Recently one of my employees made a mistake in her work. She should have known better, and I was upset by her lack of knowing or her lack of figuring out that she should have asked for help.
I spoke with her, in an attempt to understand why she did what she did; I asked her what she thought she should have done differently - to avoid the mistake, and avoid having to explain herself about it to me.
She looked at the floor, hanging her head and mumbled, "I dunno."
I dunno? I.Don't.Know. Really? I-Don't-Know.
I had to breathe real evenly and deeply for a few heartbeats. I tried to figure out what to say next. Because really, in a situation like that the next words out of my mouth are going to set the tone not only for this incident but for future interactions between me and her. If I'm not careful I will alienate her from seeking my help in the future and make her feel stupid.
She was ashamed, that much was clear. It wasn't my intention to shame her, so it was important not to reinforce that shame by being overly-harsh with her. I was reminded of my childhood, when my mom was constantly under stress to pay all the bills and raise me and deal with one obstacle after another, and she would ask me similar questions: "What were you thinking?" "What did you think was going to happen?".
And I remember hanging my head and whispering, "I dunno."
I realised in that moment that when I was a girl getting yelled at I wasn't answering the question that was asked. What I didn't know was what my mom wanted to hear. I knew there was a right answer, and I was backed into a corner: if I answered wrong, my mom would be mad at me. If I answered right, I would have to explain why I didn't do it the right way to begin with (which would lead to my mom being mad at me because I was a royal smart-ass).
I looked at my employee, watching me with a sort of wariness in her eye that I didn't feel I had put there, and I knew in that moment that she was trying to figure out what I wanted to hear. When she said she didn't know, what she was admitting was that she didn't know what answer to give that wouldn't make me mad.
So I took a deep breath and told her there wasn't a wrong answer; I just wanted to understand her thought process so I could help her do better next time.
That was really, really hard. But it worked.