Collision Course

So often it seems we don’t see conflict coming in our lives and businesses until it’s right on top of us. “Where did that come from?!” Why didn’t we see it coming?

My father was a destroyer sailor and skipper. He conned his ship in formation among many others in a task force, often including much larger ones like cruisers and aircraft carriers. Each ship had to maintain a lookout for the others to stay in position and avoid collisions. He taught me how he learned to see the changes in relative movements among them all. If you don’t get on the water in a boat, try it when you’re on the highway in your car:

  • If you see another ship and it is changing its position (“bearing”) relative to yours, you are not on a collision course with it.
  • If it is not changing its relative position, and it’s not moving away from you, it is either on a parallel course or a collision course.
  • If it stays the same size, it’s on a parallel course.
  • If it is getting larger, it’s on an collision course.

It’s a great metaphor for why we sometimes don’t see conflict coming.

For maybe years we’ve been sailing along just fine with all the other ships in our lives steaming along beside us, all together in our parallel courses. For so long we hadn’t changed our relative positions with each other.

Then something happened.

Somewhere there was a small change. It wasn’t much: a slight course correction, a slight shift of a rudder, a gust of wind, a change in the swells, an increase in engine speed. We didn’t notice that the other ship had been growing larger and larger. It happened so slowly. It didn’t look like it was moving from the parallel courses we had held for so long.

We didn’t see we had been on collision courses until we were almost on top of each other.

We take evasive action to avoid a collision. We shout orders: “Right full rudder – full speed!” The boilers rumble, engines thunder, shaft-revolutions shake the ship from stem to stern. Black smoke billows from the stacks, the ship heels, white water cascades over the bow. Pulses race.

Now our conflict is engaged.

Almost any small thing can cause people who were once perfectly aligned to get off course even just a bit. For so long we were together on parallel courses. Then, at the last minute, we see we have actually been on a collision course for some time. And we didn’t see it coming.

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