Quit Filling in the Blanks
by Mary LoVerde
When you don’t have all the information that you need about a situation, how do you feel? For most of us, the absence of detailed information causes anxiety. What do we do to get back our sense of control? We make stuff up and fill in the blanks. We see a small part of what’s going on and rush to judgment. We rationalize that our added “information” is obvious, or common sense, or simply the most likely explanation. Many of us do this so often and so efficiently we don’t even realize it’s our feeble attempt to control the unknown.
This letter from an attendee at one of my programs illustrates why we should quit filling in the blanks:
I was working with a bank in New York doing regular team building sessions with the regional directors. There was one guy who no one really admired. He was always a little disheveled, and didn’t seem to take his job quite as seriously as everyone else. The other regional managers began to resent his frequent sick days, and when he skipped the company picnic, they considered it evidence that he just didn’t want to be a team player. To top it off, he went on vacation to Disneyland during their busiest time. Resentments increased, and the conversations behind his back centered on whether he ought to be on the team at all.
One day during our sessions he asked if we could have lunch together. I wondered why but agreed. At lunch, he first asked that I agree not to tell anyone what he was about to say, and then he told me his wife had AIDS and was dying. She’d had it for several years from a blood transfusion given in an operation. The hospital had enrolled her in a program that cared for her up until the day after the statue of limitations for them to sue had expired. They were then left to finance treatment on their own. After a second mortgage on their home, they were in danger of losing it. They had tried to keep the AIDS diagnosis a secret, fearing the prejudice that they had already seen toward their children and from people they thought were their friends. The trip to Disneyworld was expected to be the last vacation they took as a family.
My heart hurt for this strong committed man who bore his burden in silence. I was able to convince him to give his team members a chance to rise to the occasion.
After lunch, he told his story to the group. There were even a few tears. The group rallied around him, and they made sure people were available to help out when he needed to stay home.
As a result, the entire group became closer and did more team building than any formal process could have achieved. Both he and the group had jumped to conclusions that were very, very wrong. Once they gave each other a chance, they found a deeper connection that benefitted all.
It is not an exaggeration to say that carelessly filling in the blanks can damage reputations, ruin marriages and destroy careers. As humans, we have the power to guard against the nearly irresistible urge to make sense out of senseless events by jumping to conclusions.
This week catch yourself filling in the blanks and instead pause before you judge. You’ll save yourself and lots of others a heap of trouble.