A 9-Year-Old's Lessons For Corporate America

My daughter and I are very different people. Yes, obviously she’s 9 and I’m 38, but it’s less an age thing than a personality thing. She’s very linear: she sees things in black or white, follows direction like it’s her job and has been known to say things like: “Emotions are so boring.” I, on the other hand, take a windier path: I live in the gray, value spontaneity and have been known to make both of my kids talk about their feelings so much they feel there will be therapy bill in the mail. I’ve always been aware of these differences and found them to be interesting compliments -- taking us both out of our comfort zones and teaching us something about balance.

I took my daughter to New York City this weekend for a mother-daughter trip and found (for the first time that I was aware of) that these differences made me quite uncomfortable. The discomfort surprised me. It came while we were having an over-priced dinner at a nice restaurant, celebrating what was about to be her first time seeing a show on Broadway. It hit me halfway through dinner that everything about her presence that night challenged me. The topics we talked about, her penchant for disagreeing with the way I saw things, her demand that our evening be more about being silly than “fancy” and her constant holding me to task for things she saw as frivolous. “Mom,” she said as I was paying the bill, “you spent $200 on some pasta and steak just for the view?” While she was right, that was a ridiculous amount (although there was more than just pasta and steak, thankyouverymuch) I was struck by how little we connected on that night. I’m sure any of you parents reading this can relate to the onslaught of guilt that came with that realization. As her mother I was supposed to get her, and not only was I not getting her, I was also uncomfortable in her presence. So, I stopped and I sat with it – all the feelings, the discomfort, the guilt, the joy of even having this time with her. Then I asked myself one, slightly odd, question – ‘how would you handle this if you were with an employee or a client you didn’t see eye-to-eye with?’

That question shifted everything for me. Suddenly I heard the advice I’ve given others a dozen times:  When you’re uncomfortable, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen. I thought about how listening with empathy is hard, but also the most rewarding thing I had learned to do throughout my career and as a leader. So, I shut up. I listened to the things she was saying and the things she wasn’t saying, and for the first time that weekend I saw her clearly. The discomfort shifted and a new level of understanding my own daughter took its place. I was able to meet her where she was because I realized none of it was about me. She wasn’t trying to challenge me, (well maybe just a little, she is a preteen) she was simply being herself and that had nothing to do with me or what I thought was fun, exciting, or right. It wasn’t disapproval so there was nothing to feel defensive or uncomfortable about.

It’s crazy that thinking about how I would handle something in my professional life helped me in that moment with my daughter. Or is it? Life doesn’t have the boundaries we arbitrarily create between work and life, it’s just about giving us experiences to learn from.

So here are my ‘lessons learned’ from my weekend with my daughter:

· Disagreement, between friends, family, coworkers, leadership or even a brand and its customers, isn’t the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning.

· Listening with empathy is the only way to know what people need and figure out if you can and are willing to give it to them.

· It’s not personal; but it’s important to show up. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s OK, but it’s not OK to disengage when it happens.

· Be Who you Are. My daughter didn’t care where we were or what beautiful dress I had stuck her in – she was being herself even when her own mother didn’t want to let her be. In the end, by doing that, she taught me the most important lesson of all.

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Mory Fontanez