On miscommunications, mean comments, and first impressions

I’ve been interviewing for new staff these last couple of weeks, and one particular meeting left me thinking…

I’ll call the candidate “Tom.” Tom was perfect. Present tense perfect until he asked a few questions that got me wondering.

The questions that he asked left me wondering if he was planning on eventually branching out to form a rival business, if he cared too much about what we were paying, and if pay was going to prevent him from putting in some of the necessary work that is needed in the beginning as part of the learning curve.

For a couple of days after we spoke I tried hard to separate his words from my interpretation. I imagined myself going to a couple of trusted friends with this issue. How would I recount the story? I told myself that I would need to recount his words, and not my interpretation of his words.

Tom’s questions were, after all, legitimate. I just need to ask myself how legitimate my reactions were. Was it intuition? Was it misinterpretation? I am equally adept at both.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen only in interviews (though I can imagine how many promising candidates have bombed their chances at a job because of it). It happens daily in our interactions with significant others, with our children, with our friends. Does any of this sound familiar?

Partner 1: Don’t forget you need to get [Junior] from soccer practice at 4.

Partner 2: You don’t believe I can get anything right, do you?

…..

Child: I can’t do this…it’s too hard…

Parent: You’re always complaining about things being too hard. What’s going to happen when you get to high school? Or start working? What’s going to happen then, when things really get hard and I’m not around to solve everything for you?

….

Friend 1: I was so exhausted yesterday, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give [Baby] a bottle.

Friend 2: What is wrong with using a bottle once in a while? Maybe you need to stop reading all those mommy blogs and La Leche propaganda. I don’t know of any adult who  thinks back and wishes his mommy never used a bottle on him.

….

Alright, so those examples are a bit extreme (or maybe not?) but you get the picture. I mean, how often are we bringing in our own emotions, insecurities, and experiences to conversations?

A year ago one of my posts was syndicated on Blogher. The post was about a discussion that I had with my son over blog writing privacy. In fact, the syndicated post was about which post I should syndicate. In it, I said to Fred, “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” And it goes on to show his reactions to my seemingly insensitive choice of topic.

550+ uneventful views of the Blogher post later, I received two negative comments, with one being nastier than the other. Both women felt hurt by my betrayal of my son’s trust, stating that in writing about not writing about his most private moment, I had violated his privacy. Piercing words that went straight to the bullseye of my being a s*itty mom. And here I reacted to their words: to me, there is nothing worse than intentionally hurting a child emotionally for my own gain. According to these commenters, that is what I had done or, at least, that is how I interpreted their judgment of me.

That night, I searched out the contact information of the meaner commenter and emailed her. I told her that her words stung, but because of her comment, I looked again at the post I had written, this time more critically. By early morning I had received a response. She was exceedingly gracious, and embarrassed, and apologetic. She was nothing at all like the comments that she had left the previous day. I was heartened.

We, in fact, exchanged emails for a good part of the morning. The more we “talked,” the  more I came to see that she had completely misread my post. She had somehow read into my post that Fred had come home with his underpants soiled – unable to clean himself – and that I had blogged about it. I was absolutely stunned, because nowhere in my post had I even alluded to anything like it. I had written one sentence – “Maybe I should use the story about how you didn’t want to wipe yourself.” – that was all. The original post was about a battle of wills I was having with my then-5 year old, about how he once offered to pay me to wipe him. The post centered around the negotiations that Fred was engaging me in, and it was a story of how these little 3 foot creatures can wear us down with their mental tenacity.

The commenter told me that my post reminded her of a childhood experience she had gone through. (It wasn’t her, but a friend or cousin who had soiled himself…I just add that lest you misinterpret ;-))

I won’t label myself thin-skinned or thick-skinned, because I believe that it is simply human to feel hurt by mean comments. Since this experience, though, you could say I’ve become more thick-skinned, less likely to take something personally. Just as blog posts that remind us positively of our experiences can resonate with us, so can posts that bring back bad memories. We bring so much of our pasts and our fears into the words that we hear and read and we can easily react not to the messenger’s experiences but to the emotions that his/her experiences evoke in ourselves. Our friend’s decision not to give in to formula can bring up our deepest insecurities that we have given in, and our child’s momentary whining about hardship can go to the heart of our fears as mothers that we are not doing everything right.

In a week, I am going to have to make a decision about Tom. How well I can harmonize his words, my emotions, and my intuition will impact, on some level, his career trajectory and the quality of our business. I hope I will have the clarity to do right by both him and us.

4 thoughts on “On miscommunications, mean comments, and first impressions

  1. We all color our perceptions with our own baggage, I believe. I don’t envy you the interview process because I’ve had both good and bad luck with hiring the right people. Perhaps I hear what I want to hear during the interview and make a bad choice, but I’ve long accepted that until they actually start work, I will never know what they really have to offer so it’s a matter of whether I’m willing to give them a chance to prove themselves, regardless of what they during the interview. (Well, that is if all the other “ingredients” are present – well-mannered, eager, willing to learn, easygoing, etc.)

    Good luck with your decision!

    • Thanks, Justine. And it’s interesting to hear about your experiences interviewing. Given how much baggage we can all bring even to the interview process, I wonder how useful they really are in evaluating candidates? I completely agree that you can never tell until you’ve hired them. I’ve learned the hard way more than once, and I consider myself pretty good at seeing through people. But performing at an interview is different from performing on the job.

  2. I have been in similar circumstances, on both sides of the fence. What I really like about this that it shows how we can all react strongly to someone we feel is critical of us….or, we can ask questions and find out what caused this reaction. I would have to say that 95% of the time it is something negative in the other person’s memories that has been triggered.

    • It’s helpful to recognize this on both sides of the fence, isn’t it? I think that being misunderstood can help us, hopefully, become more self-aware when we’re interacting with others. A friend of mine (with whom I’ve had several miscommunications) advised me once to simply respond with a “What did you mean by that?” instead of immediately reacting to something we think is negative or hurtful.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting!

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