One day, when my daughter was about 6 years old, my husband was helping her get ready for a Brownie Field Trip to the Humane Society. After signing the Permission Slip, he was ticking through the checklist of gear she needed, including old newspapers for animal bedding. I was upstairs on the landing supervising our son’s bathroom routine and getting myself ready for work as I overheard their conversation.
He grabbed some unread Wall Street Journals that had stacked up and started shoving them into her backpack. She said, “NO!” And he replied, ”That’s OK. I’ve been traveling and am not going to read them.” She still resisted, so he tried again, “See, they’re still wrapped in plastic so they won’t get your stuff dirty.” She still said, “No.” Getting impatient, he explained that the WSJ was a good choice because it’s not waxy paper—just nice newsprint. Finally, she looked up at him and said, “But Dad, how are the animals going to read?”
This humorous family episode coincided with my preparations for an upcoming presentation about teaching nutrition to kids. I’d been immersing in Piaget’s Theory of Developmental Psychology to refresh my undergraduate knowledge on the topic – which predominantly had been rote memory. It was a Eureka moment for me – I realized the meaning behind Piaget’s stages and the implications for communicating complicated information to concrete thinkers. My daughter was processing the world from a Preoperational Stage (kids learn through pretend play but still struggle with logic and taking the point of view of other people), and my husband was functioning in the Formal Operational Stage (using logic, deductive reasoning, and abstract ideas). His logic met resistance because a 6-year-old could not imagine any other uses for newspapers than reading – which is what she observed him doing every morning. I told this story in my presentation, and my dietitian audience resonated with the insights about Piaget’s theory and implications for teaching nutrition to young kids.
Many years later, I find myself again reflecting on this episode. A new truth in communication emerges: Even the most skilled communicators have blind spots that keep them from seeing someone else’s vantage point. So let’s explore some common blind spots:
- Caught Up in Your Vision – Pursuing a dream with passion and conviction allows leaders and entrepreneurs to achieve great outcomes. But the downside is that sometimes they become blind to the fact that others may not understand or share their vision. To bring your vision into focus for others before you delve into the weeds, develop a compelling vision story that helps others see the future that you see.
- Thinking Everyone Understands Your Lingo – Using specialized terminology, jargon, and internal acronyms is like speaking a foreign language. Try using a story to simplify complex topics. Speak in plain language and avoid acronyms so people understand what you mean.
- Believing Everyone is on the Same Page – Other people may not pay as much attention to the events, projects, and subject matters important to you. Instead of trying to persuade people to see the world the way you do, focus on making the critical issues relevant to them. Asking questions to find common ground will help you find the relevant connections. Learn their story and connect it to your goals.
- Shutting Down Out of Fear – When you encounter uncertain and stressful situations, the fear response is triggered. The primitive brain takes over and releases stress hormones that shut down the part of the brain that handles complex reasoning. This can interfere with your ability to think on your feet. Acknowledge your fear and re-channel your energy toward empathy. This will build connections and, in turn, reduce your fear. Telling a story that conveys “who you are” and “why you are here” is a powerful way to build trust and dissipate fear.
- Not Hearing What Was Really Said – Human beings listen selectively, cherry-picking what they want to hear and storing that in their memory banks. Restate what you heard to verify that it is aligned with what the other person meant. This reframing step is another great opportunity for story or metaphor.
Have any these blind spots caused near misses or crashes for you? To prevent your communications from derailing, seek feedback from a few trusted advisors to help you identify your blind spots – it’s hard to be aware of what you don’t see. Then keep looking around you for signals that you’re in a blind spot. Just like when you’re driving, vigilantly checking over your shoulder is the only want to avoid a crash.
Storytelling can help you overcome blind spots by making your communications more relatable. After all, humans are hard wired from a young age to love hearing stories. A child doesn’t crawl into their parent’s lap and ask for analysis and facts, but every parent has heard these precious words, “Mommy/Daddy, will you read me a story?”