Wednesday, April 8, 2009 by Dave Blum

As my Austrian friend, Harald — the *genius* (see my blog entry for December 8th) — is back in town this week, he and his girlfriend, Jutta, my wife, Jen, and I gathered on Monday for dinner at a sushi place near Union Square.  (Harald LOVES his Japanese seaweed salad–must be good brain food.)  At a certain point during the meal, we started discussing our personal attitudes towards work.  Speaking first, Harald declared something like, “I’m not sure this work thing is all it’s cracked up to be.”

Jen’s response:  “So you’re tired of your work?”

My response:  “I think Harald means that we all work too much and it interferes with all the fun things we could be doing if we weren’t tied to earning an income.”

Harald’s response:  “Actually, I love my work.  What I meant was that for all the effort I put in with my clients, sometimes it seems like I’m not affecting any real change.”

Later, at home on the couch, Jen and I tried to break down the whole exchange.  Wasn’t it interesting, we concluded, how quickly we had interpreted Harald’s comments based on our *own* personal reactions to stress (see my article:  “The Five Responses to Stress-What to Look For, How to Manage It”).  When under pressure, Jen has a tendency to go towards “aversion”, so of course she assumed that Harald was disliking his job.  Myself (the creator of *fun* scavenger hunt lists and corporate team building activities) – I have a leaning towards “desire”, so naturally I guessed that Harald, like me, was seeking a retreat from work stress into pleasure.  In fact, as it turned out, Harald was running a different stress reaction:  doubt.  When talking about his disappointments regarding work, he was feeling doubt that his efforts were really making an impact in the world.

The way to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation of others is fairly simple in theory, but so difficult in practice, namely:

1) Listen carefully to what people are saying.

2) Ask *them* what they mean, rather than rushing to our own assumptions.

It’s easy to assess the world from the lens of our own personality habits and values.  Our stories are so compelling–and quite often inaccurate.  The formula that works best:  Stop–listen–ask.