It’s a startling thought, really: “The only person’s face I can’t see in a conversation or a meeting is my own.” That’s a little unnerving. Sheila Heen, founder of Triad Consulting and lecturer at Harvard Law School, has a Big Think+ video called “The Science of Receiving Feedback: Seeing Your Blind Spots. In it, she lays out a few more things to think about. “The only body language I’m not paying attention to is my own,” she continues. “I know what I look like when I’m looking at myself standing still in the mirror, but I don’t know what I look like in action, in life. The other thing is I don’t know what I sound like.” We’re pretty much flying blind when it comes to understanding how others are seeing us. Thank goodness for feedback.
Sure, it can be annoying, even disconcerting, when we receive feedback from others about things we’ve said and/or done. They may describe a meeting that went off the rails, or clueing us in to an unintended impression we’ve given others on our team. It’s hard to sit through a summary of our imperfections, especially when we’ve invested so much effort in what we say and how we say it. But feedback like this is absolutely invaluable. It gives us a precious peek at ourselves from the outside. As Heen notes, it’s entirely possible — and not uncommon — that the persona we project is completely different from the way in which we see ourselves.
Blind spots? Me?
Yes, you, and everyone else, too. It’s not a matter of being personally obtuse. Heen talks about brain research by Sophie Scott revealing that when we speak, we actually shut off the part of our brain — the superior temporal sulcus, or “STS” — that analyzes others’ speech for meaning and emotion. So we literally don’t know what we sound like to others.
“This is why it’s so surprising when we hear a recording of ourself,” Heen suggests, “because your voice coming out of the speaker is actually going through that STS for the first time in a long time, and you’re shocked at like, uh, that’s how I sound?”
Watching your tone
A particularly troublesome blind spot can lie in the gap between our tone as we intend it, and the way it comes across to others. We’re talking particularly here about inflection and cadence, often-subtle auditory cues through which we communicate all sorts of things: a humorous twist, a touch of skepticism, and emotion. When there’s a disconnect, our meaning can become hopelessly distorted. Ever had an argument in which the other person picks up on some subtle, provocative subtext you hadn’t even realized you were communicating? “I’m not using some tone. What are you talking about?” As Sheen says, “Theoretically I’ve been listening to myself every day of my life, but actually I rarely hear myself the way everybody else does.”
Holding yourself accountable to be more effective
Obviously, then, feedback we receive from others is priceless when we want to see into our own blind spots. Heen suggests regularly, actively soliciting feedback as the best possible double-check of our own perceptions during meetings and other important exchanges, especially those that didn’t go the way we’d hoped.