I was recently skimming a parenting book by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson called the Whole Brain Child. It is a helpful book for parents who are looking for new strategies to communicate and connect with their children in a more positive and loving way. There are lots of great examples and good, common-sense advice for learning how to stay out of a shaming/controlling relationship with your kids.
There was one section in particular that caught my attention because I knew it to be a blinding truth about how our thoughts about ourselves can impact our communication. He and Tina point out that feeling inadequate as a parent will create anxiety and confusion kids. In other words, every time we act with the thought “if I were a better parent, this wouldn’t be happening,” we create feelings of chaos and negativity.
It strikes me that if this is true for parenting, then it is also true for leadership (because a parent is a leader, not because leaders are all parents). It also occurs to me that when we bring our sense of inadequacy to our communication in general, we can also create confusion and anxiety. when we believe that we are not enough, and when we feel compelled to “fix” that feeling either by dumping it on others or by proving the opposite, we create not only anxiety but a kind of disconnection.
Here are two examples:
- I am a horrible public speaker.
- I don’t know how to do public speaking well.
With which of these two people would you rather have a conversation?
The first comment is something that I have heard people say quite a bit. Once people learn that you are an “expert” at something, there is a tendency to admit their inadequacy in that field. When people find that I do communication and public speaking coaching, there is often a followup admission of incompetence in that area.
(um, I’m sorry?)
When someone tells you that they are inadequate, what are your options for responses? You could argue with them and say “no, no, no, you can’t be that terrible,” but then people always seem to double down with, “oh, yes, I am definitely the worst of the worst.”
It can become a weird argument. You could also agree with them, “I’m sure you are the worst,” but that just feels rude (and probably a lie). Besides those two options, it is hard to keep that conversation going. (Maybe you could say “thanks for sharing”?)
The second example, however, offers a lot of opportunities to explore. Not knowing something does not inherently make anyone inadequate. They might have inadequate skills, but that is not about them as a human being. It is also pretty vulnerable and interesting. It opens the way to learning.
Whenever we talk about our skills or our knowledge as though it is a reflection of character, we leave people no choice except to believe that perception. Even if I have evidence that you are not a terrible speaker, I am given only the option of believing you or disagreeing with you. It takes a lot of work to be curious in that moment.
What if someone told you that they were short and yet they were taller than you? Would that be confusing? (Answer: yes, or insulting at the least.)
Notice the next time you communicate with someone from a place of inadequacy and see if it moves the connection closer or further away. Ask yourself, is this information that anyone can do anything with?
Also ask yourself whether this is a true statement. I think that if you look for evidence you may find that you have lots of examples of being pretty good or good enough at something. (This is often dependent on our comparison model. If you are six feet tall and you compare yourself to professional basketball players, then you will think you are short.)
Finally, ask yourself if this is helpful information. Does this statement or thought of inadequacy help me achieve a goal or help someone else be better at understanding me?
What does this person need/want from me?
The truth is that most people (narcissists excluded) want the people around them to be their full selves. We tend not to see other people’s inadequacies in the same sharpness that we see our own. So try to be kind both to yourself and to others by leaving those thoughts of inadequacy alone.