You Don't Say

Jim Gustafson

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Not too long ago, my wife and I went out to dinner. In the course of our conversation, we came to realize that we both would have preferred to eat at home that evening. In an effort to please each other, we did not express our true desires. Consequently, neither of us got what both of us really wanted. It was a classic trip to Abilene.

Dr. Jerry Harvey developed a parable of communication from a real life experience. He calls it the Abilene Paradox. Briefly stated, it goes like this:

Four adults are sitting on a porch in 104-degree heat in the small town of Coleman, Texas, some 53 miles from Abilene. They are engaging in as little motion as possible, drinking lemonade, watching the fan spin lazily. The characters are a married couple and the wife’s parents. At some point, the wife’s father suggests they drive to Abilene to eat at a cafeteria The son-in-law thinks this is a crazy idea but doesn’t see any need to upset the apple cart, so he goes along with it, as do the two women. They get in their un-air-conditioned Buick and drive through a dust storm to Abilene. They eat a mediocre lunch at the cafeteria and return to Coleman exhausted, hot, and generally unhappy with the experience. It is not until they return home that it is revealed that none of them really wanted to go to Abilene–they were just going along because they thought the others were eager to go. Naturally, everyone sees this miss in communication as someone else’s problem!

The story applies to all kinds of relationships, work, home, school, neighborhood, everywhere people are together and make decisions. How often do we “go to Abilene" because we don’t want to go against what we think is the majority opinion?

Conventional wisdom dictates that what we do say gets us in trouble. However, more often than not, it is what we do not say that leads to the most costly mistakes. Sharing our own reality, feelings, thoughts and beliefs can be risky business. It contains the potential for disagreements, conflict, and interpersonal strife. Yet, withholding our own truth from another person is only wading into the river of relationship.

Today is probably a good day to speak up…. .before you find yourself eating lunch in Abilene.


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