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No One Needs to Know How Awful They Are

Have you ever worked for a terrible communicator?

Perhaps you have a family member who routinely criticizes everyone.

There’s nothing like the dysfunctions of others to bring out the beast in us.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I spent the better part of a decade as a corporate trainer running sales and leadership seminars.  When I first started I believed that in order to develop new skills, people needed to accurately assess their current skills.

I was wrong.

People don’t need to have the big “aha” moment about how terrible they are in order to improve.  For example, a person who is a terrible communicator can believe they are a solid eight on a one-to-ten scale.  In reality, they may be a two at best.  But they don’t need to recognize their failure in order to improve.  They can improve if you show them what “nine” behavior looks like, and how to get there.

But our egos don’t want to let the offender off so easily.  We want the terrible communicator, constant criticizer (insert dysfunction here) to become fully aware of their awfulness.  Sometime we even rehearse what I call the shower speech.  You know, the little speech you give in the shower preparing for the moment when you confront them with reality.  The moment where they totally recognize their failure. It feels like vindication; your speech is a moment of truth.

Yet, as satisfying as it may feel, it’s unnecessary.

I used to subscribe to the conscious incompetent, conscious competent model.  Perhaps you’re familiar with the 4-section grid.  People are either competent or not, and they are either conscious or unconscious of their competence or lack thereof.  The theory suggests people must become aware (conscious) of their incompetence, before they can become conscious competent.

The theory is wrong.  Mostly.  When self-aware people become conscious of their lack (incompetence) they’re inclined to take action, particularly if it’s an area of great importance to them.  When I realized how little I knew about nutrition as a young mother, I made it my business to become more knowledgeable.  I was highly motivated to improve myself as a parent, and I didn’t have my ego invested in my knowledge of nutrition.  The aha moment – Wow I’m terrible at this – propelled me to action.

Yet, our desire to create an ‘aha moment’ for others, may be driven by our own need for validation rather than what would be truly helpful for the other party.  The human ego is a sneaky master.

As a young trainer specializing in communication, I would spend the early part of a workshop, trying to help them “see” where they were going awry. I came to realize, it was pointless. I changed course. Instead of discussing their current state, I began focusing what was possible for their future state. If they thought they were an eight, no problem, we’ll start there and help you become a nine or ten.  Once I let go of the idea they needed to accurately assess themselves, people improved faster.

Leaders would come out of workshops, believing they had made a few tweaks, when in fact they had done a 180-degree change.  All that matters is the result.

Next time you’re frustrated with someone. Instead of trying to help them see where they are. Focus on where they could be.