I am writing this at the airport, between flights. There is a family nearby, with a toddler. He likes to wander around, clearly. The mother calls to him, “Stay where I can see you!”
It’s a parent’s nightmare: Losing your child because they wander off while playing.
I remember when I had my own epiphany about this. My children were playing on a large lawn that sloped away from where the adults were socializing. There were a number of kids, actually. We adults told the kids, “Stay where we can see you.” that’s when I realized: They have no way of knowing whether I can see them or not.
So I walked out to where the kids were playing, looking back to the adults. when the slope of the lawn made them invisible, I walked back toward them until they were in view again. Then I balled up a couple of sweatshirts and dropped them on the grass. “Don’t go past this line,” I told the kids.
That lesson has stuck with me in the professional world. In communications, we always talk about trying to adopt the perspective of whom we are trying to reach. But it is so, so hard. Something as simple as “stay where I can see you” is in fact put in exactly the opposite way.
Later, I figured out a less labor-intensive way of keeping the kids corralled. I would just say: “Make sure you can see me.” Just invert the statement and it makes sense (and makes my point a bit more neatly too).
In the day to day world, how many people are we communicating backwards to?