Fights about the dishes

Dear Willow:

I am happy to report that quarantine is mostly going well at Wayne Manor—my apartment is on Wayne Avenue and we live in the penthouse (read “third floor”). There is an ongoing argument whether my flatmate is Alfred or if it’s me. Notice that neither of us is fighting to be Batman.

Speaking of my flatmate, I’m going to call her Noelle, to protect the innocent.

If I’m being honest, I hadn’t given much thought to what I would expect out of a global pandemic, beyond the catastrophic—untended bodies everywhere, food riots, rogue militia groups, whether I’m a good enough archer to defend myself. How I will make my way to Dallas, where my friend Danielle has become a kind of self-sufficient, urban pioneer.

But of all things I didn’t expect from a global pandemic, here’s what’s occupying the #1 spot.

Treaty negotiations.

The other morning at 7:30, Noelle and I convened at our kitchen island, where all important discussions take place. Four days earlier I had, admittedly, launched a surprise attack at dawn over the state of the house. With two busy, clutter-prone people suddenly working from home all day every day, and no change to our habits, things had come to a head.

As you’ve seen from the state of my desk in our office, I am very comfortable with a certain amount of clutter, and so is Noelle. But now it seemed like there were papers everywhere, and extra monitors, and mousepads, and headphones, and laundry, and more dishes than two people could possibly use, and how was there a kernel of popcorn on the floor AGAIN?

Maybe you’re experiencing something similar in your own homes?

So, the other day, we met at dawn to negotiate the terms of our living arrangement going forward.


Part One: Determine a Plan of Action

Agreed: For the sake of our sanity and to maintain good relations, the house must be tidier.

Proposal: The common spaces should be kept in good order at all times.

Queries and Discussion: What does that look like for you? What is the standard for tidy? Is there a difference in the standard between “tidy” and “clean”?

Proposal: We can each have an 8.5×11” space on either a) the kitchen island or b) the dining room table to keep some papers or other items we’ll be needing in the immediate future for our work.

Response: All or nothing. Those kinds of paths are slippery slopes. A Letter-sized space becomes Legal-sized in two days, becomes Ledger-sized in a week, and then we’re back to madness.

New Proposal: All personal items out of common spaces, all dishes done and put away before retiring at night.

Response: Both of us strongly prefer doing chores in the morning, not when we’re already sleepy and ready for bed.

Counter-proposal: All personal items out of common spaces prior to 9 a.m. each morning.

Agreed, and the treaty was signed.


Part Two: Enforcement

Noelle proposed a chore chart with stickers, because she responds incredibly strongly to positive reinforcement and gamification.

I do not.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate positive reinforcement, and—like almost everyone—I do better, more consistent work when I’m receiving it regularly. But it’s not a motivator for me when faced with a task I’m not excited about or interested in (e.g., housework). I respond to ritual, and, in a very real sense, to honoring the space and Noelle through my actions. The other side of that emotional coin is more people-pleasing: “She is like a sister, and letting her down will hurt me.”

So, here’s the rub.

When one of you is Achievement-motivated and the other is Affiliation-motivated, how on earth do you create a common enforcement system? Especially when cultural and familial backgrounds suggest that the other system is kind of…wrong-ish? Suddenly, enforcement seemed like a breeding ground for viral resentment. (See also: Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture.)

Eventually, we came to the agreement that we would positively reinforce through verbal appreciation throughout the week. Then, before our usual Sunday dinner, we would celebrate our successes in a detailed toast. And also discuss any tweaks that need to be made.

It was a good, mature, reasonable plan, that takes into account our separate personalities and our distinct motivation styles.


Part Three: Monitor Results

It’s only been a few days, but so far, so good. The house is in good order, and everyone is happier and less anxious (read: “crabby”).

Of course, this probably doesn’t surprise you. You all already know the power of harnessing culture and motivation to improve situations, because this is the work we do all the time. We may call them “drivers and barriers,” but in the end, it comes down to finding solutions by clearly identifying motivations, preferences, turn-offs.

But I had never really thought to apply these same concepts to my personal interactions, at least, not this clearly.

If I translate my recent living situation into the language we use on the daily, what happened between Noelle and I was, in a certain sense, less a treaty negotiation and more our own miniature research project:

  1. We met with the stakeholders (ourselves) to determine the current situation and our organization’s unmet needs and objectives.
  2. We conducted a guided deliberation that revealed:
    • Emotional drivers and barriers to action
    • Strategies for engagement
    • Communication and messaging preferences
  3. We held a work session to assimilate the research findings and create an action plan.

I have to say, the ROI on the research project here at Wayne Manor has been immediate and tremendous. The stakeholders are impressed by the process and delighted with the results, and we look forward to continued success.


Cheers to you all, with a hope that your own situations (and negotiations) are happy and healthy—both physically and emotionally,


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