I spent all day Saturday doing landscaping work with my cohousing neighbors.

I actually don’t like gardening all that much. I have very little experience or knowledge, having lived all my adult life in trailers, apartments, and condos. But the foliage was threatening to take over and so the troops were assembled and armed with implements of plant destruction.

While practicing my pruning skills, I also got to practice communication skills.

Kate was the head honcho for the day’s work. As she detailed all the tasks that needed to be done and sent crews to different areas, I piped up. “Kate, I don’t really know very much about this stuff. I need you to give me extremely simple and detailed instructions and show me exactly where and what to do. Explain it to me like I’m four years old, don’t assume I know what anything is.” She laughed and started in with instructions about pruning that were still a little over my head. I persisted in asking for simpler instructions and she patiently dumbed them down for me, grabbing the clippers and demonstrating, until I felt confident that I knew what I was supposed to do.

On some previous projects, other folks had given me vague directions and sent me off, only to rant at me later when I’d done something they found inexplicable, like pulling the flowers instead of the weeds. (How was I supposed to know? I pulled the ugly ones and left the pretty ones.)

It seems to be human nature to assume that others know what we know and will do things the way we would do them. Thus we neglect to communicate our expectations clearly, and are disgruntled when they aren’t met. When we’re asked to do a task, we do it according to our own standards and neglect to ask the delegator how they want it done. If we’re not sure how to do it, we may be reluctant to ask because we don’t want to appear stupid.  As Kate said, “I kinda assume that everyone knows how to do these things.” She was patient with my questions and didn’t treat me as though I was an idiot.

It is my firm believe that this is the root of most of our conflicts, whether at home or at work: a lack of clarity and specificity in communicating our expectations and desires.  It just doesn’t work to assume others can read our minds, or that they “should” know what we want. We need to simplify our communications, use verbs and concrete examples, so that we can understand each other.  One woman’s flowers are another one’s weeds.