That Dirty Look? Has Nothing to Do with You.

Hard of hearing

When a test doesn’t go as expected, or a homework assignment goes missing, my son sometimes claims “that teacher just hates me.” But as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

And, while that’s true in general, it’s particularly true in intercultural communications–taking the broad view of intercultural to include not only culture or ethnicity, but also age or ability, as I learned last week after teaching an aqua aerobics class. During class, one of the participants was sometimes following what I was doing, sometimes not. At other times she would blankly stare for a minute before moving, as though disapproving of my exercise choices.  And while there were 24 others seemingly having the time of their lives, it was hard not to wonder why this person was here if she hated the class so much. “I just didn’t connect with her…what am I doing wrong?” I thought.

After class, I maneuvered to purposely cross paths. “Nice work, thanks for coming,” I said, probably with raised intonation at the end, with my secretly implied question of “why do you hate me as an instructor?!”

“It was wonderful, and I have to thank you,” she said. “Sorry if I was flailing about or not following you. I can’t hear a thing–I use a hearing aid but can’t use it in the pool. In fact that’s true for a lot of the ladies in the class. But, thank you. You are easy to follow because you demonstrate the moves as well.”

And with that little conversation come three important lessons:

1. It’s important to be aware of your own communication style and be able to recognize that of others, for better communication. I might show someone appreciation by smiling, making eye contact, nodding encouragement. Someone with visual impairment or hearing loss might be squinting or seem unfocused or not making eye contact, leaning in to be able to understand and follow.

2. People learn in different ways, some by seeing, some by hearing an exercise described, some by doing. And, in a given room, it’s probably equally divided in terms of how people learn. Your ability to combine approaches that draw on all of these will ensure the greatest number of people are engaged.

3. It’s not always about you! People come to each moment in time with everything from their entire life experience to the wonderful or awful things that happened just 10 minutes ago. It’s okay to ask, “how’s everyone doing this morning,” or “Please feel free to share anything about you that will help you get the most out of this experience,” “please feel free to provide feedback–this is about you, so I want to make it work for you.”

At one workplace, we adopted a tenet of the Sanctuary Model, a model that has proven to be effective when working with children who have been victims of trauma. Called a “community meeting” at the beginning of our bi-weekly staff meetings, each person would answer three questions: How are you feeling? What are your goals for the day (or class, or meeting, etc.)? Is there anyone here who can help you with that? There was no processing or solving–just a moment to help people be fully present and to get a sense of everyone’s state of being coming into the meeting.

Intercultural communications always ask people to “assume positive intent,” and that’s important here. If we think we’ve seen one thing, we may react according to that perception. But how wonderful it can be if we stop to ask, interceding our own knee-jerk reaction, and perhaps offering compassion, or making a deeper connection instead.

Has this happened to you? Or were you on the other end–someone thinking you were mad at them, when you weren’t? How did you handle it?