Even in retrospect it seems bizarre.
I posted an article on the web site a few years ago entitled "Will the dog eat the dog food." I wrote the article to talk about new business development. I came to the dog and dog food reference from a conversation I'd had many years ago when I was in the process of developing a web based portal for connecting primary care physicians and other providers with each other, payors and their patients. I was being challenged by someone who questioned whether my idea was one the market would buy.
And, in his words, while this might be a great idea, what makes you think the dog will eat the dog food? In other words, will it sell?
A pretty obvious and clear metaphor, or so I thought.
Not so much.
When I posted the article we were engaged in a long term management agreement that involved developing and operating a rehabilitation services company and the article referenced our strategic approach to operating any entity as well as many of the successes we had in operating the rehab firm. At the time, the relationship with the rehab firm's ownership was contentious - as frankly it had been for quite some time. The contentious nature of the relationship was one of the motivations for initiating the new business development activity.
After posting the article I had a number of meetings with the owner of the rehab firm. He never questioned me about the article.
Fast forward several months and as we prepared for a mediation session that would culiminate in an agreement to terminate the relationship, we received a demand from the rehab firm's attorneys that we remove the "Dog and Dog Food" article from our website. Apparently, they thought we were referring to them as the dog.
I'm a bit, but only a bit, embarassed to say my initial reaction was laughter accompanied in my mind by Carly Simon singing "You're So Vain."
I re-read the article. Still couldn't see it. I had others read the article and asked if they saw it. None did. Had my attorneys read the article. They didn't see it. The mediator read the article. He didn't see it.
I reflected back on the meetings I'd had with the owner since the article was posted. Because of the contentious nature of the relationship I had long since established that I would only meet with him one on one - and only with him. To do otherwise invited posturing in front of staff and I hoped that the one on ones could lead to honest, productive dialogue. During one meeting we devolved into a conversation about our kids. Several of his were involved in his company and he was rightfully proud of that fact. I commented that my son owned his own firm and was involved in my company's web development. I recall clearly that he perked up and had an inordinate amount of interest in that subject. He even asked if I could send him info on my son's company. There was something in his request that told me not to do so.
At that moment he could have, and should have, asked about the article.
And while the relationship likely was beyond repair by that time at least that one misunderstanding could have been resolved.
I take two lessons from this scenario.
First, a reminder that nothing is more imperfect or challenging than communication among humans.
And second, take care to understand and control for your bias when interpreting any communication. If you view everything through the lens of your bias your vision will be clouded.