These two nuggets come from my mother and my eldest son respectively.
I was reminded of them recently when I sent out a Facebook request inquiring about tidbits from people’s mothers that have stuck with them over time.
“Just ignore them,” was one of my mother’s stock replies whenever I complained about a schoolmate’s teasing or tattled on my brothers for the unprovoked pestering that pester-y brothers are famous for. The response seemed pat and trivializing – insensitive even. Ignore it? That wouldn’t make it go away. It wouldn’t soothe hurt feelings. How do I go about ignoring something that’s so consuming and stings so badly? Whenever she said it, it seemed she didn’t recognize or care about the level of distress these things caused. It felt dismissive, like a shoo-fly wave of the hand.
With the perspective of maturity and a lifetime of ego bruising and minor psychological flesh wounds, it appears now as sage advice. (How do moms do that?!) People will say what they will, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, other times driven by motivation that’s, well, let’s just say, not the most constructive. In my early days at FAME, I received a lot of feedback. Some (thankfully) positive – offset by a disproportionate amount that was brutal. Extremely difficult to hear. Unfortunately, the harsh words tend to be the ones that stick, no matter how much of Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough” bits you jokingly replay in your head. I had a daily parade of people offering unsolicited insights on what was wrong at the agency, and how it was all my fault. It seemed everything I attempted was interpreted negatively. If I utilized inspirational quotes of people I admired when I gave agency updates, I was criticized for not having my own point of view. When I used my own words, they were either met with dull stares or served back to me, twisted into a meaning I never intended. That feedback planted and watered seeds of self-doubt weeds which began aggressively overtaking the “good” plants.
And then, I started to ignore them. Not overtly. I didn’t retreat into tortoise-shell mode, or give anyone a flip “Talk-to-the-hand.” I recognized that in building a healthy culture, people need to feel that they are heard, that their perspective is valid, and they have an impact. But I changed two things. I set limits by establishing “visiting hours.” And I started taking notes during these conversations. This not only signaled to the person that I took their input seriously, but it helped objectify the words. Particularly the bruising ones. The notebook served as a buffer, and I began to think of it as data entry. Where all the bullet points have the same font and weight. No bolds. No underlines. No exclamation points. It took the edge off the words.
Note taking enabled me to begin to set aside the things I knew to be myopic. I would first filter the input through my own experience, and then check that experience with other trusted advisors for validation, to keep from being myopic myself. I was able to build enough of a database to distinguish accurate insights from personal attacks or comments that fell into the whining category. It freed me to focus and course-correct where I needed to, and let the rest of the feedback go.
“Not with your eyes.”
When my son Chase was around four, he talked a lot. I mean A LOT. He never. Stopped. Talking. (I wish I’d had the foresight to appreciate it at the time before he grew into a monosyllabic teenager!) Some of it was entertaining and hilarious, but most of it was just a toddler talking to hear himself talk. One day as he was prattling on in the kitchen while I washed dishes, he stopped mid-sentence and said accusingly, “Mommy, you’re not listening to me!” I assured him that of course, I was enrapt by every word (I may or may not have used the word enrapt), with my back to him tending to the Saturday-night-in-a-busy-restaurant amount of dishes that had somehow accumulated in the sink. “But you’re not listening with your eyes,” he said. Nope. Definitely wasn’t. Amazingly, he already understood the difference between active and passive listening – the active version obviously including your eyes. And he felt he deserved it.
It was a gentle kick in the pants, and from that point on I was more aware of the need for engaging both senses. Our teams deserve active listening from us. But there’s a cautionary tale here, too.
Empathic listening is essential to building an empathic culture. But it’s wise to sift through the words. While sometimes valid, feedback is always biased. It’s another person’s perspective, and not necessarily rooted in truth. When receiving it, ask yourself why an individual is sharing. What’s their motivation? There will be those who are genuinely interested in getting to solutions to make things better. Kudos to those few! And there will be those who are operating from their own self-interest with an agenda that may not be focused on the greater good. But you won’t know which until you’ve processed it a bit. So first, listen. Actively listen. Then sit with it, sort it out, decide what’s worth addressing and move on.
• Focus on the conversation at hand. Don’t check email or multi-task.
• Take notes during feedback conversations.
• Process what you’ve heard and honestly self-evaluate, separating the wheat from the chaff.
• Check accuracy with your trusted advisors.
• Ignore input motivated by the self-interest of others.
• And always listen with your eyes.