Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Carefully Chosen Words"

Psychotherapy erred when it prescribed self-expression as a cure for repression.

It sold the idea by claiming that self-expression would promote mental hygiene. All of those dark, ugly emotions that were floating through your nervous system had to be expelled, the better to cleanse the system. And all of those sweet feelings also had to be gotten out, because you must, on pain of repression, share, share, and share. Even if nothing good comes of it, you’ll feel better. You will have shown the world that you are a mature, emotionally labile adult, a testimony to the greatness of therapy.

It sounds good, but it isn’t. If you use expression to regulate your emotional stress, you are defining yourself as an isolated, disconnected individual. If you take what's inside and throw it outside, regardless of the effect it has on other people, you will look to all the world as though are indulging in therapeutically-correct histrionics.

I am not against telling people how you feel. Even Aristotle believed that there were times and places where expressing anger was the right thing to do.

That does not mean all the time, in any place, with whomever. If you do not choose the words carefully, choose the time and place carefully, choose the person carefully, you will end up alienating your friends. It will be the same if you are offering up an expression of undying love.

On this score the therapy culture has failed, but the business world has offered a corrective. If therapy sees the world filled with self-contained autonomous individuals who are trying to regulate their stress levels by releasing emotional gases, the business culture wants people to learn how to manage their relationships.

To succeed in the workplace you must manage relationships with your superiors and your inferiors, with your colleagues and your team members. You will be trying to produce an atmosphere of social harmony where everyone will feel motivated to function at his or her best.

A reasonable goal, you will think. A goal that psychotherapy might even embrace. Yet, if you believe that you must express your feelings, regardless of how it effects others, the best you will do is offend your friends, insult your colleagues, demoralize your staff, and garner a reputation for tactlessness. .

I believe that how you express it is far more important than what you are expressing. It's not about how you feel, but about how you structure your sentences.

For that reason Mary Lorenz explained that when bosses are giving feedback, when they are offering guidance to their employees they need to use: “carefully chosen words.” Link here.

You can be on the most intimate terms with your feelings, but if you choose your words haphazardly, you will fail to communicate anything more than your neediness.

Even though we all think that we understand this many of us still resort to the most puerile of conversation stoppers: But that’s how I feel.

If you have just regaled a friend with a histrionic display of your emotions, he is not going to care how you feel, because you have just told him that you do not care a whit for how he feels.

Lorenz makes another important point. Using “carefully chosen words” requires work and effort and practice.

I often tell my clients that if they have to say something to someone, then need to step back, suppress the first thing that they want to blurt out, and to think about five different ways of saying the same thing.

Then they can choose the expression that is most likely to accomplish what they want to accomplish. If it sounds like grind-it-out work, that’s because it is. If it sounds like the enemy of surprise and spontaneity, that’s also because it is.

So, stop tormenting yourself about how you really, really feel and start asking yourself what effect your words will have on another person, the person with whom you want to establish, maintain, and manage a relationship.

Of course, sometimes it is best to be straightforward and direct. At other times, it is best to talk around the issue, especially if you want the other person to discover something himself.

In all cases, the proof lies in the effect your words produce, not in how good you feel for getting it off your chest.

But isn’t process rather labored? Would it not stilt your conversation, interfere with the flow, cause your relationships to grind into terminal tedium?

Not at all. You do the exercises-- like thinking through five different ways of saying the same thing-- because you want the process to feel more natural. Once you learn how to do it; once it becomes second nature; you will have more time to enjoy feeling connected with other people.

Our friends in the business world address the question through the issue of giving feedback, which is really about managing the complicated and difficult relationships they have with their staff.

It’s easy to start with what you shouldn’t say. You cannot manage an employee if you are negative, critical, arrogant, disrespectful, or contentious.

Given that therapy teaches people to generalize about their emotions, the business world advises managers to prefer the specific to the general.

Lorenz recommends that you deal with facts, not impressions. Instead of telling your employee that he seems to be disinterested in his work you do better to remark that he has been handing in assignments late.

The first approach might provoke him to defend himself by saying that he is not disinterested, or to list the personal problems that make him seem distracted. The second offers a specific situation that needs improving.

The first leads toward therapy; the second involves coaching.

Another point: Don’t use cliches like: Good job! It is better, Lorenz writes, to specify where his work exceeded expectations. In that way the recipient of your praise will know that his work, specifically, is being recognized and distinguished

Of course, if you start with a compliment, you will be better placed to point out  areas that still need improvement.

As for the wording, it is better to say that he can improve. You should avoid saying that he is doing badly. If you only name his faults, he will think that he is a disappointment, and that you have no confidence in him. He will instantly feel demoralized and will lose his motivation.

Along the same lines, Anthony Balderrama has written a column explaining how an employee should select his words when speaking with his boss.

Balderrama is talking about how an employee can mange his relationship with his manager. It’s called: managing up. Link here.

You know better than to criticize your boss or to complain about the workload. But, when he is being unclear about what he expects from you or where you can improve, then you need to ask for more specifics.

You are not going to make him feel that he is inarticulate, but that you do not want to leave things to interpretation.

Similarly, when you do not understand company policy or goals, don’t pretend that you do. If the policy isn’t clear, and you are charged with implementing it, then you are responsible for understanding it fully. If it fails, you cannot blame your boss for not explaining it well.

Obviously,if you want to advance in the company, you are not going to tell your boss that you want his job. You haven’t gotten as far as you have by making boneheaded mistakes.

If you want to advance your career, Balderrama suggests that you ask your boss how he sees your future at the company and what you need to do to put yourself in the best position to get ahead. Make it sound like it's the two of you together, not the one of you against the other.

Always, the emphasis must be on how much more you want to offer to the company, not how much more the company can do for you.

Finally, when you first hear your boss’s, or even a colleague’s idea, don’t reject it out of hand.

This does not merely apply to business planning. It works equally well in political discussions outside of the workplace.

People we respect the most are not necessarily those we agree with, but those who show us the greatest respect.

If you reject an idea without giving it a thoughtful hearing, you are also rejecting the person who gave you the idea. Obviously, this applies equally well to executives who set policy as to staff members who contribute to its formulation.


The Ghost said...

Does talking about them truely rid oneself of those internal demons ?

I think I have my fair share of demons and I went alot of years not letting them see the light of day. More recently I have been encouraged to try and talk about them and have found some temporary relief but ultimately have found the demons just as powerful as before. They obviously exist for a reason and simply talking about them doesn't begin to make them go away.

David Foster said...

These are important issues, which should be considered carefully by everyone in management and leadership positions. Also, people who are *not* in formal management positions often have the opportunity, and even the obligation, to demonstrate leadership and coaching abilities..example here.