It’s not often discussed the phenomenon of ingratitude, and yet it’s a common experience.
Every parent knows it intimately, and several of the leaders I interviewed last year spoke of the shock and bewilderment of experiencing it. Here were people giving everything they had to some cause – selling their assets, going without salaries, pouring in hour after hour of their time – only to have one or more people levy some accusation such as manipulation, dishonesty or hypocrisy against them. As they spoke, it was clear they were experiencing afresh the shock of having something quite foreign to their intention attributed to them.
The phenomenon of ingratitude is interesting because it shows us something about communication in general.
There’s a misunderstanding at play
When a person is on the end of some seriously disconcerting ingratitude, he will not like it, will be shocked. However, the scale of the gap between what he’s putting out there and what he’s getting back usually tells him something too.
It tells him, more easily than in some other situations of conflict, that there is a misunderstanding at play.
He can see the issue is over there with the other person.
What human beings fail to see is that this same mechanism – that the issue is over there with the other person – is at play in all conversations with all people.
Another way to say it is that human beings fail to see they and others are listening to people and situations using readymade listenings.
These readymade listenings are generally decided upon in the first contacts with the person or situation, and thereafter, they’re set in stone. So when one person is having a conversation with another person, what they are listening to is not the other person; they’re listening to their readymade listening of that person or situation.
In the case of the parent or a leader providing something extraordinary for their child or another person, and having ingratitude flung in their face, the child or other person literally cannot hear the action or the words. Instead, something about the situation or the leader has reactivated a readymade listening from the past, and the child or other person is listening to that.
It has little to do with what the parent or leader is saying or doing in the present, and may have nothing to do with the actual person. For example, a person may listen to a leader using the readymade listening he has of his father or mother or a friend he did or didn’t like in the past.
Putting the past back in the past
How can human beings get outside the readymade listenings? By putting the past back in the past via a major intervention. For me, the major intervention was doing the Landmark Forum; other people will have other ways. The intervention is not the end of it; it is the beginning.
But a beginning is precisely what is missing.
Image: by Cerise Doucede
Note: The paragraph titled, “There’s a misunderstanding at play”, was edited after publication. There was a misunderstanding at play in the original version.
* The title of this post is taken from an e-book written by a blogging colleague, Gregg Hake, who put his finger on this under-discussed phenomenon.