A Simple Communication Mistake to Avoid

Eleanor and I were fast asleep at my parents’ house in upstate New York when my five-year-old daughter Sophia came running in.

“Look out the window!” she screamed, as she pulled on our shades. I looked at my watch: 6 a.m. Not bad.

Sophia was jumping with excitement as the shade opened, revealing about a foot of new powder.

“Let’s go skiing!”

A few hours later, I stood with Sophia and her eight-year-old sister, Isabelle, at the top of an intermediate slope we had all skied many times. But this time was different. Northeastern powder is not the light, fluffy stuff of the West. It’s heavy and hard to ski, especially when you weigh 45 pounds.

Isabelle struggled but managed to navigate the new conditions. Sophia, on the other hand, fell almost immediately. She laughed, got up, and started again. A few feet down the slope, she fell once more. Again, laughing, she got up. Now Isabelle started laughing too.

But not me. I was worried. This was too much for Sophia. She might get hurt. And her ski class started in 15 minutes. At this rate she would never make it.

I shouted a few words of encouragement and advice. But her laughter was making it hard for her to ski. Was she falling on purpose? Because it was fun?

I stayed behind her so I could help when she fell, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I yelled at her to stop playing around. But she kept falling and laughing.

I looked at the time. “Sophia!” I shouted. “Come on, stop fooling around. It’s not funny. We’re going to miss class.”

“I’m trying,” she yelled back.

I paused for a moment, looked up, and took a deep breath. The beauty of the snow-covered trees was incredible. And that’s when I finally realized: I’m an idiot.

Here was my awesome five-year-old having an outdoor experience I want to encourage. And even though it was hard and scary and challenging, she was handling it gracefully, having the time of her life. And how did I help? By yelling at her.

It seems obvious now. But at the time my response felt perfectly natural. Which is the point, actually. It felt natural because it reflected how I was feeling. My own fears and frustrations and goals.

My mistake? I forgot that the situation wasn’t about me. I forgot to focus on the needs of my audience, in this case a five-year-old skiing powder for the first time. That’s presentation and communication skills 101.

I would never make the same mistake if I were giving a speech or working with a client. In other words, if I were thinking.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to skip the thinking part. An employee comes to us with substandard work and we get angry. But is that really going to help the employee do better work next time? If the reason for the poor performance was that the employee didn’t care, and my anger frightened him into caring more, then maybe. But poor performance is rarely caused by lack of fear. It’s usually because of a misunderstanding or lack of capability. In which case asking questions would almost certainly be more helpful.

That’s hard to do because when we’re angry, we respond with anger. And when we’re frustrated, we respond with frustration. It makes perfect sense.

It’s just that it doesn’t work and it won’t help.

The solution is simple: When you have a strong reaction to something, take a deep breath and ask yourself a single question: what’s going on for the other person?

Then, based on your answer, ask yourself one more question: What can I do or say that will help them?

In other words, don’t start from where you are, start from where they are. What do they need in that moment? Some advice? A story about what you did in a similar situation? Perhaps just an empathetic ear? Or maybe simply some patience.

Imagine your favorite employee — the one you spent all that time developing — told you she was thinking of leaving your team for another job offer. You might feel angry and betrayed, but would it help to get angry at her? No, you’d be better off asking questions about what’s working and what’s not.

Once I realized my mistake, I got angry at myself for almost stomping out Sophia’s enthusiasm.

But I didn’t beat myself up for long. I took a few deep breaths and just watched her. She skied a few feet, fell, laughed, got up, and started skiing again.

Watching her laughing at her mistakes reminded me not to take myself so seriously. It turns out that meeting people where they are doesn’t just help them. Sometimes it helps you too.