Dad, How Will the Animals Read?

Brownie preparations reveal communication blind spotsMy morning routine was interrupted when my six-year-old daughter, Eleanor, screamed, “No!” I was in the midst of getting myself ready for work and cajoling our son to do the same. Her outburst drew me to the upstairs landing, where I looked down on a conversation she was having with my husband, Jay. He was preparing her for a Brownie Field Trip to the Humane Society.

He ticked through the checklist of gear she needed … permission slip (signed) … after-school snack (packed) … sturdy footwear (on her feet). They had been chatting cheerfully about the preparations.

Everything was going smoothly until he grabbed a stack of unread Wall Street Journals and shoved them into her backpack. (The checklist included old newspapers for animal bedding.)

He tried to calm her down and reason with her protests. “It’s OK. I was out of town, so I 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 backpack dirty.”

She still said, “No!” Getting impatient, he explained that the WSJ uses nice newsprint, not waxy paper. Finally, she looked up at him in frustration and said, “But Dad, how will the animals read?”

Listening to this exchange from the upstairs landing, I experienced a Eureka moment. Thoughts about an upcoming presentation about teaching nutrition to kids were tumbling through my brain. I’d refreshed my understanding of Piaget’s Theory of Developmental Psychology from my undergraduate studies. But until this moment, I never internalized the meaning behind Piaget’s stages. Suddenly, I saw new ways to communicate complicated information to concrete thinkers.

At six years old, Eleanor was in the Preoperational Stage (ages 2–7). Children in this stage learn through pretend play and sensory experiences. But they struggle with logic, abstract concepts, and understanding other peoples’ points of view. Adults function in the Formal Operational Stage. As such, Jay used logic, deductive reasoning, and abstract ideas to communicate with Eleanor. His logical explanations met resistance because she could not imagine other uses for newspapers than reading. (She observed him reading newspapers every morning.)

I shared this story in my presentation to explain Piaget’s theory. The dietitians in my audience also saw this well-known theory in a new light. And they pondered new ways to communicate nutrition to kids.

Storytelling to Overcome Communication Blind Spots

In the conversation between Eleanor and Jay at the bottom of the stairs, I noticed two monologues occurring. Neither party understood the other’s perspective. While not a direct parallel, I’ve seen other communication disconnects between people with differing world views.

For example, as a nutrition communicator in the food industry, I occasionally observed a dynamic when nutrition scientists presented technical information to marketers. It was as though the scientists spoke Latin while the marketers spoke French. With enough commonalities between the two languages, they thought they understood each other. But they walked out of the room with drastically different impressions of what transpired.

Even the most skilled communicators can be blind to another person’s vantage point. Let’s explore some common communication 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 do not understand or share their vision. A compelling vision story 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. Speak in plain language and avoid acronyms so people understand what you mean. Even better, try using a story to simplify complex topics. In my post, The Dietitian Who Sounded Like Charlie Brown’s Teacher, I apply principles from The Art of Explanation to communicate technical information. This book is must-read for science communicators.

Believing Everyone is on the Same Page

Other people may not pay as much attention to the events, projects, and subjects that are 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. Try to understand their story, then connect it to your goals.

Shutting Down Out of Fear

When you encounter uncertain and stressful situations, fear 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. Annette Simmons suggests that you tell a story that conveys “who you are” and “why you are here” to build trust and dissipate fear.

Not Hearing What Was Really Said

We all tend to listen selectively, cherry-picking what we want to hear. Then we store that information in our memory banks. Before filing away your impressions, restate what you heard to verify that it’s 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 communication disconnects, look around for signals that you’re in a blind spot. Just like when driving, vigilantly check over your shoulders to avoid a crash. Road test your communications with trusted advisors to help you identify your blind spots—it’s hard to be aware of what you don’t see.

Storytelling frames subjects in understandable terms and promotes open dialogue. We 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?”

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