Impact happens in a moment.

What we can all learn from Don Cherry.

Posted: December 2nd, 2019

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, its likely that you have caught at least a whiff of the controversy surrounding Don Cherry’s departure from Sportsnet.  If you’re not in the loop, let me fill you in briefly.    The 85-year-old broadcaster made remarks during a broadcast around individuals not wearing poppies for Remembrance Day.    Many felt that his use of the term ‘you people’ was aimed at immigrants to Canada and belied a racist viewpoint.  Others felt he was misunderstood, or right to have that viewpoint, or a whole bunch of other things and, as a result, a large swathe of the Canadian people (who from my perspective are usually role models of politeness, tolerance and understanding) came pretty close to virtual fisticuffs. 

 Now, whether you fall in the ‘pro’ camp, or the ‘he had to go’ camp, the situation that Don Cherry found himself in is a brilliant example of the intricacies of human interaction.    Understanding what Don Cherry “meant” by what he said is at the heart of the matter and 'meaning' in communication is something we can all pay attention to.  By now, the only person who will ever really know what Don Cherry meant by what he said is Don Cherry, especially with an overlay of PR and media management.  But regardless of our interpretation of what Don Cherry meant (and you'll notice I don't give my opinion here because that's not the point of this article), this situation can serve as a good reminder to all of us to pay attention to how we interact.  There are lots of useful reminders here.  I've pulled out three. 

1. We hear what we hear.

When we listen, to Don Cherry or anyone else, we hear what our brains tell us we hear and, for good and for bad, our brains are biased.    There are a myriad of biases; at last count the Neuroleadership Institute put the number at 144.  From similarity bias, which is about tending to like, believe and support people we feel we have things in common with,  to experience bias, where our experiences in life lead us to believe something is true,  to confirmation bias, where we seek out information that confirms what we already believe,  everything we process is through a filter. It’s pretty common then, that what we share can be misinterpreted.    Cherry’s message has been interpreted a few different ways based on the experiences of the person on the receiving end.  The learning point here is not who is right (I have my own interpretation of course!) but the extent to which we interpret messages.  Its pretty critical therefore, particularly if you’re in a position of influence, to be really mindful of the lens with which your comments could be perceived and to ensure that you are not misunderstood.    It's also important that we check our understanding of what we think others meant to say, particularly if the consequences are significant. 

2. Why 'you people' is so problematic 

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the most contentious part of what Don Cherry said was his use of the term ‘you people’.   I don’t think many of us would have an issue with the expression of support for poppy wearing, or a desire to ensure as many people as possible are wearing them, but by using that term, in any way, Cherry immediately divided us.      As human beings, we are wired to want to connect to others, to be part of a group.  In one short phrase Cherry managed to make a whole group of people feel both on the outside and unfairly discriminated against.   Whether the phrase use was intentional or not, it was divisive and it rarely serves to put people on the outside when you have a message to share.  If you want to be heard, connecting with people, and making them feel that you support them and have things in common with them is key. 

3. Don't berate to motivate

For the sake of argument, let’s just assume for a moment that the observation that Don Cherry made was accurate. I know the argument here… just go with me for a minute for the sake of the learning point.   Let’s say that the statistics suggest that poppy wearing is on the decline. Raising the issue is one thing, but it is highly unlikely as a result of Don Cherry’s approach that anyone who hasn’t worn a poppy to date is suddenly going to pick one up and put it on.   If you’re trying to get someone to do something, berating them is not going to incentivise change.   If you want someone to do something differently, they need to see you in their corner (no pun intended), so skip the divisive language and show empathy.  

I could go on.. but you get the point.    Don Cherry may have meant what he said the way many took it.  I don't know.  He may well have been misunderstood, I don’t know.  As an immigrant to Canada, maybe he meant me when he used the ‘you people’ phrase.  I don’t know.  And that’s the problem.    We don’t know what he meant and now he’s paying the price.   Don’t be Don Cherry. The impact you have, positive or negative happens in a moment.   Pay attention to how you interact with others.   Think about the lens on what you say and how things could be interpreted, check your assumptions about what others say and what they mean.  Connect with others to motivate them and if you are in a position of influence, use it wisely. 


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