I was traveling last week. Before crashing in my hotel one night, I called home to check in with my family. My 10-year-old son got on the line and we had what began as a typical conversation.
“What happened at school today?” (I’ve learned not to ask “How was school?” since it always gets the same answer – fine!)
“Well, I got in trouble with a teacher today.” (This is pretty unusual for my son, so I was curious.)
He went on to tell me that, while at lunch recess, he had been broken some obscure rule and had been made to stand against the wall for most of the recess rather than play with his friends. For my son, this is worse than having a limb amputated. In his own words, he was very upset.
As I talked with him about the situation, it became clear to me that he didn’t really understand the rule or what he had done to deserve his punishment. But I was still curious what he had gleaned from the experience.
“So what did you learn?” I expected him to say that he learned not to break that rule. I was in for a surprise.
He paused a moment and said, “To stay away from that teacher.”
I had to think about that for a few minutes after hanging up the phone. I realized the simple, profound truth my son had taught me. When we have negative interactions with people and don’t come to a common understanding about why the interaction went south, they learn something about us: that we’re unreasonable, dangerous people to be avoided or defeated. This may work occasionally when you only have to deal with someone a few times or you have the brute force to keep the balance of power in your favor. But if you need that person’s engagement, cooperation, or support at some point, good luck.
So think about your key business relationships: what have your employees, colleagues, customers, and suppliers/partners learned about you recently? Is that what you want them to believe about you? Will those beliefs support your own interests in the long term?