we don’t read, we don’t listen, and we don’t pay attention

Posted: January 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

With the support of my boss, last year on our satisfaction surveys at work I made a major change in the way we ask the questions.  Previously, we had asked the questions in a format of, “How satisfied are you on a scale of 1 to 5?” about various topics, with 1 being not satisfied at all to 5 being very satisfied.  The change was to an “Are you satisfied?” format, with the answer choices being yes or no.

I had pushed for this because the 1 to 5 scale gave what I found to be confusing results.  Here’s why:  everybody knows that a 1 means you’re getting it all wrong and a 5 means you’re rockin’ it.  But what the heck does a 3 mean?  Is that, Sure, things are just fine, or is it more This is mediocre and I’m on the verge of being unsatisfied?  We did have a key on the very first page that gave more precise wording than this for what a 3 meant, but the comments that people wrote in told me that different people meant different things with their 3s.  It was a good number for some, and for others it was a “C” grade – we could for sure do better.  People were interpreting it by what it meant in their heads, and not as much what the key on the cover page said.

So while losing the 1 to 5 system robbed us of our ability to preen over the large swaths of 5s we always got in a lot of sections of the survey,  I like the yes/no format for its clarity in helping us sort out what is going on in the places where we are less than absolutely fabulous.  After all, a satisfaction survey shouldn’t only be a system for collecting brags – it needs to also help us do better.

We did include a question on last year’s survey asking whether they were satisfied with the new yes/no format.  That one got a majority of yes answers, so we’re sticking with the format.  But there was this little pocket of people among those saying yes who wanted a third option.  Some of them wanted an N/A (not answering or not applicable), while others wanted some type of just “other” choice, for when their answer is something like, “Kinda yes, but kinda no.”

Here’s the thing:  the instructions at the opening made it clear that if you didn’t know an answer or the question somehow didn’t apply in your case, you were to skip the question.  Just skip it.  No N/A needed.  Not answering is the same as circling N/A.

And if your answer is both yes and no – well, that’s like circling the 3.  It leaves us guessing about what you’re thinking.  Is everything basically okay but just imperfect?  Or are you daily grumbling to your kids and neighbors that we need to get it together on this point?

So I spent some time in our resident meetings this week preparing them for the fact that it will still be a yes/no format, without a third option, and asking them to write comments when any part of their answer is no, so that we aren’t left with the impossible task of guessing why folks are less than completely satisfied on any point.

I already know almost certainly from experience that some surveys will come back to me in March with comments written in asking for an N/A option and/or some other 3rd choice beyond yes or no.  I know this because I’ve learned – in communicating, we miss a lot of the message.  I say it in my own little jaded phrases:  People don’t read, people don’t listen, and people don’t pay attention.  We just don’t.  We think we do, but we miss so much along the way.

This is no special condemnation of our residents.  Actually, they are from a generation less distracted by screens, and they come from a time when people DID read, listen, and pay attention to a much larger degree.  By practice, they have probably historically done better on this front than my generation.  The challenge for some of them is just the decline in function that can come with age.

But we are all like this, here in our culture as I experience it at least.  When I first started noticing this fifteen years ago, I didn’t think I was part of this problem.  I imagined that I was a careful reader and listener, mindful of details, definitely paying attention in a world that was not.  But over time I’ve had ample opportunity to see that I’m not special on this front.  I’m at the front of the line in the business of not reading, not listening, and not paying attention.

Just this past week, a coworker sent me an email asking me for 3 database lists.  Reading the email quickly and amidst the usual multi-tasking, I didn’t get it right.  I saw ONE of the three items.  I mailed it back to her immediately, feeling like I was killing it with my speed.  When she called me back to ask about the other two items, I reopened her email and was horrified to see that I had missed them.  Oops.  I fixed it right away, but it was just another humbling reminder that I hadn’t been paying full attention.  I hate that.  I don’t mind so much when I’m AWARE that I’m not fully tuned in, but I just LOATHE it when I think I was paying attention and discover I really wasn’t at all.

Experiences like that help me not to be a jerk when I catch someone else making that error.  I have learned (mostly) to not assume I’m right when someone asks a question that implies I might have missed something.

We don’t read.  We don’t listen.  We don’t pay attention.  We could.  We should.  But we largely don’t.  I could go on another several thousand words about why, but we know the whys, don’t we?

So the challenge is to find a way to communicate in a culture where this is the way it works.  This is why clarity isn’t enough – we need repetition as well.  If it’s repeated 7 times, we might catch it.  Maybe!

I’d be interested to hear about ways you’re meeting the challenges of communicating in a culture that doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, and certainly doesn’t pay attention.

  1. Cindy Maynard says:

    A huge pet peeve of mine is this…….someone gives you their cell number to leave a message on. when you return the call, leave a message and then immediately they return your call. They ask “what’s up?” I ask “did you listen to my message?” They say no. I tell them to hang up and listen to my message. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. People are annoying, and I know, I am a people!

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