Greg McKeown believes that if we want to have good relationships with our colleagues on the job we should develop filters to protect us from each other. We should learn how to protect ourselves from rude and caustic criticism and we should protect others from our own rude and caustic criticism.
It sounds like good advice. Yet, McKeown should have added that we would all get along better if we knew how to save face.
Keep in mind, the face you save is never just your own.
Of course, saving face means maintaining your dignity by keeping a stiff upper lip when you are feeling anguished or in despair. But it also means respecting the face of others, showing consideration for their feelings and their self-respect.
McKeown is right to frame the issue in terms of protection, because when you are talking with someone else you must first protect his face. If you hurt his feelings, you need to apologize quickly. If he exposes too much of himself you must help him to cover up.
A culture that tells you to be straightforward and direct, to be open and honest, to get things off your chest and to blurt out what is on your mind… saves no one’s face. If you are rude, insulting and demeaning to others you are compromising your own dignity by attacking someone else’s.
McKeown offers some fine examples of how people act toward each other when they have no face.
I once worked with a manager who gave blunt feedback in perpetuity: “You’re not a grateful person!” and “You’re just not a great writer!” and “Well, that was dumb!” My response, at first, was to listen as if everything she said was true. On the outside, I became defensive — but on the inside, I returned home emotionally beaten up.
To deal with the emotional fallout from such assaults, one does best to consider, as McKeown said, the source. One does well to ignore the comments of people who do not respect you. One does better to find a better boss.
For having absorbed the attacks of an abusive boss, McKeown managed to pick up the habit himself. Without knowing it.
On the other hand, I once worked with a leader with whom I felt I could be completely open. One day she said to me, “I value what you have to say, but sometimes it feels like I’ve been punched in the solar plexus when we talk.”
Astonishingly, McKeown was unaware of his own rudeness. It felt right; it seemed to echo what he had been hearing; it must have been culturally acceptable speech.
If his interlocutor was signaling, with her facial expressions, her distress at hearing his words, he was oblivious. One might say that he lacked empathy or sympathy, but feeling her feelings would not, in itself have told him what to do about it. Empathy is not a moral principle.
Saving face begins with respecting the feelings of others. In conversation you read the facial expressions of your interlocutor. You mimic those expressions to learn what the person is feeling. In truth, you need to know the feeling more than you need to feel it. Can you know it without having something of an emotional intimation? Possibly, you can, but sensing the feeling does not, in tell you what to do about it.
One might call this a capacity for empathy. Surely, those who tout the virtue of empathy would say so. And yet, feeling someone else’s anguish is not a moral principle. It does not tell you what you should do in order to attenuate that anguish. Empathy does not tell you whether you should try to diminish the anguish or to take advantage of it.
You certainly want to know if your competitor is weakening, but you do not want to feel the feeling. The more you feel his feelings the more you will start acting as he does. That is, acting defeated.
If you are playing chess you want to size up your opponent. You want to know who he is, what his tactics are likely to be, how well he reacts to this or that move. You might even try to read his emotion through his facial expression.
Yet, nothing guarantees that you have read them correctly. The state of play on the board, combined with the possible moves and countermoves provides a context in which you can interpret the emotion you are sensing in your opponent. The fact that he feels confident in his moves and displays his confidence in his expression does not mean that the game is going his way. It might mean that he is oblivious to what is really going on.
If he looks like he is worried about the course of the game that might mean that he knows he is losing, but it might also mean that he has not yet seen the move that will spell your defeat. Surely, good competitors will try to trick their opponents into feeling the wrong feeling.
Feeling someone’s feeling might be a part of the knowledge you need in order compete effectively, but it is not decisive.