The first time we went to Abilene was when I drove to Sea World to pick up our daughter from camp this afternoon. Thinking that Kelly might like a break from this 90 minute drive, I suggested that I could go pick up Lilia today. Just to make sure Kelly didn’t feel like I was using too much time unproductively, I told her that I had a new audio book I wanted to listen to. She said that sounded good to her.
This 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 kinda wanted to go pick up our daughter today but, given the way I talked about listening to a new audio book, she thought I really wanted to make the drive. So she kindly put her wishes aside without telling me.
I interrupted my workday to do Kelly a favor that she didn’t want. She put her desires aside to let me do something that I was only doing as a favor to her.
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 nobody actually wants to do. (Read the full anecdote below.)
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”.
People take trips to Abilene all the time. Kelly and I almost went to Abilene a second time in one day! I was planning on a walk at night after everyone had gone to bed. I thought I was doing Kelly a favor by going out after my presence was no longer needed. This time we talked. It turns out that what I thought was doing Kelly a favor by going out late 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. So much focus is put on managing disagreement that we often overlook how much can go wrong when we don’t manage agreement, ferreting out false agreement that doesn’t really exist.
The Bible presents us with most excellent advice for avoiding trips to Abilene: “Speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15). Engaging in discussion with both kindness and honesty will avoid those disheartening trips to Abilene.
How does this work? Take a look, for instance, at the synopsis below. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” She’s being loving, supporting the suggestion her dad made, but she’s not being honest. If she had said something like, “It doesn’t sound that attractive to me, but I’ll go along if you all want to go,” she would have been both truthful and loving. She probably also would have avoided a bad meal and 100 miles in the car!
Speak the truth in love. And encourage others around you to do the same by accepting what they say as their thoughts and feelings without judging them. Push for kind honesty in whatever group you are in, from a marriage to a family to a work group to a church council.
The choice is yours. Strive for real honesty and respect differing opinions or hop in the car and head for Abilene.
By the way, 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.
Full “Trip to Abilene” anecdote from Wikipedia:
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.