It’s easier to take things at face value. OR at least, it’s easier in the moment. Because underneath our niceties and our politeness is a messy pile of baggage, emotions, intentions, misunderstandings, fear, resentment, vulnerability… If we dig in to how people are really feeling it’s often not a quick conversation and it requires an investment in both time and emotion. In our busy lives, that doesn’t always appeal to us.
How are you? Oh, I’m fine. Great, here’s what I need.
Do you understand? Yes. Ok Great, go do it.
I mean no offense by that. None taken. Great, let’s move on.
On the surface we can smooth things out to look Instagram story perfect. But the reality is that we are often so disconnected with the truth that we don’t see the storm headed our way. Putting out fires is exhausting, and it takes away from focusing on what we were ignoring all the warning signs to get done in the first place. Relationships need work, and you either put the time in now and they grow, or you put the time in later and you are trying to repair. Which sounds better for solid team environment to you?
When my son was 5 years old he struggled with verbal communication. He also struggled with understanding things such as sarcasm, a joke vs reality, or things that might not be safe. Because of this communication was often difficult and misunderstandings were frequent. I needed to take a lot of extra time to make sure he understood what I was saying and that I understood how he felt or what he needed.
Like typical moms often do, I went up to his room and discovered it was a disaster and there was a lovely picture drawn on the wall in crayons. Exasperated I told him that tomorrow he would be cleaning up this mess. He didn’t say much, and I tucked him into bed that night and didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t angry but I was definitely not going to clean it up for him.
As I was sleeping I heard a loud banging on my front door. I sat up and couldn’t get oriented. What was that? I heard it again, this time it sounded like someone was breaking down the door. Terrified I look outside and realize it’s still dark out. It’s got to be around 5 in the morning. I went to the front door and opened it just a crack as I see that there is a policeman standing at the door and his car out front.
Ma’am. Do you have a son named Michael? Confusion was racing through me and I tried to think of any reason he’d be asking me about Michael. Yes? He’s upstairs asleep. Why?
And then he hit me with it.
“Because he ran away,” said the officer.
My blood ran completely cold. This was not possible. He’s 5. The door was locked. My bedroom is downstairs, I would have heard something. He isn’t able to communicate his address, or his full name. He had to be mistaken, I went into denial mode. He’s got the wrong house. He has to have the wrong kid.
The officer must have noticed I was going into a panic because then he said, he’s ok. He’s in the car out front.
He told me that Michael explained to them in his limited vocabular that he was trying to walk to his grammy’s house. (In Maryland…we were in Georgia!) and the reason he ran away? He didn’t want to clean his room. He had packed an entire box of protein bars in a blanket and tied it to a light saber he was carrying on his shoulder. He was in his pajamas and had no shoes on. He made it a mile away from the house in the pitch black, across several big intersections before a retired firefighter saw him at a stop light and had him come sit in his car while he called police. Somehow, he was able to point in the direction back to the house. To this day I don’t know how he managed to show them where he lived.
Every fear in my mind is screaming while Im hearing the policeman recount the story to me. This could have ended so differently. I had no idea, and I mean none, that he was that upset that he felt he wanted to run away. He actually invited his younger brother to join him, who quickly told he was too tired to go for a walk but didn’t think to come tell us because he was 4. He had planned it out right after I tucked him in bed and waited up all night to go. Pre-meditated room-cleaning escape plans. The kid is a genius. He's 20 now, and working toward med school. He was always way smarter than me!
We installed an alarm on the door first thing after this happened. I didn’t sleep for months, sometimes I stayed on the couch by the door terrified I could lose my baby. But something bigger happened that I would carry with me as a parent, as a leader, a coach, and a friend. I learned a powerful lesson. That I need to stop and ask more questions. I need to go past the surface and understand where people are, what they need, how they understand, what they understand, how I have made them feel. I need to know because the consequences of allowing someone to hurt, or feel misled, or suffer a misunderstanding is going to cause a rift in a relationship at the very least, and decisions based on something that could have been avoided at the worst.
It may not be a child running away, but it could be an employee leaving. It could be gossip and negativity that ultimately divide and poison a team. It could be an environment blocked from learning and growing because false realities are circulating under the surface of keeping everyone polite. A team that looks perfect on the outside is now far more suspicious to me than a team that’s ready to call each other out, sometimes look messy, but incredulously digs deep under pressure and backs each other up. A team who doesn’t look all the same, who has a variety of personalities and talents that would seem to never mesh, but miraculously because they appreciate each other’s uniqueness, comes together to create a unit that is well-rounded and can tackle obstacles from almost any angle.
Take the time, go beyond the surface, encourage realness, honesty, truth, and reward the ability to grasp it and mold it and appreciate it for all that it is. Then use it to come together stronger than any smooth surface team you’ll ever go up against.