He said “Excuse me” . . . I heard “Get out of my way.”
He said “I don’t think that is right”. . . I heard “You’re stupid”.
I said “Did you go to the post office” . . . he heard “You disappoint me”.
I said “I am upset about what happened” . . . he heard “you’re bad”.
This kind of saying and hearing happens all the time. It is astonishingly common that we hear things through a filter of our own making. Not a filter we consciously constructed but one that was embedded in us, often at a very young age. We add onto the filter throughout our life, sometimes correcting but often reinforcing what is already there.
These exchanges are examples from my personal life. I have been with my husband for a lifetime, but we often still hear our own interpretations instead of the words that are actually said. (There are often filters at work on the speaker’s part also, just to make it even more confusing. But for now, let’s focus on the listener’s filters.)
The interpretation happens almost instantaneously. Our filter sifts through the words and we assume we know what they really mean. Or, even more often, we hear tone and interpret that instead of the actual words. The tone CAN change the meaning of any given words, but we cannot always be trusted to safely interpret the meaning of tone in a vacuum. We must engage to do that. “Are you saying you’re disappointed in me?” “Am I in your way?”
AND THEN, we must believe what they tell us. Even when we don’t. Even when we believe the tone more than what they are telling us. But that is a losing proposition. If they are telling you that you are not in the way, then act as if that is true. Believe them. Maybe even say “Let me know if that changes.” Then it is up to them.
This is even more complicated at work. And even more complicated still when the conversation is between a supervisor and a staff member. You’ve got the positional power and maybe societal power and personality differences, and different understandings of what you’re talking about . . . it can be a mine field.
They say, “I didn’t have time for that” . . . you hear “I don’t care what you told me to do.”
They say, “I don’t think that is the best approach” . . . you hear “You’re an idiot and you should leave me alone”.
You say, “The top priority for next week is the upcoming X” . . . they hear “I don’t think you know what you’re doing and I need to micromanage you.”
You say “This didn’t turn out the way I was expecting ” . . . they hear “You did it wrong; why did I even hire you?”
This is complicated and multi-layered but here are a few tips to manage the mine field. Consider and apply which ever are missing in your process.
1. Use I statements.
Minimize blaming and projecting by using clean and clear I-statements to own your thoughts, feelings and experiences. “I thought we were on the same page, but we weren’t. Let’s try again.”
2. Separate fact from interpretation.
Be rigorous at noticing what is actually said or happening, versus how you are interpreting it.
They were late, not they are undependable.
They did not keep their agreement, not they don’t respect you.
They did not produce as much as you thought they would, not that they have a bad work ethic.
They do things differently than how you would do them, not that they lack professionalism.
3. Check assumptions.
Ask questions when you realize that your filter is at work. This is even more powerful when combined with an I-statement. “I realize that I might be interpreting here so let me check it out. Are you telling me that you don’t care about what I told you to do?”
4. Believe them.
If they tell you that your interpretation is incorrect, take them at their word and proceed as if that were the case.
5. Assume good intentions.
You are both working for the same organization so there should be a clear shared focus and goal of the work. Try to actively trust that they mean well and want to do a good job, even if it isn’t going that way. This doesn’t mean you don’t address the problem, but don’t add your interpretation of their motives into the mix.
6. Acknowledge and mind your power.
You must always be aware of your positional and societal power. Many people assume their supervisor could fire them at will. Power dynamics play into what people hear and how they hear it. So when you have institutionalized power, and/or societal power, and if you don’t account for that, then you will make small problems bigger and breed distrust with your staff. This distrust will be intensified when you revert to stereotypes or triggering idioms like “work ethic” and “professionalism” as in the interpretation examples in #2.
7. Own your power.
At the same time that you need to acknowledge your power and privilege, sometimes you need to clearly accept the responsibility of your role, without reverting to being an authoritarian. This might mean you just have to be the supervisor and make the decision that is within your power to make, even if they disagree or don’t like your decision. “I know you want us to go in another direction and this is my final decision. If something changes, we can discuss it again but until then, let’s move on.”
8. Name any patterns you see happening with curiosity and without blame.
Make a short objective I-statement with an observation and then invite them to problem solve with you. Engage in meaningful conversation
“I seem to be hearing things you’re not saying. I wonder if you are doing that too?”
“I notice whenever I correct anything, you react defensively. What is that about?”
“We are getting very good at pushing each other’s buttons; can we try to approach this kind of conversation in a different way?”
It is never easy to navigate our own internal landscape, never mind someone else’s. You can’t control how other people respond or how they show up. But you can monitor yourself and model clarity, self-awareness and curiosity about how to do it better. None of those will hurt the conversation, and might just transform it.