Both Sides of the Story

We’ve all heard it a thousand times before, “There are always two sides to every story.” For those of us in leadership we know that there are usually more than two sides.

Two Thumbs, One Up and One Down - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #3657557

Photo courtesy of ©

The problem is that most of us (me included) forget this in actual practice. Someone comes into our office and shares their tale of woe. We listen carefully, nodding our head in sympathy. We are surprised by how our colleague was treated. We may even become angry. Their response to the situation appears perfectly reasonable. Then, without further reflection, we take some action that we later regret.

Sadly, I have done this on more than one occasion, only to discover some missing fact that my colleague has conveniently omitted.

Several years ago, one of our publishers dropped by to complain about a particular author. Supposedly, the author was demanding that we run ads in major magazines and hire a specific New York publicity firm. According to the publisher, the author’s expectations were completely unreasonable, given the fact that this was his first book.

After hearing the story, I agreed with the publisher. “You’re right,” I said. “This is nuts. Who does he think he is?” I encouraged the publisher to stick to his guns.

A few weeks passed. I then got a long letter from the author, complaining about the publisher. He said, “I have never asked for anything I wasn’t promised. I discussed these matters with your people before I agreed to publish my book with your company. All I am asking is that you do what you said you were going to do.”

Oops, I thought. Maybe there’s more to this story than I thought.

Sure enough, when I confronted the publisher, he admitted that he had, in fact, discussed these items with the author. However, he insisted that he had stopped short of promising these specific items. His defense was that he hadn’t committed in writing to deliver these items; therefore, he wasn’t obligated to fulfill them.

I finally got the publisher and the author in the same room and discovered that the truth was somewhere in the middle. We eventually reached a compromise and saved the relationship, but it could have been so much easier if I had sought out both sides of the story from the beginning.

Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.” As leaders, we cannot afford to come to a conclusion after hearing just one side of the story. We have to get the other side as well.

Here are a few practical things we can do to make sure we act with a full set of facts:

  1. Remind yourself that you are only hearing one perspective. Reality and one person’s perspective on reality are two different things. Two people can observe the exact same incident and leave with widely divergent perspectives on what happened. At best, you are getting one person’s point-of-view.
  2. Remain emotionally detached. I know this is difficult. By nature, I am an empathetic person. But you have to make sure your emotions don’t get ahead of the facts. You can acknowledge how the other person feels without agreeing that those feelings are worthy of some action on your part.
  3. Refuse to take immediate action. Frankly, this is where I get into trouble. I am such an “activator” that I want to fix the problem now. But you must buy yourself time to collect other perspectives. Thank the other person for coming and promise to get back to them promptly. But do not promise specific action based on what you have heard so far. You don’t know enough yet to act.
  4. Review the facts of the situation. Do your homework. Read the documents. Interview other people. Seek out alternative viewpoints. Many problems resolve themselves once you get all the facts in-hand.
  5. Respond promptly with your findings. Once you have the facts in-hand, take the appropriate action.

By getting both sides of the story early, you can avoid taking inappropriate action or further complicating the situation. This is easier to acknowledge than to do, but it is one we must recommit ourselves to if we are to lead ourselves and our organizations well.

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