The other day, four-year old Sierra watched as I played chess with Sascha, her seven-year old sister.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it’s pathetic that I have to play chess with a seven-year old in order to find someone that I can beat. But she’s very good. She started chess lessons when she was three. She’s like Bobby Fischer in a skirt!
Anyhow, after a contest more competitive than I like when I’m playing a seven-year old opponent, I said, “Checkmate.”
Four-year old Sierra looked at the board before cocking her head and looking at me.
“Chef Nate?” she asked incredulously. “Why did you tell Sasha ‘Chef Nate’?”
I should explain that Chef Nate is a very real person, a very real chef, too. Chef Nate formerly worked as a chef in a 5-star restaurant. He wanted a change of pace, so he now works as the chef at Sierra’s daycare.
“No, honey. Checkmate. Not Chef Nate. But they do sound a lot alike,” I agreed.
That got me thinking about how we sometimes mishear things because we are not really listening. Or we are listening to hear things that are aligned with our past experiences instead of a new ones.
A year ago as I wrapped up my second book, “Don’t Throw Underwear on the Table & Other Lessons Learned at Work”, I selected a cover design, font, photo, etc. And I loved it.
As part of checking cover art off my TO DO LIST, I sent a copy to my editor so she could see it.
She sent me a message saying something like, “This is a little edgy and risque. It might be a little out there for some of your corporate clients,” she told me.
Do you know what I heard? “This is fantastic! It really pushes the envelope. Most of your corporate clients will love the fact that you’re not afraid to be abstract and provocative.”
Sadly, that’s not at all what she meant.
Here’s what she really meant: “This is TOO EDGY and borderline INDECENT. You risk OFFENDING clients. RETHINK this decision.”
In hindsight, I misheard because I wasn’t really listening.
I misheard because I wanted to be done with at least one part of the book, and the cover seemed like something I could check off quickly.
I misheard because I stopped looking–and, in this case, listening–for suggestions to improve.
I misheard because my mind was not open to alternative viewpoints.
I misheard because a few early focus groups told me that they liked the cover (without reading the book!), and since that opinion agreed with my own, I locked it in as the right answer.
I misheard because I wasn’t in the mood for criticism.
I misheard because I wished to change my editor’s gentle feedback into praise. It sounded better that way in my ears.
I misheard because edgy and risque seemed like nice adjectives to me.
It doesn’t matter why I misheard. It mattered only that I fix the problem.
When you are in the feedback receiving mode, be like Sierra: question things. Don’t accept Chef Nate for an answer if that answer doesn’t seem clear, make sense or provide help. Seek clarity. It’s rare that someone will be frustrated with you if you are seeking a deeper understanding, an example or a simple double-check. Had I asked my editor a follow up question about the cover instead of assuming I had it all figured out, I would have saved myself time and frustration in the long run.
When you are in the feedback giving mode, be sensitive yet clear. As a parent, I used to allow myself to get frustrated with my kids when I was the one causing the problem. I would say things like “I’m not sure that what you’re doing is a good idea” or “It’s not safe to stand on the table” instead of “Please stop that” or “Please get off the table.” I’d get frustrated when they’d treat my non-instruction as…well, a non-instruction! Now that they are older, I do have expectations that they can and will read between the lines and take my comments as instructional feedback.
It’s okay to give direct feedback. It’s not a matter of being KIND AND VAGUE or MEAN AND DIRECT. Your feedback can be KIND AND DIRECT. And KIND AND DIRECT feedback erases ambiguity and has a better chance of being heard…and followed.
By the way, my editor’s feedback proved on the mark about the book cover, and I did fix it. Now when she says things to me like “You’re being quirky” or “Tone down your Italian side” or “Don’t be an idiot”, I ask clarifying questions. Because now I want to know Do you mean that in a good way? Or in the other way?