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August 12, 2019

Walk Toward the Barking Dog

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My next-door neighbor has been building a pool. Now, I like my neighbor and this is certainly not a National Lampoon’s sort of neighbor situation. But the building of the pool is an absolute mess.

I live in a residential neighborhood, the first house on the right once you hit the cul-de-sac, and his house is the one just past mine. Because of the way the street is set up, the contractor who is building the pool basically had to build a gravel road from the cul-de-sac into their backyard. This gravel road is where the dump trucks and pick-up trucks and trailers and all the supplies go in and out.

Trust me. This is going somewhere.

A couple months ago, as spring was picking up, I planned a Saturday to do some yard work. It probably seems a bit silly to have good-looking hydrangeas about twenty feet from a mud pit, but I was determined.

I got out there that Saturday morning, and the guys next door were working like gangbusters. It was maybe the biggest crew they’d had the whole time. There were bulldozers, rock crews, water feature reconstruction, the whole deal. You would have thought by all of the activity that a new White Water theme park was being built here in our little cul-de-sac.

Mr. Bobcat

In the midst of this army of ants, a very intense guy is driving a Bobcat, one of those small front-end loaders. He drives into the backyard, fills up with dirt and rocks and forgotten materials, and drives back out to deposit stuff into a temporary revolving dump truck station. Then he heads back into the backyard. He does this over and over again.

Again, I promise. This is going somewhere.

As this is going on, and I’m trimming hedges, laying mulch and planting a few flowers, I see, out of the corner of my eye, the Bobcat coming out of the backyard yet again. But this time the guy drives straight over toward me, stops, turns off the engine and jumps out.

“Tell me what I did wrong,” he firmly declares.

I’m caught off guard. “Nothing that I know of.”

“You sure? I’ve got the Bobcat here and we’re knocking out some of the last stuff, so if I did something wrong, I want to fix it now.”

I loved it.  And not just because he hadn’t actually messed up my yard at all.

Clearly, this wasn’t his first project. He’d done enough work to know one of the great truths of residential construction—“The neighbor’s always going to be mad.”

And maybe because of his inner character or maybe because he’s learned it’s better to just go ahead and deal with it right away, he took the initiative to come over and risk a confrontation.

I call this principle, “Walk toward the barking dog,” and it applies in almost every relationship. I first learned this from a mentor thirty years ago.

At work, avoiding conflict, among other things, leads to the inability to advance new ideas—which always include changing current strategies—and wasted time because items aren’t properly prioritized and delegated. The answer, of course, is not to seek out conflict at every turn but to have a willingness to enter into hard conversations, and then the ability to know when to do that and when to step back.

Barking Dogs Everywhere

What dogs are barking at work, either from customers, co-workers, or subordinates? In the coming months, how can you best walk toward them? Should you do it by yourself or bring others along with you? Have you been in denial or avoidance of something that is screaming to be addressed?

In personal relationships, walking toward the barking dog brings growth from those who know us well. I’ll sometimes send out an email before a family vacation or a team meeting to say, “Hey, think about __________ before vacation or our upcoming meeting.” It’s not that I want to bring conflict (and a lot of my topics don’t). I just want to bring intentionality, whether or not it brings tension.

What dogs are barking in your personal relationships? How can you enter with grace and intentionality into those conversations? How can you do it in such a way that you’re not picking a fight or simply trying to prove your point, but to deepen the relationship?

Susan Scott, in her book Fierce Conversations wrote, “There is something within us that responds deeply when people level with us.” She also writes, “A problem named is a problem solved.”

That’s what this contractor knew. Maybe it was because he was naturally a challenger (an 8) on the Enneagram personality test. Maybe it was because his boss had trained him. Or maybe it was because he’d learned it from experience.

Whatever the reason, he wanted me to level with him. He walked over to see what the problem was. He walked toward the barking dog.

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