A couple of months back my column, “Betrothed to Telling the Truth” described my meeting with Ed, a highly competent and successful CEO who possessed what I characterized as CEO-surgeon speak. “Gimme the bottom line,” is the CEO-surgeon modus operandi. Leaders like Ed are superb problem solvers when given the data, and like data machines, they can’t stand it when people belabor points with irrelevant details and stories.
I had told Ed that I was impressed with his abilities and accomplishments, but wouldn’t want my sister to marry him because she would die of loneliness. The bottom line: He didn’t understand it, but neither did he dispute it.
What Ed failed to appreciate–as do many leaders who are goal-driven to a fault–is that, especially at the end of the day, especially at home, the telling of the story is the data. The story itself is not all that matters. And for the data to compute in the right way to be satisfying (instead of frustrating) to the person talking, Ed and leaders like him need to provide unhurried and undivided attention.
Wilfred Bion, one of the pre-eminent psychoanalysts of the past century, described it best as “listening without memory or desire.” By that he meant that when you listen with memory you have an old agenda you’re trying to plug someone into; when you listen with desire you have a new agenda you’re trying to do the same thing with. In either case, these are your agendas, not the other person’s. And you’re not fooling them for a second.
Why is it so important to listen to your family with undivided attention? Consider this all-too-familiar scenario. When your children are in over their heads or overwhelmed by the world (that is, every day), they will vent to–no, that’s too civil; they’ll dump on–your spouse. They don’t ask her (or his) permission. They just do it. In most instances, your spouse would not dare say, “Get to the point” or “Spare me the details” in an impatient tone. The children would go ballistic. Your spouse likely also knows (often instinctively) that your children need to unload what is bothering them and have their plaints fully absorbed so that they can fully exhale. It is only after they fully exhale that your children can relax, pause, inhale, take in a deep breath, and then listen to and tolerate advice.
In this case, your spouse functions more as a shock absorber than as an advice giver and it is very easy for her circuits to become overloaded. If she, in turn, receives no relief or release, it may make it difficult to be available to your children.
In a parallel way, just as your spouse not giving your children her undivided attention would frustrate them, not giving your spouse your undivided attention is going to frustrate her. This is especially true if she is coming to you to unload and exhale when she feels overwhelmed by your children (and her parents and your parents and the school details and all the factors that go into creating a “home”–a home that in many cases you get to take pleasure in without having to deal with the many hassles she doesn’t tell you about).
Trying to fix it–because you’re much better at coming up with solutions–is just not going to work with your spouse any more than her telling your children to listen to reason or get a hold of themselves is going to work with them.
If you doubt this, tell me you’re not exhausted when it’s your turn to take care of the kids (and you can’t just distract them with a movie or buying them toys for the Nth time, because let’s face it, you can’t just indulge them all the time, sometimes you’ve got to be involved with them).
So what’s a busy, goal oriented, intimacy-challenged leader to do? Learn to leave your guns at the door and business matters as well. Take longer to get home and handle loose ends during your commute. Don’t let your family’s first impression of you when you get home be a “busy signal.” Don’t let them believe that they always come in second. After spending quality time with your family (your non-financial contribution to creating a home), catch up on work later (but beware of how that will impinge on your marriage).
If you don’t, your children and your spouse might develop the nickname for you that mine did for me, i.e., “Hi kids, bye kids, love you kids.” Boy did we laugh at that for a few years…until I realized it wasn’t funny.