What to do when no one listens to you

Everyone has been there: you say something. You drop hints. You leave a note. You tell people to their face. You curse and throw things, or maybe you bake a cake. And yet, people don’t hear what you are saying.

And this, no matter who you are talking to, is probably the most frustrating thing you’ve ever experienced. So let’s talk about what’s going wrong.

As a young woman working in an international workplace, I thought being direct and respectful would do the trick. Boy was I wrong. My attempts to empower my first employee by assigning him work that would further his career blew up in my face. He started coming in late, taking 5 hour lunches and missing assignments.

Frustrated, I turned to my friend Jelena, a super savvy Eastern European who finesses through life with such grace and resilience that I often question if she doesn’t know something the rest of us are missing. She smiled, looked at me, and said: “Well, my dear. You are doing everything wrong.”

Jelena went on to tell me that as a Chinese man, especially from NE China, he wasn’t used to being given personal freedom. He’d also never worked for a woman before, which might have thrown him off. My intentions, she said, were noble, but I was going about implementing them all wrong.

I ended up fixing this relationship by publicly scold-praising him, affirming how much I needed him on my team (he had perceived my laxity as letting him go, not trust that he will do a good job), and informed him that I still expected him to do the photo assignments. Not because I wanted him to become a photographer, but because the team needed him.

And the next day he showed up at 9:08. Close enough, given Beijing traffic!

This incident taught me a powerful lesson, that I have applied to everyone since. Here’s how it goes:

1. Decide what you want to say.

In his case, it was: JJ, I think you’re really talented but probably bored doing the same job for 3+ years. I know you want to be a photographer, so I’d like for you to handle photography assignments. I’m happy to reassign some of your work to an intern if that helps.

2. Figure out how they need to hear it.

I didn’t anticipate that he would be uncomfortable with a liberal female boss, nor did I anticipate him to need approval. He was such a macho, but like many of his Chinese peers, he had grown up in a system that rewards compliance and respect for authority. I should have made sure to phrase it in a way that takes not only his goals, but his filters into consideration.

That’s it. It’s so easy, and yet so easy to mess up in this modern age of digital communications.

In my marriage, my demand for long discussions about business drove my husband nuts. He was tired, and he hates talking, but as his account and business development person, I needed answers. In this case, I presented him with a checklist and a cup of tea when he got home, and kept it to: “I need answers to these five things by tomorrow. Love you.”

When working for a university media lab, I learned to always put student outcomes first, even when the request was for our office manager.

When working with remote teams, I always make sure to articulate everyone’s benefit, and to preface any humor or comment, to make sure everyone feels included and no one feels put off.