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March 28, 2019 3 Comments

Not communicating is a pandemic How to solve

The state of our politics and our growing inability to communicate effectively with people who have different beliefs than we do has become an epidemic.

When I started working as an interior designer, the majority of my clients were women. The way we would decide on fabrics was by looking at samples that I had pre-selected. I ‘d bring about six samples for each fabric we needed. There would be a variety of colors, textures, and patterns. I’d carefully go through the assemblage explaining the benefits of each one. My client would ask questions and consider the options carefully before making her final decision.

Over time, I started getting a lot of male clients. As I was accustomed to doing with my female clients, I presented the six to eight samples, and the reaction was so different it took me by surprise.

The first time I took out the grouping of fabrics and started explaining why I’d selected them, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. I stopped talking and looked over at my client. “Why are you showing me all these samples?” he asked. I explained that I was giving him a selection to choose what he liked best. “I don’t understand,” he responded. “Which one of these samples is your choice?” 

It took a moment for me to understand. As far as he was concerned, he had hired me for my expertise. He expected that I would make the selection—that is what he was paying me for.

Thinking I might be making a mistake with my female clients, I decided to try the same type of abridged presentation with them. 

Displaying the two fabric samples I had selected, I began to explain to a client why I’d chosen them, when she interrupted: “Do you have anything else to show me?” When I hesitated, she continued, “I can’t make a decision without having more samples.” Since I’d come prepared, I dove into my bag and grabbed the other samples and presented those as well.

From this micro-study of men and women, I learned something profound:

Women expect that your expertise will allow them to make the perfect selection. They want you to bring them choices so they can do the choosing. Without choices they wonder what they are paying you for; you clearly haven’t done your job! 

Men also hire you for your expertise, but they want you to come with the solution. If you bring too many choices, they wonder why they’re paying you; you’re clearly not doing your job!

What a perfect example of how confusing communicating can be. I was asked to do the same job, but how I conveyed my solutions had to be totally different!

So how do we talk to each other so we are actually communicating? Clearly there isn’t just one way to do it.

After a lot of communication failures (ask my children, husband, and ex-husband) and a great deal of contemplation, I’ve decided that there are four essential ingredients to clear communication:

  1. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying.
  2. Observe the body language of the person you are talking to for clues about how they’re feeling—their emotions.
  3. Ask a lot of questions. It is the only way you can understand why they think the way they do.
  4. Never assume you already know.

Another important point we need to remember is that being dogmatic or a bully will never convince anyone of anything. The only thing that achieves is to alienate us all.

Finally, I really believe that the only way to stop this pandemic of miscommunication and unwillingness to try is to understand that communication doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other. What we have to do is begin to understand each other.


What about you?

I'd love to know your thoughts.


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3 Responses

Maureen Bergan
Maureen Bergan

April 01, 2019

Adeline, this was spot on!! Lets keep the dialogue going !!

Adeline Olmer
Adeline Olmer

March 29, 2019

It’s amazing isn’t it, how finding the right way to communicate can make all the difference.
Writing this piece was really powerful for me. I kept thinking of all the times I communicated the wrong way with my family and couldn’t help smiling because suddenly it seemed it was so clear. Oh well better late than never!


March 29, 2019

OMG this is so good! I totally agree about the men v. women and the different ways we make decisions. After reading this, it’s hilarious to think about the way I present ideas for family outings to my husband, I present TOO MANY of them and het gets panicky. I learned a valuable lesson today. Thanks, Adeline!

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