Never underestimate people’s ability to not hear you

The writing is on the wall for Susan, and it has been for months. She’s struggling to get her work done. She’s grumpy most of the time. Nobody likes working with her.

You’ve tried your best with her. You really have. You’ve given her feedback and more feedback and some more feedback. But when you run out of options and you have to let her go, she’s somehow surprised. The heck?!

You underestimated her ability to not hear you. She listened to the words but didn’t comprehend the seriousness. She got the message but she didn’t get the message.

I’ve learned this lesson over and over, and it hurts every time. People have an endless capacity to not really hear me. And this isn’t their fault, it’s mine. I need to tell them better, and more often.

Anytime I’m asking someone to do anything, especially if I’m asking them to change, I should assume that they won’t hear me like I want them to. And the human urge to be polite compounds the problem. If they can’t hear me when I think I’m being clear as day, I’m even more screwed if I’m sticking to hinting or nudging.

Ever heard of Hanlon’s razor, which says “never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence”? How about this:

Never attribute to apathy that which can be adequately explained by deafness.

Critter’s razor

With job performance, we “solve” this with PIPs (performance improvement plans) and annual performance reviews with a grading system. They convey that someone is in trouble in a way that is harder for them to not hear.

But it’s not only a job performance issue, it’s a human nature issue. I must always be twice as clear as seems necessary when I’m giving feedback. Clear is kind and unclear is unkind, and if I’m not being heard then I’m not being clear.

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