Archive for January, 2014

The affair between the French waiter and Ms. Communication

Posted January 26th, 2014 by The Steve Alexander Group

We thought we had been completely clear on our dinner order. Then everything quickly tumbled out of control, with tempers flaring and a rush headlong into the ‘right/wrong’ paradigm I teach about in my coaching and teambuilding training. “Okay, here it comes,” I thought to myself, as others around the table seemed to grasp for help.

The story.

We started out for our last dinner with the team I was training in Florida. I’ve been working with them for over a dozen years, so lots of history and warm camaraderie around the big round table. We asked, given it was an unusually nice French restaurant in seemingly the middle-of-nowhere, if anyone wanted or had ever tasted escargot. With mixed replies, some willing to try, some salivating and others with a nonverbal cue to keep it far from their plate, we asked the delightful French waiter – a short, squat, grey-haired 70-plus year-old gentleman who spoke his English with a great French accent – right out of central casting, if we might have enough escargot to share among nine of us. He wrote it down and disappeared into the kitchen.

The wine was selected, conversation deepened, time passed and out came the owner of the restaurant with nine separate servings of a half-dozen escargot in each dish!

Eyes widened around the table (no one of the decliners lurched for the restroom, however you could see it in their faces) and the nonverbal responses entered into a din of dialogue that quickly turned to finger-pointing!

“Who ordered all this escargot?” “I didn’t want any.” “We can’t eat all this!” The noise level rapidly shot up. And, of course, the level of ‘listening’ went down right along with the comprehension. After a brief point, everyone turned to me and begged, “Steve, you’re our facilitator, please fix this!”

I turned to the owner and said, “There’s been a misunderstanding. We wanted enough escargot to share among nine of us, not separate servings of nine each.” To which he replied, “No, you did not.”

Our journey begins.

I suggested, due to the miscommunication, how about he leave us with four or five of the servings, to which our delightful French waiter replied something along the lines of “You are wrong! You absolutely ordered nine servings.” (My command of French is slight; my study and reading of human body language allows me to conclude there are certain universal ‘words’ that are clear no matter the spoken word!)

He pointed to his pad and with great emotion told us we CLEARLY ordered nine servings of escargot.

At least the point of this post should be clear by now. How quickly communication can be confused, how miscommunication can arise. And how quickly we jump to that ‘right/wrong’ paradigm (if I am right, you must be wrong, and vice versa).

Of course, once the dialogue (shouting, pleading, etc.) settled down, and the Frenchman came over to me and confided how difficult it was to work for the owner, who was often quick to allow his temper to rise, and how much trouble he was in, I assured him we would do all possible to help.

After time passed and temperatures cooled, and the main courses were delivered and deemed with perfection, I called over the waiter and announced that we’d had the best service of any of our experiences while gathered in this little corner of the world, and felt a part of our Frenchman’s family. Our group gave him a loud, heartfelt round of applause, to which everyone in the restaurant turned to see what was happening. We thanked him profusely for his patience with our language, and left him with a warmth and gratitude that was as important to us as it was to him.

I brought him close and whispered to him that I would talk to the owner and explain as well.

When the owner came by at the end of the meal to ask how it was, we told him, out of everywhere we’d been (the irony being we had other dinner plans and only selected his because the place we were going didn’t seem suitable), this was truly the best, and what made it so was our delightful, personable, engaging and dedicated waiter, who, in spite of the miscommunication, OUR miscommunication, made our evening the most memorable of all.

Ms. Communication actually turned into a great hostess who gave each of us – team members, waiter and owner – a glimpse into our own ability to unwittingly make communication blunders. It became a positive experience in how, instead of seeking blame, fault or cause, we may instead focus on the desired outcomes and the purpose of our communication. We even perceived the broader context of why and how we were gathered together and the potential to learn from one another and our circumstances.

When we move to cause and blame, we too often lose sight of the bigger picture. And everyone goes away a loser. With a less-than-positive experience and a ‘having-missed-something’ outcome.

Our French waiter became our teacher. We, part of the classroom that now extended from the retreat center to our evening dinner. Each of us was in some way affected, appreciative and better for it.

What’s happened in your life recently where Ms. Communication has visited? Where are the opportunities, in both big and small ways, to take a breath, self-reflect and find your way, with others, to better understanding, patience, insight and growth?

We all have those ‘escargot’ moments in our lives. Keep searching for how you can better approach the moment so the outcome leaves everyone satisfied, even enriched for having been a part of the experience.


P.S. If you’re curious about how we actually resolved the escargot quandary, let us know!

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