Communication and Bug Spray: Adapting Your Perspective

When my kids were younger, they loved (or maybe I just loved) going to my hometown and taking the “tour.” Invariably, we ended up idling the car in the square at the intersection where my childhood home sat, taking pictures out the window but never getting out because the neighborhood was a little dicey.

Instead, I sat behind the wheel craning my neck and pointing to the windows where my grandparents sat and watched me play, the imaginary bases in the middle of the street where rousing games of kickball were waged, and the neighbor’s lawn where I fell on the ice leading to my under chin stitches (does anyone get through childhood without under the chin stitches?).

One year when my son was about seven and I was deep into conducting my tour of the old neighborhood, I happened to catch a glimpse of my son in the car’s rear view mirror. Rather than seeing the grinning face of a kid reliving my glory days, I saw the scared little face of a boy tightly clutching a can of “Off” Bug Spray.

“Chas, what are you doing with the bug spray?”

He didn’t respond but quickly lowered the can onto his lap and out of my line of sight.

“Chas? “Hello…..bug spray?”

At that point he sheepishly raised the can, whereupon I noticed that his finger was poised on the trigger ready to release the deadly spray at a moment’s notice.

“Well, the sign says “Ely Street, Private Street, Dangerous.”

Apparently, a year earlier, during my wistful tour, I had read the street sign aloud while remembering how many times I had shimmied up to the top of that sign as a kid.

As I was dreaming about the good old days while reading the sign I had seen every day for eighteen years, my son was silently panicking.

This year, if I were going to take them to a street that was so “Dangerous” that they had to put up a warning sign, he was coming armed.

We both read the same sign but our minds couldn’t have gone in two totally different directions in interpreting its meaning. I knew it simply meant “unpaved road.” Chas thought that we would be under siege at any moment.

As leaders, you have to be constantly aware that your experience and understanding are often quite differently informed than those of the teams you are leading.

From broad concepts to specific words, you have to tune in to whether people are following you or if they’re mentally off buying a can of bug spray.

Stay in the moment and watch how people react to what you are saying. Notice if they are lost, scared, confused, indifferent, angry….. Look even for the most subtle indications that you aren’t in sync.

Put yourself in their shoes and remember how you would have perceived the dialogue if you didn’t have the information you already have acquired.

If I had put myself in the mind of a six year old boy, I wouldn’t have had a seven year old boy clutching a can of bug spray in the back seat of a rental car.

Ask a few quick open ended questions that require more than a response of “yeah, I got it” to see if you’re on the same page. If you’re not, stop talking and give them the floor by asking for their assessment of the assignment.

A few well spent moments on shifting your perspective to your team’s eye view and communicating at that point will save lots of time and energy otherwise lost to confusion, fear, and missteps.

You’ll undoubtedly save on the bug spray also.

Sandi Coryell is a Leadership Consultant, Strategist, and Keynote Speaker who works with executives to Transform Bosses into Leaders. You can follow Sandi on Twitter @SandiCoryell or reach her directly at thecoryellgroup.com.