Tuesday 1 July 2014

Q31: What can Marie Antoinette teach us about communication?

According to the popular story of Marie Antoinette, the Parisian mob was thronging at the palace gates demanding bread when the French queen appeared in the royal balcony and, with a wave of her delicately gloved hand, declared, 'Let them eat cake!' 
The starving peasants, intent upon survival not pleasure, did not take kindly to the charming comment - and promptly cut off her head.[1]

Making suggestions which don't match other people's needs can be so risky that I've given it a name: the Marie Antoinette Syndrome ...

[1] The story is apocryphal. The popular myth apparently conflates one of several bread-shortages prior to the French Revolution with the revolution itself; and the comment was almost certainly invented (or recycled) by revolutionary polemicists and others using a phrase earlier coined (or invented) by Rousseau. 

Marie Antoinette's story ...
As a small child, I struggled to understand the peasants. I myself preferred cake to the mandatory wholemeal bread my father gave us. But like poor Marie Antoinette herself, I was failing to grasp the distinction between the means for healthy survival (brown bread) and the means for refined pleasure (cake). What the story tells us is how hard it is to say or do things which satisfy other people, because from our own point of view, it's hard to see where they're coming from. 

As Marie Antoinette discovered to her cost, if you assume you know what's motivating someone, and you get it wrong, they are quite likely to object. For the peasants, it wasn't just that the Queen's suggestion misfired, but the raw indignity of being so utterly misunderstood. Being seen for who we are, being understood, is a default need. If that goes missing, people easily feel hurt and upset and often flare up, angry and indignant.

So if you find somebody biting your head off (not chopping it off) it's worth pausing to ask:
  • 'Have I understood where they are coming from?'
You might feel a lot calmer on the end of their anger and indignation if you realise that their hot retorts are their survival mechanism kicking in, with a plea for understanding.

The peasants' story ...
On the other hand, we don't always make it easy for other people to know what we need. Presumably the peasants made it clear enough. But if all Marie Antoinette heard was a demand for bread (and not their need for survival), it made sense to her to offer something even more delicious. So if you find yourself growing rebellious on the end of somebody else's 'crass suggestions', it might be worth checking how clear you have been before you snap back, and bite their head off:
  • 'Have I shown you (clearly enough) where I am coming from?'

Help or information?
I was in a supermarket once when somebody's shopping trolley brushed my shin and nicked the skin.  
'Ouch!' I said mildly, and carried on choosing cucumbers. But a moment later, I happened to glance down only to see blood running in gory rivulets onto my shoes. Hailing a shop assistant, I asked him for some tissue.

'You'll find them over there,' he said, waving regally. But, by now, I was pretty messy, not to mention embarrassed, and his airy comment exasperated me. I wanted to make a cutting remark which would punish him for so 'stupidly' misunderstanding my needs:

'Can't you see I need HELP not INFORMATION!' I wanted to snap. But I thought of Marie Antoinette. Presumably he couldn't see. 

On another occasion, I was due for a minor operation. Discussing it with a surgeon a few weeks beforehand, I felt curious to see the operating theatre; fascinated really, as I'd never seen one before. Thinking it would help me prepare, I asked if I might pop my head around the door of the (empty) operating room as I left. But he refused point blank. Why?

'I don't want you to worry yourself'. I was speechless with indignation.

'Can't you see I want INFORMATION not HELP!'
I fumed inwardly. But failing in his powers of telepathy, he hadn't seen. And as he was shortly to operate on me, I contented myself with giving him a mental lecture on the Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

So while other people may mistake your motivations, it's equally true that if you don't tell them, it leaves a hole for them to fall inside. And if you aren't careful, you fall into it yourself.

You ignore a need at your peril
As the cautionary tale of Marie Antoinette suggests, misreading people's needs - and being misread yourself - can be a dangerous business. Needs are there because they call for attention. If you don't see them, somebody will suffer - and it may be you. You will doubtless escape the fate of Marie Antoinette, but you'll have to pay for it somehow. You'll discover (if you didn't know already) that you ignore a need at your peril. While you might forget a need, the need won't forget you!

EXERCISE: How to spot a need
The next time somebody makes a suggestion, try looking beyond the action. The action takes place in the outer world of Doing. Their needs relate to the inner world of Being.
  • Every action is an attempt to meet a deeper need, to fulfil a value, or to bring about a human quality.
For example: 
Suppose somebody asks you for bread.
'Let's have some toast!' they cry. Is this a wish for healthy sustenance, a prelude to a comforting snack, or a bid for pleasure? Health, comfort and pleasure are all human needs and qualities.

So before you reply (and especially before you dismiss the idea, telling them not to be so greedy), try to find out where they're coming from. You might disagree with their strategy, but you can never dismiss the need. You can only work out better strategies which may meet more needs still.

By Elizabeth English

No comments:

Post a Comment