“This is important,” I said. “But it’s not hard, and I only need you to do this for a minute.”
He looked at me from under his furrowed brow, not convinced.
“Please. Everyone else is smiling for the picture, and we want you to smile too.”
Still no luck. Just a strange noise of stubborn disobedience, something akin to a growl mixed with a whimper.
Such went my pathetic attempt at convincing my 5-year-old son to participate happily in a recent family photograph during our trip to Walt Disney World. He didn’t smile, and the resulting image is one of my wife, me and our three other children smiling with a professional Disney cast member dressed up like Princess Anna from the hit movie Frozen. My smiling wife is holding the grumpy child in question, suspending him in mid-air by his armpits while he stares at the ground.
Aside from being annoyed for a moment at his insubordination, I didn’t think this was a big deal at all. It was funny in its own way. But as I walked away, I realized the silliness and futility of my persuasion attempt.
A 5-year-old isn’t all that inclined to do something just because you think it’s important. A 5-year-old doesn’t care at all that he’s messing up your attempt to preserve for eternity an image of a perpetually happy, cute family. None of that is inherently important or obvious to a 5-year-old. He just knows that you’re trying to make him do something that doesn’t make sense to him.
I also realized in that moment that, in a way, we do the same thing in our situations with other adults. We do this with friends; we do this with spouses and significant others. And we most certainly do this with people at work—our bosses, our peers or people who report to us.
It leaves us wondering, “What is wrong with people?” “Don’t they have any common sense?” “Am I really the only person who knows this?” “This is so obvious!”
It leaves us frustrated, thinking that people just don’t “get it.”
I hear this from frontline employees. I hear this from supervisors. I hear this from CEOs and senior vice presidents.
And for these situations—just like mine with my 5-year-old—there’s a reason why it seems like people just don’t “get it.” It has to do with different perspectives and our inherent lack of empathy.
The reason why people just don’t “get it” is often simple: What’s important and obvious to you is quite often neither important nor obvious to others.
We think that our families, our teams and our organizations have singular, unified goals—when the reality is that we’re often misaligned and have individual goals that compete with each other’s. We think that what’s important for us is automatically important for other people. That makes us inherently likely to try to make our priorities other people’s priorities.
We think that what we’ve learned through our education, training and experiences over the course of years and decades should magically be obvious to others whose education, training and experiences invariably differ from ours. We think that what’s obvious in our minds should be clearly apparent to others, but we forget that they see the world differently. We quickly forget how we too were once clueless—and most certainly still are clueless about topics outside of our immediate domain.
And so I think there’s a lesson that my grumpy 5-year-old can teach us. First, it’s about influence. If you want to motivate and lead others, you need to understand first what’s important to them. Realize that what motivates you might not motivate them. Second, it’s about patience. If you want to reach any kind of shared understanding with someone, it’s going to take time. Sharing knowledge is tricky, because once you’ve learned something, it seems obvious to you. It’s also tricky because knowledge is often tacit, meaning that it includes comprehending principles that can’t be easily written down or made explicit.
So the next time you find yourself dealing with someone who just doesn’t “get it,” remember that what’s important and obvious to you is not necessarily important or obvious to that person. Try to empathize, seek understanding and be patient. Because if we’re really honest with ourselves, I think we’d find that we, too, oftentimes just don’t get it.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.