Unthinking Power and Authority

by Peter Zaballos

This past week my wife and I moved our youngest of four children to college – totally fun and a momentous occasion for the three of us, and the family as a whole. And it was an awkward, even painful learning moment for me in how easy it is for men to assume positional authority and ignore better input from women.

Image result for not being listened to

In this case, we were moving our son into a college outside New York, and wisely chose to fly there instead of doing the 14+ hour drive (which we have done one too many times with one of his older brothers and older sister). We landed at JFK and I picked up a rental car and headed to campus. I grew up in California and am definitely a product of that state’s car culture – I don’t mind driving at all, I kind of like it. And having spent 10 years living in Boston, I also have gotten completely comfortable in driving amidst the aggressive chaos that is northeast urban auto jostling.

I now travel with a phone case that plugs into the dashboard, so am good about getting our coordinates in Google and letting that take the load of getting us from starting point to destination. Early on Google had a disclaimer on their directions that said something like “do a reality check before following these instructions” and that is precisely where I ran afoul of getting us from where we started to where we needed to go.

My wife on the other hand is confidently old school. When we travel the first thing she grabs is a printed map. She is as awesome at orienting herself with a map as she is adept at using it to explore and get to the destination. We’ve taken some wonderful vacations where her annotated and highlighted paper map of where we went and what we explored is such a rich record of time well spent.

What made this drop off at college different from the other three is that my wife and son had been to the campus earlier in the year and spent a fair amount of time exploring it and getting to know it. And there was me with Google and at the wheel of the car striving to get us to where we needed to go from Google’s perspective. And that’s where the humbling learning moment for me started to take its slow motion trajectory.

As we got closer to the campus I was following Google and my wife was following her experience and astute sense of memory and direction. As we got to the campus I was trying to find what Google was telling me to look for, and my wife was telling me what she knew from experience and her sense of direction. I effectively ignored her until it was too late. And I can try and explain why “ignore” was not really ignore, but this is where it doesn’t matter what I feel or think, but what she does, because she is on the receiving end.

The analogy I will use here is as spot-on as it is uncomfortable. If a woman feels she has been harassed, it really doesn’t matter what the harasser feels or how they interpret the circumstances. The sole “owner” of that perspective is the one on the receiving end.

But what ended up happening was a fairly tense exchange that shut us both down in the moment. Her lingering frustration later caused her to have to speak up and effectively justify why she should have been listened to and considered. And me trying to justify my behavior around being focused on getting to the “destination.” – which in hindsight is ridiculous.

From her perspective she was put in the position of (a) having better information and (b) having her better information ignored and dismissed. Sound familiar women?

But at the time I had both position (I was the driver) and authority (google maps) – and we were conditioned that when we drove places it was my position and authority that made the final decisions. Nothing malicious here, but over time, it put me in the position of being the decider. And in this case, I sure was deciding. And my wife was sure feeling not listened to or considered.

At the time neither of us realized any of this. We both just shut down and simmered. Until we found the right parking lot, and our attention conveniently shifted to this wonderful day and our son’s new adventure at college. We avoided the fact that if I had been listening to her we would have been where we were supposed to be sooner, with less stress, and more focus on our son’s first day at college – which for she, me, and him was such a wonderful, wonderful moment to savor.

It wasn’t until much later that night, after we had flown back home and were on our way (with me driving) from the airport to our house. It was then my wife brought up the whole experience. And it was through the process of unpacking the issue that we both reached a point where we able to focus on how each of us felt, which is where the real conversation happened.

We talked about how we became conditioned to me being the driver over time and that there were a few ways to address this. One might be her driving more when we are together, especially when she knows the terrain more. Which is a good alternative, but to me feels a bit “brute force.” Switching the position and the authority. To me the real solution is creating the conditions where I listened to hear and she could feel heard. That’s the harder solution.

I take women’s equality seriously. Yet here I was, repeating a pattern of male behavior and causing my wife to repeat a pattern of feeling ignored or dismissed. It was pretty easy to respond so unthinkingly – isn’t that the opposite of thoughtfully?

And it made me consider how hard it is to create the conditions where these kind of conversations can take place. In most workplaces women don’t get that safe place to share their thoughts like this and be vulnerable. They just learn to deal with being dismissed and not heard. We have to be able to do better than this.

Because in those moments, the focus needs to be on how to get to the destination as efficiently as we can – whether a marketing campaign or an algorithm – and savor the moment of why we are all together, working on a common goal.

 

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One Response to “Unthinking Power and Authority”

  1. Duane Says:

    Nicely thought out, my friend.

    Like

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