I just had the going-on-the-road argument with my wife. Or rather, I just didn’t have the going-on-the-road argument with my wife. And therein lies a tale.
See, I’ve been traveling regularly for the business for at least 16 years. And when you go on the road, of course, you have this idealized view of what it should be like—wife, kids, and dog lined up to kiss you goodbye, handkerchiefs waving, maybe a few tears, and so forth.
I pretty quickly got used to discovering that it’s not like that at all, of course. The wife has her own job to worry her, the kids are busy with their lives, the dog is chasing rabbits. What I couldn’t get used to was the way that my wife and I always had a big argument right before I went on the road. Not even a sensible argument—it would be some triviality that got blown out of proportion and left us shouting at each other when I was about to leave and wouldn’t see her again for five days. (“What do you mean your car’s not registered yet?” “I didn’t have time.” “How could you not have time? It was due 10 days ago!” “What difference does it make to you? You won’t be here.” Etc.)
So finally, one day, I hadthis big realization—it’s because I’m going on the road that we’re having the argument! She doesn’t want me to go, I’m frazzled and stressed out, and so a little disagreement turns into a major tiff.
So one day I said, “Hey! Look at us! We’re about to have the ‘going on the road’ argument again! We do this every time!” and she said, “Huh. I guess we do.” So we didn’t. And ever since then, when I’m about to go on the road and we start to mix it up, I look at her and she looks at me and we grin despite ourselves—and we don’t have to argue.
This is the power of getting interpersonal nonsense out on the table. We all have it, just as much in our work lives as in our home lives. But most of the time it’s unrecognized and unacknowledged. We have arguments or feuds without ever understanding why, and the thing we think we’re arguing about has nothing to do with the real issue.
But when it’s recognized, it’s neutralized, even if the underlying issue can’t be resolved. I still travel, and my wife still doesn’t love it. But now we laugh about it instead of fighting.
This works in a business context too. For example, one of the people in our company is charged with being the super-project manager—he makes sure that all the planning and resources are in place for all our projects to happen on time. We call people who can do this well ducks-in-a-row people because they love nothing so much as getting all their ducks in a row, getting things organized.
This means that part of his job is to sit down next to me, interrupt the Very Important Task I’m doing, and force me to think about something that won’t happen for two weeks yet. Not being a ducks-in-a-row person myself, I’m prone to resent this—but he’s developed the habit of starting out by saying with a grin, “I need to do my ducks-in-a-row thing now.” And I grin despite myself, and push the keyboard away, and we have the conversation we need to have.
So next time you find yourself in some stupid argument on your project, ask yourself: What’s the real underlying issue here? Who is scared of what, or upset about what? And then ask: Why not just say what’s really going on?