A Delicate But Necessary Task of Opening Pandora's Box
As head of an organization, this happens all the time. Somebody comes up to me really upset and says so-and-so said such-and-such. I respond by saying, "That's terrible. How could they say such a thing! What did you tell them? What did you say?" The response is always the same: "Oh, I didn't say anything."
"You didn't say anything?" I exclaim. "How could you just let that pass? Why didn't you say something?" Again the response is standard: "Oh, I just didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to say it. And besides, I was afraid they'd get mad. I didn't want to rock the boat. Who knows where it could have led?"
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Time to open Pandora's Box!
The only person they won't talk to about it, is the only person they should talk to about it. Admittedly, we don't know where saying something might lead. We don't know how they will respond. But that is life. Just because we don't know what's around the corner doesn't mean we never walk around one. It is time to have a little faith in ourselves.
Human beings are resourceful, creative and flexible individuals. So, we have to start the process by saying something -- by opening Pandora's Box. Once we've done that, there's no putting the evil back in the box. But it's a good thing. It needs to be addressed. In order to address it, we must bring it to the light of day.
Once we've opened Pandora's Box and initiated the conversation, there is no turning back. But it's not a time to panic. It's a time to stay steady within ourselves and know there will be a way of working through this for the better. We just have to look for it. It may not mean resolving the situation in one conversation. But, at least for now, the cards are face up on the table and people can start dealing with it openly. It's not always easy, but it's necessary.
Recently, I found myself in this sort of situation. A business associate was feeling a strong resistance to moving forward with a particular deal. It was pushing all his buttons, causing him to feel mistrust, fear, anxiety and resentment. His resistance put the entire deal and everyone involved into a stalemate. I knew the situation was incredibly delicate, but I also knew something had to be said. So I sat down with him and brought up the subject. "You know, we have an opportunity here to make some real progress. But people can't move forward without your cooperation."
Pandora's Box had been opened. That's all it took. He just started talking. It was as if a flood of emotions poured out of him for what felt like 15 minutes nonstop. He went on and on about this and that in a disconnected, random, circular and discombobulated monologue. I didn't say a thing until he finally stopped talking.
I responded by saying, "Well, there's a lot I'd like to say about this. But it doesn't really feel like now is the time. I think we should both just sit with it and maybe talk about it later today or tomorrow."
Interestingly enough, he was in full agreement. All he wanted to do in that moment was get out of the room. This was perfect. We had opened Pandora's Box, and it was going to take time to unravel the seething torrent of emotions.
Now I'd like to be able to tell you the next day, we got together, talked it out, worked together, and moved forward. But I can't tell you that because I don't know yet. The next conversation still hasn't happened. This is a process that requires patience, steadiness, understanding and a willingness to adjust to what comes every step of the way. Opening Pandora's Box is as delicate as it is necessary.
In my career, I've opened Pandora's Box many, many times. Each time, it's a unique experience. Every time you open it, you learn something from the experience and get better at the process. The tendency is to keep the box closed. But that's dysfunctional and counterproductive. Hidden little secrets, judgments and resentments eat away at the very foundation of a business. The key is to open the box. There's never a perfect time. You just have to do it. Be as gentle, respectful and tactful as you can. But do it. It's the only way to move things forward and keep them flowing in a positive direction.