[1982, Canton, MS, Distribution Center for a major jeanswear manufacturer]
He stepped into my office and – yet again – repeated his complaint, “The Personnel staff is never here when you need them.”
The fact that I was, as he spoke, at my desk in the Personnel department – as a real-time contradiction to the complaint – appeared to go unnoticed.
I was 28 years old, and a young 28 at that, not always thinking before speaking.
Also, I had lost patience with this individual’s “mealy-mouthing” about our staff’s lack of availability. It seemed to have become a reflexive refrain for him.
In that company’s culture of blaming and scapegoating, declarations of this sort could quickly escalate into a facility-wide narrative, even becoming accepted as Truth at corporate headquarters 2000 miles away.
So, I went on the offensive. It was time, I thought, to make a point.
“When is it, Ray,” I countered, “during our standard operating hours of 8:00 to 5:30, you believe we are not here?”
He backpedaled immediately. “Oh, uh, well, I didn’t really mean anything by it…”
My response was quick and intentionally barbed, “It’s been my experience that people who bad-mouth you and then say they didn’t mean it, do in fact mean it, but they just don’t have the balls to own it.”
He turned 3 shades of red, backed out of my office and never repeated that complaint in my presence again.
Forty years later and I still wonder what possibilities I missed because I jumped so quickly to shutting him down.
Was I successful at stopping that behavior? Yes, at least where I could witness it.
Did I foster trust and deepen connection? Not so much.
Did I surface and address what was causing the complaining in the first place….use the exchange as a discovery opportunity for all parties involved? Nope. Missed that completely.
Yes, I appreciate that I lacked the capacity to handle it differently at that stage of my personal development…and still, I have wondered:
What might have been possible if I had known how not to take his behavior personally, and instead, had been able to remain curious and elicit his thinking?
Instead, I embarrassed someone needlessly so I could have the immediate relief of “stopping the noise.”
Additionally, I created a distance between us requiring energy to navigate, from that day forward.
Ray, wherever you are, I am sorry I was not able to respond more effectively in that moment.
From the perspective of present-day me, I would love to know:
- Was he frustrated over something (possibly completely unrelated to work)?
- Was there a concern he didn’t know any other way to express?
- Was he bored and lonely, or possibly looking for someplace to connect in that facility’s emotionally unsafe culture?
Sadly, I will never know.
I was – as are we all – the product of the cultures that had shaped me.
In my case, those cultures had said don’t speak up or out, BUT if you must do so, make it count by weaponizing your words with verbal barbs.
Sarcasm was considered wittiness, not subverted anger looking for a way to be off-loaded.
No one, at that point, had ever shown me how to say difficult things with compassion and grace.
I had no idea you could use tough conversations to build connection and elevate people. That you could facilitate transformational and uplifting exchanges on tender topics.
In the long run, did I ruin anyone’s life in that exchange? Probably not.
That was just one incident.
Over the arc of a lifetime, how many of those less-than-constructive interactions occur?
How often have you/I/we avoided saying what needed to be said for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, or experiencing negative consequences? Or wondered afterward if you could still be direct, but with less bloodletting?
What is the cost of not being able to have the kinds of interactions that help those involved feel heard, respected, valued? That allow you, as the speaker, to feel effective and clean in your communicating?
Imagine each challenging interaction as a grain of sand in your shoe, with those grains of sand building up over time.
It gets harder and harder to walk.
What doesn’t get said? Adds up. Becomes unnecessary weight we may not even know we’re carrying.
** * ** *
You may know I’ve been noodling the idea of how peace and achievement can co-reside, whether “peaceful” achievement can truly exist, or if so, what it might look like….or require of us.
This is a big topic and reflective of the times we’re living, when old power-over, go-do-push defaults are breaking down, and breaking us down as well.
So, I anticipate this exploration around peace and achievement will be an ongoing conversation and discovery process, with new insights continuing to surface along the way.
What I can tell you now: As long as we aren’t saying what needs to be said, as long as we’re carrying the weight of what we don’t think can be said (or heard), we’re not really achieving anything except conflict avoidance.
That’s not peace; it’s relief. And relief does not last.
The deeper questions not yet available to me the day Ray came complaining into my office, questions I offer you for your use in challenging conversations moving forward:
- What am I really trying to achieve in this moment?
- Am I rushing to experience relief vs. peace…and will my relief cause harm?
- What is the choice in this moment that might shift outdated patterns and open new possibilities?
PS: Relief is not a bad thing; please don’t think I’m saying that. Just be aware of where you, or those around you, might be bypassing a developmental opportunity by opting only for relief.
** * ** * ** *
The words we use, and how we use them – to hurt or heal, to separate or connect, to control or liberate – have fascinated me for most of my life. In the early days of coaching, I created an audio program, “How to Say the Tough Stuff With Grace.”
Fast forward 30 years: I’m updating and expanding the Tough Stuff program because I hear daily how much it costs us all when we use our words to divide and disconnect instead of encouraging and inspiring – and – when we think saying nothing is the only other option.
Stay tuned….new mini-workshop coming soon for all of you who are:
- Invested in bringing out the best in those you lead, work with, or coach.
- Ready to stop losing time and energy to unsatisfactory interactions and conversations you avoid.
- Committed to being part of the solution – and using masterful communication as a fundamental demonstration of that commitment.
** * ** * ** *
Tips for turning this article in to article into action in your life::
Look for people who model the kinds of communication you want to integrate into your own interactions. Study what makes them effective, and explore why their approaches are resonant for you.
If you’ve had an interaction that has left you second-guessing yourself:
- Remember you, too, are work in progress. Allow compassion for your own humanity as a foundation for extending that compassion to others. It really helps.
- Ask a trusted resource person to debrief the experience with you, so you can mine any learnings from the experience to apply moving forward.
- If you want more support around this, let’s chat to explore what might serve you best: firstname.lastname@example.org
In celebration of the unfolding adventure! Thank you for walking a portion of it with me.
Did you enjoy this post? Don't miss an episode of "The Challenge Chronicles!"
Subscribe via the form to the right to be notified via email about new installments!