You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy

It was the oddest thing. A few weeks ago, I walked into the restroom on the top floor of Pacific Place in downtown Seattle and was surprised at the remodeling they had done in there. Same nice tiles and all, but for whatever reason, they had added urinals against the walls of the women’s restroom.

I was trying to figure out why the urinals were in there, and how I’d possibly use them, when I realized that a number of guys were standing facing those urinals.

So annoying. First management changes things around. Then these guys decide to use the ladies’ room. I stood there ready to ask them all to leave when it started to dawn on me that perhaps I had walked through the wrong door…

You’d be surprised at how slowly my brain registers things at times. Or not. It might be a reflection of my incredible hubris that I automatically assume that half a dozen guys made the mistake of entering the wrong restroom instead of thinking that the error was, perhaps, mine?

You’d think that I would turn silently on my heels and hightail it out of there, but instead I quite audibly gasped, “Oooops!” The guys turned. I turned…red…and then managed to leave as quickly as I could. I glanced at the door on my way out still hoping I might be right and the rest of the world wrong. ‘Twas indeed my error…

It made me wonder how many other times I walk into situations quite sure that I have it right; that my perception is reality.

A couple of years ago, I attended Harvard’s Program on Negotiation as a continuing education course for managers. You’d think it would be a course on “negotiate to win” or how to out-maneuver your opponent. I was relieved to find them emphasizing empathy. How do you check your assumptions to figure out where you might be overlooking facts and data? How can you figure out what is truly important to someone else so you can reach mutually beneficial agreements?

They showed us some classic films of a basketball game and asked half of us to count how many times the black-shirted team passed the ball to teammates while the other half of our class counted how many times the white-shirted team passed the ball. Half way through the film, a man dressed in a gorilla costume ambled onto the court and began to play. Astoundingly, at least half of the class, engrossed in counting passes, never even noticed a costumed gorilla playing on the court.

Later, they projected a poem up on the wall and asked us to count the number of times a specific letter appeared in the verses. They gave us as much time as we needed to figure out this simple, objective answer. But when they asked for a show of hands to report our counts, we were all over the map.

At first, I thought there was some trick to the exercise, but no, it was a straight-forward example of the fact that even with all the facts in front of you and a true right answer, people could still get a simple thing wrong.

All that to say that old age is starting to slow me down. I’m trying to walk toward my conclusions instead of leaping to them. I’m attempting to listen more carefully with a mind that stays as open as my ears. And I think I’m getting a bit better about putting myself in someone else’s place to see what the world must look like from his or her vantage point…but I could be wrong about that too.

You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for…

Billy Joel