THE BLOG

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

06/22/2015 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Recently, my wife and I used the drive-thru window at our local bank. I love the drive-thru because sometimes, I'm just too lazy to go inside. With the drive-thru, I don't have to move from my seat and can do all of my banking transactions through that little drawer under the window.

Isn't it amazing how many lazy inventions we've developed over the years? We have moving sidewalks, remote controls, and even clap-off lights. The one that tickles me the most is the Lazy Susan turntable. It sits in the middle of the table and rotates so that we don't have to exert our arms an extra six inches to pick up the mashed potatoes.

But I digress.

As I rolled down my window to pass my deposit to the teller, I heard a harsh vibrating sound outside. If you're like me, you are accustomed to the normal sounds that your car makes. When you hear an odd or new sound, you know that it's not normal.

I put my car in neutral thinking that the vibration might be related to the car being in gear. This, by the way, is the kind of mechanical knowledge one gets with a undergraduate degree in psychology. The vibrating sound immediately stopped. I then put the car back in gear and the vibrating sound returned. True to my training in Pavlovian responses, I repeated the sequence several times as I replicated these significant research results:

Car in gear = vibrating sound
Car in neutral = no vibrating sound

I began to salivate... at the thought of buying a new car.

You see, my Honda Pilot is 10 years old but it looks great and runs great. I have no reason to buy a new car except that my car is old and I know it won't last forever. But this new vibrating sound may be my car's version of the death rattles.

I began to wonder if my car would even make it back home that day. Would I need a tow? And how would I sell a car with a harsh vibrating sound like this one? I needed to be certain that my car was dying before I started looking at new cars online.

I repeated my diagnostic test once more and then looked at my wife. She has an undergraduate engineering degree but it was in computer science, not mechanical engineering. So, I was not looking at her for a diagnosis but for an affirmation of the obvious declining health of my car.

"Do you hear that?" I asked.

She nodded.

Then she casually said, "I wonder if what you're hearing is the man working on that metal sign over there?"

I stopped my diagnostic tests and simultaneously, stopped salivating.

The vibrating sound started again and then stopped. But my car was in neutral the whole time.

Oh.

Apparently, when someone uses a saw to cut metal, it sounds exactly like a 10-year-old car dying... at least in my limited experience as a paramechanic.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever been absolutely certain of something only to find out that it was something else altogether? I suspect it happens more regularly than we'd like to admit. And the worst times to experience these certain uncertainties are when they relate to the words and actions of others.

For instance...

... out of simple curiosity, our spouse or partner asks us why we were late getting home and we're sure that he or she doesn't trust us.

... the cashier at the grocery store says we owe more than we expect and we're sure she is wrong even though we really just misread the label on the shelf.

... our boss allows a coworker to take some additional time off due to a confidential family crisis and we're sure the boss is just being preferential.

These are the "vibrating sounds" of life and we often misdiagnose them. Sometimes, our misdiagnosis is due to our own experiences or prejudices. Other times it's simply because we aren't skilled in analyzing the situation correctly. In other words, we never got adequate training in life mechanics.

The book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson is a wonderful resource to help us realize that human interactions can be difficult and that we can often misread the process unless we are willing to get our hands dirty and break down the communication machine.

The most critical step is listening -- not just listening to the words but to the story behind the words. The backstory is where we learn about other people so we truly understand where they are coming from.

When I heard a vibrating sound in my car that day, I only had one piece of the story -- the sound. Once I listened to my wife and paid closer attention to all the clues around me, I was able to understand the whole story.

Things in life are not always what they seem to be. People are not always how they seem to be. And it's usually a great relief to find out that our situation doesn't require a complete overhaul after all. Instead, often, we just need to listen a bit more carefully.