Find the Black Swan

“LEAVE ME ALONE!” And with that, she stormed up the stairs and slammed the door. We would not be leaving for the park on time. 

My grandpa always said, “It’s hell to get old.” It seems my 9-year old would agree.

My wife turned to me with a look that said, “Your turn,” and off I went to try and soothe the savage beast.

As I climbed the stairs, I quietly reviewed the lessons I learned from Chris Voss’s book Never Split the Difference. His previous work included rewriting the FBI’s handbook on negotiating with terrorists. I thought a few tips might come in handy. I reminded myself to…

  • Help her name those pesky emotions - to lower their intensity. 
  • Mirror her answers to elicit more details - “Your sister’s being annoying? Tell me more.”
  • Speak in a calm, warm tone of voice - to create a feeling of psychological safety.
  • Find the Black Swan - Find the thing that’s driving her behavior.

I waited, impatiently, for Adelaide to unlock the door. It creaked open as she dove back under the covers and started crying again. 

I will admit, I was confused by her sudden outburst. Afterall, it was her idea to go to the park, yet now she seemed to be having second thoughts. It was getting hot out, and the air conditioning was more appealing by the minute. So I asked if she wanted me to stay home with her while mom and sister went without us, but that only elicited an even more unhinged, “I DON’T KNOW!” Followed by more crying.

I kept probing. I asked questions about how she felt, and mirrored her responses until she finally said, “Everyone is mad at me, and it’s been that way for days. That’s why nobody wants me to go to the park!”

Immediately, my lizard brain jumped to attention. “When have I been mad at you?” 

The defense attorney in me began drafting a list of bullet points to refute this ridiculous notion. She was being irrational, and this nonsense was making us late. My first instinct was to use logic to prove her story wrong. Surely the facts would win the day.

However, before I launched into my counterargument, her last sentence caused me to pause.

“That’s why nobody wants me to go to the park!”

I took a deep breath. I looked at her as though the last ten minutes never happened, and calmly said, “Everyone is ready to go to the park, and we want you to come with us.”

For a second she looked back at me, considering if what I said was true. Then she said, “Okay.” 

Five minutes later we were on our way to the park, Adelaide was back to normal, and I was left to ponder what just happened.

Finding the Black Swan

In 16th century Europe it was assumed that all swans were white. Afterall, every swan that ever lived on the continent was white, and therefore it was assumed that the existence of a black swan was impossible. That all changed in 1697 when Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh encountered swans with “dark plumage” while traveling in Western Australia. His discovery was completely “unprecedented and unexpected,” and “profoundly changed zoology.” 

“After the black swan was discovered, it seemed obvious that black swans had to exist just as other animals with varying colors were known to exist as well.”

Since the discovery of the black swan, the term has been used to refer to information that was unexpected at the time of discovery, but made perfect sense when examined retrospectively. 

Let me give you an example. 

Suppose you have a junior that doesn’t show up for summer workouts. You know that she started working a new job, and you assume that her work schedule is the reason she is missing. You might reach out and offer to open the gym at another time, but her response is lukewarm. She’s just not sure if she can make it work. 

Despite your willingness to work around her schedule, you can’t seem to make any headway. Something seems off as she was a consistent participant last summer. Not knowing any better, you rationalize that summer was her only time to get a job, and you expect she will show up for preseason workouts in the fall. Yet when October rolls around, she is still nowhere to be found. Clearly, something is amiss.

Eventually, you discover through the grapevine that after last season she looked at the depth chart and concluded that there were too many returning players in front of her, and that coming in during the off-season wasn’t likely to improve her spot. Rather than invest her time into a lost cause, she decided to get a job instead. Once the fall rolled around, despite no longer working, she still didn’t have a reason to come to workouts. 

Looking back, the explanation makes perfect sense. While it may have come as a surprise to you, the story she is telling herself reveals the black swan. It was a hidden belief that drove her behavior, and once you understand that, it completely changes your approach.

Voss describes these as the unknown unknowns. “Most important are those things we don’t know that we don’t know, pieces of information we never imagined but that would be game-changing if uncovered.”

In my daughter’s case, I had no idea she felt unwanted in that moment. I don’t know why she would feel that way, and couldn’t see it because I took her answers at face value. While she blamed everyone else for being mad at her, the reality was, she needed to hear she was wanted. She needed to feel like she belonged. Once that was affirmed, she relaxed and happily climbed into the car. 

Hard to Find

There’s a reason why Europeans thought black swans to be impossible. They were hard to find. In fact, one had to leave the continent to prove their existence. That was no easy task in 1697. Finding the black swans, the hidden stories, beliefs, and motivations in those around you can be equally as challenging. Voss offers some additional advice:

“To uncover the unknown unknowns, we must interrogate our world, must put out a call, and intently listen to the response. Ask lots of questions. Read nonverbal cues and always voice your observations with your counterpart.”

We must be curious about what we do not yet understand. 

On most days, my impatience would have blinded me to the subtle clue that revealed what was really going on in Adelaide’s heart. In this instance, I was fortunate not to miss it. How many other times has my defensiveness kept me from hearing?

When you can’t seem to put your finger on why someone is behaving a certain way, the odds are there’s something at play that is beyond your imagination, but searching until you find that thing could make all the difference in the world. 

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson


Black Swan Events

Black Swans with Chris Voss

Join Our Weekly Newsletter

The most practical insights on leadership and culture... 

  • 3 Minute Weekly Tools & Tips
  • Notes to the Coaching Culture Podcast
  • FREE Chapter of The Culture System

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.