It’s the end of my summer holiday, and I am in the Scottish Highlands on a fabulous off-road mountain bike ride with my daughter. The scenery is breathtaking – layers of grey mountains in the distance, the ground covered in purple heather and ancient ferns amidst pine groves, with not a soul as far as the eye can see.
We come to a fork in the road. The path to the left is the short route back to the bike rental shop. The path to the right takes the long way around, an additional 6 miles. My daughter has been quiet on the ride, she seems in good spirits, but I suspect her energy is flagging. At the same time, I’d love nothing more than to take the long way home and steal an extra hour in this magical place.
I’ve already checked in with her a few times to see how she is feeling, and whether she’d like to stop for lunch. She’s said she is “good” and not hungry, gives a flash of a smile, and we’ve pedaled on.
At the fork, after another non-committal “good,” I ask her, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how energetic are you feeling?”
“Um…six?” she said.
We stand there a bit longer and take another drink of water.
Then I look at her again and she says, “Well, actually, four.”
We walk up to the fork, put our bikes down, and plop down on the mossy ground under some pine trees. We eat the three sandwiches we have packed along with two apples. We relax, we talk, and, a half hour later, we head off on the short path home.
The gap between my daughter’s 6 and 4 response is just one representation of the distance that exists between what someone feels and what they tell us in order to please us.
Especially when we are in positions of authority, we consistently get rose-tinted responses to our questions. This means that not only do we have to ask for feedback, we also have to create relationships that nudge that feedback towards being as honest and open as possible. And, even when we get this all right, to get an accurate barometer of what’s really going on we must remember to discount the good and amplify critiques.
For years I fell into the trap of a self-serving story about “honesty” and “directness.” I tried to be honest and direct with the people around me, and I expected them to do the same. When, after the fact, I learned that someone hadn’t told me “the truth,” I pinned the blame on them—”they had the chance to speak up, and they should have,” I thought, self-righteously.
This mindset is willfully blind to what it means to be in a position of privilege and authority. To truly listen to those around us, whether colleagues or friends or beneficiaries of the programmatic work that we do, we must meet people on their terms, not ours, and understand how power dynamics and culture color all that we do and say.
If we’re lucky, and if we do our jobs well, the gap between what we’re told and reality will only be the distance between 6 and 4. Better yet, the longer we listen and the more space we create, the more likely it is that someone will tell us that they’re actually feeling like a “4.”