Be Careful or You’ll End Up Going to Abilene

My wife, Kelly, and I went to Abilene a couple of years ago when I drove to Sea World to pick up our daughter from camp one afternoon. Thinking that Kelly might like a break from this 90 minute drive, I suggested that I pick up our daughter that day. Just to make sure Kelly didn’t feel guilty for my taking the trip, I told her that I had a new audio book I wanted to listen to. She said that sounded good to her.

Later that evening I was feeling a little grumpy because I didn’t have the most productive day of my life. Looking for a place to land, the grumpy feeling landed on my “putting myself out” to go pick up our daughter from camp. In the process of conversation, I discovered that Kelly had actually wanted to go pick up our daughter that day but, given the way I talked about listening to a new audio book, she thought I really wanted to make the drive. So she had kindly put her wishes aside without telling me what she was really feeling.
I had interrupted my workday to do my wife a favor that she didn’t want done. She lovingly put her desires aside to let me do something that I didn’t really want to do in the first place.
That’s a classic trip to Abilene.
The Abilene Paradox takes its name from an anecdote told by management expert Jerry B. Harvey about a family playing dominoes on the front porch. One person offers the suggestion that they drive to Abilene for dinner. He is not suggesting this because he wants to. He’s just afraid other people might be bored. One by one, all four people agree. They make the trip to Abilene (53 miles, no A/C) which, it turns out, nobody actually wanted to do.
Wikipedia has a nice, concise definition of the Abilene Paradox:

The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not “rock the boat”. (Click here for the Wikipedia article.)

The Abilene Paradox is about managing agreement. A group of kind, generous, responsive people can end up doing something nobody wants or something nobody thinks is a good idea if they don’t properly manage their agreement because they are all caring for each other without knowing each other’s true thoughts and feelings. The members of the group are all agreeing with what they think the desires of the other members are.

People take trips to Abilene all the time. Kelly and I almost went to Abilene a second time that same day! I was planning on a walk late at night after everyone had gone to bed. I would rather walk earlier in the evening, but I thought I was doing Kelly a favor by going out after my help was no longer needed for children’s bedtimes, etc. This time we talked. It turns out that my walking late at night was actually making her nervous. She doesn’t like me going for late walks and she doesn’t like going to sleep without me home. Whew! We avoided a second trip to Abilene… by talking.

Talking is the secret. Honest talking. When we agree with others because of what we think they want, we risk going to Abilene. You know the old adage about assuming: when you “assume” you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” What could be more asinine than a couple or a group of people doing what nobody wants to do because nobody wants to say what they really think? Read the actual anecdote below and you will see how easy it is to go to Abilene – somewhere nobody actually wants to go! – if everyone is just trying to get along. 
The choice is yours: be courageous enough to share your actual thoughts and encourage others to do the same or hop in the car and head for Abilene. 
I did end up going for my late night walk. But Kelly and I had spoken kindly and honestly with each other, so we didn’t go anywhere near Abilene.

(NOTE: This is an edited repost from 2013)

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THE TRIP TO ABILENE
excerpted from Wikipedia: The Abilene Paradox

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.