take the money and be done with it.

The funny part is that in the many years I have taught, I have never paid these dues or responded, so it never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. Now I am blacklisted for not conforming to the union’s demands!!

It was such a great back-and-forth and illustration of the ways in which we make assumptions and don’t take the time to clarify:

  1. Maybe the school could consider that Lecturers come from industries without unions
  2. Maybe there could be more clarity about how the process works, and that the additional payroll forms will be mailed and they are to be signed is actually mandatory
  3. Maybe when the form is sent out, at the top in bold letters it could say “This must be returned by X date”
  4. Maybe instead of a threatening email, it could be “The deadline is fast approaching; your letter must be signed and returned by such-and-such date”
  5. Maybe since I am not currently teaching, it could be understood that I wouldn’t know I needed to reply to contract info and it could be sent during a time I am actually at the school
  6. Maybe the school could just send an email out to Lecturers to watch their mail and let them know the importance of replying promptly

Lots of maybes here, but the bottom line is how often an organization or institution will give people very little information and communication, and just expect them to understand/comply/respond. I am not an unintelligent person and I am definitely compliant when I need to be – particularly in an organized setting like the college where I teach. I respect my colleagues very much and try to be responsive.

Through my filter, Secret #1, I actually felt victimized by the union’s need to threaten me, and state a contractual obligation. The entire scenario could have unfolded differently if there had simply been attention paid to people outside of the system who don’t understand.

In Secret #4, I talk about “Don’t assume I know what you mean.” How often do we assume another person should understand our position, or understand our communication, and when they don’t respond accordingly we assume they are ignoring us or they don’t care? Maybe it could be that they simply don’t understand and haven’t made the connection we think should be natural.

It happens so often in organizations I see: management says “we told them!” and employees don’t understand what they have been told, or why they have been told it. There is a communication disconnect, because no one is looking at it from the perspective of the receiver of the information.

Instead of getting angry at the recipient, perhaps taking the approach of “What other information do you need?” could be the kinder thing. This week, focus on helping others to understand – give them context and background if something is important enough. And remember that we are all bombarded with information and paper, so things DO get lost. If it’s important enough, take the time necessary to fill someone in on what they need to know.