Friday, July 3, 2009

A lesson in Active Listening

For the past several months I've been applying for all sorts of jobs as I seek to find what the next chapter of my life will be. I've been managing a small non profit for about a year. I'm good at it and it has it's rewards, but I really longed to get back into an academic setting. So I applied for both administrative and teaching positions at colleges in several different states. Lately I've been focusing on Idaho colleges since that is where I really want to live.

Way back in January I had applied for a job at the College of Southern Idaho which is in Twin Falls. I never heard back from them. Then a couple months ago I applied for a different job at the College of Western Idaho in Nampa. That one was a senior student services position that sounded like a very good fit for my skill sets.

I was thrilled when I got the phone call from them saying they wanted to schedule me for a phone interview. I spent several days researching EVERYTHING there was to know about the college and this particular position.

I took off work at noon to get home early and be very prepared for my 2:00 PM interview. I was well rested, I was prepared, I was confident. This was my moment. I was READY to give my very best. 15 minutes into the interview I felt like I was IN THE ZONE... I was comfortably fielding questions from 5 different people and felt we were communicating VERY well. I could tell from the way they were responding to my answers that they were pretty impressed. It really did seem we had a match.

At some point I said something about how exciting it would be to be part of a brand new community college and establish a culture of excellence right from the start. Most of my jobs in the past have been targeted at fixing systems that were broken. With this job it would be an opportunity to develop something new from the ground up which would be a wonderful challenge.

That's when the bottom dropped out.

They were confused for a minute and then said, "well, we are not a new community college. That would be College of Western Idaho. We've been here for many years."

HUH??? Now it was MY turn to be confused. I thought I WAS interviewing with College of Western Idaho. I had spent all that time researching and preparing to know all there was to know about them and this particular position. But now they were telling me the interview was not what I had anticipated. For one long, perilous, mind-bending moment I was caught in a twighlight zone of stupor. I had absolutely NO IDEA who I was actually even talking to or what job I was being considered for.

So I took a deep breath and plunged on. I said "oh, my mistake. Could you tell me a little bit more about your program?" Then I just shut up and listened very, very carfully to get my bearings while they described in more detail about the job they had in mind.

Apparently I mis-heard the person when they called to set the interview in the first place. This was the College of SOUTHERN Idaho. In Twin Falls. For the project manager job I had applied for way back in January.

Oh my.

So I faked my way over the gaffe and actually did a pretty good job of the rest of the interview. I am usually quite skilled in interview settings and have talked my way into more than one job I wasn't even particularly qualified for at the time simply by convincing an employer I am bright and could learn the needed skill sets quickly. I did manage to get the conversation back on track to my strengths and how I might be a good fit for them. But the whole time I was feeling foolish, embarrased and confused. How could I have possibly talked to these people for all that time and SEEMED to be connecting so very well when they were not who I thought they were and we were talking about totally different sorts of jobs? How dumb is that?

I can see now how I made the mistake. I had dismissed this job in my mind long time ago and more recently focused on the one in Boise that just closed March 8. So, when they called and said something about "Calling to set up a phone interview for the position at College...Idaho" my brain skipped over the SOUTHERN and heard what it wanted to hear. Add to that the fact that I took the call at work when I was caught up in the midst of three different dramas at once, so I did not have my best focused attention on the phone. Therefore, it IS sort of understandable how I made the initial mistake. But to go on talking to a team for 15-20 minutes and STILL hold onto my false assumption? THAT'S the part I don't get. Surely I should have picked up early on what was up. However, I did not.

There are definitely some important lessons here about how our perceptions can be shaped by our desires and expectations / previous assumptions, etc. I heard what I WANTED to hear, not what was actually said. Then, because I THOUGHT I had accurate information and did not feel confused, I did not bother with the usual clarifying questions one uses in a state of ambiguity.

NOTE TO SELF - ANY time I am communicating with others it is helpful to practice more "active listening", paraphrasing back what I THINK I understand in order to help them feel totally heard and to make sure I don't get my foot caught in a bear trap of miscommunication without even knowing it!

Also, when it is a high stakes communication, it's good to ask them to repeat back to me what their understanding is of what I have said just to be sure we are on the same page.

The long and short of it is I spent all that energy focusing on STUDENT RETENTION when that isn't what I was being interviewed for at all. The interview was for a project manager job that was looking for more fiscal oversite. I have experience managing a 2.5 MILLION dollar budget before, but I never even mentioned that since I was all prepared to talk about my other skill sets. Would I have gotten the job if I had handled it differently? I'll never know for sure.

I'm still more than a little embarrassed that I didn't pay better attention, that I got my wires so seriously crossed. But I'm able to take it in stride now, take the lesson learned and move on. It happened. Life goes on.

The trick is to learn from it and change my approach next time.

1 comment:

Kim and Victoria said...

That's a great story and a great lesson to have learned. You show a lot of humility here, which I greatly admire.