Over the past year, I’ve been given much constructive criticism from my friends and professional partners for using absolutes—always, never, every, all, none, certainly, impossible, etc.—when I give speeches, and in conversation. So I’ve been trying to dial down making such strong claims.
Since my tendency for overstatement has been brought to my attention, I’ve become more aware of it in others and find myself correcting them as well. Recently, though, I offered these “corrections” twice, and their response not only has stopped me from doing that ever (and I mean ever) again, it changed my perspective on how we should interact with others in personal conversations and in the workplace.
Here’s what happened in the first case. One of my employees (whom often uses absolutes, especially when she’s passionate about helping a client) was going on about a work-related solution/idea for the client that she was clearly excited about. She used the word “always,” so I corrected her, mid-sentence.
Her face just fell, her enthusiasm evaporated and her energy disappeared. She forgot her idea. Clearly, her confidence had been undermined, and her whole body slumped as she muttered a few words. She then turned her back to me, ended the conversation and walked away.
In truth, when she walked away I thought she was being a bit over-sensitive. Learning to speak better is part of being a better professional. I have been corrected many times and I handled it, considering it a good learning experience. So I figured she could learn, too, from my constructive criticism.
But then, scenario number two happened.
I was out to dinner with a close professional friend who happens to sit on the executive team of a very large publicly traded company. In my experience with him he is the definition of being a professional and frankly, he’s not the definition of sensitive. He was sharing with me an idea he had for a new program and he used the word “always,” so I corrected him in mid-sentence, just as I had done with my employee.
His response was classic and unexpected. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Knock it off!” It was at that moment I knew I had made a very big mistake, not only with him but with my employee.
To understand my mistake, let’s take a broader look at what happened. I had two people who were very excited about something to do with their job. I hope you can appreciate how rare—and valuable—that is these days. Just finding employees and friends who are passionate about their careers is a challenge: someone who is actually excited about their job is harder to find than a readable tech manual.
And what did I do in response? I just stomped all over their enthusiasm without even having a good reason.
I mean, was their grammar really the most important thing at that moment? More important than listening to their ideas? Regardless of whether their ideas were good or bad, was my reaction more important than giving them positive feedback for taking the initiative and trying to make their company better?
What’s more, after I thought about it, I realized that both my conversations were a pretty usual occurrence in places where I’ve worked, and in the advisory firms we work with.
These kinds of conversations can be very harmful to employee morale, and to the relationship between friends, employees and employers.
In fact, I realized that my actions were an excellent example of the importance of maintaining trust in relationships—and how easy it is to undermine it.
In my September column in Investment Advisor magazine (Relationships End Where They Begin), I wrote about the work of John Gottman, who authored many books, including “The Science of Trust,” and “What Makes Love Last.” The tagline for the latter book is “How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal,” and in it, Gottman writes about his research, which shows “there is a fundamental principle for making relationships work… …that principle is trust.” He goes on to define trust and the opposite of trust—“betrayal”—but not just sexual betrayal, as most of us would think at first.