Sarah Guerra, Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King’s College London reflects on a recent holiday to the United States and the importance of clear communication.
I was in America recently. (For those who don’t know my fab partner arranged a lifetime dream trip to Seattle and DC for my 50th birthday.) The home of the amazing breakfast. So, to Busboys and Poets, one of the eateries in my Washington DC adventure. I ordered Eggs Florentine. For the uninitiated it’s a dish of poached eggs, on spinach and English muffins, covered in hollandaise – pretty luxurious. The perfect Florentine requires poached eggs that when you crack them open, a viscous but clearly runny, golden egg yolk runs out. The dish arrives – after quite a while. I excitedly break into my eggs. There is always the moment of anticipation – what will they be like? These were sadly too solid, not completely solid but definitely not runny. I ponder whether I should accept them and decide not. I call the waitress over and (in my view) explain that the eggs are overcooked and unsatisfactory. She says, ‘Oh I didn’t know that’s how you wanted them’. I feel puzzled about this – it is my common experience that the eggs need to be runny – I shouldn’t need to make a special request.
Anyway, I write it off as perhaps an inexperienced staff member or difference between Brits and Americans. I’m on holiday. I am determined to be joyous. Anyway, sometime later the eggs arrive back. I excitedly crack in – imagine my shock and disappointment when the eggs are even more cooked than previously. (I should probably add in here that I absolutely detest hard boiled eggs.) I think about it for a while and at this point am also wondering if I should give up. After all at this point my ‘breakfast time’ has pretty much run out. Plus do I want the stress, confrontation and conflict? I am focusing on JOY!
I collect myself and call the waitress over. I say I think we have had a misunderstanding. These eggs are even harder than the first set. She looks at me. ‘Isn’t that what you wanted?’ I realise in that moment that one way or another, through either my assumptions or hers, my lack of specific words or her distracted listening – she has understood the exact opposite of what I wanted. She has in this situation done her best to meet my needs but has completely misunderstood them. And/or I have completely miscommunicated them.
This felt like such a ‘teachable moment’ for equality, diversity and inclusion. What are our communications based on? They are based on our existing frame of reference, experience and set of assumptions. This is what all the bias training that we all do has been trying to help us understand. It is also based on how well are we paying attention? How much are we clarifying and checking versus assuming and dashing to please or deliver.
That same day not long after the eggs resolution I had a very similar experience with my partner. In response to a question, he indicated a response that I instinctively interpreted in completely the opposite way to that which he intended. We as is our way ended up bickering, both continuing from our perspective, understanding and assumptions. On another occasion we might have ended up nearly full out arguing. But based on the recent experience highlighting how easily I am misunderstood and how easily individuals misinterpret each other – I forced myself to step back and deconstruct the situation. This helped us both see how we were misunderstanding each other.
The outcome at the restaurant was finally a perfect eggs Florentine that I enjoyed very much. In my relationship it was (after 22 years) a revelation and deepening of our understanding of each other. When I think about it, I am hoping that the waitress (and my partner) both felt reflective and respected. I am hopeful that all of us in the future in that situation will think about how to check that we are understood rather than feeling aggrieved. I pride myself on being a quick thinker and someone who is decisive, but these two incidents really helped me to see how much better a listener and reflector I need to be if I am going to be the effective, collaborative, inclusive leader I want to be.