Reality Check: Messages That Matter

Have you ever received feedback that you didn’t want to hear? Yet, once you’ve heard it, you realize that even though it’s painful, it’s true.
When someone we love and trust points out that our actions are leading us in an unwise direction, we can choose whether or not to change course. The feedback has been provided; we have the information. What we do with it is up to us.
How a message is presented can have a significant impact on whether we take action as a result. Some people have “no filter” in the sense that they don’t care how their comments are perceived. They just tell it like they see it: insult, criticize, whatever. In some cases, this could be considered charming but it can also be destructive.
It takes skill to tell someone a hard truth in a way that can be heard and maybe even acted on.
In his book, “The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch recounts that he was told, “It’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Now that’s a loaded statement, isn’t it? This short piece of feedback apparently had a significant impact on Prof. Pausch. Why? It’s worth taking a closer look.
First, the feedback was coming from within a well-established relationship. Randy respected and trusted the sender of the message. When we know someone genuinely cares about us, that they are not competing or comparing with us, it’s easier to open our ears and hear what they are saying. Even the most accurate information and assessment is likely to fall on deaf ears if we don’t trust the source.
Second, it wasn’t offered as a criticism. Randy wasn’t accused of being arrogant. The statement was simply an observation of how he was perceived. This may seem a small distinction. However, the message of “You are this way,” versus “You are perceived this way” is different.
Finally, the feedback was given in terms of Randy’s interests. Telling Randy that people’s perception will limit him isn’t a demand that Randy change. Randy was a smart guy, but there was a gap in his knowledge—his lack of understanding that negative perceptions would have an impact on his success.
Another point springs to mind. It’s the question of, was this manipulative? Did the advisor use an underhanded method to coerce Randy to change his arrogant ways?
I’m mindful of how creative humans can be when it comes to finding ways to manipulate others, especially when we convince ourselves that we are doing it under the banner of, “This is for your own good.”
As I can’t mind-read, I can’t say what the advisor was thinking. But because there was already established good will between them, I’m inclined to believe that this was a genuine observation and a genuine statement of regret for the inevitable consequences of being perceived as arrogant.
It’s a skilful communicator who can tell us something that we don’t want to hear and have us perceive it neutrally or even positively. In this case, the established good relationship, the non-critical observation, and the recognition of the interests of the individual all contributed to this message getting across to the listener.
Have you ever gotten a message that motivated you to rethink or take action on something important to you?

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