One of my favorite Great-Great Aunts was Lizzie. She was a spitfire who would curse you out (in Italian, of course) and didn’t miss anything going on…unless she wanted to miss what was going on. As a kid, I couldn’t understand how she would be able to hear some directed requests of her while not hearing others. I was so confused as to how she could overhear the quietest conversations but completely catch nothing in ones that included her. It wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated the practice.
Johnny Depp brought new life to Willy Wonka in 2005 in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And while the Gene Wilder purists didn’t love this version, there were some great one-liners from Depp. “You really shouldn’t mumble” is a line we use in our home often. When Willy did not want to hear what someone else was saying, though he clearly heard it, he would retort with, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” For Mr. Wonka, mumblers were aplenty. It was deflection at its silliest.
When we ignore others out of self-preservation, we do so to our own detriment. It’s often out of the uncomfortable that the turning of a new page or a refining process begins. So why do we do it?
Well, that self-preservation piece is tough to ignore. We work hard to be our “best selves.” Take a look at your Facebook feed (if you still have one) and look at all of the memes, sayings and gifs encouraging you to Live Your Best Life, to cut out any negativity, to remove toxic people from your life. And while there is truth behind those mandates, are you prepared to know the difference, truly, between negativity and difficulty? Just because someone is sharing something you don’t want to hear does not make that person a negative force to be cut out of your life. And if social media is guiding that definition, I fear you’re blocking out potential growth opportunities (I, also, fear the depth that SoMe has on your life!).
I remember being told I was a racist. It was actually the only time to date that I was directly called one. I sat across from the Vice President of Student Affairs and he simply, clearly and directly blasted me with that moniker. I was furious. Honestly, if I didn’t have a core respect for my elders, I likely would have introduced my fist to his face. I am not a racist. The one-minute exchange days earlier that he mentally categorized was the entire basis for his labelling despite a two-year history of working with me. And while I know that he was wrong, I can look at it differently today. I didn’t block him out. I didn’t file a lawsuit (though I could have as his label kept an RA position from being awarded to me). What I did instead was ask other people if I was sharing racist views or if people were uncomfortable around me due to a perception of racism. I didn’t want to hear what that VP said, but instead, I chose to listen and take from it what I could to be better.
Choose to listen. As managers, it is easy to be dismissive. We can nod as if we’re listening (I mean, we’ve read enough books and attended enough seminars to know the tricks of listening), but choose to engage with what you hear, maybe even more with those views that differ from yours. The defensive posture of dismissal has a place, but it’s not the first tool to use. Consider the position first. Examine the basis for merit in process improvement, communications or goal alignment. Take the feedback. Listen.
And I know it’s easy to read this and think about the people you’ve done that with and recall the disappointment in those relationships. Not everyone is right in what they ask you to listen to, and you will sift through those non-helpful comments. But taking the step to listen and consider first is fair and equitable. Mumblers don’t abound as much as Deflectors.