Humans are assessment-making machines. Every day, we form opinions and often express them, sometimes loudly, about things that happen in our lives, from the way the morning news is being delivered to how our dinner is prepared. We don’t often think about the impact of the assessments we make and how powerful they can be.
Public Speaking Snafu
Several years ago, I was preparing to give a speech to a group of students at Northwestern University. A first year MBA student assisted me with the sound check as I practiced my introduction to get the microphone levels right. After speaking for only about a minute or so, the woman approaches me and critiques the opening of my speech. “It’s all wrong, in fact it’s awful – it’s just not going to resonate with these business majors.” Mind you, this is just minutes before people will begin entering the room, and I will commence my talk.
I simply said “thank you” and continued my mental prep. Fifteen minutes later, I began my talk. The women who gave me the harsh assessment was seated front and center, and I noticed her jaw drop when she heard me open exactly as I had practiced. After I finished speaking, she raced up to me. “That was so amazing! Now, I see why you opened that way.” I took the opportunity to ask her if she was open to some coaching. She agreed.
I opened my conversation chuckling. “It’s probably not a good idea to approach a speaker right before they are going on stage and offer that kind of feedback. So many people would have taken your feedback to heart, scrambled to change their opening or would have been rattled when they delivered their speech. I know your intention was good, but try to bring in a little more emotional intelligence into those kind of situations.” She nodded.
I then offered her a coaching nugget that I hoped would land deeper. “Let me help you understand why I didn’t listen to or incorporate your feedback. It’s simple – I never gave you the authority to make an assessment. I didn’t give you the authority because
- You are not a professional speaker or coach, so the assessment wasn’t value to me and,
- You were oblivious to what thread I was about to go down in my talk.
In both cases, I made the assessment that you were not a credible assessor. As a result, I didn’t give your suggestion a second thought.
My response in that situation was pretty uncommon. What’s far most common are people indiscriminately taking ALL assessments to heart and/or responding defensively to deflect the pain it presents to our ego. The consequence of absorbing these responses over time can be quite harmful. Some of them that will impact and shape our beliefs of who we are, how good we are, what’s possible for us and not possible for us. We can end up making up stories about ourselves that can be baseless, but powerful in their negative impact over time.
I ended that thread with the advice, “Make sure you don’t blindly accept assessments without using discernment. Choose carefully who you lend authority to for making assessments.”
I then explained to her that the speech was intentionally set up to provide a surprise twist and eventual delight. I wanted people to disagree with me at the start, in order to achieve the powerful impact at the end. The book Give and Take by Adam Grant that dispels the myth that nice guys (and girls) finish last is written with a similar strategy. Bob Burg describes the book as, “It’s a great read. While highly-researched, it is filled with entertaining stories that begin with counter-intuitive points and are then brought home in a way that causes the reader to say, “Of course, makes perfect sense!”
Because I knew where I was going with my speech, I chose not to give the student’s assessment any credit. But more often than not, we listen to others’ negative assessments of ourselves and hold them to be fact. We tell ourselves small lies all of the time:
- I’m too tired.
- I’m too busy.
- I’m not smart enough.
- That will never happen to me.
This is actually self-sabotaging behavior because these conversations that you have with yourself are building who you are. You are basically programming yourself to believe these things about yourself even if they aren’t true.
I told myself for years that I was too busy to write a book. The truth was, I just didn’t prioritize writing a book. Once I did, I put the work in and I’m proud to say that Leading Lightly is available for pre-order now and will be released March 2022.
Evaluate the Assessment
An assessment is just a piece of information, and it’s not necessarily the truth. In order to give someone authority for you to take in their assessment, you must first determine why you would listen to them in the first place. You must be thoughtful and use discernment when considering others’ assessments. Here are some ways you can evaluate whether to listen to someone’s assessment:
- Does the person have expertise in the area? For example, if this is your supervisor, you would want to consider their assessment because you work for them, and they should have more experience than you in the subject. If the MBA student who assessed me was a professional speaker, I would have entertained listening to her opinion.
2. Are there other contributing factors that could serve the other person and not me? Someone who is competitive with you could be trying to tear you down in order to build themselves up. By giving you a negative assessment, it helps them feel better about themselves because they are insecure. Over time, negative assessments can chip away at your self-esteem and confidence.
You also need to be on the lookout for narcissistic or gaslighting behavior. Those people constantly negatively assess people and while they might not do it consciously, they are trying to make themselves look and feel better.
3. Do you value their assessment? The person giving you the assessment could be an expert in their field, but you may have an opposing opinion. You aren’t in alignment with this person from a values perspective or a historical experience perspective. Their opinion is very different from your own, and you are aware of that contextually.
For example, if someone is coming from a very different lens than you, you may not put any value behind their assessment. You may not accept advice from someone who is an only child when it comes to dealing with your numerous siblings. You come from a large family, while the other person doesn’t, so you wouldn’t necessarily listen to them in that particular context.
4. Do you respect the person? You should value an assessment of anyone you have a trusted relationship with and whom you look up to. That could be a mentor, or simply someone who is further along in their career than you who is getting effective results in life. You have evidence of their rising success, so they could help you with your own rise to the top.
5. Is there a level of distrust? It’s unlikely you would take to heart someone’s assessment whom you do not trust. You may know something about that individual that precedes them. If a financial advisor has been convicted of fraud, it’s unlikely you would take his assessments of what could possibly be good investments for you.
6. Are they a referral from a trusted person? If someone you deeply trust in your life recommends this person, you may honor their assessment even though you haven’t necessarily built up trust with them yourself. For example, if your favorite college professor who you credit to your success puts you in touch with someone and wholeheartedly recommends them to help you advance your fledgling career, you would likely be able to trust their assessment.
7. Has this person spoke to you in a way that you felt they was authentic? This happens with people we do not know personally all of the time. It could be someone you see doing an interview on TV or the author of a book you are reading. You have no relationship with that person, but if you resonate with their message, you can take that as an assessment that you would value.
You may literally know nothing about this person, but they presented information (i.e. assessments) that are in alignment with your own beliefs. It’s how we can become a super fan of someone like researcher and storyteller Brené Brown without ever meeting her in person.
8. What does your gut tell you? Let’s not forget about the power of intuition and gut. Trust it. If something feels off, it probably is, even if you can’t put your finger on it.
Listening to Inaccurate Assessments
Inaccurate assessments can start affecting our lives even as children. If a parent constantly tells a child they are not good enough or that they will never amount to anything, the child takes that to heart. If a student hears from a teacher that they will never get into college, they may be discouraged to apply to any schools. If a supervisor constantly disparages a young employee, it could affect their confidence in their career and hold them back.
All of these behaviors can be deeply damaging as this repetitive message is coming from people of positions of authority and happens during your formidable years. Instead of letting inaccurate assessments change the trajectory of your life, we must learn to discern when and when not to accept an assessment.
Ask yourself these questions to help you filter any future assessment through the appropriate lens. And if you need help understanding how your mindset profoundly impacts your day-to-day performance, energy and outcomes, our leadership workshops can help you identify those many lenses of your life.