I learned a couple of incredibly valuable lessons this week, lessons that ultimately will rearrange a lot of how I think and interact with the people in my life. It has a ton to do with leadership too. The way a leader connects and communicates with those around them.
Have you ever thought about what you say and then how it is received? Ever actively considered how many times you decide things for others without their consent or even consultation, just by the language you use? Ever wondered if what you say to people even has any value to them? These are interesting questions to consider.
I found out this week through two different examples that most of the time when I say something, I have already assumed that my thoughts are more valid than the other persons. That my considerations and viewpoints are the only ones and that theirs are less valuable if they do not coincide with mine. The language I use, the way I stack words, the very order of them, is designed to do one thing only: validate my point to the exclusion of any other. It is a very limiting way of seeing my world.
I also found that I often use superior language that actually devalues the other person in the discussion. A phrase like,"You're right." can have two vastly different meanings. You probably mean, "I agree with you.", or "That's true.", but when you use, "You're right." what you are really saying is, "I am hereby validating your thought process and that you have a right to your own independent thoughts." The point being made is no longer being valued. What is, is the conference my approval on you. Because we happen to share a common opinion, I have now deemed you good and valid, which implies that if we had not agreed on the point that you would be less of a valid person because of our disagreement.
A leaders job is to accomplish something, a mission, a task, developing their subordinates, all of the above. That is what we do. We take our experience, our knowledge and our understandings and make the best decision we can using all of them and we communicate using language. We provide purpose and direction. We talk. We explain. We outline. We send a message. And most of us never consider the message we are sending. Is it one of inclusion or exclusion? Is it one of respect or belittlement? Is it one of value or judgment. Do we hear our subordinates, truly respect their inherent right to see their world independently from us, or do we unconsciously believe that we alone hold the keys to success and their point of view does not matter? Is it possible that someone could have an equally valid, and equally valuable viewpoint as we do? Hardly. We are the leader, they are the subordinate. By that measure alone, what we think and our interpretation of something is inherently more valuable than theirs is.
As I found out this week, my intentions and my actions, my thoughts and my words, my personal biases often get interpreted much differently by even those closest to me. And it is not their fault. The fault is mine. I am miscommunicating simply by the
way I speak.
My wife says, "I'd think we ought to...." I reply with, "Why? What good will that do?" By the time she has finished her statement, I have often times already formulated my reply. Never pausing long enough to even consider why or how she came up with her reasoning in the first place. Never considering that her point of view is as equally valuable as mine. Not respecting her enough to consider that her opposite view carries as much truth as mine does. What I have really said to her in that exchange is, "I don't value the way you think because it is not exactly the way I think." Very disrespectful and very limiting. It never even provides the opportunity for me to learn to see her completely because it already imposes my judgement. Even worse is when I simply assume and never even consider her ideas before acting.
Now it is not my intention to do this. I love my wife and respect her immensely. She is a strong, independent and smart woman. She is entirely capable of running our family and her world all on her own. She has her own points of view. I do not ever intend to belittle her. In fact, until it was pointed out to me by a friend of mine this week, I was never really aware that I was doing it at all. I only want the best for her and for my family. I only want to ensure that what we do, and how we do, it serves to enhance and grow and bring happiness and love to our house. The problem is that the words I choose and the manner I communicate often totally discounts that she wants exactly the same things as I do. I am too busy telling her my views or opinions to stop long enough to listen to hers.
And the Army is full of leaders like that. Full of people who love to hear themselves think and talk and tell you how it all works. There is their way of interpreting the Army and no one else's. We all know people like that. The guy or gal who walks around speaking in denigrating or belittling terms about everyone around them. Immediately discounting any other opinion or viewpoint except their own. The more senior they are, the more prevalent it becomes. They never take a moment to pause long enough to even consider that someone else's view is as equally valid and as equally true as their own. Most of us can easily recognize that trait in others. As I found out this week though, it is immensely difficult to see it in ourselves. Quite clearly, it is a lesson I needed to learn.
The language you use as a leader is critically important to the success of your organization. By listening and respecting the views of those around you, by using inclusive rather than exclusive language, you can demonstrate that each Soldier is inherently valuable. That we, each one of us, have our own point of view, our own understanding, our own interpretation of all that we see. By learning to suspend our own filters and really listen, we get a much more concrete picture of the situation or problem we face. We also get the opportunity to really know who are Soldiers are. What they value. What matters to them. Why they see their world the way they do. All of these things are important leader tools. It's not whether I think something is important or not, it's whether my Soldier does. It's not whether I think the Soldier's issue amounts to a crisis, it's whether they do.
We talk about respect all the time in the Army. We talk about dignity and respect. And we all swear that we treat Soldiers that way. That we treat the people in our lives that way. That we value them and care for them and hold them in high regard. As I learned this week though, often times, the very way we communicate with them, the way we share ideas, is sending a wholly different message. We may be acting out of love and care and a desire for the best outcome. But what we are often saying is exactly the opposite.
To change the way I communicate will not come easily. Just being aware of it this week has shown me how often it appears in my interactions. It is a hard habit to break. But breaking it, really considering the thoughts, ideas, and value of others is something we all need to learn to do. I am only sorry it took me this long to figure it out.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.