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Remember, there are two sides to every story

  • Published
  • By Col. Barry Roeper
  • 6th Maintenance Group commander
How many times have you seen supervisors, upon hearing a story from one of their troops about some misdeed, go charging into the offender's office with sword drawn ready to do battle, only to find out they didn't have the full story and completely misjudged the situation? Embarrassing, isn't it? In fact, it happens far too frequently. Perhaps even you've been guilty of doing it yourself. I know I have.

It's an important lesson all leaders (and parents) learn when dealing with clashes between people. It's the age-old adage, "There are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in between." Now let's be clear about one thing: When we say the truth lies somewhere in between, we're not implying that somebody is lying. In all probability, they're both telling the truth. The problem is, "truth" quite often is not as concrete as we think it is. What is truth?

A statement is said to be "true" if it's in accord with fact or reality. However, what is true and what is a falsehood is based on personal perception. There are movies I find fascinating, that my daughter finds boring. My father thinks Brussels sprouts are delicious; I think they taste awful. Even though we're saying the opposite thing, we're both telling the truth, from our individual perspective. According to Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician who became an American philosopher, "There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil." Half-truths can be deceptive, because they may lead to a false conclusion, which can lead to a situation like the one described in the opening paragraph. The more half-truths you collect, the closer to the whole truth you can get.

So how do you get an accurate picture of what really transpired? You must listen to all sides of the story with an open mind. Moreover, you must try to see the situation from the teller's point of view. Often, folks working in agencies outside your own are operating under policies and restrictions you are not aware of. You need to recognize that if you want to understand their perspective.

Furthermore, the situation may have second and third order effects that you're unaware of because you're unfamiliar with the environment they're working in. What may seem simple to you may be much more complicated to someone else, and your lack of understanding could cause some unintended consequences. The only way to find out these things is to have a calm, mature conversation with leaders from that organization. Face-to-face is best; by phone is still better than email. Email is too impersonal, and when you're dealing with people, it's always personal.

Equally important to listening to their point of view is relating your perspective and point of view to the 'alleged' offending party. Again, this is best done through a calm, mature conversation. If you start out actively listening to their point of view, show you have an open mind and are empathetic to their concerns, they will be far more receptive to your point of view. This is how real communication takes place.

Once both sides have had open and frank dialogs over what took place and understand each other's concerns, more often than not the resolution to the problem will happen naturally and easily. Best of all, no one gets bloody.

So the next time one of your troops rushes in with a problem that gets your blood pressure skyrocketing, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself, and then start finding out the rest of the story before charging into battle. It's the best way to prevent impaling yourself with your own sword.